Bruno Dumont’s monumentally titled France takes the director’s search for spiritual transcendence amidst everyday violence into a new zone of satiric melodrama. Having taken a sledgehammer to one of the key national myths in his Jeannette/Jeanne diptych, including an iconoclastic takedown of Dreyer (cinema’s saint, surely), where could he go except France? Armed with a rubber-faced Léa Seydoux, the pair use her image to mock — but never too viciously — the ills of their increasingly technocratic nation.
Seydoux plays France de Meurs, the country’s top TV news anchor. A belovedly empathetic figure who isn’t afraid to ask difficult questions of top brass or leap into the firing line to get the top stories to her viewers, France would appear to be the ideal woman. President Emmanuel Macron illustrates this in the first scene, appearing as a Forrest Gump style cut-in at a press conference to be embarrassed by France’s assertion that he is either “heedless or powerless.”
But the perfect facade of France shows some cracks. Her older husband, Fred (Benjamin Biolay), who has recently published an “essay-novel,” fishes for compliments at dinner and seems uniquely uninterested in France as a sexual or intellectual equal. Their son, Jo (Gaëtan Amiel), is a spoiled brat who appears like Wednesday Addams with a screen addiction. He hints at the generational conflict that Dumont backgrounds in his attempt to capture modern anxiety. While Dumont’s recent films have focused on the political conflict between idealistic youth and harsh adulthood, the character of France represents a middle-ground.
That is, until she drives into the back of a motorcyclist, rear-ending the young man in a nod to Dumont’s Twentynine Palms. The biker, Baptiste (a striking Jawad Zemmar) isn’t too badly injured, but the smell of a scandal is enough to throw France off her game. Baptiste’s parents tell her, “it’s an honor for us” — presumably to see their son mutilated by such a star. There’s a certain Bonfire of the Vanities spin to this, but Seydoux’s Master of the Universe, instead of running from her sins, embraces them as another side of her image that can be exploited. “I’ve never given to charity, so I could give one day to someone else,” she says echoes the liberal-do gooder scam artistry of Kim Kardashian’s Black Lives Matter posing, or any number of personalities getting ahead of an issue with their own wellness-driven stories.
France, it seems, is unable to have an emotional breakthrough unless it’s on camera. And even so, this film still asserts the dominance of TV news over social media and the Internet. The latter is only mentioned as something you shouldn’t go on, and through the presence of smartphone cameras. An on-air debate with a politician results in him calling her a hypocritical demagogue, saying “We both want numbers.” If that wasn’t enough, he calls her, “useful but pretty.” She soon leaves the business, but can’t get away from her own celebrity image. She cries when she volunteers at a soup kitchen, deservedly getting mocked by the homeless guys just there to pick up an apple. Soon, she’s in a rehab center in the Swiss Alps, and on and on the film winds through France’s journey of self-discovery. She is looking for God, but it’s hard when your image is everywhere, and you are literally France. At this point, France falls into cliched self-pity, and at such a slow pace, too.
Much of Dumont’s recent output has been set outdoors, amidst wide-open countryside and overgrown bushes. When, in Joan of Arc, we cut inside the Gothic hugeness of Rouen Cathedral, it registered as a shock. With France, the opposite is true. While the marble interiors and mock-Renaissance furniture of France’s home are putrescent, scenes in the Élysée Palace show the real thing as just part of the desecrated national furniture — entirely unremarkable. The classicism means no more than the garish colors of TV-studio scenes, which really capture the French broadcasting style from the guests’ slim turtlenecks to the huge backgrounds that blow up France to the size of the Almighty. It’s only in a key outdoor scene, when Dumont indulges in drone photography of the Mediterranean coast, that characters manage to be sufficiently blown away by the scale of the world around them. And then, nature wrecks its judgement.
In scenes of France on the job, starstruck anti-ISIS loyalists fighters take direction for a news segment in Niger. We see France visit a bombed-out city to manipulate more footage, before Dumont cuts to a nearby resort, where bomb smoke is hidden by palm trees, and some shoot their reports by the pool. The best of this thread, which illustrates France’s — both character and country — control of her image, comes during an extended migrant boat sequence. France and her crew fake a Mediterranean crossing with migrants: They hold up the lifeboat’s departure so they can get the right shot, just before Dumont reveals that her press boat is alongside it, so she can sleep in complete safety “from lice.” When the coast guard arrives, the crew jumps back onto the migrant boat, and then capture her being the first person taken off by the authorities, flashing a big grin.
The cynicism of these scenes undercuts whatever genuine soul searching France is going through. When she returns home, France and her assistant-cum-best friend Lou (Blanche Gardin) manipulate the footage further. Whatever France has been through, it’s just a way to constantly reinvent herself. Coming from Dumont, a director who seems to predict the violence and terror of culture that is always soon to the fore, this verdict on the country’s exploitative reactions to the catastrophes of the Global South as a tool for white self-actualization, is cutting.
France also makes for the best star vehicle Léa Seydoux has had thus far, as she’s often given the short shrift, confined to supporting roles. Here, her deadpan allows her to lurch between comic vulnerability and vast emotion. She turns this shaggy-dog story into something approaching high melodrama. Dumont’s shift across the last decade into outright absurdity, and his exuberant mistrust of form, is grounded by Seydoux’s star persona. “I love you France,” yells a reporter at one point, with the Eiffel Tower winking in the background. Dumont’s ideas may suffer from a lack of coherence, but in their abundance, France cuts straight to the bone.
Writer: Ben Flanagan
The True History of the Kelly Gang was something of a homecoming for Justin Kurzel after his Hollywood adventure curdled with Assassin’s Creed. With his latest, Nitram, he returns to the more specific roots of his debut Snowtown, making another dubious exploration into real-life Australian tragedy. This time it’s the 1996 Port Arthur massacre which took the lives of 35 people and led to Australia enacting stricter gun laws with speed unthinkable to an American. Caleb Landry Jones gives a histrionic performance as the shooter, Martin Bryant, but you won’t hear that name in the film. Nitram takes its title from a childhood name flung at Martin, a backwards spelling of his name to suggest, well, that he’s a backwards person. Nitram is the only name used for him in the film and even the requisite docudrama text at the movie’s end refers to him only as “a lone gunman.” It’s a purposeful absence, perhaps an attempt to neuter Bryant’s reported desire for infamy by leaving his name out. If that’s the case, it’s a limp-dicked thought experiment, a film interested only in the personal, shallowly seeking to get inside the head of a killer.
Thus Nitram follows the troubled boy through the years leading up to the massacre. His mother (Judy Davis) makes few allowances for her son’s mental illness, likely because she suspects the evil he’s capable of. He’s closer with his father (Anthony LaPaglia), a man who wants to buy a bed and breakfast to run with his son. Years pass and dominos fall, tearing what little human connection Martin has — like wealthy friend Helen (Essie Davis) — away from him. Aside from a few scenes displaying just how lax Australian gun laws were in the ’90s, Kurzel offers nothing in the way of institutional critique; he follows his curiosity only to a baseline understanding of mental illness and interpersonal relationships. Whatever the intent of following this murderer, the resulting film lands somewhere between gawking at the man and humanizing him, banging its head against pathology in a hollow search for answers that are not there. Nothing especially enlightening is gained from watching Caleb Landry Jones play-act the deteriorating mental state of a mass murderer. There’s nothing in Nitram that can’t be gleaned from reading the killer’s Wikipedia page. The difference is Wikipedia actually bothers to list the names of his victims.
This, really, is what rankles most about Nitram. It’s beside the point to remark that Kurzel still seems a solid filmmaker or that the film’s two Davises, Essie and Judy, are especially compelling screen presences who steal the whole film with one conversation. The worst true-crime media often ignores the lives and even names of victims in favor of telling the stories of murderers to dubious ends. Kurzel strips the killer of his name and does the same to his victims, pulling real tragedy to the point of abstraction and turning Nitram into the worst sort of armchair investigation: one that myopically seeks to understand the incomprehensible, reopening wounds it doesn’t bother to heal..
Writer: Chris Mello
It feels churlish to criticize Shlomi Elkabetz’s Black Notebooks project, a deeply personal documentary that’s part travelogue, part diary entry, and part remembrance for his deceased sister, the great Israeli actress and filmmaker Ronit Elkabetz. Presented in discrete halves, Part 1: Viviane and Part 2: Ronit, Shlomi is attempting a lot of different things with this unwieldy magnum opus. They are distinct films that combine into something less than the sum of their parts. Whatever its cathartic value for the filmmaker, Part 1 is barely comprehensible as a piece of cinema: It careens wildly through different discursive modes and home video footage, accumulating into a mountain of half-thought-out ideas and only intermittently interesting behind-the-scenes footage. This might be the very definition of a “for fans only” affair.
Shlomi and Ronit are best known for co-writing and co-directing a trilogy of films featuring the character Viviane Amsalem (played by Ronit) as she navigates two decades of marital and familial strife in Haifa. Of the three films — To Take a Wife (2004), Seven Days (2008), & Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2015) — the first two are repeatedly referenced in Part 1, as Shlomi weaves an interconnected tapestry that juxtaposes their fictional characters and narrative scenarios with the real life family members that inspired them. It’s a fine idea, particularly with regards to To Take a Wife, which by all accounts is inspired by Shlomi and Ronit’s actual parents and is, therefore, the most beholden to specific biographical facts. But this is only a small piece of what Part 1 is trying to accomplish, and it speeds through ideas as quickly as it introduces them. Interspersed with this vague auto-fiction are reams of interminable diaristic footage from a variety of sources: camcorders, cell phones, and outmoded digital video jumble together into a pixelated mush of street scenes, film premiers, off-the-cuff interviews, and other uninteresting ephemera. Running nearly two hours long, Part 1 is loosely structured around chapter headings like “mother” and “father,” although both parents appear throughout every section, rendering the labels mostly pointless.
Shlomi eventually finds a groove of sorts. It wouldn’t be accurate to call the film “organized,” at least not in any traditional sense, but certain motifs begin to emerge, the most successful of which focus on Ronit. She’s the film’s most valuable asset, commanding the screen whenever she appears. But even here Shlomi includes all manner of inconsequential footage, like a brief scene where Ronit is on the phone discussing taxes with an unseen friend. Still, we get some sense of her inner life beyond her frequently intense and/or stoic screen roles. She’s quite open to being constantly filmed, and talks freely of her conflicting ideas on marriage and motherhood, strife with her own mother, and her many roles. There’s a great moment where she reminisces about dressing up and sneaking out to a club as a teenager, only to run into one of her school teachers. There’s also remarkable footage of her taking film critics to task on a news talk show, suggesting that middle-aged men who have never been married have no business questioning the validity of her Viviane Amsalem role. An unsympathetic anchor tries to rein Ronit in but she’s having none of it, raising her voice and gesticulating wildly in passionate defense of her work. The film could use more of this kind of archival footage, which illuminates both the person and their art. Instead, we get strange interludes of Shlomi traversing urban spaces, traveling via train and car, listening to a critics roundtable that’s discussing the siblings’ films, and lots of scenes of their mom and dad. The parents reminisce about the past, and while there are bits and pieces of interesting family drama, there’s even more bickering. Shlomi seems to find it endearing, or somehow revealing of the family’s dynamic, but much of it feels like it could be excised without altering the film’s impact in any way.
Part 2: Ronit, narrows its focus considerably, and to dramatically improved results. While Part 1 gets lost in a thicket of self-reflexivity, Part 2 focuses entirely on Ronit and the illness that leads to her untimely death at only 51 years old. Here, Shlomi constructs the entire film around the shooting of Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. Ronit is exhausted, both co-directing and starring in the film while caring for two small children at home. She and Shlomi butt heads, arguing about when to wrap up the day so that she can return to her kids. To his credit, Shlomi leaves in footage of himself being less than generous, trying to cajole Ronit into staying later and encouraging her to push herself further for the sake of their art. In voiceover, Shlomi questions his own actions, admitting that he had no idea that Ronit was suffering from the early stages of lung cancer while wondering if she herself was even aware of the impending diagnosis. We don’t see the moment when she finds out about her illness — only the long, slow trajectory of her treatment. It’s heartbreaking stuff, the simplicity of the form heightening the emotional heft of the proceedings. Gone are the pretentious obfuscations of Part 1, replaced by straightforward documentation of a loved one gradually succumbing to cancer. It’s hardly a joyless affair, however; Ronit maintains her dignity and sense of humor throughout, even turning a wig-fitting session into a chance to playact and goof around with her brother. The film’s elliptical ending does not address Ronit’s death directly; indeed, if one was unaware of her passing there’s no real indication of it here. But there’s a melancholic sense of an ending nonetheless, of a chapter coming to a close.
Taken altogether, this Black Notebooks project feels like something Shlomi needed to get out of his system, a therapeutic device to deal with the emotional distress caused by Ronit’s passing. There’s a certain bravery in choosing to share this with an audience, but also a misplaced hubris in assuming an inherent interest in such a massive personal project. One could argue that the significantly less successful Part 1 adds some depth and heft to Part 2, but the project’s cumulative three-and-a-half-hour runtime is an awful lot to demand of an audience. Most people don’t share the scribblings in their journals for a reason. Still, the graceful documentation of Ronit’s final months reminds us that Shomi can be a gifted filmmaker, and Part 2 honors his sister and her work admirably.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Freda, the Creole-language narrative feature debut of actor-director Gessica Généus, is a film that hinges on a dilemma, a fraught existential crisis demanding resolution: whether to flee a country and renounce an identity, during their uneasy metamorphoses, or to stay and evolve in conjunction. Anthropology student Freda (Néhémie Bastien) lives in Port-au-Prince, working her family’s grocery store; her artist boyfriend Yeshua (Juancito Jean) wants her to leave with him for the Dominican Republic, where life, he thinks, will be easier. An evocative portrait of family foregrounds and exemplifies the Haiti of 2018, its vividly personal scope contextualized within and projected onto a nation’s political zeitgeist, of a young and imminent generation radicalized through economic and cultural stagnation. Filmed in the tumultuous present, Freda is a small miracle in itself, capturing a space of compelling immediacy through its interrogation of a national identity that continues to bear the traces of its violent colonial legacy.
Left by the French in their wake, this legacy endures in places large and small, more recent and ravaging than the world would let on. After its independence in 1804, Haiti continued to service the colonial coffers for over a century with the modern equivalent of USD 21 billion, forcibly making up for property — slaves, plantations — considered “lost” to the French; even in emancipation, exploitation remains in full swing. The white man’s influence extends to Haiti’s culture as well: Freda’s younger sister Esther (Djanaïna François) bleaches her skin and straightens her hair to fit a beauty standard not her own, desiring her body less than she does the desire that men project onto it. The scars of these historical incursions have not quite healed, their anxieties transmitted between kin, across generations. Much like the anger Freda feels for her mother when she feels helpless against the seismic violence around them, the reverse holds equally true: mothers warn daughters of the world they will inherit, a burden that will, some distant day in the future, be lifted off their shoulders. And lift the daughters shall. Despite the label of luxury placed upon the prospect of good education, it nonetheless remains central to the lives of youths, igniting impassioned discussions of and for their future, a vision less of the individual and more towards collective realization. What translates to “if we have to cut heads to save our country, then so be it” is scrawled across a classroom board, prompting arguments on what they need most: uncompromising revolt or democratic change. Even when the professor tries to pivot the debate away from the former, he receives an angry retort from the students; that they do not seek politics, but it is politics, rather, that seeks them.
It’s not uncommon for a film that approaches something so expansive with the intimacy of a familial and individual setting to become hobbled by the latter’s myopic scope, but Généus generally sidesteps this pitfall through a keenly aware engagement of the political. Conversations on generational traits and contradictions are set at eye-level, democratizing its headspace for a viewer whose engagement is predicated on their acknowledgement of these concerns. A protest sequence, shot with a free documentative hand, acquires just as much weight as Freda’s classroom scenes. Likewise, revolutionary sentiment and its attempted silencing never remains tethered to its intellectual and activist nodes; at an art gallery, white tourists comment on the prices of what they deem “just garbage put together”, appreciating the perfunctory beauty of these transformed leftovers but reluctant to recognize their forebears’ complicity in their production. (For Yeshua, these tourists are no better than pirates, pillaging his art for signifiers of a revolutionary end-point but disregarding their contextual nuances altogether.) These direct engagements with the audience comprise the narrative’s firmest sections, while beyond these, some of its quotidian backdrops seem tangential to Freda’s line of activism. Even so, the film rarely loses focus, even in its warmer tinctures; Karine Aulnette’s camera lights up the features of her black women protagonists, visually embodying the core of Généus’ frustratingly authentic history of emancipation. It’s a frustration rooted in both realism and aestheticism, and arguably more convincingly developed in the latter — as the consumption of art in various circles centers around the belief that its inherent value lies less in artistic ingenuity, but more in its cultural capital, that the only way for an outsider to achieve some semblance of breakthrough is to allow their suffering to be exploited. Here, Freda tries to step ahead of its own reception, acknowledging that it might tend to be seen only for its exotic Haitian origins onboard an international stage, and (somewhat overtly) asking to be considered on the terms of its own merit. Even so, it rarely permits commiseration, for lamenting has never discouraged the colonizers; instead, the proceedings refract a celebratory spirit, understanding that this is the best way to articulate and advocate for the nation’s artistic and political future.
Writer: Sarah Williams
From Nouvelle Vague filmmakers like Jacques Demy, Jacques Rivette, and Alain Resnais to a contemporary auteur such as Bruno Dumont, or even the more mainstream-friendly work of Christophe Honoré, French cinema has never been a stranger to the musical. In fact, most of these filmmakers, according to their own singular and ornery styles, have experimented with different aspects and elements of the genre, even to the heights of absolute deconstruction. And despite Leos Carax’s Annette (in collaboration with Sparks) positioning itself as one of the main attractions of the year, it’s not the only French musical production coming out of the 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Arnaud & Jean-Marie Larrieu’s Tralala also attempts to stake out territory within this once-popular genre, and it pretty obviously intends to mess with every basic constituent of both the form and the viewers’ expectations in a most peculiar and subversive manner. The film follows its eponymous character, Tralala (Mathieu Amalric), a Christ-like Parisian hobo busker replete with shaggy grey hair, a scraggly beard, and a generally haggard appearance. He roams freely through the city’s streets, playing his electric guitar and singing his quirkily amateurish and cheesy songs, and Tralala too adopts this jaunty mood and blithe spirit. Early on, in the film’s first part — this before the modern-day troubadour unexpectedly runs into a young, lovely woman named Virginie (Galatéa Bellugi) during one strange evening, and also before he heads to Lourdes (the Pyrenean hometown of the directorial duo, and a major site of Roman Catholic pilgrimage and of miraculous healings, where the Virgin Mary even appeared to Saint Bernadette, according to believers) — the film revels in a certain kinetic rhythm and flaneurial quality, as Tralala is seen almost constantly on the move.
After that, Tralala soon finds himself in the bewitching streets of Lourdes — its charm and grace perfectly captured through the Larrieus’ crystalline and very slick imagery — in search of his dreamy muse/Madonna. Later, the homeless musician is mistakenly welcomed as the revenant dead son of a hotel matron (Josiane Balasko), and in this misunderstanding he discovers a sense of belonging, being respected and cherished, and also gains a new family of his own — a hunky brother (Bertrand Belin), two goofy rapper nephews, and even a pair of old-flame lovers (played by Mélanie Thierry and Maïwenn), among others (including the cameo presence of Denis Lavant, as Tralala’s bully rival busker). As a result, the film’s pacing, much like its imposter protagonist, becomes more grounded in the easy leisure of the film’s time and place, and it leads to more staging-oriented, choreographed scenes. But despite all of this, the film still functions more deliberately as a plotless stream of random encounters, events, and situations. Indeed, more than anything else, Tralala is perhaps most comparable to an unusual visual album, and as such, the Larrieu brothers’ film can be most appreciated as an unabashed, absurdist madcap satire, or even one of the craziest, cringiest comedies one can dream up, at least in recent years (the closest, quickest comparisons that jump to mind are Dumont’s recent musicals), its odd physical appearances, frequent subtle gestures, and the awkward, sudden pauses of the performers of immediate importance. It’s evident that Tralala strives for a mix of both offbeat and upbeat traits, sketches, and ideas, its bold take ensuring that these bits can frequently, repetitively fall flat, but can just as quickly rebound into exciting, mirthful, or even heartfelt moments.
Filled as much with head-scratching religious and metaphysical symbolism as it is obvious reference to our social condition in proximity to the catastrophic Covid-era — as we see, masked passersby are everywhere — what gives Tralala its unique, beguiling quality, then, is the way it’s gilded in the generic, fictional glamour of classical musicals, and yet still succeeds in handling its more documentary dimensions. But if there’s anything that can be easily intuited in this guerrilla-style musical, it lies in the broader existential and identity-related crises of our time that the Larrieu brothers, even if ultra-ironically, illuminate; that very meta-condition of constant role-shifting wherein the individual can be utterly stripped of authentic identity, to the point even of possessing no real name. The film acknowledges the preordainment to keep on living, even if in the most chaotic and hilariously meaningless contexts, ones that can seem to be excessively governed by ecclesiastical and capitalistic discourses. Put differently, Tralala is a situational comedy about both the necessities and inevitabilities of tuning oneself into the most out-of-tune conditions and circumstances. It’s no surprise then that during their first encounter, Virginie admonishes Tralala: “Above all, do not be yourself.” While, speaking of the film itself, as fanciful and schismatic as it is, the Larrieu brothers, in stark contrast to this early advice, unapologetically stick to what they do best: being 100% themselves.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan
Partway through alleged French comedy Bloody Oranges is an epigraph from Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci (yes, I had to look him up). It reads, “The old world is dying, the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” That was probably both penetrating and prescient in 1937 when he wrote it in his prison cell, but it just comes off as smug when tossed into this glib little attempt at satirizing The Way We Live Now, the kind of thing that Really Makes You Think. The film exists only to comfort an audience, to let them know that they’re smart for getting the point — something that absolutely should not happen in something that’s clearly meant to be a provocation.
Bloody Oranges begins by stitching together various story threads. An elderly couple, faced with imminent financial ruin, needs to win a dance contest for the prize money. A crooked politician pushing economic austerity is actually hoarding cash in offshore accounts. A young lawyer tries to climb the social ladder while dealing with his parents (guess who). And a young woman is abducted and assaulted after losing her virginity to her boyfriend. After the aforementioned epigraph, the film makes a soft turn into slightly more absurdist territory, but never registers more than a few empty, obvious shocks. Its thin attempts at cringe absurdist comedy seem very timid, as if things like detailed discussions of sex (such as a scene during a rather frank gynecological exam) or class mockery (as in a bit where a privileged woman has an aggrieved meltdown) are somehow anathema to French cinema. The violence is equally flaccid — a climactic moment of revenge couldn’t be more cliched — and while the sexual violation of a male character is played for squeamish laughs, the rape of a female character tastefully unfolds off-screen for maximum “unpleasantness.” What a scam.
Comparisons will range from the heavy non-sequitur of Quentin Dupieux all the way to the glowering scold of Michael Haneke, but the truth is that director Jean-Christophe Meurisse has concocted a completely predictable (and predictably bland) formula here. As character connections you know are coming get cleared up, and various intersections and coincidences accumulate, you’re left with nothing but what might pass for a late ’90s Tarantino knockoff with a stab at self-consciously finger-wagging political window dressing.
Writer: Matt Lynch