French Rendez-Vous 2018: “Custody”

“Custody” (“Jusqu’à la garde”) is a gripping drama of a broken family as the father uses his young son as a weapon against his ex-wife. The film is an extremely notable first feature for Xavier Legrand who also wrote the screenplay. Legrand received the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival for this film which builds on Legrand’s Oscar-nominated 2012 short film “Just Before Losing Everything”.

When his parents divorce, the court decides that the father will share joint custody of 11 year-old Julien (Thomas Gioria) even though Julien rejects his father (Denis Ménochet) as he is very uncomfortable around him. Julien’s older sister is old enough to decide to stay away from their father.

Thomas Gioria (front) in “Custody”

The cast is impressive. Gioria’s expressive face conveys a range from sadness to pain and fear. As the father’s anger builds toward his ex-wife (Léa Drucker), his actions involving Julien become more threatening. Ménochet becomes a frightening presence to the fearful ex-wife and children.

Xavier Legrand skillfully builds excruciating tension to an extremely tense climax.

After the film Xavier Legrand said that he changed the POV (point of view) of the film to create tension. The camera would follow a character without adopting his POV.

Xavier Legrand at Rendez-Vous With French Cinema in NYC

He added that the father manipulates the others as Legrand believes that violent men, before violence, are manipulators. He said he wanted to investigate the “repercussions of violence”. He wanted to make the audience “listen to silence”.

Legrand said his film is “not in any way personal”. He described himself as a “theater actor fascinated by Greek tragedy.” Léa Drucker who gives an intensely emotional performance as the mother is a theater actor like Legrand. The director said that through testing, he found Thomas Gioria (the young boy) whom he described as an “enormous talent”.

Legrand realized that “Custody” is a “very difficult and dangerous subject for a first film”. He spent three years doing “immersive research” with judges, support groups, and violent men.

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French Rendez-Vous 2018: “Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc” with music

It was audacious for Bruno Dumont to make an electro-rock musical about the young Joan of Arc. Dumont’s previous films like “Humanity” and “Camille Claudel 1915” had a raw physicality. His recent “Slack Bay” was a comedy dealing with cannibalism.

“Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc”

In “Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc”, beginning in 1425 during the Hundred Years’ War, the 8-year-old shepherdess Jeannette (Lise Leplat Prudhomme) has become distressed by the British domination of France. Jeanne Voisin portrays the teenaged Joan. Dumont has included cinematic effects like levitating characters. While the film captures Joan’s increasing determination to free her country from English control, the musical numbers are inconsequential and repetitious, making the film seem drawn out.

Bruno Dumont discussed his film at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. He based “Jeannette”, the first part of a planned trilogy on the poetic work of Charles Péguy on Joan. As with his previous efforts, Dumont used mainly non-professionals.

“Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc”

Dumont said he wanted to explore the “mystery of the vocation of Joan of Arc…how an ordinary shepherdess put the King of France on the throne” and chases the English out of France. He felt that “Music might enlighten us” and that with “musical ecstasy” the “body takes over”, adding “mysticism”. Dumont said he was influenced by American and French musical films.

The director said that “Only cinema can approach the mystery of Joan…I film what you don’t understand…things mysterious to see into the heart of the individual, into the depth of the soul.”

Bruno Dumont at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

The songs and dialog were from Péguy with melodies composed by actresses themselves. Dumont recorded the songs a cappella with direct sound. The heavy metal musical score composed by Igorr (Gautier Serre) was added later. Dumont said he always uses direct sound for happenstance. He believes that the sound of sheep puts reality into the film.

Dumont said his period film needs to be believable and needs “modernity to touch you.” He feels the electronic music adds this contemporary aspect.

French Rendez-Vous 2018: “The Workshop”

The recent Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival at Lincoln Center in New York City showed a wide range of recent French films, including several nominees and recipients of the César, the French Oscar.

My top film was “See You Up There” (“Au Revoir La-Haut”), terrific storytelling, which received the César for Best Director and several Césars for its expansive recreation of a harrowing WWI battlefield and the vibrant post-War Paris. Two veterans, one portrayed by director Albert Dupontel, and another disfigured during the War concoct an elaborate scam taking advantage of memories of the war. More on this and other films in future blogs.

“See You Up There”

The most audacious, if not the most successful, selection was “Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc”. Director Bruno Dumont, known for raw realism, combines the childhood of the 15-century female warrior with heavy metal music.

Several films had a contemporary resonance. “The Workshop” (“L’atelier”) was a fascinating and tense thriller directed and co-written by Laurent Cantet who received the top prize at Cannes for “The Class” (2008). With thought-provoking results, a writing workshop in a distressed area exposes the divisions between students and the instructor Olivia (César nominee Marina Fois), a novelist.

The setting is La Ciotat, a once prosperous shipping town, now with high unemployment, where the main jobs are servicing yachts of wealthy owners. The assignment for her teenage students is a murder mystery set in their home town.

Matthieu Lucci (2nd from left) and Marina Fois (4th from right) in “The Workshop”

Other students are frightened by the violence expressed in the early writing submission from Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) who is seen playing violent computer games and listening to the tirades of right-wing politicians. Arguments break out between Antoine and his fellow students and prejudices are exposed The instructor considers Antoine‘s writing a promising first draft. The riveting “Workshop” dramatizes how decay incites prejudices.

Antoine’s endless provocation is described as exhausting. As more and more of Antoine’s thoughts are revealed, Olivia becomes increasingly frightened from potential threats of violence. “I scare you”, Antoine says. Cantet skillfully builds tension between student and teacher.

After the film, Laurent Cantet participated in an intriguing discussion.

Director/writer Laurent Cantet at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

He said that after finishing “Human Resources” (1999), he had a desire to explore working class culture further. Since the Charlie Hebdo killings, he wanted to make a film on what is like to be 20 in France today. In regard to his character of Antoine, Cantet said “Boredom is killing him”. He added that Antoine has a “thirst for violence” with the border between real life and literary fiction blurred.

He described a long casting process where finding the right young personalities could take up to six months. Cantet’s daughter was involved in the casting. Matthieu Lucci who plays Antoine was found the first day.

Cantet co-wrote a precise script with dialog as literary as possible. He checked the script with people closer in age to the characters to make certain his writing was not off-track. In rehearsal, days were spent talking about film, lives and issues which turned into new improvisation scenes, to verify “The Workshop” was not an “old fool’s view of what’s going on.”

Cantet said he wanted to explore how boredom can become fertile ground for extremism to gain a foothold, attracting the extreme right and jihadism.

Telluride 43: Annette Bening in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool”

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 Peter Turner, the younger actor who became involved with Grahame in 1978 after the actress’s movie career faded and she appeared on stage in Britain. Turner was at Telluride.

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

Bening’s portrait of Grahame vividly combines sensuality, romanticism and vulnerability with the charisma of an Oscar-winning actress (“The Bad and the Beautiful”, 1952) who had acted with top stars.

When Grahame collapses before a stage performance, she asks Turner (Jamie Bell, “Billy Elliot”) if she can recuperate at his home. Flashbacks show the different stages of the often intense relationship between Grahame and Turner.

Peter Turner at Telluride

The film would not be as successful without the strong chemistry between Bening and Bell that makes their characters’ enduring emotional connection believable. Jamie Bell is also impressive as the younger man who remains drawn to the older actress.

Julie Walters who appeared with Bell in “Billy Elliot” creates another notable performance as Turner’s sympathetic but realistic mother. Vanessa Redgrave has a memorable scene as Grahame’s mother in a reunion with her daughter.

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

Intercutting the central relationship in different time frames, director Paul McGuigan has made an intriguing, absorbing, and ultimately moving film.

Telluride 44: Contemporary Issues in Films From Finland and Russia

Two impressive films reflecting international issues were shown at the Telluride Film Festival.

One of my favorite directors, Aki Kaurismaki, brings his unique deadpan style with eccentric characters to “The Other Side of Hope”. Kaurismaki has made 19 films over 35 years. His latest is a compelling film about Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee who smuggles himself into Finland hiding under coal on a barge.

Sherwan Haji (center) in “The Other Side of Hope”

Khaled is beaten up by thugs, but he encounters Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen). Wikstrom is an older man who has left his wife and job of selling shirts to follow his dream of opening a restaurant. Khaled joins the staff of the new restaurant.

The deadpan dialog delivery is combined with expressive faces. Kaurimaki combines quirky humor with deep compassion for his characters. As with previous Kaurismaki works like “The Man Without a Past”, this marvelous film has a warm feeling of people on the fringes of society banding together to help each other. Scenes of the makeover of the restaurant to attract new customers are cleverly amusing.

Sherwan Haji and Sakari Kuosmanen (both at thable) in “The Other Side of Hope”

After the screening Sherwan Haji said that Aki Kaurismaki gives precise instructions, wanting the actors “not to act at all”, and to “drop lines like bricks” for the deadpan style. He added that Kaurismaki gives actors “enormous space to contribute”, so as “not to be a marionette”.

In response to my question, Haji said that there is no improvising on the set, no word of the script is changed.

“Loveless” from writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the acclaimed “Leviathan”, presents a harrowing view of contemporary Russia. At Telluride, Zvyagintsev said that he wants the film set in Russia to have resonance outside of the country.

Matvey Novikov in “Loveless”

Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are continually quarreling and about to divorce. Neither wants to find a place for their teenaged son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). In a deeply poignant scene, Alyosha, hearing his parents, cries behind a door in the shadows. The soon to be divorced couple reflect the indifference and emptiness of a self-centered Russian society. Zvyagintsev has filmed many striking scenes of a decaying country falling apart.

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”.

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”