… I have an all-you-can-watch pass for the French Film Festival and a spunky new haircut — or, rather, nouvelle coupe de cheveux — mais bien sûr! Just in time to hobnob with the stars and filmmakers.

(If only it looked like Jean Seberg’s in Breathless; but then I’d spend a lot more on serious eyeliner than I do now, and I’d have to start smoking to look this cool, and I’d have to deal with that problematic Jean-Paul Belmondo character… well, it’s not going to happen.)

What this means is that I’m gobbling up film this weekend in addition to trying to finish an article and grading and reading grant applications and messing around with the new ‘do to see what I can do with it, so I don’t have a lot of time for writing here. More soon, je promets!

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.


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:



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.


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.


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.

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.

Feminéma's new La Jefita statuette for those women bosses of film

I know what you’re thinking: at last! An unabashedly subjective set of awards given by an anonymous blogger to her favorite women on and off screen — as a protest against a sexist and male-dominated film industry! Awards that feature a statuette based on genuine Cycladic art of the early Bronze Age! And now handily divided into two parts for ease of reading!

The raves are pouring in, from humans and spam-bots alike: “I’ve waited months for this handy list, and I can hardly wait to visit my video store.”

“Could you choose a few more obscure films, already?”

“I take excellent pleasure in reading articles with quality content material. This write-up is 1 such writing that I can appreciate. Maintain up the excellent function. 560942.”

Yup, it’s La Jefita time here at Themyscira/Paradise Island, where our crack team of snarky feminist film fans has been scouring our many lists of favorite films and great scenes to boil it all down to a carefully-calibrated list of winners. (Winners: contact us to receive your awards, which you must receive in person.)

First, a few bookkeeping points: Our one rule is that no single person or film could win in two separate categories, although a winner can receive an honorable mention in a different category. (This is why we choose categories like Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, which will be awarded during Part 2). We are good small-d democrats here at Feminéma — “spread the love around” is our guiding raison d’être.

A related note: we at Feminéma want to express our distress at the contrast between, on the one hand, the omnipresence of blonde white girls like Jessica Chastain, Chloë Moretz, and Elle Fanning — they’re great and all, but they’re everywhere — and the virtual invisibility of people of color in top-notch film. It is a central aspect of our feminism that we call for greater diversity in casting, directing, writing, and producing overall. We can only hope that 2012’s Best Director nominees might have non-white faces as well as women among them.

Finally, you’ll remember that our Best Actress La Jefita prize has already been awarded to Joyce McKinney of Errol Morris’s Tabloid. In mentioning this again, we fully intend to list our Honorable Mentions as soon as we’ve seen two more films.

And now, on to what you’ve all been waiting for!

Feminéma’s Film of the Year (Which Also Happens to Be a Female-Oriented Film):

Poetry, by Lee Chang-dong (Korea). I wrote extensively about this immediately after seeing it, so here I’ll only add two comments. First, this film has stuck with me, poking at my conscious mind, in the intervening months in a way that some of the year’s “big” films did not. Second, this was a terrific year for film, especially “important” films like The Tree of Life and Take Shelter that deal with the biggest of themes (existence, forgiveness, apocalypse…). I will argue that, even alongside those audacious films, Poetry deals with even more relevant matters — responsibility — and that given the state of our world, this is the film we need right now. It’s ostensibly a more quiet film, but will shake you to the core.

Go out of your way to see Poetry. Let its leisurely pace and surprising plot turns wash over you, and the sense of mutual responsibility grow. It’s truly one of the best film I’ve seen in years — and if the members of these Awards committees bothered to see more films with subtitles and non-white faces it’d outpace The Tree of Life and The Artist in prizes.

Most Feminist Period Drama that Avoids Anachronism:

A tricky category — it’s so hard to get the balance right. After much hemming and hawing, and after composing many pro and con lists, we have determined that only Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre can be the winner. Mia Wasikowska’s perfect portrayal of Jane was matched by a beautiful script by Moira Buffini that carefully uses Brontë’s own language to tell a tale that underlines how much Jane wants not just true love, but a true equality with Rochester. (Add to that the fact that the film fassbendered me to a bubbling mass of goo, and we have the perfect feminist period drama.)

Mmmm. Muttonchop sideburns.

Honorable Mentions: La Princesse de Montpensier by Bertrand Tavernier and Cracks by Jordan Scott (yes, Ridley Scott’s daughter). Sadly, there’s a lot of anachronism out there: even if I stretched the category to include miniseries, I just couldn’t nominate Downton Abbey, The Hour, or South Riding because of their overly idealistic portrayals of women’s rights; while as historically spot-on as Mildred Pierce was, it’s no feminist tale.

I still haven’t seen The Mysteries of Lisbon but will make a note during Part II of the La Jefitas if it deserves a prize, too.

Sexiest Scene in which a Woman Eats Food (aka the Tom Jones Prize):

Another tricky category. Because I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, when you get a typical actress into a scene in which she’s expected to eat, she instantly reveals how little she likes/is allowed to eat food. Every single time I see such a scene, I become hyper aware of the fact that she’s looking at that food thinking, “This is the ninth take of this scene, and there are 50 calories per bite. That means I’ve eaten 450 calories in the last two hours.” Most don’t eat at all onscreen; all those scenes at dinner tables consist of no one putting food in their mouths. Thus, when I see an actress devouring food with gusto, I feel an instant sexual charge.

Thus, the best I can do is Sara Forestier from The Names of Love (Le nom des gens), a film in which her character, Bahia, wears her all her many passions on her sleeve, eating among others. When, that is, she’s wearing clothes at all. One might complain that Bahia is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl On Steroids — in fact, a central concept in the film is that she’s such a good leftist that she sleeps with conservative men to convert them away from their fascistic politics. (What can I say? it works for me; I was ready for a supremely fluffy French comedy.) Even if the manic pixie trope sets your teeth on edge, you’ll find yourself drawn to Forestier. The film won’t win any feminist prizes from me, but I quite enjoyed it nevertheless and would watch her again in anything.

(A brief pause to remember last year’s winner with a big sigh: Tilda Swinton in I Am Love. Now that was sexy eating.) Sadly, there are no honorable mentions for this prize. But I’m watching carefully as we begin a new year of film.

Most Realistic Portrayal of Teen Girls (also known as: Shameless Plug of a Little-Known Great Film That Needs a La Jefita Award):

Claire Sloma and Amanda Bauer in The Myth of the American Sleepover. There’s something a bit magical about this film, which I’ve already written about at length — a film that up-ends the typical teen dramedy and makes some lovely points that I wish had seemed possible for me back in high school. I loved this film for its frontloading of real teen girls and the real situations they get themselves into; I loved it for that weird combination of leisureliness and urgency that infused real summer nights in high school; and I loved it that it didn’t devolve into a pregnancy melodrama or a story about cliques. And just look at Sloma’s face; it makes me want to cry.

After seeing it, you’ll wonder whether you’ve ever seen a film that showed teen girls like this. And you’ll join my Sloma fan club.

Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress in a comic role: 

Nina Arianda only has a few lines in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris as Carol, the insecure wife of Paul, the overbearing, pedantic professor (Michael Sheen), but she almost steals each one of those scenes. She struggles to please and to pronounce her French words properly. She fawns over Paul in a way that makes you realize quickly how futile it is — taking photos of him as he holds forth annoyingly, for example, in the scene below. I don’t know how many of you readers are also academics, but Sheen’s portrayal of that professor was hilariously, perfectly accurate — and Carol is just as recognizable a type, that younger woman who married her former professor a while back and is still trying to make it work. (Skin: crawls.)

Arianda also had nice, slightly larger parts in Win Win and Higher Ground, although nothing that let her express her gift for wit that she displayed in Midnight in Paris. Let’s hope that with these three 2011 films, Arianda is getting more attention — and that she’s got a good agent.

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Theme for Female-Oriented Film: Fairy Tales.

C’mon, people. I couldn’t bear to see Catherine Hardwicke’s vomit-inducing Red Riding Hood (highest rating on Feminéma’s Vomit-O-Meter® yet, and I only saw the trailer!). Nor did I see Julia Leigh’s poorly rated Sleeping Beauty, though I’m likely to see it sometime soon. I did see Catherine Breillat’s weak effort, The Sleeping Beauty — such a disappointment after I quite liked her Bluebeard (Le barbe bleue of 2009). I was also less impressed with Tangled than most critics.

I like fairy tales and think they offer all manner of feminist possibilities for retelling. (Why, I even tried to write one myself.) Problem is, they seem to offer anti-feminists just one more chance to trot out their enlightened sexism.  Filmmakers have not yet realized that fairy tales have become a site for critique rather than retrograde confirmation of sexism. (Please, read Malinda Lo’s Huntress or A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye.)

And this is only Part 1 of the La Jefitas! Stay tuned for the final roster of winners and honorable mentions — in such categories as:

  • 2011’s Most Feminist Film! (Such an important category that it might be divided into three categories for clarity, and because I’m having trouble choosing a single winner!)
  • Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say, and Which Passes the Bechdel Test!
  • Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass!
  • Best Veteran Actress who is not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep!
  • And Best Female-Directed Film! (This one is turning out to be a scorcher — can it be that I’ll divide this into separate categories, too?)

Fairy tales are preoccupied with subjects so weird yet familiar that it’s no wonder we’re still thinking about them. At heart they capture a child’s view of the world: full of mystery, magic, and logics wholly concealed from us. The action in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la bête, 1946) begins, for example, when Belle’s father plucks a rose to take home to his daughter — upon which the Beast suddenly appears, all fur and aristocratic clothing and that somewhat dainty overbite, to pronounce, “You could have taken anything but my roses. You stole a rose, so you must die.” Plot twists like that don’t amount to morality tales so much as remind children of the irrationality of the universe: you never know what small act might condemn you to punishment (which is exactly what childhood often feels like). Fairy tales also love to draw stark contrasts between beautiful and ugly characters. I loved Cocteau’s beautiful, weird film — it’s among the very best films I’ve seen in the past few years — and I’m fascinated by its strange messages about beauty, ugliness, and love.

Fairy tales also tend to headline female characters. No wonder, then, that female directors in particular have turned to fairy tales recently — Sleeping Beauty has been made twice in the last year (by Catherine Breillat and Julia Leigh), Rapunzel was retold for TangledBreillat’s brilliant, weird Bluebeard appeared a couple of years ago, and then there was that unfortunate Catherine Hardwicke version of Red Riding Hood (read Stuart Heritage’s very funny response to watching the trailer at the Guardian website). Of course, these have required significant revision for modern viewers who expect their heroines to have motives beyond a willingness to suffer prettily. Fairy tale heroines are also kind — so no one watching Beauty and the Beast will be surprised when the lovely, selfless Belle (Josette Day) takes her father’s place at the Beast’s castle, with the full expectation that he will kill her for her father’s crime of plucking that rose. But don’t get too attached to Belle, because she’s not really the star of the show.

In watching this film you overlook Belle in favor of the Beast (played by French heartthrob Jean Marais, who also appears as Belle’s sort-of suitor, Avenant, and the Prince at the end). The Beast is gorgeous, tragic, and has the most beautifully expressive eyes. We understand that the film wants to contrast Belle’s beauty with the Beast’s ugliness, but one finds oneself increasingly confused by that contrast because he’s so much more compelling and beautiful — tormented by his own demons and his growing love for the slightly colorless and indecisive Belle. He asks her to marry him every night, and every night she refuses, believing she must return to her sick father. When he grants her permission to leave on a short trip home he gives her the golden key to all his riches, telling her that it proves his eternal love, and warning her that if she does not return, he will die.

The most endearing aspect of the story comes at the conclusion, which once again deals with beauty and ugliness. To cut the plot short, Belle’s good-for-nothing brother and the rejected Avenant plot to steal the Beast’s treasure and kill him. When she realizes their trickery, she races back to the castle to save the Beast — but she has discovered her true love for him too late. He lies dying for want of her. Yet at that very moment she gazes at him, heartsick, the Beast transforms into a beautiful young prince with chiseled features in a ruff collar, smiling delightedly at her. No wonder she’s disturbed:

Belle:  Where is the Beast?
Prince:  He is no more. It is I, Belle. [He explains he could only be saved by a loving look.]
Belle:  Can such miracles really happen?
Prince:  You and I are living proof. Love can turn a man into a beast. But love can also make an ugly man handsome. [She looks at him skeptically.] What’s wrong, Belle? it’s almost as if you miss my ugliness.

Of course she misses the Beast. This new grinning, self-important prettyboy has presented himself to her, and appears so pleased with his own attractiveness that it alters their relationship. We miss the Beast, too. The tale’s message proves elusive. Surely we were supposed to learn that looks don’t matter; but now that I think about it, the story features a character named Belle who falls in love with a beast, only to find him transformed into a French movie star. You see: it tells us that looks really matter.

I could go on — there’s so much to be said about the Beast’s castle, which Cocteau fills with disembodied arms that hold candelabras or pour one’s wine, doors that open on their own, and marble busts with eyes that open and heads that swivel. But ultimately I think it’s a film about beauty and ugliness — topics crucial to the little girls who read fairy stories and imagine undying love and princes and castles. Now, if only we had fairy tales about perfectly ordinary-looking girls.

Last week I had dinner with a friend who remembered that when he was a child, one of his teachers wrote the word OBSERVE in huge letters in their classroom. To enforce this imperative, she warned students that she would call on some of them every day to report on what they’d observed; they had to offer considered thoughts and observations. My friend — a sweet, shy man — laughed a little when he says this made him observe the world around him for fear of being caught without thoughts or observations, but it’s clear in retrospect he feels nothing but respect for that teacher who taught him the lesson of taking time to consider the world around him. I’m quite certain that as he recounted this story my mouth fell open, and I wondered in part how I might teach my (college-age) students something similar, but also wishing I were more thoughtful and observant.

It so happens that I’ve seen several prizewinning films in the past few weeks that urge such observation, and I’m struck by the fact that they all deal with close-knit, exclusive religious communities that put a premium on creating a different aural world than most of us inhabit. The most vivid in my mind is Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (Stellet Lijcht, 2007). The film’s plot follows Johann, the patriarch of a Mennonite family in northern Mexico, who has fallen in love with a woman who is not his wife — but the film pursues that plot with such measured, leisurely care in familiarizing us with the daily routines of this family and its community that it accomplishes something profound. This film listens to a quiet world of farm life, and it encourages you to listen, too. As Thomas Merton put it in his Thoughts on Silence:

If our life is poured out in useless words, we will never hear anything because we will have said everything before we had anything to say.

Silent Light is a film what takes its time, to paraphrase Mae West. Clocking in at 142 minutes, you have to rid yourself of that impatience for a breezy 90-minute flick — and I can assure you, it’s worth it (and it’s streaming on Netflix right now). Its opening shot simply holds the camera still while we watch the sun rise. Watching this perfectly ordinary yet magical explosion of light and color took me back to childhood, a time when I knew every single plant and tree within the bounds of the fence that surrounded our rural house.  From there we watch Johann and his large family pray silently before breakfast. Or we follow his feet as they walk methodically through tall grass. Or we watch the children bathe themselves and each other in an outdoor cistern. Or we look out the windshield as the nearly silent Johann and his wife drive along a long, flat Chihuahuan highway as a storm starts to break into rain. It’s absolutely beautiful — and it’s meditative for us 24/7 multitaskers glued to our screens. It’ll encourage you to observe more closely the world around you.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a film that used its pacing to evoke the rhythms of farm life so effectively. Silent Light used non-professional actors (Mennonites from Mexico, Germany, and Canada) and is conducted in the language of Plautdietsch, spoken by many Mennonites in communities throughout the world. If there’s a similar film, it’s Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence (Die Große Stille, 2005, and also streaming on Netflix), a documentary about the Carthusian monks at La Grande Chartreuse, surely the most beautiful monastery in the world. Using solely natural light and sound, Gröning captured all those small moments: watching the fog roll across the Alps, or an old monk clearing beds for planting winter vegetables, or a young monk being welcomed into the monastery, or feeding the cats or distributing lunches to the praying monks or washing the dishes without running water. I understand that some might find this film too quiet (and long: it beats out Silent Light at a whopping 162 minutes) but I can assure you it’s transfixing and one of the most affecting documentaries I’ve ever seen.

My last recommendation looks like a thriller in contrast. Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux, 2010), a narrative film by Xavier Beauvois based on the true story of the lives of French Trappist monks in Algeria in the 1990s. Despite living in relative peace with their Muslim neighbors — among other things, they offer free medical assistance to the villagers — the monks face an impossible dilemma when the nation slides into civil war. After an election produced results unfriendly to the Algerian government, leaders annulled those results and declared martial law, only to be faced with a growing Islamic insurgency that increasingly results in murders in their region. Should the monks save themselves and return to France, or should they remain? Is it right in God’s eyes that they should act to save their own skins? Do they even have families to return to in France?

I’m being facetious, of course, when I say this film plays like a thriller (and that comment only makes sense in light of the two previous films I’ve discussed). What I should convey with more accuracy is my appreciation for the film’s intelligent and eloquent treatment of the multiple conflicts between faith, politics, social responsibility, and simple fear for one’s life. I was blown away by how it navigated those questions by showing each monk’s individual struggle. Whereas some believe from the outset that they should remain to, some like Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), above, agonize about their decisions in the most visceral way — crying to God for help in the night.

In so many ways these films treat individuals who seem to live out of time — compared with the monks, the plain Mennonites appear the most worldly — and one might be inclined to view them through the lens of a certain degree of romance. Instead, for me they’ve heightened my awareness and reminded me to slow down. Observe. Breathe.

After yesterday’s post laying out some of the plot and directorial decisions in Claire Denis’ White Material, today critic/blogger JustMeMike and I continue our conversation about the film from a broader perspective: does it work? Is this a good film? (Also, JMM has reminded me to say, in case it’s not obvious to you already, that this film is most decidedly an art-house or indie drama; we’re taking it for granted that it’s too subtle and challenging – not to mention disturbing — for many viewers.) Is this film so open-ended, so ambiguous, as to be a disappointing example of the filmic art?

I mentioned yesterday that I believe I like the film more than JMM did; I say this because early in our emails exchange he wrote: “I am conflicted by the film to say the least. … Is it me — or has Claire Denis botched this film so badly?” He specifically charges that the film is so disorienting that even the basic questions – who died in that fire? Who’s running for his life at the end? – are muddled. As for deciding whether Denis intent was to question post colonial capitalism, JMM said, “For me, living in the USA, this is too much of an abstraction — too much for me to ponder as I am not there,” he writes. “In fact, had I known that such a question was part of the subject of what I would see, likely I would not have wanted to see it.”

I, too, have my questions. As much as I admire Denis’ films more generally – I liked her recent 35 Shots of Rum (2008), among others – and while I think I see what she’s doing as an artist, I’m not convinced White Material takes viewers to a place where they gain greater understanding of the situation she portrays. In the end, I feel split between my intellectual self and the part of myself that opens up all her senses to films; I understand her films but I don’t necessarily love them the way I want to.
To get down to cases, let’s talk about the character of Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), Marie’s lazy son. He seems to encompass everything wrong with white dominance over land, resources, and wealth in African countries like this one. JMM agrees: “Manuel must represent all that is bad about the whites in Africa.” He doesn’t work; when he suffers a psychic break of some kind (yet why does this occur? Denis leaves it fuzzy), he shaves off all his hair and goes on a rampage. JMM wonders if he rebels as part of a suicide mission: “so either the rebels will reject him (and kill him) or he will be done in by the government’s soldiers.”
After days of trying to understand what Denis is doing with Manuel, I think it’s this: his madness leads him to seek affiliation with some of the black child marauders. He even seems to want to team up with them. But this doesn’t mean he feels identification with all Black Africans. In fact, as he rampages through his grandfather’s house he attacks the Black housekeeper there and stuffs his hair into her mouth – one of the ugliest and most disturbing scenes in the film. After much reflection, I think he attacks her not because she’s a woman or perceived to be weak, but because she represents Black capitulation to white rule and white control. Even Americans have seen such behavior, perhaps most vividly in white youths’ over-identification with Black hip-hop or reggae stars. Denis pathologizes it in Manuel’s case, and shows how damaging it can be during a civil war.
What’s my complaint? That major plot elements like this are so puzzling, so clouded, that viewers as eager as me won’t be drawn in to know more, but will be held off by the multiple unknowabilities of the film. One might object to that arguing that viewers don’t need to understand all plot elements to respond emotionally and intellectually; yet as an ordinarily sensitive viewer, I think this film requires an exceptionally high willingness to live with confusion and disorientation. So while I appreciate her task in White Material, I think Denis leaves far too much unsaid, and that she has created confusion for viewers due to the confusion created by the flashbacks and the film’s strange characters.
The sole disagreement JMM and I seem to have concerns the question of how Denis wants her audiences to feel about the political changes taking place in nations like this. JMM wonders whether this is a story about loss – “the loss of status of all who are caught up in the revolution,” as he put it:

“Maybe Denis is mourning the country and the what she perceives as the loss of innocence of the natives. Yes they live a meager existence – dependent on the coffee growers for work, and maybe this is what Marie believes her purpose is. Whichever or whoever assumes the political control (she thinks) must also realize that coffee exports are a viable means of participation in the country’s economy – therefore she should be allowed to continue, and allowed to be safe.  But revolutionaries want to tear the country down then build it anew from a starting point of their own choice. They do not see the Vial plantation as essential – they see it as exploitive.”

He could well be right – and since he’s watched the film twice I feel I ought to defer to him. Yet I’m still inclined to believe that Denis is far too subtle a filmmaker to lament these changes. On reflection I’m starting to believe, rather, that this is a story that offers no clear heroes or victims, no answers, no romance about the past and no hope for the future. JMM agreed with that, and added:

“Yes, I think this is a difficult film for all viewers. For us it is even more difficult because we aren’t coming from a place of solid footing. If it is hard to understand the Director’s intent, harder to follow the story because of the film’s flawed time management structure, and we have also been placed in a situation in which we have no current experiences – living in Africa and living in the midst of an internal civil war – then we aren’t likely to see any hope for a better future for any of the surviving characters in the film.”

In some ways it brings us back to that shot of Marie standing on the road, not sure whether to go forward or back – it’s the one moment in the film when she isn’t driven by that blind determination to save the coffee crop. Frozen on the road, we realize she has nothing else, nowhere to go. It doesn’t make us identify with her – she’s far too problematic for viewers’ sympathy. In taking a snapshot from within the horrors of a civil war, White Material offers no recommendations or explanations. It acknowledges whites’ culpability in making an untenable political and economic system, but it also shows that black control won’t resolve those problems.

Whew! as I confessed earlier today to JMM, this film kicked my ass, critically speaking. But we’re talking about doing a repeat: a back-and-forth conversation about Miral (2011), Julian Schnabel’s new film. Stay tuned!

Where are we? It’s an unnamed African country; more than that we don’t know. What’s happening? There are guerrilla rebels, bands of feral children with guns, soldiers, fleeing white settlers; but we don’t know how to feel about any of these groups. Even the character we follow most closely, Marie Vial (Isabelle Huppert), is an unknowable and unsettling figure. Claire Denis’ White Material is a bleak film made for white people (I think) about the disorientations that accompany political upheaval in a country where whites have long behaved as if they deserved the wealth they enjoy.

Critic/blogger JustMeMike and I have been mulling over this film intermittently via email for a week or so and, while neither of us seems to have definitive conclusions (aside from the fact that I like the film more than he does), we have many thoughts about it. Like Marie in the image above, we found ourselves a bit bewildered while standing on the road — and the professor in me says that to find a solution to such confusion over a creative document one must write about it. Better yet, have a conversation on the page, which is what follows: today with thoughts about the film’s structure, tomorrow with thoughts about how well it succeeds. [Spoiler alert: we’re going to reveal certain key plot elements if you haven’t seen the film.]

The best way I can imagine beginning is with a comment of JMM’s: he confesses that he began the film expecting to see a smarter, modern version of Out of Africa (1985). Yet in White Material, “this Africa has no beauty, no nobility, no animals, and the people lack understandable motives,” he says. It’s true: in fact, this Africa seems oddly claustrophobic, confusing. There are no heroes, no love stories. Indeed, the most terrifying figures might be the children, both white and black. Denis thrusts her viewers into the middle of a conflict that seems simultaneously massive and yet intimate, spanning large forces that none of the individuals understand as well as the rifts within families they don’t want to acknowledge.

One of the most obviously disorienting aspects of the film is its confusion of time: we see Marie at two separate points. The film interweaves scenes of a lost, confused Marie (Huppert) – presumably from the present, as she is struggling to come to grips with the chaotic world around her – with flashbacks to a different Marie, a woman more composed and determined to act as if there is nothing wrong in her country. Nothing captures that disjunction better than a scene in which she joyously, ecstatically rides a motorcycle down a lonely road back to her family’s home. She raises her hands up into the air, allows her hair to fly free in the breeze: this is a woman who loves her life and her land. But she stops when she finds a man’s sandal abandoned on the road. As she walks a little further into the brush, she finds a man’s bloody shirt. To whom do they belong? To her own son, perhaps? It seems clear she recognizes them. How will she respond?

Marie, her husband André (Christophe Lambert) and lazy son Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle) own a coffee plantation that has seen more profitable days, but perhaps not all that much more profitable. Although they live in relative splendor compared to the farm’s wage-earning Blacks, there’s evidence that other individuals in town are doing much better (the mayor, for example). Even if they’re just managing to make it all work, the Vials’ whiteness and privilege cannot be more obvious. The three of them are as blond as can be, and they represent three white responses to the world around them: André wants to sell the farm and leave, Marie ignores the political unrest and throws herself irrationally into the effort of bringing in the coffee crop … and Manuel, well, simply loses his sanity, shaves his head, and attaches himself to a group of marauding children.

The lives of the few Blacks we get to know are far more pinched. When a pair of boys sneak through the Vials’ home, picking up trinkets and clothes, they finger a gold cigarette lighter with a surprising gentleness. “It’s just white material,” one says to the other. Still later, a Black man explains about their situation, “When nothing’s yours, it’s just hot air.” In other words, it appears to be a situation in which Blacks have nothing to lose, but whites are unlikely to gain much by defending it.

One of the first things that confused me was Denis’ unexpected decision to place a white woman to serve at the center of this tale – especially because this is truly not Out of Africa. Why a white woman? I’ve racked my brain on this question. Marie is never a sympathetic character, yet watching her world turn upside down, and watching her flail about trying to hire farmhands to pick the coffee beans says so much about what political change means in such places, and how much people resist change. As JMM puts it, “She is just as ravaged as the country itself.” I think the film wants us to criticize Marie as much as the other characters, even as it has us watch her more closely than the rest.

JMM has another insight on the question of “why Marie?”: he believes “the center of the story is the country itself… not Marie”:

“Ravaged by war, children as soldiers, carnage, destruction… these are the usual results of war, especially internal wars. Haven’t countries themselves always been described in the feminine sense? Marie is — by film’s end — destroyed, if not physically, then certainly emotionally… just as her coffee plantation has been rendered useless, just as her business is destroyed, her family destroyed. She’s left alive but what can be left inside her?”

I’m of two minds on this. I agree that her presence hammers home the costs of war, yet Marie is no typical woman. Aside from her bizarrely girlish appearance (the long hair, the calico dresses), she doesn’t manifest a whole lot of feminine qualities (she’s bullheaded, single-mindedly obsessed with an almost worthless crop). But I still feel uneasy because it is this screenplay choice that makes me believe it’s a film most clearly aimed at whites.I asked JMM whether he thought this was a film designed for whites, and he responded:

“Certainly the target is a French audience, specifically a French audience that has experienced life in French Colonial Africa. History tells us that there can’t be that many people left with that kind of experience. And if they are around they’re still in Africa, or in France. However without knowing her intention – she hasn’t told us – or the audience – we are following Marie – the rebels who extort money for passage on the roads, the fellow bus travelers, the government soldiers, even the French soldiers who are leaving as the film begins, and the rebel troops – are transient visitors who either enter Marie’s space, or she enters theirs. So I believe her target demographic is middle age or older, French speaking, or people who have lived in Africa, or Algeria, or even Vietnam.”

I might even go a step further – the film speaks to whites in many nations that used to be (and sometimes still are) imperial powers, whites who don’t consider the long-term effects of their colonial power over others … or perhaps who want to ignore them. When a helicopter circles overhead, bellowing out her name via loudspeaker and warning her that the French army is pulling out of the country, she still doesn’t change her mind.

So what are we to do with a film so full of unsympathetic characters and unexplained events? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s follow-up post!

I can only hope that when I’m 80 I’ll have the good humor and creativity to make an autobiographical documentary as delightful, visually rich, and oddly modest as Agnès Varda’s The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès), which won the César Award for best documentary that year.  She fills it with her own photographs and clips from her films, re-creations of tiny moments from her past, and whimsical stagings of props — for example, she uses a cardboard cutout of a car to show how the garage at the end of her alley in Paris was so tiny that it required her to make a 13-point turn (if everything went right) to manoeuver her car inside.  Only slowly do you realize that the sum total of these flickering memories and scenes of her gently directing her young staff is more than just deeply moving; it’s a cinematic achievement of its own that seems akin to the most magical and innovative of documentaries, like Errol Morris’ Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

The film takes a loosely chronological view of her life, from her early life on the coast of Belgium through her family’s houseboat existence during World War II, her work as a photographer in Paris in the late 40s and 50s, her long career in film, her marriage to director Jacques Demy.  But it’s interspersed with moments simply revelatory of her sparkling personality:  her unapologetic loves of cats and the water, her appreciation for great images and great actors, her enjoyment of working with young people, the way art infuses her with energy and life.  As she paints in impressionistic strokes the path she followed, she gradually allows her dyed hair (styled, by long habit, in a bowl cut to exaggerate a face she describes as the shape of a pancake, and dyed a dark maroon) to return to its natural white.  It’s a decision that does more than symbolize her seeming absence of egotism; it enhances that slight sense of melancholy that infuses moments of the film when she reminisces about family and friends long dead.  By doing so, she references — but never dwells on — her own mortality.  I can’t capture in words how much this aspect of the film is done gracefully and lightly; above all The Beaches of Agnès is an utter delight.  

Netflix describes her as “the grandmother of the French New Wave,” but that’s slightly misleading and certainly not a claim the modest Varda would make.  Sure, her early film La Pointe Courte (1954) was a precursor to the New Wave, and she certainly held her own when that boys’ club of Rohmer, Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol et als ruled international cinema (the way she tells it, their success opened opportunities for her and others to follow).  But she had her closest artistic ties to a filmmakers and writers such as Marguerite Duras and Chris Marker, sometimes called the Left Bank group — artists perhaps more experimental and less marketable than the Right Bank directors of The 400 Blows and Breathless.  One need only think of her best-known films, such as Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) and The Gleaners and I (2000), to recognize that she always sought to tell different stories (and, for that matter, to make different political points) than some of her male counterparts.

In the end I’m struck by her slightly self-mocking self-characterization:  of a squat woman in a baggy dress with a pronounced nose and a bowl of hair that nearly conceals her enormous, curious eyes.  Don’t be fooled.  It won’t take long till you wish Varda was your mother, your granny, your boss, your friend, and your future self, all at once.  It’s secretly a film about the love of life and art — and who couldn’t use a dose of that right now?

I have discovered hell, and it is Lubbock, TX, where my car broke down and I’ve been trapped for two days — going on three — waiting for the damn part that will allow me to get home from my summer research travels.  Now, Lubbock might be okay in August, but only if you have a car that works.  So we have settled for a cheap motel and lots of streaming Netflix.  If there’s anything to break through the generalized crankiness (not to mention our specific skepticism about the reliability of this mechanic), it must be Patrice Leconte’s “The Man on the Train” (“L’Homme du Train”) — a lovely film that turns the malaise of waiting into a profound comment about manliness.

Milan (Johnny Hallyday, the French rock superstar sometimes referred to as “The French Elvis”) arrives in a sleepy French village by train — and we know right away from his haggard-looking, eerily pale blue eyes that he’s seen a too much of the hard life.  By accident he runs across Manesquier (Jean Rochefort), a retired French teacher counting down the days to his triple bypass surgery who finds Milan’s laconic, steely look appealing.  When Milan can’t find a hotel, the older man offers to put him up in his grand old home — and as the two men slowly get to know one another, they discover that Manesquier’s surgery will coincide with a big event in Milan’s life as well.  As Manesquier goes under the knife, Milan will execute a bank heist with a few other criminals due to arrive in town any day.

It makes sense that the old man would be fascinated with the thief.  He lives in a grand old home crowded with his mother’s fussy little lamps, paintings of his failed ancestors, and the books that symbolize for him the dull life of a man who got old before his time by becoming a schoolteacher.  When he sneaks upstairs one morning to try on the younger man’s black leather jacket, we can almost smell the jacket’s exotic, animal odors.  Intoxicated, he strikes a tough-guy/cowboy pose and tells the mirror, “I’m from Laramie,” just like a sheriff in one of those movies we all saw but cannot name.  “In Laramie they say I’m a tough one,” he says, cocking his hand into pistol position and whipping around to face imaginary foes.  “The next bullet’s for you, piss face!”  The old man’s play-acting is so giddy because otherwise he feels defeated by life, oppressed by his routines of jigsaw puzzles, a tiny aperitif with dinner, and the occasional tutorial with a thick-headed boy from town.  Not to mention the upcoming heart surgery, which seems such a stereotypical aspect of an old retiree’s life.

But the thief is equally captivated by the old man’s peaceful, comfortable life and his effortless knowledge of poetry.  He’s not inclined to ask many questions, but after teaching Manesquier how to swallow a good mouthful of cognac he asks whether he might try on the old man’s slippers.  Putting them on, Milan gazes down at his feet and mutters, “My life’s all wrong.”  Even if he hears Mansquier’s complaints about the tedium of his life — as he plays what he believes are saccharine songs by Schumann on his grand piano, Manesquier claims he possesses all the skills of a young woman from the late 19th-century — Milan is entranced.  Especially because he’s starting to doubt the trustworthiness of his co-conspirators who’ve arrived to help case the joint.  Manesquier may speak in overly self-deprecating terms about his life, but the younger man sees things differently, envying even those painful discussions of poetry with the obtuse little boy. 

The more the men get to know one another, the more the film uses its soundtrack to indicate their odd juxtaposition.  Early scenes of the tough-guy Milan are accompanied by a sliding steel guitar that mixes jazz with a little bit of a Western drawl; in contrast, Manesquier always appears with the more predictable strains of a late 19th-century piano.  But as the film continues, these two threads begin to interweave, the guitar on top of the piano, or the piano fleshing out the spare guitar — one of the most effective and pitch-perfect soundtracks I’ve heard since “Brokeback Mountain.” 

It’s a beautiful film.  No one seems more perfectly, classically French to me than Jean Rochefort; and I’d never seen Hallyday onscreen before, but his freakishly chiseled face and horrible blue eyes make him just as suited to the camera as to a venue full of screaming fans.  I’ve waxed poetic about French film before, but it’s worth noting one more time how so many of these directors have a knack for turning a film into an almost visceral as well as emotional experience.  From the texture of the old man’s ramshackle house (one wants to rifle through those piles of old magazines and nicknacks) to the film’s shocking moments of tension and conflict, the film slowly picks apart our conceptions of manliness and the ideal trajectory of a man’s life.  It addresses the subject of masculinity per se in almost every scene, unlike all those male-dominated American films we’ve been seeing lately.  Sure, the film’s women are remote, mysterious creatures; but it gets high marks from me for making gender such a prominent subject nevertheless.  Best of all, it’s an antidote to the painful versions of good ol’ boys we’ve encountered here in Lubbock.  Thank you, France and Patrice Leconte.