This year, I was honored to once again be invited by the team at indieWIRE to participate in their Best of Foreign-Language Film Poll. Interestingly, my own votes echoed quite a few of my peers in the industry, while others were clearly different. My only complaint was the exclusion of Werner Herzog and his trifecta of amazing documentaries from the ‘foreign’ category (the poll is for foreign ‘language’ films). I think Herzog was the Director of the Year by a country mile, releasing 3 amazing films this year (Grizzly Man, Wheel of Time, and The White Diamond) with no one coming close to that achievement in the past decade (maybe ever). I do not regret my vote for Lucrecia Martel , but she was not my first choice. Shouldn’t documentary films independently produced in Tibet/India or Guyana by a German Director count, despite having English-speaking voice overs and/or subjects? Ah, the complications of globalization. Maybe next year.
Without further ado, and in the spirit of full-disclosure, the Back Row Manifesto presents our complete ballot in the 2005 indieWIRE Foreign-Language Film Poll…
KINGS AND QUEEN by Arnaud Desplechin
This movie was my favorite film of any kind released this year, not simply foreign. Desplechin is at the top of his game, and with star turns from both Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric, the film is a terrific blend of comedy and tragedy. My interview with Arnaud Desplechin can be found here, and talking with him was the absolute highlight of my year. My thoughts on the film can be found here.
Valentin Lelong and Mathieu Amalric in Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen
DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE by Hubert Sauper
DARWIN’S NIGHTMARE is the most powerful statement on the current state of the world; the film’s images are so profound, experiences so full that any other medium seems useless. Essential. My thoughts on the film can be found here.
Lucrecia Martel for THE HOLY GIRL
It is hard when you live in a society that constantly denies the notion of a class structure to understand the lack of American perspective on the decay of the priviledged classes, but in films like Michael Haneke’s CACHÉ and Lucrecia Martel’s awesome THE HOLY GIRL, we saw the global reality of the spiritual and moral decline of the bourgeoise take center stage again. Foreign films can show us the status of class relations world wide, but I am still waiting for an American director to outline the flawed American class structure with anywhere near the skill and grace on display in THE HOLY GIRL.
THE WORLD by Jia Zhangke
A perfect distillation of urban anxiety about globalization and the emptiness of work. I loved this story, which was the perfect microcosm of the struggle of foreign film in the American marketplace. My thoughts on the film can be found here.
Jean-Pierre Bacri in LOOK AT ME
Bacri’s scowling, nasty Étienne Cassard is a classic on-screen bastard who, surprisingly, elicited a tremendous amount of sympathy from the audiences of LOOK AT ME. Bacri eats the part up and is tremendous fun to watch in the role of the mean, selfish, indifferent father who slings bon-mots like a cowboy drawing a pistol. My previously unblogged review of the film can be found after the jump.*
Jean-Pierre Bacri and Marilou Berry in Agnes Jaoui’s Look At Me
Emmanuelle Devos for KINGS AND QUEEN and GILLES’ WIFE
Devos had two great roles this year, and both were criminally underseen by audiences. In KINGS AND QUEEN, she plays a self-centered mother with a closet full of skeletons, and in GILLES’ WIFE, a troubled wife and mother who can’t find a way to reconcile her own needs with the social confines in which she lives. The roles were miles apart, but all Devos; shy, quiet, full of intensity and innocence. She is emerging as a great actress.
Best Supporting Actor/Actress
The cast of NOBODY KNOWS by Hirokazu Kore-eda
It is not too often that a film almost exclusively starring an entire cast of children is as powerful and well-acted as NOBODY KNOWS. These perfromances, none of which were a leading role, all feel totally real, not acted, and the entire ensemble are worthy of praise, as is the director Hirokazu Kore-eda, who got his cast to deliver a stunning ensemble performance.
Best First Film
INNOCENCE by Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Beautiful, baffling, and terribly underseen, this story of a community of young girls guiding one another along the road to sexual maturity is a fully realized fairy tale unlike anything else seen this year. Completely original.
Best Technical Achievement (Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, etc.)
2046 by WONG KAR-WAI
Stunning! What more can you say?
*The review below appeared in The Uncommon Sense, the alt-monthly newspaper in my hometown of Flint, MI where I am the film columnist. It never made the BRM blog because the review appeared well after the NYFF premiere of the film, coinciding with the film’s Michigan release. Conisder this your BRM DVD-style bonus footage!
Problem Child: Agnes Jaoui’s LOOK AT ME
Since every article about French film written since 1960 has either implicitly or explicitly mentioned the Nouvelle Vague (New Wave), I thought we would begin this month’s version of The Back Row Manifesto by getting that mention out of the way so that we can talk about what is truly happening with French film; that is, a great, diverse flourishing of an identifiable national cinema. On the one hand are the enfants terrible of art house cinema, Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Nöe, and filmmakers like Marina De Van, making intense, graphic films that (rightfully) challenge the endurance of audiences to confront the ugliness that exists in the world. On the other hand, there is the continued development of subtle, urban films that, unlike the movies of Godard and Truffaut, dwell less on a irreverent devotion to popular American cinema than they do on reflecting the ideas and concerns of bourgeois adults facing the ups and downs of a relatively modest, modern life. There are variations on both themes, including the rise of provincial films like the criminally overlooked C’est Qua la Vie? and the smart, moody thrillers of François Ozon, but if the films themselves are any indication, the diversity of French experience is as rich now as it has ever been. Comparisons to the bygone ideals of nouvelle vague seem less and less relevant and more like the naïve analogy of someone who simply hasn’t been paying attention.
But there are many reasons to pay attention, and the month of May provides two excellent examples of important, masterful French films that, when taken together, transcend the historical models. There is the May 13th release of Arnaud Desplechin’s masterpiece Kings and Queen (to which I could devote pages and pages of praise and analysis), but there is no real indication of when the film will arrive in Michigan. Instead, I am devoting this month’s column to the arrival of Agnés Jaoui’s New York Film Festival opener Look At Me. Fans of French cinema will be familiar with Ms. Jaoui from her previous work as a director (The Taste of Others), writer (Family Resemblances), and actress (Same Old Song), but in Look At Me, much like The Taste of Others, she is a triple threat, acting, directing, and writing (with co-writer, co-star and ex-husband Jean-Pierre Bacri). An impressive feat for any artist, Jaoui’s work on the film is all the more impressive in its restraint and its exceptional patience.
Look At Me tells the story of Lolita Cassard (Marilou Berry), the over-weight and overwrought daughter of a vainglorious author named Etienne Cassard (Bacri). While Cassard the younger spends her days attending acting class and voice lessons with Sylivia Miller (Jaoui), the wife of struggling author Pierre (Laurent Grevill), Etienne snarls and growls his way through dismissive interactions with his colleagues, nightclub patrons celebrating the screen adaptation of his novels, and dispassionate interactions with his daughter. As much as Lolita imagines the romantic attention of her handsome schoolmate Mathieu (Julian Baumgartner), she longs for the acceptance of her father. Like most teenagers, Lolita’s emotions vary in range from outrage to sullen withdrawal, with stops along the way to deliver the same dismissive rejections of others as she experiences at the hands of her father. Etienne’s fame is the source of a deep insecurity in Lolita, so much so that, like all great cinematic paranoids, she assumes that every innocent gesture of friendship is a calculated attempt to earn access to her father. Of course, like all insecure narcissists, she allows the acceptance of those she admires to blind her, while fearing and rejecting those with pure intentions. One such innocent (who will come to feel Lolita’s wrath) is Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza), a quiet young man who is clearly attracted to her, despite her constant rejection of his interest.
On the other hand, when Sylvia learns that her pupil is the daughter of a famous author, one the struggling Pierre admires, she takes the girl under her wing in an effort to steer Pierre into Etienne’s sphere of influence. In this moment, Look At Me becomes something greater than a typical recounting of the perils of social climbing and class envy. Instead, when Sylvia and Pierre enter the world of the Cassards, the dilemmas begin to pile up like a multi-car accident; Pierre becomes flattered by the attentions of Etienne, while Sylvia is outraged by the famous man’s gross disregard for his daughter. But Jaoui and Bacri are too smart to let the injustices of bad parenting count for too much; instead, Lolita never changes very much, remaining difficult for the audience to support, with her constant cruelties echoing her father’s treatment of other people. The entire enterprise climaxes at the Cassard’s country estate, where Lolita’s singing group, under the reluctant but opportunistic tutelage of Sylvia, has scheduled a performance at a beautiful gothic church. As the Millers, Cassards, and singers gather after the performance, the tenuous relationships all come to a resolving boil.
Were the film a simple comedy of manners, transplanting big city personalities to the confines of a country house, one might assume Look At Me was another in the long line of French critiques of bourgeois manners, stretching back to Jean Renoir’s La Régle du jeu. Instead, bubbling beneath the surface is an entirely different story; the story of women’s relationships to their bodies and the influences on their self-image. Throughout the dowdy Lolita’s travels, it is her weight and appearance that are constantly contributing to her mistreatment and are the source of her own self-pity. Yet despite these superficial cruelties, Lolita’s behavior continually undermines our support and the audience is implicated in the general rejection that seems to follow her around like a gloomy cloud. Etienne’s beautiful new (and very young) wife Karine (Virginie Desarnauts) tries to win Lolita over by taking her shopping, and despite Lolita’s dislike of the clothes her step-mother selects for her, Karine’s flattery inspires Lolita to wear the outfit. Lolita is so alienated from her own sense of happiness and satisfaction that the continuous cruelties of those around her are instantly absorbed without as much as a shrug of protest. Lolita has come to expect rejection, and so Sylivia’s small betrayal, her self-serving interest in the girl, carries with it the weight of fate. Happily, Sylivia is made of better stuff, and despite the origins of her decision to help Lolita, she soon begins to empathize with the girl as only a mature woman, comfortable in herself, can. And so, when Sylvia is able to carry out a small rebellion against the Cassard family dynamic, the moment plays like a perfect transposition. With the press of a button. Sylvia voices Lolita’s need to be loved and her own desire to reject the cruelties of Etienne’s dismissive brand of celebrity. In a single, sublime gesture, Jaoui’s Look At Me opens the possibility that everything might just turn out all right.