Sunday, July 25, 2010

The SFJFF must-see: Axelle Ropert's beautiful/devastating WOLBERG FAMILY; Q&A with the filmmaker

Of all the films TrustMovies has seen this year, one stands out. Not necessarily because it is the best (it is very, very good, however) but because it manages to somehow get at the heart of parental and family love  in a manner unlike most others. THE WOLBERG FAMILY (La Famille Wolberg) is the first full-length movie from writer, sometimes actress and now a director, Axelle Ropert, below, and it is a gem of almost perfect proportion -- small (less than 90 minutes long) bright, beautiful -- whose facets illuminate some unusual people and events.

There is a melancholy to the movie (from its present-day winter setting in France's northern Basque country to its soundtrack of American "soul" songs) that is rich and deeply-felt, yet it is consistently jolted into active life by the quirky characters on view and their fascinating, intelligent dialog. The family under the microscope is a highly intelligent one: Its members talk smart, think smart and act smart, but without undue pretension. This is simply who they are, and it's a pleasure to see a family of intellectuals brought to such alert, unapologetic life.

The father, the film's pivotal figure, is Mayor of the town.  His family consists of his own widowed father, a wife, her suddenly reappearing brother, and two children.  The outer circle includes the father's workplace assistant, the family doctor, and a "blond" (not quite what you will expect).  Few things happen in the movie but what does is enough to keep you thoroughly engrossed.

The theme here is how to protect those you love.  The Holocaust hangs over the film (well, the family is Jewish), though it is hardly mentioned, yet the cultural references are just as likely to be American as French.  As our understanding of the situation grows (Ms Ropert does a sterling job of parsing her exposition/information cleverly and correctly), so does our appreciation of all the charac-
ters, as well as the travails that each is going through. Toward the finale, my companion murmured aloud, "My god, he gets right to it!" He was speaking of the father's words at that moment but also of the manner in which Ropert has brought us to the point where we understand and feel this man's pain and desire in our very gut.

I admit that much of my fascination with The Wolberg Family lies in my identification with the father and his need to protect his family above all else -- at the same time as he knows that he cannot.  The film speaks to all parents who try yet fail to do this.  Despite our best intentions (even our most stupid mistakes), the situation is finally, at a certain level, out of our hands.  Ropert captures the moment -- and its attendant pain -- when the father give vent to this, and in doing so her film achieves a level of greatness.

When Ms Ropert's movie made its New York debut last March, as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Rendez-vous with French Cinema, I spoke with the filmmaker, who told me that it appeared her movie would indeed have a U.S. release. Now, according to its distributor, Pyramide International, this is not to be.  So these festival screenings may be the only chance Americans will have to see it. Fortunately, the SFJFF has scheduled four screenings of the film during the coming days: Monday, July 26, at 2:15pm in the Castro Theatre; Tuesday, August 3, at 6pm in the CineArts, Palo Alto Square; Thursday, August 5, at 6:30 in the Roda (Berkeley Rep) Theatre; and Saturday, August 7, at 6:45 in the Smith Rafael Film Center.  Click here for ticket information.


In the following interview, which took place last March during the film’s premiere at the FSLC’s Rendezvous-With French Cinema, TrustMovie’s questions appears in boldface, and writer/director Axelle Ropert’s answers in standard type:

I really loved your film – really loved it.

Thank you.

So I just wanted to have ten minutes with whomever it was who made this film. I wasn’t even sure if it was a man or a woman—

(Axelle laughs)

--but then I noticed there was an “e” on the end of your name. So, I figured it was a woman.

Yes. With only one “l” and no “e” at the end, it would be a man.

So then I went on the IMDB and discovered that you also co-wrote La France.

Actually, I wrote La France all alone; I am the only scriptwriter on that film. I’ve known Serge Bozon for a long time, and we always work together.

That’s interesting because I don’t find a lot in common with those two movies, so I would never have imagined that the same person wrote them both. I liked them both, but I liked Wolberg so much more. I kept trying to “get” La France, but finally I couldn't. With Wolberg, I really felt like I “got” it. Do you think La France (a still from that film is shown below) is very different from Wolberg because the former is directed by a man?

I think it is very different because, even though Segre and I really like the same types of films to watch, we are very different when it comes to the kind of films we want to make. It’s sort of... well, Serge Bozon, like many men, is not so interested in psychology, but I, like many women, am!

Understandable. And that comes through very strongly in your film. The photography was really gorgeous, too, and I looked up who did it, and it seemed like the same person did several of the movies that are here at this year’s Rendez-vous: Regrets, Restless and your film

Yes, it was Céline Bozon, the sister of Serge. I work a lot with her. She is a young DP, 35 years old, and she is very talented.

Is 35 that young? Well, to me it is!

She’s had a lot of experience. She’s been working for about ten years.

And the music! I forgot to mention this in my (original) review, but it is wonderful! Yours is now one of my favorite soundtracks. Where did this come from? Did you love all these songs to begin with?

I really love American “Soul.” This is my favorite kind of music. If I put it into the film it is because I feel that it is music that is very melancholy but also very commercial. For me it is such a complicated equation -- to create films that are both melancholic and commercial -- this is what really fascinated me.

How do you create a commercial film? How do you know?

Well, my film is not very commercial. It was really important for me that each audience member would have his or her own say about the film. Because family is something that is common to all of us. And because I also really strove to create in this father figure someone that you are not quite sure if you are supposed to love or hate.

Oh, no! You love him -- but you feel very sad for him.

There are audience members who really hate him.

Really?! I didn’t hate anyone in the film. I loved everyone. That is so strange. The performances were all so, like, on point, like in ballet or something. I thought your movie was exceptional: a marriage of you and the performers. Everyone is so bright. And it was wonderful to see Jean-Luc Bideau again. I remember him from Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the year 2000 -- when he was a much younger man.


Also, for me the Holocaust hung over the movie without ever being overtly mentioned. I wondered if, on some level, this was why the father was trying so hard to protect everybody.

The Holocaust is like a ghost for me in the film. I think the father figure doesn’t ever realize this. He is sort of inhabited by this ghost.

That is how I felt about it. It is not even brought up in the film.

There is a joke made in the film between the father and the brother-in-law – a very strange joke about Auschwitz: an awful joke.

I don’t remember this. So I must see your movie again. Does it have a distributor yet? I will make sure that everyone I know goes out to see this movie. But I can’t if it does not have a distributor.

In the USA, we are in negotiations for a distributor.

So it looks good at this point?

Yes. And a DVD of the film will be available on line in about a month.

With English subtitles?

Oh, yes.

(Note: This does not seem to have happened yet. As of now, the French distributor of the film, Pyramide International, says that there is no distributor in the USA.)

It would be great if it had a theatrical release. It is such a beautiful film to see. And on the big screen! (Axelle nods, yes) So—what are you going to do next?

A romantic comedy, and again, very much inspired by the work of James L. Brooks.

Oh, good—we have not seen much by him lately! Spanglish, but it was a flop here, yet it was a wonderful film. Was that movie successful in France?

Unfortunately, no.

How did your film do it France?

Excellent. People actually went to see it and liked it.

So it was commercial!

Well, on its own scale. Which was small. But the critics were raving about it, and it received excellent reviews.

So the next one will be a romantic comedy after a type of James L. Brooks film?

Yes, (she laughs) and there will be no Jews in the film! I try to do not a Jewish movie next time.

It’s funny, but even though I say the Holocaust hung over your film, I did not find it such a Jewish movie. The Jewish part of it was not as important as the family part. That's one with which I think audiences can easily identify. You do not have to be Jewish to identify with the adultery part, or with the woman’s side, the man’s side, or the children’s. Even the brother-in-law. Everybody registers so strongly and truly – yet they are all a bit bizarre. Not bad bizarre. You think, gee, I have never seen people quite like this before, but I absolutely believe who they are!

I think what is strange in them is that they are absolutely inhabited by the passion they have for their next of kin. Nowadays in life, people tend to be passionate about their lovers…

Or their work.

But not about their wife, and their children, even the brother-in-law. This is rather strange.

Is this because…? Does the wife feel too protected, too loved? Is that why she must strike out on her own?

It is a very tyrannical kind of life, in a way.

Maybe good for the kids but not so much for the wife.

With the ghost of the Holocaust, love is supposed to build a kind of a wall around the family. But it is difficult to live when you are surrounded by a wall.

It is hard to build impregnable walls, too, because things like sickness, as you show, can come in and tear down that wall. So, in one month the film will be available on DVD.

Via Films Pelleas. This is the name of my producer.

Do you have anything to say that journalists never ask you but that you would like to talk about?

I like to say that my film is just as French as it is American. Because, for me, the USA has sort of been my second cinema homeland. I have been really, really, deeply influence by all of Jewish-American culture.

Are you Jewish?

A little. Only by my mother.

Oh, well then you are officially Jewish, right? My ex-wife is Jewish, so my daughter is Jewish. But you cannot live with Jews, I think, and not become somewhat Jewish.

Yes! (We laugh.)

What filmmakers in particular have influenced you?

In the classics, two of them: Vincente Minnelli and Richard Quine – for a movie that is not very famous in France -- Strangers When We Meet.

Oh, yes, Kim Novak and Kirk Douglas!

I love this movie, and it was very important for The Family Wolberg!

Wow-- really?

Oh, yes! Yes, the story between a married woman and a married man.

I saw that when I was like 17 or 18, when it first came out. And I wasn't too crazy about it.

It is not a movie for teenagers, but for adults. Very sad, very bitter. Very strange about how it affects us.

I am definitely going to watch that one again! (Since this interview, I have watched Strangers When We Meet again, and oh, yes, I can see what Axelle means -- and where the influences come from.)

But these influences are all very indirect. And with Minnelli, I really love his films that deal with the love that parents have for their children. For instance, Meet Me in St Louis!

Oh, yes!

And there is a movie with Glenn Ford as a widower, and his son is played by Ron Howard

(Note: It’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father: I looked it up post-interview on the IMDB)

I can’t think of anything else to ask right now, and I see that our time is up. I don’t know when I will post this interview, but it will be whenever the movie comes out for either theatrical release or on DVD or Streaming.

Thank you.

And thank you so much, Axelle. I will look forward to seeing The Wolberg Family again, just as soon as I can.

(And I must thank the SFJFF for giving me that opportunity to see the film again. I think it is extraordinary, in its own quiet way, so I hope moviegoers who live in the San Francisco area will take advantage of the four SFJFF showings of this film and see it now.)

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