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Entries in French Cinema (3)

Monday
May162016

RAW

Stars: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella, Laurent Lucas, Marion Verneux, Jean-Louis Sbille and Joana Preis.
Writer/Director: Julia Ducournau

Screened in Semaine de la Critique selection at 69th Festival de Cannes; reviewed at Olympia Cinemas 2, Cannes.

Rating: 4/5

While filmmakers and audiences tend to gag at the thought of ‘the other C-word’ onscreen, writer/director Julia Ducournau and her fearless leading lady Garance Marillier launch themselves teeth first into their bloody and occasionally brilliant cannibal horror pic, Raw (aka Grave, to its homeland Euro auds).

Blood ties and the inflamed passion of a woman’s blossoming are central to the French director’s strikingly accomplished first feature, one of the most invigorating debuts in recent memory. A coming-of-age tale conveyed with deftly handled emotional complexity and chilling thematic subtext, Raw is above all else a gut twisting work of classic body horror. On one occasion, your seasoned scribe averted his eyes in anticipation of what was about to unfold; there were a couple of other times when he wished he had.

In almost every frame is teen actress Garance Marillier as Justine, a committed vegetarian(!) who we meet as she is being delivered by her parents (Laurent Lucas, Joana Preis) to veterinary college. From the first night, senior students haze and harass the newbies; Justine is cut no slack by her big sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who so fervently adheres to university tradition she makes Justine eat raw rabbit kidney instead of being shamed before her peers.

Justine’s despair at eating flesh manifests in scaly, itchy skin; in one excrutiating but brilliantly sound-designed sequence, she works her nails deep into the red patches that have formed. Worse is yet to come, however, as the hunger for raw meat becomes an all-consuming need for Justine, her ravenous desires of every kind escalating to predatory proportions.

Such developments would be sufficient for many lesser works, but Ducornau taps a rich vein of sibling rivalry drama and familial intrigue that elevates the stakes and pits Marillier against the ferocity of Ella Rumpf’s Alexia. There are corpulent detours and the odd surreal touch along the way, but nothing derails the foreboding menace and driving dramatic pulse of the story; the denouement, a shocking sequence that plays like a real-world nightmare, and icky coda will induce a goosepimply bout of the cold sweats.

Raw is a film that both embraces and defies cinematic traditions. The sublime camerawork of DOP Ruben Impens (The Broken Circle Breakdown, 2013; The Sky Above Us, 2015) enhances the narrative while also subverting the genre; coming-of-age loveliness can turn to animalistic rage from one frame to the next. Other major assets include co-star Rabah Nait Oufella as coarse but caring gay roommate Adrien; the dizzying music score by Jim Williams (Sightseers, 2012; Kill List, 2011); and, of course, the precise and often sickening work done by the make-up effects units led by Olivier Alfonso and Laura Ozier. Julia Ducournau’s command of the production and assured guidance in the pursuit of her harrowing, unforgettable vision signifies the director as a new major talent. 

Friday
Jan302015

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Deux jours, une nuit)

Stars: Marion Cotillard, Fabrizio Rongione and Catherine Salee.
Writers/Directors: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne.

Rating: 4.5/5

Deceptively minimalist in its realism as only the cherished Dardennes Brothers can be, Two Days, One Night is, in fact, a soaring study in the fragility and fierceness of the human spirit.

As Sandra, the struggling young mum whose home and livelihood is threatened by heartless corporate cost cutting, Marion Cotillard further strengthens her status as arguably the finest actress working in film today; the Oscar and Cesar overseers agree, nominating her for Lead Actress at this year's ceremonies. Soliciting the pity of all her workmates, several of whom have already voted to have her sacked in favour of a Euro1000 bonus, Cotillard conveys a wave of desperate emotions that have her (and the audience) on the brink of tears from the first frame.

The Dardennes have always brought tremendous insight into the plight of their heroines. From their 1999 breakout hit, Rosetta, to 2011’s festival favourite, The Kid with a Bike, the Belgian brothers have constructed determined and damaged leading lady roles that (they produced Cotillard’s triumphant tearjerker, Rust and Bone, in 2012). They are also filmmakers who stridently refuse to indulge in sentimentality, a narrative avenue that presents itself as an option at several key moments in their latest work but which remains at a directorial arm’s length.

Capturing easily identifiable authenticity in its smallest moments (a shattering stillness at the family dinner table; Sandra’s nonchalant downing of anti-depressants), Two Days, One Night may be the film that most sublimely melds the barebones emotional reality in which their protagonists eek out survival with themes that are both deeply personal yet define our societal existence. It presents the consummate movie actress of her generation stripping bare the vanities of her profession to portray an everywoman hero, gently coaxed to life by filmmakers with a profound grasp of true emotion.

Thursday
May082014

MINUSCULE: VALLEY OF THE ANTS

Writers/Directors: Helene Giraud and Thomas Szabo.

Rating: 3.5/5

The bigscreen adaptation of co-directors Helene Giraud and Thomas Szabo’s French TV hit is a charming adventure that only stumbles when it favours an increasingly expansive plot over its delightful six-legged stars. Which won’t matter one bit to the under 10s, for whom this unlikely, sweetly-told tale of friendship in the insect world will prove irresistible.

Giraud and Szabo stumbled upon a cottage industry when they launched the first series of six-minute shorts in 2006 chronicling anthropomorphised insect life in the French countryside (the film’s backdrop is the woods of Provence). To date, the pair has produced 78 mini-episodes; all are sans dialogue (as is the film version), ensuring easy transition into a global marketplace that now numbers over 70 territories. The step-up to cinema-sized coin was inevitable and has proven audience-friendly; Minuscule is already one of 2014’s top-earners, with Eu14million banked domestically.

The theme of family is established early, when a pregnant woman enjoying a picnic with her beau abandons her blanket of food to dash to the hospital. Jump cut to a birth, but not the one expected; instead, we are under a vast leafy frond and witnessing three ladybug eggs pop open. The new winged family set out on an exploratory adventure, only to have one little one become separated. All alone, his misadventures in survival lead him to the blanket, where he inadvertently befriends the leader of a black ant food-scouting regiment.

With the ants balancing a tin of sugar cubes and the wee ladybug along for the ride (a damaged wing renders the poor critter flightless), a cross-paddock odyssey is undertaken to return the bounty to the ant’s home. Dangers abound (including one very scary lizard, when viewed from the ant’s perspective), not least of which is a determinedly evil red ant platoon led by the film’s villain. The red ants are continuously denied some sugar (both good guys and bad almost falling victim to an ant life’s many dangers, including fish and motorcars) until they can take it no more; the reds launch an all out assault on the black ant hill.

It is this third-act/ninety-degree turn into a Lord of the Rings-style ‘castle siege’ that betrays the elegant, character-driven warmth of Minuscule; the wonderfully expressive eyes of the key protagonists and the major threats posed by minor obstacles are all the narrative needed. By the time the warring ant armies drag slingshots, fireworks and a bug-spray can into battle, audience empathy and interest has waned. One senses Giraud and Szabo were unsure of how to upscale the story as convincingly as the visuals; the narrative hiccups when our ladybug hero/heroine must travel back to the rug, becoming side-tracked into an unnecessary encounter with a spider and frog.

In every other respect, Minuscule is an enormously entertaining adventure. It effortlessly finds more engaging interplay and laughs amongst its handful of tiny, wordless characters than the entire cast of most recent smart-mouthed US animation efforts.