The Lobster

The less grand, not-so-exotic, neither Budapest nor Marigold hotel

lobsterYorgos Lanthimos is what you’d call a “visionary director” if you knew that what you saw was pretty good but didn’t know exactly what to say about it.  He’s got a cynicism akin to Lars Von Trier.  He seems to care about shots as much as Terrence Malick.  He wraps these into the microscope-lens of an Alex Garland pic.  Then again, name-dropping and saying nothing else is basically the same as leaving it at “visionary director,” so let’s dissect.

In a dystopia that is never referred to as such (I might call it an alternate universe instead), newly single people are taken to the Hotel, where they have forty-five days to find a suitable partner or else be transformed into the animal of their choice and live out the remainder of their existence in anachronistic misery in the nearby forest.  Everyone speaks in an unsettling monotone.  Masturbation is prohibited, but the Maid (Ariane Labed!) makes sure everyone is sexually frustrated 24/7.  Single-by-choice folks who have escaped the Hotel are hunted down by Hotel residents with the promise of extra days as a human.  None of the transformation technology is explained, nor is the necessity of the Hotel (for instance, is the human population at rock bottom?).  Residents are subjected to embarrassingly campy propaganda (including a painfully inaccurate simulation of rape) meant to convince them that partnership is the key to happiness.  The whole thing has been compared to a Samuel Beckett piece – sure, it’s got the quiet cynicism, the allegory, the navel-gazing, the bizarre end-of-time scenario focused on a tiny sliver of the world – but there’s an underlying anger to The Lobster that neither Endgame nor Waiting for Godot possess.

David (Collin Farrell), the only named character, chooses a lobster as his animal, due to his love for the sea and the creatures’ generally long lives (apparently grocery-store seafood departments and the state of Maine no longer exist in Lanthimos’s fiction).  This choice is ridiculed by a know-it-all with a limp (Ben Whishaw), who along with an also-unnamed lisper (John C. Reilly) constitute David’s friend base.  The issue is that not just anyone can get together and have a good time; relationships are formed based on what the Hotel staff see as compatible features.  In other words, completely arbitrary traits, such as shared physical ailments (nearsightedness, a tendency to get nosebleeds, etc.), fondness for cookies, and so on.  It’s a fairly transparent criticism of online dating culture: the speed of it, the fakeness, the images people create of themselves vs. who they actually are, the methods by which we decide so much about a person without having met them.

The story is narrated by a near-sighted woman (Rachel Weiss), who doesn’t meet David until about halfway through.  At this point, David has forsaken the Hotel after a disastrous attempt to partner with a complete sociopath (Angeliki Papoulia).  As a story in this genre must explore the perspectives of both major factions, David joins the “loners” in the woods, who are led by a ruthlessly rigid woman played by Palm d’Or-winning superstar Léa Seydoux (doing what she does best here – playing a fascinating Alpha – rather than the love-interest and femme fatale stuff she finds herself doing in American movies).  Here, the rules of the Hotel are inverted: masturbate all you want, but relationships are banned.  Even flirting is punishable by permanent disfigurement.  The viewer quickly finds that David doesn’t fit in this world either, because he quickly falls in love with Weiss’s character, and both strive to keep this relationship secret from the leader.

What I was slower to realize is that The Lobster would have worked better as a stage drama, where justification is vital only as far as character behavior, and the worlds, rich as they might be, are still confined to the room you’re in, and what you can believe is determined only by the performances (think Beckett and Pinter).  In a film, you get a look at what’s there, and you start to ask questions like, what is the rest of the world doing?  Are there other Hotels?  Why do the loners stay in the woods around the Hotel when they could get out of danger by going pretty much anywhere else?  Where are all the gay and gender non-conforming people (the Hotel allows one to register as gay or hetero, but not bisexual because of some plot-convenient Noodle Incident, yet we never see any gay people or couples on screen, and the propaganda is all aimed at hetero couples)?  Why does the loner leader have such arbitrary rules?  If everyone hates these rules, why don’t they overthrow her?  There’s more, but you get the gist: story beats and character behaviors are introduced in order for the film to make a point about something, rather than because it’s what makes sense.

It’s also a film that includes lots of interesting women, most of whom die, and all of whom exist in order to have diametrically opposed effects on the male protagonist.  It becomes frustrating, in part because characters with dramatic potential are wasted, and also because you feel like you’re supposed to cheer for it.  In the end, as David prepares to blind himself with a steak knife in order to be “equal” to his now-blind lover, do he and (by extension) the filmmakers realize that the duo are still abiding by the Hotel’s rules, this far away from the place itself?

It’s the job of a picture like this to generate discussions, not questions based on lack of clarity of intention.  As it stands, The Lobster is an awesome piece of art, but not a particularly good movie, in spite of the dedicated and deliciously weird performances by Farrell, Labed, and Seydoux. Let me know if there’s ever a stage version, yeah?

220px-the_lobsterThe Lobster (2015); written and directed by Yorgos Lanthimos; starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weiss, Ariane Labed, and Léa Seydoux.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Magnificent Anderson

gbudaWes Anderson’s new film is about a girl reading a book.  I am serious.  And I love that about it.

The girl (Jella Niemann) approaches the grave of a beloved writer (referred to only as “Author” in the film, and played by Jude Law and Tom Wilkinson at different ages), and sits down to read his memoir, particularly a chapter on his visit to the Grand Budapest Hotel in the fictional Republic of Zubrowka – an amalgam of Germany and other European countries during an obvious 20th century war-torn era.  It’s a Faulkner-esque flourish by Anderson, who opens a window to plenty of commentary and nostalgia as soon as we see the Grand Budapest itself, a gaudy pink blemish ensconced in the Zubrowkan mountains, with the sounds of a busy railway never far off.

The young writer, during his visit (in the memoir’s narrative), meets the mysterious owner of the hotel, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), who explains that the place was once decadent and bustling, which seems unbelievable considering its current state – a lack of money and interest is evident, and the few guests move about like ghosts, silent and distant from one another.  When the writer asks how Moustafa came to buy the hotel, the latter answers, “I didn’t,” and opens the film’s fourth narrative: the story of Moustafa’s relationship with the Grand Budapest, as explained to the writer by Moustafa, as written by the writer, as read by the girl.

As a child, Zero (Tony Revolori) is hired as a “lobby boy” for the hotel by the eccentric and anachronistically foulmouthed concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes, essentially the film’s central character).  Gustave takes Zero under his wing, quickly (and predictably) seeing him as a son or (much) younger brother, rather than a pesky greenhorn.  Gustave, though, is in some trouble: after Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), one of Gustave’s frequent romantic interests, is poisoned and dies, Gustave is the prime suspect.  What’s more, upon visiting the estate where the will is read, Gustave learns that Madame D. has bequeathed him Boy with Apple, an incredibly valuable painting.  Needless to say, Madame D.’s unscrupulous family is not happy about this.  Her son, Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody) vows never to let Gustave take Boy with Apple, but with Zero’s help, Gustave absconds with the painting and heads back to the Grand Budapest.  In the meantime, Zero falls in love with Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker’s apprentice, who we are told numerous times “saved us,” but the older Zero (the one talking to the young writer) doesn’t want to talk about her, because the thought of her makes him cry.

Gustave is eventually arrested, for the alleged murder of Madame D., by Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton), who likes Gustave and is only doing his job.  Agatha and Zero help Gustave escape by concealing tools inside delicious cakes, and the film briefly becomes a wonky, Wes Anderson version of The Great Escape, which includes a hardened convict played by a fully shaven and shirtless Harvey Keitel, and a gargantuan, scarred inmate who, after stabbing a potential snitch in the neck in order to aid the escape, is referred to by Gustave as a “kind, sweet man.”

Gustave and Zero’s real adventure begins: finding an alibi.  At the same time, Dmitri conducts an investigation of his own, using his trusted associate J.G. Jopling (Willem Dafoe) – a ruthless and detached assassin (a very different and intriguingly perfect role for Dafoe) – to shake down anyone who might know anything about the murder or the whereabouts of Boy with Apple, as well as to kill anyone who may be able to exonerate Gustave.

This is a film that demands attention from the first frame.  One of the four narratives takes the lion’s share of the story, but knowing where each narrative is placed in relation to the others is vital (and all the more satisfying when Anderson takes us out of each, gently and one by one, at the end).  On another note, it’s a film that can and should have more women in it (much like most of Anderson’s films, wonderful as they are).  Yes, he’s going for an old-timey and historically specific feel here, but it’s the history of a fictional setting.  Agatha only exists because Zero likes her.  Even the Crossed Keys Society (a nice excuse for a string of cameos by Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, and Fisher Stevens) could have included one or two women working as concierge.  Inmates?  Hotel guests?  Soldiers?  All could be mixed gender in a revised history of a place that isn’t real.  The absence of women isn’t part of the film’s various self-conscious ironies, so it’s a particular standout.  There’s an appearance by the incomparable Léa Seydoux (as Madame D’s maid, Clotilde), but the character is of little note and even less screen time.  The problem of American filmmaking box-vision continues: how often do American filmmakers (particularly male directors) fail to realize they’ve got a lead actress in a pathetic bit role?  For more, see Lawless, in which Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain were underused/ignored to near-criminality.

There is a sense of old-fashioned artificiality hovering in the white space (and in this case, the pink and orange space) of every scene: the exterior of the Grand Budapest is a hand-constructed miniature with an electric train zooming around it.  Various sequences are filmed in different aspect ratios to put a synthetic age on scenes filmed in a made-up country.  The older version of the Author seems to share some real insight on writing with his audience, but is actually reading from prepared note cards.  As we are enveloped in the candy colors and charming, heartfelt ridiculousness, Gustave admits to some of his own faults and fakeness during mirrored train rides along the war-threatened (and eventually war-damaged) Zubrowka countryside.  As we pop in and out of each narrative, we begin to wonder about the reliability of our multiple narrators – the old Author, bromidically delivering his thoughts to the camera, comes unhinged when his excitable grandson makes some noise in the adjacent room, and can’t even deliver real thoughts on writing without reading from a card.  Zero, in his Murray Abraham state, can barely mention Agatha without sobbing, and clearly skips or embellishes parts of the story for effect or for the sake of his own comfort.  The only trustworthy character is the girl reading the book, and she does not lift her nose from the pages to pay us one second of attention, nor does her expression while reading shift from pure inscrutability.

The Grand Budapest Hotel makes me pine not for the extravagant places I’ve visited (not that that list is particularly long), but for the studies, living rooms, and resting places of Melville, Brontë, Frost, and Plath.  The film claims to be inspired by the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (particularly The Post Office Girl and Beware of Pity), and the bespectacled Author in both his “old” form and his young, idealized form undoubtedly resemble him.  But the film’s endearment is not reserved for only one writer (and it may have taken tragic turns had Anderson relied upon audiences to recognize Zweig references, while the numerous call-backs to classic films are a bit more recognizable – another issue altogether, maybe).  It comments on narrative reliability and familiarity, but commentary is not what the film “is,” exactly.  It’s conceptually more evolved than Moonrise Kingdom, but its characters aren’t as unique or as important in and of themselves (partially because they never slow down).  Its concerns are in a long-time-ago place wherein people sat quietly and thought about things – something we remember, in the final shot, is anything but extinct.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014); written and directed by Wes Anderson; starring Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Saoirse Ronan, and F. Murray Abraham.

 

Blue is the Warmest Color

The wolf is coming back

BITWCBlue is the Warmest Color is one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen, and simultaneously one of the most beautiful.  Its narrative operates under the same narrative we, as people, tend to operate by, more than it adheres to the inevitability of generic film formula.  Blue, like life, involves things happening with no overt or pre-established pattern.  Relationships begin and end, sometimes within minutes or days, and sometimes over the course of several years.  Sometimes they can be healed, sometimes not.  Mixed signals are sent.  There are misunderstandings.  Characters are frequently wrong when they speak.  Some conversations are very long, and not echoed in obvious ways later in the story.  And when it all ends, it doesn’t.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulous) is a high-school student interested in French and English literature.  The opening shots spend lots of time in the classroom, with the students giving their respective readings and philosophical musings concerning specific texts, which in lesser films would spell out the themes of the entire story and leave us with nothing to think about (the opposite of what it intends).  Adèle’s friends constitute the adolescent heteronormative, urging her to spark a relationship with a guy who looks at her in class (Jérémie Laheurte) and threatening to ostracize her when they suspect that she might be gay.  She tries dating Thomas, but according to her, she’s “missing something.”  There’s a part of her that she’s not in touch with, and she must shatter his dreams of being with her to prevent a greater hurt later, like him as she might.  A female classmate kisses her on the spur of a moment, but then lampshades her the next day.  Adèle is so well-characterized and possesses so much narrative power that when these things happen to her, they hurt us just as much.  We can’t help feeling that the barblike comments of her peers are aimed at more than a character in a visual fiction, and all of this happens in a film that, at heart, is not exclusively focused on misconceptions about and abusive behavior towards gay people – the secret is to write and present scenes honestly, to let them happen as they happen, and to leave out the overt social commentary (Look through the recent archives for the year’s most egregious perpetrators of that particular celluloid foul).

Adèle’s friend Valentin (Sandor Funtek) takes her to a gay bar to have some fun, and she leaves, opting to check out a nearby lesbian bar, wherein the film’s only application of the Rule of Inevitable Coincidence takes place: inside, she meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), an up-and-coming visual artist and college senior, whom she passed on the street just days before.  The two hit it off, and through one thing and another, a relationship begins.

This relationship is earned.  In fact, by the time Adèle and Emma begin seeing each other (runtime-wise), plenty of films would already be over.  Things start to progress: they have mindblowingly intimate sex, they meet each other’s parents and have middle-school-style sleepovers, and eventually, they move in together.  But here’s the thing: Adèle still does not identify as gay.  Years pass.  Adèle, per her dreams, has become a teacher of first-graders.  Again, plenty of time is spent in the classroom, and still, looking at Adèle’s face, we can tell that something is missing.  We begin thinking of her own days in school, which were years ago for her, but only an hour and change for us.  Emma, who embraces her natural hair color and abandons the candy-blue, is now a sought-after artist with a big house.  She has large parties.  Her friends, with whom Adèle still has trouble jiving, see Adèle as a trophy wife (a phrase never spoken, but look at how they treat her, and the topics of discussion they bring up with her as opposed to the high-minded art and gender conversations they have with Emma).  Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol) pontificates about gender identity, and we wonder about Adèle, how she thinks of herself and her new life, where her level of depression is, what she’s sacrificed over the years to be with Emma.  She meets Samir (Salim Kechiouche), an actor who appears as “terrorists” in American films (and gives a very accurate/humorous criticism of how the American film industry uses actors of Eastern European descent).  He’s interested in her, maybe as a friend, maybe something more, but they feel out one another’s personalities while Emma schmoozes, drinks, and flirts with a pregnant woman named Lise (Mona Walravens).  Adèle, feeling as alienated as ever, once again becomes lonely, even when she’s in bed with Emma.

An affair and a breakup happen.  More years pass.  Adèle, truly alone, floats on her back in the ocean as the lens tries desperately and to no avail to focus on her.  We beg for a reunion (maybe one of the most earned reunions in the history of film), and we get it, but once wounds heal, revisiting their origins can be impossible.  The story leaves us not with a new beginning, not at a definitive coming-to-terms, but where Adèle started and where she always seems to be: listing.

The film’s thread of blue coloring starts, of course, with Emma’s hair.  From then on (mainly because we’ve got the title in mind), everything colored blue seems somehow significant, especially in the end, when Adèle begins wearing a blue dress and cool-colored earrings, which everyone notices, while Emma is now blonde and plainly clothed.

The Palm d’Or received by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux (only the second ever to be awarded to a woman and the first to be awarded to two) is more than deserved; it’s vital.  Regardless of the sexual identities of the actresses, they’ve given us an honest narrative about all types of identity through the eyes of a woman who happens to be in love with another woman.  And for the first time since Bound, we have sex scenes between women that are not meant for titillation, the director’s gender and sexuality notwithstanding – yes, it is possible for heterosexual men to create honest, non-masturbatory narratives about gay women!  From independent filmmaker and LGBT activist Jodi Savitz, writing for the Huffington Post:

“Forgoing clichés, the scene is not categorically arousing. Better yet, it is nothing short of mesmerizing. Throughout, it not only showcases Adèle’s innocence and instinctual desires but foreshadows the power struggle induced by Emma’s broad palate of sexual experience and her affected social class.”

The gasps induced by these scenes (three total) come not from the fact that we’re watching such a raw portrayal of sex in and of itself, but the fact that we’re being allowed into the intimate lives of these characters, into things that they would never tell us about over dinner (oysters or otherwise), into emotions and bits of characterization that simply cannot be injected through conversation and exposition.  We’re invested in Adèle.  We want to sock the kids who verbally abuse her; we want her to ask our advice on what she should do on nights when Emma stays out uncharacteristically late; we want to float past her in the ocean and tell her that, hey, whatever you’re feeling is okay (which is different from “everything is going to be okay,” because bromidic bullshit does nothing for the perpetually sad).

Perhaps the biggest roadblock for some will be watching this film with anyone else (without blushing, at least).  Why?  Doesn’t Adèle’s story give us enough about the consequences of being ashamed?  Well, maybe that’s the film’s meta-point, right there.  This is a masterfully-acted masterpiece whose ending has made me feel more broken-up-with than any before it.  And more than many actual breakups.

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013); based upon the graphic novel by Julie Maroh; scripted and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche; starring Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.

2012 Favorites

We now return you to 2013, already in progress

feature_presentationI keep hearing myself say, “I told you the best movies from 2011 were Take Shelter, Another Earth, and Jane Eyre.”  In part so that I can cite the fact that I “told you,” and mostly just because I’ve been wanting to for awhile, I will now hold the Richard Lives equivalent of the Oscars once annually (called “Favorites” because I don’t presume to be any more of an authority on the subject than I seem to be [not to say I don’t make better decisions than the Academy, but I digress]) .  The rules I set for myself are as follows:

I.  Only include movies that I’ve seen/written about here.

II.  Set early February as a deadline.  Do it during awards season.  As such, I won’t have seen every movie of the year, in large part because of my location (for example, I am doing this list before having seen Rust and Bone, as I may not get to it anytime soon.  Apologies to Marion Cotillard, who surely doesn’t need my approval).

III.  Only include movies from the year in question.  Sometimes I see films from the previous year that I never got around to and write about them if I need to, so you’ll see them mixed in with the new movies.  Look at the year of release, listed at the bottom of each review, if you’re wondering why The Lie isn’t included in this year’s list.

IV.  No more than 5 nominees for each category.  Some have fewer.  Some have only one, such as “Favorite Character,” which we’ll also call the Highlander Award, just for fun.

V.  Be honest.  As much as I may like to be seen disagreeing with the Academy, Les Mis was pretty damn good.

I’ll explain the categories as we go, if the parameters aren’t obvious.  The “Body of Work” actor and actress awards refer to actors who had the most prolific year (varied roles, great performances).  2011’s winner was, of course, Jessica Chastain, with seven major roles and no equal in performance and character assortment.

Some categories have several nominees.  Some don’t.  Categories with multiple nominees may have a star (*) next to one, indicating my personal favorite of the year’s best.  However, since the nominees aren’t actually receiving anything from me (positive encouragement notwithstanding) and considering the fact that many of these roles/films are really not comparable (for instance, how do you compare Hugh Jackman’s performance with Woody Harrelson’s and Daniel Day-Lewis’s, and then decide which is somehow “best”?  “Best” according to what characteristics shared by all three?), you may consider all nominees equal winners if I’ve chosen not to “star” anything.  Click the links (movie titles) to see my original reviews.

Without further ado:

Best Pictures

Safety Not Guaranteed             

A Late Quartet                        

Moonrise Kingdom

Les Misérables

Zero Dark Thirty

Best screenwriting

Quentin Tarantino – Django Unchained 

Derek Connolly – Safety Not Guaranteed     

Martin McDonaghSeven Psychopaths    

James Ellroy/Oren Moverman – Rampart

Brit MarlingSound of My Voice 

Favorite character

Léa Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Best Actress (single performance)

Jessica Chastain as Maya – Zero Dark Thirty*

Lea Seydoux as Sidonie Laborde – Farewell, My Queen

Juno Temple as LilyLittle Birds  

Jennifer Lawrence as TiffanySilver Linings Playbook 

Sarah Hayward as SuzieMoonrise Kingdom 

Best Actress (body of work)

Jennifer Lawrence

Best Actor (single performance)

Woody Harrelson as Dave Brown – Rampart*

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham LincolnLincoln

Michael Fassbender as DavidPrometheus

Richard Gere as Robert MillerArbitrage

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Robert – A Late Quartet*

Best actor (body of work)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Best supporting actress

Brie Larson as Helen – Rampart*

Imogen Poots as Alexandra A Late Quartet*

Brit Marling as MaggieSound of My Voice

Diane Kruger as Marie AntoinetteFarewell, My Queen

Best supporting actor

Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz – Django Unchained

Robert De Niro as Patrizio SolitanoSilver Linings Playbook

Ben Whishaw as Robert FrobisherCloud Atlas

Best director

Kathryn Bigelow – Zero Dark Thirty*

Oren MovermanRampart

Quentin TarantinoDjango Unchained

                                                                                                                                                   Best book-to-film adaptation

Anna Karenina

Les Misérables*

Silver Linings Playbook       

Dark Horse Favorite

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Biggest letdowns

Skyfall

The Expendables 2

Ruby Sparks
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Most Popular Review

The Moth Diaries

Actors who wrote to me

Lily Cole

Lauren Ashley Carter

———

Thanks for reading.  See you next year.

Farewell, My Queen

Wake up, Sidonie

Marie Antoinette was in some ways the Marilyn Monroe of her time.  Hearsay about her sexuality, relationships, and social exploits was as important to the general public as politics or war.  It made no difference that she was running France (alongside Louis XVI) and not starring in glitzy rom-coms; her life, misconstrued and misunderstood by her audience, may as well have been one.

Benoit Jacquot’s biopic, Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen), however, does not reflect the formula tale of romantic dithering and sexual deviance so many love to attach to Antoinette.  Based upon a historical novel by Chantal Thomas, who co-wrote the screenplay, the film is not so much a plotted movie as it is a fascinating character study.  This intimate narrative centers around Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), the Queen’s reader, who observes the ongoing routine of the royal family before, during, and after the storming of the Bastille.  The most mesmerizing element of this routine is that the higher Sidonie seems to climb in the castle, the less it seems to change: on the ground, people scuttle about, nobles abandon the Queen, citizens desert.  Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), though, despairs because she knows she’ll soon be separated from her lover, Gabrielle de Polastron (Virgine Ledoyen), duchesse de Polignac.  In the novel, the protagonist plays a sort of fly-on-the-wall (not dissimilar from the role of Ishmael in Melville’s Moby Dick), but in the film, we tend to care about her a bit more than anyone else.  She gets involved, she feels, she loves, she hurts.

The film’s transitions are accomplished via an effective motif: Sidonie is repeatedly awakened from dreamless sleep, and rarely by natural causes.  She is shaken to life by fellow servants, especially Louison (Lolita Chammah), her excitable friend who insists she’ll die an old maid if she doesn’t start seeing men.  Louison goes so far as suggesting Paolo (Vladimir Consigny), a snarky gondola driver who knows some Italian and acts like a bit of a lecher.  Sidonie’s single tryst with Paolo, however, is cut short, and her heart isn’t truly in it.  Instead, she dwells upon an earlier meeting with the Queen – in the scene, Sidonie instinctively scratches some mosquito bites on her arm, and the Queen personally rubs a home remedy into the bites while the two share bounteous eye contact.  Seydoux’s expression here (ingeniously focused upon for longer than it might be in the nonexistent Hollywood version of this film) reveals multitudes: we instantly know that Sidonie is falling for the Queen – no definite statements about sexuality are needed; in fact, the Queen’s own affair with Gabrielle is not even given a sideways look by her ladies in waiting – but we also know that her heart must eventually be broken.  She pledges to stay by the Queen’s side forever, and Marie Antoinette soon uses her meetings with Sidonie to vent about her love for Gabrielle, and it’s evident (without use of so much as one flashback) that Sidonie is thinking the same thoughts about her Queen, wondering if she can once again achieve the same smile she had after leaving the Queen’s chambers that day.  Nicolas Moreau (Michel Robin), an old-timer who works in the library and befriends Sidonie, sees right through the latter’s claims of loyalty and recognizes the love she harbors for one who is absolutely off-limits.  Our feelings for Sidonie, a protagonist who truly deserves the best, make it all the more difficult to witness Antoinette’s histrionic monologues about Gabrielle, whose motivations and feelings about the affair are left (perhaps wisely) ambiguous (note, however, that she never once cries for the Queen).

Diane Kruger and Léa Seydoux, two of the best actresses (bilingual and otherwise) working today, make a great pair, and the sparsity of their encounters makes their scenes together all the more tense and desperate.  We know their time together is limited and we know the Queen is becoming unstable; we need Sidonie to make the most of every conversation, and Léa (who oddly enough appeared as the primary villain in Hollywood’s Mission: Impossible 4 earlier this year) spares absolutely nothing.  She glows with a sort of anti-Hollywood beauty, showing off what they’d tell her to hide over here (I’m thinking in terms of what can be seen on her face).  Kruger, the standout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds a few years ago, plays Marie Antoinette without stylizing, glamorizing, exploiting, or judging her, and that’s something I’m not sure we’ve yet seen onscreen.  In fact, the whole package has a vibe similar to last year’s My Week With Marilyn in terms of its treatment of the subject and the eyes through which we see her.  You could not have asked for a better pair of actresses to fill these roles.

Because the film is a character study and not one of the climactic biopics to which some of us are accustomed, the story feels unfinished in the end, if only because the action ends where the action of most of these types of films begins.  In a brash act of selfishness, the Queen asks (or perhaps commands) Sidonie, with whom she now shares a great trust, to dress as Gabrielle and accompany the real Gabrielle (who will dress as a servant) on her exeunt from the capital.  The intention: if any of the numerous folks calling for Gabrielle’s head discover her, they’ll kill Sidonie instead, and Gabrielle will be spared.  Despite Madame Campan’s (Noémie Lvovsky) rather bold instructions not to accept this proposition, Sidonie realizes that this is the one way she can show her devotion (not necessarily as a romantic partner, but as a friend, follower, and keeper of a precious trust).

Here is where the film’s other motif (an image pattern consisting of only two occurrences) closes: there are two “undressings” in the story, the first of which occurs when Sidonie is sent by the Queen to wake Gabrielle.  Instead, Sidonie compulsively removes the single bedsheet from Gabrielle’s body and beholds her naked form flung haphazardly across the bed.  Later, the Queen instructs Sidonie, who has worn the same outfit (rather, been stuffed into the same corset and gown) throughout the entire film, to undress and get into Gabrielle’s clothing.  As her clothes crumple onto the floor and she stands nude before the Queen, Sidonie lifts her hands to cover herself, assuming a position similar to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.  While she’s being sized up and transformed, tears stream from her eyes, though she makes no sound and her face remains solid and straight.  Does she cry because she’s afraid she’ll be killed?  Does she feel betrayed by the Queen?  Or is it the crippling knowledge that she’ll never see this woman, who never truly knew her but may have loved her in another life, again?  When the Queen finally touches her lips to Sidonie’s (and I’ll leave it up to you as to why it happens), Sidonie does not kiss back.

As the entrancing look at these characters ends, Sidonie introduces herself to us.  “Soon,” she says, “I will be no one.”  Little does she know, the hearts of patient film-goers will disagree.  Sidonie, where are you now?

Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen) (2012); written by Chantal Thomas and Benoit Jacquot; directed by Benoit Jacquot; starring Léa Seydoux, Diane Kruger, and Virgine Ledoyen.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

What happened to Maggie Q?

Brad Bird’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol makes a few more good moves than it does bad ones. It’s funny in the right ways, well-paced, well-acted, jives with the series’ continuity (mostly), and its length makes you feel like you’re in it for the long haul with its characters.  And as I said in my Knight and Day review, Tom Cruise and I are “okay” now, so I felt like I could go in with an impartial mind (despite, as always, knowing what I was getting myself into).

The film begins with a Surprise Demise when IMF agent Hanaway (Josh Holloway, in his first film role since starring on Lost) is whacked by femme fatale Sabine Moreau (the prolific Léa Seydoux) in Budapest in the midst of recovering nuclear launch codes.  Hanaway’s supervisor and lover, Jane Carter (Paula Patton) then runs an operation to rescue IMF frontman Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) from prison.  Why he’s there, we’re not yet told, but he seems to know exactly what’s going on.

In an effort to regain the launch codes from projected terrorist Curt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist), Hunt reassembles his IMF team while being pursued as a criminal by Russian intelligence.  Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), who debuted in Mission: Impossible III, returns, and along with William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst who doubles as a super-agent, joins Hunt and Carter as a four-member rogue cell determined to stop Hendricks from starting nuclear war.

The global stakes are higher than they’ve been in any M:I, and somehow things seem personal, too.  Hunt and Carter have both lost friends.  The team’s exploits take them to the beautiful Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, where Tom Cruise performs a stunt that may qualify him as clinically insane.  The film continues the traditions of the “face maker” device and the in-and-out-without-anyone-knowing-we-were-there schemes of the TV show, which didn’t truly surface in the films until the third installment.

The most egregious offense the film commits is cast abuse, which is par for the course when an action movie is given an ensemble cast.  Michael Nyqvist, one of Sweden’s great actors (who starred as Mikael Blomqvist in Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) plays the main villain, but is given less to do than his henchmen.  Josh Holloway, who won a Saturn Award for Best Actor on Television, is given a character we’re allowed to grab hold of, but is eliminated before the opening credits.  Léa Seydoux plays the most interesting villain, a French assassin with whom the film’s deuteragonist has a vendetta, but she’s disposed of halfway through the film, leaving us with the underdeveloped “main” bad guys, who, after the amazingly well-crafted, acted and edited scene on the Burj Khalifa, seem like leftovers.  None of them compare to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain, Owen Davian, from the third film.  Ving Rhames, the only actor to appear in every M:I film aside from Cruise, thankfully appears, but only in a cameo, as does Michelle Monaghan, who plays Hunt’s wife, Julia, a major character in film three and a plot device in this one.  Tom Wilkinson appears as the IMF Secretary, a character never seen before, who gets one short scene.  Again, why?

In addition, the continuity takes a turn for the confusing when Hunt claims “the four of us are all that’s left of the IMF.”  You can chalk it up to the entire team being disavowed because of certain spoilery events, but what happened to Laurence Fishburn’s IMF boss from M:I 3?  How about Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, who played Hunt’s loyal team members in that film?  The movie seems to want us to remember them, going so far as using the exact same shot for Paula Patton getting out of a car that J.J. Abrams used in the previous film when Maggie Q, in an equally eye-popping getup, exited a car to perform very much the same role in the operation that Carter does here.

Some have complained to me about the overt humor and gadget absurdity, but lest we forget, the linchpin of the TV series was the sci-fi gadgetry.  When a film in the action genre tries to take itself too seriously, it begins to skirt self-parody, and Bird wisely avoids this, though it’s easily achieved by giving Simon Pegg tons of lines.

In a nice twist, the film also refers even to the first film in the series.  Somehow, Bird found the actor who played Max’s (Vanessa Redgrave) Fabio-lookalike bodyguard in the original movie, who forced Hunt to wear a black mask while meeting with his boss, an arms dealer.  Hunt meets with a different arms dealer in this one, and is confronted with the same black mask by the same bodyguard, who regards Hunt with a charmingly knowing eye.

Stumbling here and there, the film is worth its run time.  The actors don’t all get their due, and the tone is sharply changed from that of the first film, but it’s the only installment in the series to feature a fight between two important female characters (a barefoot scrap on the umpteen hundredth floor of the Burj Khalifa).  The wisest move in the film, though?  Using a hyphen instead of two colons.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol; written by André Nemec and Josh Applebaum; directed by Brad Bird; starring Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner.

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