Tuesday, June 20, 2017


Dir. by François Ozon
Adapted from a 1932 play by Maurice Rostand, L'homme que j'ai tué (The Man I Killed), featured at the Boston French Film Festival, Museum of Fine Arts, July 16 & 28, mfa.org 

François Ozon’s latest movie Frantz packs in audience pleasers: superb black-and-white photography of spellbinding locations; nonstop suspense; brilliant character portrayals by Paula Beer as Anna and Pierre Niney as Adrien; the subject of war’s pointlessness; the right or wrong of lies; and human psychology when it comes to love. This last and most compelling aspect of the movie, discussed below, is for a post-viewing conversation (i.e., this review may be a spoiler).
The movie begins in Quedlinburg, Germany, after World War I, with the Hoffmeister family grieving for the loss of Frantz, Magda and Hans’ son and Anna’s fiancée. The three live together, Anna already like a daughter to Frantz’s parents. Hans and the Germans in town bitterly hate the French for killing their sons. Frenchman Adrien Rivoire shows up to lay flowers on Frantz’s grave and as a result meets Anna who brings him home to her surrogate parents. Over time, Frantz’s parents come to love and cling to Adrien for his past friendship in Paris to their lost son. Adrien becomes a living embodiment of Frantz, keeping him alive for the parents. It helps that Adrien comes from the same cultured class as the Hoffmeisters—he formerly played violin in a prominent Paris orchestra. Adrien’s last name Rivoire is too close to the French word revoir—to see again—not to have special meaning for Adrien’s role in this story.
Love comes in all shapes and sizes. Anna and Adrien’s love presents the movie’s most fascinating content. Adrien, caught in the difficult situation of meeting Frantz’s parents (with the postwar Germans and French hating each other), weaves more and more lies about his friendship to their son. Adrien’s a meek, malleable person, which becomes his character flaw in the end when he goes along with his mother’s choice for a wife. He has no mettle, no courage, and chooses an easier path controlled by others. In Quedlinburg, spending time with the Hoffmeisters and learning about Frantz’s past, Adrien becomes part of the family. When he finally confesses to Anna what really happened in the battle trenches, she’s naturally devastated. But she doesn’t reveal the truth to Frantz’s parents—she spares them yet another grief, this one involving Adrien's travesty. Here the movie lets us ponder lies—Adrien’s lies, Anna’s decision to keep up his lies, and what the future will be for her maintaining and further developing them for the remainder of the Hoffmeisters’ lives. Are some lies acceptable? To what extent? Can Anna ever live a fulfilling life if she perpetrates serious lies? So many people, so many families, live out their lives harboring such secrets and lies, and Anna’s case is but one example.
After Anna has learned the horrible truth from Adrien, she must begin all over in her nascent love for him, and succeeds. Once she has forgiven him—which entails understanding the stupidity of war, where one soldier in a trench has no choice but to kill his enemy or be killed—she allows her love to rekindle. But what shape and size is Anna’s love? It’s one of life’s more mysterious forms, where the young woman loves the very person who killed her lover; it’s a love that encompasses the killer’s connection to the past love, a strange mix but real and food for thought. The same is true for Adrien: he loves the woman of the man he killed as if, again, Frantz’s taken life can resurrect permanently through the new bond. It’s a love triangle of a warped sort. The Hoffmeisters also want the Anna-Adrien union for the same reason—the men’s supposed bond of yore joined to Anna now will keep Frantz forever within the living family. Weird, but not weird, precisely because love has so many faces.
A few other points about the movie: The parallel structure of Adrien experiencing German hatred in Quedlinburg, and then Anna, in part two, experiencing anti-German behavior in France, works to emphasize the antiwar message. Plus we are told a few times that Frantz, like Adrien, was a pacifist. Indeed, his rifle in the trench where he died was not loaded. He would rather be killed than kill. The score by Philippe Rombi sets the mood for every scene and the film’s nonstop suspense, but it never intrudes on the action. Its apt subtlety achieves perfection. Finally, at those rare moments where joy in nature or the good things in life occur, the movie switches to color, briefly, like the quick glows we all experience in life. Then the story returns to the black and white of the war’s bleak aftermath, not unlike Italian neorealism except for the sumptuous quality of this movie’s cinematography.
Manet’s painting Le Suicidé (The Suicide) comes up several times. It relates directly to Anna and Adrien’s mental destitution about the truth of what happened to Frantz. However, it’s not answered why this painting was one of Frantz’s favorites, nor why Anna visits it at the end of the movie when she’s embarking on her “freed” life in full blooming color. The man viewing the painting on the bench beside to her is just like Adrien—sensitive, effete, melancholy. Are the two sitting there before a depiction of suicide to show their contrast—Anna no longer tied to Frantz or the past and the man dealing with suicidal thoughts? Or, is it suggested that Anna’s past will link these two strangers in an uncanny love? Will Anna connect to him because he’s like Adrien, who in turn was the embodiment of Frantz? Love and human psychology are the tantalizing material of this film.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Foreign Body

Written and directed by Raja Amari
Featured at the Museum of Fine Arts
Arab Weekend, July 8–11, 2017

For passionate film lovers, Foreign Body goes beyond the indie norm, despite its familiar plot and character elements, which include an immigration story (Tunisia to France, illegally), a cultural-clash drama (Islam’s moral code versus France’s), and an edgy love story that crosses traditional sexual boundaries. These structural elements recede for the film’s greater essence: quiet psychological portrayals that are deeply human and convey a message about the eternal gender divide.
The three principal characters, who eventually have an erotic moment together, are Samia (Sarra Hannachi), just arrived in Lyon following an illegal boat crossing from Tunisia; Imed (Salim Kechiouche), already in Lyon seven years illegally; and Madame Lelia Berteau (Hiam Abbass), an upper-class French widow of similar Arab origins.
The long, quiet passages of the movie reveal Samia and Lelia’s characters, in the beginning with their wariness of each other—can the illegal young woman be trusted? Will the French widow inform the police? The tension of trust continues almost to the end of the movie; Samia’s secret past in Tunisia—the scars on her back, her watchful, survivor’s eyes—make her slightly suspicious, also to the audience. What are her true motives? The slow revelations about Mme. Berteau’s own immigrant past and rise in class because of her marriage to a wealthy Frenchman happen in pregnant atmospheres controlled by Abbass’s intelligent face.
Besides the women’s secrets from each other and their unveiling over time, we also witness their mutual support as women in a chauvinistic world; and true to life, their female solidarity coexists with wariness, suspicion, and jealousy of each other. Imed is the man between them, desirable to both for erotic, not intellectual, attributes—another subject for the audience to ponder. Handsome Imed can be kind, respectful, and generous to both women, but the minute one of them steps outside the expected female role, he punishes them. This historic male authority over women in every culture strengthens women’s bonds, and in Samia and Lelia’s case, it influences their turning to each other for personal and erotic closeness. Samia, with scars on her back, fears shadowy men in Lyon’s narrow byways when she walks home alone. Even if she is actually safe, she feels preyed upon. Another universal for women: the physical danger of men.
Samia’s character offers more to reflect on. Her young, female sensuality and heat for sex is accurate and a rare portrayal. She’s called a whore for it, and we, as a traditionally socialized audience, watching her sensually dance at a bar, lifting her clothes to reveal her skin and allure the men surrounding her, think: She’s shouldn’t do that, she’s bad to do that. But actually, Samia’s sensations and actions are authentically female. Foreign Body makes us aware of how we judge women as whores for their natural sexuality, but condone men for theirs. 
Amari has made a multilayered feminist movie, showing the complexities within women, men, and society regarding gender. The strongest take-away is the female bond that has created a social and psychological bulwark for women, one that this movie shows us has greater strength, greater collective power than the heavier weight of men. Imed represents his kind: helpful, respectful, and generous to the weaker sex, as long as she obeys his rules. The scales stand before us, with women the higher order.