Recently, while slowly recovering from an unnamed affliction (stressful yet not a permanent condition), I have found myself searching for diversions from my suffering, looking for pastimes that require less concentration and effort than, say, reading a novel. More specifically, I need distractions that might simultaneously:
(a) stimulate me enough to want to stay awake, and
(b) shift my focus far, far away from my own private troubles.
At first, I settled on watching non-English-language films (so-called “foreign” movies) with subtitles.
Thus, during the past week or so, I’ve viewed six provocative films deserving mention (five in French and one in German).
The Intouchables (“Les Intouchables”), directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, claims to be “based on a true story”, a phrase which typically serves quite effectively as a red flag—to prepare myself to:
- suspend my critical impulses
- tolerate the highly-embellished and implausible portrayals of “actual events”
- repress my natural inclination to start rewriting the screenplay in my head—even before the opening scene has concluded
- accept my inevitable sense of inadequacy for failing at all three of the above.
In the case of this film, that useful red flag (…”true story”) shows up in the opening credits and is immediately followed by dozens of additional red-flags—waving, unabashedly, throughout the opening scene—appearing in the form of supposedly “actual” events and steadily rising to the categorical level best described as Eye Rolling.
I got sucked in anyway.
But not (entirely) suckered. I hope.
The two main characters (Phillipe and Driss) are played so masterfully (by Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy) that I came close to a satisfactory self-evaluation, for once, when reviewing my personal little list of “true story” film-watching suggestions. Indeed, I laughed and grinned (and sighed with love) over this intimate story of unlikely friendship between a highly-educated, wealthy, middle-aged, exceedingly-privileged, white Frenchman (who is also paralyzed from the neck down) and a black immigrant (from Africa) whose life history includes a tragic childhood, life-long poverty, discrimination based on race and national origin, casual (perhaps habitual) enjoyment of cannabis, homelessness, criminal activity and incarceration.
Yes—in spite of the cliche-riddled script that at times appeals to some of my own culture’s (and, apparently, France’s) basest stereotypes about class, race, sexual orientation and gender—I felt uplifted by the story’s most hopeful theme (compassion, empathy and love as humanity’s most powerful sources of healing and redemption), and I felt grateful to detach for awhile from the intensity of my own suffering.
It’s not that the film doesn’t make me cringe inside and groan, also, whenever its stereotyped versions of the “actual” real-life people suddenly become painfully-manipulative caricatures of whole human beings—intended, no doubt, to confirm an audience’s beloved yet confused and distorted beliefs (i.e. about class, race, sexuality, gender).
Mostly, the film’s power to seduce my forgiveness for its many flaws arises from the consistently mesmerizing performances of both Cluzet and Sy. I wished I could just keep watching these two actors, performing together, even when the defects of the film left me feeling disappointed and irritated.
All Together (original French title: ”Et si on vivait tous”) offers a wonderful opportunity for Jane Fonda to beguile her admirers (including moi), once again, while playing a pivotal character (Jeanne) in this coming-of-old-age drama (and sometimes comedy) featuring an ensemble cast that includes Geraldine Chaplin, Guy Bedos, Pierre Richard and Claude Rich. The story offers brief yet intimate glimpses into the personal experiences of five life-long friends who are all struggling with multiple challenges associated with aging (such as discrimination, loss, decreasing independence, and serious health problems)—and thus they gradually come to agree as a group (over protests by family members) to pool their resources, to live together under one roof, and finally to come to terms with their long, complicated, and intermingling histories.
Each character in turn shares private (and often secretive) moments from his or her life with a young ethnographer, Dirk (Daniel Bruhl), who videotapes and records the day-to-day experiences of the group’s individual members—as a means to partially fulfill his PhD thesis in sociology—while he works simultaneously as a live-in dog walker (for Jeanne’s husband, Albert).
The characters could have been developed more fully, yet the performances are compelling enough to draw me into the midst of their converging lives (including some daring sexual adventures) and to evoke my empathy for their minor predicaments (often both poignant and humorous) as well as my compassion for the tragedies they share with each other.
The film’s ending might be viewed as a not-quite-humorous-enough-dud (especially, perhaps, by those who prefer tight, tidy finales), but the parting scene is, by no means, an irredeemable fall from grace for the movie as a whole. The final scene reminds me that life is often strange, confusing, and uncertain—frequently, with no easy answers about the “correct” course of action to pursue—even when we’re accompanied by good friends; and the luckiest among us are privileged enough to see our own human existence through a long lens, clear to the inevitable end, surrounded (hopefully) by people we love.
The Hedgehog, based on the novel, “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery (directed by Mona Achache), at first seems to focus on Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), a precocious eleven year old girl who announces (in the opening scene) that she plans to commit suicide on her twelfth birthday.
One of Paloma’s most notable observations hits an emotional bull’s eye, especially since it is uttered by a lonely adolescent whose mother has been a patient of psychoanalysis for an entire decade. One evening, at the family dinner table (after Paloma’s mother “celebrates”—with her favorite daily beverage, champagne—her personal victory marking 10 years of psychoanalysis and so-called “insight”, and then suggests that Paloma should begin psychotherapy too), Paloma says to her parents, matter-of-factly, “Only psychiatry rivals religion for love of suffering.”
Gradually, I observe that Paloma’s personal story, although compelling, drifts towards the sidelines of the story as two intriguing (and much older) characters attract my interest and spark my curiosity. The concierge of Paloma’s lavish Paris apartment building appears on the surface to be a stereotypical building “super”—in this case, an unobtrusive, brusque, middle-aged woman, Renee (Josiane Balasko), who cuts her own hair with regular scissors in front of her bathroom mirror, dresses in baggy, unstylish but practical clothing, keeps a pet cat (to whom she reads Russian lit—specifically Tolstoy—in her spare time), and maintains an enormous stash of dark chocolate (hmmm…just now I realize that my resemblance to Renee is uncanny!)
The arrival of a mysterious new tenant to the building, Mr. Ozu (Togo Igawa)—an exceedingly polite and empathetic Japanese gentleman with white hair, twinkling eyes, and a fondness for simplicity and subtlety—fans the nearly-dead flames of passionate interest in life (joie de vivre) within both Paloma and Renee. At this point, the movie also piques my own intense curiosity about these characters.
Alas (or maybe hurrah!), the happy ending that American audiences tend to demand (and usually receive) remains elusively fleeting, unless you enjoy being shocked (with almost no foreshadowing) into stunned silence—immediately after you scream out loud at the sight of a sudden, disturbing and unnecessarily graphic image.
I will say no more about THAT.
In spite of the film’s bizarre ending, its lovely, overriding message—about our profoundly human need for love and empathy—suggests that sometimes even our simplest actions may save and restore the dispirited lives of those with whom we communicate with respect and compassion.
The Hairdresser (directed by Doris Dorrie) could have been a depressing film, given that the main character, Kathi (Gabriela Maria Schmeide), has recently “lost everything”—her job, husband, home, car, health, and so forth—but nevertheless she manages to hold on to her sharp, sarcastic sense of humor, her irrepressible belief in her creative skills as a dynamic hair stylist, and her (albeit sometimes shaky) personal vision of a hopeful future for herself and for her daughter.
All of this optimism may seem surprising to an audience accustomed to confronting prejudicial portrayals of fat women as lazy and undesirable losers—indeed, as women who can (according to fat stereotypes) ONLY accomplish their dreams and goals AFTER losing weight and after gaining insights into their personal issues that supposedly made them get fat in the first place.
Make no mistake, Kathi is fat. And, if you aren’t overly-fixated on the repeated, (refreshingly) overt images of her clingy, brightly colored dresses and her undulating, determined stride, well, the intrusive sound track that accompanies her movements does not let you forget for a single instant: this is a VERY FAT woman (when she rushes through public places from one urgent appointment to the next, for instance, the blaring background notes from tubas and/or bassoons keep pace with each of her hurried steps, as if only a weird imitation of “The Baby Elephant Walk” can do justice to this woman’s size.
That being said, this is mostly a fat-friendly film. Kathi’s gutsy attitude and her refusal to give up on her goals—even while facing countless economic barriers, discrimination, bad luck, and cruel treatment from both loved ones and strangers—leaves me grinning, emotionally uplifted and spiritually inspired. Turns out (hallelujah!), in the end, Kathi does NOT need a weight-loss diet (or a gym membership or any kind of body make-over) before she can triumph. She already has everything she needs to succeed…intelligence, creativity, daring, humor, kindness, self respect, honesty and—in addition—she displays the rare kind of beauty that comes from being REAL.
Last week I also enjoyed two additional films in French (not reviewed here):
- A Secret (Un Secret directed by Claude Miller), which is a sad, moving, and provocative film, based on “actual events”, set in Nazi-occupied France during WWII, containing few surprises in plot but many sensuous images of strong women during fearful times. Caution: includes brief scenes of Nazi atrocities (shown as films watched in class by students after the war.)
- L’Amour Fou is a documentary about the professional and personal life of Yves Saint Laurent. The film focuses on his 50-year partnership with Pierre Berge, on their extensive collection of art, and on Saint Laurent’s many vulnerabilities (i.e. to elicit drugs, alcohol, and depression.) A fascinating glimpse of the hidden world of haute couture and fashion—with both its splendors and its heavy personal costs included.
That entertaining journey into the terrain of “foreign” films turned out to be as distracting as I had hoped, but sometimes it also resulted in a serious excess of sad thoughts and mental images.
So, this week, I’ve decided to watch only comedies for the foreseeable future. Other than suffering from sore sides after laughing so effing hard, thus far this most recent switch—to an all-humor movie festival in my living room—is proving to be a grand success. When I wake during the wee hours, instead of sobbing and moaning (like before), more often than not I find myself grinning and envisioning silly scenes and goofy movie characters that (during waking hours) made me LOL for reals.