A long pursued passion project, Arnaud Desplechin’s latest picture adapts Philip Roth’s 1990 slippery, erotic novel, Deception, into cinematic form for the first time. The late Jewish-American writer’s work has defined the contemporary U.S. literature canon extensively, and yet, few have really figured how to translate him to the screen, with much of his hefty bibliography unadapted, and, for the few that were, generally underwhelming. Though Roth has confounded the likes of Robert Benton and Ewan McGregor, Desplechin is an ideal match for his material, both artists fond of indulging convoluted narrative structures, mischievous autofiction, and a paralleling of the romantic and conspiratorial.
Up till now, Desplechin has largely kept to telling bits and pieces of his own (heavily dramatized) autobiography via onscreen avatars Paul Dédalus and Ismaël Vuillard (both played by Mathieu Amalric) for over two decades now, with the exception of his masterpiece Esther Kahn, an adaptation of an obscure Arthur Symons short story. Lacking that film’s warmth and directness, Deception ultimately has more in common with Desplechin’s most recent films — Dédalus adventure My Golden Days, and Ismaël’s Ghosts; both literarily-minded in their own right and beguiled by the point at which the line between artist and persona begins to lose definition. Notable as the first novel in which Roth uses his own name instead of ascribing the perspective to barely fictionalized stand-in Nathan Zuckerman, Deception finds a faithful recounting in its filmic adaptation, built from a series of discussions between the author (Denis Podalydès) and his younger British mistress (Léa Seydoux). Taking place immediately before and after sex, the conversations between these two ex-pat lovers are flowery yet inert, Seydoux’s mistress commanding the scenes through voiceover with Roth relegated to the position of participant, the two spending the majority of their time together commiserating over their failing marriages. Deception breaks up these dialogues with chapters following Roth’s relationship with former paramours, in particular, Rosalie (Emmanuelle Devos), who reconnects with him as she begins cancer treatment, their shared history and the severity of her illness initiating an uneasy social dynamic for the passively selfish writer.
A trying watch for much of the runtime, as a result, Deception rewards its patient audience eventually, the detached approach to chronicling Roth’s morally dubious behavior undercut by a pivotal scene with his wife (Anouk Grinberg) where Podalydès’ performance turns explosive, and it suddenly becomes unclear what the “deception” of the title exactly refers to. Desplechin pulled off a similar trick in My Golden Days, both films concerning the biases of The Author and autobiography as a deceitful practice, but while that film did so with a verve and wit missing here, Deception settles for a dry and oppositional experience lacking the goofiness (some unexpected irises at least) that sets its director’s best work apart from his contemporaries (though it nonetheless serves as an effective and knowing take on Roth — much better than what we usually get). On paper, adapting Roth’s persona-blurring text as a means of further exploring his own thematic interest in self-invention reads as prime, loopy material for Desplechin to further his perpetual self-mythologizing, but Deception is frustratingly staid, only occasionally capturing the spark of his more “personal” output.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Ripples of Life
What’s more hip than mimicking the particular, diffuse, long-take formalism favored by many of the most acclaimed filmmakers in Asia today? How about having your characters (all film students, filmmakers, and hangers-on name-checking Hou Hsiao-hsien and, foolishly given the specific context, Hong Sang-soo) come off like pretentious hacks, thereby signifying self-awareness and even self-deprecation embedded in what has been billed as a loosely autobiographical film? Such seemed to be the stratagem that new generation Chinese director Wei Shujun utilized for his first feature debut, last year’s Striding Into the Wind — and so for all its insight into the soul-deadening, glad-handing, hierarchical rigidity of Chinese independent filmmaking, it became hard to shake off the feeling that Wei’s slack pacing and reliance on compositionally generic master shots weren’t merely an earnest bit of posturing, especially as this aesthetic tends to sap the dynamism out of some of his more sharply written scenes.
All that changes with Ripples of Life: Wei’s second two hour-plus feature in as many years shares a lot of the industry-centric subject matter as his first, but it also more decisively differentiates its own ambitions from those of the director’s (still apparent) influences. The result impresses both as a vital piece of social commentary and a formidably executed feat of high-concept filmmaking. One strong example of Wei’s improvement is found in the clever construction of the film’s narrative, which sheds the slacker ethos that guided Striding Into the Wind together with its wayward Wei surrogate, shifting its focus among three main characters instead, each confined to distinct and largely non-overlapping storylines as they come to grips with their own respective ‘roles’ on the set of a film — itself titled Ripples of Life — over the course of a few days on location in a small town, just prior to the start of production.
The first narrative follows Xiao Gu (Huang Miyi, a deadringer for a young Zhou Xun, by the way), a restaurateur and native resident of the town in which the film-within-a-film is set to shoot whose diligent catering to the crew gradually earns her a place in front of the cameras — an opportunity far outside the boundaries of her simple homelife. The second story revolves around this meta-Ripples of Life’s lead actress, Chen Chen (Yang Zishan), arriving by escort from the city but actually a native of the town; she left to pursue her career and, now that she’s returned, seeks to reconnect with old friends, only to find that those relationships are now mired in the kinds of expectations that are generated by her newfound fame. Finally, for the most rewarding section of Wei’s film, we hunker down with the film-within-a-film’s director (Liu Yang) and its screenwriter (Kang Chunlei, who is also the actual screenwriter of Wei’s film) for an extended verbal sparring match that encompasses filmmaking ethics and the struggle for artistic integrity, as well as both the self-serving pretensions and commercial compromises that can frequently serve as pitfalls of independent filmmaking.
This concluding section of Ripples of Life is not only the best stretch of the film; it also serves to reframe the previous two parts and expands the scope of what Wei is going for here: not just a meta-commentary on, or acerbic satire of, the Chinese filmmaking industry, but a more stinging addressing of the realities of social (im)mobility, with the partitioning of ‘roles’ on a film as analogue for particular disparities of class. That might seem a little too on the nose, but its last few sequences push things further, acknowledging the ultimate insignificance of its own micro-focuses as it deliberately broadens out beyond the scope of its film-centric narrative, referencing a specific real-life event that, indeed, extends even beyond the borders of China itself. A final montage returns us to each of the main characters, glimpsed in their more intimate moments outside the film production’s narrative, all leading up to the first day of filming. The crew smiles for a group photograph, and Wei cuts to black — a final suggestion that the importance of film lies less in experiencing the work itself than feeling its reverberations, the opportunities it provides to reflect on the meaning in our own lives.
Writer: Sam C. Mac
It’s a shame that The Braves didn’t keep its French title Entre Les Vagues (Between the Waves) for its worldwide release. Between the Waves is not just the heart of its powerhouse coda, but a neat metaphor for how the film tackles such heavy subject matter and feels so fleet, ebullient, and exhilarating. This is a story of two friends navigating a path through a tumultuous storm of events, and when the dramatic waves crest, director Anaïs Volpé commands her ship with the flair and vivacity reminiscent of the fireworks sequence from Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge. Part of Volpé’s arsenal, alongside her playful experimental streak (her first feature HEIS: Chroniques was accompanied by multimedia pop-up exhibitions), is her secret weapon in DP Sean Price Williams whose resume packs a wallop when it comes to frenetic filmmaking — just think of the way he captured the controlled chaos in Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, or the panic-attack framing of the Safdies’ Good Time. While The Braves is by no means perfect, its infectious energy, combined with the dynamite leads, gives it an irresistible feel.
Alma and Margot are inseparable friends in their 20s dreaming of acting fame and glory. Things seem downright star-aligned when pulling a stunt at an audition lands them the roles of lead and understudy in an avant-garde theater production. However, they quickly get thrown into chaos when Alma falls ill, forcing Margot to assume her best friend’s role. While much of the plot feels a little by-the-numbers and predictable at times, one of its most interesting dimensions is how grounded and naturalistic the central friendship is. You might anticipate that the two would turn on each other in the second act only to inevitably reconcile by the third, but the dynamic Volpé sets up feels much deeper, warmer, and more substantial than some of the naturally surfacing clichés. Of course, the entire film hinges on the two central performances, which Déborah Lukumuena (Alma) and Souheila Yacoub (Margot) handily deliver.
You might remember Lukumuena as part of another inseparable duo in Houda Benyamina’s Camera d’Or winning Divines, and Yacoub, from her unforgettable snow crawl in Gaspar Noé’s Climax. Lukumuena’s Alma bursts with dialed-up charisma, a magnetic presence pulling focus in every scene she’s in, and with talent this obvious, it begs the question of why this brilliant Black actress finds herself consistently sidelined to spotlight her lighter-skinned co-stars, both here and in Divines. Watching these two films back to back creates an uneasy effect given the striking similarity of Lukumuena’s character trajectories: the best friend whose suffering forms a catalyst for the protagonist’s emotional growth. To be clear, this says less about the individual works, given both characters have a good measure of agency, nuance, and depth, but taking a zoomed-out look at the casting does reflect the quiet pervasiveness of colorism in the industry even in its bolder independent sector. At the very least, The Braves tacitly acknowledges Alma’s, and thereby Lukumuena’s, talents, as she is the one who is cast as the lead, with Margot as the understudy who later finds herself struggling to fill her friend’s shoes. That said, Yacoub is by no means a slouch, and Margot’s careening emotional intensity forms the backbone of the film’s second half and ultimately drives it home.
If The Braves’ weakness comes from its somewhat predictable structure, its strength remains in the affectionate friendship of the leads and the textured editing which entwines the women’s lives with the nostalgic yearnings of the play they’re cast in. One of the more memorable sequences comes early on, when the two celebrate by crashing a random wedding, Margot propping up the drunk bride while Alma brandishes a trumpet stolen from the band. Some breakneck editing and vivacious camerawork capture the night in a manic carousel of sound and image with the blurred edges of a half-remembered memory, a nostalgia for the now. The effectiveness of sparkling moments like this helps keep the film effervescent even as it loads up on emotional ballast, a quality which by the end allows it to achieve that rare type of uplift that feels earned as opposed to the cloying artificiality that has waterlogged so many other “feel-good” films before it.
Writer: Igor Fishman
Bonne mère, the second feature from actress and writer-director Hafsia Herzi, locates itself in the city of Marseille. Once known for its wealth and grandeur, it is now more famous for its steadily rising crime rates and economically depressed population, embodied here by one lone family desperately trying to make ends meet. Mother Nora (Halima Benhamed) works full time for the local airport as a cleaner, while also serving as caretaker to an elderly neighbor. She has two grown children at home — daughter Sabah (Sabrina Benhamed) and son Amir (Malik Bouchenaf) — as well as a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren, all sharing space in a tiny apartment. Meanwhile, her eldest son, Ellyes (Moura Tahar Boussatha), is incarcerated for an unknown crime and awaiting trial, requiring exorbitant lawyer fees that bleed the family dry.
Bonne mère, whose title roughly translates into English as Good Mother, presents itself as a quiet character study on matriarch Nora, but is more accurately a portrait of a devastated city and the broken system that keeps its citizens as its indebted servants. There is no dreaming of a better life, as the bitter taste of disappointment has already poisoned their palate from birth. Yet, as Herzi makes devastatingly clear, that doesn’t have to cost one the price of their humanity. Nora is in her sixties and seems beaten down by life. She is quiet, never raising her voice above a whisper, even when she is chastising her daughter’s parental skills or passive-aggressively berating her son as she gets down on her hands and knees to clean up his messes. She wakes before dawn each morning to watch the sunrise, a brief moment of tranquility and beauty that she clearly relishes, even as she knows the upcoming day will only bring back-breaking work and a lack of recognition from her family. But she soldiers on, emboldened by her love for both them and her friends and co-workers.
Herzi’s directorial style is best described as observational. Nora is never sanctified or presented as a martyr. She simply exists, and the camera follows her through her trials and tribulations, serving as a silent witness. Nora, her family, her co-workers, even the city itself—all possess an authenticity that feels honest and lived-in. Even when the film ventures into potentially sensationalistic territory, such as daughter Sabah taking a job as a BDSM dominatrix, Herzi keeps to subtlety, never once depicting the actions that are graphically discussed. While the subplot itself seems borderline absurd, a blunt way of underlining just how far these individuals will go for a couple of dollars, there is more going on than meets the eye, as Herzi is undoubtedly aware of the irony that exists in the wealthy upper class paying large sums of money to its destitute citizens in order to punish, humiliate, and, in some instances, sodomize them for their own pleasure. After all, the wealthy have been fucking the underprivileged and working class citizens for years. The fact that Sabah is punished for taking things “too far” with a client is…rich, let’s just say that, and more than a little clever.
Meanwhile, the cast as a whole is uniformly fantastic, feeling like an actual familial unit that has known each other for decades, but it is Halima Benhamed as Nora who proves an absolute revelation, more so for the fact that this is her acting debut. Accompanying daughter Sabrina to her audition, Herzi saw a quiet grace and humility within Halima that she could not shake, with Halima finally accepting the role after multiple requests. The amount — and subtlety — of acting that she manages, even with something as cliche as staring into the distance, is nothing short of remarkable, and when she finally lets down her guard near the film’s end after receiving a gift from her co-workers, the moment feels earned. Good Mother is very good indeed, quietly devastating yet simultaneously life-affirming, and marks Herzi as a rare talent behind the camera. This one deserves to find an audience.
Writer: Steven Warner
Anaïs in Love
A warm, sandy romance harking back to simpler times, Anaïs in Love revels in a simplicity uncommon for (increasingly competitive) debut films. Anaïs Demoustier plays a young woman that shares her name, a woman whom Daniel (Denis Podalydès) falls for; it is Daniel’s wife Émilie (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), however, that enchants Anaïs, and she brings the titular character, in her thirties and on the brink with a past lover, onto the scenic hills of dinner parties and grassy fields. Such begins Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s feature, a light-hearted pastiche of classical cinema interrogating the modern idea of restlessness, of how the archetype of young women not content with the lives set for them has changed since so many years before. Once, these restless girls were the ones who travel, who take many lovers — but Anaïs in Love is smart enough to realize that the same dissatisfaction may well be solved today by simply wanting a lover they can connect with on a deeper level. The two women have a connection Anaïs says she’s struggled to find in her boyfriends, more in common despite a decade-wide age gap. Their relaxed camaraderie goes beyond the simple physicality of a sensual beach scene, and the way the two press each other intellectually not only excites them, but also enlivens their dialogue with a jubilant rhythm.
One of three titles at Cannes this year starring Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Anaïs in Love finds the actress far removed from her shrieking and hysterical persona in La Fracture; her personality here is more inviting, but not without an uneasy edge regarding her uncertain investment in this newfound relationship with Émilie. Her uncertainty translates to a somewhat inconsistent characterization, as Bourgeois-Tacquet can’t quite play her as a cloying manipulator, or place her solely under the loving confines of traditional society (and in the third act, her near-spastic changes of heart prove gratingly abrupt). In contrast, Anaïs has a more clearly defined role — in terms of the romantic motivations which undergird the script — with Demoustier, previously featured in the director’s playfully comedic short Pauline Enslaved, snugly complementing the latter’s brand of breezy dramedy, seemingly born into the role of a naive romantic and befitting a character bounding towards the new love that has awoken her for the first time in years.
The two lovers are Cassavetian archetypes in a Rohmerian landscape: Anaïs the admirer of an artist, and Émilie the woman in stagnation. Onscreen compatibility works wonders here, as the pair make for steady conversation partners, wonder sparkling in their eyes as they discuss just about anything, from Émilie’s writing to childhood teachers. A sort of midlife coming-of-age — at thirty — befalls Anaïs, disrupting her conservative life plans with the impulses of the moment and prioritizing (perhaps a reaction to the shock of her mother’s cancer) fundamental happiness over frustrated promises of it. She’s a lovely bit of character work on Bourgeois-Tacquet’s part, at once humanly flawed and charmingly entertaining. This light romantic drama isn’t packing any heavy weights with its simple “girl meets man, falls for his wife” set-up and loose, conversational story, but it’s precisely this simple languor, refracted through the late summer light, that makes it such an easygoing watch.
Writer: Sarah Williams