Once upon a time a little French film shot in Algeria by a Greek director became a massive international hit, winning a bunch of awards including a couple of Oscars. Z may actually be left wing propaganda, but it plays brilliantly as a fast paced piece of suspense pulp. Oh the 1960s! What an amazing time for filmmakers and film watching, you were. In the docu realism tradition of The Battle Of Algiers, the unnamed country of Z may look a lot like Greece or even Italy, but it could anywhere. The shooting at Kent State was just two years away, and much of the world appeared to be in political turmoil. Z plays like a "how to" guide for both sides: how to start a left-wing revolution and, for the people in charge of keeping the status quo, how to squash it.
Z opens with a title card reading, "Any resemblance to real events, to persons living or dead, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL." This tells you that director Costa-Gavras is willing to wear his politics (or his bias) on his sleeve. The military dictators are worried about political protests from “beatniks” and foreigners, and they commit to shutting down any outside agitation. As a left wing political leader known as both Deputy and Z (the all-time great French actor Yves Montand) prepares for a rally for nuclear disarmament, while the Russian ballet performs across the street, Government thugs carrying bats continue to harass and beat his supporters. Trying to cross the street the Deputy is walloped by a guy with a baseball bat - though fake witnesses say a drunk driver hit him - he sustains injuries that eventually kill him.Continue Reading
The Model Couple
The Model Couple is not science-fiction, though it does induce the same paranoia and anxiety about the future that some of those films do. And while it is a story about people whose lives are on display for the world, it in no way resembles movies like The Truman Show.
The film exaggerates the borders where privacy and personal freedoms are obscured, if not removed, by a totalitarian government. Set in 1970s France, The Ministry of the Future, an organization claiming to try and make "a new city for a new man," is executing an outrageous experiment. They've chosen a seemingly “normal” Caucasian married couple to be the poster-children for their efforts. Claudine (Anémone) and Jean-Michel (André Dussollier) have been married for a couple of years. Claudine takes care of the home and Jean-Michel is the breadwinner. The two are thrilled to be chosen to represent all of France. They are brought to a compound where they will arrange a new life with the help of the Ministry, in a place dubbed "The Model Home."Continue Reading
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
When choosing where to start in a director's filmography, I've always enjoyed picking at random. Recommendations tend to be fairly overwhelming and a total buzz kill. The themes of Fassbinder's films were always intriguing to me, and since I enjoy seeing filmmakers break down and interpret romantic relationships, I started with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The film surpassed my expectations in terms of human dynamics by exposing a character's relationship to the women in her life in such a constricting setting, from her lover down to her servant.
Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) is as far removed from an overnight success as a person could get. As a fashion designer in Germany, she had to go through the process of constant rejection and a humiliating divorce before being taken seriously in her field. These experiences have turned her into a cynic in matters of work and love. Her daughter is away at boarding school and she lives alone with her servant/secretary/assistant, Marlene (Irm Hermann). Marlene's role as a servant in her home goes far beyond the orthodox. In a sense, she's a broken extension of Petra, living vicariously through her disgrace and vanity. You get the feeling that she once aspired to be a self-sustaining fashion designer, but found herself tailoring not only Petra's designs, but her mess of an existence.Continue Reading
The Flowers of St. Francis
Most films with religion as a central theme – specifically Christianity – are just awful. Even films with something original and authentic to say about religion can be overly pious, pedantic, and dull. But for every film on the subject that is too obvious or cowardly there are always films that manage to examine religion or use religion as a theme that are widely acknowledged works of art—Carl Dreyer’s emotionally pornographic The Passion of Joan of Arc, Michael Powell’s lurid fantasia of desire and self-denial, Black Narcissus, and Tim Robbins’s affecting denouncement of the death penalty, Dead Man Walking, are all good examples. But for every one of those there are quite a few stinkers. I think that unless a film challenges the assumptions of organized religion or audience biases then it’s not a subject worth going near.
The Flowers of St. Francis, Roberto Rossellini’s film about St. Francis of Assisi and his followers, is the rare film about Christianity that manages to say something new about the religion itself. Well, not new per se as it pretty much embodies the radical spirit of the teachings of Jesus, but new in the sense that it’s not a depiction of Christianity that people are used to seeing. Rather than rely on a straight biographical narrative to tell the story of St. Francis, Rossellini tells his story in several vignettes that each embody his intense joie de vivre for animals and nature, for his brothers of the cloth, and for God. There is something downright goofy about these men joyously preaching the gospels in their tattered cloaks so happy to be poor. Somehow it’s poignant and charming instead of ludicrous.
What to Do in Case of Fire
Tangents are something I try to avoid, but this film brought to mind a certain phenomenon that helped me relate to and understand its energy. When a person gets their first tattoo or piercing, especially when they're young, they'll often be met with a patronizing lecture from an elder. The question, “Do you want that on your skin when you're old?” is usually the first of the interrogation, the second being, “Is what the tattoo means really that important?” Like many youngsters, I got my first tattoo and felt marked and personalized at the time. I was an individual who saw herself devoted to certain things; I wanted to carry them with me always. A few years passed and I became less outspoken and devoted to other things. By early adulthood, my piercings had been removed, my hair was no longer tousled and my subversive literature was donated to the Goodwill. There wasn't a loathing for the tattoos—the only thing I couldn't get rid of and the only thing linking me to my past self. The feeling towards them was more fascination. I learned to wear the markings with pride, though it had nothing to do with the symbols or what they represented. They have crystallized many feelings that I used to have; aggression, radicalism, passion, and overpowering self-love. I look at them to be reminded of that.
What to Do in Case of Fire is the story of punk anarchists who grew up and, for the most part, carried on lives that would have been considered "selling out" in their youth. The year was 1987, and a group of young people were fed up with their unsuccessful riots and the obscurity of their homemade propaganda films. They decided to make one final film, How to Make a Homemade Bomb, and, using chemicals, feces, and a cooking pan, they tell their non-existent audience how to assemble the bomb, dispose of the evidence and leave it in an abandoned building. The bomb didn't go off, though.
The Rabbit is Me
With films that have been or are currently banned in their country of origin comes an instant intrigue in me. Apparently this film was banned for “exposing the harsh realities of East German society,” but that statement, seen on the back of the DVD cover, is a little ambiguous. While watching the film you do get a vague understanding of the politics and lack of justice in the judicial system of 1960s Germany; you begin to understand that the film's “anti-socialist” message could have come as a great threat. However, there is a lot left unexplained—a lot that you have to go and research on your own, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Somehow you don't mind being led into a haze because the film's heroine, a blacklisted 19-year old, is an astounding portrait of the system's failure. Her will to overcome the setbacks of an “opportunist” and unjust society gives you hope. It's that hope of something better and more democratic that could have been contagious, and was therefore silenced. Still, The Rabbit is Me is hailed as one of the most important New Wave films to come out of Germany.
In the film we find a 17-year old Maria (Angelika Waller) at the end of her high school education. Like all of her peers, she's exceptionally bright and a strong-willed young lady. She and her brother are orphans who live with their aunt (Ilse Voigt), and just before graduation, two officers come calling. They inform the broken family that their brother/nephew, Dieter (Wolfgang Winkler), is being charged with inciting subversive material, which could lead to a 3-year prison sentence. They try to appear at his trial but are removed on questionable grounds from the courtroom. Young Dieter loses the trial. Before being locked up he's able to see his family, and he warns his sister to be wary of two people. The prosecutor and the judge who put him away, Paul Deister.
In China They Eat Dogs
Arvid (Dejan Cukic) is a pushover who can't seem to find his way in life. He works at a bank and lives with his girlfriend, Hanne. The two get into an argument over breakfast because Arvid donated 800 crowns to a church fund—money that Hanne wanted to use for shopping. As he tries to move past the dispute unscathed she makes him out to be a boring purist who's trying to save the world.
We then jump to Richard (Lester Wiese), a traveling American who settles into a seat at a bar and has a mysterious meeting with Arvid at noon. The bartender and a patron start to chat with him. With two hours to spare until Arvid's arrival, he recaps the recent series of events that have put Arvid in a delicate situation—a man who up until 12 days prior Richard had never heard of.
Léon Morin, Priest
Theism has always been a dominating and polarizing subject in philosophy. For the late philosophers who were atheists, their argument against God's existence often clashed with the popular arguments of reason that suggest we all have a soul. The question of whether or not this soul needs salvation cannot ever be answered. Léon Morin, Priest has a character that goes as far as to suggest the need for uncertainty in religion. Without it, the priest claims, there wouldn't be a cause for faith. As in love, he compares devotion to God as merely a “leap of faith”--a belief held by many theists and philosophers. But for Barny, his latest attempt at conversion, one cannot compare the loves of the flesh with that of a Holy spirit.
Following the Italian occupation in France during WWII, a small village is now met with the hostility of Nazi Germany. As the German troops move in to capture and deport Jews, many townspeople scuffle to prove their allegiance to Christ. Children are given hasty baptisms in large numbers and the widows of men lost in battle try desperately to stay true to France while deceiving the Nazi regime. Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) is one of these women. Husbandless and with a young daughter, she decides to visit the Catholic church to seek advice. Though she's an atheist, the village leaves no other options in charitable good will. Of the two priests available to speak to she chooses Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a 26-year old man from a modest family. She expects to be met by a man who blindly lays claim to God but is surprised at his complex outlook on faith and his willingness to tolerate her absence of it.
François Ozon is known, for the most part, for his thrillers and films that more or less focus on romantic scenarios, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual. His films have a touch of absurdity, but not always necessarily for absurdity's sake, if that makes any sense. Sitcom is my personal favorite among his works because it takes the concept of a sitcom—the suburban family with teenage children—and heightens it to incomparable and outrageous extremes. These sorts of television series are usually about families pulling together to overcome obstacles that every family eventually faces. For many viewers, they present a fantasy in which you can escape your own family, with subjects that many view as perfect. Some even see these characters as people to measure up to. I'm more referring to shows like The Cosby Show, where people have a cookie-cutter existence. However, in the mid-to-late '90s, there was a trend of shows that gave you the exact opposite feeling, like Married with Children. These shows were unrealistic, often trashy depictions of home life that were pleasurable because they came off as something that an average person could measure up to. Not to mention people found the tastelessness funny. But the bar was lowered, so to speak. Ozon's Sitcom lowers the bar even further and takes its time presenting a ludicrous plot that glorifies fetishism, tactlessness, neurosis, and sociosexual disarray.
The family in focus starts out average; a father (François Marthouret) who's the breadwinner and fairly detached from everyone; a mother (Évelyne Dandry) who does the child-rearing and is a nervous wreck; a son, Nicolas (Adrien de Van) who is introverted and academic; a promiscuous daughter, Sophie (Marina de Van) with charm, a cute boyfriend and a lot of vulnerability. They get a Spanish maid, Maria (Lucia Sanchez) who is married to a man from Africa named Abdu. The balance is stagnant—not a threat to the viewer or even that interesting. One day the father comes home with an albino lab rat, which is met with adoration from everyone except the mother, who finds it repulsive.
1-900 (aka 06)
Using a cast of only two people and a set of two homes, 1-900 attempts to explore the dynamics of a relationship between two people who can't have a functional relationship with someone they can physically approach. Through a sex hotline, a woman named Sarah (Ariane Schluter) describes herself as an art enthusiast and an open-minded intellect. A man named Thomas (Ad van Kempen) responds to her ad with his phone number, and Sarah calls him back on a Thursday night. The awkwardness of their first conversation is no different than that which occurs during a first date. They inquire about past marriages, children, age, occupation and so on. The man claims to be 33, with features that are a far cry from reality. The woman does the same, except she presents herself as someone more “ethnic” than she really is. The imagination aspect to the experience distracts them from the sole purpose of the hotline. So, seeing as how they did in fact meet through a sex agency, they eventually try to move the conversation towards sex. Neither of them actually undresses nor makes a motion to participate. It shows through Sarah’s giggling and Thomas's fear of being mocked by her, or worse, overheard by someone who may or may not be in the room with her. The conversation ends despairingly, but Sarah calls back the following Thursday and wholeheartedly starts to participate. Thomas is then more than happy to oblige.
On Thursdays Sarah continues to call and the two slowly warm up to and become dependent on each other’s company. Thomas is an architect who loves boring people with his passion for creating structures. Sarah is an art professor who shares secrets that do more than provoke. Their conversations don't always lead to having mutual phone sex; sometimes one of them will pretend to listen to the other talk while secretly getting-off on the sound of the other’s voice. Both Sarah and Thomas become too comfortable and, in their own right, selfish with their desires. Jealousy becomes a factor in their relationship when Sarah’s actual rendezvous with people outside of what they share are claimed, by Thomas, to constitute infidelity. While he's under the impression that he is “in her soul” and a real part of her life, she constantly reminds him that their circumstances are anything but soulful. Thomas's frustration over her power (she hasn't disclosed her own number and always calls him) starts to create larger problems. His prying becomes threatening when he discovers her real name and address by chance. With the possibility of him digging into her past and discovering her biggest secret, or ruining her good name, the two grow apart and lose the magic of anonymity.