Monday, May 31, 2010

Sylvie Testud -- no household name but one fab actress -- has her day in the sun at FIAF

Sylvie Testud -- that occasionally gamine-like, more often strong-as-
steel and always intelli-
gent and on-the-mark actress -- is about to be feted by the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in its usually terrific series of CinémaTuesdays, this one titled appropriately The Radiance and Wit of Sylvie Testud, during which FIAF will present five of the award-winning actress’s greatest performances. (There are literally so many from which to choose that these five are hardly representative.)

Each Tuesday starting tomorrow, June 1, through June 29, FIAF's Florence Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street, Manhattan (New York's premiere French cultural center!), will shine a light on someone that Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York called “the coolest widely unknown actor on the planet.” TrustMovies would agree with that assessment and hopes that, by the end of June, Ms Testud, while remaining cool, will be at least somewhat better known in the USA.

According to the press release that FIAF sent out, Testud traces her journey to the forefront of the French cinema scene back to a contemporary of hers, actress and singer Charlotte Gainsbourg (who was feted by FIAF only a few months ago). It was Gains-
bourg’s role in L’Effrontée (1985) that resonated so strongly with the teenage Testud that she began pursuing theater in her home-
town of Lyon, continuing on to attend the exclusive Conservatoire National Supérieur d'Art Dramatique in Paris. The budding actress’ first roles in short and feature films in the mid-nineties soon attracted the attention of the industry. In 1997, her dedication earned her Germany’s highest film honor for best actress in Jenseits der Stille (also known as Beyond Silence, a still from which is shown above: That's Testud at left), a film for which she learned not only German, but also sign language and the clarinet.

Testud’s award was merely the first instance of a continued and widespread recognition of her many talents. In 1999 she garnered the first of four César Award nominations for the role of Béa in Karnaval, shown at right, the first film in the FIAF series. The following year, Testud was awarded a César for most promising actress in Murderous Maids, the series’ second film, in which she plays one of the infamous Papin sisters. Then, in 2003, the multi-talented Testud published her first novel, a humorous autobiographical account of her neurotic flair, “Il n'y a pas beaucoup d'étoiles ce soir.” She followed this success quickly with another César and a Prix Lumière for best actress as the star of  Fear and Trembling (2003, shown below), a film so good I wish that FIAF had included it in this series. (My review of it for GreenCine is here.) No matter: You can rent it from Netflix or Blockbuster, and it is definitely worth seeing.  Testud has most recently been seen on American screens in the role of Edith Piaf’s best friend, Momone, in La Vie en Rose (2007), and earlier this year in the leading role of the critically acclaimed, Lourdes (2009).

While all these film are worth a watch, three of them -- Jean-Pierre Denis' MURDEROUS MAIDS, Serge Bozon's LA FRANCE and Chantal Akerman's LA CAPTIVE (from which comes the still below -- that's Testud, at left, with Stanislas Merhar) have had theatrical releases and are available on DVD for sale -- or for rent via Netflix and Blockbuster.  So once you cotton on to this actress' particular flair and strengths, you can explore further. Two of the films, however, have never been released here and are not available on American-region DVD:  Thomas Vincent's KARNAVAL, and Diane Kurys' SAGAN (about famous French author Françoise Sagan).  This lack of access makes these two must-sees in my book.

Click here to find the entire program with films, dates and times -- and how to order tickets. Don't wait, order now if you're a Testud fan -- or want to take a chance on becoming one.  Bet you will.

CinémaTuesdays is made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State agency. Special thanks to the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chantal Akerman, Sylvie Testud, and Bénédicte Sacchi.

Admission: $10; $7 students; Free for FIAF Members
Tickets: | 212 307 4100
Information: | 212 355 6160
Transportation: Subway - 4, 5, 6, N, R and W to 59th Street & Lexington Avenue;
or the F train to 63rd Street & Lexington Avenue;
E to 53rd Street & 5th Avenue
By bus - M1, M2, M3, M4, Q31 to 59th St.; M5 to 58th St.

 Above: Ms Testud at right as Sagan, with Jeanne Balibar.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

DVDebut: Michael Cuesta's TELL TALE goes straight to video

What has Michael Cuesta (shown just below), a director and sometimes-writer whose work (L.I.E., Twelve and Holding) we have very much liked, been doing of late?  Well, a number of cable TV episodes (Six Feet Under, Dexter, True Blood) and, it turns out, a new movie with a supernatural theme that, despite the rather heavy-duty roster of names attached (actors Josh Lucas, Lena Heady,and Brian Cox in the leads, and Ridley and Tony Scott among its producers) by-passed theatrical for a straight-to-video debut on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Written by Dave Callaham (whose credits for Doom and Horsemen do not bode all that well) and "inspired by," I would guess, rather than "based on" Edgar Allan Poe's story The Tell-Tale Heart, the movie is actually pretty good, for a throw-away effort -- which was not, I suspect, how it began life.  While we've seen other movies in which transplanted organs (eyes, heart, brain, even prick -- remember Percy?) turn nasty and/or take their toll, I'd call Tell Tale one of the better efforts.  It's certainly -- except for the occasional bit of all-out violence -- one of the quieter attempts, very well acted, written with some subtlety and a little surprise (the denouement is a knock-out) and directed with an eye toward the real rather than the usual razzamatazz that accompanies the genre. (Only the flashbacks, heavy-handed with the usual schlocky coloration and frenetic editing, seem a tad de trop.)

Filmed in Rhode Island, for a nice change of scene, the movie does bear the signs of some undue "fiddling": bits of blood and gore coexist uneasily with the quieter moments, and the excellent Danish leading man Ulrich Thomsen is utterly wasted in an almost non-role. While the film undoubtedly represents Mr. Cuesta's work as "hired hand,  I'd still love to know how closely the DVD follows, say, the original cut, or what the director and writer had in mind. And yet Tell Tale seldom embarrasses itself; the story coalesces nicely, and the three leads are quite good. Lucas (below, left), one of our ablest young-to-middle-age actors, continues to improve.  Here's he's exceedingly vulnerable and then, when that heart takes over, non-stop vicious. And always sexy.  He's often shirtless in the film, and even with a scar running practically the length of his chest, he's something else.

Ms Heady (below, left) is, as usual -- except in nonsense like 300 -- beautiful, intelligent and strong, just the ticket for a recuperating widower and his young, needy daughter (nicely limned by Beatrice Miller, below, center). Cox continues to prove there's not a character he can't handle with flair, and in smaller roles,  Jamie Harrold (shown at bottom) and Pablo Schreiber impress.

No great shakes, as I think I have indicated, the movie is still a good deal of fun. And when one character maintains at the finale, "No more secrets," you'd better wince -- and run for the hills.  
Tell Tale is available now on DVD & Blu-Ray for rent or sale.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

On-Demand: Daniel Monzón's CELL 211, one of 2009's top films

Prison movie aficionados, lovers of fast-paced thrillers, folk who appreciate films that explore society top-down (and bottom-up) -- rejoice. The film that won most of last year's Goya awards (Spain's "Oscars") and the hit of December 2009's FSLC Spanish Cinema Now series is about to debut from IFC On-Demand this coming Wednesday, June 2, as part of its continuing IFC Midnight series.

CELL 211, co-adapted (with Jorge Guerricaechevarría, from the novel by Francisco Pérez Gandul) and directed by Daniel Monzón, is so rich in excitement and surprise -- without sacrificing an ounce of believability -- that the less you know about it going in, the more you'll enjoy it. (My original review from last December appears here, in which I don't think there are any spoilers afoot.)  If you are looking for a movie that offers both mainstream appeal and quality in everything from writing to direction, acting to theme, you've got one here.

Winning those prized Goyas for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, Monzón (shown above, center, with his award-winning co-stars, Luis Tosar, left and Alberto Ammann), is able to involve us immediately in the situation (a whoppingly exciting and original one), maintaining the tension, while adding incident after incident that brings Spanish society -- politics, economics and even terrorism -- to the fore until, without seeming to push any agenda, black has become white and evil good.

Seeing the film a second time, after a delay of several months, TrustMovies found it an even richer experience, so he thinks you should try it at least once. If you're a newcomer to IFC On-Demand, click here to learn the ropes.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Rachel Weisz in Alejandro Amenábar's AGORA: fundamentalism takes it on the chin; a Q&A with the star

What a pleasure it is to take in the visuals and verbi-
age of AGORA, Chilean-born Spanish filmma-
ker Alejandro Amenábar's new film -- and his best yet.  The time is past due for an intelligent broadside against religious fundamentalism, and showing us this story of Hypatia -- the 4th Century Alexandrian woman who was a teacher, astro-
nomer, philoso-
pher, mathematician and humanist -- proves a wonderful, enriching way to provide it.  As soon as someone, anyone, decided to put his faith in the world's first and biggest "imaginary friend," and then started recruiting others to join the club, this stubborn, entrenched faith was born which, in the words of Richard Dawkins, "defies reasoned argument or contradictory evidence." (Call it Jewish, Islamic or -- in the case of the bad boys of Agora -- Christian fundamentalism.)  

If Señor Amenábar, shown left, does not track the actual birth of fundamentalism, he takes us back far enough (the "prophet" Muhammad was not yet born!) to understand that the object of the fundamentalist's faith does not matter; it's the faith itself that is so destructive. From the first, when we see Hypatia (Rachel Weisz, a shoo-in for Best Actress nominations at awards time) in her open-forum classroom, from where, I suspect, the film's title comes, it is clear that this is not your everyday, 4th-Century woman.  She's bright, and better yet, has the ability to reach her students and get them to think and reason.  Alexandria of this time was full of pagans, Christians and Jews, all jockeying for position, but Hypatia allows all of them into her class, refusing to countenance divisions where learning is concerned.

Her father, Theon (the sterling Michael Lonsdale, shown above, left, with Ms Weisz), is the head of the city's famed library, and in their household they keep (as did all the upper classes) slaves, one of whom, Davus (Max Minghella, below), though a pagan, begins to flirt with this new Christianity -- particularly when Theon beats him for confessing to the ownership of a religious cross (Davus is actually protecting another female slave). Also in the mix is Orestes (Oscar Issac), one of Hypatia's students who is in love with her.  As is, we soon learn, the slave Davus.

There is plenty going on here but -- surprise! -- the co-writer (with Mateo Gil) and director handles it all quite differently from what we are usually fed.  Instead of the sex 'n sin of the standard historical epic, we get abstention, along with reasoned, intelligent dialog from the participants.  Oh, there's plenty of massive crowd scenes; violence, too, when necessary (no undue blood and guts, however, though there is some menstrual blood, also handled in a manner to make you sit up and take notice).  But the big scenes take their place against many small, intimate moments with, again, unexpected results. Amenábar also finds marvelous opportunities to use the circle -- the movie's single strongest visual motif -- in ways that are lovely, rich and sad.

As a mathematician/astronomer Hypatia's strongest urges are toward understanding the heavens and what is actually going on there, and on earth.  One of the purest joys of the film is watching Ms Weisz struggle to makes sense and then go beyond the little that was known in the 4th Century A.D.   The actress makes all this live and become vitally important.  Minghella and Issac both demon-
strate their skill in showing their characters trying to understand their own passions and how to deal with them.  All this makes for the kind of epic movie we rarely -- maybe never -- have seen.

You may fault Amenábar for splitting his film into two parts joined by rather lengthy written titles explaining what happens during the missing years. But this is a minor infraction when placed against all that he has accomplished.  He captures the spectacle, as well as the intimate moments.  Better, he makes some of those massive, important moments intimate, too.  I doubt we will see a scene as suspenseful and meaningful as the one in which Orestes is called upon to declaim his allegiance to Christianity.  Here, the horror of church becoming state arrives in full force, and it's a humdinger of a scene.

Without undue pushing, the movie again and again calls to mind our modern times: The sacking of the Alexandria library becomes the looting of the Iraqi museums, fundamentalist Christians of old become current Muslims or Jews, the stoning of a woman echoes down the ages and is still going on today. Most telling of all is how organized religion uses politics to maintain its power.  And vice versa.  Toward the film's conclusion Hypatia tells Synesius (a fine Rupert Evans), one of her favored students who has become a Christian power broker who genuinely believes in Christ Jesus, "You have to believe in your faith; I have to question." Doubt and questioning keep individuals on their toes and societies healthy.  Unlike the one we see in this film.  Or the one we're living in presently.

Agora, from Newmarket Films, opens today, May 28, in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine and Paris cinemas.  On June 4, it will make its west  coast debut in Los Angeles at The Landmark and in Irvine at the Regal Westpark 8.

Addendum to this post: Because of the above review, TrustMovies recently received in the mail an interesting, large-print, paperback book -- WOMEN ASTRONOMERS: REACHING FOR THE STARS -- that covers not only ancient women astronomers such as Hypatia -- but plenty of modern ones, too. The author is Mabel Armstrong, and the book (ISBN # 978-0-9728929-5-7), published by Stone Pine Press, retails for $16.95. In 180 pages, 21 different women (plus those in this latest generation), are covered briefly, with their major contributions to the science discussed -- with sidebars on topics from Cepheid variables and stellar distances to optical telescopes. Written in accessible language, the book give a kind of overview of astronomy -- where it has come from and where it is going -- as well as a interesting profile of some women of whom many of us may never have heard. Complete with index, references and a five-page glossary at the conclusion that gives a quick a definition of some terms the lay person might want to know, the book should please anyone seeking out women in the science of astronomy (it's actually part of the Discovering Women in Sciences Series) and/or beginners in astronomy.

Into the conference room at one of New York City’s largest PR agencies, 42 West, strides the tall, gorgeous and striking Rachel Weisz, Academy Award winning star of Agora – and probably one of the reasons the movie was even able to be made – given that it is an historical (bad box-office) drama (even worse box-office). Surprisingly, in my experience, at least, this is one actress who is better looking off-screen than she is on.

“Don’t stand up!” she insists, as I do just that, and then she proceeds to very graciously apologize for arriving tardily. As we do not have that much time to spend, our roundtable of bloggers gets right to it.  Our questions below appear in bold and Ms Weisz’s answers in standard type:

How difficult is it for an actress of your stature to find intelligent roles in intelligent films. This must mean a lot of reading?

A lot of reading? Ahhh… Umm… Yeah, I do a lot of reading. Yeah: That is probably the simplest way to answer it. A lot of reading. But I think everyone does a lot reading. Yeah --you have to read lots and lots and lots of things. A script might be intelligent but if it doesn’t grab you...  It’s all about something that just grabs you.

And this one did grab you?

Yes, it just did. It had a lot to do with who was directing it. And the fact that it was a true story. It just seemed very challenging. And I like things that are kind of challenging. And difficult. And scary. It’s more fun than always doing things in your comfort zone. I am really bad at science. I should say that. I failed all my exams – my O-levels, we call them in England -- when I was 16. I failed math, physics, chemistry, biology, all of them. I mean, I am terrible. So that was a major challenge for me, to sound like I knew what I was talking about.

So this role wasn’t in your comfort zone?

Oh, no! No. You struggle with it. But not by the time we had started filming. The basic thing I had to figure out was that the earth moved around the sun and not vice versa, and that it doesn’t move in a circle but in an ellipse. It took me quite a time to figure out what an ellipse is – a circle without a center. Or perhaps it has two centers. Well, anyway, now it’s getting confusing again (She laughs heartily, and she has a great, deep laugh).

I understand that Sacha Baron Cohen turned down a role in the film because apparently he found the subject matter too prickly. That was the quote he used. I was wondering: Were you attracted to the subject matter of the film? Because it is sort of divisive material.

He said ‘prickly’? I think it was due to religious reasons, as well.

Did the subject matter attract you?

What interested me when I first read it was that I felt like it was a movie about today. It is a contemporary movie -- even if it is set in the 4th Century Egypt. We can go to the moon and we have cars and stuff, yet we are still killing each other in the name of religion, and fundamentalist still exists. Right now, I would say that Islamic fundamentalists are probably the stronger, more violent force, but at that time, it was Christian fundamentalists. But people are still killing each other in the name of religion all over the planet. There are places in the middle east where women are not allowed to be educated. Here in America, there are issues -- we are teaching evolutionary theory vs Christian fundamentalism? So what struck me was Whoa—this is so contemporary.

There are basic things that have not changed, that we have not figured out. Is the movie divisive? I don’t think Agora is an anti-Christian movie, but it is an anti-fundamentalist movie. It shows some very beautiful aspects of Christianty: the idea of charity, feeding the poor, blessed are the meek who shall inherit the earth. The pagans were very enlightened and all – yet they thought was cool to have slaves. That’s messed up! Then Christianity came along and had this idea: Everyone is equal, and we are all god’s children. But it happened to show a moment in history that is true, when Christians were also part of a militia. It was a time of violence.

Which is a little scary about how we live now…

What do you mean?

Well, you wonder sometimes if we are going to have Christian militias in this country.

There already are.

You mean libertarians with guns?

No, no, There was a Christian militia group who claimed they were going to shoot the police.

Well, there you go: Write about that! (Another hearty laugh.)

You are playing an ancient historical figure: What surprised you most about doing a movie like this, and this particular character and what you discovered about her as a person?

There is some source material, but this was pretty hard-going to read. There are letters between her and Orestes. And also some chronicles, as they are called. But this did not really help me that much with her character. What I decided to do was different – because, what do we really know about Hypatia? We know she was a virgin, that she was killed by Christian fundamentalists, we know that she had both pagan and Christians in her class, and that she did not discriminate between the two. She was completely tolerant of religions, that she was born a pagan but that that she did not really practice that religion. My job is to make her flesh and blood, make sure there is blood in her veins. The way I got into it was, even though I was little scared by all the science,  I thought: Now, I am really passionate about my job – acting – so if I could have that same kind of passion for the stars, as I do for acting, then maybe she will be a warm, alive person. So I just wanted to make her warm. Otherwise she would have just been a… brain.

Did you get a chance to go to Alexandria?

No. They filmed this in Malta and built the whole set there.

Did the film make you more interested in the culture and time and place of Egypt back them. Having done this film -- and the two Mummy movies?

As an actor, you deeply immerse yourselves in whatever you are currently doing, and you learn a lot about it. But your brain -- I think it doesn’t have that much storage space, because then you move onto the next project.

We did have an historical adviser Justin Pollard. He wrote a book about Alexandria, which I read. It’s very vivid about what life would have been like at that time.

This is like a multimillion dollar production, with an Oscar-winning actress and director attached. Yet it had some trouble finding distribution after Cannes, and I wonder why you think that was.

Well, yes: Right now, even to get a drama made for under $20 million and starring a woman, this is extremely hard to do. Because of the budget and because it is drama.  Drama has become a dirty word in the film industry.  That’s the climate right now.

Ironically, now the film is being distributed by the same company that released The Passion of the Christ.

Oh, yeah—that’s right!

Hypatia was highly unusual in her society. What do you think might have been some of the advantages of being a woman during this time.

The only thing I can really think of is that you did not have to go to war. Apart from that I am not sure how great it was to be a woman. I mean, she was an aristocrat so she probably had those advantages. I can’t think of any others. Can you?

Not really.

I think it was much better in Alexandria then. Up until the beginning of Christian fundamentalism, that really put women back into… well, I don’t know where they got put back into. It’s like the beginning of the Dark Ages, I suppose. Hypatia was not the only woman teacher at the time There were other female teachers. If she had married, though, her husband would have been able to stop her from working.

What do you think, as a respected actor in the industry, what are some of the things you are fighting for?

I don’t really feel I am in a battle -- or experience this as a battle. You just have to find roles that are interesting to you. The only thing that gets harder: the more successful you become, the more choices you have. It's the luxury of success. But it is much easier when you start out, because you need to pay the rent so you take anything you can get. It’s about learning how to make choices. I think that’s what a career is – once you have success. It’s all about choices. It’s a lovely luxury, but that’s the only thing I struggle with.

What are you working on next?

Well after this film I did a play, and then another film from a first-time/full-length director, Larysa Kondracki about a cop from Nebraska who went to Sarajevo in the 1990s as part of the UN peace-keeping force. And there she uncovered a huge sex trafficking scandal -- which she blew the whistle on. The movie is called The Whistleblower.

Why do you think that Hypathia never connected sexually with Orestes – who was pretty persuasive.

Yeah, yeah! He was great, but Alejandro felt very strongly that her passion was for her work and she did not have the time or place or inclination to take a lover.

What was Malta like—since you did not have the chance to get to Egypt?

We lived in a wonderful little seaside village, a fishing village. We rented a house there and the whole family was there. The village had not changed that much since the middle ages, I think, in terms of the geopgrpahy of it. The fisherman come in every day with their boats, and we would watch then every morning. It was very idyllic. The roads are very dangerous, though, and they drive like crazy there. It a real fishing culture, with great fish restaurants. It’s a beautiful, big holiday destination for a lot of Brits. I think the Queen actually goes there – if that makes anyone else want to go….

In order to make his next screening, TrustMovies had to leave.  But before exiting, he asked Ms Weisz one last question about the pronunciation of her name: "Is it Weisz with a W sound or a V?"

“Most definitely, it’s a V!” she told him with a big, beautiful grin. Ah...  This is one impressive woman.
All photos, save that of Ms Weisz in white sweater 
at the top of the interview portion are from Agora
courtesy of Newmarket Films.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Jean-Pierre Jeunet's MICMACS proves a return to form (more or less)

The first five minutes of MICMACS conflates land mines, loss of family, an orphanage, escape, murder, one of the funniest medical surgeries on record -- and then a little Bogart & Bacall.  It juggles all this with speed, efficiency, humor, bleakness and charm.  These are the best first-five-minutes I've seen in ages -- near perfection, really -- and if the 100 minutes that follow them were as good, we've have an instant classic on our hands.  What comes after is never bad, but the movie goes up and down enough to make you wish for less and better.  (Knocking fifteen minutes off the running time would have helped immensely.)

If careers are arcs, then French writer-director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (at left) must be about three-quarters of his way along the full ellipse. Making a movie approximately once every five years, he's gone from the very dark-but-funny (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children) to Hollywood mainstream fumble (Alien: Resurrection) to out-and-out cutesy schlock (Amélie, a movie that set my teeth permanently on edge and filled me for loathing for Audrey Tatou -- until nearly everything else she's done returned me to her fold) to the long-winded, event-filled (A Very Long Engagement) to this latest outing called Micmacs à tire-larigot in the original French -- which proves a kind of homecoming.  More or less.

Jeunet's work has always been dark. Death hovers -- even if you can't quite see the guy (or be certain which of several he is). Rude humor bubbles up consistently, as does sentimentality of a rather gross sort.  Yet the mix is usually so wild and surprising that we go with it.  Filled with devices of the Rube Goldberg sort (were Goldberg chained in a cellar and fed roaches during his childhood years), the movies seem oddly concerned with the way things work, which is often badly for those who people his films.

With MicMacs, Jeunet has hit upon the best new villain in some time.  Forget terrorists -- so yesterday -- the bad guys here are competing arms dealers (André Dussollier, above left, and Nicolas Marié, above right) who've sewn the soil with the kind of land mines that killed the father of our hero (Dany Boon, below) in those first five minutes.  They also manufactured the bullet embedded in his brain that was too dangerous to remove and so threatens his very existence.  A perfect reason and recipe for vengeance, right?  And so it is.

M. Boon falls in with a gang (the titular MicMacs) that includes the likes of Yolande Moreau (below, from Séraphine, criminally underused here), Dominique Pinon and a cute contortionist, played by Julie Ferrier (further below).

Everything moves smoothly along as vengeance appears nearer and nearer.  And this is where thing go, if not exactly awry, then maybe a little too smoothly. Mid-movie, we grow briefly tired of it all, until there's a bump in the proceedings which seems to bring things back to life.

Don't get me wrong: MicMacs is often a lot of fun, and visually -- as usual with Jeunet -- it's a treasure-trove of the bleak combined with the beautiful and the funny.  If only those first five minutes were not so damned brilliant, promising much to come that only partially arrives.

MicMacs, from Sony Pictures Classics, opens Friday, May 28, in New York City at the AMC Empire 25 and at the Angelika Film Center -- and then the following week -- June 4 -- in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

With THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN , Mia Hansen-Løve joins first-rank French filmmakers; Q&A w/the director

In March of 2007, the FSLC's annual Rendez-vous With French Cinema presented an unusual and riveting documentary about the late French film producer Humbert Balsan.  Covering that festival for GreenCine, I saw the film -- HUMBERT BALSAN: Rebel Producer by Anne Andreu-- and reviewed it at that time (the review is here). Now, young French filmmaker Mia Hansen-Løve,  who, two years back, gave us the interesting but to my mind not entirely successful All Is Forgiven, returns with a narrative feature inspired by and based in some part on the story of M. Balsan's final days and how his family copes with the aftermath of the central event of both films.

TrustMovies is pleased to report that Hansen-Løve's new film THE FATHER OF MY CHILDREN (Le père de mes enfants) is an unqualified success on every front -- as narrative, as filmmaking based-on-life, and as a film about family, coming-of-age, cinema itself -- and the very difficult job of being a producer. In fact, the behind-the-scenes explorations of how films come about and problems are resolved (or not, see below) is as good as I have ever seen. The filmmaker, shown at right, does not take the easy, satirical view of this (no need, really, as moviemaking/moviemakers so often provide instant satire of their own accord), nor does she subscribe to any dark/tragic view of "art undone" by commerce or hubris. No. The filmmaker's strengths appear to be her equanimity, her ability to see clearly the big picture and the small and to weight nothing down unduly via her own prejudices. (I am sure she must have these but she either holds them back or keeps them well out of our view.)

We've seen plenty over the years about how put-upon are our poor directors -- so creative and abused!  What a treat and pleasant surprise it is to see all this from the perspective of a producer who genuinely cares about art and the making of it, but must come up against constant and thorny financial problems in order to get that art made.  The producer (here called Grégoire Canvel) and his loyal, frustrated, loving staff are captured here with such reality and detail that when, midway or less, the bottom falls out, you might expect the movie to lose steam.  Hardly.  For this is when Hansen-Løve's primary concerns surface.

These are the children of the Canvel family, as well as the wife (played with strength and reserve by Chiara Caselli, above), who must come to terms with what has happened and continue with their life.  How all this is accomplished, which intertwines with other stories (a young screenwriter and his screenplay, what will happen to Canvel's movie projects in various stages of completion) is brought to fruition without any rushing or undue "happy endings."  Hansen-Løve never loses her sense of reality -- and the constant change and stasis, disappointment and growth that accompany it.

The actor chosen for the role of Canvel -- Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, shown above -- I have seen in smaller roles (Les destinées, À vendre). Here he comes into his own, and I cannot imagine that Humbert Balsan, himself an actor in his early career, would not be pleased with this terrific performance.

At the close of the press screening I attended, the immediate talk centered around the seemingly amazing work of the children in the film -- there are three of them: Alice de Lencquesaing (good in Summer Hours, here she simply shines), Alice Gautier and Manelle Driss -- who range from late adolescence to quite young. It is rare to see such accomplished, honest performances from child actors of any age. (I am guessing that Alice de Lencquesaing -- below, right -- must be the real-life daughter of star Louis-do, and that both are now part of the Olivier Assayas stable of actors, from which Ms Hansen-Løve, as M. Assayas' life-partner, can conveniently draw.)

As good as the film is in all other ways, this terrific use of children may be its crowning achievement. (Ms Hansen-Løve tells us how this came about in the Q&A that follows.) It's a little early in the game to be heralding a film as classic. But so far as are concerned movies about film-making and family -- as well as the "film-making family" -- I believe this one may someday be held in the same re-
gard as those of another fine French filmmaker: François Truffaut

The Father of My Children, from IFC Films begins its theatrical run on Friday, May 28, and in also avialable via IFC On-Demand starting today, May 26.  In New York City, you can see it NYC at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the IFC Center (it opened in Los Angeles last week!), and for the "if", "how" and "when" of On-Demand, click here and follow directions....
We meet with Mia Hansen-Løve in the offices of one of our favorite PR agencies -- Susan Norget Film Promotion -- where the filmmaker, among the sweetest, softest and most "womanly" of any I've so far met, greets us with her translator.  Below, TrustMovies is in bold and Hansen-Løve in standard typeface.

I really loved this movie, and though I enjoyed your earlier film, All Is Forgiven, to some extent, it didn’t particularly move me. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Father of My Children. But it seems to me that in terms of filmmaking, this one is a big step up for you. One of the most striking things about your movie is the amazing performances you got from the children in the film. They were all very real, life-like, believable -- but also quite specific. Maybe this comes from both your casting choices and in the way you worked with them. Can you talk a little about this?

Thank you for this… (Mia gives a modest little laugh).

After the screening, by the way, all the people around me were also saying the same thing.

Oh… my English is so poor I can not express everything I want to say. (So, from here on in, she says what she can and the translator handles the rest.) When I wrote this film, I knew the key – the children -- would have a very important part in this. From my first experience on the first film, it was the great pleasure I had to work with children. Especially when they have the possibility to be very free and to invent things. I don’t like improvisation. I don’t really trust it in general. When I see it too much in films, I don’t like this because I feel that the actors -- it is like they are treading water.

I feel the same way! I am not a fan of improvisation, either.

Me, too.  For that reason I don’t really like it as an obvious method. But at the same time, I have the feel that when it I use in certain situation, it can really lead to extraordinarily good results!

I used to write plays, way back when, and I didn't really like it when actors improvised. But occasionally, by accident, a line would come out that was absolutely brilliant, and you can’t say “No” to that.  So I guess improvisation does have its uses.

The thing that I experienced with the children in this film, was a certain... not exactly a method, but it is really can be an interesting way to work.  I don’t have a specific method for working in improvisation, but it must be a limited and structured improvisation that, in a way, leads the children back to their characters. The most important thing to me, when working with children, is to give them the time they need to work. You may find this very banal and obvious, but I think that not so many filmmaker work like this – to give children TIME! To have the time to give to things that need to be done. This is what I made clear with my producer from the start: The most important thing, the luxury of the film, will be the time. I can have no limits to the time I spend with them. To make, for instance, very long, ten-minutes shots. To do this again and again, if I think it is interesting.

It is not like the children were not good; they were good from the start. The thing that is important first, is the choice of the children. I just chose children who had nothing to do with cinema They had a kind of viriginity and real innocence in terms of cinema. They were very grave -- they had some kind of maturity -- but innocence at the same time. The most important thing was that we were able to work a lot on each scene and reinvent that scene. To reinvent the film progressively. I feel I found the way into their “interiority,” you know? When I work with children, I find the real meaning of making films! Because they bring freedom, disorder, fantasy -- real life -- to the film. This is why I make films -- I make them in the quest of life and truth. And I find I can do this best by working with children.

Well, this certainly came through! The way the children interact with the man and woman who played their mom and dad was so interesting, as well. Both actors seemed so right and real with the kids.

When you use children there is something very active between us and them. You can not just take them from the outside and put them in and control them. You have to let them hold the reins from time to time, too, so there is this interaction between adults and children. For example in the scene when the child learns that the father is dead and the child begins to cry, people ask me how did you get the child to cry? I didn’t: The tears just came. They came from that child’s own concentration. It’s the choice of the actor, the casting, that is important. The child had an emotional interior that she was able to draw on to do this scene.

My grandkids are 5 and 2, and while they have no interest in acting that I know of, I would certainly trust them with a filmmaker like you. I think they would learn about life and cinema -- at the same time as they were acting.  And they would also be protected.

Thank you so much! I want to talk about a scene I really like – the next to last scene where the children go to their father’s office for the first time. In effect we had no specific script for the children, but we didn’t really need it to bring the scene alive. The children were asked to just discover that place. It came together by following them, seeing how they observed and what they did. A lot of the dialog spoken just came from them, as they discovered this new place. Then, in the very last scene with they are leaving and they discover their father’s cards, and the one little girl says, can I take one? And then another and another! Those comments also came from the children. (Ed's note: Just talking about this scene brings back to film to mind – and tears to my eyes -- all over again.)

Has the family of Humbert Balsan seen your film?

I don’t know if everyone in the family has seen it. When I wrote the script, I avoided to contact them because I want to be able to write the script freely, without being influenced one way or another. When I finished, I contacted the wife, because I had already seen her twice, at the funeral and in the office. And I thought she had a very moving presence. I am not sure I would have made the film if she was very against it. But when she read the script, she understood and respected what I wanted to do. Anyway, it was very consoling to see that, in reality, this person was just as generous as I had hoped she would be.

You must have seen the documentary that was made a few years ago by Anne Andreu…?

Yes, I saw it.

I saw it too, because it was shown here a few years ago at Rendez-vous. And I really loved it. Before I saw it, Humbert was just a name. But afterward, he became important in my mind. And now, with your film, he seems even more so. I don’t know if it is like this in France, but here in America, if you are interested in film, the word producer... well, you don’t pay much attention to that. Everything is about the director. And maybe just a little bit about the writer. But the producer? No, no, no. When I saw the film documentary, I realized more than ever how important the producer can be. And I got this same feeling even more from your film. How important it is to have someone in that position who is creative in his own way.

To me, the producer, when he is a very good one, is like some kind of father. When I met Humbert Balsan, I felt like he was a kind of spiritual father for me. So the title of my film -- Le père de mes enfants -- has really two meanings.

Yes -- and his children are also his movies!

The film has this ambiguity: both meanings. I know that this particular type of producer is the reason this project was so relevant for me. Because this producer is not the habitual cigar-smoking, driving-the-big-car kind of cliché producer you are used to seeing. In fact, he is someone who is himself almost an artist. What is interesting to see here is the real suffering involved. He is at the service of art, and he wants to be at the service of art: But then at other times he must deal with the question of money.

Exactly! One more thing I want to ask you, having now seen both your films. I don’t know how true this, is but this is my “take” on your films. The first seemed more reticent, with characters who seemed to hang back and not move forward as much. Whereas in this film, for all the bad stuff that happens -- suicide, even -- it seems much more positive, forward-thrusting - -even for Balsan himself. People are working! Maybe – this is why I prefer the first film to the second. Does this make any sense?

On the one hand, in the first film you have a character who is feeling very melancholy, reticent. On the second you have someone consumed by his work, very forward moving, very energetic. .For me, what happen is, ultimately at the end, this is like a mirror, the reflections come together at the same time.. The films reflect each other.  Here at the end of this film, you have the adolescent who becomes the main focus, so it is a question of transmission from one generation to another. For me this really ties the films together. Both films deal about the passage of time, about losing your father and trying to survive. About love. Both films have characters who are not into bad feelings. And both films have characters who are almost the same – though in two different bodies -- who have interior beauty, and I try to capture this secret beauty, the interiority of both. The way they will survive the death of their father – in a sense they also grow morally within themselves because of the death of their father. Basically, I think both films have a very common problematic – but expressed in different ways.

Your comments really make me want to see All Is Forgiven again. Thank you so much, Mia. This was really a treat to meet and speak with you.

All photos (except that of Ms. Hansen-Løve)
are from the film itself.