Serge Bozon’s follow-up to Madame Hyde (2017), Don Juan seems to continue that film’s revisionist update of a classic tale, while also returning in some fashion to the unorthodox musical genre that La France (2007) so brilliantly embodied. Here, the connection is much more narratively explicit: Laurent (Tahar Rahim), an actor who has been left at the altar by his fellow actor Julie (Virginie Efira), begins to see her face in nearly every woman he meets, before she comes back into his life, acting alongside him in a staging of one of the plays that explores the eponymous character.
From this simple set-up, Bozon instigates a dizzying swirl of scenes and techniques, constantly shifting to fit his screenplay co-written with his partner and fellow filmmaker Axelle Ropert. Initially, it appears as if the film will continue entirely in the absence of Julie: while he waits, Laurent begins interacting with a number of women in turn, each played by Efira in a succession of delightfully absurd wigs and costumes, where the line between his recognition of them as Julie or as a stranger is deliberately hazy. Contrary to the expectations engendered by the title (Laurent isn’t revealed to be an actor until after this first day), his attempts are uneven, fumbling, and often violently rebuffed, utilizing Efira’s fieriness and the hollowed-out obsession in Rahim’s eyes to great effect.
But once Don Juan begins focusing on the play, it becomes much more circumspect while still retaining its galvanizing capacity for surprise. A tight orbit is drawn between disparate characters: the director, the untested actress initially cast in the role that Julie will come to play, a wise old man (Alain Chamfort) who lives in the same hotel as Laurent. These scenes could act well in isolation, each reflecting another part of Laurent’s headspace and his willingness or unwillingness to pair off with people. A drama teacher, also played by Efira, gives a reading of the play that applies precisely to the film at large: neither Don Juan nor the women he seduces are especially interesting in isolation, and so things cannot be viewed separately, or the viewer should not be forced to take one side or the other.
This quality runs throughout Don Juan, nowhere more apparent than when Julie reappears and the two fall back in love. The pas de deux between her and Laurent is literalized by a number of dance poses that they float into during this section of the film, and the director’s decision to stage the play with an open background that leads into the outdoors gives the impression of “reality” bleeding into the play, the two becoming inseparably intertwined just as Laurent and Julie have become, or at least have appeared to.
Despite the use of sung musical moments at crucial junctures, Don Juan is almost a kind of deconstruction of the viewer’s expectations of a musical. Almost all the songs are solos, and yet Bozon has his actors stand almost totally still while his camera is mostly static, an oddly discomforting feeling heightened by the actors’ singing abilities. The three singing actors (Rahim, Efira, and Chamfort) can all hold a note, with Efira perhaps being the strongest, but Rahim, while not bad, does appear to be hesitant at most times, with his songs forming the majority of the film. His strongest musical moments, apart from a duet with Efira, might be the opening, where he moves in time to a piece of music, which is hilariously interrupted many times by a buzzing phone; and a scene at a wedding where people dance exaggeratedly around him.
The musical qualities of Don Juan might come through most forcefully in the strength of Bozon’s direction. Working on digital for the first time and without his usual cinematographer and sister Céline Bozon (the film was shot by Sébastien Buchmann), Bozon frequently shoots his actors just off the center of the frame, creating an angular feeling to many of his shots emphasized by the precise cutting that sharply shifts perspective and location within a scene. The colors are rich and bright here. Where the pastel colors of Madame Hyde served that film’s uncanniness well, the directness of Don Juan demands a bold approach that doesn’t sacrifice intricacy. In the confidence of his direction and the elusive turns of the narrative, Bozon supplies this in spades.
Writer: Ryan Swen
The Worst Ones
The Worst Ones, the debut film from Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret, opens on interviews with the young French people Flemish film director Gabriel (Johan Heldenbergh) has chosen to cast in his new film. That film, which we’re later told is called Pissing in the North Wind, is a story about a pregnant teen and her younger brother living in poverty. And to cast the film, Gabriel is seeking non-professional actors, specifically youth from the Picasso project in Boulogne-Sur-Mer. In one of the interviews — they’re presented intercut with each other — the subject says that people in the neighborhood say that the film is only taking “the worst ones,” that the film will not be representative of the positive aspects of their environment because it will show a stereotypical view populated with kids they see as hoodlums and bad seeds.
Food for thought, maybe, as films dealing with poverty — especially those starring nonprofessionals — are often accused of being misery porn. Certainly Gabriel is guilty of some degree of exploitation. The story he’s telling is, at times, uncomfortably close to the real lives of his child actors, asking them to channel their pain and grief into his art. In one scene of Gabriel’s film, toward the end, the pregnant girl cries with her brother because, due to an unseen prank he pulled, she believed him dead. The actress, Lily (Mallory Wanecque), is still grieving the recent loss of her baby brother to cancer and watching her perform a version of that grief for this man’s probably mediocre movie is sickening. Likewise, Ryan (Timeo Mahaut), who plays the little brother, lives with his sister because his mother has been deemed unfit, and is given to fighting with other boys at school. Gabriel uses this, too, and, in a schoolyard fight scene, he encourages the boys to use their own words to hurt each other until the scene erupts in actual violence. But while Gabriel’s set often verges on exploitation, Akoka and Gueret don’t seem interested in simple indictment of the process, their background working in casting for projects like this allowing for a bit more nuance than easy finger-wagging.
But the neighbors who refer to the film’s cast as “the worst ones” are less concerned with the exploitation of the actors than with that of their own image. They are more concerned with attracting more wealthy residents to the neighborhood than they are the wellbeing of kids like Lily or Ryan who they actively spurn. If anything, the set, for all its questionable ethical practices, provides something of an escape from reality and a new, fulfilling experience for Lily and Ryan. This is especially true when the scope of the set expands outward from the director to include the crew who are more friendly and down to earth with the kids, providing them with more helpful guidance and encouragement. The Worst Ones finds its groove by rejecting both the neighbors’ scorn for these kids and Gabriel’s artistic pity, showing Lily and Ryan in a more varied, lifelike light, unbound by the expectations placed on them by others or a camera. And Wanecque and Mahaut are terrific playing what amounts to a dual role each; they’re easily the best thing about the film.
But as Akoka and Gueret focus on their leads, a few of the other kids disappear into the background, given only flashes of real personality before being dropped entirely. Jessy (Loic Pech) gets the short end of the stick, for as much as Pech works to imbue the character with vulnerability, he comes off as a sexist, homophobic bully, happy to slink back into his group of friends and yell “slut” at Lily. He becomes part of the community that is portrayed as simplistically mean to the stars. The Worst Ones is sensitive, intelligent filmmaking, but its even-handed nature toward both the population of Picasso and Gabriel’s film sometimes feels like an elision of perspective, like it’s walking up to the line but ultimately letting everyone off the hook. The film can subsequently sometimes feel aimless or slight, though there’s no denying that strong performances keep it buoyed as an affecting drama.
Writer: Chris Mello
Return to Seoul
A hurried glance through the plot description of Return to Seoul might lead you to mistake its plot trajectory for the following: a young woman travels to a country she’s never been to in an effort to find her biological parents, processes the difficult encounter over the course of her brief visit, and ultimately returns home forever altered by the experience. The film you’re probably picturing with its facile emotional arc, climactic encounter at its fulcrum, and an elliptical sigh of an epilogue might resemble the backbone of many an indie middlebrow before it, but this is not what Cambodian-French director Davy Chou has brought to the table. This is all to say that like its central heroine, Return to Seoul is unpredictable and flighty, charismatic and cutting, a film that flows from days to weeks to years with such bravado that you start to wonder why more won’t do the same. This particular edge, separating it from the pack, is encapsulated in its original title, All The People I’ll Never Be, which becomes a skeleton key for unlocking its deeper ambiguities. Chou moves past the obvious heart of the matter, the immutable longing for, and alienation from, one’s country of origin, and instead tracks the way these foundational ideas of identity flow and shift across time. The people that our protagonist Freddie will never be include both the unrealized versions of herself that would have grown up in her homeland, as well as the shifting versions of herself that manifest across the film’s runtime.
We first meet the young and headstrong Freddie, short for Frederique, on her arrival in Seoul, a decision made seemingly at random after a canceled flight to Japan, and yet one that fits neatly within her rubric of behavior as quickly outlined early on. Freddie, drinking with two new friends, talks about sight-reading as having to “analyze the music in one glance, evaluate the danger, and jump in,” right as she gets up for a demonstration of the concept, grabbing a bottle of soju, and swiftly maneuvering over to introduce herself to a table of strangers. Chou films this sequence with comparable swagger, as the camera swings alongside Freddie’s movements through the restaurant and an infectious backbeat kicks in. The lesson here is that Freddie is spontaneous, magnetic, and not above fleeing uncomfortable conversations — the subject of her adoption came up right beforehand — with charismatic flourish. It’s astounding to learn that Park Ji-min, who plays her, is an artist who has never acted prior. Park executes this manic balancing act, between Freddie’s intense introspection and her exuberant abandon, with such ease that it’s bewildering, never mind how the natural charm emanating from her mischievous grin has a gravitational pull of its own.
This fearless “jumping in” is the driving force of the plot, leading Freddie — described by her new friends as having “classically Korean features,” yet limited knowledge of the language and culture having grown up in Paris — to turn a spontaneous three-day trip into two weeks, and subsequently into two years. Whether she had always intended, even if subconsciously, to seek out her biological parents is unclear; what matters is the feverish domino effect that leads her to them. This central narrative, based on the experiences of a close friend, is so clearly personal for Chou, who despite not being adopted is the son of Cambodian immigrants to France and had not visited his ancestral homeland of Cambodia until his mid-twenties. Since then, the country has remained pivotal to the films of the young director, from his documentary Golden Slumbers, which sought to revive the memory of the vibrant Cambodian film industry of the sixties, to his first narrative feature Diamond Island, capturing the day-to-day lives of youth in Phnom Penh. Chou outlines the complex interplay of culture and identity as Freddie collides with the more traditional patriarchal household of her biological father and his family. But it’s the final domino, the absence of her biological mother, that guides the tumultuous sequence of events of the second half, arcing across years like an improvised musical passage, and breaking past the tight constraints of lesser scripts, all the while guided by Chou’s steady hand, awash in neon, and tethered to Park’s forthright performance as ballast.
Writer: Igor Fishman
The Natural History of Destruction
Given the ongoing international crisis unfolding in Ukraine, the films of Sergei Loznitsa — born in Belarus but raised in Kiev, and now living in Germany — have taken on a sudden currency as both prophetic warnings and dispatches from a largely unknown culture, at least to most Westerners. With 2010’s My Joy, Loznitsa was diagnosing the sick soul of modern Russia well over a decade ago, while 2018’s Donbass chronicled the dangerous internecine fighting in the region well before most mainstream news media was paying attention. Besides his fiction films, Loznitsa has also been constructing documentaries from restored archival footage for years. It’s here that he best showcases his virtuoso ability to sift through and corral reams of historical footage into opaque, poetic, and harrowing political tracts. Taken all together, it’s a body of work deeply concerned with the horrors of the 20th century, and how those horrors have managed to seep into the 21st. He is, ultimately, performing a pedagogical and ethical service, reconstructing images that don’t want to be seen, or need to be seen in a different way.
Following last year’s Babi Yar: Context, his new film The Natural History of Destruction takes its titles from W.G. Sebald’s collection of essays published under the same name. These writings are primarily concerned with the devastation wrought upon the civilian population of Germany during Allied bombings of major cities toward the end of WWII. In Sebald’s view, it was a profound failure of German literature to deal with the aftermath of these attacks, presumably out of guilt or fear. Loznitsa doesn’t detail any of this in his film; as usual, there are no talking heads or contextualizing infographics. But it’s a necessary framework with which to view his project. Organized linearly, like a narrative, Loznitsa shows footage of German people going about their everyday lives, before then moving into a long sequence of armament manufacturing and then nightmarish nighttime air raids. There’s footage of the aftermath, then another sequence of daytime attacks followed by many scenes of people going about their new reality in the crumbling remains of homes and businesses. It’s remarkable stuff, truly bringing history to life, as the cliché goes. The nighttime aerial footage is startlingly beautiful, almost abstract in its emphasis on small pinpoints of light appearing against a pitch-black background. They vary in size, appearing in clusters like stars. The lights are, of course, bombs making impact; Loznitsa lets these scenes run at length, allowing the formal and aesthetic qualities of the images to fade away as the sheer scale of the carpet bombing becomes more clear. Sequences of machines at work are no less fascinating for their glimpses into the mechanical and engineering ingenuity that will ultimately allow for the destruction we will bear witness to. It’s not just a rhetorical gesture, either. How much pain one country is willing to visit upon another is very much an ongoing concern, whether one is the aggressor or victim.
Loznitsa does make room for a couple of archival speeches, one of a British commander praising workers for their efforts on the home front, another of Churchill himself suggesting that any German who doesn’t want to be killed during strikes should simply “move out of the city and to the country.” It’s a brutal juxtaposition, these speeches alongside footage of corpses strewn about streets and trapped under rubble, and an overall bracing work — the viewer can almost feel the righteous anger emanating from the screen. While earlier films State Funeral and Austerlitz (another Sebald connection) have arguably erred on the side of being too loose, too expansive, Loznitsa has crystallized his focus with Babi Yar: Context and now Destruction. It’s a remarkable, and necessary, body of work, an ongoing interrogation of our horrified shared past and present.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
My Imaginary Country
Gabriel Boric, at the end of 2021, was elected Chile’s president. At 36 years old, he was elected with the largest popular vote in the country’s history. He is a leftist, quoted as coming from “the Chilean libertarian socialist tradition,” and his presidency coincides with the process of writing a new constitution, rehabilitating the country’s democracy after having, for decades, failed to unshackle its institutional infrastructure from Pinochet’s dictatorship and American interventionism. Patricio Guzmán’s latest documentary is an observation and inquiry into the subjectivity of revolt that had recently forced the hand of the state. In its expositional form (talking head interviews frequently intercut with observational footage that give indexical reference to an interviewee’s discussion), Guzmán firmly positions himself as a spectator of this movement, less so as the participant his filmography has so historically suggested.
Early on in the film, Guzmán, perhaps with an unintentional condescension, suggests that the revolts are organized “without leaders, without ideologies.” This is troubling because the film itself will soon outline a clear social-populist indignation that has rattled cages. In an interview later in the film, a feminist organizer articulates, “[There are] no leaders who might lead this revolt toward a fixed goal. That is what makes it complicated to initiate negotiations with the authorities. And that’s a good thing, as we don’t want to negotiate with anyone. We just want to change things, that’s all.” This sentiment is reflected in the film’s form: Guzmán’s film is messy, a work of multifurcation that leads viewers through disparate segments of this revolt that, while offering genuine image representation to the seemingly purposeful disorganization of the movement, lacks context beyond the biased sentiments of interview subjects. It’s fairly easy to distill what ideological motivations pierce through the interviews, and that’s before it’s at one time simply said outright: an indignation toward neoliberal normalizations and its violent indifference toward a people is the common thread. The neoconservative reactionism of military deployment is further proof of what the people fight against and what the residuals of dictatorship seek to protect. If this is so effortlessly extractable from interviews that Guzmán himself conducted, the question then is why his narration seems to imply a sense of ambiguous tension?
My Imaginary Country is a provocative title, one that, in consideration of the film’s whole, feels like a strained thesis negotiating the push-pull between Guzmán’s notable distancing and his simultaneous hope. Chile, for the first time, is exhibited as a subject of the gaze rather than a kinetic orchestration of intersecting cultural and political experiences through which Guzmán’s camera moves as a kind of embodied subjectivity: the landscapes and peoples of his films past are those he knows personally and deeply. Though his works have become progressively more conventional in their aesthetic presentation as he’s grown older, it’s only here, knowingly divorced by some generations of divergent political socialization, that Guzmán contends with nostalgia, unsure if the film is to be indicative of this relationship or of how exactly to posit this schism of “organized” rebellion between what he knows and what he sees. The film, and by extension Guzmán, perceive that there is much catching up to do. Whether that is for better or worse from the sightlines of an international audience being presented with this kind of image of a contemporary Chile is necessarily the discussion to follow.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind
Writer-director Fabian Hernandez’s miserablist slice-of-life drama A Male concerns Carlos (Dylan Felipe Ramírez Espitia), a young teenager navigating the mean streets of Bogotá, Colombia. Left to fend for himself after his mother’s incarceration, Carlos lives in a shelter with dozens of other men, desperately trying to survive a seemingly hopeless existence where the threat of violence lingers on every street corner. Carlos has taken up with a local gang in an effort to secure a little money and maintain some semblance of safety, an effort that seems borderline futile in the face of such hardships. But A Male is not merely about the devastating effects of social and economic status. As the film opens, various talking heads speak directly to the camera, discussing what it means to be a man in such a harsh environment. Street cred is important above all else, the appearance of toughness superseding emotional honesty or even a hint of kindness. Carlos has taken such advice to heart, frequently adorned in various sports jerseys and giving off a palpable IDGAF attitude that belies the childish core that still exists within him. In this way, A Male becomes a portrait of contrasts: Carlos is a boy desperately trying to be seen as a man, even at the cost of his own humanity. He’s seen engaging in as many fights as he is shedding tears, unable to meaningfully come to terms with the situation in which he finds himself.
But there’s another main character in Hernandez’s film, and that’s Bogotá: there’s an authenticity to the portrait of the city here, one that seems to be as much in transition as Carlos himself. Various cranes and diggers dot the landscape, scraping away the abandoned buildings and slums that decorate the view. Resembling a war zone more than a place to call home, Hernandez realizes Bogotá as both the figurative and literal hell that Carlos is forced to navigate. Unfortunately, that same fine-tuned specificity does not extend to the film’s characterization of Carlos, a boy defined only by his endless sufferings and a checklist of indie film clichés. It’s clear that such a move was intentional on the director’s part in an effort to lend his protagonist a certain universality, but it’s a move that robs the film of a three-dimensional lead. It doesn’t help that the film’s dissection of gender roles is so reductive as to be borderline insulting, with Carlos possibly questioning his sexuality because… topicality? Espitia is practically androgynous in appearance, his full lips and lush eyelashes in contrast with his scarred face and severe, high-and-tight fade. At one point he is seen with a prostitute and begs her to tell his friends he performed like a champ even though he assures her nothing is likely to happen; later, he smears some lipstick on a mirror and stands in front of it, admiring the feminized reflection. But nothing about these particular plot details feel the least bit organic, simply existing to add another layer of cheap irony to the proceedings, as if the Christmas-time setting wasn’t ham-fisted enough. Meanwhile, Hernandez can’t help but indulge in any number of visual tics that border on indie filmmaking parody at this point, from the camera continuously stalking our protagonist from behind to the never-ending long takes that all but scream realism. It’s largely impossible not to have your empathy stoked while watching A Male, but the lingering impression is that individuals like Carlos — and the dire situations in which they find themselves — deserve more than something this simplistic and shopworn.
Writer: Steven Warner