Review: “Force Majeure” 2.9.15

Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival as well as receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film at this year’s ceremony. “Force Majeure” was a film I had been highly anticipating as many of the films that have either been nominated or won the former award, which has only been around for 16 years, have churned out some of my favorite foreign films, only second to the world’s most prestigious’ category – the Palm d’Or, which is the Cannes’ equivalent of the Academy’s Best Picture. The Un Certain regard category in which I speak of is almost always reserved for films that the Cannes voting panelists find to be of great significance and importance in relation to the international film community. Some films that have either been nominated and/or won this coveted award are as follows: “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005 winner – Russia), “Tyson” (2008 nominee – America), “Dogtooth” (2009 winner – Greece – still one of my all time favorite foreign films), as well as director Andrey Zvyaginstev’s (“Leviathan”) remarkable “Elena” (a 2011 nominee), and the 1-2-3 punch of 2013’s boastful nominees “Stranger by the Lake” (France), “Omar” (Palestine), and “Fruitvale Station” (United States). As I often times do with seeing a film solely based on the directed of who it is attached to, I also see films (especially foreign) that garner nominations in categories in which I find to have great validity by means of reputation. This film was yet another example of that approach to why I watch certain films. Not knowing or having the faintest idea of what it was about but still trusting my intuition and the word of mouth that comes out of Cannes every year.

The film introduces us to a family taking “holiday” (as most of us know the Europeans call it). They’re what you might consider to be the perfect nuclear family – a seemingly strong-willed father Tomas, his wife Ebba, and young daughter Vera and son Harry. Their holiday at a wealthy ski resort in the French Alps seems like the idyllic family vacation. Which we’re shown through a series of photographs as the start of the story. Ebba is just happy to have Tomas to both herself and their children, as it is inferred that he lives a pretty demanding work life at home. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and I couldn’t help but think of an American version of a trip to Disney World, where at the surface level, everything seems to be perfect. That is until one day they experience a catastrophic event, and the residual and lasting effects that it has on the family, particularly of Tomas’ wife Ebba,  while also acting as a sort of “reawakening” for each member to reevaluate both themselves and that of each of the other family members. This is essentially what the movie goes on to explore, without giving away any further plot details.

This wound up being both a beautiful and remarkable film that had my attention from the first frame to its final one. It works on almost all levels – from the story, to the acting, to the amazing cinematography of the French Alps, but even more importantly, how it explored the interpersonal dynamics of a family following a traumatizing event. The undeniably flawless direction by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund is truly a sight to see for any true fan with an eye for film. The film captures this devastating family tragedy amongst the backdrop of the beautiful French Alps. Not only that, but like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Foxcatcher”) it does so with such a restrained approach using long take techniques to capture a certain sense of stillness to everything. That and like the late great Stanley Kubrick, the director has an uncanny ability of filling up every single frame of the picture without a single inch going to waste. It also incorporates a beautiful classic score which I thought was right up on par with some of the best compositions of Kubrick’s films, which to me seemed so fascinating to the images being shown on-screen as it seemed to fit perfectly even if it comes off as a questionable choice for a movie score on behalf of the viewer at the beginning. The last but most verbose part of the review which I think is unquestionably worth noting in relation to this film is how deeply rooted it was in psychology. Anybody that really enjoys reading between a film’s lines for its underlying subtext should find this to be one of the more denser films they’ve seen. Evoking the works of the German director Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”, “The White Ribbon”, “Amour”) who acted as a reference point for me in its examination of traumatic events that shows how they manifest themselves from an individual standpoint. Looking at themes such as residual and vicarious trauma, self reevaluation, moral dilemmas, as well as the primitive instincts that make us human beings. This was just another example and further proof of a belief I’ve always held, in that foreign or international cinema, is operating at such a higher plane, than many if not all of its American counterparts that try to explore similar themes but that aren’t able to do so with such assuredness and a sense of realism. This wound up being a thoroughly engaging, well acted and shot, and probing psychological film that explores some very deep and heavy themes, that had my brain’s light switch turned on from start to finish. A must see for any fan even remotely interested in foreign or international cinema that challenges the viewer to really think, as opposed to merely sitting back and being entertained.

[B+]

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Review: ‘Venus in Fur’ 10.1.14

It’s great to start off a new month with a much anticipated new film by one of your favorite directors. Polish director Roman Polanski is one of maybe 10 directors that have been around for decades that I can think of where I can honestly say that I’ve probably seen about 75 – 90% of their entire body of work.  That’s saying a lot considering the guy has been around making and producing feature films since the early 1960’s. If Alfred Hitchcock became the real first “psychological horror” director with his 1960 release “Psycho”. Then one could argue that Polanski was his successor. Polanski’s 1-2-3 punch of “Repulsion” (1965), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), and still my favorite – “The Tenant” (1976) took art house audiences by storm. Polanski broke new ground in psychological horror and became one of if not the most influential directors in the genre during that time. Period. These days almost every time I hear about a newly original and inventive psychological horror film people will use the tagline “it’s reminiscent of early Polanski”. And with a couple of rare exceptions (Ti West’s “The House of the Devil” (2009), Rob Zombie’s “The Lords of Salem (2013)) it doesn’t turn out to do be true. He is the master of the slow burn, wait for it, pound you over the head structure But rather then being pigeonholed to one specific genre Polanski went on to make such great films as his 1974 masterpiece “Chinatown”, 1979’s “Tess”, and the 2003 film where he won his first Oscar for Best Director – “The Pianist” (though was not present to receive because he is exiled from America). Along with the aforementioned films I also thoroughly enjoyed Polanski’s 1988’s “Frantic”, his 1994’s psycho-sexual thriller “Death and the Maiden”, as well as his more recent efforts like 2010’s “The Ghost Writer” and 2012’s “Carnage”, the latter of which was adapted from the famous stage play of the same name. It was in this film that we first got to see Polanski start to get in touch with his more theatrical side.

“Venus in Fur” is yet another stage-to-screen adaptation based on David Ives’ Tony Award winning play which derives from the source novel by Leopold von-Sacher Masoch. The story revolves around a theatre director (played here by the instantly recognizable character actor Mathieu Almeric) who’s holding auditions for his new play. It’s getting to be after hours and auditions seem to be over. That is until a young, rather attractive woman (played remarkably by Emmanuelle Seigner) stumbles in though looking rather disheveled. The director at first seems put off by her neediness. His first impression is that she’s just an amateur just looking to land a role so she can get a paycheck. And because of this he practically shuns her off. However, she continues to be persistent and doesn’t seem to want to take no for an answer. So eventually he winds up throwing his hands up in the air, lets his wife know that he’s going to be late, and gives her the audition she so desperately wants. That’s when things really start to get interesting and the line between being able to tell their stage selves apart from their real selves becomes blurred.

I’ll first start off by saying this film really took me by surprise. Even given that it was Polanski I didn’t necessarily have high expectations for it. But even at the ripe old age of 81, Polanski once again proves to us here that he can really deliver the goods and shows us why he has been able to prevail as a film maker and still remain relevant throughout all these years. It’s simply a master class in the art of theatre. He does an incredible job grabbing the audience’s attention with the play’s razor sharp dialogue which would be nothing without the two exceptional leads. Both of which whom give very fine performances. The fact that it takes place on one single set with only two actors involved for the entire duration of the film yet still somehow manages to be so effective is astonishing. Polanski practically demands interest on behalf of the viewer, grabs a hold, and doesn’t let go. If anything the grip keeps on tightening. The chemistry between the two leads is nothing short of spellbinding. As if they couldn’t have possibly paired up a better set of actors with one another. It’s a total actor’s showcase. Anybody interested in what lies at the core in the art of acting is absolutely going to love this movie. It also boasts an incredible score by Alexandre Desplat who has achieved the remarkable feat of having been nominated for 7 Oscars in 7 years for his wonderful original scores. This highly effective one utilizes both strings and piano in equal measure perfectly to help drive the suspense on stage. The only reason why I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to everyone is you really have to have a love for the craft of theatre to get into a movie like this. It relies solely on its two lead actors and very little action happens outside of the interplay between them. So in that respect I can see some people maybe being a little put off by its concept. However, for everybody else, it will be one of the more exciting, devilishly fun, suspenseful and thrilling stage-to-screen adaptations you’ve seen in awhile. It earned Polanski a Palm d’Or nomination (the equivalent of Best Picture) at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and took home the Cesar (France’s Academy) Award for Best Director. This is the best Polanski picture I’ve seen since “The Pianist”. And, next to “The Selfish Giant”, is the second film I’ve seen this week that has already earned a spot on my top 20 films I’ve seen so far this year.

Grade: B/B+