(On Cable TV, January 2019) On paper, Funny Face looks like a perfect combination: A musical comedy with Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn and Paris. Thankfully, the film lives up to expectations: Fred Astaire dances as well as he can, and while Hepburn isn’t quite as much of a dancer as some of Astaire’s other screen partners, she did have dancing (and singing!) chops and couldn’t possibly be cuter as an intellectual bookseller—even Hollywood’s idea of an intellectual bookseller. Paris and Hepburn were a regular item (“Bonjour, Paris !”), but they look great together and the film doesn’t miss a chance to use a French stereotype when it can. (I had to laugh at the spat between two bohemian Parisians: “Salaud ! Dégueulasse ! *Slap* *Kiss*”) Unlike some musicals, Funny Face does have strong comic elements: The look at a fashion magazine—Astaire plays a fashion photographer—is amusing, and seeing both Astaire and Hepburn as black-clad undercover beatniks is hilarious especially as they skewer the philosophical excesses of Left-Bank thinkers. (Alas, Funny Face does have an anti-intellectual bent, but so it goes in musicals.) The romantic ending is more conventional and not as interesting, but as usual the fun is getting there. Less fortunately, you do have to get over the usual Astaire romantic issues in liking the film: His characters are often written as having revolting ideas about consent in the face of romantic persistence (“No” usually means “try again later with more charm” in his movies) and there’s a thirty-year difference between Astaire and Hepburn. That last item used to infuriate me, but then I recently realized that very few people could keep up with Astaire as a dancer—younger actresses at least had a chance to move as quickly and gracefully as he did. (It’s not much of an excuse, but it’s the one I cling to.) If you can manage to get past that, Funny Face is a perfectly charming and enjoyable musical, somewhere between a classic and a strong representative entry in the genre. (While technically a Paramount production, a number of key crewmembers such as director Stanley Donen were from MGM’s legendary Freed unit.) Plus, of course, it’s an essential piece of Hepburn’s filmography by showcasing her at her best.
(On DVD, September 2016) I wasn’t quite expecting to like Before Sunset. On paper, it sounds like a snooze: two ex-lovers meeting again a few years later, walking around Paris and talking about their lives. Sounds dull, right? Add to that the added complication that it’s a sequel to a film (Before Sunrise) that I haven’t yet seen and I was firmly expecting to fidget through the entire movie. Much to my surprise, though, Before Sunset quickly becomes almost hypnotically compelling. As two characters talk about the profound and the mundane, often in uninterrupted long shots showcasing Paris, we’re drawn to the movie almost as eavesdroppers, wishing them the best even though “the best” may end up breaking existing relationships with others. Writer/director Richard Linklater has become the master of unusual small-scale dramas, and Before Sunset looks like a peak in his filmography, creating sharp interest out of elements that would be dull in other hands. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are fantastic in their roles and it makes perfect sense to learn that they’ve had some input in their dialogue. Utterly charming, uncommonly mature and compelling almost from beginning to end, Before Sunset is a beautiful anomaly, and the one main lesson I take away from it is that I must now see both Before Sunrise and Before Midnight.
(On-demand video, March 2012) Watching Hugo became mandatory after its five-Oscar performance at the 84th Academy Awards, but such success was predictable given that Hugo is a movie celebrating movies; Hollywood loves patting itself on the back (as further proved by the night’s other big winner, the silent-film homage The Artist) and Hugo is less about its plot that it is about seeing Martin Scorsese deliver a paean to the beginning of the film industry and, in the same breath, the tradition perpetuated by Hollywood. Which isn’t to say that Hugo is overrated: As a flight of fancy honoring Georges Meliès and the beginning of film-making as a dream factory, it’s perfectly-controlled, lavishly produced and almost heartfelt. It tells an enchanting story and does so with the best and latest feats of technical wizardry. Even seen in two-dimensions, Hugo benefits from having been shot in 3D: The opening half-hour, in particular, shows a Cameronian understanding of how to move a camera through space, creating a depth to the film that will delight anyone interested in great cinematography. The special effects are used wisely, and 1931 Paris comes alive in a way that somehow feels different from any of the many versions of the city seen on film so far. Hugo doesn’t avoid feeling a bit long, especially toward the end, and wallows in its own sentimentality, but the result is still a film that combines emotion and technology in efficient fashion. Ben Kingsley is remarkable, and the film allows itself a few moments that, while not strictly necessary, show how much wonder you can create with a big budget and decent craftsmen. The 2011 epitome of Hollywood at its most lavish, Hugo will speak most clearly to cinephiles willing to embrace “the magic of movies”.
(On DVD, February 2012) The most remarkable thing about Angel-A is how atypical it feels when compared to the rest of writer/director Luc Besson’s filmography. You’d have to dig back to the eighties (past the most recent bad action movies and older better action/SF films) to find something like it, perhaps The Big Blue. Angel-A begins by showing small-time hustler down and out in Paris, about to throw himself off a bridge. But then! A mysterious woman appears and forces our protagonist to take control of his own life. The rest of the film unfolds as a black-and-white dream set in picturesque Paris, as protagonist and guardian angel solve their problems and fall in love. Plot-wise, it’s thin. Visually, however, it’s absolutely gorgeous: The black-and-white cinematography is nearly perfect at capturing Paris at its most inspiring, and the fairytale atmosphere helps a lot in establishing Angel-A‘s own reality. In other hands, it could have been a pretentious art-house mess. In Besson’s grip, however, it turns into a relatively entertaining piece of ambitious popular cinema. Hardly perfect, no: the plot contrivances are numerous and those who think Besson can’t quite write female characters will have more material to consider here. Jamel Debbouze, far better-known as a comedian, is a bit of a revelation here as the pathetic protagonist. Unfortunately, Rie Rasmussen isn’t the best choice as Angela; her delivery (in her third language) is mealy-mouthed and her physique doesn’t add that much to the film. Still, Angel-A is a remarkable piece of work for its cinematography alone; Besson fans and detractors owe it to themselves to have a look, if only to show that he can do something else than dumb anti-establishment action-comedies.
(On Blu-Ray, August 2010) Renaissance has many faults, but at least it’s interesting to look at. Computer-animated in stark black-and-white from motion-captured actor performances, director Christian Volckman’s film still has no equals in terms of sheer looks: Directly inspired by the palette of noir films, Renaissance strikingly presents 2054 Paris as a maze of known monuments, fancy modern architecture and impossible vistas. (I’m particularly interested in knowing how the Seine has fallen down about a hundred meters) Alas, the story powering the visuals isn’t much to discuss: Not only does it rely on crime-thriller clichés, it concludes on a downbeat note that mocks much of its science-fiction credentials. The characters are generic and so is the dialogue: at times, there is no other choice than to focus on the visuals given the lack of interest of the story. Fortunately, there’s a lot to admire in the sights alone: a car chase leads us to a glass-bottomed Notre Dame plaza, a reflection ends up matching two faces perfectly, someone falls through a plate-glass window, a rainstorm suddenly looks so pretty… Given how the entire film is a gigantic visual experiment, it’s not particularly surprising or problematic if some of the staging and animation doesn’t quite work. What’s worse, though, is that Renaissance’s stark-contrast cinematography may end up producing a headache after only 90 minutes. It doesn’t help that even after seeing the story to the end, there isn’t much in the script to suggest such a radical visual approach: While I’m sure that it’s less costly to animate a future Paris than to try to re-create it in live-action, there is little in the story (except the film noir heritage) to suggest stark contrasts, black-and-while vision or any other kind of visual reality-bending. Still, there aren’t enough stylish adult animation experiments around, so it’s a shame that the film’s lack of box-office success and lacklustre reviews may work to discourage any such experiments in the future. Not even Renaissance’s clunky script and tiring cumulative impact can take away the sheer joy of seeing something fresh on-screen. The R1 Blu-Ray edition, sadly, features the film and nothing else: for such a visually different film, it would have been interesting to have even a cursory look behind the scenes.
(On DVD, August 2010) Few people in North America have seen this French Science Fiction film: I don’t think ChrysalisChrysalis ends up being in another storyline featuring a mother and her convalescent daughter. It’s less straightforward than the usual near-future action thriller, and quite a bit more stylish as well: Writer/director Julien Leclercq never hesitates to show us conventional scenes in unconventional ways, starting with the cold black-and-blue cinematography. His choices are often effective, especially during two spectacular action sequences: The opening shoot-out opens up with a bang, whereas a later foot-chase sequence starts with a generously long one-shot that is more impressive than fifteen frantic cross-cut. Film students will be pleased to note that the film’s style differs according to the subplot: The police scenes are brutal, whereas the camera lingers calmly in the medical clinic where much of the other half story takes place. Too bad that the inane dialogue often drags on long enough to make us notice the limits of the film’s budget: While the Paris 2025 establishing shot, holo-gadgets and two concept cars are convincing, the film eventually feels constrained… although it’s an eloquent compliment to the design crew that it takes a while before realizing so. Overall, Chrysalis is a pleasant discovery that’s a notch above the usual direct-to-video material. The DVD contains an informative making-of documentary that discusses the film’s action highlights and mentions the cultural challenges in making an “anticipation” film in France (it also mentions the design contribution of Renaissance’s director Christian Volckman). There were a few better SF movies in 2007, but not that many more: SF fans shouldn’t ignore this one.
(On DVD, July 2010) As a follow-up to the first Banlieue 13, this sequel does the expected: Bring back the lead characters to do the same things again in a slightly bigger context, while avoiding messing too much with the formula. It works decently: David Belle and Cyril Raffaelli are just as great as the action heroes of the sequel, and while there’s a little less parkour this time around, the mix is still heavy in good action sequences. Between a martial arts demonstration in which a Van Gogh painting is used (Jackie Chan-style) as a weapon, a chase sequence in which a character makes his way down from a tall building complex, or a video-game-inspired fight featuring the captivating Elodie Yung, Banlieue 13: Ultimatum delivers as an action movie. Director Patrick Alessandrin keeps control of the mixture, and the budget of the piece only shows its limits in a regrettable decision not to show some of the ending explosions. While Luc Besson’s script is its usual mix of ham-fisted populism, sexy misogyny and thin rationales, there’s something intriguing in the way it sets up a multicultural union of interest against staid reactionary “Harriburton” capitalism. There may not be a whole lot of substance to this film, but it’s got its pulse on significant Parisian social issues. Anyone who liked the first film will feel just as satisfied with the sequel. The Region-1 DVD comes complete with a short but enlightening making-of documentary that highlights most of the film’s high action points, and appears to reflect the fun that everyone had in making the picture.
Bantam, 2004, 335 pages, UK#9.99 pb, ISBN 0-593-05453-9
As a French-Canadian, watching England argue with France is a bit like being caught between squabbling parents: No matter if most of my family tree left France back when it still had a king, I just wish both of them would get along. Fortunately, we live at a blessed era in history –one where the enmity between France and England has been reduced to humorous books and snarky blog posts telling us that either Paris or London are overrated.
As it turns out, I spent a bit of spring 2010 comparing the merits of both capital cities, and it’s only after coming back to London from Paris that I found a copy of Stephen Clarke’s A Year in the Merde. This not-entirely-fictional comic novel follows the always-hilarious story of a young Englishman (Paul West) who takes a job in Paris. The narrative of the book follows Paul’s first year in France, as he gets to understand and be further mystified by the French. Various hijinks ensue, always with madcap results and just-as-always caused by characters exemplifying some kind of French flaw. Had I read this book a month earlier, I would have been offended on behalf of France at its stereotyping of the French national character. After coming back from Paris, however, I just find the entire novel spot-on funny.
Surliness, strikes, cheese, corruption and near-constant eroticism are the only constants of Clarke’s novel, but you will find that they’re more than enough to fill three hundred pages. Our plucky Brit hero comes to France to impart some of his Anglo-protestant work ethic, but quickly finds out that it’s no match for ever-striking workers, haughty French waiters, passive-aggressive colleagues and the smouldering sexiness of just about every woman he meets. Clichés? Well, yes. But it doesn’t mean they’re not based on reality.
What really counts is what Clarke chooses to do with them. An idyll with the boss’ daughter leads him to a seemingly perfect country house purchase opportunity which eventually turns sour when it uncovers a complex mess of political influence, back-scratching and outright corruption. A seemingly sweet deal for an apartment (much sex included) blows up spectacularly, leaving him in the street with only a foreign cleaning lady to help him out. He falls sick at the moment there’s a pharmacist’s strike. All of his girlfriends eventually reveal other boyfriends. It just goes on like that. Fortunately, the readers are the net beneficiaries of Paul’s misfortunes, smiling from beginning to end.
Like the best humour books, it zips by at a pace that will make readers wish it had gone on just a bit longer. The prose is amusing, the many characters and bit-players are well-portrayed, and the asides about Paris have a well-worn quality that betrays Clarke’s long experience with the city. How much of the book is true? A bit more than half, says Clarke, although one notices that having spent twelve years in France, he was able to condense a lot of material in just twelve months of hell for his stand-in hero.
As a look at France and Parisians, it’s quite a bit insulting, but also affectionately tongue-in-cheek. Originally written for British readers, A Year in the Merde has since found international success and even, yes, a French translation named God Save la France. (A quick check of the amazon.fr’s user ratings for the book reveal that it’s been received quite a bit better than you’d expect: “sympa et très british” says a sample review.) Call it a must-read for anyone coming back from Paris or on their way there. At the very least, this is one book where it’s a relief if the reality fails to match the fiction.
[March 2011: Follow up Merde Actually is markedly less interesting, in part because it shits gears from one-shot hilarity to ongoing romantic comedy. Romance is one of those genres where “happily ever after” is preferable to all other alternatives, and it’s not quite as amusing to see Paul go through another number of girlfriends in the sequel. The novel, inevitably, doesn’t feel as fresh or compelling as the first one, and it’s easy to feel as if the first book said everything that could be said about France as seen from an Englishman’s perspective. Oh, the writing is accessible and the entire book is amusing… but at a basic and forgettable level. There are now two further novels in the series, but I’m in no hurry to read them. Used book sales will provide… eventually.]