#268: Them (2006)

Retitled Them for international release, Ils is exemplar of the sorry state the horror genre is in today. Clocking in at a measly 77 minutes, it’s an exercise in derivation: with handheld HD immediacy, melodramatic shouting acting, aggressively passé music and cheap, “it’s behind you!” scares.

Getting off to a good start, Ils begins with a genuinely terrifying prologue, completely irrelevant to the proceeding movie. A quarreling mother and daughter are abducted by the roadside. It’s dark, it’s raining, there waxing lyrical in Romanian; above all, it’s tautly constructed scares. From there, it goes all down hill when we meet French language school teacher Clementine (Olivia Bonamy) and her novelist husband Lucas (Michael Cohën). After a day’s work, they head back to their rural mansion for dinner, cultural waffle, then bed. Standard married life, until they start to hear noises from outside.

From here on in, Ils is just one long, repetitive game of hide and seek with the terrified couple making typically bad, horror decisions (splitting up, hiding in the house attic, failing to pick up *any* blunt weighty objects etc.,) in their pursuit to get away from the tenacious group of menaces lurking on their property.

One irrevocable level of annoyance comes when writer-director duo David Moreau and Xavier Palud pull the well-worn ‘based on a true story’ card at the top and end of the movie. Give over! Them is such a story-free romp of hackneyed scare conventions, that the only decree of truth in the production is how derivative it is to other classic hide-and-seek horror films like Carpenter’s seminal Halloween or found footage frolic The Blair Witch Project.

Although it may trite, I would be lying if I said that Ils didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, biting my nails and averting my eyes on more than one occasion. Moreau and Palud clearly have the chops to make decent jumps, now they need to show some artistic flare.

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#257: Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood) (1986)

Following his 1984 debut Boy Meets Girl, Leos Carax returned two years later with the second of what would be later known as ‘The Alex Trilogy’ of movies. Centring around the complex love stories of the eponymous rogue character (played once again by a fresh-faced Denis Lavant), Mauvais Sang (or ‘Bad Blood’, in English) sees Carax stepping out of the Cinémathèque Française’s archives and come up with his own perspective on the French avant-garde.

Carax isn’t much of a storyteller, but he makes up for it with a delirious lyrical form, cascading and overlapping poetic conceits and pure sensation. This time around, potato-faced Denis Lavant’s Alex is sharper than the one from two years back. A petty criminal and nimble-fingered cardsharp, he earns his bread by fooling betting suckers in the alleys of Paris. When Alex’ father dies, he abandons his sixteen-year-old girlfriend Lise (a stunning Julie Delphy) and tries to start life anew. His father’s associates, Hans (Hans Meyer), Marc (Michel Piccoli), owe money to some American/Russian mobsters, so Alex puts his fast hands to the test in a big heist–to steal a serum of the recently isolated, HIV-like love virus STBO. But the workshy Alex gets distracted by Marc’s angelic girlfriend Anna (Juliette Binoche), turning Mauvais Sang from film noir, crime thriller to an romantic art-film. 

Although the plot sounds very brawny and, for lack of a better word, ‘conventional’, Leos Carax’s central fixation in Mauvais Sang is the complex seduction of Alex over Anna. A man of minor proporitions, Lavant makes Alex a dominant, visceral presence that punches the air and flips over cars in the street, which is contrasted to the delicate, innocuous presence of a young Binoche as Anna. Up until the film’s close, we never fully acknowledge the depth of their complex relationship and how much, or how little, they love each other.

If he shifts from the Godard-like poetic realism trait of his previous film, Mauvais Sang sees Carax borrowing from another French visionary, Robert Bresson. It’s in the masochistic rough editing and spatial construction, but also in the restraint when it comes to violence. We hear gun shots, we see blood, but the action or charge in the crime scene is absent. It’s a vacuousness that will detach some audiences, but will leave others vicariously compelled. I’m still not sure where I sit on the fence, and I’m not sure if that’s a good sign or bad.

There’s a great deal of originality amongst all this cinephile homage, but more often than not, Carax’s experimental tendencies are problematic. Stagey acting aside, the use of music is forced and theatrical, with composing great Prokoviev’s grandiose score and David Bowie’s Modern Love soundtracking Alex’s run through Paris feeling heavy-handed to the point of  Billy Elliot gaudiness. Some of the post-production colour manipulation is just plain garish too, accentuating Binoche’s rosy cheeks, red lips and blood smeared face by the end of the film.

Even still, what Carax does manage to succeed in is telling a loaded crime-romance story his own way, with a reckless regard for conventional narrative plotting that is refreshing, ostentatious and one of a kind.

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You can watch Mauvais Sang in full on YouTube. There’s even subtitles for the non-Francophiles amongst us. 

PS – This is the second film in my Leos Carax: Crimes Against Cinema stint. Check out my previous film here. Four more movies to go!

#256: Boy Meets Girl (1984)

After polarising critics at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, French director  Leos Carax’s Holy Motors has taken arthouse audiences by storm across the globe over recent weeks. It’s weird, it’s poetic, it’s Lynchian, it’s an homage to cinema, it’s got Kylie Minogue. It’s got all of these things, or so I hear. I am yet to see it.

As another of my ‘crimes against cinema’, I am ashamed to admit I have never seen a Alex Oscar Dupont joint (that’s his real name, by the way). That’s right, not even his most accalaimed Lovers Under The Bridge from 1994. As a means to do right before I see Holy Motors, I’m spending the next five days going through Carax’s feature length filmography. Described as a mini-Godard, he has been carrying the French film baton for over thirty years now, and it’s about time I get round to grappling with it. Where better to start than the beginning. It is a very good place to start, afterall…

As Carax’s filmmaking debut, Boy Meets Girl is remarkably mature. A black and white mix of new wave, subjective realism and sombre german expressionism, it’s a blunt, thwarted love tale that only a 23 year old would have had the gall to create.

Carax’s central hero is a loveable loser named Alex (Denis Lavant), an aspiring filmmaker who copes with his girlfriend leaving him for his best friend by letting it infiltrate into his creative output. A day before he is called up for compulsory army service, Alex plots out the significant moments of his life on a wall map, with potential working titles for movies he’ll never create being the cohesive glue to his failed existence. Wandering Parisian side streets at night, Alex overhears an emotional break-up via an intercom. Allured by the aloof Mireille (Mireille Perrior), he smuggles into the upstairs party to find the face that matches that enchanting voice and fall head-over-hells in love all over again.

Now a longtime collaborator Carax, Lavant makes the seemingly irksome protagonist interesting. Blessed with a inexplicably cinematic, harsh face, Lavant encapsulates the post-adolescent delirium that many boys, and particularly artists, struggle with. Perrior too is fantastic, carrying the neurotic, often abrasive character with warmth.

Although the plot must have been as trite thirty years ago as it is now, Carax’s eye for the cinematic is transcendental. With whole sequences hardly delivering any narrative significance, they are neverthelles miraculously crafted and designed, with DP Jean-Yves Escoffier’s vivacious, yet dark cinematography matching the apathetic tone of the film.

Carax’s use of contemporary music is interesting too, with Dead Kennedy’s ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ soundtracking Mirelle’s post-break up trauma. That, and the use of highly contrasted black and white, certainly recalls Carax’s contemporaries – Jim Jarmusch of New York, and Aki Kaurismäki of Finland. All three were crafting their own niche ascetism to filmmaking, which soon led to their consideration as three of today’s working auteurs.

Back to Boy Meets Girl, it’s a laconic drama that oozes cool, even if it borrows a little too unashamedly from it’s arthouse influences, rather than providing anything new.  It’s a common criticism with a debutant’s piece, and only leads me with eager anticipation into Carax’s 1986 follow up Mauvais Sang…

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You can watch the whole film right now over on YouTube. With english subs! 

#246: Untouchable (Intouchables) (2011)

It’s very possible that you’ve heard about Untouchable (Les Intouchables). Swept up for worldwide release by the lucrative distributors The Weinstein Company (those two meddling American brothers who accosted The Artist, no less) this French film has become the highest-grossing non-English language film of all time. It’s also been selected by the French National Cinema Centre to represent the nation at next year’s Academy Awards. Filled with glee and skirting around some weighty societal issues, it has “Oscar-bait” written all over it, but is it any good? No, not really. It’s pap.

Based on a true story, Untouchable is a treacled-up spin on the classic odd-couple comedy drama, sitting uncomfortably between Driving Miss Daisy and Scent of a Woman.

Philippe (Francois Cluzet) is a multi-millionaire aristocrat handicapped from the neck down after a near-fatal paragliding accident.  He impetuously hires Driss (Omar Sy), a boisterous French-Senegalese ex-con with no qualifications, experience or manners to be his unsympathetic live-in carer.

Very quickly, they’re clinical relationship blossoms into a “conventionally unconventional” friendship which sees them exploring the world anew. For Driss, his once aimless life is given some decree of responsibility as carer; moving out of the gritty suburbs he is plonked into Philippe’s inner-city mansion, with all the decadent trimmings such a life entails. And Philippe, embracing Driss’ sense of rebellion, quashes any pity thrown his way and ventures into a life of midnight bars and marijuana smoking.

Schmaltzy and stinking of unearned profundity, the only reason Untouchable works is the central performances. Sy, the Cesar Best Actor award winner, has an effusive personality and million-Euro smile, while Cluzet (a doppelgänger for Dustin Hoffman) provides a deft, counterbalancing quiet charm in the physically constrictive role. They make for a dynamic duo, even with the queasy, archaic material – stuffy, rich white man seeks down and out “magical negro” carer who likes to womanise and shake hips to the groovy sounds of Earth, Wind & Fire. Yes, that actually happens. In 2012.

Painted with such broad strokes, writer/director duo Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano tell a glossy story about how friendship bridges all conflicting cultural and societal gaps. A worthy premise, but the pair forget to tackle those implicit frictions of the unlikely pairing. “Based on a true story” it may be, but I’m sure the real life account would have been more interesting.

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