French film festival: Anatomy of a Fall

French Film Festival 2023: Anatomy of a Fall / Anatomie d’une chute,
Directed by Justine Triet.
Starring Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth

The first movie I caught at this year’s annual French Film Festival (taking place in multiple cities around the UK this month) was Anatomy of a Fall, which bagged director and co-writer Justine Triet the coveted Palme D’or at Cannes (making her only the third female director to win the award, which is not a good look for Cannes, but that’s another story). At first glance you may assume this to be a fairly standard courtroom thriller / whodunnit: a husband in a rocky marriage dies in mysterious circumstances, his wife was the only other person in their mountainside chalet near Grenoble. Was is accidental, a fall while repairing the house? A deliberate suicide? Or a rage-fuelled murder? The suspicions of the authorities fairly inevitably settle on the author wife, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), and a courtroom battle looms…

Except this does not go the way I thought it might, instead leading us into a far murkier emotional mess of a relationship, of accusations and regrets and arguments. The couple’s world had been upset when her husband, Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), busy with other projects (teaching, repairing the house they intended to rent out for more income, trying to get his own writing career going), neglects to pick up their son from school, asking a babysitter to do it at the last minute. Arriving late, the babysitter and their son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) are involved in a bad accident, the effects of which leaves the young boy only partially sighted, which leaves simmering resentments and guilt over blame.

Sandra turns to an old friend, Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), who is now a lawyer, for help, as it is clear the police investigating the death do not believe it is an accident. With a prosecution looming, he starts interrogating her himself, trying to establish what could have happened, the state of the couple’s relationship, and bringing in his own forensics experts to counter those of the prosecution. Along the way this slowly drags every murky element of Sandra and Samuel’s life out into the unforgiving glare of the courtroom and public reporting, revealing aspects which do not paint her in the best light, giving ammunition to the prosecutor, who, lacking a smoking gun (so to speak), has to rely on these more circumstantial matters to convince the court of her guilt.

The courtroom drama, which in other hands may have been heavy-handed, or overly dramatic and over-played, here is handled deftly – despite what is going on, you feel sympathy for these characters, as every formerly private piece of their lives is pulled out and aired in public, being used by the prosecution or defence to pillory or defend them. It’s not hard to empathise at these points – even if we had done nothing, had nothing really bad to hide, which of us would want our most private moments with a partner or family or friends open to the scrutiny of total strangers, who will judge you on it? How easily could a heated argument between two people be taken by others later and used as “evidence” against them for other possible actions? How do you defend against that when it means having to tell of less than savoury moments by the other (now deceased) partner, does that make her look better or even worse?

Add in their young boy being dragged into this (he refuses the judge’s request not to be in the courtroom), having to hear all of these details of his parents and their unravelling life prior to his father’s death, and you have a very heady, emotional trip. And then there’s the matter of the audio recording Samuel made secretly when arguing with his wife…

Anatomy eschews the more usual flashback scenes you often get in these kind of films (save for one main scene, quite effectively handled, fading in as we hear the audio recording, then back out to the courtroom at a critical moment, leaving us only hearing the event with the jury, not seeing it, a powerful moment). Triet and Hüller make the brave decision to craft events and two lead characters who are simultaneously vulnerable, evoking sympathy, but at the same time also often quite unlikeable, clearly selfish, driven more by their own motivations and goals than being a couple or family, and this is sustained throughout. I think both deserve kudos for this – it’s no mean feat to give us characters like that, yet still make us emotionally invested in them, and it makes them dramatically more satisfying than a simpler good partner / bad partner dynamic.

It’s a two and a half hour film, but I never felt the length, it never felt like it was dragging, it remained compelling all the way through. A compelling and engrossing French film, deserving the attention it has rightly been receiving.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Review: Onoda – 10, 000 Nights in the Jungle

Onoda: 10, 000 Nights in the Jungle / 10 000 Nuits dans la Jungle

Directed by Arthur Harari,

Starring Yuya Endo, Kanji Tsuda, Yuya Matsuura, Tetsuya Chiba, Shinsuke Kato, Kai Inowaki, Issey Ogata, Taiga Nakano

I forget none of you.

There were several famous cases of Japanese soldiers who did not obey – or in some cases had simply not received – the surrender order in 1945, and carried on a lonely war for many years after the end of World War Two, in isolated regions. Hiroo Onoda, a second lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese forces, became one of the most famous after writing (or, it seems, more accurately, collaborating with a ghost writer) on his memoirs after he finally accepted the surrender order and was returned to Japan in 1974, after almost thirty years on the island of Lubang in the Philippines.

Director and co-writer Harari made clear in interviews that he is not working from those memoirs, and that the film is not a biopic, rather more a film inspired by real events and persons, but with him treating it as largely fictional. Given there is still controversy over the real Onoda’s accounts in his memoirs (reportedly he avoids mentioning killing several innocent locals during his three decade guerilla war), that seems like a fairly sensible approach, and it also allows the director and actors much more leeway in telling the story. As is spans almost three decades, some of the principle roles, such as that of Onoda himself, requires two actors, one to play the younger version, another for the much older, middle-aged version, with Yuya Endo and Kanji Tsuda respectively portraying the younger and older Onoda.

When we meet the young Onoda, the war is already moving into its final phases, with the Allied “island hopping” strategy taking them across the Pacific, winkling out the occupying Imperial Japanese forces in often grinding and bloody battles, then on to the next. The Onoda we meet here is already feeling shame at failing to become a pilot, and having been given a second chance as an officer with special training in secret warfare – he was schooled in holding out after an expected invasion, schooled not to commit suicide or die in a “banzai” charge (as most Japanese at the time would have been instructed to do), rather to melt into the jungle with a small group, establish safe bases and supply caches, then raid enemy forces and continue guerilla-style warfare until the main Japanese forces returned to relieve them.

This drives Onoda, he clearly feels he has something to prove – on top of the fact that, like most other Japanese soldiers of that era, he has had unquestioning discipline and loyalty to the Emperor drilled into him – and when the few men he has with him start to falter, he reveals his secret training and orders, which bolsters them into continuing the fight. However, soon the Allied forces have moved on, and the only fights they have are with unfortunate, and totally innocent civilians, local villagers and farmers, often when raiding for supplies. They have become bogie men, figures of fear on the island, and on hearing shouts that the war is over, they refuse to believe, assuming it is a trick.

As the months become years, however, it wears on the men, living rough in makeshift shelters in the jungles and hills, in rotting uniforms darned with numerous patches. Their numbers slowly reduce as some leave, while others are injured or killed, until we end up with Onoda and Kinshichi Kozuka (played by Yuya Matsuura as the younger soldier, Tetsuya Chiba as the older) for a substantial part of the running time. We see the pair reinforce one another’s delusional ideas as they come up with varying interpretations and reasons why articles in magazines and newspapers they’ve stolen are all fabricated (the “fake news” of their day, they think), even convincing each other that the broadcasts they hear on a purloined transistor radio are all designed to trick them into surrendering, and if the Allies are going to such lengths then it means their island is more strategically important than they realised, therefore they must carry on.

In a modern era where we see whole swathes of society willingly embrace fake facts (even when they have access to multiple sources to dispute misleading claims), it’s not hard to see how isolated characters, cut off from all they knew, their only information sources sporadic and not trusted, would build an elaborate fantasy around them to explain and justify their continuing the war for so long, to validate their narrow world view. Delusional? Quite possibly, however Harari doesn’t depict him too strongly in this light, we also see the compulsion and drive to duty and orders which makes Onoda continue, year after year, even rejecting pleas from his own father and brother brought to Lubang to call for him on loudspeakers to come out.

The lengthy running time (barely shy of the three hour mark), lets this run as a slow-burn tale, with flashbacks to his training, to his farewell to his father (his parting words and gift not an “I love you”, or “take care” but a ceremonial dagger for suicide and instructions not to be taken alive), and this also works in allowing us to feel a slight taste of the long, long years Onoda fought on as we get more time to get to know him, what shaped him to be this person who would hold on for twenty-nine years after the war’s end. We get to know the small – and ever-shrinking – group, and while the film does not (unlike the real Onoda’s biography) skirt around the fact they attacked and killed local people, we also feel for the men as we get to know them. Some later scenes are particularly emotional, as a much older Onoda, now all alone, visits the graves of his fallen comrades, the graves almost invisible now, hidden by jungle growth. He names each one and where the fell, and how he will not forget them and their shared comradeship, the only one who knows what happened to them, where their bones now lie.

It’s an interesting film – the length and slow-burn approach may put some off, but I found it worth the investment of viewing time, and particularly liked that Harari didn’t portray Onoda as either just a heroic – if deluded – figure, nor as a lunatic, victim of his own delusions and self-invented conspiracies, but allows a more nuanced interpretation where, like much in life, it’s a mixture of things. If you are looking for a fast-paced, war-action flick, this is not it, but if you are looking for something more cerebral, that examines motivations, male bonding under stress (some elements there made me think of Peckinpah, where the stoic, masculine heroes can only emotionally bond in certain dangerous situations); it would make a good book-end to Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima.

Onoda won the 2022 César Award for Best Original Screenplay, and will be released to on-demand services by Dark Star Pictures from December 13th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews : comedy horror fun with Final Cut

Final Cut (Coupez!),
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius,
Starring Romain Duris, Bérénice Bejo,Grégory Gadebois, Finnegan Oldfield, Matilda Lutz, Sébastien Chassagne

I’m not normally a big fan of remaking an existing film in another language, but this French take on the cult hit, low-budget Japanese flick One Cut of the Dead intrigued me, not least because it was being helmed by Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning director of The Artist, and starred some well-known French talent on-screen, including Bérénice Bejo (who he worked with in The Artist), and Romain Duris, so I agreed to have a look. I’m glad I did – I remember thinking the original was a good bit of fun, and also liked it because it was more than it first appeared, and that’s the case with the Francophone version too. It’s as much comedy as it is horror, and it’s also something of a loving homage to those who have toiled through trying to make a B movie on a tiny budget, with few resources.

We’re dropped into the middle of the film shoot at the start, which deliberately confuses the viewer somewhat as to what is real and what is part of the film the crew are shooting. We see the actors preparing for their scene, one in zombie make-up, we see the scene of the attack, then the director, Remi (Romain Duris), screaming at the actors (even slapping one) for ruining his film. As they take a break after this, the make-up artist, Nadia (Bérénice Bejo), tells the actors that the deserted building they are using as a location has an evil history, having been used by a secret branch of the Japanese military during World War Two for human experimentation. This seems odd in a French-language film, as does the fact the cast and crew all have Japanese names, but this starts to become clearer in the next segment of the film.

The ill-tempered director we had seen shouting the actors reveals he knew of this history, and has used the “blood star” ritual to activate the evil still within this site, bringing forth real zombies, which he demands the cast and crew act around to improve the film. As we’re wondering what’s going on – are there real zombies intruding into a B movie zombie film shoot? – the second section of the film takes us back a few months, to Remi being offered the chance to direct the film by a Japanese lady, but part of the deal is it must use the same plot, no deviations from the original language version, and that includes the names (hence whey French actors all have Japanese names in the film shoot). And it must be shot in one, continual take. Not easy, but Remi, who mostly makes small productions for TV and music and corporate videos can’t turn down the chance of a feature film, even a B movie one, and agrees.

We see the preparation over the weeks preceding the scenes in the opening third of the movie, as the cast meet, and they plot out their lines, work out how they can create everything so it can be filmed in a single, unbroken take – effectively having to do everything “live”. And it is quite clear from the outset that this is not the most well-oiled production machine that will be required to pull off such a demanding technical feat as a single-take film. The main camera operator has a dodgy back, his assistant is keen to help but has a totally different idea of how she wants to film everything, the actors are bickering with one another, one of them turns out to be an alcoholic, and the man doing the music and sound effects (also to be done live during the continual shoot) has trouble communicating with Remi.

All in all, it’s not painting a hopeful picture for the actual film shoot, and as we catch up in the chronology, we see again some of the scenes being filmed that we saw in the opening section, except now from different angles, and with much more context, and this time we follow through right to the end as body parts and undead start to mount up. How much is real, how much is invention for the film they are meant to be making, has the demented director really invoked a slumbering evil just so he can make a low-budget horror film more effectively?

This was an enormous amount of fun, especially the second and third reels, where we see the build up to the film-shoot we see at the start, and then what happens during and after it from different perspectives. We have the horror elements, but we also have the manic chaos of this tiny, underfunded crew attempting to pull off a technically challenging, single-take film shoot that they really are not up to, and the continual problems that surface, from drunken cast members to sudden illness, actors who didn’t show up, necessitating Remi, the director, to step in and also play the role of the director in the film, and his wife Nadia to play a role – she at least, is an experienced actor, but one who had to stop because she took her roles so seriously she started to believe in her characters, leading to disaster, but there’s nobody else who knows the lines, so…

This frantic dealing with endless problems – poor Remi is constantly running around their location trying to put out the forest fires while screaming into his radio to the producer’s booth not to cut, to keep going – lends a frenzied energy to proceedings and fuels so much of the humour, as they lurch from one disaster to the next. Then there is the question of those real zombies on the location set… It’s a loving homage to those who somehow manage to make many of the micro-budget horror flicks that so many of us love, to the constant trying to outpace gathering problems that bedevil any film shoot, and it feels as if they had fun making it. Originally titled Z in France, it was changed to Coupez because of the Russian forces using the Z symbol for their illegal invasion of Ukraine, while the international title is Final Cut.

A perfect Friday night, get some pizza and beer in, horror-comedy viewing that left me delighted and smiling.

Final Cut is available from Signature Entertainment, via online platforms from November 7th 2022

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World

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.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Most Assassinated Woman in the World 02
(Director Franck Ribière in dark shirt on the right and his colleagues at the post-festival screening Q&A with the audience)

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.

L’Accordeur

Adrien is a piano prodigy, but when he fails to win the music prize he worked so hard for his life falls apart and he retreats into work as a piano tuner, but then he creates a pretend persona as a blind man, finding his clients are more trusting and kinder and more intimate with him when they believe he is blind. And then on one visit he sees something he shouldn’t, and the question is does his client think a blind man may stumble on their secret or not? Very stylish short French film, with English subtitles:

L’ACCORDEUR vost from 24 25 FILMS on Vimeo.