Wednesday 7 December 2011

French films, part 2

Today's guest post in Guest Post Week is the second part of Betsy's guide to some of her favourite films. The first part may be found here. Thanks again to Betsy!

I am by no means a movie connoisseur, but I do love a French film. I have quite a collection of French films on DVD, and although I’ve given up trying to persuade my other half to watch them with me (because he is deaf and relies on lipreading a lot, so trying to lipread a language he doesn’t speak is understandable problematic) I do go through phases of watching them myself. The thing I love about French films is the same thing as I love about French music. It’s just fundamentally different, they’re made from a perspective different from mine (British) and different from the one I’m used to from most of the films I’ve seen in my lifetime (American), but they have a sense of humour and an attitude that I really, really enjoy.

So here are a few reviews of a few French films that I particularly enjoy, that star some of my favourite actors, and that remind me of a particular time or a particular place.

Nikita (1990)

Nikita, another Luc Besson classic, was one of the first French films I saw outside of the ones I had to watch at school. My brother bought it for me on DVD (for my 17th birthday, I think) as he already loved it, and although he’s not a linguist himself he speaks excellent ‘ridiculous French’.
The plot of Nikita is a famous one by now… the drug addled criminal girl whose execution is faked so that she can be taken to an underground government facility for retraining as an assassin, with the threat of execution hanging over her head should she misbehave or fail any part of that training, it already being a done deal in the eyes of the law. Fully trained and now a sophisticated young woman, Nikita is sent into the world to set up home and wait for further orders. When they come, those orders require more of Nikita than she has to give, which surprises her as much as the rest of us given that in the opening scene she had, in cold blood and with no reaction whatsoever, shot a policeman in the head during a robbery.

My enduring memories of this film are of lines that seem ridiculous, but that I can still feel. “Je l’ai zappée” – I zapped it. A member of the gang that did the robbery, Zap, spoke this line slowly and somewhat dim-wittedly. What did you just do, Zap?! I zapped it. Then Zap got zapped and that was that.

“C’était murée!” “Bien sûr que c’était murée”. It was bricked up! Of course it was bricked up. During her first mission, her maiden voyage, her first solo assassination, Nikita was brought to a fancy restaurant, on her birthday, and told to kill a man and escape via a window that, as it turned out, was bricked up. She made it home (to the secret underground training facility) anyway, and on expressing the betrayal she felt at being sent on a mission with no exit strategy, or, even worse, an exit strategy built on a lie, it was made clear to her that unless she could find her own way home, even from what could’ve been a suicide mission, she was of no use to anyone. Having thought she’d built up a relationship with her handler, this was the point at which she realised that, to the organisation at least, she was nothing but a means to an end.

When, later, everything goes wrong on a mission and she has to call in Le Nettoyeur (The Cleaner), played by Jean Reno, another one of my favourites, she finds herself pleading with him to stop killing people, even though killing people is the best way to clear up her mess, it all becomes too much.

Although this film was remade by Hollywood with Bridget Fonda in the title role, and more recently has been made into a TV series, this is another example of the French take on a story having a different hue to it, somehow. Besson’s Nikita is not a girl down on her luck who ends up in a bad situation, she is a bad girl who is found and used by even worse people. She is a girl who has been capable of evil but has had it trained out of her, supposedly replaced with a complete lack of conscience but in fact replaced with self-awareness and regret.

That said, in the remake Gabriel Byrne played her handler, and who doesn’t like a bit of Gabriel Byrne?

Le Placard (The Closet) (2001)

In Le Placard, Daniel Auteuil, another one of my favourite actors, is a downtrodden accountant in a rubber factory who, through one lie told to save his job, achieves stardom, sex appeal and the respect of both his son and his ex-wife. On hearing that he is to be fired, François (Auteuil) spreads a rumour that he is gay, on the advice of his new neighbour, a retired psychologist. As one of the main products of the factory he works in is condoms, and fearing a backlash from the gay community which could seriously damage their business, his bosses don’t fire him after all. As everyone around him begin to imagine the secret life that their quiet, unassuming accountant had managed to keep from them, they start to view him in a different light, viewing him not as someone sad and pathetic but rather someone living an exotic double life that overshadows their own.

Gerard Depardieu does a wonderful turn as a bully of a colleague who, warned that he is now coming across as homophobic and losing any respect he had previously been granted, tries to redeem his own image by making friends with François instead, trying far too hard and finally being accused by his wife of having an affair.

My favourite scene in this film is the gay pride parade into which the factory enters a float, with François as the main attraction, wearing a hat shaped like a condom. This image, shown on TV, is seen by his son, who starts to relate to François as a person rather than just his dad, and his domineering ex-wife, who demands an explanation but does not expect the response she receives from the new, confident François.

The Frenchness of this film is in the handling of the subject matter. At no point does Auteuil ‘camp it up’, and this is the genius of the whole thing. This isn’t about a man ‘doing gay’, this is about a man whose whole life changes when he gains confidence in himself, purely because of being treated with respect for a change. I cannot imagine a Hollywood remake of this film without cringing, because I can’t imagine Hollywood making this ‘commercial’ without having Jim Carrey or Steve Carell ‘getting their gay on’ for laughs. Just look atI Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry.

Les Rivières Pourpres (Crimson Rivers) (2000)

I saw this film in the cinema in Paris, and I now own it on DVD. Having watched the DVD about eight times, I am now starting to get a grip on what the hell is going on, so this review is going to be less about the plot than the people.

This film stars Jean Reno, again, alongside Vincent Cassel, yet another one of my favourite French actors. Reno is investigating a whole bunch of weird shit that’s gone down at a private school in the middle of nowhere that appears to be trying some form of eugenics, by attracting the brightest and best, the most academically successful, the most athletic, the most physically perfect children in all of France, and putting them together to study and eventually breed.
The story also involves medical experimentation, torture, nazi vandalism, identical twins, a blind nun, an avalanche and some drug dealers, not necessarily in that order. Vincent Cassel gets to smoke a bit of weed in a police car and then do a bit of martial arts on some nasty drug dealers.

You know how I like a bit of martial arts.

What I like about this film being French is that I doubt I’d be able to follow the storyline if it was in English, but I still find myself drawn into trying every time, and it being in French just adds another layer to the puzzle.

Like trying to do a jigsaw when you don’t have a flat surface to balance on.

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