(In French, On TV, November 2016) For a French-Canadian cinephile, there’s something both familiar and slightly exotic to La Haine, given how similar it is to American ghetto movies … while taking place entirely in French, or at least a lowbrow European version of it (thanks for subtitles!) An early film from Matthieu Kassowitz featuring Vincent Cassel, La Haine is a no-budget cry from the heart detailing a fateful day in the life of three disaffected Parisian teenagers as racial tensions surround them. Things go ugly quickly, as they are wont to do in this kind of film. Shot in stark black-and-white and featuring an even harsher punk soundtrack, La Haine is about urban alienation and it is not meant to be pretty. (There’s even a scene in which our three uncouth protagonist crash a sophisticated art show … and it doesn’t turn out well.) It’s not meant to be a pleasant or enjoyable film—more akin to a mirror showing back imperfections without comforting lies. Intriguingly seen paired with similar American inner-ghetto films, La Haine remains a striking document of a French social problem that has never quite gone away since then.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) The moment any modern thriller brings in hypnosis as a plot device, it’s time to sit down and expect a tortured maze of plot twists. Trance is no exception: if the title wasn’t enough, it’s clear that we’re in for a warped psychological thriller as soon as our lead character is coerced into seeing a hypnotherapist in order to recall what he has done with a precious stolen painting. At that point, forget about notions of protagonist, antagonist, aggressor or victim, because the script seems determined to twist everything in sight. In the apt hands of director Danny Boyle, this turns into a visually trippy wringer in which nothing is as it seems. As you can expect, this is as far away from a comforting experience as can be, and Trance becomes a film best appreciated by jaded thriller fans who don’t mind massive incoherencies as long as the usual conventions are upended. In this film, the human mind can be infinitely re-programmed, identities shed at the touch of a voice and grudges extended over years of dormancy. It’s strictly genre fare (although there is a good monologue about the nature of ourselves as the sum of our memories), executed professionally and wrapped up with an unsettling bow. As the conflicted lead character, James McAvoy continues to become more and more interesting as an actor. Meanwhile, though, Rosario Dawson eventually steals the entire show with a showy role, while Vincent Cassel unexpectedly comes to play against type by the end of the film. Trance isn’t particularly pleasant, but it holds attention until the end… which isn’t too bad for a heist thriller.
(In theaters, December 2010) The difference between genre horror and “psychological drama” is often that in the latter case, much of the monsters can be explained away by the narrator being completely crazy. That’s certainly one plausible interpretation for Black Swan: In this high-class horror film, a ballerina driven mad by the pressures of performing the lead role in Swan Lake gradually lets themes of repression, doppelgangers and mirror images get the better of her. It doesn’t end well… or does it? This murky conclusion is only one of the ways in which Black Swan acts as a companion to director Darren Aronofsky’s previous The Wrestler: Same grainy flat cinematography, same fascination for the psychological impact of intense passion, same look at a performance-driven sub-culture. Visually, Black Swan looks ugly (with exceptions whenever the performers are on-stage), but it constantly reinforces the visual themes of opposite doubles: the grainy super-16mm cinematography has enough depth to sustain a film-school paper. It also strips all glossy moviemaking glamour away from Nathalie Portman’s mesmerizing lead performance, instantly credible as a ballerina with enough issues to sustain a film’s worth of delusions. Mila Kunis also acquits herself honourably in her third significant role of 2010, whereas Vincent Cassel is as deliciously slimy as ever. But the star here remains Portman, and if Black Swan works, it’s largely because of her dedication to her craft. As for the ending, well, it grows with time: If, initially, it seems as if the film stops about thirty seconds and a coroner’s report too soon, it also fully commits itself to its unreliable narrator, and eventually lends itself to about three interpretations spanning the entire length of the genre horror / psychological drama spectrum. Aronofsky may never direct a comedy, but his dramas are growing ever-more finely tuned to their subject, and viewers may as well endure the ride.