Month: April 2009

Coco avant Chanel

Coco avant chanelCoco avant Chanel

Anne Fontaine :: France :: 2009 :: 1h50

The young Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (Audrey Tautou) and her sister were left to an orphanage by her father. Every Saturday, she would wait to see if he came back for her, which he never did. Her mother had died of tuberculosis, and the nuns at the orphanage did what they could to prepare her for life – teaching her to become a couturier. When she leaves the orphanage, she becomes a cabaret singer which introduces her to the wealthy playboy Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde). Attracted by the unconventional, independent young Chanel, he supports her as a milliner for his aristocratic friends. With time, she develops her style for both the hats, and clothes. By the time she meets and falls in love with Arthur “Boy”  Capel (Alessandro Nivola), he can help her set up her first couture house.

Filming the life of a real person is far from obvious, even if they have led a relatively interesting life, as Ms Chanel has. Real life is not dramatized, does not have “good” and “bad” characters, remarkable cinematographic moments or literary turning points. Real life, even such remarkable ones as Ms Chanel’s, progress slowly, where people build on each other, through love and friendship. You can come out of the cinema feeling that you have watched very little going on, even though you saw a young orphan reinvent herself to become one of the leading figures of her times. This is because the film is subtle. Subtle, although there is a clear love story with Coco falling for, her ideal match, the seducer “Boy”.

The focus on the imbalance in a love story, is a recurring theme with the director Anne Fontaine. From the somewhat weak Entre ses Mains (2005) and La Fille de Monaco (2008) to the captivating Nathalie… (2004), they all have the common theme of an innocent victim and the experienced seducer (a dark Benoît Poelvoorde in the first, the young bubbly Louise Bourgoin in the second and a desire incarnate Emmanuelle Béart in the last). Audrey Tautou is clearly the victim of love here, a love she did not initially want, after having been seduced by “Boy”. This is a curious approach, as both of the relationships we are shown in Coco avant Chanel are ones which serve her well. It is through her love stories that she gains her independence and can build her fashion empire – for such a determined young woman this can surely not have been mere coincidence.

I must say that despite the movie, what I mostly loved was the end image – Coco sitting on the staircase after the models had paraded by, wearing her creations in her own fashion show. She stares out before her, with a -strange for her- feeling of belonging. She is changing the lives of those around her, by dressing them, while changing her own destiny. She has become independent, her own person, someone she can be proud of. Of course it is an easy  sentimental image, but it is also justified. You have every reason to be proud of her, as she does to be proud of herself. No longer the little girl waiting passively, but she’s become the creator of Chanel looking on.


Doing something with your life

Quartier MouffetardThere is a 50 year old man cycling around the square outside my window right at this instant, a Monday morning at 10:30 am. That means he woke up, put on his baggy multi-coloured trousers, got out his bike and started riding around in circles on the street down below. No shower, hair a mess, shirt from yesterday. Or the day before. As you would perhaps expect, he managed to get his bike tangled up with a stationary one, as he tried to ride by it clumsily. Humiliating. Even in his actions of complete futility, he manages to cause someone grief. Clearly, he has to do something with his life… But do something? Like what?

It is curious that there is a preconceived idea about what you should be doing with your life, without even, that we can put that directly into words. For those who, like me, saw the fellow with the bike, know that he is not doing it; whatever it is. Let us look a little further around the square. There are now about 30 people, with an equal number of cameras, taking pictures of each other on the square. There is a young man on a bench on the phone. A couple smoking and talking. Cars driving by. A few people drinking coffee on the terraces. A lot more people walking by, one stumbling with a large package. Notice that these people are all not doing anything special. Ah, finally, two men from the park service arrive, to clean out junk people threw into the fountain during the night. Men with jobs doing something useful.

Doing something with your life though, does not mean you have to be doing anything special, work or not. In fact, it seems only to suggest that a grown up man should not be riding his bicycle in circles around a square on Monday morning. But why not? What is so special about that? Why do we think he should be doing anything else? Is it jealousy of his idling? “Doing something” with your life is, after all, just seeming to be doing something, seeming to have some purpose. Perhaps there is some hidden purpose to the bike ride?

I think the real issue, if the man circling the square or untangling himself from the parked bicycle impacts you at all, would be that he is just in the way. By wasting his own time, he risks wasting other people’s time (the owner of the parked bicycle) He is just in the way. “Doing something” with your life, is not as much a judgement of their lives, as it is a statement about their dead weight presence, their blocking the way. It is a plea to others to keep out of the way of those people that are actually “doing something”. Which, of course, is us.

Image source:

The Country Teacher

Country TeacherVenkovský Ucitel

Bohdan Slama :: Czech Republic :: 2009 :: 1h57

The introverted Petr (Pavel Listka) arrives in a little Czech village to take the job of biology teacher at the local school. As Petr was raised in a teachers’ family in Prague, we are led to wonder what he is looking for, or running from, in this secluded corner of the world. Contrary to expectation, he seems to be finding a place for himself. Again, contrary to expectation, it is all a little more perverse than you might expect.

As in director Slama’s previous film, Something Like Happiness, the weight of depression looms over the characters. But it is not an unhappiness provoked by external factors (of say a job or poverty) but rather by the passions of the characters themselves. They are pushed in a direction which is not necessarily the “right” direction for them, and at the expense of themselves or others. Ridicule is no obstacle for the drunken suitor of the cow herder Maria, nor is humiliation for the young lover Lada. The characters do not have a self-control over their passions, falling victim to irrational needs which separate the civilized from the brutes. We could been tempted to attribute their lack of self-control to their provinciality, but our guide in this remote world, the educated Petr himself, is no stranger to weakness.

As we watch the story unfold amongst the birds and the bees, making up our minds as to why Petr is in that village and gaining an understanding of the side characters, I can not help but feel that the whole tragedy remains unconvincing. It is the great challenge of literature and cinema to render improbable relationships credible, but when you lift yourself out of the tale to calibrate, the discord becomes apparent. Or maybe we should ask ourselves if pardon should really be the pinnacle of love? A captivating movie with a few rough edges which does not completely win its bet. But you do get a tender insiders view on the loneliness and camaraderie of country life… if you want it.

Blow up

Blow upBlow up

Michelangelo Antonioni :: UK :: 1966 :: 1h50

Young fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) takes a few pictures of a kissing couple in the park. The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave), is appalled by the intrusion into her privacy and wants the pictures destroyed. The photographer’s curiosity has been tickled and on return to his studio prints and enlarges them to discover the images’ hidden treasure. He sees that he has photographed a murder. Or so he thinks.

This film is a masterpiece which thankfully is still being screened (in the Marais). You could read the script or a complete description of the unfolding events and still have to see it to make up your mind. Whichever way you turn it, the film is captivating and enigmatic. I will lift out some scenes from the film, to illustrate my interpretation. I hope it becomes clear enough to be able to compare it to your own.

— Contains SPOILERS —

To start with the opening scene: we are shown a group of mime players dancing and shouting around with painted faces, in a harsh clash with a dreary urban setting. In the next instant, we are shown paupers leaving a poorhouse in a deadly silence, spilling out onto the streets, their somber torn clothes blending into the grey brick as ants in the sand. A small group of them nod their goodbyes and disperse. One of them is left standing alone below the railway lines, holding a paper bag. He looks tired, underfed and shabby. As he sees the others disappear from sight, he looks around suspiciously and darts off down the road. He finds his car, a Rolls-Royce convertible, gets in, and drives off.

Sitting in his convertible, his face lights up. Driving around the corner, he runs into those dancing mime players which crowd around his car asking charitably for money. The man obliges, turning around to fish some money of the back seat, finding some bills lying loose amongst some old newspapers. Without looking at the paper money, he hands it to them and they run off shouting and laughing with joy. He drives off thrilled at his return to normal life. In the background you see a bum walking by a closed iron gate.

The opening scene tells quite something about Thomas and thrusts a critical look at British society upon us at the same time. The grey depressing world is a ruthless one of haves and have-nots. Thomas clearly belongs to the lucky few group, after that masterful touch of decadence in not only driving away from the poorhouse in a Rolls, but having left money on the back bench too. Thomas obviously has no scruples lying to people (faking poverty) to get what he wants (their pictures). When he discusses the pictures he took there  afterwards with his editor, it is clear that sympathy is not their motivating force. He says he is bored and fed up with the city and the women who he treats badly. Thomas is a modern dandy of sorts who has no friends and can only see people as objects, as means to an end, a financial one or for amusement. He feels trapped in his own disinterest, which is perhaps reinforced by his superficial fashion photography world. He tells his editor at some point: “I wish I had tons of money, then I’d be free”. It is as if he is at the pinnacle of the capitalistic pyramid but he is so alone that he does not see it anymore. He needs more money? And what would he need that freedom for? To do what? In this world of the poor and the bored, where should he run to anyway?

Later on he falls in love with an antique propellor (a dream to fly away?) and buys it promptly. The owner of the shop is selling everything to flee from her own life. The owner is a young, beautiful girl with rosy cheeks who says she is fed up with antiques and want to run to somewhere were there are less objects. She wants to embark on that journey to search for some meaning, something away from the superficial consumer society she feels herself to be taken in by. Basically, she is as existentially bored as he is. You might think this would strike a chord with Thomas, but he treats her as he does everyone else, he does not care as long as she does what he wants.

The movie could be taken as an anti-capitalistic statement, of the sort which was common in the 60s. Besides the grand sketches of the disillusioned wealthy wondering around in a black impoverished industrial London, small telling details are also thrown in. When Thomas finds himself in a concert hall, with an audience staring at the band as dummies staring at customers form a window display, the guitarist decides to smash up his guitar. When he is done venting his adolescent frustration, he lungs the neck of the guitar into the audience. They suddenly spring alive and fight for the little piece of rock-and-roll history. Thomas manages to hold on to it and runs for the door. Once outside, he no longer sees the interest in the, just seconds ago, so coveted object. He had taken it because everyone wanted it, but now that the chase is over, what good is it? He throws it away and leaves. A passerby picks it up to examine it. It has become just a piece of garbage now. The object only had value when it was desired, when the audience gave it value. Without the audience it becomes just the worthless piece of a guitar that it is.

So how should some meaning be found in this dull life? He is taken into a conversation with an artist he knows who makes impressionist paintings. The artist explains that his paintings have no meaning when he makes them, but that they gain something afterwards, “like finding a clue in a detective story”. This is a hint as to what Thomas will go through.

Strolling through the park, he sees a woman kissing her lover and decides to take pictures of them. She begs him to destroy them but to no avail, his moral can not be wavered by pity. But his interest, on the other hand, is sparked. On his return to the house, he prints and enlarges the pictures to find what was so important about them. The pictures become so large, they are just grains on paper like his friend’s impressionist paintings. They could be anything. And he sees a body. And he sees the killer in the bushes with a gun. His photography has meaning after all. Reality is shining through his own photograph as never before. It is no longer the make-belief world of marketing, but real life. He feels alive. He calls on his editor to tell him the exciting news, but finds him in a luxurious apartment, in the midst of a drug-fuelled party where nobody cares about anything or anyone. He might finally have something real, something that matters, on his hands, but even that might not be enough. Or perhaps some kind of humane reality will befall him?

There are many little gems and story traces to be found scattered around the film, but I will leave that you. It might not seem like a coherent whole at first, but the more you think about it, the more the movie makes sense. Thomas is an unappealing character, or at least not a caring one, lost in grand world. He is quickly distracted, with different scenes lingering on in your mind after he left them because he never finished them. He is like Marcello Mastrioanni in Felinni’s 8 ½, where he  excuses himself constantly, escaping from every conversation initiated with him. The movie’s photography isolates him in big images, often leaving him alone in the scene. There is something of the loneliness and emptiness all the way through, but at the end you, though still there, you are rewarded with a unique closing shot. A curious script it must have been but a brilliant film is the result. I highly recommend it.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Pleasures of WorkThe Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Alain de Botton :: UK :: Hamish Hamilton (Pinguin Group) :: April 2009

Standing at a party with drink in your hand, leaning against the mantelpiece, you find yourself listening to someone trying to explain what they do for a living. As the description drags on into details of a procedure you know nothing about, you make a conscious decision to just remember the name of the company and  that it was something administrative, and, embarrassing as it would be if you were caught, to just stop listening.

Working life has become exceptionally specialised in our global complex economy, making us knowledgeable in our field but necessarily making all our results a group effort, reducing much of the honour of success. Often it is hard to see the big picture of what is going on around us. In his latest book, Alain de Botton tries to bring us a little understanding of the interaction of the little picture with the big one, sketching the functioning of the economy for the working man.

The book has no grand argument. The ten case studies are presented as near independent expeditions, from tracking a tuna fish from its capture in the Maldives to a plate in Bristol, to biscuit manufacturing and from tree painting to accountancy. He follows people on the job, to walk alongside them, to see what they see, trying to understand the world around them. As he observes and describes, the case studies are accompanied by photographs of Richard Baker, making the whole work as much a photographic essay as a book.

Work is, he explains us, together with love, at the heart of our lives, but making it meaningful is not quite as easy. De Botton’s musings give us an appealing answer when he suggests work can become meaningful “whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.” It is perhaps a pity that the book is not a series of case studies of the maxim, but the idea does transpire through the pages.

It is fascinating to read De Botton. His wit and philosophical outlook are applied to the world around him as he finds it. He is overwhelmed by the complexity of the world economy as someone discovering it for the first time, but as the details of each outlook unfold, he shares his wealth of understanding and insight, inter sped with comments of a more personal nature (In the Maldives he remarks that there is an uncanny physical resemblance between the president of the Maldives and his late father).

As we are carried along through the melancholy of the working lives of different people, De Botton reaches several insights. About society he remarks that it puts unrealistic expectations of our working lives as slogans before our eyes, provoking a collective dissatisfaction with ourselves. He says we feel a shame at not having given in to the call to discover our hidden talents or possibilities for development in this world, and have condemned ourselves to the mundane life which we lead, a life which does not correspond to the one we could have had if we only had pushed ourselves more (if we believe the slogans). It is an observation which would put career orientation at the heart of our lives.

Tragically, I think he is right. Tragically, because so many people  work to earn money and remain stuck in a work routine.  They do not get around to a self-analysis, and a search for possibilities as they  have their minds preoccupied with other matters and do not readily see how they could move ahead in their professional lives anyway. De Botton looks on as the well-meaning intellectual who can never really understand his subject, because no matter how hard he tries, their differences are just too great.

This comes back later on as well, when Alain de Botton remarks that people no longer travel to see the marvels of how things are done differently elsewhere, or to see the origins of products they use, or the marvels of local technology – people today only travel for fun, for the consumption of cultural goods, the entertaining part. He makes a good point (which comes back in his other work and in his School of Life) but I think the origin of the problem comes forth from the clash between the world outlooks of a poetically inclined philosopher and a corporate accountant or a fisherman.

Notice that that is the result of the overspecialising, that people no longer over see the world around them. The Renaissance Man no longer lives. People on holiday can choose to either see what their professional life is like in the other country (presumably about the same as in their own country or they have already seen it with a seminar of some sorts), or just enjoy their time away, forgetting about the complexities of work and the economy by staring at the waves and tasting new wines.

Another effect of this economic complexity, is that we can no longer really follow its importance. If a certain foreign multinational decides to use some component rather than another, the consequences can be the booming success of a company producing some seemingly unrelated product in your home town. The workings of the economy as water springing up at the other end of the house from a leaking pipe, condemns people to read about other issues because the laws and contracts companies sign are just too abstract to understand how it relates to you.

It seems as if over-education, or at least over-specialization, has led to and estrangement and an under appreciation of the rest. There is a dominant sadness or melancholy in the poetic descriptions of people at work and the trouble with “meaningfulness” is evident. The project is important to our era and commendable, even if his method brings about painful omissions – he stumbles upon a factory full of widows and does not elaborate! This is perhaps not his strongest book to date, but it is an insightful, wise, adventurous and witty read.

de botton

Alain de Botton was born in 1969 and is the author of essays on themes ranging from love and travel to architecture and philosophy. His bestselling books include The Consolations of PhilosophyThe Art of Travel, Status Anxietyand The Architecture of Happiness.

Bancs Publics (Versailles rive droite)

Versailles rive droiteBancs Publics (Versailles rive droite)

Bruno Podalydès :: France :: 2009 :: 1h50

We follow a woman on her daily routine through the crowded Parisian underground, weaving in between people, waiting for connecting trains, climbing up stairs and escalators. By the time she surfaces, she finds herself in the leafy Versailles walking to her work. And then the mystery strikes: Hanging from a window in front of her office she sees a black banner with the words: “Man alone” printed on it in big white letters.

The banner quickly becomes the talk of the office – is it a bachelor who is “open for business” or rather a cry for help? Is it desperate or charming? Curiosity gets the better of them and the investigation is launched. This is the thread which is to hold together three main scenes (in the office, the park and a DIY shop) and perhaps 30 different sketches involving a panoply of French acting talent. Partly the different characters are linked together as a relay story and partly they just weave in and out of the movie as in the opening scene with the woman’s anonymous interaction with the commuters.

With loneliness rampant amongst the characters, love is shown as an emotion akin to taking pity on someone and it survives on endurance (for fear of loneliness?). This is a rather negative vision of our most powerful emotion. Taking pity on someone is charming to a certain extent, but the power to seduce one another through “pull”, or attraction is more positive. Attraction shows that people dream for themselves and can actually pursue that life that they want, rather than just taking what is there. Or can attraction and pity fall together in a single shot?

Besides the opening scene, which is realistic, you will spend close to two hours in a theatrical vision of a society, if you go in. Partly funny, partly sad, partly slapstick and partly bad. It is mostly fun to see so many familiar faces in one movie, for those who follow French cinema, with Catherine Deneuve showing up, Thierry Lhermitte, Benoit Poelvoorde, Mathieu Amalric, Chiara Mastroianni, Julie Depardieu… it is busy in Versailles these days…

The film does not have a poster yet.

French release date: 8th July 2009

Villa Amalia

Villa AmaliaVilla Amalia

Benoit Jacquot :: France :: 2008 :: 1h31

One lonely night, Ann (Isabelle Huppert) follows Thomas to the house of another woman. She sees them passionately kiss on the doorstep before they go in. Ann is left standing outside, half hidden behind a tree in the front garden in a residential suburb of Paris. It all looks so homely and yet it is not hers. She knows she has to leave Thomas. And she realises it is perhaps time to leave everything. Thomas. Her home. Her career as a concert pianist. Her mother. Just leave.

The tortured character of Ann, from Pascal Quignard’s novel, is one who wants to run, to disappear rather than fight and rebuild. As we watch her erase the traces of her Parisian life with Thomas, we wonder who this woman is. She is so selfish, cruel and harsh. We wonder what her relationship with Thomas could have looked like. There is clearly not much left of their love, if they ever shared it, which is perhaps what pushed him to the other woman in the first place. Their own house is cold as if there was never any warmth or love there. By the time we meet her old mother in Brittany, we can suspect that she might just be condemned to unhappiness if she does not take some radical action. But is running the solution?

We never really understand why she needs to erase all traces of her existence. Who does she think she needs to go into hiding for? Surely not for Thomas, I think he got the message when he was dumped. But then who? Her mother? She is no state to phone someone, let alone come searching for her. It can only be from one person – herself. By disappearing from the official radar, she expects to feel liberated. Liberated from a life she had grown into, because of herself, her parents and her brother’s death. Freed from the feelings she held, the habits she had and the pressure of others.

But when she discards her old skin and finds a breath-taking little corner of the world in which to retreat, traces of her old life remain. Music still calms her temperament, even if her preference goes out to a sharp estranging piano repertoire. And where first she used to swim madly to rinse herself of her life, once fled, she almost rinses herself out of existence to be reborn. She always had the tools she required to save herself, but they had never really served her. Fundamentally, she is a tragic character, throwing doubt even on her efforts.

There is something of a farce in the whole reinvention process as it is portrayed. As she runs, taking trains, busses and boats through changing landscapes and switching clothes, we find ourselves in an escape presented as a thriller. But we know that is not the case, creating a friction between the tense music and imagery and the reality of the story. This is a weakness which does not do the story justice. With an actress as beautiful and as talented as Isabelle Huppert, she could have carried the movie on images alone. Expect to be somewhat depressed by the whole adventure, but also touched by voyage. For, besides the very first scene, seeing Thomas on that suburban doorstep kissing another, all the rest could have just played in her head. As one big daydream, a fantasy of running, of another life. Far away. It is a beautiful movie, for that, and a depressing one, for that. It is one of those movies which is perhaps best watched alone. But you will need a big screen…