Heal the Living

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The strangest paradox of Katell Quillevere’s third film is that although it’s involving, moving and deeply humane, it isn’t really an actor’s showcase. Somewhat diluted by a fragmentation that allows the director to tell multiple connected tales, Heal the Living (2016) ends up becoming the sum of its parts, none of which express any great depth of characterisation. And yet, handled with finesse and restraint, it still proves to be genuinely affecting. It begins with the tale of Simon, a 17 year old boy whose drive home from a surfing session with two friends turns to tragedy. Fatigued by their time in the relentless ocean, they all succumb to drowsiness in the car. Quillivere’s choice of representing the moments before the crash is ingenious in its simplicity: Simon’s friend, slowly losing consciousness at the wheel sees the road ahead dissolving into an ocean surface with the oncoming tidal wave representative of the fateful moment of impact to come. We don’t see any actual contact but feel the brunt of it just as forcefully in our overly-sparked mind’s eye.

Simon’s friends are badly injured but will survive, it seems. He isn’t so fortunate, left brain dead, with his two mortified parents, Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (a mediocre Kool Shen), naturally struggling to process the shock and awe. Two doctors, Pierre Revol (Bouli Lanners) and Thomas Remige (Tahar Rahim) inform the separated couple of the option of Simon becoming an organ donor. Though initially resistant, they eventually change their minds and the film then shifts focus to breathing life into the story of a middle-aged woman, Claire Mejean (Anne Dorval) with a degenerative heart disease, desperately in need of a transplant.

There are nicely judged moments throughout and great conviction in the performances. Seigner is particularly good but she’s forced to portray grief alone, giving her very little room to express range of any sort. The always wonderful Dorval – so astonishing in many of Xavier Dolan’s films – fares best. Lighter scenes with her two sons – one overly intense, the other a jokester – such as a night spent together on the couch watching and light-heartedly ridiculing Spielberg’s E.T (1982), are contrasted with her tender reconnection with her former younger lover, Anne (Alice Taglioni), a concert pianist who was unaware of her condition. A couple of their all-too brief scenes are sensitively handled but once more, don’t extend into anything remarkable as the narrative breaks off towards the journey of Simon’s heart. The countdown culminates with real footage of a heart being surgically extracted from a body and transplanted into another, giving it a remarkable point of difference if nothing else for those with a suitably strong stomach.

Composer Alexandre Desplat is given half a dozen moments to shine and he produces the goods with a sparesly utilised but classy score. Two wonderful piano-led themes are used at various times to heighten the emotional essence that informs fleeting glimpses of Simon’s too-brief life, including his first meeting with girlfriend. Though concerned with forging humanistic portraits, Heal the Living might be considered both underwhelming and gently persuasive. Again, there are strange paradoxes at work in the creation of a film with both a literal and figurative beating heart that makes us all feel a little more secure in our perception of the species.

The Red Turtle

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How does a 90 minute, wordless film manage to become something so majestic and emotionally wrenching? Michael Dudok de Wit’s animated feature, co-produced by the legendary Studio Ghibli, is a paradoxical mini-masterpiece of unconventional storytelling; pared back to almost nothing it initially feels over-simplified and yet The Red Turtle (2016), co-written by de Wit and Pascale Ferran, is actually brimming with a rich allegorical subtext.

With background and context omitted, we discover a man washed up on a desert island. Survival becomes a dispiriting struggle. After painstakingly fashioning a raft from what he can scrounge on the island, he’s thwarted not far from land by a beast of the sea determined to prevent his return to whatever definition of society he comes from. On multiple occasions he’s forced to swim back, his makeshift raft destroyed, left to start from scratch again.

Soon, the appearance of the turtle of the film’s title takes de Wit’s film into markedly different terrain as the nameless man’s existence is re-routed. From a vantage point of hopelessness imbued with the perils of the unknown, a comfortable middle ground is reached – a place of reverie and semi-normality from which ordinary thoughts and experiences can finally be derived, collected and cherished.

This isolated existence becomes a metaphor for man’s remarkable will to live, for an ability to provoke our deepest instincts for survival into becoming a generating force, able to defy extinction just when it seems most likely. But what are these events truly? Are they real or just the fevered dreams of a man slowly perishing as his body and soul evaporate against the inexorable forces of an indomitably savage land?

Using, as its loudest, most expressive voice a staggering, evocative score by Laurent Perez Del Mar, with its powerful main theme returning again and again in ever-surprising guises, de Wit has produced a film of transcendent power that manages to make us laugh, keep us on the edge of our seat during a couple of genuinely tense moments, before finally ripping out our hearts.

The Red Turtle is a boldly conceived, stunningly executed piece of cinema. Here’s a rare example where grasping for ways to accentuate themes and conclusions with a burdening framework of words may have fatally damaged the overall effect of a film, perhaps entirely blunting its power. Instead, de Wit remains true to a determination to carry his daring premise through to the end where the heart-wrenching last moments swell with poignancy in a haunting statement of inevitability and finality.

The Bélier Family

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Sadly we’ve become accustomed to the bulk of the French film industry’s output bypassing our shores. Thankfully, a yearly two week festival dedicated to a diverse sampling of recent work continues to make inroads. Other than that, however, the trickle of French films granted general release here has mostly thinned down to a handful of quaint, whimsical, unchallenging crowd-pleasers and ones usually prefaced with dazzling one-line summation from unheard critics proclaiming each film’s heart-warming, life-affirming qualities.

The Belier Family (2014) is no exception; championed by the common folk in France who flocked to it in droves, the film arrives with an impressive range of rave reviews attached. Surely, then, it must have something special going for it? In fact, other than the winning lead performance of big-screen debutant Louane Emera, a former contestant of a French reality tv talent show, the only noteworthy aspects of The Belier Family concern how boring, clichéd and utterly stupid it is. And probably highly offensive to people with hearing impairments I’d imagine.

Depicted in the truly awful The Belier Family are the lives of a deaf husband, Rodolphe (Francois Damiens) and wife Gigi (Karen Viard); their teenage son Quentin (Luca Gelberg) is also deaf. Only 16 year old daughter Paula (Emera) is able to hear and she shoulders much of the work connected to the running of the family’s farm, liaising with the locals with the buying of stock and selling of their dairy products at the local market. When she almost inadvertently reveals a wonderful singing voice in music class, she’s encouraged to develop her talent by flamboyant teacher Thomasson (Eric Elmosnino). However Paula is ashamed of her ability, fearing that to pursue it further would mean neglecting from her domestic duties, thus putting their livelihood in jeopardy.

Apparently all deaf people are idiots with restrictive world-views and resentful of anyone – including their daughter – who can hear. So does The Belier Family inform us – time and time again. The film’s relentless, one-note, dumbed-down provincial comedy is so pedestrian and mindless you’d think it was concocted by sparring 14 year olds trying to outdo one another with crudity and obviousness, the concepts of subtlety and wit as alien to their consciousness as the intricate technicalities of brain-surgery. Rodolphe’s attempts to become Mayor are especially laughable, though the dim-witted nature of the narrative struck a nerve, it seems, with the French who obviously split their sides at such laugh-riot scenes as Rodolphe’s interview with local press and his simple plea before a congregation of locals to vote for him despite displaying nothing but idiocy as a platform for his election campaign.

Karen Viard is actually one of my favourite French actresses of the last 20 years. Here, however, she achieves the truly unimaginable in lowering the notion of ‘overacting’ to excruciatingly awful new depths – and without ever uttering a single word in the film. Her absurd gamut of facial expressions and reactions, her overuse of physical gestures are so inappropriate, unbelievable and phony that I was actually cringing with acute embarrassment nearly every time she was on screen. Damiens, another otherwise talented performer, is also left to wither in the margins as director Eric Lartigau’s film takes the road most obviously travelled at every crossroads.

One fine, genuinely moving scene, as the film reaches its inevitable crescendo, partly redeems – though doesn’t come close – to saving it. In the wind up, Paula, you won’t be surprised to learn, gets to sing before judges and her parents at a serious competition and it’s a wonderful showcase for Emera who’s allowed to flaunt her vocal talent. Everything else about this trite and offensive film however, a film painfully lacking aspirations that might allow it to rise above the realm of generic cliché, is utterly irredeemable. Its themes of obligation to family and ties that bind versus following your true path in life have been handled in far more interesting and complex ways in so many other films. Here, simplicity is the only means Lartigau and his screenwriters have at their disposal to sketch their paltry notions of comedy and drama – notions thwarted at every turn by insensitivity towards and cluelessness about the very subject that should have been closest to their hearts when depicting the Belier family.

Far From Men

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With its measured pacing, subtly revealing characterisations and rich historical contextualising, David Oelhoffen’s Far From Men (2015) powerfully evokes our common humanity without ever resorting to bluster or overstatement. This marvellous film is a moving examination of identity in a land where national pride can mean different things to different people. One man’s interpretation of nationality can jeopardise the life of another as humble Algerian village school teacher Daru (Viggo Mortensen) discovers when he’s lumbered with the task of transporting a man Mohamed (Reda Kateb) from a small village, accused of murdering his cousin, to French authorities. Despite the pretence of justice taking its course, Daru understands that he’ll he leading Mohamed to a brutal, inevitable demise.

In some senses this is a road film as the two men are tethered together against the backdrop of a harsh, unforgiving, war-torn landscape in Algeria in 1954. Daru’s roots are Spanish but he’s considered a local by the French and yet forever an outsider by the locals. Trapped in a wavering middle ground, he finds himself hamstrung by political perception as he and Mohamed weigh deeper into murky waters in which the threat of being set upon by various parties becomes more real with each passing hour.

Mohamed is suffering from his own internal turmoil; his fatal act is justified as a necessary means of survival against a grain-stealing cousin. But his other cousins want only retribution and the certainly of an endless blood feud beginning chases him through all of his sleeping and waking hours. There’s another group on their tail too, with a local positive that Mohamed is the same man whose been killing men in the vicinity. Daru believes otherwise and aims to get Mohamed to his detination to ensure he’s only prosecuted for the crime of which he is definitely guilty.

There are so many wonderful layers to Oelhoffen’s film which is actually based on a short story by Albert Camus. From innocuous beginnings the narrative soon begins to deepen as Daru and the initially silent Mohamed begin to compromise and open up to one another in order to survive. Quiet, contemplative moments are shot through with perilous encounters which, against their better judgement, strengthens their resolve. At one stage the pair faces certain death when captured by Algerian officers but evade disaster when Daru is offered to the advancing French as a hostage and the pair are spared in the wake of the subsequent slaughter.

The two main actors are remarkable. Mortensen continues to enhance his reputation of one of the finest practitioners of his craft. Moving between larger American roles and more interesting, artful European work, he’s never anything but magnetic and in the most effortless kind of way too, bringing fascinating shades of light and dark to every interpretation. He’s matched by the wonderful Kateb here as the guilt-racked Mohamed who is trapped between a rock and a hard place.

The resolution is sublime, regardless of how you might imagine it will end. The pair’s final scene together is full of tenderness and one of the most moving scenes in any film this year. There’s so much to admire about Far From Men, a film that comes awfully close to perfection. Oelhoffen’s screenplay is perhaps most remarkable in its determination to distil simple but emotionally wrought moments that capture the essence of our humanity into torturous moral choices. Refusing to trade, commendably, in easy solutions, it becomes a truthful, moving reflection of real life with all its ardour, despair, complexity and ambiguity.

 

 

Far From Men is now out on DVD through Madman Entertainment. HERE for full details.