Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Un Peu de Français

It was a strange turn of events that the two films I went to see back-to-back yesterday were both French, but, as well as making for an easy theme for a post, it serves to highlight that foreign cinema doesn't deserve to all be dumped under that label, for the two films I saw couldn't be much more different from each other. Interestingly, if we want to draw parallels with Hollywood, expectations were turned on their heads: the one that you'd think would tend away from Hollywood cliche instead revels in it, and the one that seems more inclined towards convention breaks it to pieces.

The first of the double-bill is one of the most trumpeted foreign films of the year- La Vie En Rose is a lavish, expansive biopic of chanteuse Edith Piaf, with an Oscar-courting central turn from Marion Cotillard at its centre. The biopic has become the genre-du-choix for awards-seeking actors in recent years (see Monster, Iris, Capote, The Aviator, Finding Neverland...) and the musical sub-genre of the biopic is a particular favourite, with both Jamie Foxx and Reese Witherspoon winning their Oscars for their turns as Ray Charles in Ray and June Carter in Walk the Line respectively. And, sadly, though it may be a French film, La Vie En Rose does nothing to break away from the conventions they've set up in this flourishing genre. Granted, many of the elements are the same- troubled childhoods, drug addictions- but you might expect a production free of Hollywood to try something different. But La Vie En Rose is as movie as a movie can be, and I mean that in the worst sense of the word. There's no depth here- the entire life of Edith Piaf has been shoehorned into the film, though large gaps (Piaf's involvement in the WWII Resistance being entirely ignored) float around aimlessly. But there's still so much going on that director Olivier Dahan rushes through most of it- and so, when the young Edith wails that she wants to stay at the circus, we have no idea why, our only experience of that being her being yelled at by a performer. We frown in confusion when suddenly, in a news scene, Edith suddenly has a husband. We laugh when a lost child is crowbarred into the plot in the last half hour. The other main problem, being, as you may have heard, that Dahan seems to have shuffled the script before filming, because La Vie En Rose jumps all over the place for absolutely no reason. Yes, Walk the Line opened at Johnny Cash's famous Folsom Prison performance, but from there it went back to the beginning and progressed in an understandable linear direction. Yes, Iris jumped back and forward, but the dual threads of young Iris growing and old Iris declining also went in a linear way, and the contrast worked to highlight the character of Iris. But La Vie En Rose's slapdash plotting serves no purpose whatsoever, and even works to the film's detriment- it slices apart what looks like a competant performance from Marion Cotillard, highlighting the actress's use of wigs and make-up much more than a linear progression would have. It didn't surprise me when I thought back over the film to find that the film's most successful moments occured when emotion had been built up over a gradual progression of events- most obviously, the powerful moment when Edith breaks down on hearing her boxer lover Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) has been killed, is affecting precisely because the film has invested time in their relationship, showing their flirtation and romance uninterrupted by flashbacks/forwards. There's some good stuff within La Vie En Rose- the sets, particularly in the childhood sections, are strikingly realistic; Emmanuelle Seigner is superb as Edith's childhood carer Titine; and, naturally, the music is beautiful. But it's symbolic to note that when Non, je ne regrette rien closes out the film, it's the song, not the handling of it, that brings tears to the eyes. You'd learn more about Edith Piaf from reading a book. Grade: C-

Tell No One really couldn't be a more different story. From it's genre- thriller- to it's modern setting, this is as far from the fantastical world of La Vie En Rose as you can get. Which one is the true story again? When our hero, Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet), incidentally causes a car crash on his breathtaking run from the police, it's entirely surprising, realistic, and unglamourous. Said chase is probably the culmination of the film's slow-burning grip on it's audience, ending with a moment that would be hilarious if you weren't so burnt out. Adapted from the book by American novelist Harlan Coben, Tell No One has been craftily adapted by by actor-writer-director Guillaume Canet (apparently he was the heartthrob of The Beach, which I hated, but he also gives himself Tell No One's most despicable part- a respectable move). A enigmatic plot is the film's core, adorned by excellent performances from the likes of Nathalie Baye, Kristin Scott Thomas (entirely integrated, by the way), and Marie Josee-Croze, filmed stylishly yet unflashily. Perhaps the film does suffer from a rather too blatant exposition of its plot at the end- it's all done in bugged monologue- but this is still an exciting, Bourne-like (that's a very good thing, if you didn't know) thriller that deserves a wider audience. Grade: B+


Joe Valdez said...

Great post, Dave. Two things I don't really believe in are the possessory credit for directors, or "foreign" as a category for a movie. I could see that section totally done away with at video stores, but that probably makes me an elitist.

J.D. said...

Your questions are in you internetting mailbox.