Reviewed today: 11.6, Abuse Of Weakness, Glückskinder, Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia, Jeune Et Jolie, La Maison de la Radio.
11.6 isn't really one of those films that gains anything from trying to hide its premise - it's based on a true story that'll be familiar to anyone who's lived in France for the last few years. Damon Wise actually nailed it beautifully in his introduction: "it's the story of a man who stole 11.6 million euros, and didn't hurt anything apart from some people's feelings." (Although there's one character in the film who'd probably take issue with that statement. Or do only humans count?)
The man in question is security guard Tony Musulin (François Cluzet), the driver of a small team that ferries ridiculous amounts of cash between Parisian banks. It's a tiresome job, and he's managed by people who don't really care about him. His relationship with his partner Marion (Corinne Masiero) is also in a bit of a rut. He gets a small amount of pleasure from picking up a new Ferrari on his savings, but even that pleasure is tempered by his being challenged all the time by people who get suspicious at the idea of a security guard with a fancy car. And slowly, he starts thinking about how he could give those people something to be really suspicious about.
The non-violent, sticking-it-to-the-man nature of his crime made Musulin a folk hero in France when the robbery took place in 2009. (It also probably helped that his name rhymes with that of the other French crime legend Mesrine, making it easier to write songs about him.) Director Philippe Godeau has a tricky balancing act to pull off here, telling the intriguing story of Musulin's crime without flat-out celebrating it. Both he and Cluzet do a pretty good job with that: the mechanics of the plot are laid out with a fair degree of tension, but we're never allowed to forget that Musulin's a bit of a dick sometimes. Despite the lack of violence in the crime itself, there was still a cost that other people had to pay: that remark about hurt feelings turns out to be a lot more than just a smart line.
All this comes together in a smart crime flick that's been carefully pared to the bone, keeping dialogue and action to a minimum while racking up the suspense to surprising effect. And in the Q&A, Godeau revealed that the story may not be over yet: the real Musulin was released from jail just a couple of weeks ago, and there are still some interesting questions that the film has had no choice but to leave hanging. You'll know them when you see it.
4.00pm: Gore Vidal: The United States Of Amnesia [official site]
At the end of this film, The Belated Birthday Girl casually throws out the suggestion that it would play nicely in a double bill with yesterday's Milius. Which is kind of brilliant, when you think about it. It's hard to imagine two writers further apart on the political spectrum than Gore Vidal and John Milius, but they have a surprising amount in common. Both have a reputation as provocateurs, who manage to be wildly quotable as they express ideas that go against the prevailing ideological tide. Both of them share a favourite politician, Teddy Roosevelt, and see him as a man who symbolises the best of what America has to offer. Both of them have spent time in the wilderness for their opinions, although to be fair Vidal has bounced back from that a lot better than Milius has.
Shot over a seven-year period from 2005 to the writer's death, this documentary uses a series of interviews from that whole period to discuss Vidal's life. These are interwoven with huge amounts of archive footage, because Vidal has never been shy about showing off in front of a camera. The earliest example comes at ten years old, when a young Gore appears in a newsreel flying a plane designed by his father, just to show how safe it is. "It's easy as riding a bike," he says, cockily: in subsequent years that cockiness would be carefully hidden under layers of ultra-dry sarcasm, but it would still be there.
From those early beginnings, the film takes a chronological approach. Vidal's early literary successes, hindered by his being put on a New York Times blacklist for the gay content of his second novel: his two attempts at running for Congress, both undertaken for very different reasons: his transformation via television into the kind of public intellectual that we just don't see any more.
Above all else, TUSOA is uproariously funny, particularly in the coverage of those early years when smart people had absolutely no qualms about viciously insulting each other in public. I'd never seen Vidal's debates with William F. Buckley Jr. before, but they look like some of the best TV ever made: Vidal quietly goading Buckley into a twitching rage, until the latter can only respond by crossing an unspoken line. A lot of his most hilarious moments have a 'did he really say that?' sting in the tail, his comments on the virtual canonisation of JFK despite the evidence of his failures being a case in point.
Nicholas Wrathall's put a huge amount of effort into assembling all this material into a coherent narrative, with plenty to think about as well as laugh at. Sure, I'm getting as tired as everyone else of documentaries that illustrate audio interviews with archive stills computer-sliced into fake 3D planes: it was cool when we first saw it in The Kid Stays In The Picture, but it's all getting to be a bit of a cliche now. But apart from that quirk, this is a fine memorial to a man who basically lived out the 20th century in full view of the camera, and knew exactly how to play to it.
6.15pm: Glückskinder [clip]
The way it works is this: The Belated Birthday Girl and I work on our lists of LFF selections independently, and then bring them together to see how they match. Sometimes we change our choices so we're going to the same things: sometimes we agree to differ and see two separate movies in the same timeslot. This was the trickiest decision of the year for me: after all, I certainly wanted to see La Maison de la Radio, as I enjoyed Nicolas Philibert's earlier film Nenette. But a choice between that, and a 1936 loose German remake of It Happened One Night produced by Josef Goebbels' studio? Well, you can see which way I went.
One of the joys of the Treasures strand is discovering whole genres you didn't even know existed. And the Ufa studio wasn't just churning out overt propaganda films in the mid-thirties: it was making entertainment pictures too. Many of them were shot simultaneously in three languages - German, French and English - in an attempt to make them marketable worldwide. Glückskinder (Lucky Kids) is an especially peculiar hybrid, even considering its original source material: it's set in New York, shot on a German backlot set where all the signs are in English, and contains frequent shots of newspapers with New York mastheads and German headlines.
The story requires those shots, as one of its key locations is the office of a New York newspaper. Gil Taylor (Willi Fritsch) is sent out to cover for a drunk colleague, reporting on the proceedings of a night court. During the session, a young woman calling herself Ann Garden (Lilian Harvey) comes up before the judge on a charge of homelessness: Gil takes pity on her and decides to help. This being a screwball comedy, within five minutes Gil and Ann have been forcibly married to each other in the middle of the courtroom. This turns out to just be the beginning of his problems.
It's a terrible old cliche, but I'm going to go for it regardless - Glückskinder is a screwball comedy made with all the lightness of touch that we typically associate with the Third Reich. Okay, that's a little harsh: the early part of the movie has fast-paced, gag-riddled dialogue of the sort we'd expect from its Hollywood equivalent. But as the plot starts to take control, the gags slow down, and more of them fall flat on their face. As the story ascends to new levels of craziness at its climax, the pace of the movie should be picking up even more to carry us through the final lap, but the best it can do is give us a gratuitous musical number about wanting to be a hen. (See the link above - the song also, astonishingly, turns up on the soundtrack to Inglourious Basterds.)
Still, that's not to say it's unwatchable: the story may be ridiculous, but director Paul Martin keeps the momentum going just enough to make you keen to see how it turns out. Beautifully restored without being enhanced all the way into digital unreality, Glückskinder may be more of a curiosity these days than a wholly entertaining film in its own right, but that's probably good enough to be getting on with.
Notes From Spank's Pals
La Maison de la Radio [trailer]
The Belated Birthday Girl - Nicolas Philibert's film is a cinematic love letter to Radio France, and a proclamation in favour of the kind of public service radio embodied by Radio France in France and the BBC here in the UK. Structurally, the film is built around a virtual day in the life of the station, filmed over a period of 6 months. We see both behind the scenes and on air, in the studio and on outside broadcast, following the wide variety of programming and people on the various channels.
La Maison de la Radio is often funny, definitely thoughtful, and shows what a valuable thing we have in this type of broadcasting. Variety is the main thing Philibert wants to celebrate and defend, in a world where so much tends toward homogeneity. UK audiences familiar with Radio 4 will take a particular delight in seeing the Radio France Shipping Forecast, reminding us that we too have something here to cherish and protect.
Although the subject is by definition a non-visual medium, Philibert's film is a treat to watch as well as hear, often concentrating on the faces of the presenters, guests, producers and engineers, giving a lovely picture of the people behind the voices and sounds, and is a delightful homage to a thing of great value.
The Cineaste - Tony Musulin was a security van driver for IBRIS, the French equivalent of, say, Securicor. He was with them for ten years, a regular and reliable, if somewhat disillusioned and cynical, employee. Then in the summer of 2009 he carried out an astonishing heist that relieved his employers – or rather IBRIS’s clients, the bank whose money they were carrying - of 11.6 million euros. Director Philippe Godeau’s film is a dramatized account of this heist and its aftermath.
Most of the film is a slow-burning build-up to the main event. So we see scenes that, I think, were probably intended to portray Musulin’s character; petty and rather juvenile arguments with his work-mates; being totally unsympathetic/supportive to his girlfriend (a small supporting role for Corinne Masiero, who we saw as the terrific Louise Wimmer in LFF 2011) who’s struggling to run a bar; and growing disillusionment towards his employers when he suspects they’re underpaying him.
In the Q & A afterwards Godeau explained (until farcically the microphones gave up!) that he was intrigued by the drive and motivation of someone who, as I say, had been with the company for ten years before turning big-time thief. After being on the run Musulin turned himself in November (2009). His heist was hugely popular on the internet, and we see his workmates enjoying a rap song they’ve found on YouTube called La Methode Musulin. One of the last scenes of the film was seeing Musulin holed up in Bourg-en-Bresse prison watching a news item on TV about his incarceration.
Apparently at this time Musulin has been out of prison for just ten days, and Godeau tried to persuade him to attend this screening(!), but unfortunately was unsuccessful. An intriguing film.
Jeune et Jolie [official site]
The Cineaste - The prolific Francois Ozon turns his inimitable observations on a young teenager who, whilst still at high school, finds herself becoming a high-class sex worker with (much) older wealthy clients.
The model Marine Vacth gives an assured performance as the 17-year-old Isabelle, who, after a brief holiday romance, finds that wealthy older men are a good source of plenty of money. From a comfortable home (she gets on fine with Mum, little brother and step-dad), she finds herself stretched to explain her long absences in the evenings as her client list grows. Although tricky, she’s able to cope with this competently enough, until one day a disaster strikes, and her secret life is exposed, to her mum’s and step-dad’s obvious devastation. The film then progresses with the aftershock from this.
Ozon’s film probably deals with themes of love, trust and forgiveness, inter alia; it’s actually a rather forgettable modest little film, and, writing this the day afterwards, I can’t help thinking, what was the purpose of it all? An intriguing finale was seeing Isabelle meet up with the wife of one of her clients, a delightful cameo from Charlotte Rampling.
Abuse of Weakness [official Facebook]
The Cineaste - Clare Stewart (hey Suze, do red dresses turn you on as much as kinky black leather boots?) introduced the film beforehand, and in turn introduced not one but two icons of French cinema, Catherine Breillat and Isabelle Huppert; and afterwards Jonathan Romney chaired the Q & A, which got increasingly anal and intellectual and which, sacrilegiously, I got bored with and walked out of (what? hang that man!).
This film, apparently, was a very personal vehicle for Breillat herself. Here in the film Huppert plays a film director (Maude) who has a serious brain haemorrhage. It’s left her control over her movements severely compromised. Then one day, watching television, she sees a chat show host interviewing an ex-con about his exploits. Implausibly she thinks he’d be a great lead actor for her next film, phones her casting director and arranges a meeting with this ex-con (Vilko), played by ex-rapper turned actor, Kool Shen.
The film then progresses looking at the fractious relationship between Maude and Vilko. With her mobility very reduced, Maude is entirely dependent on Vilko’s help. An arrogant and unsympathetic man, he only grudgingly provides it. The performances from Huppert and Shen were both terrific. But the film was really a bit specialized – if you’re a care worker to a stroke victim it might be fascinating, but frankly I found my mind wandering (never a good sign), and didn’t find that the film engaged.
Breillat afterwards insisted in speaking in English (her accent was very difficult to understand), and, personally, it was a big disappointment to have such an iconic figure from French cinema and not be excited by it all.