White Material (2009, Claire Denis)

More of a narrative than in 35 Shots of Rum, and more clearly defined than in The Intruder, but still with the shuffled chronology. It’s kind of an action thriller, though it undercuts the tension by showing us the fates of certain characters at the beginning. So, will Huppert make it to the village? Yes, because we’ve seen her future, days later catching a bus to the plantation. Will the boy with the spear kill her son Manuel as he floats in the pool? No, because we’ve seen his future, burning to death in a building. Not as softly sensual as some other Denis movies, the handheld motion-blur offering more eyestrain than intimacy.

The great Isabelle Huppert is Marie, who runs her aged father-in-law’s coffee plantation (he is Michel Subor, star of The Intruder) along with her relative (brother?) Christophe Lambert (who looks a lot like Christopher Lambert from Highlander and Mortal Kombat, only this guy is pretty good and speaks French) and her son Manuel – although I’m not saying Manuel helps run anything. He stays in bed all day, slowly going nuts. She’s strong and self-sufficient, works very hard for her coffee crop, but hers is the only white family for miles around their gated house with leather sofas, while the field workers live in a hot bunkhouse with a shared flashlight. So when rebels and military forces collide in town, neither is on her side. Isaach De Bankolé (Limits of Control, Casa de Lava) plays the most mysterious character, “The Boxer”, an inspiration to the rebels who is wounded from the start of the movie, arrives in secret at the coffee plantation and dies there of his wounds a day or two later.

Shot in Cameroon but set in an unnamed African country. I appreciated some of the similarities between this and other African-made films I’ve seen, such as portable radios being an important story element. Katy didn’t join me, somehow uninterested in a film featuring African children taking arms against colonialism. It’s probably my fault for spoiling her on Isabelle Huppert with Merci pour le chocolat and on Claire Denis with Friday Night, though I still don’t see why either of those should be disliked. I have a hard time finding serious foreign movies that she’ll enjoy. Nominated for the top prize at Venice, while 35 Shots of Rum, which I liked much better, wasn’t nominated for a damn thing.

Denis, asked why Huppert kills elder Subor with a machete at the end: “They’re both left, and I think she feels someone is responsible for letting everything happen. Maybe it’s weakness, or everyone’s blindness. But she needs to do something terrifying.”

Mubi: “Denis is too sexy to be considered disjunctive, but White Material is certainly her most jolting movie, since it traces the impression of a person experiencing nothing but breakdown—in bonds, in society, in people themselves—but somehow cannot see what is happening right in front of her. … Things like relationships and motivation all seem under-defined within such a clear-cut plot, but that may be because Marie’s fate is inescapable precisely because she can’t feel or see the nuance and meaning below the surface of her life. White Material keeps it on the surface precisely because that is the quintessential failure of its colonial heroine.”

The Ceremony (1995, Claude Chabrol)

First of three Chabrol memorial screenings in September. I remember liking his Le Beau Serge and L’Enfer from the dark pre-blog days, and since then I’ve greatly enjoyed La Rupture and been slightly disappointed in A Girl Cut In Two. Obviously for such a Rivette/Truffaut/Varda/Rohmer/Marker/Godard (not to mention Hitchcock) fan as myself, that’s not enough attention paid to a founding New Waver with over 50 films to his name.

The Guardian’s headline the day Chabrol’s death was announced read “Claude Chabrol anatomised the French middle class with a twist of the scalpel,” which could almost be a poster description of this movie, but maybe changed to “with a blast of the shotgun.” Immediately after watching it was impossible to avoid comparing it to Funny Games – they’re not similar in plot so much as in impact.

The great Isabelle Huppert (I wonder if Haneke had felt the Funny Games connection when he cast her in The Piano Teacher) got much attention and acclaim for this movie, but younger Sandrine Bonnaire (just off Joan the Maid) is the central character. She takes a housekeeper job for the Lelievre family (Jacqueline Bisset of Day for Night and Under the Volcano and Jean-Pierre Cassel, the amoral baddie in La Rupture), which she performs dutifully and quietly, keeping her personal life to herself, until she starts spending more time with fiery friend Huppert, a postal clerk long suspected by Cassel to be reading the family’s mail.

The two women egg each other on, growing more defiant in the faces of authority (Bonnaire’s employers, the church where Huppert volunteers) and more disturbingly, finding out about each others’ dark, possibly murderous pasts. Seems like a hard place to keep secrets, and Bonnaire’s past has managed to follow her into these distant suburbs. But the one thing she doesn’t want discovered is her illiteracy, so when the family daughter (Virginie Ledoyen of Cold Water & 8 Women) finds out and threatens to tell, it’s the beginning of the end.

Possibly dyslexic Bonnaire trying to read a note… filmed in a mirror (nice touch)

Sure I noticed the blatant introduction of shotguns into the movie earlier (Cassel cleans them in prep for a hunting outing) but I didn’t quite think it would come to this: Bonnaire and Huppert sneak into the house after Bonnaire has been fired for threatening the daughter, and they quietly trash the place while the family watches opera on television, each pretending to enjoy the opera for the sake of the others (that’s how it seemed to me anyway – and I think Cassel really does enjoy it). Then, when discovered stalking the kitchen with shotguns in hand, they blow away the entire family. Also didn’t see coming, despite the blatant early introduction of Huppert’s car troubles, that her getaway stalls in the middle of the road and she’s killed by oncoming traffic (her former employer the priest drove the other vehicle). Killer finale: as Bonnaire walks past the accident scene, emergency workers play the tape machine recovered from Huppert’s car, which was set up by the family son to record the opera but instead faithfully recorded the entire crime.

NY Times: “When Sophie arrives by train to begin her new job, she turns up on the wrong side of the tracks. This film takes quiet, devilish pleasure in every such hint of something awry. For instance, there is the impassive way that Sophie behaves around the Lelievres, and how it contrasts with her coarse, ravenous manner when she’s eating alone.” Senses of Cinema: “In crime fiction, criminal behaviour is often not so much a result of free agency as something determined by psychological and social factors. However, in Chabrol, the urge to explain crime is undermined by the competing view that evil itself is unexplainable. Sophie and Jeanne’s illicit behaviour is not simply a compulsive backlash against class inequality but a curiously ordained ritual.”

Bonnaire likes to watch movies on the TV in her room – I recognized Stéphane Audran from La Rupture in one of them, and sure enough it’s 1970’s Chabrol film Wedding In Blood they are viewing.

Buy from Amazon:
La Ceremonie DVD

Comedy of Innocence (2000, Raoul Ruiz)

Only my second feature by Ruiz, as much as I’m always talking about the guy – and it’s kinda what I’d expected. Good movie with some weird craziness in the plot, but at the same time, it’s a French film, a classy drama about restrained rich people.

Camille’s dad is out of town – his mom (Isabelle Huppert, the year before The Piano Teacher), uncle Serge (Charles Berling of Summer Hours) and maid Helene are taking care of him until one day he announces that his real name is Paul and he wants to go home to his real mom. He guides Huppert to another woman’s apartment – she’s not home but creepy neighbor Edith Scob (also Summer Hours) shows them around.

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When beautiful Jeanne Balibar (the Duchess of Langeais herself) gets home, she tells Huppert about her son Paul who drowned two years ago, but also acts as if Camille is her Paul in the present tense. There’s no sense of paradox or surprise, nothing unusual, just these facts: Paul died and Paul is here. It’s not the kind of thing that could be done in an American movie without some character shrieking “how can that be? how can you say he died if you’re saying he is here in front of you?!” Huppert plays it cool though – invites Balibar to stay at her house so they can figure it out together.

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In the climax, Balibar kidnaps Camille/Paul and takes him to the barge where Paul had drowned. Huppert shows up and Balibar surrenders and apologizes, everything back to normal.

Ruiz uses a Sam Raimi anamorphic-lens-twisting effect:
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Is it pertinent that the maid might be having an affair with the uncle? That Balibar is after the uncle as well? That Huppert’s grandmother died of sorrow because of some incest incident? That Balibar’s neighbor Edith Scob is just as creepy and mysterious as Balibar herself? That a family acquaintance dies in a car crash near the end? That Camille has a businesslike 10-year-old friend who everyone had assumed was imaginary? All combines into an overall sense of mystery about identity, parentage, relationships, and what can be known.

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I thought I’d heard of Denis Podalydès who played Isabelle Huppert’s husband, but it’s actually his brother Bruno I’d heard of.

Unnerving, noticeable music by loyal Chilean Jorge Arriagada and not extremely impressive cinematography by Jacques Bouquin (The Film To Come, Life is a Dream) – he does that thing where the camera is always gliding slowly past the action an awful lot. Overall I dug the movie… looking forward to Ruiz’s other 99 features.

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