Cannes 2015: the bittersweet memories of Desplechin’s “Golden Years”

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Some of my favourite films from last year – Whiplash, Tu Dors Nicole – were first screened at the 2014 Directors’ Fortnight (or Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, as my francophile self undoubtedly prefers), so it’s no wonder that I was especially looking forward to this year’s edition. As things go, I only managed to see one film – only one! – , but I’m so glad that it was Arnaud Desplechin’s latest, My Golden Years.

Described as a prequel to his 1996 My Sex Life…Or How I Got Into An Argument, the drama takes the form described in its original title, Trois Souvenirs de Ma Jeunesse (literally “three memories from my youth”). Mathieu Amalric, a regular with Desplechin, reprises his role as Paul Dedalus, but largely leaves the scene to Quentin Dolmaire, who plays his younger incarnation.

The film starts with Paul’s return to France after many years spent in Tajikistan. Stopped at the border because of an issue with his documents, he is held for questioning, which triggers his memories. He remembers moving in with his great aunt after some awful fights with his mother, and that’s the first chapter. He remembers his adventurous trip to Moscow with his then best friend, and the muted melancholy with which Paul recalls a friendship that has since dissolved is possibly one of the most delicate and moving moments in My Golden Years. More than anything though, he remembers Esther, the third and longest memory in this bittersweet drama.

As beautiful as she is insolent, Esther is so totally out of Paul’s reach that it’s only natural to see them ending up together. Watching their long-distance relationship, romantically sustained by countless letters, brief phone calls and monthly visits, is heart-wrenching, and we truly feel for the couple as they go through ups and downs, separations, crises and the occasional infidelities.

For a film so imbued in melancholy, My Golden Years is surprisingly funny. Esther’s cutting disdain for the other girls is as pungent as it is funny, and the hilarious skirt-dropping scene has quickly become one of the most talked about moments in the film. Paul’s younger brother’s peculiar take on religion is also a constant source of laughter.

My Golden Years is aided by a lively soundtrack and a vivid cinematography, which stop it (and us) from wallowing in nostalgia. On the contrary, the saturated colours, warm light and soft focus that pervades many of its scenes suggest the serenity that only comes once time has glossed over memories, hiding the most painful bits away.

The result is a poetic film about what could have been and what has been instead. Paul Dedalus acknowledges that his best days may be behind him, but seems to be at peace with that, choosing to savour those beautiful memories instead of giving in to self-pity. An almost cathartic journey that will make you smile as you wipe a tiny tear from your eye, it goes to Desplechin’s credit that he manages to achieve that without the slightest attempt at manipulating his audience. I might have not seen the other films in competition, but I know who I’m rooting for tonight. Bravo, et bonne chance.


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When thinking of Mon Roi (My King), two things come to mind: the first is the title of a novel by Lucia Etxebarria, Love, Prozac And Other Curiosities, the second is With or without you by U2 (and yes, I am aware I might have just lost you there). And yet, it is this two sentences that, especially if combined,  best summarise this film by Maïwenn, a drama starring Emmanuelle Bercot, Vincent Cassel and Louis Garrel that is in competition for the Palme D’Or at Cannes.
Having torn her knee ligament in a skiing accident, Tony (Bercot) is sent to a physiotherapy clinic in order to recover. There, a psychologist suggests that this accident might be an occasion to work on some unresolved issues in her past relationships – an idea backed with bizarre evidence such as the knee being an articulation that only bends backwards (suggesting the need to look back) and a pun that is lost in translation (genou, French for knee, sounds very similar to  je, nous – me, us – hence the focus on her love life). mon-roi Whether she is sold on it or not, Tony begins to reflect on her relationship with Georgio (Cassel), reliving all of its ups and downs (“ups and downs” being a major understatement). Maïwenn chooses to chronicle their ardent love story from their first meeting and proceed in a linear way, intercutting the flashbacks with scenes from the present day, which focus on Tony’s recovering process. At the beginning, Tony and Georgio really are the perfect couple – funny, successful and clearly head over heels in love – causing us to become invested in their relationship. This is probably due to My King‘s strongest suit, its cast: Bercot and Cassel share some real on-screen chemistry, and even Louis Garrel, who unsurprisingly plays the part of the impossibly cool, perennially unimpressed guy, later reveals a softer side as Tony’s protective brother. Their powerful performances go from amusing to quite moving, and that’s probably what makes this relatively banal story still compelling to watch. MonRoi My King is told entirely from Tony’s point of view, which is understandable, as it is her recollections we are seeing. However, she is almost always presented as the victim, and while it is undeniable that this is often the case, the film is missing some acknowledgement on her side of what she, too, might have done wrong. This seems slightly at odds with the idea that emotional healing can pass through physical recovery, and that she should see the her accident as the occasion to figure out unresolved issues in her past. But then again, the idea that she might be able to heal her emotional wounds in the same way she could recover the use of her knee seems quite shaky. Lasting just over two hours, My King doesn’t really give us the closure we need; on the contrary, the more the film progresses, the more it feels like every flashback is another episode in the seemingly never-ending soap opera that is their life. Will they make up, break up or grow up? The bets are open.​ This review was originally published on Nisimazine

Cannes 2015: Han Jun-Hee’s badass Coin Locker Girl

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As far as attention-grabbing openings go, few things beat a good old throat slitting (blood gushing out optional). And that’s exactly how Han Jun-Hee chose to kick off his action/drama film Coin Locker Girl, a contender for the Camera D’Or prize.

After throwing us in at the deep end, Han takes a step back to 1996, when a newborn is abandoned in the coin locker of a Seoul metro station. Brought up by the homeless people who live there, she is named Il-Young (One-Zero) after the locker in which she was found, number ten.

In 2004, she is kidnapped and taken to Chinatown, where a woman known as Mum is at the head of organ trafficking, ID card forgery and shark loan activities. As merciless as she is aloof, Mum spares people’s lives as long as they are useful to her. This is a lesson Il-Young is quick to learn, and before long, she is running “errands” for Mum.

Coin Locker Girl is an action-packed film without many dull moments. There is nothing boring about its visual appearance either, as the artificial illumination of the many night-time scenes lend it a vivid, almost fluorescent glow.

Its strongest suit, however, is the skilful way in which it mixes genres. For a start, the plot features elements from both pulp/action films and more classic dramas in which characters are faced with life-altering (or life-threatening) decisions. As such, the film becomes accessible, if not enjoyable, even to those not very familiar with gory Korean mob films – as long as they don’t mind witnessing a fair share of blood and graphic violence, that is.

The genre cocktail is also conveyed through the soundtrack: while the images are those you would expect from a pulp/action film, the music is often quite dramatic, especially during crucial scenes, fully conveying the contrasts and inner conflicts that preoccupy the characters.
Both Il-Young and Mum are impeccably portrayed, and Kim Hye-soo and Kim Go-eun really manage to convey the twisted bond between a ruthless woman and her protégée respectively. Seen from this angle, the film becomes an exploration of a tainted mother/daughter relationship taken to an extreme, whose final outcome would make even the most experienced shrink shudder.

Behind its bloody façade, Coin Locker Girl hides a powerful tale of love and hatred, but also one of initiation and resilience. For being a first-time director, Han Jun-Hee shows incredible potential.

Review originally published in Nisimazine Cannes

Fifty shades of burgundy: Peter Strickland and the exquisite pain of unfulfilled potential

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Love it, hate it or “close your eyes and wish it away”-it (I personally oscillate between the last two), there is no denying that Fifty Shades of Grey has made BDSM – or rather, a grossly misrepresented version of it – the buzzword in our conversations, if not our bedrooms. BDSM became so hot it soon transpired that cinema would add fuel to the fire through the release of another BDSM film a week after Fifty Shades. Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy had me at the trailer: the lesbian dom-sub relationship between two lepidopterists looked full of promise, making me wish that it would be the film to set the record straight on non-vanilla relationships. The stunning visuals, out-of-time atmosphere and critical acclaim further piqued my interest. And of course, the fact that it was directed by Peter Strickland, of neo-giallo Berberian Sound Studio fame, only added to my curiosity. screen-shot-2015-01-23-at-1-15-11-pm Once at the cinema, the film seemed to deliver, starting from the meticulously curated opening titles, which go as far as to feature the fictional perfumes worn by the actors. The twist in the plot came twenty minutes in [spoiler alert!]: we find out that Cynthia is adopting the dom role to please her younger lover Evelyn, a natural-born sub. Her ice-cold allure and inflexible ways are revealed to be a carefully rehearsed act, for Cynthia is following cues penned by Evelyn herself. “Fantastic – I couldn’t help but think – finally a film that acknowledges the power relation between dom and sub, showing that it is the latter, with her license to stop everything by mentioning the safe word, who calls the shots in the relationship”. And indeed, Evelyn is the one in control, imagining scenarios and buying Cynthia outfits in order to fulfill her fantasies. Such premise is fascinating, and for the first half hour, everything is perfect: the deceitful first impression, the chemistry between the characters, the remote universe in which the events take place, a land seemingly populated only by women, all scholars in entomology. These are matched by a sensuous cinematography, which supports the plot in full by studiously lingering over the shiny silk of undergarments, the delicate soap bubbles, the brocade drapes that ask for fingers to be run through them, the creaky, stiff feel of leather and the way it moulds to the skin. dukeofburgundy However, I cannot help but feel that the film climaxes too quickly, with both plot and relationship slowly going downhill after the first half hour. While we understand that Evelyn asks Cynthia to go through the same lines again and again in the hope that they’ll become more ingrained and spontaneous, this becomes repetitive and confusing, for at times it is unclear whether we are witnessing a flashback or it’s just the umpteenth repetition. In any case, Evelyn’s tricks are to no avail, because Cynthia’s ideal relationship remains one where her lover wants to sleep in bed next to her rather than being tied and locked into a coffin-looking chest. Perhaps as a result of this routine, the two begin to drift apart, with Cynthia swapping her corsets for comfy PJ pants and Evelyn deserting the thalamus and getting caught polishing the boots of another woman (we don’t get to find out whether this is a codeword for more serious misconduct or an affront in itself). This introduces an interesting point for reflection: is denying a sub the punishment they long for an even better punishment, or is it just the beginning of a vicious circle? Unfortunately, Strickland doesn’t really engage with it. tumblr_nbjikx0C2U1qbtfr1o1_r2_500 Cinematography becomes similarly repetitive: the progressive zooming in on surfaces (the silky underwear, the warm suds, the brocade curtains…) to arouse our sense of touch is effective at first, but begins to “drag” when we notice it reoccurs over and over again in the same pattern and mode. An exception is represented by the collection of butterflies in their glass cases, which cover the walls of Cynthia’s office, being the subject of her studies. While as recurrent as the other objects, they represent not just a leitmotiv that gives the film its name (the Duke of Burgundy is a butterfly species), but also encompass its message. An object of exquisite cruelty, their colourful wings and pinned down abdomens suggest pleasure and pain, referring to the dynamics of Cynthia and Evelyn’s relationship but also to the douleur exquise of trying to pin down something that is unattainable. 75-2 And perhaps the relationship between the two is unattainable as well, and breaking point is reached when Cynthia chokes on her lines, unable to continue. Evelyn reacts sympathetically, saying something along the lines of “I know I’m putting you through a lot, I’m just strange that way”. End credits roll soon afterwards. We don’t know who will give in, or if the relationship will survive at all, and therefore lack a real sense of closure. But it is the banalisation of BDSM, reduced once more to mere kink, that I find most frustrating. The Duke of Burgundy lacks the matter of fact tone of Spader’s Secretary, the drama of Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant or the shock, repulsion and controversy generated by Cavani’s Night Porter. From a film based on such an interesting premise, this is a disappointing result and makes The Duke of Burgundy feel like yet another case of unfulfilled potential, with a tempting hot subject explored only superficially, as ticking boxes on a textbook. Foot fetish? Check. Creaking leather corset? Check. Anything that goes beyond common BDSM cliches? Sadly, not enough.

Awards Prediction: why Wild Tales won’t win the Oscar

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With the Golden Globes past us and the Baftas and Oscars looming, the award season is in full swing, and prediction buzz has reached fever pitch. As for me, I move between a state of second-guessing who’ll win what and one of “I can see right through this wrestling match of PR agents.”

Yet, the following thought remains constant amidst all my internal battles: even without having seen all five nominees, it’s fairly safe to say that Argentina’s entry, Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, will not be winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

On paper, Szifrón’s film has all the cards to succeed. Its stellar ensemble cast features two actors that will be familiar to international audiences: Dario Grandinetti (co-protagonist of Almodóvar’s Talk to Her) and Ricardo Darín, who over the past years has appeared in almost every Latin American movie that made its way outside national borders (just to name a few: XXY, Carancho, The Son of the Bride and the 2010 Oscar winner The Secret in Their Eyes) and is possibly the most recognisable Argentine actor at the moment. It has an even more famous producer, the Almodóvar brothers’ El Deseo, whose long shadow has insured the film gets all the attention it deserves. Also, in the countries where the film was released, it has been doing well both in terms of sales and feedback.

Whilst nailing another Oscar win would firmly place Argentina on the cinema map and acknowledge both the Latin American New Wave and the rise of New Argentine Cinema, it’s quite unlikely that the film will secure the award.

It’s not necessarily a matter of genre, of Wild Tales being a comedy when most foreign film winners are dramas. It’s not even a matter of cultural specificity, for its vitriolic humour has translated quite well across countries. Rather, it has something to do with its anthology format, six episodes that don’t allow viewers to fully get to know and connect with the characters. But it is mostly the way in which these characters – and, by proxy, humanity – are depicted that won’t go down too well with the Academy. Past winners have featured tales of everyday heroism (Life is Beautiful, A Separation), heart-wrenching pain (Amour, The Sea Inside, All About My Mother), or films where even a despicable protagonist is granted a last chance for redemption (from the spy that turns against the Stasi in The Lives of Others to The Great Beauty‘s Jep Gambardella, who finally sheds his ennui and engages once again with life in all its ups and downs).

Poster design by Berkay

Poster design by Berkay

The characters in Wild Tales, on the other hand, have no interest in being redeemed. As the title promises, the film is a descent into unhinged savagery, where all pretenses of formalities, of saving face, of social norms or – if all else fails – of fear of the consequences, are washed away in a stream of blistering wrath and explosive revenge.

No institution, no status symbol, no professional category is left untouched by Szifrón’s scathing critique. The middle class – and everything it holds dear – is especially targeted and exposed in all its neuroses and hypocrisy. But truly, no one’s exempt from Szifron’s desecrating gaze, not even the audience: that we partake in the characters’ fury, that we laugh at brutal murders and rejoice in revenge as if it were a cathartic ritual says as much about mankind as the people on screen do. As the end credits roll, we realise that really, the joke (and the mirror) was on us.

Coming from a country obsessed by psychoanalysis, Wild Tales sees the triumph of the id as it crashes its way past the gates of the socially acceptable. Will the Academy award a film that portrays with rare honesty our much suppressed beastly nature? Quite unlikely. But does a film so ferocious need a legitimising accolade from this most proper, most PC of awarding bodies? Frankly, I don’t (think they) give a damn.

Image sources [1], [2]