Our small but mighty bookshop now has a wee selection of fiction in French, for younger and for adult readers, curated by my French chum, Stephanie!
EIFF 2022 – Le Chêne / Heart of Oak,
Directed by Laurent Charbonnier, Michel Seydoux
A huge hit in France (the programmer introducing it at the 75th Edinburgh International Film Festival told the audience it had sold over half a million tickets at the box office), Le Chêne – titled Heart of Oak for the English-language market – the film made its UK debut at the EIFF this week. And while it is a French film, worry not if you are no good with subtitled films, as this is a “silent” documentary – there is no narrator or dialogue or talking heads experts. Instead the cinematography and the soundscape carry us through the entire film, essentially a year in the life of a huge, two hundred year old oak tree, and all the myriad varieties of life it supports on it, in it, below it and around it, from insects and fungi and wood mice in the roots to birds and squirrels in the branches, deer and boar around it, through the four seasons.
We open with a beautiful aerial shot over a forest, slowly descending through the canopy into a small clearing around a vast, gnarled old oak (the descent is so slow and gentle it gave me the impression of coming down gently in a hot air balloon). It’s spring/summer and the foliage is in full greenery, the huge, thick branches of this old tree covered in leaves, and there’s that marvellous sound of the breeze moving through the branches and leaves (isn’t that just one of the nicest sounds in the world?).
As the camera moves circle the trees, top, bottom and in-between and around, the camera lingering over the fantastically gnarled, tough bark on this regal tree, and then as we get closer in we see the community of life it sustains. Tiny acorn weevils with their long proboscis giving them a distinctive look, a red squirrel darting around, seemingly defying gravity as it pauses on a vertical climb, face down, leaping and jinking, constantly on guard, looking around for opportunity and danger.
Tiny wood mice who have a colony in tunnels among the roots cautiously stick their heads out while a barn owl scans the area from a high branch, looking for just such an excursion, a mating pair of birds make their home in the oak’s branches, sharing them with the squirrel, the editing of the footage of each giving the distinct impression of an almost human neighbour feeling – not someone you know personally, but like someone whose face you recognise, know they live in your area, the sort you nod to at the bus stop or in the shop. The much larger animals of the forest such as the boars and deer forage around the trunk, the boars using its rough surface for a good scratch while they’re looking endlessly for food.
We move through each of the seasons, watching the animals fight for survival, a whole ecosphere based around this tree, from fungal connections in the earth among its deep roots to the tops of its branches; it is, essentially its own little world that we are visiting here. We see the excitement when the acorns start to drop, especially for the resident squirrel, leaping around to try and grab several then stash them – one it will bury and forget, and by the time the next spring rolls around we wee that acorn has started a small root system below the earth, and a tiny trunk – more like a small branch with a few leaves – above ground; the life cycle continuing.
We see the creature and the tree weather the worst of the winter, the preparation for spring, new births, screeching baby birds in a new nest demanding food, the acorn weevils, all died off at the end of the summer and autumn, have implanted embryos into some acorns, which finally wriggle out, burrowing into the ground below to mature into the next season’s group of insects. The whole natural cycle rolls past us in simply stunning footage – including some clever techniques to let us see below the ground, for instance into the mice nest – or to flip momentarily to give an animal’s perspective (as a hawk hunts one of our mating pair of birds from the tree we see the exhilarating rush of the chase from its point of view for a moment.
I think the only main issue I had with this was that the editors seem to have chosen to avoid showing much in the way of any creature being killed – we see a number of attacks and hunts from and on various creatures, but other than a kingfisher catching a small fish, none of the hunts we see are successful. While I know there’s a high failure rate for even the best predators in a hunt, after several of these on screen it felt more like this was a deliberate choice by the film-makers.
That’s a minor quibble though – in truth this is a film to cherish in our current world of endless worries and fears over environmental collapse, financial hardship, warfare. Here’s a reminder to take time out, listen to the sound of branches moving in the wind, remember that the whole natural world goes on regardless of how buried under stress and worry we are (Lockdown reminded me of that very much, walking in a deserted city and hearing the spring birds calling out so clearly with no traffic to drown them out, and it lifted my spirits). This is like taking a “forest bath”, a cleanser, a reminder of the sheer majesty of our natural world, the simple beauty of a tree, the entire network of life it sustains around and on it. It’s a movie to see on the big screen, and let the visual and sounds immerse you into this tribute to the majesty of our natural world.
This review was originally penned for Live For Films
L’empereur de Paris / The Emperor of Paris,
Directed by Jean-François Richet,
Starring Vincent Cassel, Olga Kurylenko, Patrick Chesnais, August Diehl, Denis Lavant, Freya Mavor
Another evening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and this time it is a French period piece, based on a real-life historical character Eugène François Vidocq, who I must confess I had only vaguely heard of, mostly in relation to him inspiring later fictional works by the like of Poe and Balzac among others. This is classic poacher turned gamekeeper stuff, inspired by the actual Vidocq, a criminal who turned thief-taker, his familiarity with the Parisian underworld of the Napoleonic era and his own native ingenuity allowing him to track and capture the most wanted criminal gangs of the era in a way the regular authorities – mostly just watchmen with clubs and a heavy hand – could possibly manage. Vidocq is rightly famous in his native France as the founder and first director of the Sûreté Nationale and thought to be one of the first – if not the very first – private detectives.
But frankly, they had me at Vincent Cassel…
I’ve loved Vincent Cassel, with his charming bad-boy approach to so many roles, for many years, and the role of Vidocq seems almost tailor-made for his strengths, his ability to project competing, often contradictory qualities of ruthlessness, self-gain, dishonesty but also paradoxically heroism, resourcefulness, of doing the right thing when his back is against the wall. This role seems to suit Cassel especially well at this stage in his life and career, as he portrays the famous criminal, thought to have died in one of his infamous escapes years before, trying to go straight in Paris in 1805, but being drawn back into the underworld and the local law enforcement (the two are not as distinct as you’d expect, not back then). This is Paris in the era of Napoleon, but it has not yet been remade by Haussman as the broad boulevard Paris we know and love today, this is the older Paris, filthy streets, creaky, tilting old houses, tanners, butchers and washers working openly in the festering streets. The middle-aged Cassel’s more grizzled visage and a more world-weary sense about him fit into this scenario perfectly.
Yes, there are beats to this story you will recognise – the criminal trying to turn his life around, to be legitimate only to be dragged back into the murky underworld of crime (I keep trying to get out, they keep dragging me back in approach), the assembling of his own team to perform his task and win his amnesty, the creation of his opponent, just as intelligent and capable, and even more ruthless (his own Moriarty), you can spot all of these now common tropes, but it really doesn’t matter because this is beautifully done. The cinematography is gorgeous – you can almost smell old Paris, fights in crime lairs in the limestone tunnels beneath the city are lit by fire and candlelight to give them eerie aspects, contrasting against the opulence of the Imperial court of Napoleon.
Cassel is, as you’d expect, simply brilliant in this role – as I said, Vidocq could have been custom-made to be a Vincent Cassel character. Leo Carax regular Denis Lavant also essays a stand-out performance, twisting his body language and facial expressions into a cruel, mis-shapen, Fagan like criminal overlord, vile, despicable, ruthless and dangerous, without ever tilting that performance too far into parody (you believe how nasty and dangerous his gang leader is). A classy, stylish, period crime movie that should also introduce the rest of the world to the real, historic Vidoqc and his role as one of the fathers of modern policing and detectives.
The Most Assassinated Woman in the World,
Directed by Franck Ribière,
Starring Anna Mouglalis, Niels Schneider, Jean-Michel Balthazar, Julie Recoing, Michel Fau, André Wilms
Another evening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and another intriguing film, this time from French director Franck Ribière, this partakes of elements of murder-thriller, period piece and delightfully lurid horror. Set in the famous/infamous Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in the Pigalle district of Paris during the 1920s, The Most Assassinated Woman in the World takes real-life settings and historical characters – most notably the theatre’s great scream-queen, Marie-Thérèse Beau, better known by her stage name of Paula Maxa, played by Mouglalis, an actress who was slaughtered in thousands of violent and gorey ways every night on the tiny stage of the theatre. It’s claimed she was “killed” some ten thousand times, and early on her character lists many of the ways, from strangling to stabbing, slashing, burning, boiling, decapitation, being pulverised. And yet, she shrugs, here I still am…
In some ways this listing of nightly horrors enacted on the stage of this notorious theatre (which only closed in the 1960s) and the fact that Paula “survives” it all and keeps going is part of the central theme here: we were told in the post screening Q&A with the film-makers that they were not aware of a violent assault Paula had endured in her younger years, and yet they had written such a scene in affecting her and a sibling, in an uncanny art imitating life moment. They were exploring the nature of horror and violence, how it affects people, even the pretend violence of the horror on stage or in the movies, both those who watch and those who act it out (imagine being an actor having to be killed in inventively gruesome manners every single night). Experimental psychologist Alfred Binet, another real-life character involved with the actual theatre, is also, appropriately, a figure here, helping owner De Lorde construct not just physically awful torments and demises for Paula, but mentally brutal as well, pushing, pushing, pushing, aided by the giant figure of Paul, the special effects wizard (another real life character, apparently his stage blood formula is still used to this day).
Mixed into these factual elements are more fictional dramatic ones – a young journalist from Le Petit Journal, Jean (Niels Schneider), investigating both the moral brigade demanding the theatre should be closed for indecency (forerunners of later “we should control what everyone can see, for their own good” types that burned rock and roll records or the Mary Whitehouse mob) but also a series of disappearances and murders around the Pigalle and Montmartre areas (loved by tourists today, but rather rougher back then). Is the murdered inspired by what he sees on stage, is it driving his fantasies to act them out for real? Who are the figures haunting Paula? Does her work help her excise her own demons or is it all pushing her to brink – and do those in control of the theatre even care or are they happy to push beyond the limit?
The film is set in mid 1920s Paris, but the cobbled back streets, the heels clicking on them through foggy nights, the evening capes, they could all come from a Victorian-set Hammer film, and the gallons of luridly red “Kensington Gore” as the blood flows scarlet stands out against the dark, mostly nocturnal scenes, as vivid a claret as ever flowed in a Hammer film. Interestingly they film-makers told the festival audience that originally this was to be an English language film, set in New York, but as they explored it more, found the historical Paula Maxa, it became clear they really needed it to be a French film, set in Paris. They struggled for funding, but a Belgian film fund stepped up, as did Netflix, who they thought would ask for it to revert to the original English language premise, but instead were quite happy for it to be a period French piece.
In fact Franck Ribière commented on the “Netflix issue” which has come up at quite a number of film festivals around the world, most notably at Cannes, where some are glad of the new stream of funding and distribution while many others are horrified and say it is killing cinema with movies going straight to television streaming and bypassing cinemas. I can see arguments on both sides, but that’s a debate for another article, not a review. I will note that Franck Ribière explained he didn’t see the problem, it was another welcome source of funding for film-makers, and nobody makes a director or writer work with Netflix, it is up to them to approach them about partnerships, and that he is happy to be able to watch films as he wants, in cinemas, on TV, on his phone. Many other directors, I am sure, disagree, but it was interesting to hear him comment.
No news on a UK release for this one yet, but as it is co-funded by Netflix I assume it won’t be long before it appears online, so those of you who don’t have a film festival or arthouse cinema nearby will be able to see it too. All in all I really enjoyed this, it offered both the over-the-top horror the Grand Guignol was famed for (and which it has given its name to as a general term in horror now) mixed with a more psychological aspect, and layers of “plays within plays” as we see fictional and real elements of Paula’s life mixed with pretend versions for the film and more pretend but almost real versions on the stage, until we’re left wondering what elements are real, what scenes are what they seem to be and which are theatrical artifice, all shot in a beautifully sensual manner. One of the smarter, classier horrors I’ve seen recently, and yet one which happily plays with elements of classic horror too.
I’m enjoying a few days off for my annual Edinburgh International Film Festival fun. Last night at the Traverse Theatre as part of the film fest they had an “in conversation” with French actor Dominique Pinon, who has appeared in a number of my favourite films over the years. One of those evening that reminds me one of the reason I love living here so much is that with our festivals everyone comes to Edinburgh at some point, writers, directors, actors, musicians, they all come here. I took a few photos with the new camera – sitting several rows up and back in a theatre so not the best place for taking photos, but out of the batch I shot a handful came out passably.
And since its Bastille Day, another French-themed post, methinks, this is a pop video from Emily Loizeau who I’ve been getting into recently, most of her tracks are in French, with a handful in English, most enjoyable.
Happy Bastille Day – vive la revolution! This is the fancy cover on a bottle of wine in my local French deli/restaurant, the fine La Marche Francais in Edinburgh’s Haymarket, that caught my eye one day while in getting some nice wine and cheese and they were nice enough to let me take my ever-present camera out and fire off a couple of snaps, so I thought it seemed appropriate to post today for the Fête Nationale.