Reviews of French films of the month continue in conjunction with “Volta.ie” with a modern thriller and a 1970s classic
“Bastards” (Les Salauds)
101 mins – 2013
Director/Writer: Claire Denis
Every male of a certain age will be familiar with the word ‘bastard’, usually after cutting someone off in traffic or stealing a parking spot, muttered under the breath of someone of the opposite sex. With ‘lying’ or ‘cheating’ usually preceding it. Not the worst thing in the world to called, but not very nice either. The few men in Claire Denis film named after the slanderous remark live up to the title and much more. This tight little dark drama with a few noir and thriller flourishes starts with a pounding, biblical rain, a worried man in an apartment and a manila envelope on the kitchen table. The rain stops, the paramedics cover up a body on the recently washed pavement and an attractive woman strolls naked through the streets. Why is she naked? Well… why not?
It’s clear from the start that this fine French film is going to require us to do a bit of thinking, but nothing terribly overwhelming: Like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces are just the right size, not to big not to small. Up next, we are out to sea where Captain Marco has his toast and cigarette interrupted with an emergency call. He immediately leaves his post and heads for dry land, a quick look over his shoulder to his boat and the best place on earth to go to escape your problems. These problems being a sister with troubled daughter, the naked street wanderer and a deceased husband, the body on the street which also happens to be Marco’s former best friend and partner. When Marco and his sister meet up, the actors say so much with their lived-in looks that they don’t need to say anything at all, just stare at the ground with the expression that every day is a chore.
There is shorthand and quiet confidence the actors have with the production that it feels like having drinks with old friends, all formalities are out of the way and we can get down to business. The contents of the envelope describe a business in near collapse and the finger pointed at the partner, a octogenarian creep by the name Lacoste. Brother and sister take the envelope and its problem to a slimy, overweight lawyerly type who tells them that in short they are screwed. When the name Lacoste is brought up the beefy counsellor turns a paler shade of slime and tells the siblings under no uncertain terms should they to bother this very powerful man. Marco realises that this needs to be sorted out and rents a flat above Lacoste’s wife/mistress and their androgynous child.A few cigarettes are shared, a bike chain is fixed and soon Marco and Lacoste’s missus are engaging in rough and ready sex in one of those gorgeous Paris apartments with period detail and floor to ceiling windows. Soon after, he cashes in life insurance, sells his snazzy car to a sailor friend who has come out a lot luckier than Marco with his life. A gun comes into picture and upon closer inspection of Mr Lacoste’s lifestyle, we are taken to a barn in the French countryside which converts in a filmed sex club at night. These places rarely look good during day. Even when Lacoste picks up his little boy/girl in his chauffeur-driven car there is an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach as to what this relationship is all about, particularly when the child rests his head on the dirty old man’s knee.
As Marco continues to look under rocks and open doors to a lifestyle of the rich and shameless we are brought along this road of darkness and depravity knowing like Marco that there is no coming back. The strength of the film is that the scenes are short and the dialogue shorter, there is sparse use of 80’s style low rent sci-fi music and it is impossible in my opinion to make Paris look bad, even with all the seedy business just below the surface. There is a car accident, more rough sex, more naked street wanderings and some corn-on-the-cob being put to a use for which I am sure the Good Lord had not intended during the third act but with the narrative already in place, most of this feels like filler.
Films that are directed by their writers can sometimes feel like the audience should be mind-readers and that everything on the director’s mind is interesting. That’s not always the case. We know and Marco knows what it is he must do. How he does it keeps us watching. Men of these types are what they are and the richer and more powerful usually means the bigger the bastard.
“The Best Way to Walk” (La Meilleure Façon de Marcher)
82 mins – 1975
Director: Claude Miller
The Best Way to Walk is a nostalgia piece set in a summer holiday camp in rural France in 1960. Whatever about its nostalgia value at the time of release, it pales into insignificance watching it now 30 years after it was made. The mid-1970s saw a lot of great films coming out of France. This was the era of Luis Bunuel and the late Claude Miller, who was clearly at his best in directing this drama.
It was his first feature film and the protégé of François Truffaut showed that he was no slouch behind the lens either, gaining César nominations for both directing and writing the film. It contrasts sharply with his swansong movie from a couple of years ago – the beautifully-photographed but meandering Thérèse Desqueyroux.
It’s also worth watching for the performance of Patrick Dewaere in one of the two central roles. A highly popular actor at the time and a huge talent, he evolved from the same drama group as Gérard Depardieu and Miou-Miou. Dewaere appeared in 25 films in his tragically short career before dying by suicide in 1982 at the age of 35.
But back to the drama of the movie itself: Although it’s a children’s camp, virtually all the drama takes place amongst the adults in a coming-of-age scenario amongst young men and focusing in particular on two of the camp employees – the son of the camp director and gentle pretty-boy intellectual type Philippe (played by Patrick Bouchitey) and edgy aggressive macho type Marc (played by Patrick Dewaere).
The well-paced movie quickly introduces us to camp life and its various characters – a motley crew consisting of young men who have ended up for one reason or another working in the colonie de vacances for the summer. They hang around in their downtime, making rude jokes over communal meals, playing cards, gently ribbing one another and generally having the craic in thoroughly natural scenes.
In the course of a power cut during a poker game with the other moniteurs one night, sports director Marc makes the discovery that drama-guy Philippe likes to dress up in women’s clothing.
Unable to fully articulate the awkward situation between them, their relationship develops into an uneasy alliance of cat-and-mouse behaviour: Is Philippe gay? Will Marc tell everyone else about Philippe’s strange habits? Is Marc secretly gay?
Meanwhile, camp life goes on and the pace of the carefully-edited film continues in a series of often hilarious scenes that contain many one-liners known to a whole generation of French men and women. Its natural and often startlingly frank language rings true in every well-framed scene (It won an award at Cannes for its subtle but expert cinematography), making the most of its Auvergnat locations.Philippe has a sweetheart, it turns out – a delectable young lady named Chantal. He’s clearly showing signs of needing reassurance on the issue of his sexuality when he writes to her that he “absolutely has to” see her. She duly arrives on the train and gets picked up by Philippe in his Citroen 2CV but their relationship has become a bit awkward and it becomes clear that whatever problems the boorish Marc might have in articulating what ails him, Philippe has his own demons in his head that he can’t quite talk about with his girlfriend.
In the end, the film reaches a conclusion and a resolution of sorts in a final pivotal scene, followed by an epilogue set a few years later as the three meet in Paris again.
This is, in many ways a quintessentially French film of the type that doesn’t get made any more. Back in the days when European cinema had a more level playing field (i.e. before the days when American cinema began to truly dominate), there was a great confidence in making interesting films about the subtleties and nuances of peoples’ relationships with one another.
There are no pumping soundtracks (classical music all the way) and there are no things exploding, but what it has is an interesting story with three-dimensional characters played out in utterly convincing fashion by all the actors in the piece with a strong script and smart dialogue. It may all look simple but simple perfection is never easy to achieve.
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