Like several films in the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema lineup, Love Affair(s) is a title that was meant to premiere at Cannes 2020, under “The Newcomers” banner (meant to highlight directors of note making their Cannes debuts). Also like other Rendez-Vous offerings, Love Affair(s) is clearly indebted to the work of Eric Rohmer (popular over on the Berlinale slate as well), this film playing around in similar philosophical territory — explorations of love, fidelity, and fate. Though of course, director Emmanuel Mouret is not a simple imitator, but indeed an auteur of some note, critically acclaimed in his home country (this film ended up at #5 on Cahiers du Cinéma’s 2020 top 10, and racked up 13 César nominations) for romantic comedies and dramas (of a Rohmerian texture, naturally) where he often takes the lead role. This seems to be a trademark that Mouret is moving away from at this point in his career — Love Affair(s) is his 11th feature — opting to remain behind the camera as writer/director for both this latest effort and his 2019 period comedy, Lady J. Yet, as implied, Love Affair(s) is otherwise very much in keeping with the filmography Mouret has built for himself thus far — a heady, branching romantic narrative attempting to determine to what degree love is a matter of fate, and to what degree we can consciously will it.
The film’s French title (as translated into English) is The Things We Say, the Things We Do; more poetic than the one chosen for U.S. release perhaps, but one that, in its wispiness, belies the rigorousness of the film’s structure and plotting. The parenthetical of this title works as a cute nod to the complex, looping structure of Love Affair(s)’ screenplay, which begins with a fairly clean dynamic at its center, and ends up complicated through the lead character’s extended flashbacks and tales of heartbreak.
Maxime (Niels Schnieder) and Daphné (Camélia Jordana) are two acquaintances on vacation together, brought to the same beach home by François (Vincent Macaigne), the former’s older cousin and the father of Daphné’s still-gestating baby. François plans on arriving later, so these two end up having ample time to commiserate over their romantic woes, the film transitioning quietly in and out these reminisces, each one drawing new characters and conflict into an increasingly convoluted narrative schema. The memories of Maxime and Daphné also tend to unearth surprising links and parallels between the two, powerful coincidences that put their individual romantic philosophies to the test. The film eventually introduces François too, who brings in details of his own romantic history, which is, of course, also laden with new characters and signs from the cosmos; certainly a daring formal challenge to take on. But there’s no doubt that Mouret maintains his balance underneath the weight of this dense script, the zany plotting providing him with a momentum befitting the intensity of the film’s existential probing. Love Affair(s) is certainly of a familiar French cinematic tradition, but it’s one that Mouret is able to expand upon, crafting a film that carefully considers emotional tumult and embraces the chaos and fickleness of human intimacy.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Following the travails of a middle-aged woman looking for new purpose after the death of her husband, Ludovic Bergery’s Margaux Hartmann is a gentle, unassuming drama featuring a remarkable lead performance by Emmanuelle Béart. Margaux, a relatively reserved, even quiet woman in her late 50s, has decided to attend grad school, studying German while living with her sister-in-law and passively hoping that some new meaning or direction will present itself. Bergery mines some mild discomfort from this older woman frantically scrambling to get to class on time, then finding herself surrounded by students significantly younger than she; although, to the director’s credit, this is never played for cheap comedy or facile empowerment fantasy. Instead, Margaux tentatively makes friends, and even catches the eye of one of her professors (an earthy, laidback Tibo Vandenborre).
Far from any “Margaux gets her groove back” inflection, the film is a largely somber affair, with an autumnal sky casting a gentle gray hue over the proceedings. Margaux begins spending time with a young gay man, Aurelien (Vincent Dedienne), intrigued by his love life and gradually revealing information from her past to him — married at only 20 years old, to an older man, her union was comfortable but sexless for many years before her husband’s death. She tentatively embarks on new romantic adventures, but her awkward attempts at intimacy with the professor don’t go well. She eventually finds carnal attraction with an anonymous man on a dating website, although it too ends poorly. But she perseveres, and Bergery captures her journey with an unobtrusive naturalism, eschewing overt stylization for a more low-key, subtle approach. The camera is tethered to Margaux’s perspective, and Béart ably carries the film. It’s impossible not to at least partially conflate the actress with her role here; after all, it’s no secret that the film industry, in America and abroad, has little use for women over a certain age, and Béart is no longer the sex symbol she once was (which is only to comment on the way age is understood in the industry). Margaux’s journey, embarking on a second chapter of sorts, is Béart’s as well, settling into new kinds of roles that can make use of her considerable skill. Margaux is no neurotic mess, but Béart manages to convey a sense of mild insecurity as she fumbles through new experiences. Not everything is easy, but she, as we all must, perseveres.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
The Big Hit
Having been bestowed the unusual honor of being selected for a 2020 Cannes Film Festival that never was (slotted into a seemingly new “Comedy” section, along with four other titles), Emmanuel Courcol’s The Big Hit (alternatively, Un triomphe) here makes its North American debut. Courcol is more recognizable as an actor in his home country, and likely not recognized at all by American audiences (his previous film, 2016’s Ceasefire, did not receive U.S. distribution), but such metrics aren’t really relevant to The Big Hit, which is ultimately more of a high-concept dramedy than an auteurist undertaking.
Based on a true story, though rewritten to transport the action from ’80s Sweden to contemporary France, the film follows a rudderless, divorced working actor who signs on to teach theatre at a local men’s prison. One might already have an idea of the kind of movie The Big Hit is based on that partial premise alone, and indeed, this film fulfills the promise of its fairly archetypal plot without really ever straying from the anticipated beats (barring two admittedly exciting moments of narrative disruption that save the film from being wholly clichéd). Naturally, the incarcerated men participating in this acting program are initially mischievous and guarded, resistant to earnest expression. Etienne (Kad Merad), the drama teacher, is, of course, a serious instructor with a big heart, yet he’s dissatisfied with the trajectory of his career and the dissolution of his marriage. Over the course of the film, much of this is challenged and subverted, as the unlikely theatre company stages Waiting for Godot — Etienne reasons that if anyone understands the concept of “waiting,” it would be those serving prison sentences — for enthusiastic crowds of wealthy theatre enthusiasts delighted by the novelty of the production.
To its credit, The Big Hit’s screenplay recognizes that there might be something fundamentally exploitative about these stagings, but while it acknowledges the disparity in experience between the director and his actors, the film refuses to ever consider that Etienne’s motivations could be selfish. In its dramatic closing moments, the film’s sympathies are more clearly outlined, but it never ultimately rejects the inherent glibness of its premise (not unlike the Taviani Brother’s overrated Caesar Must Die, a probable influence). Much tedious comedy is made of these “uncultured” characters wrapping their head around Samuel Beckett’s avant-garde dialogue exchanges, a sort of mean-spirited humor pitched as being in good fun. And that’s the crux of The Big Hit’s problem: it often lets us glimpse a more complicated, edged film, one that might be more appropriate for this loaded material, but such glimpses really only end up underlining how painfully shallow this movie is when taken in full.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Perhaps the most unbefitting title to arrive in the middle of a global pandemic, Quentin Dupieux’s Mandibles defies the current for two reasons. That its titular appendage serves a wholly positive function — of cheerful and robust consumption — rather than reflecting the fearful aversion towards its fluid-spewing, germ-spreading orifice that is virtually ubiquitous today might go over most heads. What does stand out, in contrast with the doom and gloom of Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow or the stultifying landscapes of Ben Sharrock’s Limbo (as it were, both are considered unique, though by mere coincidence, to our hopelessly catastrophic climate), is the film’s rollicking disdain for pessimism and constraint. One will be hard-pressed to find anything from this year to top its whimsical chaos and flippant absurdity — traits admittedly suited to the increasingly surreal crises and developments of the world, but which are deployed with an opposite goal in mind.
That goal is success, which in the case of the film’s two dim-witted protagonists, translates to money. Portending untold riches and unending feasts, the prospect of just five hundred dollars spurs best friends Manu and Jean-Gab out of perennial drifting and on to a mission: delivering a mysterious suitcase to a friend’s boss. The contract specifies a car as the mode of transport, so the car-less duo steals a rusty Mercedes which they discover already occupied, by a giant fly in the trunk. Most would balk and run, and only the most ruthless of entrepreneurs would entertain the thought of exploiting the fly for commercial gain; unfortunately, Manu and Jean-Gab fit neither description. They choose the latter option anyway, deferring the inevitable question of profit to concentrate on more immediate concerns — food, lodging, a training regimen for newly christened “Dominique,” and setting fire to their newfound home.
Comic irreverence, a staple of Dupieux’s, works best unrestrained; Mandibles forgoes the rational subtexts of lesser comedies and shoots for what Peter Farrelly’s Dumb and Dumber, also unrestrained but with an unwanted addition of the borderline psychotic, missed. It has its own staples: mistaken identities, unlikely coincidences, dead pets, arguably offensive characterizations (Adèle Exarchopoulos; not a lesbian). But it is another thing altogether to springboard from one to another with the impulsive exuberance reserved for clowns. It’s something Mandibles pulls off tremendously well in an economical 77 minutes — the fly barely flies, and yet the viewer’s jaw already aches from sagging too long at the seeming impossibility of witnessing both the audaciously moronic and masterful. [Originally published as part of Nightstream 2020 — Dispatch 2.]
Writer: Morris Yang
Part of the official selection at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that never was, Spring Blossom sees Suzanne Lindon, daughter of renowned French actors Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain, direct and star in a debut feature about first love. The story revolves around Suzanne (Suzanne Lindon), a sixteen-year-old who longs for more stimulating interaction than she gets from her hedonistic peers, and duly grasps her opportunity when she encounters an older actor named Raphael (Arnaud Valois), whose play has arrived at the local theatre. Although the central relationship here might remind one of Call Me By Your Name, and is in many ways as bourgeois as that film, there’s little that feels passionate or vital about this particular adolescent experience; Suzanne’s infatuation is confined to longing gazes, displays of naivety, and other overfamiliar markers of awkward innocence. Lindon herself is a fresh, unconventional on-screen presence, yet the romance of sorts between the mutually bored couple lacks any dynamism; their exchanges of dialogue are largely mundane and unrevealing. As a portrait of Suzanne’s burgeoning sexuality, Spring Blossom is hardly subtle, but Lindon’s canny direction is frequently distinctive, replete with idiosyncratic flourishes such as when Suzanne and Raphael inexplicably burst into a synchronized dance routine while seated at a cafe. While her use of music to instill mood is at times impulsive, Lindon’s choices are eclectic and appropriate enough, avoiding the distracting, jukebox-style pop songs favored by filmmakers in the early stages of their career (or most of it, in the case of Xavier Dolan). There’s an appealing use of a French version of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” while the titular composition “Spring Blossom” (an original work by Vincent Delerm), makes for a rather lovely motif throughout. Despite France’s low age of consent, the principal characters’ understanding of boundaries helps prevent the romance from feeling too creepy, so it’s a shame that Spring Blossom does feel under-realized on the whole. As Lindon’s first cinematic offering, however, it leaves you somewhat enamored by her individual authorial voice and curious to discover where this fledgling filmmaker’s career is heading. [Originally published as part of TIFF 2020 — Dispatch 4.]
Writer: Calum Reed