Quick takes on 5 foreign films

portrait of a lady on fireStarting off with a great film. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a French period film taking place in the late 18th century, with two all-star performances by Noemie Merlant and Adele Haenel. Excellent artist and painter Marianne arrives to an isolated estate to paint a portrait of Heloise, a portrait which will be gifted to Heloise’s husband-to-be. The rub is that Heloise doesn’t want to get married; it was her sister who was to be married, but she killed herself, letting the responsibility fall to Heloise to marry for the family. Consequently, Heloise refuses to pose for the portrait, so her mother has hired Marianne to pretend to be Heloise’s companion, to study her, and then to paint from memory at night. After a week, the portrait is finished, but Marianne isn’t happy with it. She comes clean to Heloise and destroys the painting, and promises the mother to start fresh. Heloise agrees to model this time. The mother leaves to attend to other business, and the two women spend a week together, with increasing emotions for each other. The simmering sexual tension between the two women in the first half is a wonderful slow burn, as they begin to read each other, and then finally, connect on a deep, intense, emotional couple days. Richly filmed, sparse but warm, the film pulls you in and doesn’t let you go until the very end. It’s odd how a film where all of the action is in the raise of an eye, the tilt of a head, the lingering touch, and yet it is as gripping as the most explosive action flick. ★★★★★

declineThe Decline, a French Canadian film produced by Netflix, follows a man named Antoine, who is convinced the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Between global warming, global powers, failing economies, and mass migrations, he is sure that it is only a matter of time before the only people surviving will be the survivalists. Though inexperienced, he’s been watching videos online of a survivalist named Alain, who teaches how to preserve food, build bunkers, etc. Antoine and a half dozen other like-minded people sign up for Alain’s “class” at his remote, self-sufficient getaway. There, they learn how to grow everything they need, live off the land, and defend it from invaders, including how to make bombs and booby traps. An accident one evening though separates the hard-cores from those not willing to do everything for this lifestyle, and the film becomes a suspense between the hunters and their prey. Nothing groundbreaking here, but it is a better-than-average action thriller, with a couple twists you won’t see coming, and passable performances from mostly unknown actors. ★★★

leviathanI thought I would really dig Leviathan, a 2014 Russian film from director Andrey Zvyagintsev. Reviews I read made it sound like the kind of slow-moving, heavy-thinking film that I often enjoy (re: Nuri Bilge Ceylan). But I couldn’t get into it. It is basically about a man, Kolya, who fights the system and loses at every turn. The mayor of their tiny fishing town wants to take Kolya’s house (and adjacent business) by eminent domain to build a communications tower, but Kolya is convinced he really wants the land to build himself a seaside mansion. At the same time, Kolya’s wife is running around on him with his own lawyer. No one seems to be on Kolya’s side, including the cops and even the town priest. Many reviewers point out that the film is like a modern telling of the Biblical book of Job (the filmmaker himself hints at this near the end), but I don’t see the connection. Job was a faithful man who stayed true to God through all the evils done to him; Kolya has faith in nothing but himself, and ultimately the film seems to say even God is against him. It is a Ceylan film without any of the enlightening moments, which ultimately makes for a long, boring movie. ★½

huntDanish film The Hunt stars Mads Mikkelsen, whom you may recognize from his roles as bad guys in films such as Bond’s Casino Royale or Marvel’s Doctor Strange, but he has a lot of versatility too (I LOVED him in Arctic last year). He doesn’t get any better than in The Hunt, for which he won Best Actor at Cannes in 2012. He plays Lucas, a 42 year old kindergarten teacher, who loves and is loved by his kids. One particular girl, Klara, has a schoolgirl crush on him, even rushing in to steal a kiss when Lucas is rough-housing with the boys. Lucas calmly sits her down and tells Klara that was not acceptable, and as kids do, she doesn’t take it well. To get back at him, Klara relates a story to the head of the school, something she heard in passing from her older teenage brother, about an erect penis. Immediately Lucas is of course suspended, and the police get involved. Without even knowing who is accusing him or what exactly he is being accused of, Lucas is left out in the dark as the little community explodes around him. His best friends leave him, he ex-wife withholds their son, and he gets asked to stop shopping at the local grocery store by the owner. Before Lucas knows what’s going on, the situation becomes a witch hunt. The head of school asks other parents if their kids are exhibiting “strange” behaviors like acting out, being quiet or sullen, or nightmares, which of course all are, so more accusations start popping up. Lucas rightfully gets angry and lashes out against those who confront him, but even these actions are misconstrued as guilt. It is a brilliant and eye-opening film about how a lie can destroy someone’s life, but the film does a good job of not blaming anyone in the process. Klara is just a little girl, the teachers are just doing what they think is right, the parents and citizens are just trying to protect their kids, and through it all, Lucas is shattered. It’s a very uncomfortable film to watch, but an important one. ★★★★½

timbuktuSometimes I watch a movie that the critics loved, and I can only scratch my head and wonder what people see in it. Timbuktu is hardly a movie; it is more a glimpse into the way of life in a harsh village in Africa which has been overrun by extremist Islamists. The new rulers have imposed strict religious rule about what people can wear, how they can act in public, etc. There seemed to be a very loose plot about a shepherd’s family living just outside the city, who runs afoul of a local fisherman when one of their cows stumbles into his nets in the river, but honestly I didn’t stick around long enough to see what developed there. The “film” really is mostly just scenes of jihadists walking through the city harassing its inhabitants and arresting women for not wearing gloves, young men for playing soccer, and other such things. On the news we see all the evil over there, and it is easy to forget the average people like you and me are just trying to go about their lives, but if you want to turn that into a movie, at least give me a plot to get behind. If there’s a good plot in this one, it didn’t start before the 45 minute mark when I peaced out.

2 thoughts on “Quick takes on 5 foreign films

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s