Saturday, February 18, 2006


Les Soeurs Fâchées
Alexandre Leclère
Isabelle Huppert, Catherine Frot, François Berléand, Brigitte Catillon...

Les Soeurs Fâchées (or, The Angry Sisters) tells the story of Louise, the younger sister from Province who goes to visit her older sister Martine in Paris after she writes a book and is to meet with the publisher. Martine ostensibly has the perfect life – a bourgeois lifestyle in Paris, a doting husband and a young son – yet she remains bitter and unhappy. Louise, on the other hand, a bubbly esthetician from the country, is much more insouciant and her smile rarely fades despite her older sister’s cruelty. During the three days that Louise spends with her uptight and often merciless older sister, Martine becomes more and more annoyed with her sibling, yet, at the same time, learns to appreciate the little joys in life. This emotional comedy is enjoyable thanks to witty dialogue and perfectly complementary performances by Catherine Frot as Louise and Isabelle Huppert as Martine. While both Frot and Huppert caricaturize their roles and the scenario is completely unbelievable, it is nonetheless an entertaining romp through the life of two complete opposites who just happen to share the same blood. The chemistry between Frot and Huppert is irrefutable; if I hadn’t seen both actresses in myriad other French films, I would swear they were related! Though the film is predominantly defined by its satiric tone, it progresses gradually from a light-hearted comedy to a more complex, emotional drama. Leclère doesn’t simply allow Martine to be cruel; she wants to show why she has become this cold and unable to appreciate the joys in her life. And, while Frot’s Louise is a hilariously caricaturized bumbling idiot at times, the spectator is rendered sympathetic to her naivete and mistreatment by her sister. I think every spectator can find a part of herself in one of these women – or both! – and, while this film will probably never make it onto American screens, I highly recommend it.

Rois et Reine
Arnaud Desplechin
“Have you seen any of Arnaud Desplechin's movies? His most recent, Kings and Queens, was at the NY Film Festival and I find myself, a month and several dozen films later, still thinking about it. I'm not sure there's a critical vocabulary that would do it, or him, justice, which makes his work all the more exciting.”
-A.O. Scott, November 15, 2004

So I may have only seen this film yesterday, but I, like Scott, am still thinking about it. I’m still not sure exactly what I saw yesterday in that theater off the Champs-Elysées: a comedy? A drama? A film defying convention or one incarnating simplistic ethics and traditional storylines such as a tortured woman, the meaning of paternity and the thin line between sanity and normalcy? In fact, I’m not even sure where I saw the film. It appeared to be a large commercial theater, but the welcome each spectator received from the host of this cinematic event made me feel like I was watching an intimate séance in someone’s living room. Before the film began, the host (and owner I assume?) at the Balzac cinema greeted everyone, wished us a happy new year and then went on to talk about how much we would enjoy Desplechin’s latest film. I knew that Desplechin was an experimental and unconventional filmmaker, but I had no idea what I was getting into…
Rois et Reine (aka Kings and Queen) focuses on two parallel yet converging storylines: that of Nora, a single mother running an art gallery and that of her former lover Ismaël, a violist who is – mistakenly? – hospitalized for insanity. The narration shifts from Nora to Ismaël and back again, slowly at first then with more and more exigency. Nora visits her father only to discover that he is very sick and going to die. She hospitalizes her father and then, worried about the future of her young son who had been cared for by her father, she tracks down Ismaël and asks him to adopt her son. Ismaël, however, has been committed to a mental hospital where he flirts with the female patients, begins a relationship with another young and troubled patient named Arielle, visits with the hospital supervisor (who just so happens to be Catherine Deneuve). During one of his conversations with Deneuve qua hospital supervisor, Ismaël tells her quite nonchalantly that women have no souls. This is just one of the many shocking moments in an ostensibly “normal” film spotted with moments of horror, disbelief and awe. Late in the film, Nora’s father gives a horrifying post mortem speech that causes the spectator to question everything he or she has seen up to this point. While a mélange of comedy and drama is hardly a novelistic approach to cinema, the way in which Desplechin juxtaposes scenes of ridiculous humor – when the men in white coats come to take Ismaël away and one points out that there is a hanging cord in his living room, Ismaël responds that it would appear that he is suicidal, but really his life in under control – with deep emotion – illness, death, suicide, guilt, paternity, family relations … need I go on? – is almost uncanny.

Thoughts on… 4/1/05
Letter to the International Herald Tribune:
I just read Antoine Audouard’s op-ed aptly titled “America’s Ridiculous Hatred of the French” and, as an American who recently moved to Paris, I felt it necessary to respond. Before moving from the suburbs of New Jersey to France’s cosmopolitan center, I was warned by friends and family of the “rampant anti-Semitism” and “extreme anti-Americanism” ubiquitous in French society. I can proudly say that it’s been over two months and I have yet to be tarred and feathered by Jew-hating, Bush-a-phobic zealots.
Every nation has its stereotypes – Americans are loud and fat, Italians like to hug and kiss and eat pizza and the French are foie gras-loving snobs who wear berets, carry baguettes under their arms and believe that Paris is the center of the universe. These oversimplified labels run the risk of generating the very fallacious pigeonholes that have created the Franco-American cultural boundaries that divide us in the first place. The “French-bashing” of which Audouard speaks is nothing more than a manifestation of U.S. ignorance. International solidarity will be impossible until the American media ceases its constant mockery and criticism of France and cuts “freedom fries” out of its diet forever.
Rebecca Leffler, Paris

Thoughts on… 5/1/05
Today was an otherwise typical morning: I woke up, showered, had breakfast and walked to work, my copy of the International Herald Tribune in hand. I arrived at work and, as usual, began to read the IHT. I skimmed the front cover to gain a general idea of what was going on in the world then perused through the Arts & Culture section. After learning about civilian attacks in Israel, the international world policy around the tsunami aftermath and the continued success of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, I came across the “Views” page only to see my name in print! The IHT had printed my “Letter to the Editor”! There it was: “Rebecca Leffler, Paris” printed right across from David Brooks of the New York Times. While they didn’t print the letter in its entirety, unlike my letter printed in New York Magazine last month, they didn’t change any of my words. How exciting to be a part of an international dialogue in one of the world’s top newspapers!

Cinéchiffres: The numbers are in! Cinemas in France welcomed 196 million spectators in 2004, representing a 12% rise compared to 2003 and the most registered spectators in 20 years. 48 films that came out in 2004 each brought in over one million spectators, 16 of which were French films, according to the FNCF (National Federation of French Cinemas). Les Choristes (The Chorus), a French film, brought in 8.6 million spectators, making it the most popular film of the year followed by Shrek 2 with 7.1 million spectators, Harry Potter 3 with 7.1 million spectators, Spider Man 2 with 5.3 million spectators, Les Indestructibles (The Incredibles) with 4.6 million spectators, Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement) with 4.4 million spectators, etc.

Tu Vas Rire Mais Je Te Quitte
Philippe Harel
Bridget Jones has a French alter-ego. Her name is Elise Vérone, the sexy blonde C-list celebrity character in Philippe Harel’s latest quasi-Hollwoodian, superficial romp through Paris. Tu Vas Rire Mais Je Te Quitte (You’re going to laugh, but I’m leaving you) follows Elisa as she stars in cheesy sitcoms, frequents trendy nightclubs, dines with her girlfriends and chooses Monsieur Wrong over and over again. On her quest for celebrity, Elise falls for a sex-obsessed photographer and an older author of philosophy books whose interest in her is not at all intellectual. Though much of the humor is slapstick and banal, the film is for the most part entertaining and the dialogue surprisingly witty. Judith Godrèche (of L’Auberge Espagnole fame) plays a perfect Elise and it is clear that her C-list celebrity status is limited only to this role. The film is filled with industry insider jokes which, as someone who one days hopes to be a French film industry insider, I really enjoyed. While many may argue that Harel has made an “American” movie (à la How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days), I must admit that it was refreshing to see a French movie that didn’t end with someone dying on a beach. Tu Vas Rire mais Je Te Quitte is pretty much what would have happened if Carrie Bradshaw had decided to stay in Paris sans Monsieur Big, but Harel has jumped on the “sex sells” bandwagon and it will be interesting to see if this film is successful here. I found it interesting that, although in my experiences here, French women never seem to get quite as sloppily intoxicated as their single friends in America, in this movie, all of the main characters are, well, lushes! I thoroughly enjoyed this “chick flick” that could just as easily have been titled Sex and Zee Ceetee: Paris!

Thoughts on… 12/1/05
A Mourning Chuckle: How Can you Laugh at a Time Like This?
“Hey, have you heard the one about the giant wave that -- ?” Okay, okay so maybe the world isn’t ready for tsunami jokes quite yet. After all, who could possibly find any trace of humor in a natural disaster that took over 150,000 innocent lives and whose aftermath will continue to plague entire continents? There is, of course, nothing funny about this international catastrophe, yet, in the wake of such a colossal tragedy, laughter is perhaps the only salvation.
As the waves crash against the now calm shores of Asia, listen closely and you will hear the sounds of laughter in all its forms. There is the nervous laughter of those whose minds and bodies restlessly struggle to make sense of such unprecedented horror. There is the laughter of evasion of those who cannot yet face the trauma of Boxing Day and seek humor as an escape from reality. (Meet the Fockers was #1 at the US Box Office following the tsunami – some may attribute this to Barbara Streisand’s return to the big screen, but I am quite sure that Americans preferred to watch A-list celebrities make fools of themselves than watch even a few minutes of the nightly news.) There is the laughter of necessity of those who laugh to keep from crying, those who smile and tell their children jokes in an attempt to hold onto their innocence for just a few seconds more. There is the laughter of the survivors, who look forward with optimistic irony rather than dwell on the “could’ve beens” and the “what if’s”. There is the laughter of the rest of the world as we go about our daily lives, wanting to forget but trying our best not to.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, the world – or at least the non-religious-zealot-America-hating sector of the world – was in mourning. In the days following the attack on the World Trade Towers, the nation was in a state of shock. For a brief moment in time, nobody cared who JLo was marrying, what Paris Hilton was wearing or how many calories were in their vegan smoothies. Comedy clubs closed their doors, David Letterman declared a night of solidarity and even the most caustic of comics were left speechless. Yet, weeks later, the late-night comedy teams dared to cross the tacit lines of appropriateness and the Osama jokes began: “More and more facts coming out about Osama bin Laden. You know, he never sleeps in the same place two nights in a row, just like Clinton.” (Jay Leno) "Over in Afghanistan, Osama stuck his head out of the cave and saw a shadow. So, that means six more weeks of bombing." (David Letterman)
George Bernard Shaw once said: “Life does not cease to be funny when someone dies any more than it ceases to be serious when someone laughs.” We laugh when we see a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning, but this laughter is not always necessarily a manifestation of happiness or amusement. Though Roberto Benigni was criticised by critics everywhere for his controversial retelling of the Holocaust via humor, in reality, Life is Beautiful was not a comedy at all, but a tragedy. While Benigni intentionally evokes laughter on the part of its spectators, the film itself never makes the claim that the Holocaust was in any way funny. Benigni said shortly after his film’s release in 1998: “I am a comedian, but I didn’t make a comedy about the Holocaust. I made a tragedy. So it’s a tragedy acted by a comedian.” Benigni realized that, as the attention span of modern youth decreases, a comedy was perhaps the only way to grab the attention of an international audience in order to maintain the memory of one of history’s greatest tragedies. Benigni is currently making another tragic-comedy called La Tigre e la Neve (The Tiger and the Snow) about a poet who becomes caught up in the events in Iraq by chance. While Benigni will inevitably be criticised for this “lighter” look at the horrific events of the war in Iraq, he may also provide succour to the soldiers and the families who have grown tired of conventional grieving and seek a new means to deal with the quotidian traumas of war. But Benigni never could have made this film at the beginning of the war in Iraq, nor could he have made Life is Beautiful decades earlier. Post-traumatic laughter necessitates a distance from the proximity of the event; it is true that “time heals.” But how much time is enough? How many days of mourning are required before we can replace our tears with bitter humor? Today, Jay Leno is auctioning off his motorcycle to aid victims of the tsunami, but how long will his Tonight Show audience have to wait before he begins the wave one-liners?
There is never a “right” time to begin laughing but, then again, there is never an appropriate time for tragedy. As the world reaches out to the victims of the tsunami, we must remember not to forget, but we must also never forget to remember… how to laugh.

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