Wednesday, August 21, 2013

White Material - Claire Denis

By Moira Sullivan

In Claire Denis White Material set in an unknown period in an unknown country we could believe that it is Cameroun  in the midst of winning its independence with a long war that dragged out for 10 more years of civil strife. Rebel soldiers roam the lands of the French and steal their possessions. The French are leaving, and those remaining are unprotected. Marie Duval (Isabelle Hubert) insists on staying. She is oblivious to the dangers, and puts her family and her workers and servants at risk for refusing to leave.
A local DJ gives news to the rebels in veiled language, and everywhere in the film , a transistor radio updates the ongoing strife. In general, the news of everything from  marriage, to weather conditions is transmitted by radio. White Material is told in a smooth fragmented narrative style . Its chronology is inverted with the present at the apex of the film and frequent flashbacks to the days when the colonial presence was intact and secure. Among the secrets of this French colonial family is the affair that Marie has had with the corruptible town mayor.
The Duval plantation is a source of employment, and later a target for pilfering  the possessions of the French, called “white material” by child rebels, boys and girls, wielding machetes and spears.  The leader of the rebels is “The Boxer”, played by  Isaach De Bankolé, Their hero who has been wounded takes shelter in a shack on the Duval’s property.
The French military have warned Duval to leave, and her husband (Christian Lambert) secretly sells the plantation to the town mayor. Meanwhile her rather unambitious and depressed son, André is attacked by the young rebels and in a style reminiscent of when Robert De Niro snaps in Taxi Driver, he proves himself of some value after all and follows the children’s army with a shaved head and a loaded gun with many rounds of ammunition. The secrets of this plantation family convince us that French knew what was going on in Africa but tried to maintain its lifestyle as a colonial exporter and remain in the country. Marie claims that Africa is all she really known, and complains that by returning to France she would be lost.
President Thomas Sankara (21 December 1949 to 15 October 1987) was a young captain in the Burkina Faso army who was assassinated and who inspired the youth in Cameroon and neighboring African countries.  The reactions to the white presence in this film resembles the insurrections in the Ivory Coast (home country of Issack de Bankolé) where whites were executed, raped and forced to flee the country during the civil war. The Boxer according to Denis is the memory of Sankara in the film, whose arm bears the tattoo “jamais k.o”.
Denis’ long-standing cinematographer Agnès Godard couldn’t work on the film because her mother was ill. Godard said in an interview with Movie Magazine that although she wasn’t close to her mother she was glad that she remained in France for her final days. Yves Cape was selected instead who worked on Bruno Dumont’s films. (L’Humanité 1999, Flanders 2006, which both won the Grand Prix in Cannes).
White Material was made with the absence of lighting since the equipment had been held up one month in customs after the team arrived. Cape was afraid that Denis was too used to working with Godard but that was ironed out as she reported to him that she wouldn’t be sitting watching his work on a monitor. The script by Marie N’Diaye is followed but the final edit does not, which Huppert says is Denis’ way of working. Violence creates violence says Huppert which is the theme of the film.

© 2013 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 08/21/13

Movie Magazine International

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Still - Book Report

By Monica Sullivan
David Shields’ new book “Still” looks at the past as if it were a fresh, undiscovered country.  His viewpoint is that a pristine still is more evocative of its era than a scratchy dupey print of the same period.  By that logic, a remark I once heard about Theda Bara (“She works better in stills”) would eliminate most of her work from scholarly consideration.  So…the pictures in “Stills” are breathtakingly gorgeous but try to see the movies anyway, flawed though they may be. 

After seeing a still of Elsie Ferguson from her heyday, I finally was able to watch “Scarlet Pages” from 1930, which was not her heyday, but well worth a look.  For a very long time I waited for 1929’s Jeanne Eagles “The Letter” to crop up sometime, anytime, somewhere, anywhere.  When it finally did, it was worth waiting for.  The print quality was not the best, but to see and hear 1929’s best performance (sorry Miss Pickford, but “Coquette' wasn’t it) was unforgettable.  Eagles played a woman filled with passion & rage.  Miss Eagles looked old, young, wild, broken, duplicitous one moment and so brutally honest the next, it made me hurt to listen to her. 

So drown yourself in the 160 stills in Mr. Shields’ book but do try to find the treasures which have not yet disintegrated.  Movies like “A Fool There Was” or ‘Sunrise” made the audiences of their own time laugh, cry or sometimes they chilled them to the bone.  Let “Still” be your ticket to these treasures from long ago.

© 2013 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 08/07/14
Movie Magazine International

Friday, August 9, 2013

Chocolat - Claire Denis

By Moira Sullivan

Isaach De Bankolé and Cécile Ducasse in Chocolat.

The League of Nations mandated 91% of Cameroun to France after World War 1. It was not until 1960 that it became independent. Clair Denis' film Chocolat concerns a young French girl’s upbringing in Cameroun during the mandate. She lives on a manor where her father Marc Dalens (François Cluzet) is a captain in a colonial outpost and her mother Aimée Dalens  (Giulia Boschi) is head of the household. Assisting her are black servants, and the most prominent and dutiful one is Protée (Isaach De Bankolé). His upbringing in the Christian church and his pride as a black man have contributed to his impeccable sense of morality, and according to de Bankolé who plays him, the hope for the future of Africa.

The grown France (Mireille Perrier) in many ways like Claire Denis who grew up in Dijbouti, returns in the beginning of the film to Cameroun. She is alone and observes a father and his son swimming on the beach. Later the father, Mungo, insists that he give her a ride to the bus stop at least.  Then in a long flashback we are invited into France’s (appropriately named) character and her early life; this is the history of France in Cameroun.

Claire Denis is a master at elliptical editing, avoidance of music in many scenes, and the absence of action in scenes where life is as it is often uneventful and calm. Everything in the film suggests from our indoctrination from dramatic films that something horrible is going to happen, because it is so calm. Instead of overt violence, the kind of violence shown in the film is subtle, the language of the colonizers against Africa.

Daily life consists of Marc going to his military post, and coming home in the evening to be with his family. During the day France (Cécile Ducasse in her one and only role) accompanies Protée on his goings about who is a kind and loving guardian to her. At the same time there is a repressed tension between Aimée and Protée whose names almost seem like they belong together. However the racial lines cannot be crossed except as colonizer and colonized.

When Marc is away, Protée becomes the man of the house, and in one scene Aimée commands him to sit in front of the door to her bedroom with rifle in hand to frighten off a prowling hyena. He is clearly disturbed by the dissolution of private and public space in being forced to sit as she sleeps.

One day a plane flies over the country manor and not long after a pilot, his first mate, an officer and his wife and the gruff coffee plantation owner Joseph Delpich (Jacques Denis), and his servant who is his concubine, arrive by foot. The stranded visitors will need to stay for a while with the Dalens until a landing strip is built for their takeoff and engine parts arrive to repair the plane after its rough landing.
Their presence in the house brings the colonial oppression of Cameroun to the surface more overtly. Whereas the Dalens’ have treated the servants benevolently, the new guests treat them as inferior beings. 

Friends of the Dalens come visiting when the airstrip is to be built and bring with them laborers, including the young white French Luc (Jean-Claude Adelin). Not long after that Luc tries to prey on Aimée Dalens. Protée is aware of this and throws him out of the house where he has taken root on the porch. When Aimée then makes advances towards Protée as gratitude for standing up to the oafish Luc he stands her up to shake sense into her and also to make it clear that there is a boundary between them. For this he is banished from the house and put to work in the garage.
France visits him and he is longer is the kind guardian she knew.

The colonial presence in Africa has often been historically glamorized in film but Chocolate shows how the French were tolerated and despised. When the visiting officer’s wife takes ill Marc sends for medical assistance. The assistant is picked up at a school were several men are gathered. This raises Marc’s suspicion but Protée claims they are only talking. Yet it seems like rebellion is brewing. It must be another four years before the country became independent through armed struggle.

© 2013 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 08/07/13
Movie Magazine International

The Attack

By Moira Sullivan
Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) finds a poster of his wife in Palestine's
' 'Ground Zero' in The Attack
The Attack is an unexpectedly shocking film about a Palestinian and Israeli national whose wife turns out to be a suicide bomber.  In the opening scenes of the film Amin Jaafari (Ali Suliman) receives a prize for his distinguished service as a surgeon at an Israeli hospital, the first Arab  to be honored. In his acceptance speech he thanks his adopted country for making his career possible. During the ceremony he receives a phone call that he doesn’t take and we learn of the consequences of that aborted call later. 

Amin is soon visited the Israeli secret police who accuse him of being involved in the bombing attack, something that he hears from his balcony at the hospital a few hours earlier. Nearly 20 Israelis are killed and the injured are admitted for emergency treatment, most of them children, who he attends to. To his astonishment his wife is implicated and his home is searched for evidence.

The film is adapted from the international best seller by Yasmina Khadra of the same name who worked on the screenplay together with the director of the film Ziad Doueiri. The Attack calls into play the delicate and brutal relationship between Israel and Palestine. Amin discovers that because of his wife Siham (Reymond Amsalem) he becomes a suspicious outsider except to his friends. Her political ties were unknown to him during their entire marriage. He tries to piece together how this could have happened and look for clues for how his wife could have been involved in this attack. 

Amin travels to Palestine where he is shunned at the mosque where he believes his wife was brainwashed by the leader. The film begins as a conventional narrative but after the attack the narrative flow is interrupted with fragmented pieces of Amin’s life with his wife. Together these pieces start to form a mosaic where Amin finds himself in the center of the larger conflict of Palestine and Israel. The great love of his life has kept her life so separate from him turns out to be a heroine for the Palestinians. Amin in time learns that it is actually not his accomplishments, which contributed to his award as an esteemed surgeon but the benevolence of his adopted country who gave him the honor. There can be no greater incongruity then an Israeli national who loves his new homeland to be living with a woman who hates what has happened to Palestine so much that she destroys herself and several innocent Israelis.

Doeriri allows the spectator to unravel the mystery in his use of cinematic language just as Amin does which makes this a brilliant film. It was the centerpiece of the recent San Francisco Jewish Film Festival that ended last month.

© 2013- Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 08/07/13
Movie Magazine International