Reviews of French films of the month continue in conjunction with “Volta.ie” with two modern French classics
Blue is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle)
179mins – 2012
Director: Abdellatif Kechiche
This Palme d’Or winner of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival comes with a bit of controversy or, should we say, reputation. That being some explicit sexual content or let’s say some nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty sex scenes. Yes, its reputation is well earned. But before we go there let me fill in a few details.
Our leading lady Adèle is a 15-year-old student in a multi-ethnic secondary school in France. She has friends of all shapes and sizes and seems to get on fine with everyone. Those years can be tough on a teenager with the laws of attraction to the opposite sex being what they are. She is an attractive girl and has a boyfriend but things just don’t feel right. The pair are out on a walk when she notices a girl with blue hair walking with her arm around another female. This throws Adèle’s emotional interior for a loop and it is not long before a gay friend brings her into the gay bar scene and she meets the lady in blue: Emma, an artist.
The two begin a passionate relationship that leaves little to the imagination. The two fall head over heels and soon become a pair: moving in together, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes, discussing art and more love making. The usual culprits of monogamous destruction come into the picture to test the relationship and breakdowns ensue. While the intensity of their passion has been a reason for this film to get some good word-of-mouth publicity, I also want to add that the acting is first rate.
I actually wouldn’t even call it acting: the performers (Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux) are completely consumed in their characters and parts, every note believable.
The fact that the film is directed by a 54-year-old Tunisian/French actor/director/writer is a surprise but he does seem to have a handle or even the pulse of the material. The main gripe I have with the film is the 3-hour run time. No movie should be longer than 2 hours without a damn good reason. I get the feeling that this was going to be 2 films and then decisions were made at some point to make it into one. That is a small annoyance, however, because the bravery of the two leads will leave you with an open jaw and an ending that will give you the warm blues.
Cycling with Molière (Alceste à Bicyclette)
104mins – 2011
Director: Philippe Le Guay
This warmly entertaining film was co-written by the director and Fabrice Luchini. The latter plays the part of Serge Tanneur – a great classical actor of stage and screen who has become a recluse in a house he inherited by chance on the Île de Ré, off France’s Atlantic coast.
His friend and fellow-actor Gauthier Valence (played by Lambert Wilson) arrives on the train from Paris to seek him out. Gauthier makes a fortune playing the title role in the fabulously successful television series Dr Morange. His plan is to persuade Tanneur to re-emerge from his reclusive existence and to tread the boards once more, playing a part in a production of Molière’s “The Misanthrope”. He duly tracks down the stunned Serge in his back garden, where he finds him grappling with septic tank issues.
The initial suggestion that he might be tempted to act in a play by his favourite playwright, is predictably rejected at first. Serge has given up having anything to do with the world of film and theatre and vows never again to be part of its falseness and total absence of loyalty.
But just like a gun introduced into a Chekov play in Act II, you get the feeling that it will only be a matter of time before it gets dramatically deployed. Sure enough, Gauthier wastes no time in using all his charm and his genuine passion for The Misanthrope to rehabilitate Serge, who admits to having suffered a mental breakdown. For much of the film, Serge only agrees to rehearse with Gauthier, without committing to actually performing the play in public. As a compromise, they decide to both practice each part in the two-hander drama; tossing coins every day to decide who will play Alceste and who will play Philinte. In any case, Gauthier is also on the island to buy a house for him and his new girlfriend.
The winter-time setting for the beautiful Île de Ré makes for a perfect backdrop to the ensuing entertaining drama. It’s well written and genuinely funny stuff, with the two actors going at it in very natural scenes where they argue about pronunciation, civility, embarrassment and cycling. Gauthier’s fame is picked up at every turn, with good-natured locals smiling, praising and requesting autographs. At one point, he hilariously shouts in desperation in front of the estate agent that he “hates Île de Ré… with its blond kids on bikes and its chic Catholic families!”
But it’s not long before Gauthier and Serge are cycling around the island in their winter coats, practising their lines out loud and trying to avoid cycling into deep ditches. There are decent sub-plots along the way that keep the action authentic and the humour bubbling. These include an ill-mannered but attractive Italian 30-something who may or may not be selling her house and the pretty young niece of the effervescent hotel-owner where Gauthier is lodging (he doesn’t fancy Serge’s mouldy guest room) – a porn actress with theatrical intentions and whose riveting dictation of Molière’s poetic verse leaves the lads open-mouthed.
The multiple uncertainties of the outcome are the main drivers of the plot: Will Serge and the hot-blooded Francesca get it together? Will millionaire Gauthier just bloody buy a house on the ultra-expensive island? Will the flaky Serge follow through and actually do the Molière tour with Gauthier or will his re-born ego get the better of him again?
The film has some great little side swipes at the fickle nature of fame and of fans themselves. It’s about being an actor, being famous, being loved, despised and let down. It’s a treat to watch the characters in the film constantly struggle with one another’s egos. At one point, they are both told that actors are narcissistic and egotistical. “Actors have feelings too,” Gauthier desperately protests.
Egos are broken, reconstructed and smashed again in this multi-layered comedy of modern manners set on an off-season holiday paradise. Ultimately, it’s a battle of wits and who, if any, will be a winner in the end is anyone’s guess.
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