International rescue

ManCalledOve1

As a long-established tennis widower, I feel very fortunate to have a Curzon cinema in a workable radius, especially during Wimbledon fortnight. This week, I took advantage of clement weather and a free afternoon/evening to forge my own European foreign-language double-bill. (In fact, one of them was a bit like a tennis match between two champions.) Both films I saw are, as it happens, available on Curzon Home Cinema, which means if you don’t live in a decent radius of a Curzon, or other arthouse chain, you can stream them for a tenner for 48 hours: A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove), from Sweden, and The Midwife (Sage Femme), from France/Belgium.

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I actually saw them in reverse order, and I’m glad that I did, as I preferred Ove. The Midwife, directed by Martin Provost, whose previous work I’m not au fait with, is notable for its pairing of two celebrated French actresses, the regal 60s icon Catherine Deneuve, now 73, and Catherine Frot, a decade or so younger and less well known to me, but showered with awards in her prolific career. Their uneasy reunion – Deneuve was the lover of Frot’s father, a champion swimmer, who committed suicide when she dumped him – is the engine that drives the film, with the elder, boozy floozy bringing the tight-arsed, dedicated midwife out of her celibate shell – ironically, she’s the one with the teenage son, but he’s never home. The relationship between the two women is tragi-comic as Deneuve has only looked her onetime stepdaughter up because she’s got a brain tumour and has no actual family.

There’s no doubting the fun Deneuve is having, playing a feckless, dishonest, gambling goodtime girl, but Fort’s is the more interesting character, if rather one-note. (We see her successfully and lovingly delivering gooey baby after gooey baby, as if her job is an act of sainthood.) I have a lot of time for contemporary French films, because I’m shallow enough to aspire to the lifestyle, and enjoy seeing grown-ups sit down at a bar for a single glass of red wine or a chalice of beer and a fag (or, in Deneuve’s case at one point, a lovely looking omelette and fries). I quite enjoyed Frot’s allotment neighbour and love interest, played by Olivier Gourmet, but after Deneuve’s operation on the tumour, The Midwife becomes a little idealised and gooey.

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A Man Called Ove, from Swedish director Hannes Holm and adapted from a popular novel by Fredrik Backman, also hinges on a suicide, albeit an unsuccessful one. Rolf Lassgard, usually seen with a fine mane of hair (he’s best known as Wallander), plays the bald widower of the title, initially presented as a grumpy, interfering busybody and self-styled caretaker of a pleasant neighbourhood estate. He locks up bicycles that are improperly parked, shouts at a woman with a Chihuahua, rages at a new neighbour backing a trailer up a path not designated for motor vehicles, refuses to accept that a single bunch of flowers costs more than one in a two-for-one offer, and so on. But Ove is not just angry, he is sad. We see him talking to his beloved wife Sonja’s grave (“I miss you”), while replacing the flowers, and he assures her that he will join her soon. (After 43 years at the same company, he has recently been let go, another act of cruelty by a world that seems to have left him to rot.)

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It has a certain, deadpan, Amèlie-like storybook quality, especially in the flashbacks, through which we learn of Ove’s life. You may find some of it a little twee, and that the more prosaically daft details – such as Ove’s feud with a neighbour based exclusively in their opposing choice of car make – Ove worships the Saab, his nemesis Rune drives a Volvo, and heinously replaces it with a BMW – undercut the grave seriousness of both Ove’s suicidal tendencies, and the tragedy in his backstory, but I rather liked the incongruity. When – no spoilers – a tragic event happens in one of Ove’s early flashbacks to childhood and encroaching young-adulthood, it’s almost played by Holm in the same off-the-cuff style, and for me it makes the mortality all the more portentous.

There’s a Hollywood remake in here waiting to happen. Re-stage it in Omaha, or Cleveland, or Westchester, stick a curmudgeonly Bryan Cranston in a bald wig in the main role (the Sight & Sound reviewer suggests Jack Nicholson, but he’s way too old; Ove is only supposed to be 59), and there’s a diversity-friendly sidekick waiting to balance it all up. Ove is initially irritated by his new neighbours – Swedish husband, Iranian wife Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), two adorable kids – but it’s clear that Parveneh will be his salvation, with her no-nonsense attitude and refusal to play Ove’s game of one man against the world. He will learn to love the kids, and get over himself, and it will be Parveneh – terrible driver, scatty householder – who teaches him. The foregone conclusion has surprises along the way, though. This is a story that rewards. (People tell me they loved the novel.)

I’ve thought a lot about Ove since seeing it, and him. The Midwife, less so.

I have seen a lot of foreign-language films I loved in the first six months of 2017: Elle, The Salesman, Graduation, The Handmaiden, Neruda, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Toni Erdmann, El Pastor, The Other Side of Hope, Frantz, Heal the Living … But also, some exceptional films in the English language, both UK-made and American: Prevenge, Manchester by the Sea, Christine, Moonlight, The Lost City of Z, Free Fire, Baby Driver, A Quiet Passion, Lady Macbeth, The Levelling … I also liked Personal Shopper, a French film largely in English, and starring an American, and two of the most celebrated, and decorated, films from Hollywood: Moonlight and La La Land. All are welcome in my tent.

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It doesn’t matter, but I think my Top 10 have been (in a fairly casual order):

  1. The Levelling | Hope Dickson Leach (UK)
  2. El Pastor | Jonathan Cenzual Burley (Spain)
  3. A Quiet Passion | Terence Davies (UK)
  4. The Lost City of Z | James Grey (US)
  5. Neruda | Pablo Larraìn (Chile/Argentina/France/Spain)
  6. Graduation | Cristian Mungiu (Romania)
  7. Baby Driver | Edgar Wright (UK)
  8. Heal the Living | Katell Quillévéré (France/US/Belgium)
  9. David Lynch: The Art Life | Rick Barnes, Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm (US)
  10. The Handmaiden | Park Chan-wook (South Korea)

Another week of tennis to go. Love all.

Libération

je-suis-charlie

Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment – movies, theatre, music – is policed or absent altogether; and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socialising presence of women.

This thought-provoking quote is from Lawrence Wright’s vital 2006 book setting out the long context leading to 9/11, The Looming Tower, which I read in 2007. In it, he traces al-Qaeda back to its roots in Egypt, and Sayyid Qutb, the “father” of the radical Islamic movement: a middle-class, educated civil servant and writer who learned his hatred of America while studying there in the 1940s.

It was modernity Qutb took exception to (“secularism, rationality, democracy, subjectivity, individualism, mixing of the sexes, tolerance, materialism”) and returned radicalised to Egypt, a country still under the yoke of Western colonialism. After Gamal Abdel Nasser took control in a military coup against the bloated ruling class in 1952, Qtub hoped for “a just dictatorship”, but Nasser moved the country towards a socialist, secular society (ring any bells?) and Qtub’s cohorts in the Sharia law-favouring Muslim Brotherhood turned against the leader they had helped to put in place. (The Brotherhood would, of course, play its part in the post-Arab Spring reconstruction vacuum.)

Qtub ended up in prison in the crackdown on dissenters after a failed assassination attempt on Nasser, and it was here, brutalised, tortured and horrified at the Muslim guards’ treatment of other Muslim prisoners, that he wrote his apocalyptic manifesto, Ma’alim fi a’Tariq (Milestones), which, among other assertions based on his own dark reading of the Quran, stated that any Muslim serving Nasser was not a “true Muslim”. (This observation from 50 years ago felt relevant again yesterday when Malek Merabet, brother of the murdered Muslim policeman Ahmed Merabet in Paris and a proud, upstanding example to anyone in a crisis, called his brother’s killers “false Muslims”.)

Thus, did Qtub make enemies of anyone who didn’t agree with him and set the clock back to the days of the Prophet Mohammed, before which the world existed in “a period of ignorance and barbarity”, jahiliyya. When Qutb was hanged on August 29, 1966, Wright’s fastidious book seems to say, al-Qaeda was effectively born.

I reprint the quote above, and the context beneath it, because it kept coming back to me over the past week’s grim events. It might seem glib to accuse radicalised men like the Kouachi brothers of simply being “young, idle and bored” (and it doesn’t account for the actions of Hayat Boumeddiene, partner and accomplice of Amedy Coulibaly in Thursday’s Montrouge shooting and Friday’s Porte de Vincennes siege), but there is a grain of truth in the generalisation, and those in the neglected suburbs of Paris certainly felt – and feel – disenfranchised and apart from the glories of modern, secular French society.

I have no answers to the broader problem, but I do think an inquiring understanding of the situation is required – and a reaction as dignified and nonviolent as the one we’re seeing across France. None of this happened overnight. The warning signs were there. And so much of it leads back to pre- and post-war Western colonialism (Saudi Arabia’s close ties to America were always troubling to more traditionally versed Muslims and when King Fahd allowed US troops to be stationed there in 1990, the camel’s back was figuratively broken). It’s something Nigel Farrage and Marine Le Pen would do well to remember before they open their mouths today, I think.

Breaking up is never easy I know

Here’s another interesting, random connection between two films seen close to each other: Café de Flore is a French-Canadian film, mostly in French, and Goodbye First Love is a French film, completely in French, and they share a fascination with love that is impossible to give up. The big difference being: one works, the other only partially.

I was filled with trepidation about Goodbye First Love, as writer-director Mia Hansen-Løve’s previous film, her second, Father Of My Children, rubbed me up the wrong way, despite glowing reviews and a laurel of some kind at Cannes. Actually, they’re French films, let’s give them their native titles: Le père de mes enfants; Un amour de jeunesse. Now, those with schoolboy French will have spotted that, while Father Of My Children is a literal translation of Le père de mes enfants, Un amour de jeunesse comes out as something like A Love Of Youth, or A Love Of The Young; Young Love, I guess. Even First Love. But the Goodbye part seems to be peculiar to the official English title. It gives a little more away, as this is a film about the first meaningful relationship of a Parisian girl, Camille (Lola Créton), aged 15 when we first meet her, and her tousle-haired boyfriend Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky), who doesn’t just have a roving eye for the ladies,  but a roving eye for the map. Here’s the goodbye part – and it’s given away in the trailer, which, again, I think I’ve seen about 50 times at various Curzon cinemas , where it’s an understandable shoo-in – Sullivan goes travelling in South America and ends the relationship. Typical boy.

There they are, in the top picture, young and in love and mistaken in the belief that their love will last forever. Hey, we’ve all been there. Hansen-Løve, who apparently based the story on her own experiences, captures the guileless optimism of this life-stage with a lightness of touch, and eliciting believable performances from her two leads; the way Camille puts up with Sullivan’s evident failure to live up to her many-splendoured plans for their relationship, and the way, in turn, that her needy demands on his heart and silly threats about not being able to live without him actually start to drive him away. When he hops it, she puts up a map of South America, and they exchange letters, but these letters dry up, and eventually, she tears the map down.

There’s nothing startlingly original in making a drama about saying goodbye to first love, and going over such adolescent ground could have spelled Twilight without the vampires as Camille moons about, her cheeks permanently moist with huffy, heartbroken tears (“When will you get over him?” asks her mum), but in playing the story out over a number of years and haircuts, Hansen-Løve shows how durable that first bond can be, and even when Camille has signed up to an architecture course and found a new distraction in her middle-aged tutor (a louche Norwegian, played by Magne-Håvard Brekke), the flame for Sullivan still burns.

I won’t roll out any more of the plot, other than to say it’s confidently and carefully seen through, consistently engaging and even occasionally surprising, so any trepidation about Hansen-Løve based upon my disappointment with Le père de mes enfants was misplaced. Maybe I just didn’t buy the trajectory of that one – which I won’t spoil – even though I’ve since read that it, too, was autobiographical and actually happened! I do have a massive soft spot for French films – just seeing the bread on the table and the red wine in glass tumblers, and recognising that all-pervasive air of bohemian ease, never mind the aesthetically pleasing rhythms of the language – but I’m not blind to individual faults. Elles, for instance, was awful, and its Frenchness did not save it. Goodbye First Love is superb.

Café de Flore isn’t. Having read a one-star assassination by not Peter Bradshaw but one of his lieutenants in the Guardian, and passed a five-star rave by the redoubtable Alan Jones for the online database of my very own Radio Times, I went into the cinema with one eye wide open and the other wide shut. Would it be a “narcissistic and fundamentally unpersuasive mosaic” with “the most stupid movie twist of the decade”? Or a “bold … uncompromising, passionate … intoxicating triumph that bristles with sly innovation”?

Well, it was a bit of both. From French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, who, oddly, made serviceable heritage drama The Young Victoria, this is a striking collage of imagery built from fragments that represent not just actual memories but sometimes imagined ones. It cuts together two parallel stories: one about the domestic mid-life hari-kiri committed by a crashingly unsympathetic 40-year-old superstar DJ, Antoine (Kevin Parent), who, when he’s not at home in Montreal is out tickling clubs full of ravers with his supreme deckmanship, and when he’s not doing that, he’s leaving his angelic and lovely wife Carole (Hélène Florent) for a younger “bimbo”, which leaves him socially exiled by his parents and daughters; the other about a poor young single mum (Vanessa Paradis) in late-60s Paris who raises her Down’s Syndrome son Laurent (an amazing Marin Gerrier) with so much love it threatens to engulf them all.

Like Goodbye First Love, Café de Flore effectively depicts that unquestioning brand of love, the kind that can drive you mad. You can trace parallels between the lovey-dovey passion of Camille and Sullivan, and the similarly pubescent devotion of Antoine and Carole as young teenage Goths listening to The Cure’s Faith album, and making vows in eyeliner. In both films, we see that intoxicating brand of first love develop, although in the latter case, the pair get married, have kids and then split up. She even clingingly forgives him for straying with the blonde “bimbo” (as she’s called constantly by the eldest daughter), but he won’t go back as for him, the love is gone. It’s not as if his wife is old and worn out, or that his bimbo is particularly stunning and nubile, but it’s enough to cause this preening ninny of a man to make a bonfire of his marriage.

Throughout the film, and this is where it gets infuriating, we are teased with possible connections between the present and the past. When, in the final act, we are offered something concrete, it is in fact balsa wood, and although the final twist isn’t “the most stupid of the decade” (we are only two years into the decade), it’s not enough to hang a two-hour film on. And certainly not when that film seems to revel so arrogantly and confidently in the cosmic clues that are constantly dropped. Vallée seems to want us to keep asking, “How are these two stories linked?”, and we do, because he jumps from one to the other throughout, but if you demand an audience asks questions, you have to answer them in a meaningful way. (For instance: the coincidental party of adults with Down’s Syndrome who come through an airport arrivals hall in the present when Antoine is leaving for a foreign gig – he disappears into a blur; they emerge from a blur and come into focus – it’s an arresting image, but playing with the focus and putting it in slo-mo does not fool anyone; it’s actually a pretty manipulative coincidence. It’s never explained. But it’s hardly subtle enough to be called a visual rhyme, or an allusion.)

Goodbye First Love got better while I watched Café de Flore. Hansen-Løve sees no need to muck about and tantalise; she just tells her story, in order, and we’re with her. Vallée is clearly of a more experimental mindset and while his ambition can be applauded – and, to be fair, some of the fragments do pay off, like the vapour trail in the sky, and the sheer audacity of using a modern piece of dance music to link contemporary Montreal with 1960s Paris takes some front – but it veers towards pretense too often. And it’s way too forgiving towards Antoine’s infidelity. Typical man.

Hey ladies

By accident and not design, I saw two films at the cinema over the weekend that were about women. The first, Damsels In Distress, written and directed by a man, portrayed men in a very bad light; largely as thick-headed, arrogant dimwits or shysters. The second, Elles, written and directed by a woman, also portrayed men in a bad light; as desperate, shallow sad cases, sometimes cruel with it.

The first, and more successful, was Damsels In Distress. American indie auteur Whit Stillman takes his time. He’s only made four films since 1990. The first two, which I haven’t seen, were linked by low budgets, no stars, lavish praise and a concern for the urban haute bourgeoisie, Metropolitan and Barcelona. I’d like to see them. I saw The Last Days Of Disco in 1998, the third part of a loose trilogy apparently, because I was tempted by the subject matter, and I remember really enjoying it. It also revolved around two women.

Disco was set in the early 80s. Damsels is set now. Or, at least, I think it is; there are few clues that time has passed much since the 1950s, and because it’s set in a minor, fictional Ivy League college where the puzzling culture of fraternity houses still holds primitive sway, it all seems very remote and old-fashioned. That is, I’m sure, the point. (There is a subplot about the frat houses being closed down.) When I saw National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1979, aged 14 – it was my first “AA” – this was my first exposure to the arcane college system of the United States, and I wasn’t worldly enough to spot that it was set in the early 60s. I realise that now, just as I realise that Happy Days was set in the 1950s, which I didn’t at the time. America seemed so foreign when I was a kid, I assumed it was still all about milk bars and the hop. Which, of course, to an extent, it still was in the 70s, and to a lesser extent, still is today.

Greta Gerwig is the only recognisable face. As Violet, she leads a group of prissy girls whose stated mission is to “save” dimwitted boys by going out with them and seeking to improve them. It’s a bizarre almost sexless set-up, but Stillman plays it so straight, it’s hard not to be drawn into this parallel universe. Nobody speaks as people speak; they are all dazzlingly eloquent and self-aware, and you will either find this a delight, or a massive irritant. I fell almost immediately into the former camp. If someone told me they couldn’t even sit through it, I would empathise.

It’s a 12A. There’s nothing in Damsels to frighten the horses. One subplot hints that a boy – duplicitous and untrustworthy, naturally – elicits anal sex with one of the prissy girls by claiming it’s a religious necessity for him, but this is as close to adult the film gets. It’s sort of the anti-Heathers. Gerwig’s troupe, who run a suicide prevention centre and offer tap-dancing as a therapy, seem brittle, remote and untouchable at first, but reveal deeper human feelings as the story progresses, even depression, all of which are whipped back into a fluff by an ending that comes as something of a shock, albeit a feelgood one.

It’s rare you see a film that reminds you of little else. Damsels is one such. (I gather it reminds people who’ve seen them of, yes, Metropolitan and Barcelona, the first of which was also concerned with an Ivy League college; Stillman went to Harvard.) It’s clever, wordy and weird, and if it puts women on too high a pedestal – and casts men into such a corresponding trench – well then, hooray for Whit Stillman. Better his breathless praise for the opposite sex, than Polish director Małgorzata Szumowska’s apparent disdain for her own, as we are about to see.

I’d read some lukewarm and hostile reviews of Szumowska’s French-language reverse-porn film Elles before seeing it, and such reviews are rare for anything with Saint Juliette de Binoche in. She plays an almost totally implausible journalist for Elle magazine, the kind who sits at home in her gorgeous Paris apartment staring at a computer and fielding calls about word-length from an unseen editor. (It may have been sloppy subtitling, but at one stage, she and the editor haggle over 8,000 “characters”, which must surely have meant words?) She interviews two female students who work as prostitutes to supplement their fees, and in doing so, unlocks her own inner prostitute. Not literally, of course, but that seems to be the thrust of the story.

It’s tosh. The studes, one French, Charlotte, one Polish, Alicja (hey, the director is Polish and she’s making her first French film, who can blame her?), seem not just guilt-free about servicing “bored husbands” for Euros, but empowered by it. They are certainly no damsels in distress. I may have missed a few meetings since becoming a feminist in the 80s, but the empowerment of women through submission to male needs and fantasies has always been a thorny one for me to grasp; clearly, women should enjoy nothing less than equality in all areas of life, from work to sex, but I’m not modern enough to see how pole dancing fits into this.

Anyway, Elles (rotten title) revolves around Binoche’s superwoman preparing a slow-cook casserole for her blasé husband’s boss, juggling the kids (including a particularly nightmarish teenage dopehead son), going food shopping and trying to fix the fridge door, while also attempting to finish her article, which chiefly involves listening to interview tapes that provide us with flashbacks mostly of the two students having frank sex with various men. Their clients run the clichéd gamut: from the businessman who bursts into tears after a premature ejaculation, to the shark in the hotel room who turns out to be a disgusting sadist (a rare instance of momentary distress there, but not enough for Charlotte to consider putting a stop to her extracurricular revenue stream). The only character who seems new is the middle-aged bloke who serenades his prostitute, naked, on an acoustic guitar. Was this odd moment of comedy supposed to show that not all men who pay women for sex are bad? That rather lets them off the hook, doesn’t it?

Although the sex is not titillating – or at least, not titillating unless you are titillated by seeing bored young women service older men – there is a lot of it, and I’m not sure it added much to the already fairly thin thesis. In the end, I found Elles infuriating, which wasn’t helped by the couple sitting next to me who had sought out the Noisiest Snack Available in the foyer and kept talking until I politely asked them not to.

I didn’t buy it. Binoche is literally never bad; and she gave the part her all – an “all” it didn’t really merit – imbuing a cardboard cut-out with life and radiance. But her grown-up journalist seemed to find the whole subculture of prostitution so shocking, you started to wonder if she’d ever read a newspaper article in her life. The scene where she gets drunk with the Polish student and they indulge in a sort of semi-erotic, quasi-Oedipal display of dancing to a terrible electro track is particularly embarrassing, and if it had been conceived by a male writer/director, you could have put it down to sleazy voyeurism. But it wasn’t.

Perhaps Elles is simply intended to be a protest about student fees. But a film about bar work isn’t really going to get the punters in, is it?

All around the world

I may have been working on Good Friday, but with Mr Blue Sky now edited and ready to go, I had a mini foreign film festival planned for the three-day Easter holiday. Yesterday, Day One, we saw Le Havre, a French-Finish comedy-drama, and Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, a Turkish police procedural. Le Havre is another one of those films, like The Kid With A Bike, that has been too heavily trailered at the Curzon chain, which really can start to erode the experience of seeing the actual film. I certainly knew what to expect from the story, which is about an old French man befriending and sheltering an African boy. Written and directed by the Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki, greatly revered but whose back catalogue has sadly passed me by (it is only in the last 15 or so years that I’ve been obsessed by foreign cinema, so I still have a lot of catching up to do), the style of Le Havre appears to be his trademark. The drama is stilted and staged, with characters speaking, or declaiming, in aphorisms, and often framed so that they face the camera. (This makes it very easy to cut up into a trailer.)

I was captivated by it. Un homage to the style of Robert Bresson, it tells a disarmingly simple story – man takes in illegal immigrant while wife is ill in hospital – but imbues it with all sorts of meaning. The acting is not naturalistic, in that it feels “acted”, but at the same time, Le Havre feels utterly authentic. Kaurismäki uses real locations – specifically, the dour, ancient docks of the port itself, and the shanty-like housing around it – but gives them a hyperreal sheen, using neon signs and bursts of colour. The very fact that the run-down cafe bar that acts as a hub to the dockside community is called “La Moderne” is a brilliant visual joke. It has been described as a “comedy” but most of the laughs are in the trailer; the rest is actually rather grave. But that’s not a complaint. In the main roles of man and boy, André Wilms and Blondin Miguel are superbly affecting (the latter in his first role, apparently a non-actor, but all the better as a boy who escapes from a shipping container full of Senegalese refugees and finds himself adrift and on the run in a foreign land), while Finnish actor Kati Outinen brings deadpan pathos to the dutiful but possibly dying wife Arletty. Incidentally, this character’s name, a direct nod to the iconic 1940s-50s French actress, is typical of Kaurismäki’s playfulness. Wilms’ character is called Marcel Marx; a nosy neighbour is played in cameo by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the 14-year-old star of 400 Blows, another film about a boy on the run from the police; and I’m sure there’s other stuff I didn’t spot.

It’s a lovely film, moving and witty, and you can taste the salt of the sea air.

I had high hopes for, but less foreknowledge of (I think I saw the trailer once), Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, a film heaped with praise from a director already lauded, Nuri Bilge Seylan. I saw his film Uzak a few years ago and thought it was phenomenal, a massively understated look at the strained relationship between two brothers in Istanbul, so that was a good start. But I couldn’t really go on with this one. I read that it’s “Checkovian” and is as filled with references to Checkov as Le Havre is with references to French cinema, but I know little of the Russian playwright, so this is no help to me. I liked the look of Anatolia, especially the beginning, which takes place at night, during the police search for a body in the steppes of rural Anatolia, and where the action is lit pretty much exclusively by headlights. It’s hard on the eyes, I warn you now. But it gives these scenes a naturalism that puts you right there at the centre of the work. I also enjoyed the banter in the car between the various officers; it had a Tarantino quality to it, with mundane chit-chat about buffalo milk yoghurt.

However, somewhere along the road, the film lost me. The search for the body goes on and frustratingly on, with no sign of the sun coming up at any point, and in fact, that seems to be the intention of the film: to show how boring police work can be. The party stops at the house of the mayor of a tiny village that only just about has electricity, and they eat a lovely-looking feast, then sort of doze off when the power cuts out. There’s more conversation, some of it mundane, other stories more meaningful, and then, finally, they find the body and it’s the next day. The film climaxes, if that’s the word, with an autopsy, about which I will reveal nothing. This film is 158 minutes long, and it feels like it. I don’t mind admitting I fell in and out of a sort of half-doze in parts, and that’s not good, is it? However, I appreciated the humour in the writing, and I’m sure it’s an authentic portrait of the ultra-male world of the Turkish police. There is only one significant female character, and she is the daughter of the mayor, who appears as a spectral vision, lit by a lamp, serving tea to the men; I’m sure this means something profound, but I was as tired as the men were at this point.

Ultimately, Once Upon A Time In Anatolia just didn’t grab me. It made me want to watch Uzak again, though.

Right, what’s next? Ah yes, A Cat In Paris from France, and Headhunters from Norway. I will report back tomorrow.

Narc de triomphe

Here is the latest Zelig-style shot of me standing next to some famous people. Actually, you probably don’t recognise them, although the gentlemen on the right was in Betty Blue, among many other French films. He is the urbane Jean-Hughes Anglade, one of the four principals in smash hit French cop drama Braquo, whose second season begins on French cable channel Canal+ in November, and whose first season premieres here on FX from October 30. I’ve seen the first four episodes. It’s fantastic. I’m in. And on Friday, I hosted a Q&A about the show at London’s Soho Hotel for the British media, with three of the cast, plus executive producer Claude Chelli, who is on the left. The other gentleman, whose impressive head is why many commentators are already calling it “the French Shield“, is Joseph Malerba. Here is his head, in character, alongside Anglade’s moustache. Their co-stars are Nicholas Duvauchelle (who wasn’t in London for the Q&A) and Karole Rocher (who didn’t hang around at the reception afterwards).

Critic Stephen Armstrong, who was also on the panel on Friday, wrote a very good introductory piece about Braquo for the Sunday TimesCulture, which is not much use to you here, as it will be hidden behind the Times‘ paywall. So this is all you need to know in advance:

Braquo will also, inevitably, be compared to The Wire – a comparison underwritten by the fact that Canal+, effectively France’s “fourth TV channel”, seems to have been forged in the image of HBO, with its strong adult fare and subscription base. It bears some similarity: it’s gritty and handheld and exposes the dark underbelly of a large city, in this instance Paris; its central quartet of cops are prone to “crossing the line” in order to bring justice to scumbags, and their maverick methodology means they rub up against their chiefs on a regular basis. What makes it different from The Wire is that it is not especially interested in the criminals. So let’s put a stop to the Wire comparisons. Although, having said that, Braquo‘s creator, writer and predominant season-one director Olivier Marchal, was once a cop, so he has that in common with The Wire‘s co-creator Ed Burns. Oh, and it also employs novelists as writers.

I shall warn you now, it’s violent. In the opening scene of the first episode of eight, it sets out its stall. This is strong stuff. As it’s subtitled, we must hope we are getting the full impact of the writing, which is sexually frank and full of expletives. It was odd to watch this episode on the big screen before the Q&A with the French-speaking cast and producer, who were watching it with the English translation. Of the four, Chelli was the most fluent English speaker, and he said he was satisfied with the way it had been subtitled. (It’s been done for a British audience – we get “bog” for toilet, for instance.) The cinematically dingy warehouse that seems to pass as a police station in the suburbs of Paris is an atmospheric, tactile base for our rogue cops; it even has its own bar – which, it turns out, is not a wishful fantasy. So this is a glimpse into the world of French urban policing that has its own attractions for a foreign audience.

All cops shows genuflect to American culture, and it’s there in Braquo, but it’s peculiarly Gallic, too, very moody and a touch existential. There are few laughs. There is little banter. It’s incredibly dark, and if the first four episodes are anything to go by, Eddy (Anglade), Theo (Duvauchelle), Roxanne (Rocher) and Walter (Malerba), these four have a habit of making things worse with their reckless procedural ways. And demons? They’ve got ’em!

What I like is that FX are getting into the imported foreign-language drama groove. BBC4 have made it their trademark with The Killing and Spiral (whose Law & Order-style equal emphasis on the legal system makes it much more officey than Braquo, so the pair can be watched as companions to one another), and SkyArts are currently following suit with the Italian Romanzo Criminale, a period mafia origins story set in Rome whose first episode I enjoyed. I say, the more subtitled dramas the merrier. Who would have guessed five or ten years ago that the boutique channels would be fighting over imports with writing at the bottom of the screen? Let they fight. We, the viewers, are the winner.

It was fun to host a Q&A whose panel were not English, and one of whom, Rocher, spoke through a translator. (I’m hoping that watching Braquo will help me with my French, which is schoolboy at best, and hasn’t been tried out in the field since 2005 when I last went to Paris.) I discovered that US imports are all over French TV, and that, less predictably, the biggest bought-in shows out there are The Mentalist, and CSI in all its forms. As for British shows, Chelli was a big fan of The Shadow Line, which hasn’t been shown in France, and Red Riding, which has. I was interested to find out that one of the key influences on Marchal in terms of style and story was the lesser-known American cop drama, Joe Carnahan’s Narc from 2002, starring Ray Liotta, which I must admit I loved, as it seemed to hark back to 70s classics like The French Connection, which is nice, as there really is a French connection now. (Before the Q&A we had a lively discussion about how the best American cinema was influenced by the French New Wave, and yet, this grew out of a bunch of French critics’ love of classic Hollywood directors like Hawks and Hitchcock, so the give-and-take between the two cultures has always been potent.)

Anyway, looks out for Braquo, if you have access to FX. They’re about to start work on Season Three in France. And no, Monsieur Anglade didn’t really want to talk about Betty Blue. I tried.

Je t’aime … moi nonplussed

I’ve seen two French films in two days at two different Curzon cinemas, one I enjoyed and admired, one I didn’t. But hey, as much as I am drawn to French cinema, I can’t like everything they produce, can I? That would be insane. (I don’t like Camembert either.)

On Sunday I saw Catherine Corsini’s Leaving (or Partir) at the Curzon Mayfair. It’s Kristin Scott Thomas once again playing an adopted Frenchwoman wreaking domestic havoc with her bone structure and soft eyes. In Phillipe Caudel’s much-lauded I’ve Loved You So Long, her Anglo-French accent was explained by her character having grown up in England and moved to France. In this, it’s the same thing – in fact, her character, Suzanne, says she came to France to work as an au pair, just as Scott Thomas did aged 19. Neat. To me, her French is perfect, but I suspect that’s to my British ears. Scott Thomas has certainly found an enviable position in European cinema thanks to her dual citizenship and easy confidence in two tongues. Plus, of course, she is an amazing, unshowy actress, making these flawed heroines both incredibly attractive and authentically fallible.

Here, she does what Tilda Swinton did in I Am Love (hey, another actress deftly crossing the Channel, playing Anglo-Italian in an Italian film): casts aside the restrictions of a middle class lifestyle by having rough outdoor sex with a peasant. A housewife and mother looking to return to work as a physio after 15 years of devotion to the family, Suzanne falls for the Spanish builder sent to convert a garage into a surgery – they are seen sweatily clearing the rubbish out together and when they share a Corona beer, a connection is credibly made.

Even though she’s in the wrong – her breadwinning husband, a doctor (Yvan Attal), is essentially decent, if controlling and patronising – we must identify with her while she transgresses. This is possible because of the convincing chemistry of Scott Thomas and Catalan actor Sergi Lopez (the brutal Captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth). All credit to Corsini for providing the bed, as it were, for this onscreen relationship. When hubby plays rough on discovery of the affair, our sympathies should lie with him, but again, through subtlety of script and acting, the tide turns and he becomes the villain of the piece.

While watching Leaving – and trying to ignore the old man in the same row as me, clearing his throat in a most sonorously booming and repetitive manner throughout – I wondered why I love French films so much. The plot of this film is: wife falls in love with builder, leaves husband, husband gets cross. That’s kind of it. Who would make that film in this country? And yet, it’s done with such easy realism and actually unphotogenic sexual passion, you buy into it. The script doesn’t feel written, although it clearly was, and in fact should feel more written as it’s been translated into subtitles, which I am reading. But it would be way too convenient to say that French drama is always more realistically written. Sometimes, it’s more poetic than English, but again, that may be in translation. I like the way French sounds, with its ums and ahs, as if the speaker is always searching for the right way to convey something. Just an observation.

I guess I’m attracted to the French lifestyle, like the impressionable chump I am. Not the affluence we often see in these domestic dramas; it’s the simple things are what make it attractive: bread, coffee, wine, beer, little cars, crunchy driveways, a national anthem that sings of the tyrant’s blood-stained banner …

However, I have discovered, via Joann Sfar’s intriguing new biopic Gainsbourg, which I saw at the Curzon Wimbledon yesterday, that I can’t stand the music of Serge Gainsbourg. Actually, what I discovered, by way of what is a deliberately unreliable narrative, is that I hardly know any of his canon beyond the super-obvious Je t’aime … moi non plus and Bonnie & Clyde. Sfar based his film on his own stylised graphic novel, which is what makes it so unusual. Do not expect La vie en rose. In it, fanciful vignettes help to build a partial picture of Gainsbourg’s early life – growing up Jewish under the Vichy government during the war and being hidden at a Catholic boarding school in the country, before smarming his way into art school where he discovered nude ladies – but the first jarring device is when a massive Jewish face starts following the boy around, and is then replaced by a Mr Noseybonk-style apparition (played with great bodily fluidity by Doug Jones, also seen, or not seen, in Pan’s Labyrinth), with a big nose, big ears and big fingers – which actually appear to play the piano at one point.

His “ugliness” is a key theme – he is dismissed as “ugly” by a little girl on the beach in the first scene, and his “mug” does more than just follow him around like a sinister, anti-Semitic Frank Sidebottom. You sense that Gainsbourg spent his whole life taking revenge on the world for calling him ugly. He seduced all those beauties – Bardot, Birkin, Hardy – once he was famous because he could, and because he shouldn’t have been allowed to. (By the way, Birkin is warmly played by model Lucy Gordon, who subsequently hanged herself, which makes her scenes extra poignant and sad.)

It’s an interesting approach, and having enjoyed Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’s abstract expressionism, I have no problem with Sfar’s infidelity to the truth, and his literal mythologising of La vie heroique, the film’s subtitle. (Apparently a supportive Charlotte Gainsbourg wanted it this way, too.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t go far enough. Some sequences are presented as feverish fantasy, and periods seem to merge into one another, without any of that anal captioning of years etc., meanwhile Gainsbourg has conversations with himself, and his parents seem to be played for pantomime giggles. The Bridget Bardot sequence – in which Laetitia Casta, the model, has fun with a bedsheet – might be a scene from a musical, set as it is to more of his songs, including a particularly irksome ditty called Comic Strip. But I think we are supposed also to treat Bardot as a flesh-and-blood character. And it’s impossible to care about any of them. They come across as ciphers.

Added to which, Gainsbourg, even in this mythic reading, is a bit of a prick throughout. If, like many non-French people, you do not connect with his chanson period, or his 60s paedo-pop (Les sucettes), or his pretty desperate-seeming late brush with reggae, it’s hard to let him off for being arrogant and irresponsible and horrible and self-destructive and a bad dad. By the end, I was wishing death upon him. And when he stumbles into a studio in Jamaica and the entire band of local musicians seem to know exactly what he wants them to play, even though he can barely form words, is just pure fromage. Again, this might have worked if the whole thing had been a Pink Floyd: The Wall-style fantasy, into which Noseybonk and Big Jewish Face would have fitted perfectly.

A great performance by Eric Elmosnino, he looks uncannily like Gainsbourg, but not a film to fall in love with. I feel disloyal for not liking a French film – as I did a few months ago with Father Of My Children, which none other than my critical hero Anthony Lane praised – but this one I was wriggling to get out of.