French Rendez-Vous 2017: “The Dancer”

“The Dancer” was a highlight of the latest Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in New York City. The film tells an absorbing story about Loïe Fuller, born Marie Louise Fuller in 1864, who left America to become the toast of La Belle Epoque Paris.

Fuller (Soko) performed in the American West and introduced a unique energetic style of dance with flowing costumes. For a time she stays with her mother (Amanda Plummer), member of a temperance league. When a frustrated Fuller sees her dances being copied by other performers, she travels to France, where her stage efforts can be copyrighted.

Soko (center) in “The Dancer”

“The Dancer” shows in intriguing detail how Fuller developed her unique style of dance. She uses detailed plans, light projectors and spotlights. Poles in her arms cause the sweeping movements of her costumes. Fuller gives amazing performances with colored projections.

In her first film, director Stephanie Di Giusto who co-wrote the screenplay, gives “The Dancer” a vibrant sense of the colorful intensity of La Belle Epoque Paris.

Soko, also a singer-songwriter, gives a performance of fierce determination as Loïe Fuller, conveying her intense dedication in taking her stage performances in new directions. In Paris, Fuller becomes acquainted with a jaded aristocrat (Gaspard Ulliel) and finds a dedicated assistant (Mélanie Thierry). She befriends Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp) who becomes a rival. Lily-Rose is the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis.

Soko in “The Dancer”

Fuller’s driven performances cause her physical strain, particularly from the weight of the poles in her arms. The film builds to an extremely tense climactic stage performance in Paris, as Fuller’s body strives to match her artistic ambitions.

After the film, Stephanie Di Giusto spoke about Loïe Fuller and filmmaking. She said the French Alps stood in for Colorado. The music of Vivaldi was used in the film for “energy and tension”.

Director Stephanie Di Giusto at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Di Giusto described the important way Fuller built her costumes using a secret mathematical formula. She added that for Fuller it was critical how these costumes were cut, as Fuller was secretive, using a different dressmaker for each part. “The Dancer” received the Cesar, the French Oscar, for Best Costumes.

Di Giusto said that Loïe Fuller’s sketches were patented in Paris, she was the first in her field it to establish a copyright to protect her work. Fuller became a friend of artists like Rodin. Fuller was described as multi-talented by Di Giusto – “dancer, choreographer, filmmaker”.

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Telluride 44: “Wonderstruck”

“Wonderstruck” was shown at the Telluride Film Festival as part of a Tribute to its cinematographer Ed Lachman. Like other collaborations of Lachman with the film’s director Todd Haynes, “Far from Heaven” (2002) and “Carol” (2015), “Wonderstruck”, one of the finest selections at Telluride, has a distinctive period look.

The film is based on the novel by Brian Selznick, who wrote the screenplay. Another Selznick work was also the source of Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo”. “Wonderstruck” intercuts compelling stories of 2 hearing-impaired 12 year-olds in different eras and their personal quests in New York City. For each sequence, the film impressively recreates the style of films of the era.

Todd Haynes at Telluride

In 1977 Minnesota, Ben (Oaks Fegley) has been orphaned after his mother (Michelle Williams in flashbacks) died in a car accident. Ben’s mother had never responded to his questions about the identity of his father. Ben loses his hearing after being struck by lightning. Among his mother’s things, he comes across a book and the address of a book store in New York City. Ben secretly travels to New York City, hoping his findings will offer clues to his father.

In 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) a deaf girl, leaves New Jersey to find a famous actress (Julianne Moore). Her section of the film is in the style of a black & white silent.

Millicent Simmonds in “Wonderstruck”

Ben’s story, particularly In New York City, has the deep color of 1970s films, emphasizing the intensity of the change in Ben’s environment.

Both Rose and Ben will discover the Museum of Natural History. Ben’s search is aided by Jamie (Jaden Michael) whose father works at the Museum. The film captures the wonderment and adventure of new discoveries.

Julianne Moore and Oaks Fegley in “Wonderstruck”

Todd Haynes has made “Wonderstruck” with a deep sensitivity to the emotions of the youthful characters. Julianne Moore portrays a different character in the modern section who connects the two stories. The young actors give notable performances as do Moore (Haynes’ “Safe” and “Far From Heaven”) and the adult cast.

“Wonderstruck” continues Haynes’ interest in the search for connection and affection. The film ends at the location of the 1965 Words Fair as characters poignantly deal with memory and loss.

Jaden Michael, Oaks Fegley, and Julianne Moore in “Wonderstruck”

Telluride 44: “Faces Places”

My favorite selection at the Telluride Film Festival was the documentary “Faces Places” directed by Agnes Varda, called “the Godmother of the French New Wave”, 87 when the film was shot, and street artist JR, 32. Their film highlights their marvelous rapport, providing a warm humor as they travel throughout parts of France not often shown in films.

At Telluride, JR said that once the two first met, they looked for any excuse to meet again. “Faces Places” was the result and was accurately described as life, friends, cinema, and art. The film was made over a 2 year span and was the first time Varda had a co-director.

Agnes Varda and JR traveling in “Faces Places”

In the film, Varda speaks of meeting amazing people by chance. She and JR collaborate on pasting large photographs on building exteriors as they interact with others throughout France.

Photos of coal miners from a previous generation are enlarged and pasted up in a mining area. In an amusing scene, Varda photographs a fish in a store. The giant image of the fish will be pasted to a water tower. Other photos radically change the appearance of an abandoned town and attract visitors.

JR and Agnes Varda in “Faces Places”

“Faces Places” shows Varda’s boundless enthusiasm which is infectious. She maintains a keen interest in new experiences and an enjoyment of life.

This film becomes more serious, with a sense of loss as treatment of Varda’s declining vision is shown. A visit to an old colleague of Varda’s concludes “Faces Places” with an unexpected melancholy.

Agnes Varda was not in Telluride. Her daughter Rosalie Varda was there with JR. Rosalie said she thought that her mother and JR would enjoy each other and introduced them. She added that her mother made her first film “La Pointe Courte” in 1954 and had not seen a lot of films before then. Her first film was made before the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave) began.

JR remembering Agnes Varda at Telluride

Rosalie described her mother’s earlier filmmaking as “more modern than the Nouvelle Vague”. She called her mother a “pint-sized iconoclast” with a “great curiosity” and “positive energy” who “speaks constantly”.

On his work in the film JR said “I love pasting” (photographs). He said that he and Agnes Varda have the “same vision”.

Rosalie said that Agnes and her family lived in Los Angeles for a time beginning in 1967. Rosalie added that there were open houses at their home. Agnes became close to Jim Morrison and was present at his burial in Paris. Rosalie said that in “Faces Places”, her mother and JR show there is “No age for art.”

Telluride 44: “Loving Vincent”

“Loving Vincent” is uniquely remarkable. 125 artists animated Vincent Van Gogh’s oil paintings. Before a screening at the Telluride Film Festival, the film’s directors, married couple Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman discussed what Welchman called his wife’s “crazy ambition”. Kobiela said she realized that her original plan of doing all of the animation herself would take 80 years.

Two Van Gogh paintings combined in “Loving Vincent”

Kobiela said she was drawn to Van Gogh because his history showed her that you can choose paths in life when grown up. Van Gogh’s first painting was at age 28.

The film contains stunningly beautiful images of Van Gogh’s masterworks animated. I told Welchman I was very impressed that Van Gogh’s thick brush strokes came through in the animation. The film is a must for admirers of the artist to see on the big screen.

Pere Tanguy in “Loving Vincent”

The film begins in 1891, one year after Van Gogh’s death and tells the intriguing story of a postman’s son attempting to deliver the artist’s last letter. Actors portraying characters familiar from the artist’s works were filmed and then animated into paintings.

Postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), painted several times by the artist, wonders “How does a man go from being absolutely calm to suicidal in six weeks?” He asks his son Armand (Douglas Booth) to deliver the letter to Vincent’s brother. Armand reluctantly agrees.

Postman Joseph Roulin and his son Armand in “Loving Vincent”

The film becomes extremely compelling, as Armand finds conflicting information on Van Gogh’s final days and his mental state. Flashbacks showing Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk) are in black and white. Armand meets Dr. Gachet (Jerome Flynn), one of Van Gogh’s most recognized subjects, who treated the artist and the doctor’s daughter (Saorise Ronan) who said Van Gogh was “happy here.”

Dr. Gachet and Armand Roulin in “Loving Vincent”

At an outdoor panel, the film’s directors said that 65,000 frames were hand-painted during a 7 year process. Welchman said that because of the unique style of “Loving Vincent”, the film has a conservative structure.

Hugh Welchman and Dorota Kobiela at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

A new theory has developed about Van Gogh’s death that was incorporated into the film. Welchman said the act of suicide was unexpected since the artist had just sold a painting, had no fits at the time, and had stopped his heavy drinking. He added that the investigation of Van Gogh caused by the delivery of the letter was a good way into his life story.

Telluride 44: Angelina Jolie and “First They Killed My Father”

“First They Killed My Father”, directed by Angelina Jolie, is now showing on Netflix. As director, Jolie brings sensitivity and vivid images to the true story of a family arrested by Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s.

The film is based on the memoir by Loung Ung who was a girl during that tragic time. She said that “From 1975 to 1979—through execution, starvation, disease, and forced labor—the Khmer Rouge systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians, almost a fourth of the country’s population.” Ung and Jolie collaborated on the screenplay.

“First They Killed My Father”

Young Loung (Sareum Srey Moch) lives a comfortable life in the city of Phnom Penh with her parents and siblings where her father is a government official. The family dances happily to modern music. Jolie shows her experience with children with casual details like dripped fruit on a girl’s dress that add to the realism of the film.

After the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot take control of Cambodia, they force the evacuation of the citizens of Phnom Penh to the countryside for forced labor.

Jolie keeps the film on the point of view of Loung. Sareum Srey Moch has an expressive face conveying the girl’s incomprehension and shock as her life is painfully disrupted. Loung’s father is arrested by the authorities and she is separated from her siblings.

“First They Killed My Father”

The children are forced into exhausting work such as carrying buckets on poles. Jolie stages intense scenes conveying the harrowing life under the Khmer Rouge. A dead body is seen floating in the water during the children’s labor. Blood is swept up in a hospital.

The photography shows the natural beauty of Cambodia, where Jolie shot the film. But this beauty can hide something ominous, like deadly land mines throughout an area Loung and other prisoners attempt to pass in a tense sequence.

“First They Killed My Father”

After the screening at the Telluride Film Festival, Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung had a heartfelt conversation on Cambodia. Jolie said that while filming “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in Cambodia, she bought a $2 book on a street corner, Loung Ung’s memoir.

Jolie found Cambodia “extraordinary”. She became a Special Envoy for the UN and met Ung. Jolie told her she wanted to adopt a child and asked her “Could I adopt? She would abide by Ung’s decision. She said Ung’s response and the adoption of her son Maddox from Cambodia “changed my life.” Jolie spoke with Ung on making a film of her memoir, but wanted to wait “until Maddox is ready” to understand. Maddox is listed as executive producer.

Angelina Jolie at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Ung spoke with Jolie about the “incredible beauty” of “my Cambodia”, “very green” which is reflected in the film.

Jolie thought that with a young girl as the focal character, she would have to move the camera away from the girl to show her point of view. The performance of her young lead actress was so effective that she kept the camera on her “more than anticipated”.

Angelina Jolie and Loung Ung at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Jolie said that with all the children appearing in the film, the “crew had to be good at games” and be “goofballs”.

On a more serious side of the filming, Jolie said that there was therapy as well as a spirit house with incense on the set to help with PTSD from survivors of the Khmer Rouge.

The film had a premiere in Cambodia. Jolie said she hopes her film will help build up the future of Cambodian cinema. Ung and Jolie spoke about the Cambodians collectively not being vengeful.

Ung married a man from Cleveland. She said that because of the “generosity of America”, they own 3 restaurants and 2 microbrews there.

Telluride 44

The 44nd Telluride Film Festival was held, as always, during Labor Day weekend in the former mining town in a mountain canyon of southwest Colorado.

As tradition, the film schedule is not announced in advance. Places like an ice rink and a school gymnasium are converted into theatres with top-of-the line projection and sound. During the Festival, nine indoor theaters show films daily along with outdoor panels and conversations with international filmmakers.

Telluride Opening Night Feed (c) Ed Scheid

This year, the Opening Night Feed in the closed off main street of the town had an oriental design. Festival regulars like Ken Burns (showing an episode of his upcoming “The Vietnam War”) and Werner Herzog showed up again.

Some of the biggest crowds were for “Battle of the Sexes” about the Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) tennis match. Both Stone and King were in Telluride for a Q&A.

Angelina Jolie and her film “First They Killed My Father” also attracted large audiences. As director, Jolie brought sensitivity and strong images to the story of a family arrested by Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. After the screening, Jolie and Loung Ung, on whose autobiography the film is based, had a heartfelt conversation on Cambodia and how this country changed Jolie’s life.

Angelina Jolie at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

This year the Tributes were to Christian Bale with his new Western “Hostiles” and the cinematographer Ed Lachman. Lachman’s film “Wonderstruck” was one of the finest at Telluride this year. Directed by Todd Haynes (“Carol”), “Wonderstruck” tells 2 compelling stories set in 1927 and 1977 of hearing-impaired children travelling to New York City on a personal quest. Each sequence has the style of films of the era.

Annette Bening deserves to be an Oscar front-runner for the emotional range and poignancy she brings to her portrait of Gloria Grahame in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”. This film is based on the memoir of the younger actor who became involved with Grahame after the Oscar-winning actress’s movie career faded and she appeared on stage in Britain.

Annette Bening in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

Gary Oldman is also award-caliber in “Darkest Hour” as Winston Churchill, newly appointed as Prime Minister, attempts to rouse England in the fight against Hitler.

Ethan Hawke gives an intense performance as a conflicted minister in “First Reformed” which continues writer/director Paul Schrader’s investigation of violence and obsession. Schrader referred to his film as “Diary of a Country Priest” meets “Taxi Driver” (which he wrote).

Ethan Hawke at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

“Downsizing”, directed by Alexander Payne and starring Matt Damon, was about shrinking human beings in an attempt to solve overpopulation. It received a very mixed reception.

My favorite film at Telluride was the documentary “Faces Places” directed by Agnes Varda, called “the godmother of the French New Wave”, then 87, and artist JR, 32. Their film highlights their marvelous rapport as they travel throughout parts of France not often shown in films, pasting large photographs on building exteriors and interacting with a variety of people. The film concludes with an unexpected melancholy.

“Faces Places”

“Loving Vincent” was uniquely remarkable. 125 artists animated Van Gogh’s oil paintings. I told one of this film’s directors that I was very impressed that Van Gogh’s thick brush strokes came through in the animation. “Loving Vincent” tells an intriguing story of a postman’s son attempting to deliver the artist’s last letter and finding conflicting versions of the artist’s last days.

“Loving Vincent”

“Wormwood” directed by Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”) was the longest selection at Telluride, gripping throughout the over 4 hour run time. This Netflix series examines a son’s attempt to investigate the death of his father during a government experiment in the 1950s. Morris masterfully combines interviews, home movies, archival footage and dramatizations with Peter Sarsgaard as the man who died under mysterious circumstances. At intermission, 1950s cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served.

Errol Morris at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

Other notable documentaries included “Arthur Miller, Writer” made by Miller’s daughter Rebecca who provided unique intimate insights to her father and how his life affected his plays. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was at Telluride with “Human Flow” which documented the harsh conditions faced by refugees throughout the globe.

One of my favorite directors, Aki Kaurismaki, brings his unique deadpan style with eccentric characters to “The Other Side of Hope” about a Syrian refugee who smuggles himself into Finland.

Other films brought a hard-edged looks at their home countries. “Loveless” from writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the acclaimed “Leviathan”, presents a harrowing view of contemporary Russia. When an angry couple plan a divorce, neither wants to find a place for their teenage son. In “The Insult”, a conflict over a drain pipe escalates into a court case that exposes the enduring divisions in contemporary Lebanon.

Past Tributees at Telluride (c) Ed Scheid

In “A Man of Integrity”, an Iranian man refuses to become involved in widespread bribery, facing severe repercussions with his family. The film’s writer/director Mohammad Rasoulof whose last film was released without credits, said that none of his films will be approved for showing in Iran. “Hostages” dramatized the desperate attempt of young people to escape from Soviet Georgia in 1983, leading to an airplane hijacking.

The most entertaining show was “The Cotton Club Encore” which was accompanied by the film’s director, Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola came across a tape of his original final version of the 1984 film and reconstructed “The Cotton Club” from that. “The Cotton Club” was beset with behind the scenes conflicts, including a murder linked to on one of the film’s producers. Coppola passed out a statement saying he was told “too many black people” and “too much tap dancing” and over 20 minutes of footage was cut.

Coppola restored some terrific previously unseen musical numbers, including a fantastic “Stormy Weather” sung by Lonette McKee, playing a singer who later tries to pass for white. One of the film’s stars Maurice Hines spoke after the screening that it was an honor to dance in the film with his late brother Gregory Hines, playing brothers in a tap dancing act.

Gregory and Maurice Hines in “The Cotton Club”

Maurice also told an amusing anecdote. He said the film’s star Richard Gere asked him how he was able to bring so much emotion in his first film on the first take of a scene where his brother tells him he’s doing a solo act. Maurice told Gere he was thinking of the difference between Gere’s salary and what he was making.

It was so misguided to take out the musical acts in 1984 as these scenes are what are unique to the actual Cotton Club. Too much emphasis in the original release was on the well-acted but conventional gangster plot.

Ai Weiwei at Labor Day Picnic (c) Ed Scheid

A unique aspect of the Telluride Film Festival is the possibility of casual encounter with international filmmakers. At the Labor Day Picnic, I saw Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. He smiled when he saw that I was wearing a T-shirt with his name and a Zodiac face from his exhibit in Pittsburgh. He said he had never seen the shirt.

Future posts will cover key films in more detail.

French Rendez-Vous 2017: “Nocturama”

In “Nocturama”, shown at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, a provocative subject of young terrorists in Paris is weakened by generic characterizations and a lack of contemporary context.

Bertrand Bonello at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

The film’s director/writer Bertrand Bonello (“Saint Laurent”) introduced his work. He said the film was inspired by the “crazy” events in France and throughout Europe. Bonello described himself as “obsessed” with the “contemporary period”. He said the script started in 2010-2011, before many recent events, and that “Nocturama” combines “ultra-realim and abstraction.”

“Nocturama”

“Nocturama” begins as a group of young people methodically go through their planned routines to create large-scale destruction throughout Paris, including assassination and explosions in buildings and cars. The famous statue of Joan of Arc burns.

The characters as written are one-dimensional without any insight or much interest. The film doesn’t give any reason for the young terrorists, they include children of immigrants as well as members of the upper class.

“Nocturama”

The terrorists retreat to a large-scale department store and return to typical juvenile behavior. They get caught up in the surrounding luxury goods, trying on designer items and riding electric cars. This sequence is a very obvious statement on consumerism. One young terrorist declares his hidden love for another. As their hideout is discovered, they repetitiously meet their fates, without emotional effect.