Archive for the ‘French’ Category

TipTop (1)

Countries: Luxembourg, France, Belgium 2013

Director: Serge Bozon

Writers: Odie Barski / Serge Bozon / Axelle Ropert

Runtime: 106 mins


A police procedural-as-farce that entertains but doesn’t fire on all cylinders

At one point in Tip Top a detective reports to a senior officer on the sexual peccadilloes of two female Internal Affairs officers. “One likes to hit”, he says, “The other one peeps”. “What do you think the police are doing, then?” is the reply. Emphasising the point, we see a policeman staring in through the window, whereupon a passing copper slaps the back of his head. It is a funny moment in a film that gently amuses, but needs more such moments to really succeed.

The story revolves around the murder of Farid Benamar, a former Algerian policeman-come-refugee, who was the president of a French-Algerian friendship association – possibly engaged in shady activities – and an informant for the French police. To investigate whether the local force could have handled matters better two Internal Affairs officers are sent in. They are Esther Lafarge (Isabelle Huppert) and Sally Marinelli (Sandrine Kiberlain). The latter has been demoted because of “private behaviour incompatible with police ethics” which, we discover, refers to her compulsive Peeping Tom behaviour. Esther Lafarge, on the other hand, gets her kicks from hitting, and being hit by, her violinist boyfriend Gérald (Samy Naceri).

In one early scene we see the two women in their adjoining hotel rooms. Marinelli is gently pleasuring herself as she stares at a half-naked man in an apartment across the way. Lafarge is doing likewise as she stares at images of handcuffs, hammers, and other implements of violence, sent to her mobile phone by Gérald. Meanwhile, local detective Robert Mendès (François Damiens) is trying to peek through their keyholes in order to get some information on these women who are investigating his department. This scene sums up the basic conceit of the film: everybody is watching everyone else. When a seedy reporter starts poking around Mendès accuses him of being a Peeping Tom. But when the story breaks in the media, we realise that the general public are also hanging on every salacious detail of the case.

Such sexual territory is nothing new for Isabelle Huppert, whose character in The Piano Teacher spied on lovers in parked cars. Here, though, the subject matter is played for laughs and Huppert deadpans beautifully in her role, especially as her own character’s behaviour starts to teeter out of control. Kiberlain also effortlessly conveys the gawky awkwardness of Sally Marinelli, and François Damiens amuses as a detective whose faltering attempts to speak Arabic recall Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau.

Unfortunately, the film’s comic potential is undermined by a weak internal logic and poor pacing. In the case of Marinelli’s character, it is not clear why anyone’s private behaviour would be worthy of police attention, let alone demotion within the force. We are also told early on that Lafarge is a highly respected officer, yet later on her own position comes into question because of her own sexual activities, which leads us to wonder how she has got so far without anyone noticing her proclivities before. Tip Top also commits the cinematic sin of placing the best scene at the very start of the film (in which a man – who is actually a police officer – storms into a bar frequented by Algerians and starts shouting racist insults). After this promising opening the rhythm of the film barely changes, apart from one scene where we see Lafarge and Gerald getting their sadomasochistic kicks.

Bearing in mind these shortcomings, I probably enjoyed this film more than it deserved, in large part because of the good performances and, especially, the magnetic screen presence of Isabelle Huppert.

Rating: 6/10

Tip Top was shown at the 2014 East End Film Festival

Strange Colour (1)

Original title: L’étrange couleur des larmes de ton corps

Director: Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani

Screenplay: Bruno Forzani and Hélène Cattet 

102 minutes


I so much wanted to like this film, having read in advance about how it harks back to the Italian giallo cinema of the 1970s. Sadly, I ended up resenting the fact that I had actually spent money to watch it. The opening scenes are promising, delivering both visual style and intrigue. We see a white man, Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) waking from his sleep as his plane comes in to land. In his hand he holds a book of matches showing a woman’s legs and the words “Table Dancing”. Later, in his taxi he looks out of the window at what appears (out of focus) to be a woman in a red window display. These images are intercut with some black and white sequences showing a black woman, dressed in black leather, engaged in some kind of bondage activity involving a knife. Whether these images are flashback, dream, or real-time activity happening somewhere else is never made clear.

The woman in these sequences is apparently Kristensen’s wife, Edwige. When he arrives home she is not there, but the chain on the inside has been put in the locked position. We learn that Kristensen has been phoning his wife during his absence on a business trip, but she has not been responding. Kristensen has a smoke and a drink (or a few), then goes searching for his wife. From this point onwards, the film gradually takes on the appearance of some hallucinatory trip. Kristensen follows some mysterious man out of the building, and then starts ringing the bells of all the occupants.  He takes tea with the woman upstairs, all dressed in black, but whose face we cannot see, who tells a strange story of her husband’s disappearance in the same building. He meets a detective who also recounts a story, which appears to involve keeping one of the inhabitants under surveillance. These stories are told in flashback.

I very much enjoyed the opening scenes of the film, simply because of the promise they seemed to offer. The mid-section, where Kristensen talks with the woman upstairs and with the detective also held some interest but with diminishing returns. Increasingly, there is a nagging suspicion that the directors are too much in love with the visual style of their movie and that the story is never going to make any sense. Unfortunately, this turns out to be exactly the case. By the time we get to the final third of the film Kristensen is ripping away the walls of his apartment (there is some bit of nonsense about a possible intruder using hidden passages), chasing his own doppelgangers around, and there is a gratuitous and equally baffling slasher sequence.

If only the directors could have attached their visuals to a narrative that even remotely made sense, then this could have been a very enjoyable film. They clearly do have a sense of style; in fact, the musical soundtrack is brilliant and works well with the visuals. But in the end it is all style and no substance, resulting in the kind of dismal self-indulgence that gives “art house” a bad name. I watched this on my computer via Curzon Home Cinema. On the first viewing, I fell asleep several times and, by the end, had no idea what I had just seen. Feeling a bit guilty that perhaps I had been too tired to watch, I viewed it again a day later, this time buoyed by some strong tea. On this occasion the film made just as little sense as on first viewing. We never really know if there is a real “story” at the heart of the movie or whether the whole thing is just some dream, psychotic delusion, or hallucinatory trip. It would not surprise me if the film has a future as cult viewing among students who have just discovered mind-altering substances, but I can’t imagine who else could possibly enjoy this.

Rating: 2/10

tom-at-the-farm (1)

Canada / France 2013

Director: Xavier Dolan

Screenplay: Xavier Dolan / Michel Marc Bouchard. Based on the play by Michel Marc Bouchard.


Written and directed by Xavier Dolan, who also plays the lead role, this is a psychological thriller of a superior kind. Tom, who lives in Montreal, is distraught over the death of his boyfriend, Guillaume. He drives out to the countryside to stay with Guillaume’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), prior to attending the funeral. Agathe doesn’t realise that Tom was more than just a friend of Guillaume’s and is expecting a girlfriend to turn up. Whilst at the house, and later at the funeral, Tom is bullied by Guillaume’s brother Francis (Pierre Yves-Cardinal), who tells him to make up a story in front of Agathe about a girl called Sarah, who was a co-worker of Guillaume. Tom is to pretend that Sarah was Guillaume’s girlfriend, and is to pass on a message from Sarah to Agathe.

On the way back from the funeral Tom tries to make his escape, driving away from the farmhouse whilst cursing Guillaume’s “redneck” brother. But a way down the road he stops and then turns back. We think perhaps he is concerned about Agathe or needs his luggage, but in fact he is drawn to the dark and dangerous figure of Francis. Before long Tom is working on the farm, but increasingly bruised from the attentions of the sociopathic loner Francis, who has secrets of his own (Francis’s outsider status is emphasised at one point by his wearing a jacket with the American flag and “USA” depicted on it – something that no Canadian I have ever known would ever do).

To some degree Tom at the Farm has a thematic similarity to Stranger by the Lake, released in the same year. That film was described by some critics as Hitchcockian, a comparison that I must confess escaped me entirely. It was also notable for its fairly explicit depiction of gay male sexual activity. There are no such displays of sexuality in Tom at the Farm, which is closer to being a thriller that just happens to have a gay man as its lead character (although his sexuality is not irrelevant to the story). Moreover, this is a film that I think can justifiably be called Hitchcockian, what with its farmhouse setting, a chase scene in a cornfield, its dark secrets and motivations, and even a couple of flashes of black humour. From a four-time director who was just 24 when Tom at the Farm was released, this is a major achievement.

Rating: 10/10


France / Italy 2014

Director: Asghar Farhadi

130 minutes


Hot on the heels of his Oscar-winning film A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past is an engrossing relationship drama with a mystery at its heart. Iranian-born Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) is returning to France to finalize the divorce from his wife Anne-Marie (Bérénice Bejo). To his surprise she wants him to come and stay at her house rather than at a hotel, despite the fact that she is now in a relationship with Samir (Tahar Rahim). There, Ahmad finds three unhappy children, including Samir’s son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) and Anne-Marie’s eldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), who was fathered by a former husband. Lucie is clearly troubled and holding onto some sort of pain, which she won’t discuss with Anne-Marie, who asks Ahmad to speak to her.

Whatever the problems are between Anne-Marie, Samir, and the children, Ahmad’s arrival acts as a catalyst to bring them to the fore. And at the centre of all this, unseen, is Samir’s wife, who is lying comatose in a hospital. Why is she in a coma? What is Samir’s relationship to her? Why is Lucie so troubled by Samir’s relationship with her mother? Like the peeling of an onion, little by little elements of the story are revealed. The Past is a compelling depiction of a complicated entanglement of jealousies, misunderstandings, miscommunications, and revenge. Written, as well as directed, by Asghar Farhadi, drama doesn’t come better than this.

Rating: 9/10

ImageBilled as a thriller, I found Stranger by the Lake to be more frustrating than thrilling, though I will admit the film did succeed in conveying an air of mystery. The story begins with the arrival of Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) at an idyllic beach by a lake, populated entirely by gay men. These men sunbathe naked, stroll, cast glances at each other, and occasionally wander off into the neighbouring woods to seek sexual encounters (or to watch them). Franck’s attention is captured by Michel (Christophe Paou), a handsome Tom Selleck lookalike, but he is unable to act on his attraction because Michel already has a partner, Pascal (François-Renaud Labarthe). Therefore, Franck swims a way along the coast where he meets Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), an overweight middle-aged man, with whom he strikes up a non-sexual friendship. Henri is somewhat depressed in the wake of a break-up with his wife and, whilst he does not consider himself gay, reveals that he had previously had an enjoyable relationship with a man.

In the evening, when most people have left the beach, Franck waits behind in the woods where he watches Michel and Pascal out in the lake. There is a lot of splashing and indistinguishable shouting, and eventually Franck sees Michel push Pascal below the water and hold him there. Pascal does not resurface and Michel swims back to the beach, where he gathers up his things and leaves.

The next day Franck joins Michel on the beach. Michel tells him that he and Pascal were never a serious relationship, and that they are no longer together. The two of them go into the woods and make love.

As time passes, Franck continues to talk to Henri each day until the point when Michel arrives. But the day comes when Pascal’s body is washed up further along the shore. Many of the regulars stop coming to the beach, but Franck and Michel continue to meet there despite being questioned at intervals by a police inspector (Jérȏme Chappatte). Initially, Franck does not tell the inspector what he saw but what will happen when his relationship with Michel starts to cool?

Stranger by the Lake is one of those films that seems to be operating at the level of metaphor as much as surface story. The metaphor we are presented with is the nature of risk. We learn that Franck prefers not to use condoms during his sexual encounters and, most obviously, he approaches Michel for a relationship even though he knows him to have killed his previous boyfriend. The two of them continue to use the beach even though this necessarily brings them under suspicion from the police inspector.

However, I felt the film needed both stronger characterisation and a stronger plot to actually make the metaphor work. Franck is the central character, yet we are never given any reason to sympathise or identify with him. This is especially the case when he witnesses Michel murder Pascal. Surely any reasonable person would have reported this to the police, rather than seek a relationship with the killer? Indeed, the one character that I found any sympathy for was Henri, because he is the one person that we actually learn anything about. It is hard to comment on the plot without giving the ending away, but for me the story didn’t go anywhere. Perhaps director Alain Guiraudie aimed to create atmosphere more than story. Perhaps the things I have identified as weaknesses were meant to be some sort of commentary on the practice of cruising for uncomplicated gay sex (a world I know nothing about, but which you presume the director does). For me, though, it was all rather unsatisfactory.

The film is certainly not for the easily shocked, as there is not just a lot of male nudity but also a fair bit of gay sex. Most of this simply involves entwined bodies, but there are a couple of highly explicit moments. Many commentators have praised the film for depicting something that is normally shied away from, and maybe this is part of the reason the film has mostly been favourably reviewed. However, with such a slender plot I did wonder if the director was simply seeking an excuse to present gay sexual activity to a mainstream audience.

Rating: 5/10