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Sunday, 5 April 2009

Festival Film Review

Maybe they would have been better in 3-D?

Festival Strikes Out
With Two French Films

By Liliane Clever
Junto Staff Writer
It is always difficult to select movies during the annual Philadelphia Film Festival, as there are so many tempting choices. This year was no different. But between scheduling and the $11 price tag ($10 a ticket and $1 for a mysterious 'service fee'), I ended up only seeing The Sea Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique) and Summer Hours (L'Heure d'Ete). Both films are in French with English subtitles.

A few weeks ago, I happened to catch an interview with Isabelle Huppert promoting her movie The Sea Wall. The film takes place in French Indochina in the early 1930s, and is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Marguerite Duras. Isabelle Huppert portrays Mme Dufresne, the widow of a French civil servant. Mme Dufresne was fooled into purchasing land, which gets regularly flooded with salt water from the Pacific Ocean during the rainy season.
According to the complicated colonial code, in order to keep the land, the owner must be able to grow crops within two years. Aided by her two grown children Joseph (Gaspard Ulliel) and Suzanne (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) and the local people, and through ingenuity, hard work, and dedication, she manages to surmount many difficulties. Ms Huppert described the movie with passion and made her character come to life.

The short synopsis for the film in the festival's brochure echoes similar sentiments. I could not wait to see the movie, and I rushed to get my ticket. Unfortunately, the movie does not live up to either promotion. What was to be the inspiring story of a woman's fight against nature, corruption and red tape, somehow falls completely flat. The film ends up being the story of yet another dysfunctional family.

The only difference being the location. The ruined crops, lost dreams, the conception and construction of the sea wall, all take a back drop to the ongoing family dramas, and seem mentioned almost just in passing. The main focus is on Mme Dufresne's fragility and instability, her relationship with her two children, and a rich Chinese businessman who is infatuated with Suzanne and may or may not have good intentions.

Mme Dufresne is ill with an undisclosed ailment (stomach ulcers?); she barely eats and refuses to take her medicine. There is an uneasy feeling of dependency and mind games. The son often threatens to leave, to which his mother answers, "If you leave I will die and it will be your fault."

The two young actors who portray Joseph and Suzanne are absolutely gorgeous. Their youth, beauty, and well built tanned physiques, are in strong contrast with Ms Huppert's pale and freckled face, and make her appear even more vulnerable. The movie is beautiful to watch and does a decent job of showing the languid and superficial life of the French colonials in Indonesia. But despite a few nods to Mme Dufresne's gutsy ire and revolt at her circumstances, the movie is more candy for the eye than food for thought and reflection.

I vaven't read Marguerite Duras's book and have no way of judging how faithful the movie is to the original text. All I know is that I came out of the theatre extremely disappointed. Based on what I had expected, I rated the movie 'Fair.'

Summer Hours takes place in and around Paris, and specifically on a property in a small village "50mns from Gare du Nord." The property, which had been the residence of a long deceased uncle, now belongs to his niece Helene (Edith Scob), a 75-year-old matriarch. The house is filled with magnificent pieces of furniture, objects and paintings (including two works by Corot), and has been carefully kept as a shrine to the beloved uncle.

The movie opens with a family reunion for the matriarch's birthday. It is a beautiful summer day. Grandchildren are running around (and around and around!) in the yard while their parents are toasting their mother with Champagne. It is all very privileged!

For all of France's so called socialist ways, the French bourgeoisie has long been part of the society and is in no danger of disappearing. The movie is comprised of a series of 'slices of life,' where not much necessarily happens.

The first slice, the opening scene, gives us a long introduction to the house, its treasures, the famous uncle, and what will happen to it all after the mother's passing. Talk is full of art exhibits, retrospectives, and promises to meet in San Francisco.

The second 'slice of life' happens after the mother's death. I really thought that it would be where the movie would take off, where raw feelings would be exposed, and the 'drama' would start. The oldest son Frederic (Charles Berling), the only one who lives in France, wants to keep the house as it is with Adelaide, the proverbial faithful housemaid, taking care of it. The second son Jeremie (Jeremie Renier), a business executive about to settle in China, needs the money and wants to sell it all. The daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), an artist who lives in New York and is about to be married, says without any feeling that the house does not mean much to her anymore, and France either come to think of it.

So, despite Frederic's sorrow (one of the few sentimental scenes in the movie), he decides to go along with the majority and sell. For the next hours (?) –- or what appears to be an eternity - - the movie is just a lot of rushing around, dinners, drinks, meetings and discussions to decide on how to dispose of all the valuables.

Since inheritance taxes are high in France, the family lawyer advises that the most expensive pieces be donated to a museum. Every body agrees that the Musee d'Orsay would be the perfect candidate. It is all very sterile and polite. There is no fighting over any thing, and apart for Adrienne who keeps a beautiful silver tray and a small tea set, neither sons show interest in any specific object.

At one point of the movie, when the heirs are given a grand tour of the Musee d'Orsay, it almost becomes an advertisement for the museum. This is where we store large paintings, where we do restorations, where we do whatever! I was glad we were spared the auction for the two Corots.

The final 'slice of life' is almost unbearable to watch. For reasons that make little sense, the oldest granddaughter is allowed to have a big unsupervised party in the house before it is sold. The house, now practically empty, is literary invaded by under-aged individuals who keep on arriving on mopeds with bottles of liqueur and 'funny cigarettes'. The scene is almost sacrilegious.

Adelaide is the only character in the movie that resonates. Adelaide, who had spent most of her life taking care of the household, is now left on her own with her grief and memories. We see her trying to visit the house after it has been emptied, checking the doors and windows, peering inside. We also see her visiting Helene's grave (in a magnificent cemetery) and leaving a bouquet of flowers on the tombstone. In the end, she is the only one who appears to have really cared about it all.

There was a discernable sound of relief in the theatre when the credits started rolling. I heard someone say in a joking tone, "Are you sure it is over?" I was more than just disappointed, I felt that I had just been held hostage for almost two hours of my life when I could have been doing something else. I wanted to rate the movie 'poor,' but felt bad for the festival organizers so I picked 'fair' instead. I lied.