Mar 17, 2010

From the Archives

I've been writing film criticism for over a decade now, and I've built up an extensive archive of reviews, so I thought that I'd start sharing some of those reviews that I wrote in the past, but can still stand by. These are as written at the time, except where edits are needed to correct typing errors, or to remove a joke or reference that won't make sense in this context.

DIR: Valeria Gai-Germanika
CAST: Polina Filonenko, Agniya Kuznetsova, Olga Shuvalova

9th graders Katya (Filonenko), Zhanna (Kuznetsova) and Vika (Shuvalova) are excited to find out that their school will soon be holding a disco, their first. But the events of the week leading up to the dance will test their recent pact to remain friends “until we grow up”?

I’ve noticed a real difference between American and European teen movies. The US high school movie generally insists that the ugly duckling is actually a model in specs, that the girl with the shit boyfriend will chuck him and go off with the man of her dreams and that the school rebel really just needs to have their talent for painting/pottery/singing recognised in order to become a different, better, person. That wasn’t what my teenage years were like, nor were those of my friends. The darker breed of foreign teen movie, of which Everybody Dies But Me is a notably difficult example, gets closer to what seemed a fraught, often painful time.

The opening ten minutes of this very short film (whose credits roll at barely the seventy minute mark) instill a false sense of security, as the three friends hold an impromptu funeral for Zhanna’s cat, back each other up when teachers single them out at school, and make their pact to remain friends. It’s when they go home that it becomes clear that Everybody Dies But Me is not going to be an easy experience. From there it doesn’t get any easier.

It would be criminal to reveal what happens in the film from there, suffice to say that this is not a film for you if you’re easily upset. Everybody Dies But Me is, despite its unrelenting darkness, utterly compelling. Much of the credit for that must go to its director; Valeria Gai-Germanika is just 24 years old, and this is her first film, something that is never evident from her sure handed touch behind the camera, or the maturity with which she deals with the difficult subject matter. Where Gai-Germanika’s youth really pays dividends is in her handling of the young cast. You get the feeling that, because she’s not so far from her characters age herself, she’s got a real connection to the material that must have helped in the process.

The cast are, uniformly, extraordinary. Each of the leads has her moment in the sun, and each shines in every scene, but if anyone sneaks acting honours it is Agniya Kuznetsova who, as Katya, spends most of the film being abused in some way or another, but gives her character real dignity, which, along with the knowledge of what she’s going through, allows you to like Katya even at her worst. This is not to take anything away from Filonenko or Shuvalova though.

If there’s any real problem with the film it’s the dialogue’s occasional tendency to melodrama, but then, that’s teenagers for you. Emotions are heightened, the end of a week long relationship might feel like the end of the world and though it won’t be to all tastes the odd bit of melodrama actually makes the characters feel more real.

It takes quite a bit for a movie to really affect me anymore, but this one left me, after its desperately sad closing image, shaken and on the verge of tears. It’s not easy, but it is a must see.

DIR: Ilan Duran Cohen
CAST: Pascal Greggory, Nathalie Richard, Julie Gayet,
Olivier Martinez, Cyrille Thouvenin

This extremely French drama of criss-crossing relationships gets most of its effectiveness from an accomplished and fearless cast. Pascal Greggory, who is fast becoming one of my favourite French actors, heads the cast as a bi-sexual lawyer who is married to the woman who is carrying his child (Richard), living with the brother (Thouvenin) of an ex-girlfriend, and attracted to both the client (Martinez) whose life sentence he is trying to have reduced and to the ex (Gayet) has him contact in order to beg her to visit him in jail.

Pascal Greggory gives each of these relationships a different feel, and makes Alain, who is a rather weak character, engaging and sympathetic. It’s an exposing film for Greggory, but he commits to each of the many love scenes with gusto, be they with men or women.

Julie Gayet, like Greggory, is someone I’ve seen relatively little of, but always been impressed by and her quiet work here doesn’t disappoint, in her you feel Babette’s desperation, her wish to escape both her ex Marc and her mundane life as a hairdresser. She’s especially outstanding in the film’s best scene, in which Babette visits Marc a second time, she’s entirely silent, but the devastation that is evident in her face is genuinely upsetting.

The rest of the cast are similarly excellent, but it is Babette, Alain and Marc’s story that is the most dramatic and when we spend time away from it the film feels like it is treading water, particularly in the not terribly interesting relationship between Alain and his much younger lover Christophe. The other B Stories are more interesting, and despite how many variations on the wedding scene we’ve seen in movies over the years Cohen does manage to come up with a fresh and funny one for Greggory and Richard.

Visually the film promises much with a beautifully shot and edited opening sequence which sees Greggory in bed, holding a conversation with a series of naked lovers, male and female, but thereafter it becomes rather more conventional, which is a shame because that sequence suggests that Cohen is an imaginative director. However even if the film is slightly unimaginative at a visual level Cohen certainly shows himself to be a capable director of actors, even drawing nice work from people in one or two scene parts (Greggory and Richard’s parents are particularly good value).

Sadly it all wraps up just a little too neatly, and that doesn’t quite ring true given the tangled web these characters weave, but still, La Confusion des Genres has much to recommend it and is well worth 90 minutes of your day.

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