|Isabelle Huppert au festival de Cannes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Coup de Torchon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
|Marion Cotillard during the Paris premiere of Public Enemies at the cinema (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
I read the other day that the quidnuncs are expecting people to give up their cable systems in the next few decades, and one commentator put much of the blame for this on Netflix, and similar outfits. In other words, so many people are now streaming their information and entertainment directly through their computers or mobile devices, that our entrenched fascination with the television is already coming under challenge.
I am not competent to judge the validity of this argument: but I do know that with Netflix I have at my disposal thousands, even tens of thousands, of movies, any one of which is available at the flick of a switch.
This might be described as nirvana for a movie buff. My son Thom, who I consider to be an encyclopedia of knowledge about movies, says he has almost stopped going to movies in cinemas, but that doesn’t mean he has stopped watching movies: he seems to see more than ever, and he doesn’t even have a television.
Well, recently, having had my mobility reduced by an accident to my heel, I have been watching a good number of movies myself, thanks to Netflix, and what this article is about is that it deals with my respect for, my admiration of, French-language movies. I have always thought that at their best, by and large, they are far and away better than even the best American movies, and my recent watching has confirmed me in that prejudice.
Let me describe four examples. Of the four at least two are delightful portraits of everyday life, unmediated by any of the absurd calculations that go into movie-making American style. In other words, they are slices of life as it is lived, and richly suggestive to any person who feels for the immensity of human experience.
I think of the four movies the one I liked best was called Two Days, One Night (in French Deux Jours, Une nuit), an extremely simple story about working class life in a French industrial town, made by two hyper-realistic filmmakers in their sixties, the brothers Dardenne, Jean-Pierre and Luc, Belgians, actually, who since the 1970s have been producing highly praised, gritty films that have often been compared so some of Britain’s left-leaning cineasts of the Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach school.
This particular film was elevated by a superb acting performance by Marion Cotillard, a woman who seems to elevate everything she appears in. The story here is about a rather neurotic, depressive, nervous young mother of two who returns to the factory line after a time off to deal with a depression. Her boss announces that he can afford either to give a 1000 Euro bonus to each of her sixteen co-workers, or to take her back on staff, and he has arranged a vote of the workers which, not unexpectedly, turns out solidly for accepting the bonus. Cotillard’s character, Sandra, is devastated, especially when it is reported to her by one of her fellow-workers that the foreman had stacked the vote against her by telling them that if they voted to keep her, one of them would be laid off.
She and her husband need her job, they couldn’t manage wihout it. With her sympathetic fellow-worker she persuades the boss to hold a re-run of the vote on the following Monday, which gives her the weekend to follow her husband’s suggestion that she should visit each of her co-workers at their homes to try to persuade them to support her return to work.
That is the entire story of this film, plot-wise. But of course it is about much more than that. At one level it is a superb portrait of a sensitive, sympathetic, retiring young woman to whom this series of visits is humiliating (this acting performance won Cotillard plaudits around the world). At another level it gives an understated but convincing portrait of the French working class, certainly not among the lowest in the world, that’s for sure, but like most other working classes in the Western world, full of people who are just barely able to make their way in life on what they can earn. This touches on the essential cruelty of capitalism in that it has so arranged its economy that two salaries are needed to keep every home afloat, while simultaneously demanding of the working woman that most of the proceeds of her work are spent on finding someone to look her kids. Not everything in the film is harsh: many of her co-workers are immigrants, who seem to have had a strong sense of solidarity with her predicament. Even the boss shows a modicum of feeling in his proposed final solution, although his gesture has to make way for the greater strength of working class solidarity felt by the heroine.
This is a deeply satisfying, hugely involving film.
Another somewhat less heralded film, also a Belgian-French-Italian coproduction, is Paris Follies (in French La Ritournelle), which stars the tiny, 5ft 2 in veteran of French films Isabelle Huppert, in the unexpected role of a more or less contented wife of a successful Normandy farmer, a somewhat older man, also expertly played by Jean-Pierre Daroussin. Between them these two actors have appeared in almost 200 movies, so they give off an air of effortless achievement. Dasroussin’s face seemed familiar to me, although I could not recall where I had seen him before until a search of his filmography revealed that he played, beautifully, one might add, Panisse in the recent re-make of the Marcel Pagnol trilogy about Marseilles waterfront life, Marius, Fanny and Cesar. As for Isabelle Huppert, her career began in 1971, but I didn’t pick up on her until 1981 when she played an unforgettably sexy blonde temptress in Bernard Tavernier’s West African epic, Coup de Torchon. Since then, Ms Huppert seems to have worked with every great director in Western Europe.
This film, a slice of French life shown unexcitably by director Marc Fitoussi, has Ms Huppert as the distaff side of a happy countryside marriage, who, attracted during a party to a young Parisian who shows an interest in her, seizes an opportunity to visit Paris, with the intention, only half revealed even to herself, of running into this young man again, and seeing what might develop. Actually, she hasn’t really got the courage of her convictions, and runs away from the proposed assignation, but a visiting Danish dentist who is staying at the same hotel is more skilled in his approach, and this is the man her husband sees when he turns up unexpectedly to check on his wife’s movements, she having been revealed to him by a neighbour as having made an appointment with a doctor who was no longer in business. This is all worked out in what we have come to recognize as a typically civilized French approach. The movie is not exciting, but it is, because so beautifully acted, written and directed, very satisfying and enjoyable.
The Dardenne brothers also made the well-regarded film, The Kid with A Bike (French, Le Gamin au Velo). This is about a 12-year-old boy who has lost his mother and grandmother, and has been abandoned by his father, who, in the first part of this film, he continues to try to find with a blinding ferocity that excludes him from normal human contacts. I found the kid, played by Thomas Doret to be so objectionable that it kind of destroyed the film for me, until an actress called Cecile de France appeared unexpectedly, to take an interest in the kid. Apparently the directors intended this to have the qualities of a fairy story, and she played the role of the good fairy, impetuously offering to look after the boy at the weekends, and putting up with his rudeness and compulsive behaviour no matter how off-putting he may have been his. Apparently this actress, another with long experience in French films, was cast because the directors believed she could express her sympathy just through her looks and body language. That in fact worked out famously, and from the moment she appeared I was fascinated by this actress’s performance. True to the wishes of the directors, it was unemphatic, almost off-hand, but it managed to lend a real humanity to this unlikely story: the kid began to take her seriously, to respond to her unquenchable kindness. The film ends with the kid cycling around a corner out of sight as he makes his way back to his benefactor.
The fourth film, The Blue Room (French La Chambre Bleue) is based on a famous novel by Georges Simenon that has apparently driven previous filmmakers to distraction as they have unsuccessfully attempted to bring it to the screen. Director and star in the movie Mathieu Amalric has adopted a non-linear approach that enlivens the story, which is about an illicit love affair between two married people. When the man eventually tires of it and tries to withdraw, the woman, played by Stephanie Cleau, hangs in there, keeps enticing the man to continue through infrequent assignations, and is the main actor in murders that eventually remove their two innocent spouses. The story is told largely through a long-drawn out legal procedure of questioning by the examining magistrate which leads to the inevitable result. The film maintains its interest from first to last and lifts a veil on a part of the French legal system that is always interesting.
Each of these films has its virtues: together they advance our knowledge of French attitudes, behaviour and feeling.