Can you please run out and read this right now, so we can talk about it?9781476747231_custom-87695c3b0ead8f2daec953d7b7d75dc26d4464bf-s6-c30

It’s so good. This is what I wanted Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs to be, although it never quite rose to those heights. Like that book, it circles around a woman artist (why so many good books recently about women artists?) 

The novel proceeds as if an editor has compiled all the relevant information about a late female artist who, after her death, has been revealed as the artistic genius behind three celebrated shows, each purportedly the work of male artists. Her journals, interviews with her friends and critics, and other documents show that Harriet Burden arranged with those male artists for them to “wear” her art as if it was theirs in order, ultimately, to show the pervasive male bias of the art world.

But Harriet is far more than your typical cranky middle-aged woman who perceives bias. This book explores all aspects of artistic celebrity to show that this isn’t just feminist bitchiness but a true uncovering of how we — as a culture — see art through the artist (or, dare we say, through the author). Harriet’s agonizing frustration at her treatment is so astute that by the time I finished the book I wanted to start all over again. She is my favorite protagonist in months and months and months — and I’ve read some great books during this time.

Take, for example, her assessment of one of the artists she uses as a mask for her own work:

It is so easy for Rune to shine. Where does that effortlessness come from? He is so light. I am earthbound, a Caliban to Ariel. And I must watch his weightless flights over my head, while I lurk underground with brown thoughts that roil my guts. “Himself is his own dungeon.”

God, I loved this book, which just shines brighter and brighter like a blazing world from beginning to end. Read it and tell me what you think.

Streaming on Netflix now is the most jaw-droppingly amazing documentary I have ever seen: The Act of Killing. Co-directors Christine Cynn, Joshua Oppenheimer, and an anonymous Indonesian interviewed a series of Indonesian executioners who formed an anti-Communist death squad in 1965 and 1966, just after Suharto came to power. No — these aren’t interviews. These executioners eagerly re-create the scenes of killing, enlisting small armies of fellow Indonesians to play the roles of their victims, showing precisely how to kill without splattering yourself with blood — because they are still proud of those murders. When shown playbacks of these scenes, the men become entranced by the opportunity to make their appearances all the more theatrical — so they help to create new footage in the style of their favorite Hollywood films: gangster tales, westerns, and musicals.

TAOK-still-L-GradA simplistic viewer of The Act of Killing might take away from the film something like, “Mental note: do not visit Indonesia.” Or, “How is it that these criminals against humanity are still walking the streets?” But after a while you simply marvel at the human capacity to see oneself as a hero — a Hollywood-style hero — no matter what. Is this film actually an indictment of what Hollywood has done to us?

You have to see it. It’s the one thing that has helped me survive the fact that Sarah Polley’s brilliant Stories We Tell wasn’t even nominated for an Academy Award. (Cue my annual Oscar bitchfest.)

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Perhaps when I say that this film is set in 1959, you’ll roll your eyes and anticipate a Mad Men copycat.

Or worse: a copycat of those frothy Rock Hudson-Doris Day fluff pieces that promised some kind of “battle of the sexes” but only wound up sexist. Could it be as bad as Down With Love (2003) with Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor, reprising every awful sexist thing about the Day/ Hudson pairing?

The good news is that  Régis Roinsard’s Populaire is not that film. In fact, it actually undermines the sexism of that time as well as in our memory of it.

pop-9As you can already tell, Rose (Déborah François) is a secretary for Louis (Romain Duris), a small-town insurance agent. Or rather, she wants to be a secretary. Her big ticket out of her miserably provincial hometown to a slightly larger one is that she has taught herself to type, two-finger style — and she’s fast. Louis has no intention of hiring her until she flies into her typing demon mode, whips out a copy of a letter lickety split, and looks just a little bit interesting doing it.

Plenty handsome, Louis is also a teensy bit tragic: long ago his American wartime buddy won the heart of his one-time girlfriend, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, whose long neck and knowing look make her perfectly cast as a glamorous late 50s woman). And maybe there’s something else about Louis, too — a bit of thwarted competitiveness, perhaps.

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But just when you think, “Yeah, yeah, now the reluctant and slightly tragic dude just has to realize how wonderful the young blonde thing is,” the movie turns into a caper. Louis decides that Rose’s typing is so remarkable that she should enter the regional speed typing competition — and he undertakes to train her for it.

I don’t mean simply training on the typewriter, but a full regimen: jogging, piano lessons with Marie, and the slow and painful process of learning to type with all ten fingers rather than the two index finger method.

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Sure, this is froth. Training for a speed-typing contest? But what I found delightful about the film was its insistence that Rose finds this shared quest to be exhilarating, and not just because she’s so taken with Louis. Their shared pursuit becomes the basis for a far more interesting relationship than virtually anything we’ve seen from Hollywood in 2013. (It’s been a bad year.)

That’s right: this film isn’t the kind of makeover movie in which a homely heroine takes off her glasses, flips her hair out, and wins over the handsome guy. This is some other makeover movie, in which you find yourself caught up in Rose’s quest to get faster on the typewriter. And once we arrive at the speed-typing contests — for there are several — the film makes you wonder whether such spectacles really happened, as they’re kind of wonderful.

populaire-photo-5050850dc4423Without losing its full head of foam, the film doesn’t really allow you to worry whether Rose and Louis will wind up together. We know full well that this is a shameless delivery vehicle for romance. But in the meantime it proffers a skewed view of a relationship between a man and a woman during the late 50s — one in which the man needs to overcome his self-defeat and a woman needs to get a lot faster on the typewriter.

And oh! the speed-typing contests!

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Populaire won’t forge any feminist ground — after all, its raison d’être is simply to slather on some romance for those of us too weak-minded for much of anything else. But it does something interesting with gender here nevertheless such that its avoidance of all those antifeminist tropes manages to feel like a triumph.

Perhaps I protest too much. You’ll just have to watch and tell me what you think, won’t you?

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If I haven’t already made it clear on this blog, I find Romain Duris handsome, which a young man ought to be if he possibly can. (His character is thereby complete.) And Déborah François is exactly perfect without ever being grating; she alternates between fierce determination, awkwardness, innocence, and talking back — such that when she arrives at the typing contest you just want to see how it’s going to turn out.

Will Populaire change your life? Absolutely not. Some of you especially cynical types might find it far too sugary. (But please, people — wait for the sex scene.) Will it divert the rest of you for an entire evening at the end of a long week? Why, yes. And thank god for that.

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It’s October, folks, which means it’s time for a brief visit to horror. Or, because I don’t read horror, a high-quality novel that just happens to be creepy.

This is the creepiest noir occult novel I’ve ever read, and its background — which features a reclusive horror film director with a crazed cult following — makes it all the more pleasurable for me as a reader. Pessl writes like a house on fire, and its occasional graphic novel-y insertions of webpages, emails, scribbled notes, reports, letters, etc. have me poring over every word, savoring the creepy anticipation.

It’s the kind of thing you start up on a Sunday evening and can’t put down till 4am.

It’s the kind of novel with rich descriptions of memorably creepy scenes — like when the motley collection of investigative journalists arrives at a ramshackle house somewhere in upstate New York, only to find a creepy doll drowning in a neglected above-ground swimming pool.

Thus, rather than spend any time whatsoever thinking about a Halloween costume or planning a horror film fest, I’m just going to sneak in as many hours as possible devouring this crazy good novel. Why hello, Marisha Pessl, my new creepy awesome friend.

15701217After agonizing a while about yesterday’s angry/ desperate post on a guerrilla response to rape culture, I opened up a new novel last night.

After reading the first five pages of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, I want to kiss her on the lips. Here’s how it begins on p. 1:

How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.

I’m a good girl, I’m a nice girl, I’m a straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter, good career girl, and I never stole anybody’s boyfriend and I never ran out on a girlfriend, and I put up with my parents’ shit and my brother’s shit, and I’m not a girl anyhow, I’m over forty fucking years old, and I’m good at my job and I’m great with kids and I held my mother’s hand when she died, after four years of holding her hand while she was dying, and I speak to my father ever day on the telephone –every day, mind you, and what kind of weather do you have on your side of the river, because here it’s pretty gray and a bit muggy too? It was supposed to say “Great Artist” on my tombstone, but if I died right now it would say “such a good teacher/ daughter/ friend” instead; and what I really want to shout, and want in big letters on that grave, too, is FUCK YOU ALL.

Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones who are too damned foolish.

And with that, I’m now 5 pages in and feel as if I have a new best friend who’s also a Betty Friedan version of those visionary doomsayers of days of old, who looks a little disheveled perhaps but then lapses into otherworldly trances like Sybill Trelawney in Harry Potter and scares the shit out of you. Just wait till you read (on pp. 4-5) what she means by The Woman Upstairs (and those of us whose first thought was Madwoman in the Attic are on the right track).

This is going to be scary and awesome, like having to run through a house on fire. I feel like I’m being tugged by the hand by my new unfiltered visionary friend, and I might have to dedicate the afternoon to her.

I can’t begin to talk about the last horrible week, with the bombings, loss of life, manhunt, and all the bad behavior along the way. The fact that this took place during a hard week of the semester — and that I teach young 19-yr-olds like Dzhokhar all the time — makes it harder.

Instead, I turn to fable and film magic. I need escape; perhaps you do, too.

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Everyone is going to compare this enchanting film to The Artist (2011) — because it, too, is a neo-silent that gets part of its magic by borrowing from films of the 1920s and shot in the same 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio as films of yesteryear. Fair enough. Our heroine even has a plucky pet — not a dog but an intrepid rooster named Pepe, who blows Uggie out of the water. (And I loved Uggie.)

Rather, this film should be compared to Rupert Sanders’ Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), because both films sought to reinvent the Snow White story as told by Los Hermanos Grimm. Thankfully, this one gets it right.

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The director Pablo Berger seems to have been paying attention to the problems posed by current-day updates of fairy tales — and has found a way around them. Blancanieves isn’t the Snow White; rather, she’s Snow White — she really only gets that moniker after she suffers amnesia (amnesia! I love amnesia stories!) and gets adopted by a troupe of bullfighting dwarfs.

Did you fully absorb all the information in that sentence? Amnesia! Bullfighting dwarfs!

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I could tell you more about the story, but there’s no point, is there? We know there are going to be some key plot points: an evil stepmother, an apple, some sleeping. Berger hits those points while also unfolding Carmencita’s story in ways that take a sidelong look at the Sleeping Beauty fable, and which make it surprising and sort of delightful.

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This Snow White doesn’t live in a woodsy neverland, but rather in a very particular time and place: Andalusia during the 1910s and ’20s, where bullfighting and flamenco help to define the regional culture. (In fact, you find yourself marveling that the dance and the “sport” have a very lot in common.) Watching the hundreds of spectators gather in an early scene at a stadium to watch the great bullfighter — the as-yet unborn Carmencita’s magnificent father — is to gain access to one of those things you hunger for as a filmgoer: a ghostly shot from up high, showing the spectators as tiny figures moving toward the stadium, a shot that seems both awe-inspiring and historical at once.

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When little Carmencita is born to tragedy and her new stepmother, Encarna, installs herself in the household, all seems lost. And Encarna is, indeed, very evil. Played with gusto by Maribel Verdú (well-known in the U.S. for Y tu mamá también [2001]), she narrows her eyes, laughs demonically, and struts before mirrors and cameras like the best of the worst female vamps of old. She’s wonderful to look at: her mouth can twist with just the right kind of cinematic cruelty. She may be the least subtle thing about this film, but she makes a perfect and vivid villainess.

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And as Carmencita grows up into a young woman (Macarena García) in a lovely series of shots, we know she won’t last long on Encarna’s estate. How she takes up with the dwarfs — and ultimately becomes the nation’s newest sensation in bullfighting — is a longer and more twisted tale, but continues to vacillate between the classic elements of the Snow White fable and the more specific Andalusian story that Berger has created.

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I saw Blancanieves three weeks ago and have been turning it around in my mind like one sucks on an Everlasting Gobstopper. Last night we happened to catch a preview for it at our theater, and I was struck all over again by its visuals, its creativity, its memorable score, and that glowing black and white — so much so, in fact, that I whispered, “Let’s see it again!”

1184_2402-width=620&height=385&scale_mode=c_blancanievesWhat more can one say in recommending a film, but that one wants to see it again immediately?

Having just survived a very bad week, friends, let’s do something for our souls. Let’s turn away from the worst parts of the internet, from the bad news and the fearmongering. Let’s watch, instead, a film that feeds our souls. I’m not saying that Blancanieves is a perfect film; in fact, contact me or comment here when you see it and tell me what you think of its ending. But I would watch it again this minute if I didn’t have so much work to do.

blancanieves (1)On second thought, maybe I will go see it again — just to see Carmencita’s hopeful, upturned face, Pepe running through Encarna’s terrifying estate, and the dwarfs’ caravan lit with fairy lights. I could use some mercy now. Couldn’t we all?

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I’m working my ass off here, folks — so let me ask how it’s possible I only just discovered this awesome comic? Why aren’t my readers turning me on to brilliance like this?

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I’m going to spend the whole weekend catching up on all the issues. And y’know what? I’m going to call it “research.”

Grading completed. Committees survived. The inevitable debriefings afterward — which often take as much time as the meetings themselves — turn out to be not painful, overly gossipy, or derisive about certain colleagues’ intelligence. I breathe a sigh of relief as I retire to my house for winter break.thehedgehog3900x506

Last night I made baked ziti (talk about comfort food! it’s that pinch of nutmeg in the ricotta/ spinach/ artichoke heart mixture) and made holiday cookies for tonight’s neighborhood party. In short, it’s almost like living a normal life again.

And I watched a film. A real film, not the comic pablum my partner has demanded for the past few weeks. Mona Achache’s The Hedgehog is the filmic rendition of Muriel Barbery’s wonderful The Elegance of the Hedgehog (L’Élégance du herisson) which I loved reading a couple of years ago. The film has won a pile of awards and deserves every one of them, even as I insist the book is still better.

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The story is an introvert’s paradise: a meeting of the minds between a bespeckled, smartypants 11-yr-old named Paloma (Garance de Guillermic) — who despises her bourgeois, clueless family — and Renée (Josiane Balasko), the dowdy, gruff 50-something concierge who manages the apartment building full of rich families. That Paloma sees something in Renée is saying something about the little girl’s powers of observation. Even better, she describes the older woman as much like a hedgehog: prickly on the outside, but inside she is elegant, intelligent, surprising.

With her Japanese pen and ink, Paloma renders her discovery, along with her namesake:

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Renée does a great deal to maintain her disguise. She keeps her TV on when she’s likely to be approached by the building’s residents, all the more to confirm their stereotypes about the working-class individuals who take positions as concierges. But secretly she keeps a closed, book-lined study where she retires with a refined cup of tea and sits with her blissed-out cat, Leo.

One day she blows her own cover. Upon being introduced to a new building resident — the white-haired Kakuro Ozu (Togo Igawa) — she mutters, “Happy families are all alike.” Ozu immediately responds with its companion line from Anna Karenina: “But every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Moreover, he guesses that her cat is named for Tolstoy.

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Why doesn’t she want them to see who she really is? It seems obvious to those of us who are also hedgehogs. She has worked out a deal with the world, and it allows her to experience a rich inner life. It also reflects her belief in the impermeability of class divisions: no matter how elegant her thoughts, the well-heeled residents of her building will never acknowledge it. Her disguise allows her to blissfully read a difficult, mind-expanding text while eating a perfect bar of dark chocolate.

Her tentative friendship with Paloma changes that. Not to mention the gentle but insistent expressions of interest from Ozu, the new resident.

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I still hate the ending, and I’m mixed on the fact that the film emphasizes the perspective of Paloma rather than Renée, but what a delight this film is. Quiet, funny, and full of great female characters — a perfect midwinter treat.

Can you tell? My own delight in hedgehogness is beginning. Ahhh, winter break.

As of Wednesday morning — the morning before Thanksgiving — I had yet to visit the market. For those of you unfamiliar with this family- and food-oriented American holiday, let me explain that the shopping for food alongside other, crazed shoppers is only one part of the anxiety. Thanksgiving stresses people out because it brings families together.

All our baggage of years gone by. All the ways we’ve disappointed each other — and let’s be frank, the ways we sometimes don’t even like each other — or perhaps just the way we think our families are disappointed in us, which is the same thing. The fact that Home for the Holidays manages to package all that up into a warm film that gets better on re-viewing is a small miracle … and let me say that I’ve seen this movie at least ten times, I love it so much.

This wasn’t Jodie Foster’s first directing job, but it was her last for more than 15 years (until she made last year’s The Beaver, a film I still haven’t seen) — perhaps because it received mixed reviews. I remain baffled by the large numbers of critics who haven’t rediscovered its virtues, for it’s truly one of those overlooked gems.

Start with the cast. Holly Hunter is our protagonist, Claudia, a down-on-her-luck fine art restorer and single mother who has flown home to Baltimore to see her family for Thanksgiving. Everything is going wrong — from the fact that she’s getting a cold to having just lost her job to the disturbing fact that her teenage daughter (Claire Danes), who’s staying in Chicago for the holiday, has pronounced that she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend while mom’s away. Claudia makes a piteous call to her young brother, Tommy (Robert Downey, Jr.) begging him to come home too, and arrives in Baltimore to find that she has lost her winter coat somewhere along the way. No worries, because like clockwork, her mother (Anne Bancroft) has brought an extra, one of those awful, oversized, pink Michelin Man numbers that only moms seem to own.

You might think, at first, that Home for the Holidays might simply be about a bedraggled, 30-something woman surviving a holiday with her wacky family. Not that there’s anything wrong with the dysfunctional family narrative; it’s one of my favorites. But Foster and screenwriter W. D. Richter have no interest in writing simple screwball. Every single bit of this movie starts to feel real.

Take a small sequence of scenes at the airport. Claudia walks past the bank of public phones and overhears each one of the harried travelers having exasperated conversations with family members. When she gets into the car only to sit in a traffic jam with her chain-smoking, rambling mother, Claudia glances over at the next car to see a similarly middle-aged man looking desperately at her while listening to his parents in the front seat:

Claudia gives him a look over the top of her enormous coat to convey the identical emotion:

And then her mother leans over from the back seat and says, “I can see your roots, Claudia.”

Claudia is saved by the surprise appearance of brother Tommy in the middle of the night along with a handsome friend named Leo Fish (Dylan McDermott), adding depth to the story. Who is Leo, and why hasn’t Tommy’s longtime boyfriend come? Deeply unserious and an inveterate practical joker, Tommy offers no answers.

Maybe this sounds like a series of easy stereotypes, from wacky parents to gay brother. But the story keeps changing up, subverting your expectations. For example, when her mother phones a still-single acquaintance from high school, Russell (David Strathairn in a brilliant bit part) to “take a look at the boiler,” the ensuing conversation starts out awkward and becomes bittersweet:

Russell: I’m just lettin’ the guys have the day off, you know, so they can visit their families, since I’m all alone this year. 
Tommy, whispering to Leo as they watch from the next room: This is the saddest sack in the universe. 
Russell: Yeah, I don’t have anybody anymore, my brother and sister got canned and they left town, and then my parents went and died on me. 
Claudia, softening to Russell’s situation: I’m so sorry. I had no idea. 
Russell: Yeah, well, you know — it was a car wreck, last summer, drunk driver, cut right across the, uh, what was it, you know — meridian, and, pow! pow! Head on. So, y’know, I don’t have anybody anymore, nowhere to go today, no family or nothin’ …

Eventually he pauses and says, “You still look so beautiful, Claudia.” It’s a wonderful little scene, as she’s both flattered and ashamed of her behavior toward him and says, almost flirtatiously, “Oh, god, I do not.”

“Maybe next year will be better for you,” she offers at the end. “Yeah,” he says with affected lightness. “Or worse.” Finally he says, “You have a nice life, Claudia.”

That’s the way of this movie: it doesn’t let you laugh at human foolishness without poking you and pointing out the ways you’re implicated in it.

And so it continues through the arrival of sister Joanne (Cynthia Stevenson) and her self-described “normal” family, allowing the director to open up the complicated relationships amongst the siblings. These scenes are played as much for laughs as for the genuinely toxic moments amongst people who don’t like each other. “We don’t have to like each other, Jo,” Claudia tells her. “We’re family.”

But perhaps the one thing that always gets me about this film is its quiet little theme about the disconnect between memories and commemoration. Each of the characters have special moments, treasured memories that were never captured in photographs — tiny little moments that crystallized something perfect. Some regret not taking those photos, but for others the memory is all the sweeter that it is theirs alone.

And then, by the very end, as many of the harsh edges have gotten chipped and the characters have voiced things that needed to be said, the film shows us a few of those memories: a father watching his little girl stare fearlessly up at a plane taking off; a mother and daughter snorkeling with fish; a gay marriage on a beach in Massachusetts, surrounded only by friends.

Those layers upon layers of memories, with piles of Thanksgiving flavors and family fights on top … isn’t that what the holidays are all about? Take care and enjoy your weekend, friends.

Hi! remember me? This is what happens when one comes back to teaching after being on leave: you’re so knackered by the workload and the avalanche of email that you forget how to blog at the same time. Do not assume, however, that I haven’t seen any films. Gérald Hustache-Mathieu’s delightful comic neo-noir Nobody Else But You was just what I needed after this long week — light but not frothy; filled with vivid characters; starring two eminently appealing leads. It doesn’t try to be anything except what it is; but it achieves its own goals perfectly.

And one of those goals is to explore the differences between our inner selves and how we appear to others. I’m always surprised that filmmakers don’t explore that subject more often. And while it isn’t a major theme in this film, it’s prominent enough to give a little meat to the whodunit tale about a dead girl with a Marilyn Monroe fixation.

Discovering something like this streaming online is exactly why this is such an exciting time to be a film fan. Who doesn’t have a couple of hours to enjoy the tale of a crime writer named Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve) investigating the mysterious death of a local TV star (Sophie Quinton).

This film isn’t going to rock anyone’s world — it won’t win festival prizes or become an indie darling. But it’s so good at achieving its modest goals that it ought to be seen more widely.

Its two leads are immensely appealing: Rouve is just scruffy and glum enough for my tastes — not to mention eerily beautiful eyes and a chin you could park a Buick on — and Quinton has a airy lightness and eyebrows that float, just like Monroe.

The action is set in a sleepy provincial town called Mouthe (and yes, there really is a Mouthe), perched high up in the French Alps near the Swiss border, an area termed, sans affection, “Little Siberia.” The fact that the weather is so bitter seems to mirror Rousseau’s floundering state of existence: he’s very, very late on a deadline with his publisher, and has driven all the way out to this cold outpost to inquire into the will of his wealthy aunt. He gets bupkis from the aunt, but he finds the story of Candice Lecoeur’s death rich with possibility.

Candice (Quinton) was the region’s local TV darling — a peroxide blonde who performed the local weather in a state of semi-undress and posed in nude girlie shots for calendars — and, as Rousseau quickly realizes, she had a strong affinity for Monroe. She seems to have had plenty of reasons for committing suicide with a pile of pills. But the more he explores the life of this young woman, the more the writer decides that the official story of suicide is a cover-up for murder.

As the writer makes his way through her riveting diaries, we see some flashbacks, often positioning Candice in some of the same poses that made Monroe famous. But we also see, via her unexpectedly intelligent voice in her diaries, how sad she was (which makes Rousseau fall a little bit in love with her). The life Candice had to live in public made her increasingly conflicted, increasingly confused between her public persona and her inner self.

Rousseau is no real detective, despite having written any number of crime novels. His path is rocky, particularly when he meets a local cop who clearly has more skills. Don’t watch this with the hope that he’ll turn out to be a Sherlock. He’s working mainly on gut and a novelist’s notion of what makes a good story.

So yeah, I know how you feel: it’s that point in November, made all the more crushing by the post-election relaxing of muscles, when you’ve just run out of gas. What we all need is an all-expenses paid trip to Barcelona for ten days of rest. But considering that none of us has the dinero, think of Nobody Else But You as a kind of poor man’s vacation — which is exactly where Rousseau finds himself when he drives out to Mouthe. And then just let the film go where it may.