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Ni à Vendre, ni à Louer

Pascal Rabaté :: France :: 2010 :: 1h20

Behind this peculiar title (“Not for sale, not for hire”) hides a light-spirited comedy about a weekend away at an unpretentious coastal town. Humour takes the central stage, following a motley group of tourists and locals at the seaside in the style of Jacques Tati, with very little -if any- dialogue. This is Pascal Rabaté’s third film, after last year’s original and touching Les Petits Ruisseaux, where comedy was a sideline to his central storyline. Things are different this time round.

We see an elderly couple of regulars take up residence in a postcard sized cabin, we follow two fraudsters making people’s lives difficult, we watch a man and a woman meet as his kite flies off with her necklace, we see a shop-owner draw barcodes onto his products to be up-to-date… As light as some of the scenes are, some of the subjects are not -death, infidelity- but they are treated with care and a taste for light absurdity.

The film has its weakness as well, with a burlesque role for an SM couple on an escapade which does not really take off. But as the film progresses, the blemish fades into the background of the panoply of characters and attentively choreographed visuals. Prepare to be amused, to laugh and to wet your appetite for some vacation yourself, and hope that director Rabaté has not run out of ideas for more comedy. Let us be absolutely clear about this: we want more!


Pourquoi tu Pleures?

Katia Lewkowicz :: France :: 2010 :: 1h39

A few days before his marriage, Arnaud finds himself alone surrounded by his future family-in-law with who speak another language, decisions to take for the wedding, his friends who want to help, his apartment in the middle of a serious renovation, perhaps in love with a girl he just met, a sister who has too much on her plate, a mother who has lost it a while ago and a bride-to-be who has gone missing. Everyone needs answers, but most of all him. Arnaud holds his head to keep it from exploding.

As you can imagine, there is a lot of talking going on. The lack of conviction on the part of Arnaud towards his future keeps you wondering all the way through to the end will-he-or-won’t-he. Either way, there is not too much happiness to go around in this glum look at modern life, with unattractive characters, dirty streets, messy apartments, a million things to do and mobile phones ringing in peoples heads. There is certainly enough of a reason to cry.

Balada Triste

Alex de la Iglesia :: Spain, France :: 2010 :: 1h47

(UK: The Last Circus)

While still a boy, Sergio sees his father -a clown in a circus- taken away to fight the fascists in the Spanish civil war. Years later, growing up in the unpleasant world under dictator Franco, the boy, appropriately, takes on the role of a “Sad Clown” at a circus. But there it hits him like a human cannonball: the beautiful trapeze artist Natalia. Unfortunately, she is already entangled in a love-hate relationship with the cruel and violent head-clown Javier. Perhaps even more unfortunately, she has a desperate taste for danger. Through the turbulent and dark world in which they find themselves, the two rival clowns battle it out.

Let me be absolutely clear about this: this movie is captivating from the first scene to the end. If you have seen Dia de la Bestia, you know what the director is capable of. Well, here the dark humour is possibly even darker, the images even more outrageous and the story takes you places you would not believe if you were not there to see it for yourself. When a movie opens with a clown slashing through fascist soldiers with a machete, you know you are in for a ride! Expect no visual mercy from this perfectly crafted downward spiral of killer clowns into the depths of the imagination where anything can happen.

Enter the Void

Enter the Void
Gaspar Noé :: France :: 2009 : 2h30

A young American junkie and small time dealer in Tokyo gets shot by the police as he tries to flush his stash of drugs down the toilet. As he lies there in the foetal position, looking at this bloody hands, he feels his spirit drift away. Floating through the walls and over buildings, he sees the uninspired life which was around him continue. The life he so desperately fled through drugs. He sees his sister, for whom he should have been caring, struggle on in the urban fringe. He sees his past flash by through great bursts of psychedelic light. The young Oscar may have died.

This film may sound akin to a 60s or 70s Californian religious experience, mixing a wildly coloured LSD trip with some scaled down eastern philosophy. To a certain extent that covers the whole film, although here Oscar’s life is just soaked in nihilism. Of course the title already says as much. Oscar does not seem capable of taking any decision at all, just letting himself be jostled around. His life, and that of his sister, completely lacks any direction other than self-destruction. That makes for a frustrating watch. There is, however, some love between the characters, but that is not enough to bring any happiness or improve anyone’s wellbeing. For a story about a metaphysical religious experience, that is pretty dismal.

Perhaps the core problem of the film is, paradoxically enough, the lack of dimensions. Our protagonist junkie Oscar’s life is just too simple, as is his sister’s, in as far as we are granted a look into it. And that, is not that much. Two and a half hours of watching, and the two main characters can be described in a few lines. Rather than delving into their lives, the time is filled with pornographic material, unsavoury images and crudely put together scenes which we float over. Would that really be what a spirit saw of Oscar’s life? Is there nothing else in there worth remembering, or nowhere else in the present worth visiting?

Eight years after the extremely violent and traumatising revenge film Irreversible, Gaspar Noé shows us where he is with his development in style and technique. That floating spirit looking down on the past and the living is the eye of a hovering camera – we are put into a first-person view. It feels as light and smooth as a feather in the wind. An impressive technical feat. But all that movement has a price: a mixture of boredom and nausea. This could have been helped – an hour of the screen flashing and the out of focus twirling imagery could easily have been removed in the montage, keeping the general thought in tact. But even without that extra hour of superfluous footage, it may be more watchable, but will still not be entertaining. So why should you have to sit through it? To have a very long version of what could have been an innovative experimental short film? Well, there will be some out there – and that could be you- who will find the interest. Perhaps for those who have an obscure camera angle fetish or a love for wild colours or a thing for fractals on the big screen…

White Material

White Material
Claire Denis :: France :: 2008 : 1h42

Somewhere in Africa, Maria (Isabelle Huppert) lives with her estranged husband (Christophe Lambert), her slacking son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and her ex-father-in-law on a coffee plantation. A civil war is brewing around them, with rebel guerrilla forces in the bush taking advantage of the power vacuum to terrorise the inhabitants before the government troops arrive to clean up what is left. Maria will have none of all this violence and political turmoil, and insists on harvesting the crop on her plantation – even if she has to do it all by herself. It is only a couple of days more work, she tells herself. But the civil war seeps in through the cracks in her walls to end her life as she knew it.

As you watch the film, you can not help but wonder what life is like for European settlers in Africa today. It must vary greatly, from living an opulent colonial-style life to living modestly as a missionary. But whatever they are doing, they are always very visible. Besides people just being people, there must also be mixed feelings about their presence (or, “white material”, as the locals call the Europeans in the film). The director herself has at least some first hand experience in the matter, having grown up in the West African Cameroon as the daughter of a French civil servant. But the film is not her story and we are left to guess where the tale takes place.

Maria looks like she is in an in between state of comfort – they have the plantation, which is operational, but has a rough country life with very few luxuries themselves (unless you compare them to the day labourers). But the animosity against her and her family is clearly there, and is starkly contrasted with her obsessive drive to work and succeed, a drive which would build up the country rather than destroy it, as is happening around her. There is an inherent contradiction in both the needing and the despising of the white settlers as embodied by Maria. Not only is she the stark reminder of a colonial past, but also today’s capitalist in an impoverished nation.

The apocalyptic air which blows over the land affects the family members in a way which becomes clearer and clearer as the dust settles. By then, you will also realise that there is no moral lesson to be learned in this blood-stained chaos. Maria works as hard as she can, living in the fringe of her broken family. Not only does everyone tell her to leave, she even has a French army helicopter circling her head at some stage, telling her to get out of there, dropping survival packages she thinks she does not need.

Maria is a leader without followers. Her courage becoming recklessness, her determination becoming obsession. Her inability to form intimate relations has pushed her into an illusion of untouchability, as if nothing can happen to her anymore. The world can sort itself out, if she can just get on. Even when she feels tenderness for her son or for the wounded rebel leader “the boxer” (played by the always cool Isaach de Babkolé), it is too little and too late. She is not capable of really helping anyone, not even herself. If she is a metaphor for historic progress (from a cold colonialism to a cold capitalism), then Claire Denis seems to be suggesting that Africa is in deep trouble. But however you care to interpret the film, if at all, it is a rough ride leaving you in a dusty, grainy confusion.

NB Claire Denis came to present her film at the French premiere in the Cinema du Pantheon (Paris V) on March 23rd, 2010. Thank you, Ms Denis, for coming and answering our questions with such dedication. It was a real treat.



Pascal Chaumeil :: France :: 2009 : 1h45

Alex (Roman Duris) makes his living breaking up failed relationships. He is usually contracted by disgruntled parents unconvinced with the amorous choices of their offspring, in an attempt at preserving them from committing to someone they “should not”. How does he do this? Well, together with his sister and his brother-in-law, they find out all they can about the person, to exploit their sentimental weaknesses to seduce them into seeing that life can be different with someone else. And that someone else is never Alex – he just shows them the way out of their unhappy relationship.

The movie skims over the set-up in the first few minutes to give you the bare essentials of the characters and what they do. It is clear that the interest of the film lies in what is still to come – the introduction of the self-confident, sexy and wealthy Juliette (Vanessa Paradis). Thirty-something Juliette is to be wed to an equally affluent and confident Jonathan, who seems to lack discernible defaults. And yet her father seems to feel their engagement is a mismatch – but why? As Alex slaves away to try to sway Juliette’s heart away from Jonathan, we -together with Alex- wonder what is wrong with their relationship.

The structure of the film is one of a standard romantic comedy, a drawback you can unfortunately not dispel. But the budding relationship between the reserved but outspoken Juliette and the seemingly innocent but deviously manipulative Alex grows on you in such a comical way, that you although the structure is dull the film does live up to its pretensions – it is very funny. And is that not what romantic comedy is supposed to be? An excellent start to hopefully fruitful career as a film director for newcomer Pascal Chaumeil.


Roberto Caston :: Spain :: 2009 :: 2h08

Deep in the forgotten countryside of the Spanish Basque country, Ander (Joxean Bengoetxea), a balding forty-something, lives with his mother and sister on their family farm. If he’s not working the hilly land, running errands or doing chores, he’s at the factory nearby. His monotonous life is cut up by random meetings with a brutish neighbour with whom he can get drunk and visit the village prostitute Reme.

In a bid to keep up their traditional way if life, Ander’s austere mother shames him for not getting married. She does this not so much for concern for his happiness, but rather to bring in a helping hand on the farm. It has become even more of an issue when his sister announced she getting married. So, not only will she marry before him, but she will move out, leaving him all alone to tend to the business of the farm. To make matters worse, Ander breaks his leg in an accident. His brother-in-law introduces them to Peruvian labourer Jose, to help out while he’s down. The good-looking, gentle, perfectly mannered hard working young man fits in perfectly. Maybe even a little too perfectly.

Ander is thrilled by Jose’s company, not realising that he is falling in love with him. A sexual incident occurs sparking what could be the beginning of a relationship. Ander is consumed with fear and confusion. Attraction, rejection and frustration then battle it out in an internal conflict. And then, Ii his simple life was not already shaken up enough, his mother dies.

The story could be classed an unconventional homosexual coming of age drama, but the film offers much more. It is also a rare glimpse into a traditional rural Basque life, which may not be around that much longer. The film takes you through to the slow decline of a way of life, without regrets but without much accusation either. As the modern world permeates into the countryside, the old ways erode. Society changes – factory work complements farm incomes, the infiltration of drug issues, depopulation, traditional family structures and values change. Even language changes. While Ander’s mother spoke only Basque, her children are perfectly bilingual Spanish. And their children… may actually have trouble speaking Basque at all. There is a certain sadness in the ending of an old way of life, but it is also clear that the new way – more open to other family constructs, centred around feelings and desire rather than custom, speaking an international language rather than a local one – have their merits too.

The film manages to trace the developments of both Ander and the traditional rural culture around him without too much stereotyping. There are, however, some weaknesses too: Jose is too perfect to be real, manoeuvring his way through the cultural minefield better than a native and the brutish neighbour appears too brutish, even for a brute. These two imperfections cumulate in one of the last scenes which just crop up too suddenly in a film which has taken such care to be thorough. A pity, but I can forgive the blemish.

It has been a pleasure to watch a film which manages to portray Basque rural life so credibly, taking us through the challenges they face in the persona of Ander. An excellent first feature film for Roberto Caston. You can be sure that this is not the last time you are hearing of him.