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!
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
EIFF 2022 – Saloum,
Directed by Jean Luc Herbulot,
Starring Yann Gael, Evelyne Ily Juhen, Roger Sallah, Mentor Ba, Bruno Henry
The programmer introducing Saloum to a late-night Edinburgh International Film Festival crowd was eager to share their enthusiasm for Saloum, describing it as part of a bold, new, confident strand of film-making coming out of Africa. Shot mostly in the French language, I felt this Senegalese movie lived up to its glowing introduction at the festival. We start off with what looks like a massacre in an African town, bodies everywhere, civilians and military alike, and three mysterious figures walking among the bodies – the Bangui Hyenas – leader Chaka (Yann Gael) , Rafa (Roger Sallah) and Minuit (Mentor Ba). You’re given the strong impression the mayhem and body count has come from these three figures swaggering through the streets, and then we find out they are extracting an international drug smuggler to help him out of the country, for a sizeable amount of gold.
However not all is at is often seems in this very cool, slick, stylish African flick; first impressions are these are just three gunsels – cool perhaps, but criminals, thugs – happy to leave a line of bodies in their wake. Except as the film progresses we hear stories about the Hyenas, and despite the tough guy posturing, we start to learn of very different views of them, that they’ve interfered against despots, helped movements and other rather more heroic actions. It’s a good strategy as it means you can’t just peg the trio as one thing or another, good guy, bad guy, hero, villain, and it makes the mix far more interesting. It also establishes that they have a pretty formidable reputation that precedes them.
Their exit strategy with their drug lord is a light aircraft from a nearby airstrip, taking off as local reinforcements arrive too late to do much more than fire impotently in the air at the retreating plane, as our trio and their client relax. Except, of course, like any good plan or heist in a movie, something has to go wrong (otherwise we wouldn’t have much of a story, would we?!) – in this case they realise they are losing fuel, and assume a stray bullet hit the tank. They can’t make their original destination, but Chaka, the brains of the operation, comes up with a back-up plan, to land in the Saloum area of Senegal. Having hidden the plane and the gold, they set off on foot for a small, isolated resort of sorts that Chaka claims to know, saying to leave all the talking to him, and explaining after a couple of days of playing visitor there, they will scrounge fuel and some sealant to fix the fuel tank, and off they go. The other two are curious as to how Chaka knows this area and people, but follow him.
At the resort things start well enough, greeted by the seemingly affable Omar (Bruno Henry) who runs it, and meeting the deaf and mute guest Awa (Evelyne Ily Juhen) – which leads to an increasingly hilarious sign-language conversation between Awa and Chaka at the camp’s dinner table, as the others all watch on bemused. But quite quickly they realise Awa knows just who they are and wants something from them – is she for them or against? And Chaka hints at past interactions with Omar years ago, but Omar doesn’t recognise him. When a local police captain arrives for dinner, the tension ratchets ever upwards – have they been rumbled, or is it pure coincidence? Adding into this, Minuit and Rafa are starting to question Chaka’s motives, as it starts to look like he has some long unfinished business in this strange region, and they begin to wonder if it was an accident that brought them here or a plan…
This burns along nicely, building character interactions, establishing the surroundings, slowly increasing the sense of tension building, along with the unmistakable feeling that something here just isn’t right. I don’t just mean with the are they here by accident or secret plan, or how does a police captain and a deaf woman happen to be there and know who they are at just the right time. No, there’s more, especially when we see interactions with the nearest village – the people, the place, the whole land here is wrong, something dark, something bad, something not human, perhaps even cursed…
Saloum gleefully throws all sorts of ingredients into the pot – we get action, the daring escape/heist gone wrong, the emergency plan that may be far more than it appears, characters who keep evolving throughout, seemingly and obviously one thing only for us to learn more further in that changes our perceptions of them, it throws in some very slick and stylish action that would be at home in a Tarantino joint or a Hong Kong action flick, with elements of the Spaghetti Western, revenge thriller and outright horror movie too. It’s as prepared to mix knowing humour as it is to take on dark subjects, like the colonial abuses of the past and the use of child soldiers in many civil conflicts. It sounds like it should be overcooked, but it isn’t, somehow all these elements, mixed in at just the right time as the film progresses, all work together, and the narrative even takes a couple of turns I didn’t expect. Cool, stylish, an ideal late night movie treat from Africa.
This review was originally penned for Live For Films
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
Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec Volume 1,
And another Jacques Tardi piece I wrote for the now-defunct Forbidden Planet Blog, but somehow forgot to cross-post here on the Woolamaloo (in my defence I spent many of my own evenings writing or editing articles for the FP blog, unpaid, and didn’t have time or will to then do so on my own blog). So here below is my 2014 review of The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adele Blanc-Sec:
French creator Jacques Tardi has to be one of the most respected writer-artists working in comics, European or world-wide, and he is also a huge favourite of ours. Like Bryan Talbot he seems to have an uncanny ability to move through different mediums, adapting his art and style to suit all sorts of stories, from his early work back in the 60s in the famed Pilote comics magazine through adapting hard-boiled urban crime novels and his anger-fuelled, horror-filled World War One strips, but he has also created one of the great heroines of European comics, Adele Blanc-Sec, a writer by day, adventurer by night, Set in early 20th Century Paris, just a few years before the Great War, Adele stands out in an era when women were expected to ‘know their place’ in society, being a single woman of means, more intelligent and observant than the men around her and certainly far more adventurous.
Like Tintin she is an intrepid investigator of mysteries, and there is also something of the classic Scooby-Doo here as well in that there is often a fantasy or supernatural element (or at least seemingly supernatural – or is it??) to her stories. Fantagraphics have been translating and publishing Tardi’s works in English, to much acclaim, a series largely driven by Fantagraphics’ own Kim Thompson, not only a champion of quality comics work but also a multi-lingual editor, translating these works himself until his recent death (a major blow for both the publisher and the comics community in general). This first volume has been out of print for a while, but with a fresh print run on the way it seemed like a good time to turn our Classic Comic spotlight on to it.
This handsome hardback, full-colour volume actually boasts two stories in the one volume, collecting two of the original Adele Blanc-Sec albums, Pterror Over Paris and The Eiffel Tower Demon. Pterror introduces Adele to us and also the bizarre stories she can be caught up in, in this case a madcap science fiction tale worthy of a Victorian writer like Verne or even Conan-Doyle (in his Professor Challenger mode), in which a peculiar experiment, part palaeontology, part medical science, part mystical-mental ESP powers (a not uncommon theme for the era) combine in an attempt to resurrect a Pterodactyl from its millions of years of fossilised slumber. Those same mental powers which brought this extinct flying dinosaur back from pre-history are meant to guide it, but the animal instincts are too powerful and freed from it’s tomb the creature soars into the night-time skies of 1911 Paris and hunts on the wing, as it was meant to, bring terror – or ‘Pterror’ as the title puns – to the City of Lights, and drawing in both Adele and the bumbling police inspector Caponi (who became a regular character in the series).
What follows is a spectacular piece of high adventure as the incompetent police, scientists from the Museum of Natural History (where the Pterodactyl emerged from) and Adele all follow the trail of death and destruction left in the dinosaur’s wake, each with their own ideas and agenda. As well as superb Boy’s Own style adventure moments (the beast swoops down and rescues a man falsely accused of murder right off the guillotine scaffold) there are nice touches of humour (government minister calls head of police to complain who in turn calls his senior officer who calls his district chief who calls the unfortunate Caponi in a classic bit of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel). The second story offers a classic supernatural cult conspiracy tale, an elite of the city’s movers and shakers, hungry for ever more power (as those types often are), seek to bring back into our world the demon Pazuzu. But who is truly controlling this cult, and is the demonic monster we glimpse (even entering Adele’s nightmares) real or a front, just a control method to garner more power for some?
And the art throughout is glorious – Tardi creates and portrays a strong female lead character but doesn’t sexualise her – Adele is written and drawn as what she is, a strong, independent woman who knows her own mind and she isn’t waiting for some hero to come along, nor does she pine for romance. But away from the characters, there is also pure joy to be had in his depictions of early 20th century Paris. The scenes in the historic heart of this beautiful city are especially wonderful, because many of those locations are largely unchanged today. An opening scene in a wonderfully detailed Natural History Museum in the Jardin des Plantes depicts its iconic great hall while a number of scenes on famous Parisian streets will be instantly recognisable if you have ever walked them, or even if you have only viewed them in photos and films, this realistic detailing giving the grounding that allows the more fantastical elements to take flight (in the case of our winged dinosaur, literally).
In the second tale we go from the famous Parisian underground tunnels to the heights of the majestic Eiffel Tower on a snowy, winter night, and it is all so beautifully executed you find yourself going back through the book’s pages after finishing the story, just so you can stop and admire many of the scenes, especially those beautiful cityscapes. Stunning art from a master of the medium, a strong female lead, fantastical adventures which both pay homage to those Victorian/Edwardian lost world science fiction tales while at the same time also clearly poking a little fun at how ludicrous the concept is to modern readers (but in a loving way), demonic being and ancient dinosaurs running amok in the Paris of a century ago, scenes filled with period detail, what’s not to love here?
Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell Hardcover,
Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jacques Tardi,
This is actually an older review which I wrote for the (sadly deceased) Forbidden Planet Blog back in 2015. Normally I would cross-post my reviews here on my personal blog too, but for some reason I hadn’t done so with this one, and it was while penning an article on the great French creator Jacques Tardi for Tripwire’s 100 Graphic Novels You Should Read feature that I realised I had never posted this one on the Woolamaloo, so here it is below:
Jean-Patrick Manchette was one of France’s powerhouse crime fiction writers of the 1970s and 80s, often hailed as one of the writers who put the pep back into the genre in France, and the great Jacques Tardi (surely one of the finest bande dessinee creators in the Franco-Belgian scene today) has turned to adapting his work into comics form before, to popular and critical acclaim. Fantagraphics has been publishing Tardi’s work in English for several years now, everything from his Adele Blanc-Sec adventure fantasies to his apocalyptic World War One works and the hardboiled crime tales. The loss of Kim Thompson at only 56 a couple of years ago has delayed the series somewhat – Thompson wasn’t just a major part of Fantagraphics and a champion of translating and publishing European cartoonists into English, he was also behind much of the translation work himself, and losing him so suddenly has naturally had an effect on their publishing. So it’s doubly good to see Run Like Crazy, Run Like Hell finally coming out from Fantagraphics as it marks the resumption of their Tardi publications, which I imagine Thompson would have approved of.
There’s something about the 1970s and early 80s that seems especially well suited to crime fiction – the prose novels of the period, the television and the films, on both sides of the Atlantic, all seem to ooze a certain flair and style that adds hugely to their enjoyment, and Manchette was a part of that. In Run Like Crazy we follow Julie Ballanger, a troubled young woman who has spent the last five years – voluntarily – in a mental care facility. Enter Michael Hartog, a one-time struggling artist and architect who came into astonishing wealth when his brother and his wife were killed in an accident, leaving him with their fortune and company, and also Peter, his nephew. Hartog has built a reputation over the years since his inheritance for recruiting employees from the ranks of the dispossessed, the disabled, injured veterans and the like, and it seems now he is extending this to Julie, offering her a home and a job looking after young Peter after his old nanny left. She’s treated well, Hartog picking her up himself in his chauffer-driven limo to take her from the care home to his own large dwelling, her own place to stay, even new clothes in the wardrobe for her when she arrives. Is his philanthropy for real, or is there a hidden motivation behind his employment schemes?
Our other major character here is Thompson, a hitman for hire with a fearsome reputation in the French underworld. We meet him in the opening pages waiting in a dark apartment to plunge his knife brutally into the heart of a young man, a homosexual, although it’s not really clear if Thompson cares about his sexual orientation or if it is simply another contract to him, although the accompanying text hints at some homophobia (or it could just be an example of the period in which the tale was originally written). But Thompson, for all his brutal, cold efficiency and reputation, is actually a man struggling with his profession. While he doesn’t seem to suffer any deep questioning of the morality of how he makes a living, clearly something deep inside his psyche is troubled – he finds himself with stomach pains and cramps leading up to a job. He can’t even eat. And yet after the deed is done he feasts with gusto before driving off in his classic old Rover to meet a new client. And a new job which involves kidnapping Peter and Julie.
Oh, and framing poor Julie for it – hey, young woman with troubled past just out of psychiatric care? If well staged then why wouldn’t the cops believe she’s lost control once back in the outside world and gone crazy? A perfect crime, perhaps?
Except no crime ever is perfect and there are always unexpected kinks in any cunning plan – especially when the hard-headed Julie turns out to be capable of seemingly playing along then dealing out some improvised violence of her own back against the gangsters. This leads to a classic series of chases and cat-and-mouse manoeuvres as Thompson, increasingly and clearly beginning to manifest physical illness from the mental stress of his occupation, is determined to get Julie and her troublesome young charge and fulfil his contract like a true professional – nanny and child dealt with, blame pinned on her, as per the plan. A plan rapidly going belly-up and requiring swift improvisation by Thompson, wrong-footed by underestimating Julie. And then there’s the question of why anyone wants to kidnap Peter in the first place and why they would want to try and frame Julie for doing it.
As you’d expect from a crime tale of this era there’s some hard-edged dialogue, swearing, threats and backed up by some sudden bursts of hideous violence (one scene in the countryside involving a shotgun and a foot recalls an amped-up version of an infamous scene from Straw Dogs), and it is all carried out with great style and panache by Tardi in his dark-inked black and white art, some of his close up character scenes and their expressions being particularly superb. The whole work drips with style and that hardboiled 70s crime feeling – you could easily imagine this with a suitable soundtrack as a storyboard for a Tarantino movie. It cracks along at a great pace, helped by the regular use of smaller, more urgent-seeming panels, and manages to make you root for Julie (and Peter) despite not exactly painting them in the nicest light either – victims of this attempted crime, perhaps, but Julie’s violent temper and Peter’s spoiled tantrums mean neither is an unblemished character.
Tardi remains, for me, one of our finest comics creators, able to work in all sorts of genres, adapting his style and art accordingly (in this respect he reminds me of Bryan Talbot), and a selection of his body of work belongs on the shelves of any serious lover of the comics medium. Returning to Tarantino for a moment, I recall one review of Reservoir Dogs referring to it as an “awesome, pumping powerhouse of a film” and that feels appropriate for Tardi’s gripping take on Manchette’s crime fiction. Read it then maybe go enjoy a good crime movie too – maybe the French film Mesrine would be a good partner to a read of Run Like Crazy. A fabulous, hard, tough crime fiction ride, perfectly depicted by Tardi.
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.
Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian,
Drawn & Quarterly
I’ve loved the Angouleme-winning Dupuy and Berberian’s work for many years – I’ve even struggled through some of it in the original French (no mean feat given how rusty my French skills are) – and I’ve grown very, very fond of Monsieur Jean over those years, not to mention the ensemble cast which has grown around Jean. In fact they’ve been around so long, and growing older (not necessarily wiser!) as the years passed, that they’ve become like old friends. You know, the sort of friends you have known forever, right back to when your eyes were clear and wrinkles were something you couldn’t imagine ever having. The sort you used to be around every day and couldn’t imagine it would ever be any other way.
Then one day you realise that Real Life has gotten in the way – you are all older, you’re still friends, still part of each other’s lives, but you see each other less frequently as work, relationships, family and more build up, or you find yourselves living in different cities. Revisiting the cast in this new D&Q collection, which collects fourth through to seventh of the Monsieur Jean series, feels a lot like that, and as the years rolled past for Jean, Felix, Cathy and the rest, so they did for the readers, and I think that’s part of what is so endearing about this series. There’a a lot here that most of us can empathise with; even if it doesn’t mirror our own lives exactly, we’ve all been through similar moments, and that makes it the stories all the richer and more emotionally satisfying.
“Doing the best you can. Maybe that’s the trick. I try. Sometimes I even feel like it all makes sense. Everything just falls into place. Every breath I take, every thought: it’s all clear. Clear in a way you can’t put into words. It’s a fleeting sensation. It disappears the second I try to explain it. But when it’s there I know… Everything I do...”
We’ve seen Jean go from struggling writer to published success and acclaim (and then the treadmill of what do I write next? Will it be as good? Problems which plague every creator as much after success as the problems they had in trying to be published in the first place), a young man, single, playing the dating game, enjoying life, dealing with the highs and lows. And now here he is – Jean is in his forties, he has a baby girl (Julie), and he and Cathy are struggling with their relationship. Or more accurately Jean has little wobblers – little nervous moments, is this the life he wanted, is it too late to change, if he could, would he? Cathy, meantime, mid 30s and thinking she can’t wait forever for a man who can’t commit fully.
And meantime the old crowd are still there, notably disreputable best chum Felix, with his adopted young son. And Felix is still a dreamer, floating through life, seemingly not a care in the world, free-spirited, not bothered about settling down into his own place, solid job or any of that stuff. All of which seemed quirky and charming when younger, but as he gets older – and is responsible for a child – seems more like being selfish. And yet, despite frequently rubbing Jean up the wrong way, he is still his best friend, and you know he’s always going to forgive him after being angry with him.
That said, even Felix can surprise you – he seems his old, laid-back self, floating through problems (even a social services visit about his parenting skills gets treated lightly by him, as always). And yet Felix cares about the boy, not even his biologically, but the child of a former girlfriend who didn’t want him, and he’s taken responsibility (well, relatively, this is Felix, a man who can forget to pick the boy up from school, but that’s okay, Jean will do it, right?) for all these years. And when a family event offers him a huge opportunity, but one that comes with a horrible revelation, dear old Felix will show a strong side he’s never shown before, even if it costs him dear (although this may be a closing one door but seeing another, unexpected one open situation).
We travel from Paris to the countryside to New York as work for Cathy and Jean moves them, and so does their own relationship, both trying to figure out what they want in terms of career and family life, and realising, as we all do sooner or later, that you don’t get everything you want, that you have to compromise with the important people in your life, with their needs and desires as well as your own, if you’re going to make it work. And that creates tension and problems, and sometimes it leaves you unsatisfied… And other times it makes you feel like everything is perfect and you wouldn’t have it any other way, and it is all worth it.
In between these ups and downs we get treated to those flights of fantasy that have been a bit of a hallmark of the series; Jean’s imagination runs riot around a story involving an antique picture, bleeding into his own life and worries, his formidable concierge takes on monstrous forms in his dreams, or he has weird visions about Cathy, pregnancy and fatherhood (drawn in a totally different style to the usual version both Dupuy and Berberian create for the series). We revisit favourite old spots, like the bridge over the Canal Saint Martin, but also new places, like a stay in New York (a good excuse for our writer, Jean, to visit literary NYC landmarks like The Strand). People stay the same but also change at the same time, the essence of life.
The Jean books have always put me in mind of Woody Allen movies, circa mid to late 70s, still laced with humour but more dramatic and emotional than the earlier outright comedies, not quite as dry as the later ones, with dashes of the soap opera that is life and the Absurd and flights of fancy, both narratively and sometimes artistically. There’s a real sense of growth (painful, sometimes two steps forward, one step back variety, but that’s life, isn’t it?) for all the characters here (even old Felix), of realising, sometimes slowly and painfully, where they need to be in life, and more importantly, who they need to be there with. An absolute pleasure to lose myself once more in the company of Monseiur Jean and his friends.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
Leo Malet, Jacques Tardi,
Translated by Kim Thompson,
I absolutely love the work of Jacques Tardi, from his crime tales to fantastical Jules Verne-esque yarns like the Arctic Marauder or the bitter, powerful anger of It Was the War of the Trenches (see here) and Goddamn This War (reviewed here), he is, for me, one of Europe’s great masters of the ninth art. I also have a fondness for a dash of Noir, so combine Tardi with a Noir murder featuring Leo Malet’s detective Nestor Burma and oh yes, you better believe I wanted to get my little ink-stained paws on it. And rather a handsome edition it is too, a slim hardback album, with some nice metallic highlights on the front and back cover (sadly not so obvious in the scan above, but quite striking when you see it with your own eyes), a nice addition to Fantagraphics’ Tardi library on my shelves. It even comes with nice end-papers detailing a map of the relevant part of Paris, marking the location of the main events; in conjunction with the actual comics art it gives a great impression of the place, you can feel your way around the mean streets.
Nestor receives a letter from Abel Benoit, claiming to be an old comrade who desperately needs his help, “a scumbag is planning something dirty.” He addresses Burma as both “comrade” and a “brother” and hints at their old days in their youth. There’s one problem – Burma doesn’t recall ever knowing an Abel Benoit at any point in his life, the name means nothing to me. But the detective is intrigued, and so he ventures off across a rainy Paris, the trademark trenchcoat collar turned up, heading to the hospital this Benoit is being treated in. And he’s being followed, by a mysterious, dark-haired woman; she’s behind him right from his office, on the train and the station, before finally approaching him.
It transpires she posted the letter for the ill Benoit and she tells Burma that he is wasting his time – Benoit is dead. This gypsy woman, Benita, refuses to accompany him when he insists on still visiting the hospital – he clearly doesn’t trust this stranger, for all he knows she was sent to divert him from his appointment with Benoit. But she does promise to wait across the road from the hospital for him. Benoit does indeed prove to have given up his breathing rights, just as Benita told him. And on being taken to view the body in the morgue he meets an old associate, from the police, waiting for him. Why are the police interested and why do they think Nestor know something that they want to know? It seems several people have an interest in this mysterious man and case, and they all seem to think Burma already has the inside track, while he’s left wonder who Benoit is, why he thought they knew each other and why the cops are staking out the morgue waiting on his visit…
I don’t want to get into much more plot detail – I’d rather not potentially spoil any twists and turns, after all those are part and parcel of the fun of a good crime story. I will say that it involves elements from Burma’s own mis-spent youth, and mixes in the police (who have a fairly chequered past with Burma), an old case, a femme fatale (naturally) and more, in a very satisfying ratio. And this being Tardi, the visuals and layouts are just utterly superb. 1950s Paris, the streets tramped by our rumpled detective, usually in the rain (of course), the streets of the rough XIII arrondissement – now a bustling place with a large Asian community and shiny new business cenres on the Rive Gauche, but in this period it’s a down-at-heels, tough neighbourhood that Burma sneers at (fancy street names can’t hide the poverty and shabbiness), and yet he also clearly has some dogged affection for the area.
Drawn in monochrome, which suits the very Noir atmosphere, there are some gorgeous visual throughout this book. Many scenes follow Burma in his trenchcoat, scowl on his face, through those XIII arrondissement streets, the “camera” angle often directly behind of in front of him – the effect is reminiscent of those cool and stylish handheld camera shots through the Parisian streets by film-makers like Goddard, and makes the reader feel as if they are walking those street with Malet’s detective. The rain-lashed 1950s streets are grey and chill, the pacing and sizing of the panels changing to reflect the story, smaller, more frequent during sequences where Nestor is being tailed, larger and slower for more dialogue-heavy character moments, while Tardi uses variable lettering sizes to convey emotions, shouting and other effects, a device he’s used very effectively before.
An afterword by Malet confesses he was never a fan of comics, but he saw one of Tardi’s Adele Blanc-Sec books in the Casterman shop, and was taken by it, and then later by Tardi himself, leading to their collaboration, with Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge first appearing in serial form in A Suivre. Malet was impressed, he describes Tardi as approaching his novel like a film director (which I found interesting as I had the same impression prior to reading the afterword), and how he felt disappointed in attempts to make a film of Fog, but he had better than a film he had Tardi: “No one else can so perfectly enshroud the setting with such a dampness and thickness. No one else can bring the underlying depression to the surface.”
A gripping mystery, executed with some of the finest comics art Europe has to offer, mysterious dames, tough guys with a moral centre, an old case knocking insistently on the door of the present, and an atmosphere that oozes Noir so much you’d think the fog itself could wear a Fedora. This is one to curl up with, and like a good Raymond Chandler, or Malet for that matter, this is a book that you know you are going to go back and revisit.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog
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.
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: