Pras On World Films: THE DAY I SAW YOUR HEART (“Et Soudain, Tout Le Monde Me Manque” / FRANCE)

The Day I Saw Your Heart” (2011 release from France) is the most recent (July, 2012) release in the monthly Film Movement series of foreign and indie films.The original title of this movie is “Et Soudain, Tout Le Monde Me Manque” (which translates as “And Suddenly, I Miss Everyone”).

Fathers and sons are an age old subject for filmmakers (and even a standby for at least a few filmmakers), and although there are less films about women than men, mothers and sons and mothers and daughters are also pretty common (even if too many of the latter are banal comedies rather than serious dramas). THE DAY I SAW YOUR HEART from director / writer Jennifer Devoldère, is the rarest breed: a father and daughter drama told primarily from the perspective of the daughter. It’s a fascinatingly complex portrait of family dysfunction, poor communication, and the complicated emotions underneath it all. The film follows the delightful Justine Dhrey and her interactions with her family and new flame. The focal point of the story is her relationship with her father Eli Dhrey  which is a bittersweet one riddled with misunderstandings and failed communication.

Michel Blanc stars as Eli, who recently remarried and is expecting a baby with his new (and much younger) wife. He is a many-times married businessman (a wonderful character who’s fussy and eccentric and gets into trouble wherever he goes). His daughter Justine (Melanie Laurent, (Melanie Laurant from Inglorious Basterds, Beginners) is an X-ray technician and would-be artist, currently living with her half-sister Dom (Florence Loiret Caille) and her husband Bertrand (Sébastien Castro). Eli traveled for work while Justine was little, he wrote postcards during this time, yet she never forgave him for the neglect and he for reasons never understood sent the postcards or told Justine about them. The way that Eli finds a connection to Justine is through her ex boyfriends who he awkwardly at first, befriends and then at times hires to work for him. Justine for most of the film is unaware of this, she believes her father to be critical of her when she drew and failed to defend her, when she was bullied as a child. Justine, meanwhile finds him baffling and frustrating — and infuriating in his propensity for making friends with all her ex-boyfriends.

Justine is fickle when it comes to romance — many remark about the five boyfriends she’s gone through just in the last year –but things start looking up when she meets a shoe salesman named Sami (Guillaume Gouix). The only problem left in her life is that of her father, Eli (Michel Blanc), who she fights with constantly. Justine feels emotionally abandoned by Eli, who frequently criticized her as a child; It is through Justine’s job as a mammogram technician that she finds her creative outlet using the equipment after hours to take pictures and make what is referred to as x-ray art. This is introduced to us as her romance with Sami (Guillaume Gouix) develops. The interest that they show towards each other is ideally how all romances should begin, including the song that plays as it happens. Though it is abruptly cut off when her father attempts to form a relationship with Sami of his own accord. Eli  simply doesn’t know how to articulate his love for Justine, reserving his passion for golf for people like Atom and praise for Justine’s art for her sister’s ears. “Whenever I’m away, I find I miss them,” he tells Atom, as if such an experience were mysterious and strange.

Eli has another grown daughter, Dom(inique), who is looking to adopt a baby with her husband. After many failed attempts for Dom to get pregnant, and her father’s own success at conceiving another child, convince Dom and Bertrand to adopt.

Eli, who has just married a much younger woman and his third wife, Suzanne (Claude Perron), and the fact they’re expecting a child, frustrates Eli, who knows his relationship with his existing daughters is far from great. Dom and Ju are also appalled that their dad is to become a father again, given the terrible job he did with them. As the family begins to grow, it’s during Suzanne’s pregnancy that her and Justine are able to build a relationship where before there was avoidance. It is not clear why the family as a whole treats Justine as a child, which is eventually done thoughtlessly. It’s when Eli & Suzanne announce that they are pregnant does it challenge Justine’s place as the baby of the family and unbeknownst to her the special place she has in her father’s heart. Possibly as a way to maintain Justine’s place Eli suggests to Suzanne the idea of having an abortion. Her reaction and what she does to him when she hears this is hilarious. Throughout the something’s Eli says or does have you question his character, but eventually see that he is trying though not always done the best way.

In order to work on his connection with Justine, he also decides to become friends with her previous boyfriend, Atom (Manu Payet)…without telling Justine. It is during a golf outing with Atom that Eli and Atom discuss where the responsibility for a parent child relationship lies. Atom believes that it is up to his own father to show interest in his efforts to become a comedian. Eli disagrees believing it to be up to the child, to take the first step.

Shortly after, Eli learns about Justine’s x-ray art he approaches her to be one of her models, she at first refuses. Up to this point has taken pictures of almost everything. At times it is quite amusing as she takes items out of her sister, Dom (Florence Loiret Caille) and brother in law, Bertrand’s (Sébastien Castro) home without their knowledge.

As Eli’s meddling in Justine’s relationships come to a head and Justine moves into the home stretch of her art project. But not everything is what it appears to be, and as the movie progresses we see signs of change in both Eli and Ju. Eli learns he needs to have an operation for his heart, and he opts not to tell Justine about it because he feels she’s stressed enough — a quiet, fatherly move that tears at Justine when she finds out but seems so innocuous and random in the moment.

It seems as if there are only so many routes for The Day I Saw Your Heart to take that would keep the film on the same tonal track, but Devoldère takes a rougher road less traveled, and comes out the other side with a uniquely satisfying ending. Unlike American romantic comedies, the failure of Justine and Eli to communicate is simple and personal. Wisely, Devoldère puts Justine and Eli together for some scenes at the beginning where their relationship is not the focus: the announcement of Suzanne’s pregnancy, a tense lunch a few days later, then separates them, allowing them to fill in the blanks of their trouble relationship by talking to other people (Justine to Sami, Eli to Atom), allowing the audience to sympathize equally with both of them.  Devoldère also artfully illustrates the functional communication between Justine and Dom in a sweet scene where Dom has learned she can’t have children, and Justine begins listing all the powerful people in history who were adopted. Chemistry between Sami and Justine is handled with an equally delicate touch — it’s a sweet, casual connection, not a passionate love affair, and yet somehow that makes their connection even more potent. Laurent, carrying the movie, is bright and charming, giving the movie an effervescence that proves crucial. The charms of the film are reserved, but the film has a sweet, authentic humanity from strong writing and an engaging lead performance, lifting it above most of its competitors.

Legendary French actor Michel Blanc brings Eli as if he was born to play this role, but Melanie Laurent as his daughter Ju is the true break-out star of this movie. Also noteworthy is the soundtrack of the movie, with great songs placements from Ben Kweller, Regina Spektor and Nina Simone, among others.

Laurent has an interesting screen quality, sensitive and yet with an occasional edge of impassiveness, an unwillingness to engage in comforting niceties. Writer-director Jennifer Devoldere created the role with Laurent in mind and makes use of that special quality, particularly in a scene in which she looks at her father’s X-ray and detects what could be a serious health problem. She cares, but there’s nothing sentimental about her. The portrait of a contemporary Jewish family in Paris is rounded out by Florence Loiret Caille, who plays Laurent’s sister.


DIRECTED BY  Jennifer Devoldère

PRODUCER   Farid Lahouassa, Aïssa Djabri

SCRENPLAY   Jennifer Devoldère

CAMERA   Laurent Tangy

CAST   Mélanie Laurent, Michel Blanc, Géraldine Nakache, Florence Loiret-Caille, Claude Perron, Guillaume Gouix, Sébastien Castro, Manu Payet, Jean-Yves Roan, Romain Levy, Alexandre Steiger, Daniel Cohen, Luce Mouchel

MUSIC Nathan Johnson

SOUND Jérôme Wiciak

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Pras on World Films: POLISSE

 

French actress turned director Maïwenn’s socially-minded film  POLISSE is a dramatically https://i0.wp.com/ia.media-imdb.com/images/M/MV5BNjQzNzUwNTA3OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDYzNjk2Nw@@._V1._SY317_.jpgcharged ensemble portrait of the French police, a collage of characters, narratives, and tones centered on a dozen men and women who work for the Child Protection Unit in Paris. It is packed with raw, visceral performances from an accomplished cast.This raucous, close-knit group, which goes after molesters and abusive parents, and finds shelters for unwanted children, is constantly in action. Its emotionally grueling work seeps into its members’ often-chaotic home lives. POLISSE was a winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and one of the most successful films of 2011 in France,  POLISSE was nominated for 13 Cesar Awards including Best Film, Director and 6 individual acting nominations for its phenomenal ensemble cast.

Though it is a fictional feature (written by Maïwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot), “Polisse” feels less dramatized than witnessed. It has a rough, ragged narrative structure and a correspondingly hectic visual style. It plows through some harsh, horrifying realities with unflinching sobriety, concerned less with social problems than with facts and in the process illuminates French society with a toughness and fidelity that few other recent movies have dared. The film uses actual events from the files of a real-life police unit, and the gritty realism is evident throughout the film. It aims for a picture of the underbelly of life that is at once broad and biting, and it is successful most the time. Though the cases we see – molestation, exploitation, heartbreaking poverty – are gripping, the main focus of this drama is the officers themselves.

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 Maïwenn has gathered an accomplished ensemble cast of French actors—including Polisse (movie) Maïwenn as Melissa in ``Polisse.''Karin Viard, Marina Foïs, co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot, Nicolas Duvauchelle, and rapper-turned-actor Joeystarr—who convey the emotional strain of the unit’s work with gritty realism (the director herself plays the role of a photographer embedded within the unit).  Poliss covers much ground, and even with its loose threads and frenzied structure, it convincingly jumps from laughter to tears and back again, never losing sight of the brutal realities at its core.

Polisse

The cases these officers deal with — parents who sexually abuse their children or force them to commit crimes; children who do terrible harm to themselves and one another — routinely expose the foulest aspects of human nature. The members of the Child Protection Unit must also contend with bureaucratic intransigence, petty corruption and perpetual competition for scarce resources. And also, once they leave work, with messy marriages, tumultuous friendships and the ordinary pains of adulthood.

One of the themes of “Polisse” is the fundamental benevolence of the state, an idea alien to American viewers. The idealism that Maïwenn detects beneath the grit is nonetheless disarming. Instead of overt displays of heroism or resistance, there are the satisfactions and frustrations of difficult labor in a righteous cause.

Another theme, one that emerges through scenes that are especially painful for being utterly matter of fact, is the pervasiveness of violence, sexual and otherwise, against girls. Polisse (movie) A scene from ``Polisse.''An officer is so spooked by cases of incest and molestation that he has difficulty giving his own young daughter a bath. One of his colleagues, a woman from a Muslim background, explodes in rage at a smug imam who plans to marry off his underage daughter. An upper-class father, arrested for raping his daughter, is almost boastful about what he has done. There are boys who suffer too, but “Polisse” makes a devastating, empirical argument that female children are especially vulnerable.

From its opening scene, in which a little girl tells one of the officers, Chrys (Karole Rocher), that her father sometimes “scratches her butt,” the film presents the difficulties in distinguishing truth from speculation in child sex abuse cases, especially when kids and parents offer conflicting testimonies, or take issue with police workers poking into their private lives. Maiwenn and co-writer-star Emmanuelle Bercot insert a number of such interrogations throughout the story, and they run the gamut from disturbing to hilarious to downright tragic, especially in one emotional wallop of a sequence where a little boy is separated from a mother who can’t provide him adequate shelter.That moment occurs about midway through the movie, and that fact that it runs on for longer than expected is Polisse (movie) A scene from ``Polisse.'' revealing of Maiwenn’s approach to such uneasy material. Instead of playing scenes safely via evocative cutaways or trying to up the cute factor whenever a kid appears on screen, she allows – like fellow French directors Abdellatif Kechiche or the late Maurice Pialat – for the intensity of the situation to take over in all its rawness. Another prime example is a late scene between two officers and sometime buddies, Nadine (Karin Viard) and Iris (Marina Fois), whose explosive office shouting match is something to behold.Very much like David Simon’s Baltimore-set HBO series, Poliss concentrates on the strain the job puts on policemen and women who deal day in day out with hard knocks cases and bureaucratic pigeonholing, and how that affects their generally chaotic home lives. In fact, all of them, including Melissa (Maiwenn), the timid photographer who’s been commissioned by the Interior Ministry to document the unit’s activities, are undergoing either a divorce, a separation, or are defiantly and unhappily single.

While these cops work very hard to mend other peoples’ nightmares, they are unable, through the sheer exhaustion of their métier, to take care of themselves, relying on each other for all kinds of support, friendship, or, in a few instances, love.Their work hard, play hard attitude is best exemplified by Fred (Joeystarr), a wiry cop whose estrangement from his own daughter makes him take every case to heart, putting him increasingly at odds with a superior (Frederic Pierrot) who caves in too easily to the power above.

Polisse Movie PosterThe film is designed to look as if it were haphazardly put together, with quick editing, a huge load of characters, and cases that weave in and out without resolution. At times, this style is quite immersive.  If the film suffers from anything, its still the writers’ choice to shove in so many plots, subplots, and episodes within its limited running time, and the finale especially takes a turn that doesn’t seem warranted by what preceded it. Because we haven’t had much chance to live with her story, her end feels inexplicable.  On the other hand, the film’s style doesn’t allow scenes and characters to unfold in anything like real time or even narrative time, causing an abruptness that undermines the storytelling. This is most evident in the ending, when an officer suddenly commits suicide.

Despite these, Polisse is a powerful document of how people deal with impossible situations. It is a brilliant example of how to show the strengths of an ensemble cast. It sustains the feeling of never-ending struggle that clearly hounds its characters, yet manages to do so without losing a certain cigarette-smoking, meal-enjoying languidness that seems unmistakably French.Whether performances were improvised or not is unclear, but they’re reigned in enough to feel polished and real. Ditto for the tech, which feels free and un-mannered as it captures the grittier neighborhoods of northeast Paris, though it never drops to the handheld quirks of many a young director.

Polisse (movie) A scene from ``Polisse.''“Polisse” feels a bit like a season of television compressed into a little more than two hours. (This theatrical cut was reportedly culled from nearly 150 hours of footage.) The action also veers now and then into melodramatic overstatement, in particular toward the end. But the messiness of the film seems appropriate to its subject, which is the attempt to bring at least a measure of order — and even a touch of grace — to a chaotic and frequently ugly reality.

POLISSE:         Directed by Maïwenn; written by Maïwenn and Emmanuelle Bercot; director of photography, Pierre Aïm; edited by Laure Gardette and Yann Dedet; music by Stephen Warbeck; production design by Nicolas de Boiscuille; costumes by Marité Coutard; produced by Alain Attal; released by Sundance Selects. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 7 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Karin Viard (Nadine), Joeystarr (Fred), Marina Foïs (Iris), Nicolas Duvauchelle (Mathieu), Maïwenn (Melissa), Karole Rocher (Chrys), Emmanuelle Bercot (Sue Ellen), Frédéric Pierrot (Balloo), Arnaud Henriet (Bamako), Naidra Ayadi (Nora) and Jérémie Elkaïm (Gabriel).

Pras on World Films: CHICO AND RITA

Chico & Rita movie posterSpain’s “Chico & Rita” was one of the biggest surprises of the 2012 Oscars by winning a nomination for best animated feature. In the 11 years since the Oscars introduced an award for Best Animated Feature, the category has been dominated by children’s movies, often with computer-animated pandas, penguins and ogres at their center. This one a little different.

The film depicts a nearly operatic romantic tragedy, involving a lifelong affair of the heart between two Havana musicians telling a distilled version of the 20th century history of jazz in about 90 minutes.. With irresistible Latin jazz, the animated feature captures seductive pre-Castro Cuba as it tells the story of a singer Rita, a promising young singer with a smoky voice and Chico, a piano man and their on and off romance over the years as they rise to fame. The attraction is strong and mutual, not to mention powerfully erotic, especially for a cartoon. But personal and professional jealousies intervene as the story moves forward, and as its protagonists’ advancing careers take them from Cuba to New York, Paris and Las Vegas, swept up by forces that alternately throw them together and keep them apart. The story is told in flashback from Chico’s current lonely life, and Rita’s equally cheerless existence. A subtext of race — Chico and Rita, both Cubans of African descent, must also deal with discrimination and exploitation as they pursue fame, fortune and artistic fulfillment – lends the film a somber grounding in reality.

It begins in Havana of 1948 in the pre-Castro years when rich Americans jetted down for entertainment, and Havana was a hotbed of jazz and Afro-Cuban music, where luxurious clubs, casinos and hotels have created a Caribbean entertainment mecca, mostly controlled by American gangsters and corporations.

There are two journeys here: Rita is a shooting star, soon heading to New York alone with a record contract. Though her vocal chops get her there, her beauty soon has Hollywood calling. Chico is making a name for himself too. The New York club circuit is his ticket out of Cuba.Their mutual problem is that Chico is unfaithful by nature, and although Rita is the woman he loves, when he’s not with the one he loves, he loves the one he’s with. Rita is two-timed once too often and sets off on her own — a mistake, because when they’re together, they have a taste of stardom, and when apart, a tendency to self-destruct.

In a fluid scene – in one night Chico (who hasn’t got a gig tonight, so he’s out on the town hitting the clubs) gets his first glimpse of Rita, sidling into a spotlight, closing her eyes and purring “Besame Mucho” into a mic at an open-air club. Instantly smitten, Chico follows Rita to the Tropicana Club. The owners piano man is sick, and when Chico is recruited to fill the empty piano stool, it’s clear how talented he is, and in no time at all, he and Rita team up to win a talent contest on a radio station and a lucrative contract. They even have a hit record, masterminded by a breezy con man named Ramon, who dedicates himself to managing them. Life takes them to New York and a hit record, but the faithless Chico loses Rita to the company of a slickster Yankee named Ron, who gets her a few good bookings before she blows a Vegas gig by being drunk onstage.

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“Chico & Rita” is an animated valentine to Cuba and its music. Rita’s songs are performed by Cuban singer Idania Valdés, the daughter of Buena Vista Social Club’s percussionist Amadito Valdés. Chico and Rita also mingle with real-life legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and the great Cuban conga player Chano Pozo, a crucial figure in the era’s mixing of styles and genres.  Pozo died a violent death in Harlem in 1948, an event that injects a jolt of surreal gangster brutality into “Chico & Rita.”

The movie was directed by Fernando Trueba, a filmmaker responsible for the  2000 documentary on Latin/Cuban-jazz “Calle 54”; Javier Mariscal, a Spanish artist and designer; and Tono Errando. Mariscal also created the film’s bold modern look. Cuban musician Bebo Valdés, one of the featured players in “Calle 54,” handled the music, scoring and composing. He also stepped in to perform Chico’s musical numbers. Bebo Valdés, the great Cuban-born pianist, composer and bandleader (now 93) is also the physical and biographical inspiration for Chico. Valdés worked for years at Havana’s Tropicana Club, and both played for and orchestrated songs for the likes of Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie and the many other jazz greats whose stylings grace the movie’s soundtrack.

Mariscal uses the color palette to set the mood as the star-crossed pair make their way through various cities: We see Havana in its pre-Fidel days of big spenders, New York in the heyday of jazz, Paris when foreign musicians were hot, Vegas in its early golden years. Architecture, neon signs and big classic American cars are all done with brio and abandon. Havana is rich with strong colors on an earthy background, New York is monochromatic, Paris is almost as gray, Hollywood is dry and desert bright, Las Vegas awash in neon and night.

“Chico & Rita,” is a reminder not only of the aesthetic vitality of hand-drawn, two-dimensional animation, but also of the form’s ability to provide entertainment and enlightenment for adults. A costume drama or a documentary would not have been as charming or as surprising.The music however, is really one of the stars of this film. It truly works to transport you to another place.

CHICO AND RITA:      Directed by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando; written by Mr. Trueba and Ignacio Martínez de Pisón; animation direction by Manolo Galiana; edited by Arnau Quiles; music by Bebo Valdés, songs performed by Mr. Valdés, Idania Valdés, Estrella Morente, Freddy Cole, Jimmy Heath, Pedrito Martínez, Michael Phillip Mossman, Amadito Valdés, Germán Velazco, Yaroldi Abreu and Rolando Luna; produced by Christina Huete, Santi Errando, Martin Pope and Michael Rose; released by GKIDS and Luma Films. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH THE VOICES OF: Limara Meneses (Rita), Emar Xor Oña (Chico) and Mario Guerra (Ramón).

Pras on World Films: ELLES

Elles ImageAnne (Juliette Binoche), a Parisian journalist for Elle magazine, investigates on students prostitution. She met Alicja (Joanna Kulig), a busty blond from Poland. and Charlotte (Anais Demoustier), a girl-next-door type from the suburbs –  two students who moonlight as prostitutes in order to fund their university studies. Charlotte likes the extra cash; Alicja couldn’t afford to live in France without it.

Anne (Juliette Binoche), a Parisian journalist writing for the women's magazine Elle, interviews two university students moonlighting as prostitutes. She develops a sisterlike rapport with Charlotte (Anais Demoustier), a young woman from the Paris suburbs.

Anne’s revealing encounters with Charlotte and Alicja (Joanna Kulig) intersect with difficulties at home, leading her to question what she believes about her own relationships to family, money and sex. The girls envy her bourgeois stability while she comes to want their self-possessed freedom, though the lives of all three are shown to be not quite so clear-cut.

Elles movie posterAnne’s interviews with the two young women are presented in fragments, inserted into a few days of home life that test Anne’s domestic skills. Her younger son spends too much time playing video games; her older one is cutting classes and smoking pot. And her husband expects her to cook and host a gourmet dinner for his boss and his wife.

Elles is most remarkable as a naturalistic portrait of a woman. As an essay on women’s roles in society and cross-generational female desire, the film provides many questions with no easy answers. It’s tempting to call “Elles” some kind of thinking-person’s sex movie, but it’s more about thinking and about sex (and thinking about sex) and is far more likely to encourage awkward, emphatic conversation than post-show friskiness.

Charlotte (Anais Demoustier) – the fresh-faced college student working her way through school as “Lola,” a freelance escort for mostly middle-aged men – is shown during a physical encounter with a handsome man about her own age (Swann Arlaud). The liaison is hot, and surprisingly tender. The sex, which we’re initially meant to assume is with the boyfriend Charlotte has been telling Anne about, for once seems to be about more than an economic transaction – until even this guy pulls out a wad of cash and lays it on the bed. And that’s the point: to blur the line between desire and its more mercenary manifestations. But director Malgoska Szumowska (who co-wrote the provocative but frustrating film with Tine Byrckel) makes that point so often that all subtlety is lost. Sex, the filmmaker argues, is a commodity that women have, that men want and that women will exchange for what they really want, e.g., a bathroom with a view or expensive shoes. It’s not a very progressive idea, or an original one. All women are prostitutes, and all men are johns. Strip away the trappings of upscale bourgeois life, and a wife — even an upscale professional wife — is a household slave, expected to cook, clean and take care of the children. Her husband might deign to make love to her after she cooks a fancy dinner for his boss. All it takes for her to keep the peace is some well-timed flirtatious role-playing. But he has to initiate the amorous reward.

The women in “Elles” – whose title is the female form of the French pronoun “they” – are the eternal Other. It’s the men who hold the power and the purse strings in the world.

Parallels are repeatedly drawn between Anne’s husband (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who tells his wife to lay off all her “feminist” talk at a dinner party they’re hosting – and for which she has done all the cooking – and Charlotte’s and Alicja’s male clients, who also bark orders of their own: go faster, go slower and do things that can’t be described in a family newspaper. Anne observes that she isn’t even sure whether Charlotte and Alicja really are prostitutes – or at least any more than all women are, as she puts it.

It’s hardly a novel formulation — Luis Bunuel was here with lacerating wit back in 1967’s “Belle de Jour,” and dozens of movies and television shows have wrestled with some version of the notion. “Elles” is on its strongest ground when it obliquely depicts the ways society imprisons women in an emotional and financial reliance on men (whereas men just want sex and dinner and don’t care much where it comes from).

Binoche, is in one of her rawest performances since 1991’s The Lovers of the Pont Neuf.  Juliette Binoche gives a committed performance as a journalist investigating teenage prostitution, but the salacious treatment of the subject matter teeters on the edge of voyeurism. She proves why she is such a world-renowned actress with the way she conveys ideas flickering across her brow and flashing behind her eyes. That skill makes her especially adept at portraying a journalist sitting in front of a computer or padding about her nicely appointed apartment, trying to focus on work but letting her mind wander to the laundry or the dishes or assorted distracted reveries. Anne’s slightest mood swing registers as the deeply felt moment-to-moment experience of a woman whose daily life is portrayed as a series of small frustrations and humiliations (underscored by Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony).

The two student-age sex workers, played by Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig. Both are estimable young actors – Demoustier played the lead in the excellent French indie Living on Love Alone while Kulig appears alongside Ethan Hawke in the upcoming film The Woman in the Fifth.

CAST & CREDITS:

Anne                   Juliette Binoche
Charlotte             Anais Demoustier
Alicja                   Joanna Kulig

Kino Lorber presents a film Directed by Malgoska Szumowska; written by Tine Byrckel and Ms. Szumowska; director of photography, Michal Englert; edited by Françoise Tourmen and Jacek Drosio; art direction by Pauline Bourdon; costumes by Katarzyna Lewinska; produced by Marianne Slot; released by Kino Lorber. In French and Polish, with English subtitles. Running time: 96 minutes. Rated NC-17 (for explicit sexual content).

WITH: Juliette Binoche (Anne), Anaïs Demoustier (Charlotte), Joanna Kulig (Alicja), Louis-Do de Lencquesaing (Patrick), François Civil (Florent) , Pablo Beugnet (Stéphane) and Jean-Marie Binoche (Anne’s father).

In “Elles,” Juliette Binoche stars as a work-obsessed, discontented journalist. Her bourgeois life, presented mostly in a pristine Paris apartment and cloaked in muted shades of whites and grays, contrasts sharply with those of the subjects of her latest article, two female students who also work as prostitutes. Ms. Binoche’s character, Anne, is at first dismissive and shocked by their choices, but over the course of the film, which screens at the Tribeca Film Festival on Wednesday afternoon and opens in select theaters on Friday, finds they have fears, and desires, in common.

Though the movie’s casually graphic depiction of sex feels very French, “Elles” was actually made by a Polish director, Malgorzata Szumowska, who spent time with young prostitutes before shooting. The film aims to highlight the hypocrisy in a culture in which magazines use women’s bodies to sell objects alongside articles condemning women who sell their bodies to buy those objects. Ms. Binoche, who plans to work with Ms. Szumowska on another film, “Sisters,” talked to us by phone from Paris about prostitution, sex and Polish film. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:

Q.Why did you want to be involved in “Elles”?
A.Well, I had heard about Malgorzata a few months before I met with her because I had had dinner with the [director of photography] on “Blue,” Slawomir Idziak, and I asked him, what is going on in Poland? You have good directors coming out. And he took a moment and said, “Malgorzata Szumowska, she’s the best.” I got a script from her like two months later. I read it quite quickly.
Q.What about it appealed to you?
A.I was interested in the way she wrote the script. There was no good on one side and bad on the other, you could see all the colors in everybody’s way of behaving and living. I liked that, and I was very surprised by the girls’ attitude. I was a little suspicious of it, too. You know, I couldn’t quite believe it. I met with her. I liked her. She has strong energy, and she’s quite straightforward and passionate, like a lot of Polish people are. I also think I had a sort of melancholic need to work with a Polish director again since Krzysztof Kieslowski [director of, among other things, “Blue,” starring Ms. Binoche].
Q.What sort of research did you do?
A.There was a documentary we watched during the writing of the script that the producer had put together. In order to have some real examples — some of the conversations were coming directly from what the girls were saying. Also, as a student, I had a girlfriend that was doing it. I didn’t really ask at the time, because I was shocked and wondering how it was possible to mix things up that much. Even though being a student is hard when you’re not helped by the state, or family and you have to survive.
Q.How else did you prepare?
A.Usually I love preparing. It’s really the time I prefer, because it’s a time of reflection and of possibility of growth — to let it cook inside. For this, I decided not to prepare in a funny way because I wanted to be insecure — so it gave me a sort of tension. In the work itself with Malgorzata, it was like flying with a friend. I felt very comfortable.
Q.Are we supposed to be a little surprised that these women may enjoy what they’re doing?
A.I think so, yes. Because you start from a point of view where my character is quite despising and above all this. She’s trying to analyze without wanting to get involved, and at a critical point, she has to let it go. And she feels quite close, in a stunning way, because, of course, the young girls are envying her kind of bourgeois achievement — the husband, the work, the children, the comfort, but, of course, it’s more complicated than that. And it’s not explained in the film, which I like, you have to look for your answers.

The motivation of those young girls is difficult to understand because from the outside, you think they want the luxury items or they’re so influenced by a society that shows that young girls must seduce, but the motivations are more hidden. In the documentary I saw, they would buy things, but they wouldn’t put them on. Because when you have it, you don’t want it anymore. It doesn’t give the satisfaction, but the need is still there and so what is that need? Why do they need to go see those middle-aged men? It’s related to a protection they’re looking for, and they can’t feel. There’s something in the structure of their heart that is not stable.

Q.In some of the scenes, for instance, when one of the men is crying, they offer each other a kind of comfort — they form a relationship.
A.That’s where it becomes complex because you can’t blame prostitution. Here’s humanity, but at the same, you’re selling your body for money? You can’t judge it. You can understand it and why you wouldn’t do it, but that’s what I love about acting is that you can’t judge. You have to understand the human root, and that makes you understand why you would be in that situation.
Q.Was it important to have a female director for a movie like this?
A.Yes and no. There’s a moment when you go into creation, it doesn’t matter, you’re more into where it goes and needs to go. I have to say, because I’m used to working with male directors, working with a woman, there was a new feeling I had which was related to something more personal, it felt like an auto-portrait at some moments. And so the responsibility of acting with a director of the same sex, it’s something of a mirroring feeling. Like I could feel like it cost her a lot to make this film. And it changed something in her life. And I felt like I was serving — it touched me but it didn’t change my life. Thinking about it, with a female director it brings something closer.
Q.Usually we see sex scenes from a male perspective. Was it different seeing it through the eyes of a woman? Were you thinking about that at all?
A.For example, the masturbation scene, she wrote it, and before shooting it, she said she was going to be in another room, and I said no, you come with me, near the camera, and we do it together. So you tell me all the stages you want to go through. It was a little unnerving and weird, but we have to take the responsibility of it all together.

Pras On World Films: ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (“Zazie At The Metro” / French)

“All Paris is a dream, Zazie is a reverie, and all this is a reverie within a dream…”

Louis Malle’s 1960 French comedy Zazie dans le métro is a children’s film dressed up in its grandparents’ clothes. This madcap, surreal look at one little girl’s day trip to Paris is silly fun, though alternately old fashioned and progressive, adopting well-worn styles of cinematic humor to toy with modern sensibilities. Slapstick and wordplay lend a quirky bend to Zazie’s world. Silent films are an influence, as are Looney Tunes, and like the best fairy tales, the wolf here has some particularly nasty teeth.

Based on the novel by Raymond Queneau, which subverted language in satiric ways and was considered unadaptable for film, Malle’s film translates the wordplay into a kind of visual anarchy while still fiddling with language. (The English subtitles do a good job of communicating the quirks, with translations like “Damgoddit” and “Hormosessual.”)

At the center of the chaos is Zazie played by child actor Catherine Demongeot, a sort of Pippi Longstocking by way of Chaplin’s The Kid. She is a sardonic and mischievous 10-year-old who gets left with her uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret) while her mother goes off on a romantic weekend with her latest squeeze. Uncle has plans to show her the sights, but Zazie is only interested in going underground to ride the metro — an impossibility as the metro workers are on strike. Zazie is a prankster visiting with her uncle Gabriel (Philippe Noiret, Coup de Torchon) while her mother (Odette Piquet) has a quick fling with her new lover.

A tomboy with an uneven haircut and a foul mouth, Zazie does little to hide her casual contempt for the adult world surrounding her, and she doesn’t hesitate to falsely accuse adults of unspeakable acts or berate them for what she perceives as stupidity. 

Zazie makes for the reliably disdainful center of a film that is unreservedly manic and has Malle seemingly throwing stuff up on screen just to see if it’ll work. Much of the time it does, but Zazie’s pace is so frenetic, the comedy almost doesn’t register as such much of the time. It seems like it should be a laugh riot, but its breakneck speed and underlying cynical tone make for a film that’s more admirably nuts than outright funny.

As traffic piles up due to the strike, so do the absurdities. Zazie discovers her uncle is a dancer in a drag show, and she gets chased all over town by him and a disguise-wearing policeman (Vittorio Caprioli). Her misadventures take her all across the city, up the Eiffel Tower and into a flea market where she lusts after a pair of blue jeans. The whole movie is just a collection of random bits of fun, really.

The gregarious Gabriel is a bit of a loose cannon himself. He tells his niece that he’s a night watchman, but he’s really sneaking off to a nightclub where he dances in drag. He is not a “homosessual,” as the word is regularly mispronounced; on the contrary, he’s a

A Citroen Cityrama Bus

 

ladies man with a particularly gorgeous wife (a particularly gorgeous Carla Marlier). The wife also catches the lecherous eye of Trouscaillon (Vittorio Caprioli, Il generale della Rovere, Dassin’s The Law), a rapscallion who followed Zazie home after his buying her “blew-jeans” failed to yield the desired results. A surprising joke later in the picture reveals he has been increasing the age of his prey throughout the day, though the older Madame Mwack (Yvonne Clech) jumps his age threshold. His motivation is just one of the many darker, adult jokes peppered in Zazie dans le métro, while the Madame Mwack character is one of the only times Malle’s movie proves to be mean-spirited. Unless the joke is that she’s not the “old hag” they keep calling her–which she’s not–and it’s a critique on the shallow prejudices of the other characters.

Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro is an exuberant blast of irreverence. Despite its proximity to the French New Wave, it bears almost no resemblance to the movement’s initial films, even if it consciously flouts classical cinematic convention in some related ways. Rather, Zazie most looks like a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, with a nonstop barrage of gags, camera tricks and odd editing that turn 1960s Paris into a colorful and chaotic fantasy world.

In fact, there could be a lot of humor in Zazie dans le métro that has been lost across time and culture. The title refers to Zazie’s dream of riding the Parisian subways, something she does not get to do in the movie because the train staff is on strike. There is much debate over this method of employment protest, and Malle and his co-screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau (working from a book by Raymond Queneau) are clearly making a comment on current social issues. Excepting the most obvious of meanings, most of this kind of stuff went right over my head.

Thankfully, most of Zazie’s adventures don’t require any added insight. Unable to ride the rails, Zazie must create other mischief. She sneaks out of the house for some adventure. That’s when she meets Trouscaillon. Running away from him is one of the many inspired chase sequences in the film. She leads him through back alleys and shopping districts for a series of gags, which grow increasingly implausible, the brunette Jerry getting away from the aging Tom. Later, Gabriel is hijacked by a tour bus, and Zazie and Mwack must pursue him through clogged traffic. Malle and his editor, Kenout Peltier, favor quick cuts, snipping out middle bits, moving their characters willy nilly through the scenes. They also play with film speed and crank the audio, and something completely nonsensical could be lurking around any corner. The guy in the polar bear suit eventually has his place, but at first, he’s just a random bit of fun.

The film is a pure blast of chaos and charm, with a winning young star and a cast of gung-ho supporting players who really get into the spirit of the thing. It is slapstick verité, embracing the oft undervalued tendency for the nouvelle vague not to take itself too seriously. (Indeed, listen for the swipe Malle takes at his compatriots in the new wave in one off-hand joke.) It’s no surprise that Zazie is considered a cult movie, as it is a peculiar concoction, playing acquired sensibilities in the broadest manner. If you can keep pace with its precocious star, then there is much joy to be had; if you can’t, then maybe you weren’t much fun to begin with.

Zazie dans le métro however, is an odd duck amongst Louis Malle’s filmography–but then, it would be an odd duck in just about any filmography. This screwy kinda-sorta kid’s picture takes audiences on a wild romp through Paris, led by a merry trickster named Zazie. The girl goes looking for fun, poking at the bloated self-importance of adult mores in the process, and Malle delivers strings of gags and crazy chases, bringing the whole of French society into his cinematic pie fight. (Or, make that a sauer kraut and schnitzel fight.) It’s breezy fun, though like an overly precocious child, could wear out its welcome for some viewers.

ZAZIE DANS LE METRO:  An Essay

By rights, Raymond Queneau’s Zazie dans le métro ought to rank quite highly among the great unfilmable novels of the 20th century. Rife with a peculiar francophonic mix of slang, wordplay, and toilet humor, and compressed into an all-in-a-day temporality, the sometime surrealist and Oulipo-founder’s hugely popular 1959 children’s book owes more than a little to James Joyce’s Ulysses and, though a fraction of the length, may be just as dense. All the more impressive, then – if not foolhardy – that Louis Malle chose to adapt the novel just a year after its publication. Riding high on the success of 1958’s The Lovers – only his second feature, an international sensation, and the film that prompted Justice Potter Stewart to declare that he knew pornography when he saw it – Malle must have felt emboldened to try something completely different. This would not be the last time – he famously made a career of tonal and stylistic 180s – but Zazie dans le métroseems a weird film even for Malle, a giddy foray into farce where nothing remains still (or intact) for long. But perhaps fittingly, it’s also a film that captures the director’s sense of the mercurial nature of identity with a kind of gleeful, manic relish.

1960 was, a year for bold statements in French cinema. Godard’s Breathless hit Paris theaters in March, hot on the heels of Truffaut’s 400 Blows the previous year. Malle’s films often dovetail quite neatly with those of the Nouvelle vague, even anticipating their work in some ways, but he was never quite a card-carrying New-Waver. In many ways, he was much more of a self-conscious craftsman, even taking pains to highlight his IDHEC training against his contemporaries’ more off-the-cuff amateurism. Thus the joke that comes early in his Zazie: a gaggle of characters hops into an old clunker that won’t start, and one character quips, “What do you want? It’s the Nouvelle vague!” Just like the métro, which is hobbled by a perpetual strike for the duration of the film, everything about the hip, new cinematic Paris is shabby, chaotic, and dysfunctional.

At the same time, Zazie’s Paris is still very much the same urban playground as that of Godard and Truffaut, a vivid wonderland of possibility and romance for its inhabitants. But for Zazie, the strong-willed, free-spirited, slightly malevolent, and alternately charming and irritating little gamine of the film’s title, it’s also an invitation to derision, mischief, and hilarity, an adult world that’s easily mocked, subverted, and manipulated for the purpose of acquiring more important things, like ice-cream and blue jeans. (The realization of her grandest wish, a ride on the métro, is hampered that pesky labor strike.) Zipping into Paris from the provinces with her promiscuous mother, who’s in town for a 24-hour lovers’ tryst and hastily foists the brat on her odd, enormous Uncle Gabriel, the unremittingly precocious Zazie takes the opportunity to wreak havoc on Paris’s community of heterogeneous weirdoes by shoplifting, casting insults, and making lewd comments and accusations. (Both Queneau’s “children’s” novel and Malle’s “children’s” film are remarkably inappropriate for children.) When a kindly lady, late in the film, gently advises Zazie that she should not brutalize big people, Zazie responds with her favorite catchphrase: “My ass!”

Declaring that her aspiration is to be a teacher just so she can “piss off the little brats,” Zazie functions as a parodic opposite to the sensitive and introspective young Antoine Doinel (to say nothing of the tender, airborne lad of Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon). But even so, she also asserts a theme dear to Truffaut: the resilience of children in the face of cruelty, even perversity, of the adult world. If anything, it’s the grown-ups who are the crazy ones, awkward messes of contrary passions and pretensions. None so embodies these contradictions as Uncle Gabriel (a wonderful early performance by Philippe Noiret), the eloquent, pompous, dimwitted, and perfumed dandy, who spends his nights as a Spanish ballerina. (“An elephant in a tutu,” Zazie later describes him, once she finally learns the truth about his occupation.) Though Zazie often accuses him of being a “hormosessuel,” despite not knowing what the word means, he attracts all manner of affection from lady-admirers and is married to the stunning Albertine, who is herself a paradox, being somehow icy and doting all at once. (She will enact her own sort of transgender performance by the film’s end.) And then there’s Trouscallion, a.k.a. Pedro Surplus, a.k.a. Aroun Arachide: policeman, con man, or pervert (what’s the difference?), who shadows Zazie around Paris with indefinite – but definitely creepy – intensions. Against all this polymorphous perversity, Zazie’s embarrassing, foul-mouthed frankness seems wholly warranted.

To match Zazie’s adorable abuse of her elders, Malle imports a great deal of Queneau’s verbal acrobatics (subtitlists, beware!), while deploying seemingly every cinematic sleight of hand he can think of (or afford). He shows a particular flair for silent-comedy camera-tricks and devices: jump-cuts and fast-motion, endless slapstick and chase sequences, continuity craziness and sub-Mélièsian mischief. Characters change wardrobes, genders, even races within a single sequence, scenery shifts under the actors’ feet or collapses on their heads, and any kind of violence – from slaps to muggings to gunshots to the head – might occur at any moment. An utterly queasy sequence atop the Eiffel Tower and a logic-free car chase in a traffic jam suggest a Parisian cityscape in which the four fundamental interactions of physics simply do not apply. Even the billboards that form the city’s backdrop – massive nonsensical Cubist assemblages of colors and letters designed by photographer, filmmaker, and former Fernand Léger student William Klein – give the sense of a world completely unmoored from reason. (And this several years ahead of Godard’s masterful détournements of advertising and the printed word in A Married Woman and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her.)

All of this concludes the only way it can: with a riot, and an extraordinarily drunken and violent one at that. In this mélee – which Queneau described as a “magma humain” – wait-staff, tourists, neighborhood cranks, and a torch-juggling polar bear demolish a restaurant before being descended upon by a sinister gang of police and brown-shirts. For a film that seems so deceptively apolitical and jolly, it’s a shocking, dark, and brutal ending, played with the cavalier attitude of a Frank Tashlin finale or a live-action approximation of The Itchy & Scratchy Show.

But Zazie, forever nonplussed by the lunacy of the adult-world and tuckered out from a long day of crafty subversion, sleeps through the whole thing. After fomenting a revolution, she misses the war, now seemingly exhausted by the intolerably juvenile behavior of her elders. And even after the strike ends, she still misses her chance to ride the métro.

Video:
Zazie dans le métro was filmed at a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and Criterion’s full frame high-def transfer presents the image as intended, with a strong, nuanced color palette that contrasts the colorful world of Zazie’s imagination with the realities of 1960s Paris. Details are strong, with natural skin tones and nice attention paid to texture, particularly fabrics. Gabriel’s checkered suit would have caused havoc on older televisions, but every black-and-white square is evident here. In a couple of scenes, the grain threatens to overwhelm the screen, but these appear to be spots where the original film also would have lacked the sharpness of the surrounding material. The print is otherwise free of scratches or damage, and there is no digital noise to speak of.

Sound:
The French soundtrack has been mixed as an uncompressed monaural audio track. The sound is clear and crisp, with good volume levels and no distortion.

The optional English subtitles are well done and easy to read.

Extras:
Criterion releases Zazie dans le métro in its usual packaging model, with a double-sided cover and a thick accompanying booklet. The book features photos, credits, new liner notes, and additional illustrations by cover artist Yann Legendre.

On-disc extras begin with vintage interviews with Malle, two with the original author Raymond Queneau, and Zazie herself, Catherine Demongeot. These all come from French TV from around the time of the film’s release, totaling nearly half an hour all together. There is also a pre-existing interview (about 10 minutes) with screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who went on to direct many films himself; here he is discussing working with Louis Malle.

Le Paris de Zazie is a short film from 2005 revisiting the movie’s locations with the assistant director, Philippe Collin. It’s always interesting to see what changes and what stays the same over the years.