REVIEW — Les Combattants (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Thomas Cailley’s hugely engaging teen drama Les Combattants (a.k.a. Love at First Fight). Having received a standing ovation at Cannes, Cailley’s debut film went on to secure nine nominations and three wins at the French equivalent of the Oscars. Celebrated by French critics as nothing less than the future of French cinema, Les Combattants limped onto Anglo-American screens where it was marketed and reviewed as a romantic comedy (hence the stupid English-language title). Given that it is short on jokes and long on the kind of evocative, hands-off storytelling that is common in European drama and absent from the history of romantic comedy, the film received middling reviews from critics who seemed more interested in engaging with the press release than the nature of the film itself. According to Gary Goldstein at the LA Times:

There’s a better movie floating around the edges of the French import “Love at First Fight” than first-time feature director Thomas Cailley has allowed to surface. Though it’s billed as a romantic comedy, this quirky tale takes too many narrative U-turns that seem to dodge the genre’s more traditional (read: satisfying) tropes and dynamics.

There’s misprision and then there’s critical laziness. This is an example of the latter as Les Combattants is actually a fantastic meditation on Young Adult fiction and contemporary gender roles. You just need to make a bit of an effort in order to see it.

Les Combattants is built around two young adult protagonists: Kévin Azaïs‘ Arnaud whose lack of ambition and focus in no way seems to prevent his integration into a French society that is always pleased to see him. Everywhere he goes, Arnaud is offered jobs and opportunities for advancement despite the fact that the French economy is evidently still in tatters. Adèle Haenel plays Mathilde, a fiercely intelligent and incredibly driven young woman whose every attempt to secure an education or job is met with dismissive scorn. The fact that Arnaud’s white male privilege protects him from economic deprivation means that he is far better disposed to people and society than Mathilde, who spends the entire film having doors slammed in her face:

When Mathilde joins Arnaud’s family for dinner, the conversation naturally turns to the lack of jobs for young people and we see how the inequalities in French society have nurtured two very different reactions to the economic crisis: Embittered and unappreciated, Mathilde reaches the conclusion that society has nothing to offer her and so sets about preparing for its imminent demise; Pampered and protected, Arnaud has the luxury to consider a number of different career paths and so admits that he has never really thought about the collapse of Western civilisation.

Arnaud slowly falls in love with Mathilde and so decides to join her at a boot camp designed to help young adults preparing to join a parachute regiment. While Arnaud’s easy charm and happiness going with the flow mean that he fits right into a military environment, Mathilde solitary nature and intense disposition mean that the army falls out of love with Mathilde almost as quickly as Mathilde loses interest in the army. Eventually, things get so bad that Arnaud decides to abandon his shot at a military career and simply wanders off into the wilderness with Mathilde in tow.

As I explain in my review, I think that Cailley was wrong to have Arnaud discover his agency at the end of the film. I think that having Arnaud lead the pair out of danger undermines Mathilde’s character and turns Les Combattants from a film about a couple into a film about a young man. This misstep aside, I think this film has a lot of interesting things to say about gender. Particularly when you realise the similarities between Haenel’s intense survivalist Mathilde and the intensely self-reliant young women who feature in books like Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, and Kristin Cashore’s Graceling.

Les Combattants suggests that women have it considerably harder than men in the current economic climate. What makes Cailley’s analysis interesting is the suggestion that these inequalities might well have a knock-on effect of how the different genders perceive society. For example, Mathilde has grown intensely self-reliant because she no longer trusts society whereas Arnaud is happy to trust society and go with the flow because his experience is of people and institutions falling over themselves to offer him jobs and opportunities for advancement. The film’s ending strikes a false note because allowing Arnaud to save the day sends the message that Arnaud’s vision of society is somehow correct whereas Mathilde’s is paranoid and self-destructive. I disagree… I think Mathilde’s wariness is a rational response to an irrational world and I can’t help but wonder whether the immense popularity of YA among women might not be a direct response to their unequal treatment at the hands of society.

Interesting stuff aside, Les Combattants is one of the better looking films I have reviewed recently, so I thought I would share a few screen grabs:

 

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REVIEW – Camera Obscura: The Walerian Borowczyk Collection (2014)

This week saw the release of Arrow Films’ Camera Obscura; a magnificent box set exploring the early work of Polish director Walerian Borowczyk. As someone who already owns quite a few luxurious box sets devoted to art house film directors, you would think that I’d be immune to the packaging-foo of independent DVD publishers but Camera Obscura has taken me completely by surprise. Aside from an impressively thick booklet, the box set contains five beautifully restored feature-length films as well as Boro’s early short films and a suite of documentaries about both him and his work. To say that Camera Obscura is comprehensive would be an understatement, FilmJuice have my reviews of:

FilmJuice’s editorial format required me to break the box set down into five separate films, which is something of a pity as Camera Obscura does an absolutely amazing job of capturing Borowsczyk’s development as an artist. The key to this process of evolution are the short films included on the same disc as The Theatre of Mr. and Mrs. Kabal.   Continue reading →

Swimming Pool (2003) – Touched by The Gods of Indecision

One of the enduring concerns of human culture is how to deal with thoughts and feelings that are not recognisably our own.

Much like the ancients, who associated odd feelings and passing moods with particular deities, Saint Augustine viewed unwelcome thoughts as something external to the self. According to Augustine, our urge to transgress God’s laws stems from a wound inflicted by Original Sin and passed down through the generations by sexual contact. Later churchmen would describe the concept of Original Sin as:

“Privation of the righteousness which every man ought to possess”

Inspired by the Augustinian concept of Concupiscence but intent upon creating a materialistic account of human nature, Sigmund Freud divided the self into different parts and invoked the concept of the unconscious as a place where unspeakable thoughts and desires boil and occasionally rise up, hammering at the walls of the conscious self. Though no longer central to scientific accounts of human nature, Freud’s account of the self remains incredibly influential. Artists and mental health professionals conspire to present the mind as a city under constant pressure from a vast and barely manageable neurochemical hinterland where entire streets pass in and out of the surrounding jungle. The question of how we navigate such a city, where we draw the line between town and country, ours and not-ours not only endures to this day but also accounts for many of the most striking literary and philosophical innovations of the 20th Century.

Like many psychological thrillers, Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool follows a character’s attempt to repress, confront and ultimately claim ownership of a series of unwelcome and unrecognisable thoughts, but as sophisticated as the film’s distinctions may be, it is never entirely clear where the film’s main protagonist begins and ends.

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Jeune et Jolie (2013) – Taking Your Sexuality Off-Grid

JJ1Art house film has always had a problematic relationship with female sexuality. Though art house directors are far more likely to construct their films around strong female characters than their Hollywood counterparts, their engagement with these characters’ sexualities is often limited to stripping an actress naked and posing her in a series of titillating tableaux such as those found in Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme D’Or winning film Blue is the Warmest Colour. The further a female character ventures from the realms of male fantasy, the more likely it is that her sexuality will be turned against her and used as a sign of encroaching madness, alienation or spiritual collapse. In art house film, sad men may become murderers but sad women will always become prostitutes.

The tragedy of problematic narratives is that they frequently outlive the social attitudes that first informed them. For example, while the films of Luis Bunuel may have been informed by the remnants of his Jesuitical education, the phrases and characters he helped to develop in films like Belle de Jour passed into common usage and came to form part of the basic vocabulary of art house film. Used and revisited for decade after decade, the character of the fallen woman is now so familiar to art house audiences that directors no longer feel the need to spell out why promiscuous women are sad women… they just show us a female character having loads of sex and allow us to fill in the blanks. We have been trained through repetition and this training followed us out of the cinema and into our daily lives meaning that, without ever having been subjected to an argument about the evils of promiscuity, our first reaction to promiscuous women is to assume that there is something terribly wrong with them.

The alternative to allowing our culture to train us is to question the values embedded in stock cinematic phrases and champion works that set out to subvert stock phrases and use them to draw our attention to the sexism and racism that is perpetuated by our own intellectual laziness. Thankfully, while the 2013 Cannes jury was content to give the biggest prize in art house film to a work that presented sexually empowered women as hollow vessels and childlike victims, another director in competition set out to pick a fight with the myth of the fallen woman. The director in question is Francois Ozon and his film is Jeune et Jolie.

 

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Sous Le Sable (2000) – Everyone Needs a Little Cup of Stars

SLS1There are few situations to which the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House are not pressingly germane:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.

Often spoken of as a ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House is more rewardingly read as a portrait of a fragile mind under intense pressure. Scarred by decades of servitude to a sick and deranged mother, Eleanor Vance is a woman who carries her reality with her like a snail carries its shell. While the novel’s melody is dominated by Hugh Crain’s house and the miseries that befell his family, the harmony is all about the way that Eleanor picks things up and uses them to fashion a world more comforting and endurable than absolute reality. Everyone needs a little cup of stars.

One of the great joys of Jackson’s novel is the way that she manages to blur the boundaries of the real, the supernatural and the outright hallucinatory without ever bothering to draw attention to the lack of subjective difference between these different categories. For Jackson, this uncertainty is so universal that it simply does not merit commentary… it’s all one big sordid mess. Many films and books have been drawn to this ambiguity but while great works such Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl add their own ingredients to the ambiguous brew, most works that use these tropes yearn for clear dividing lines between the metaphorical and the concrete, the material and the fantastical, the sane and the insane, the true and the false. This is why you are more likely to encounter the carefully nested realities of films like Inception and Jacob’s Ladder than you are the happy ambiguities of a film like Total Recall or The Descent. Though definitely a film with a clear dividing line between reality and fantasy, Francois Ozon’s Sous le Sableis a film that is intensely relaxed about the ambiguities of madness.

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Classe Tous Riques (1960) – Ten Paces Behind

I have often thought that there was a great book to be written about why it is that particular genres catch on in particular places and times. What is it about post-War America and Victorian Britain that made Science Fiction so vibrant? What is it about 1980s Japan that so perfectly fit the mood of Cyberpunk? How was it that post-War France seemed capable of producing one classic piece of hardboiled crime fiction after another? An answer to this final question can be glimpsed in the life of one Jose Giovanni.

Giovanni was an educated man who spent the War as a rural guerrilla. When France was liberated, Giovanni decided to put his Maquisard skills to use in the Parisian underworld where his presence at the scene of a murder lead to him being sentenced to death. While in prison awaiting Madame La Guillotine, Giovanni made the acquaintance of a man named Abel Davos, a gangster and collaborator who went on the run with kids in tow. In 1947, Giovanni attempted to escape from prison but while the escape ultimately proved unsuccessful, it did not prevent either the lifting of Giovanni’s death sentence or his eventual pardon and successful retrial. Upon release from prison, Giovanni began writing and rapidly produced books that would go on to be adapted for the screen as:

  •  Jacques Becker’s Le Trou (1960)
  • Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques (1960)
  • Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966)

All three films draw directly from Giovanni’s life story and all three films are classics of cinematic noir. While I have a good deal of affection for both Le Trou and Le Deuxieme Souffle, the most puzzling and least generic of all three films is the long-forgotten and recently-rereleased Classe Tous Risques directed by Claude Sautet and starring Lino Ventura as a man on the run with kids in tow.

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The Rules of the Game (1939) – A Theatre of Nightmares

One of the best known rants in the history of film criticism is the one in which Andre Bazin rounds on the French film industry and lambasts it for its failure to be properly cinematic. Instead of producing properly cinematic works of art, Bazin argues, most French film directors were happy to simply film a theatrical performance. Rather than making the most of a new medium, French film was reducing the camera to the role of dumb spectator.

Jean Renoir’s La Regle Du Jeu was first released in 1939. Banned by the Vichy government for being ‘demoralising’, the film’s original negative was later destroyed in an Allied bombing raid forcing post-War cinephiles to assemble their own version of the film with advice from Renoir. This reconstructed version of the film is the one that we know today and it is dedicated to Andre Bazin.

It is tempting to link these two statements together: Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu may well be one of the great masterpieces of 1930s French cinema, but it is also an intensely theatrical film. Not only does the film contain an infamous ‘play-within-a-play’ but many of Renoir’s mis-en-scenes are explicitly and quite intentionally theatrical in both composition and reference. Reading between the lines, one can divine a response to Bazin’s famous rant.  La Regle du Jeu is full of slamming doors and romantic misunderstandings but the film’s theatrical nature is far from unthinking. In fact, in packs a powerful political punch. La Regle du Jeu uses its theatricality to present the pre-War French bourgeoisie as a frothy and insubstantial band of corrupt and self-indulgent buffoons. Wielders of a social morality so completely disconnected from the demands of the real world that they no longer seem to believe in it themselves, Renoir’s upper-classes are incapable of defending France against the rising tide of Fascism. Where were the ruling class when Vichy was on the rise? They were dressing up as bears and having delightful weekends in the country. Showing an almost post-modern awareness of media and irony, La Regle du Jeu remains one of the most powerful indictments imaginable of a society that has become lost in the maze of its own self-indulgence.

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REVIEW – The First Day of the Rest of your Life (2008)

Videovista have my review of Remi Bezancon’s Le Premier Jour Du Reste De Ta Vie.

Well directed, the film also employs quite a neat structural trick of focusing only upon five key days in the lives of a middle-class French family.  However, despite the odd nice moment, The First Day of the Rest of your Life is an astoundingly unoriginal film dealing only in the boldest and most familiar of cinematic emotions.  Dreadful.

REVIEW – La Grande Vadrouille (1966)

Videovista have my review of Gerard Oury’s seminal French Resistance comedy La Grande Vadrouille (also known as Don’t Look Now – We’re Being Shot At).

My review is as much an appraisal of the film as it is a discussion of the film’s place in French cultural history.  I remember growing up, my Swiss friends (who are at least partially French culturally speaking due to the presence of French TV channels in the French-speaking part of Switzerland) would speak warmly of this film and quote from it but, looking back at it now, I’m struck that it really isn’t anything more than a broad family action-comedy.  It’s certainly not the funniest thing that De Funes ever made.

Art House to Slaughter House – The Evolution of the French Horror Film

Videovista also have my extended essay on the history of French Horror film.  Ostensibly a “10 Best…” list, I tried to explain how the current wave of French Horror films draw upon cinematical antecedents ranging from the gothic and exploitation to the properly art house.  I have been slowly working on this for a couple of months but it is only in the last week or so that I managed to fashion a proper historical narative.  Worth taking a look at if you’re interested in my views on films such as :

  • The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)
  • Spirits of the Dead (1968)
  • Female Vampire (1973)
  • Les Diaboliques (1955)
  • The Tenant (1976)
  • Eyes without a Face (1960)
  • Switchblade Romance (2003)
  • Them (2006)
  • Inside (2007)
  • Martyrs (2008)