By: David Schloss

The best films I saw in the Cincinnati area in April were in the annual Tournees Francaise series at NKU, plus one at the Carnegie through Cincinnati World Cinema. The Tournee presents the best of recent French cinema that hasn’t played commercially here. Five films played twice each week at the new Griffin Digitorium on campus (free for NKU people, $5 for the public)

This year, Catherine Breillat’s The Sleeping Beauty, a surreal, feminist, revisionist version of the fairy tale, led off. In the past, her remarkable Romance, Fat Girl, and The Last Mistress opened here. Previously, she made Bluebeard, another revisionist fairy tale. The bad witch’s curse, partly undone by a good one (Julia Artantov), leaves a 6 year old princess, Anastasia (Catherine Besnamon), to sleep for 100 years, yet somehow age only 10 years.  At 16, she wakes from her dreams to confront a changed world. This film was vivid, dreamy, strange, obsessive, with indelible imagery of the pleasures and terrors of the flesh on our young heroine’s journey through her dreams, but with little dramatic narrative drive. If her true love, Peter, (Kerian Mayan) was restored at the end in the person of his grandson[!], it was after being put though ordeal after ordeal, in which she had to discover her mettle in a scary, alternate world. Perhaps this is an allegory of such necessity of experience in order to see through the world’s guises to achieve sexual maturity.

Bellamy, Claude Chabrol’s 57nd and last feature film (previously, his Story of Women, Le Ceremonie, The Girl Cut in Two, plus too many great films to mention, have played here over the years) about a vacationing detective was a pleasant surprise. It was written with Gerard Depardieu in mind, but Marie Dunel as his wife, Clovis Cornillac and Jacques Gambin as his brother, and others, also give the usual intense Chabrolian performances. It transcends its genre trappings with a cubistic, multifaceted perspective, lots of wry wit and an intellectual superstructure, typical of Chabrol, but perfected here, to go along with the v8-0 year old director’s gracefully efficient and adept filmmaking. The complications of the heart are always at the heart of his work, with societal contextualizations that specify and add to the genial wisdom and suspense. It is a meditation on marriage as well as murder, and/or vice versa.

Claire Denis’ White Material is perhaps her best film so far, an idiosyncratic yet very precise visual essay on dangerous obsession. Isabelle Huppert plays a coffee plantation owner, European, but native born in an unnamed West African country, committed to harvesting her crop in the midst of civil war between government militias and rebel bands of pitiless armed children, with civilians caught in the crossfire. She has to deal with an ex-husband (Christopher Lambert), crazed son (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and various government people, besides runaway workers to try to harvest her crop. High tension is sustained through atrocity and heartbreak, which are implicit and explicit in her sustained and dangerous state of denial. The lush beauty of Africa contrasts with the human viciousness, while her driven obliviousness brings the action to its tragic consequences in conclusion. Denis (her Chocolat, Beau Travail, and 35 Shots of Rum in last year’s Tournee have played here) was born in Africa and loves the light of her birthplace. Casual killers holding guns and teddy bears maraud the countryside, while Huppert’s character apolitically shelters their adult leader, “The Boxer” (Isaac de Banchole), in her compound. Melodrama is transcended by specificity of action and place, the camera capturing events in a calm curious gaze throughout. The implications are devastating, but no commentary is projected onto the action at all—it’s left up the viewer to cope with the unfolding pieces of information. The construct of the whole is memorable for its sense of place and unsentimental high-tension realism about native and colonial Africans uneasily coexisting.

Hadewijch, by Bruno Dumont (L’Humanite, 29 Palms) is his best film; at least, that I’ve seen of his to date. Magnificent saturated-color visuals in and around Paris lend context to the odd tale of a young novitiate, Celine (Julie Sokolwski, a striking presence), asked to leave the nunnery for her extreme religious fervor. Once back at the surprisingly opulent apartment of her extremely disengaged rich parents, she meets an Arab boy Nasir (Karl Serafide) whose brother Yassine (Yassione Salime) is a Muslim lay preacher. She is trusting, innocent and goes through the world in her otherworldly space (somewhat like Sleeping Beauty) untouched and trusting, and eventually joins this attractive zealot brother in his violent schemes. “Love is Violence,” he says, before bombing the complacent French. Hadewijch alludes to a wealthy 13th C. novitiate who was censured for her religious extremism, and also never took orders. Questions of sanity and zealous fervor abound. Yet, there are turns in the film toward a kind of religious suicidal fatedness that reminded me of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette. These themes  devolve in ways that are more within Dumont’s dark vision of the human condition than Bresson’s. In fact, there is an almost miraculous convergence at the end, with, again, a deadpan refusal to spell out the extremely complicated spiritual implications of her salvation at the hands of another enigmatic figure, named David, a sometime physical laborer at the monastery who’s also a convicted petty criminal.

The Father of My Children by Mia Hanson-Love, is a remarkably warm portrait of a family in crisis. In this case, the extreme financial pressures on the father, (Louis-Do de Lenequesaing), a film producer, which provide a knowing inside look at the real processes behind what eventually appears on screen for audiences, as well as the consequences of a father’s death. His Italian wife (Chiara Caselli), and daughter (Alice de Lenequesaing) go on their own healing journeys afterwards, and the other two little girls go along for the emotional ride. The presentations of the young girls and their parents are thoroughly charming, realistic and convincing, before and after the family regains its equilibrium. Rarely has such naturalness been captured so vividly, such inhabited emotional spaces been seen on screen.

All five films were exceptional in various ways, but I thought White Material and Hadewijch were master works, beyond the general high standard of excellence established by this series.

Another fine film played at the Carnegie, in Covington, for two showings, through Cincinnati World Cinema. The Hunter, with Willem Defoe and Sam Neill is a long-term project, clearly a labor of love, by the director, David Neitham, shot on location in Tasmania’s remarkable, unique ecosystem. A hunter (Dafoe) is hired by a drug company to bring back the perhaps-extinct Tasmanian Tiger (a marsupial with striped hide, not a cat) for its purported special chemical qualities. The stakes become more and more complicated by the choices presented to the hunter, who discovers manipulations and darker motives behind his quest, exemplified in the ambiguous figure of Sam Neill’s character. An easy relationship with an attractive woman with whom he boards does not evolve in expected directions: this is not a romance, but a film about moral decisions about the natural world. To fulfill his assignment or not is one crux upon which he must decide. The suspense is much more than the adventurous physicality which the film abundantly provides as well. A very serious meditation on human incursions into and destruction of habitats for greed, it is less essay than enactment of the consequences upon the psyches of the humans in this semi-untouched paradise.

Note: Le Havre, by the world-class Finnish director, Aki Kaurasmaki, will play on Sunday June 24 at 4 and 7 at the Carnegie. It takes place in Le Havre, and involves the touching interaction between a Western European man  and a younger African illegal immigrant. Cincinnati World Cinema deserves every art film aficionado’s support. Many films of real interest never open in Cincinnati, and although I am grateful to the Esquire and Mariemont for showing many serious films, they are still commercial enterprises that must also clutter their screens with more popular entertainments.

Also, in April, at these theaters, were some films of note: We Need to Talk About Kevin (directed by Lynne Ramsay, with Tilda Swinton, John O’Reilly and Ezra Miller), with strong performances in a brutal family psychodrama; Footnote (Israeli, directed by Joseph Cedar), a knowing comic rendition of academic politics in the competition between a father and son for a prize in their common field; Salmon Fishing in The Yemen (directed by Lasse Hallstrom, with Emily Blunt, Angus MacGregor and Caitlin Scott-Thomas) an absurd situation taken seriously enough to make an impact as a charming and charged romcom fantasy; Coriolanus (directed by, and starring Ralph Fiennes, with Vanessa Redgrave and Gerard Butler) an impressively fierce rendition of the Shakespeare play in modern dress. All had their various interests and charms, (and limitations and flaws). Thanks to the Esquire and Mariemont for showing these….


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