Wednesday, January 3, 2018

With the musician bio-pic DJANGO, writer/ producer Etienne Comar directs his first film

Paris-born filmmaker Etienne Comar has written a half-dozen fine films (from Of Gods and Men to Haute Cuisine and My King) and produced a bunch more (Timbuktu, for one). Now, he has directed his first film, and it's a good, but not great, one entitled DJANGO, which gives us but a single chapter in the life of the internationally famed guitarist, composer and musician, Django Reinhardt.

That chapter concerns the time in France during World War II when Django, although a huge success and popular even among the Germans, because he was of Roma/gypsy stock and thus on the Nazi hit list, had to leave Paris and somehow reach -- along with his pregnant girlfriend and his mother -- the "neutral" haven of Switzerland.

M. Comar, shown at right, begins his movie in a forest with a fraught but well-done scene of a sudden massacre of Roma that includes, as we later learn, Django's blind mentor. We then meet our musician, brought to very believable, surprisingly thoughtful and quiet life by a French actor who ought to be better known on these shores, Reda Kateb (shown below, of L'astragale and Far From Men).  M. Kateb seems more than comfortable with the instruments he is supposed to be playing, and he brings his usual skill at subtlety and under-playing to bring to life and evolution the character of this oddball artist. (Yes, that's a monkey on Django's back, but fortunately it's a real one rather than any symbolic drug addiction.)

The time frame covered here is a relatively small one -- only a matter of months, I think -- as Django does concerts, a grand one in Paris and later more improvised "musicales" when he moves to a town on the lake shore across from Switzerland. The Nazis, more threatening at certain times than at others, are nonetheless ever-present, adding a tension to the movie that never dissipates.

Comar's directorial style is on the quiet side, avoiding melodrama, even at key moments. This may make the movie, which runs just under two hours, seem slow at times, but it is never uninteresting.

The film is also filled with music in Django's signature jazz style (his quintet is said to have been among the first to feature the guitar as lead instrument) and with fine performances, too. Chief among these is that of Belgian actress Cécile de France (above, right), who plays a character -- created from whole cloth, it seems -- who acts as our hero's lover and guardian angel who herself turns out to need some help.

Ms de France is fine, as always, but the really impressive female role here is that of Jango's mother, Negros, who is played by a knockout actress doing her very first narrative role, Bimbam Merstein, above, center, who proves every bit as memorable as her name. Ms Merstein brings to the movie its funniest, most energetic and alive moments, and thus becomes its not-so-secret weapon. (That's Beata Palya, above left, who plays Django's ever-loving, pregnant girlfriend.)

Django is not, as I say, a great film. But it is a good one that should keep your interest throughout, as well as bring into focus a chapter of the life of a musician who could be better know here in the USA. (He recorded in France with visiting American musicians, including Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter, and briefly toured the United States with Duke Ellington's orchestra.) In any case, I'll look forward to M. Comar's next directorial effort.

From Under the Milky Way and running 117 minutes, Django opens this Friday, January 5, in New York City at the IFC Center and then on January 19 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Music Hall, and on January 22, at several other Laemmle locations.

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