European Union Film Festival, week 2, by Aaron Pinkston
Every March, for the past 15 years, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, Illinois brings in a wide variety of new films from around Europe during the European Union Film Festival. This year’s festival has films from 26 countries and 61 Midwestern premiers. Each week of the festival, I will bring a few select reviews from the schedule’s diverse selections.
Renoir (Gilles Bourdos, France)
The title of Gilles Bourdos’s Renoir is a bit misleading — it’s not about one but both artistic French masters. It is also very much about the young woman who would serve as muse to both men. The film takes place at the artistic crossroads, in the last years of impressionist Auguste’s life and before Jean ever picked up a movie camera. In this way, it’s an odd profile about artists without being much about art. That might turn some interested viewers off, but it’s a pretty radical move that mostly works out. Could you imagine a movie about Steven Spielberg or the recent Hitchcock taking place with literally no mention of the masterworks they made?
Renoir takes place almost entirely on the beautiful French estate of Auguste, where he lives a quiet life, painting the scenery on most days. Our entrance into the film is the arrival of two people. The first is Andrée, a young woman who has shown up to work with the painter, supposedly summoned by Renoir’s dead wife. She has a definite interest in art and Renoir’s work, and becomes close with the old man, posing for him and becoming a de facto family member. The second arrival is Jean, returning home during World War I after a horrific injury to his leg. Once these pieces are in place the film discovers the relationships around these three, mostly how Andrée inspires both to artistic achievement.
Renoir’s depiction of Jean is of a young man still figuring himself out. At this point in his life he considers himself only a soldier, without any other career goals or aspirations. When he is asked why he doesn’t just become an artist like his father he evades the question, noting that his father doesn’t even consider himself an artist, but a common worker. Auguste’s overall philosophy on art is quite interesting — he sees honor only when you work with your hands to create something, with no respect for actors (especially film actors), as is his eldest son. Of the two characters, Jean is perhaps the tougher role to play because we come into the film with a greater idea of who he was — Auguste is more of a blank slate and Michel Bouquet’s performance doesn’t need to stray much from being gruff and having an amazing look. Because the film’s portrayal of Jean isn’t at all like the boisterous, jolly persona we’ve seen in his films, it comes off a bit odd and disappointing. Perhaps due to his current situation of being a soldier forced out of battle, he is sort of a downer.
Still, if the film is at all accurate on his coming into adulthood, you can see many of the inspirations that would factor into his work. The beautiful estate, his father’s philosophies on class, and his relationships with the very lively house staff all invoke The Rules of the Game, A Day in the Country, Grand Illusion, etc. Though we don’t see Jean during the war, we see how it has affected him and how all of these influences are shaping him into the great artist he is to become.
Much of the film, especially in the second half, focuses on the romantic plot between Jean and Andrée, which is nothing spectacular or different from many other romantic plots. Though the film isn’t designed to be about the professional artistic careers of Auguste and Jean Renoir, I think anyone with an interest in either’s work will get something out of it. It is certainly a serious film, but not extraordinarily weighty given the massive subjects at the heart of the story. Still, Renoir is very well made and respectful of its subjects without being in awe of them. Perhaps that is why the film ultimately feels a bit light, maybe will disappoint hardcore fans of the pair, but remains a very worthwhile film.
Paris-Manhattan (Sophie Lellouche, France)
Speaking of representations of master film artists, you have Paris-Manhattan. The reason this film may find an audience (and certainly the reason why it caught my eye) is a pretty fantastic high concept on paper. Alice is a young Parisian woman with an obsession for Woody Allen and his films — an obsession so deep that she communicates with a Woody poster in fantasy. Without much luck in dating, she turns to her favorite romantic humorist who feeds her quips about life, art and love.
Unfortunately, outside of this fun little game, there isn’t much remarkable about the film’s narrative. The film focuses mostly on Alice’s relationships with her family and two romantic interests. She is also a pharmacist who prescribed her sad and lonely patients with pills and old movie recommendations. None of the supporting characters are particularly memorable even with their quirks, and the film jumps from scene to set-piece without much connection or set up. For example, a major chunk in the middle section of the film has Alice and one of her potential suitors breaking into her sister’s home to find evidence of her brother-in-law’s infidelity. On its own, the scene has some good jokes, but I can’t find the connection to the larger piece. I get the feeling of a script that was reworked a bit too hard.
On the bright side, Alice Taglioni is incredibly charming as the leading lady. Though not much of the film’s construct strikes me like a classic Woody Allen film, despite its obvious attention toward the work, Taglioni fits the mold of a classic lead in Woody’s films. She’s smart, independent, witty, a little quirky, but absolutely adorable. She’s the type of person you just want to be around. With her in the lead, perhaps this is an opportunity to reverse the roles and see the world from this character’s perspective.
Only 77 minutes in length, it has a breezy quality that might be enjoyable for some, but I saw it mostly as a film without much to offer. It’s never really boring or oppressively bad, but it never fulfills the rich possibilities provided by its set-up. I’m perhaps even overselling this concept; after introducing the device, it is recalled a few times throughout the film, but never really leaves a stamp. Then, all of a sudden, the ending sequences devolve into a bit of fantasy with a sense of magical realism that I wish we had experienced more throughout the rest of the film. Paris-Manhattan certainly has a light, semi-silly tone throughout, but when it puts its foot on the gas a bit and lets itself be a little crazy, it is a lot more fun. It has an ending sweet enough to wash away a lot of my cynicism. But not entirely.
Our Irish Cousins (Mike Houlihan, Ireland/USA)
Mike “The Hooligan” Houlihan is a notable Chicagoan. A local actor, author, radio host and former features columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, he’s built a reputation in the city. Like many other Chicago residents, he is of Irish ancestry, though never having visited his family’s homeland, he has felt disconnected. Our Irish Cousins works to show the greater bridge between Chicago and Ireland while giving Houlihan an opportunity to explore his own past.
Though this documentary does wish to explore the greater cultural diaspora from Ireland, it is a very personal film. Structured between Chicago and Houlian’s trip to Ireland, the film’s subject introduces us to many of his friends who tell us stories about their relationship to Ireland and what it means to be Irish or Irish-American in Chicago. The Houlihan we see in the film is a pretty interesting figure; he is charming and personable enough, certainly well connected in the Chicago community. The film is actually a pretty good realization of its main figure — it’s a bit rough around the edges, a little scatterbrained, but generally lighthearted. In the first half of the film, though, we get a little too much of him. A strong through-line of the film is Houlihan trying desperately to sell his new book, which apparently isn’t going well. Houlihan speaking at events and selling the book is a major way that the film sets up conversations with the Irish in Chicago, but it almost always edits back to Houlihan who reminds us about how poorly the book is selling. If there was a greater connection between this plot and the larger story of the link between the Irish and Chicago, it may have worked better for me, but felt haphazardly thrown in for promotional sake. When Houlihan really gets into spending time with his friends and their background, it can be really engrossing, only to cut away to jokes and self-pity.
Once Houlihan reaches Ireland, it becomes much less outwardly about him, letting the host nation become the star. Houlihan’s demeanor changes, dropping the silly jokes for reverence and an eye to learn about this land. The conversations he has with the local Irish are more about the modern Ireland than the old country, which is supplemented with Houlihan visiting direct links to his family from the 1800s. The changing demographics, culture and economy are topics that the film explores with great interest. Even still, it retains the personal exploration of Mike Houlihan, though now more internally and emotionally; much less in your face.
The film’s exploration of Ireland plays a bit like a travelogue, lingering along the green countryside, in the parks, castles and pubs. Who can blame it? As Houlihan meets the people of Ireland and reconnects with old friends, there is a definite vibe of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, though the Our Irish Cousins host may not be as hip or palatable. By the film’s end, there are multiple calls to anyone with Irish ancestry to come home. The film’s lasting sentiment that Ireland isn’t the small island in western Europe, but the hundreds of millions of people spread around the world is appealing to me as an Irish-American — it is also a timely message with the Irish consulate making a big tourism push in 2013 (an undeniable fact at the European Union Film Festival this year). I just wish that it fully realized this idea and put all of its resources behind it.
The Day I Saw Your Heart (Jennifer Devoldère, France)
As I’m sure is the case for most of you, I first encountered Mélanie Laurent in Quentin Tarantino’s wonderful Inglourious Basterds. Though Christoph Waltz has become the outstanding revelation to come out of that film, Laurent’s performance is integral for its success. As Shosanna, she showed that she could be an extremely fearless and capable performer. Her follow-up, for American audiences, was the sad and sweet Beginners, which showed that she could be a capable romantic lead. Still, she’s probably not the first performance you think of when you think of Beginners. Having had her work more than catch my eye, I was excited by the prospects of seeing her lead a film produced in her country — hoping to maybe see a bit into how she is perceived in French film. More, I was curious if she could raise a modest film by taking the reins and clearly announcing her presence as a star of world cinema. Though she is magnetic and lively in The Day I Saw Your Heart, this probably isn’t the film to base such bold proclamations.
The film centers around adorable slacker Justine and her crazy family — her sister and brother-in-law, who are going through the pressures of adopting a child, and her father, who, despite recently turning sixty, is expecting the birth of a child with his new wife.
Considering the film is a bit of a “dramedy,” The Day I Saw Your Heart feels like it wants to have it both ways without really putting in the effort. We have a film about a troubled family dealing with some serious life problems, but most dramatic moments are poorly undercut by silly jokes. Why should we care about a sitcom gag like arguing with a bathroom attendant about whether a tip was made when there are some serious stakes happening elsewhere? In this way, it doesn’t treat its content or characters with much respect, especially Justine’s father, who comes across as either strange or a complete buffoon. Maybe the most dramatically played moment in the entire film is when Justine is dumped by a guy we’ve seen her with in one scene throughout the first half of the movie. This particular scene, and the rest of the film, isn’t helped by being absolutely dominated by a pop soundtrack of recognizable songs cut over montages as if to say, “you like this song, so like this scene.”
Really, though, my major problem with the film is that it is so fleeting, so aimless, that I’m not quite sure if it has any point. It’s a romantic comedy that doesn’t really have a lot of romance, a family drama that never becomes dramatic. Maybe it’s a character study of Justine, but you never get a sense of who she is because she’s defined in so many ways. Is the film about birth and death or a silly romp about a father who befriends all of his daughters’ former boyfriends? It’s sort of all of these things and nothing. By the end of the film, I just couldn’t get a grip on the film and it never really let me.