Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Let the Sun Shine In (Un Beau Soleil Intérieur)

Director Claire Denis (left) with actress Juliette Binoche

LET THE SUNSHINE IN (Un Beau Soleil Intérieur)                  B                         
France  Belgium  (95 mi)  2017  d:  Claire Denis       Juliette Binoche: The Art of Being - Official Fansite

A kind of wistful comic romp is not what we’re used to seeing from this director, far from the moody depths of her typical despairing works, probably closest to, but never rising to the level of VENDREDI SOIR (2002), yet nonetheless engaging in so many respects, though it catches us off-guard by being so emotionally open.  At the center is Juliette Binoche as Isabelle in a harrowingly wonderful, tour de force performance, energetic, sublime, an unstoppable force, playing a woman divorced, now in her 50’s, who works as a painter in one of her more memorable roles, where her character is a bit goofy, but exasperatingly honest and clear-headed, having what it seems is a midlife crisis, as her biggest fear is that romance in her life is suddenly dead and buried, that it’s all behind her, yet it resurrects its head with each impassioned relationship with someone new, moving from one man to the next in a delightful game of musical chairs.  With Denis working this time with a co-writer, novelist Christine Angot (and perhaps uncredited help from frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau), together they tackle a modern adaptation of Roland Barthe’s 1977 novel, A Lovers Discourse: Fragments, (Fragments d’un discours amoureux), which is more of a philosophical exploration of a lover’s inner monologue, inspired by Goethe, Plato, Nietzsche, Freud, Sade, Sartre, and others, becoming an examination of hopes, complaints, and reflections about love when alone, musing on its subconscious effects, trying to make love intelligible once again.  Perhaps the real key is they likely adapted nothing from the novel, instead creating something entirely new and free from literary constraints.  Now if that’s not a daunting task, yet Denis makes it seem effortless, turning this into a modern era comedy about one woman’s perpetual search for “true love” in all the wrong places, where we move from exhibit A to exhibit B, and so forth, where each could be the one, but isn’t, leaving Isabelle feeling like she’s running out of time.  Binoche couldn’t be more refreshing, an indomitable spirit that refuses to be deterred, committing herself fully, rushing headlong into each new relationship with renewed hopes, yet inevitably ends up dissatisfied and disappointed.  Far from being deflating, however, Denis finds humor in each and every obstacle, some of it downright hilarious, though a darker underside provides a counterpoint throughout. 

While Kate Winslet refuses to do nude scenes any more, this doesn’t apply to Binoche, who is naked from head to toe in the film’s opener, where we find her in the throes of mad, passionate sex with Xavier Beauvois, yet it turns on a dime into a comedy of errors, with each, apparently, not getting what they want, turning into a kind of sexual misadventure until an inappropriate remark leaves both in a state of disconnect, and while Beauvois seems perfectly content, Binoche is devastated.  When we see them again at a sophisticated bar, Beauvois couldn’t be more of a contemptible snob whose arrogance has no bounds, a banker dulled and confined by his career choice, eager to find others outside his field, like free-spirited artists, for instance, where momentarily they revisit an incident that has overt sexual parallels with the pathetic final scenes of LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972).  But after indiscreetly revealing an unsubstantiated rumor about her prospective work partner, suggesting she had an affair with one of Isabelle’s former lovers (a tall tale, having a good laugh afterwards with her partner, Josiane Balasko, over that one), the banker’s manner is unfailingly rude, thoroughly disgusting Binoche, who feels it’s time to move on.  Beautifully shot by Agnès Godard, with extreme close-ups of faces, with atmospheric music provided by Stuart A. Staples from the Tendersticks.  While the film is a series of dubious choices, in the interludes, we see Binoche flopping onto her bed in a state of disarray, yet her wardrobe changes are noticeable, cleavage exposed, short skirts and black stockings, always dressing with a flair for being chic, and young, where she turns the difficulty of taking off her zippered, near knee-length boots into one of the more enjoyable moments of the film, screaming in agony, while at the same time mad at the world for being so discouragingly unfair.  Perhaps the best sequence of the film has Isabelle literally stumbling into an actor after a performance, meeting a young and handsome Nicolas Duvauchelle, where they have a drink (where he amusingly consumes endless glasses of beer, continually handed one after another), and she eventually entices him back to her place, where the noncommittal back and forth verbiage is simply masterful, neither one wanting to reveal their hand, playing it coy, offering hints, but remaining vague, completely shifting positions, usually ending up doing the opposite of what they imply, where eventually, once they stop blabbering, they can’t take their hands off each other.  Awakening in sheer amazement at the stroke of good fortune, Isabelle is dumbfounded to discover the actor felt it was all a mistake, that whatever possibilities were there at the outset are now irretrievably gone, where this increasingly absurd dialogue is simply remarkable. 

Opening at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes, Denis prefers a lower profile, away from the flashiness of competition, where she reinvents herself with very new film, tackling the heartbeat of middle age, particularly strong-willed women who are still searching for a romance that works.  Other men her age, or from a similar class, tend to be noncommittal, already married with children or turned off by failed marriages, remaining skeptical about relationships altogether, just wanting the sex, yet for men, the idea of being with a beautiful woman is “always” a possibility, even if it’s only in their dreams.  One guy exemplifies this futile chase, always meeting her “by accident” in front of the fish market, inviting her to his newly rehabbed home in the country, to stay as long as she wishes, making it sound like his presence would be negligible.  While remaining polite, she routinely ignores him.  Perhaps the most exaggerated presence goes to Paul Blain, humorously resembling a world-weary Mick Jagger on the prowl, a man lurking in the shadows at a club that notices her when they play the classic Etta James ballad “At Last” Etta James - At Last - Lyrics - YouTube (3:04).  Sneaking up behind her, they have a dreamy but beautifully staged dance together without uttering a word, becoming a parody of what many women must expect.  Perhaps the true test of this film is combining the forces of Binoche and Gérard Depardieu, who publicly trashed her reputation as an actress, calling her “nothing” onscreen in a 2010 interview, Gerard Depardieu calls Juliette Binoche 'nothing' in provocative ..., while Binoche, for her part, says they had barely spoken more than a sentence or two together in her whole life, failing to understand his beef, though the bravado she expressed in 2014 Top Ten List #3 Clouds of Sils Maria seems to have been motivated, in part, by that public dispute, re-establishing her reputation as one of France’s finest actress.  While admittedly horrid in Bruno Dumont’s exaggerated comic misfire Slack Bay (Ma Loute) (2016), this is yet another resurrection that confirms she’s one of the best actresses working anywhere in the world today, bringing a unique vitality to her role, still vulnerable and easily wounded, as she has been throughout her career, yet able to fend off the best of them.  But what about working with Depardieu?  How would that play out?  Using the tricks of the trade, they were never filmed in the same shot, which means they were likely never on set together at the same time, yet they appear onscreen opposite one another, where Denis magically brings them both together in a spirit of unison.  Depardieu offers a lengthy monologue at the end as a somewhat devious fortune-teller describing her romantic journey, implanting hints that place him in contention with the rest of the pack, perhaps assuming the lead dog position after she’s had her fill of young pups, but never coming right out and saying it, allowing the audience to read between the lines.  As if proving unconventionality, the closing credits appear over this dialogue as it continues, creating a screen diversion, perhaps a metaphor for all the interruptions that effect our lives, seemingly banal, yet an accumulative force that can be sheer aggravation, preventing us from being whatever the hell it is we think we should be.         

Monday, October 23, 2017


Director Aaron Katz

GEMINI                     B+                                                      
US (92 mi) 2017  d:  Aaron Katz                   Official Facebook

Finally, a film playing at the film festival that is actually fun to watch.  Portland indie director Aaron Katz, the maker of COLD WEATHER (2010), seems to be amusing himself at the expense of the dreaded or perhaps hated Los Angeles (as viewed by everyone on the West coast that lives north of there), home of the nouveau riche with an arrogant, self-satisfied smugness, creating a film noir drama featuring women for a change, where it’s an absolute delight from start to finish, opening with upside down palm trees, mocking the southern California image and lifestyle.  Written, directed, and edited by Katz, which is his style, this is a beautifully conceived, well-written and gorgeous looking film, perhaps the director’s best effort yet. What’s interesting is that Katz as well as his musical composer Keegan DeWitt are both Oregonians transported to Los Angeles, where this film represents their first inkling of how it feels to live there, offering an impressionistic, neo-noir take that is irresistibly intoxicating, with a jazzy score underlying its stylish elegance.  Somewhere on the outskirts of LA as the sun is setting we find two friends in a car, actress Zoë Kravitz, alluring as always, playing Heather Anderson, a high-strung Hollywood actress who wants out of her latest project, while sitting alongside her is Lola Kirke as Jill LeBeau, her personal assistant, who receives an angry phone call from Heather’s ex-boyfriend, “Tell her I know what’s up.  Tell here to fuck off and I’m going to fucking murder her.”  Both tend to ignore this craziness as old news, instead focusing on the important matter at hand, as Heather wants Jill to do her dirty work for her, conveying her thoughts to the director, Greg (Nelson Franklin), who is waiting to meet her in an Italian restaurant to discuss the film.  While their personal banter is amusing, simply by the way they speak, almost in code, with Heather feeling especially vulnerable, but unable to deal with confrontation, and Jill resembling Greta Gerwig in her matter of fact style of delivery, where she plays the straight man to everyone else’s convoluted hysteria.  Greg, naturally, blows his top, but not before ordering two of every app (short for appetizer) on the menu, something this particular restaurant specializes in, but walks out in a huff before he has a chance to try it.  As if by design, Heather steps into his abandoned place at the table, joined by a rabidly interested fan (Jessica Parker Kennedy) who can’t get enough of Heather, gushing over her entire career, wanting to take selfies with her, which Heather, seemingly amused, has no problem with.  On their way out, the paparazzi descend upon them, especially Stan (James Ransone), a particularly obnoxious guy whose unethical practices match his scum personality. 

This little opening scene perfectly describes the world of celebrity, exposing the unique nature of friendships with assistants, where best friend and confidante only begins to describe their role, while also revealing a seedy side of Hollywood rarely portrayed in movies, showing a precarious relationship between stars and adoring, worshipping fans whose motives are entirely unclear.  As if to clear their heads, Jill and Heather are joined by Heather’s latest girlfriend, Tracy (Greta Lee), at some fashionable, late hour nightclub, with a color coded entrance reduced to slo-mo, where clearly visible is a “Gemini” zodiac tattoo on the back of Heather’s neck, all getting blitzed before the original two head back to Heather’s home, an immense, architecturally designed building that exudes a sleek, modern stylishness.  Strangely, the outdoor security motion detector light is triggered, but both are too tired and wasted, heading off to sleep.  Jill rises early, once again covering for Heather at planned reshoots, but before leaving, Heather confides that she feels unsafe and asks to borrow Jill’s handgun that she carries for protection, showing her how to use it before she goes, only to find Heather dead when she returns, shot five times with Jill’s gun, in a particularly gruesome scene.  The lead detective on the case, John Cho as Detective Ahn, is a savvy cop with a special charm, inviting her out for coffee where they can talk, then orders her a coffee even after she refuses and tells her to drink up, exhibiting more personality here than any other film, but he recognizes right away that Jill is the brains behind the operation, but also the lead suspect.  This unfortunate incident leads to a labrynthian journey to find the real killer and prove her innocence, as the cops are all over her home, leaving her no safe place of refuge, turning into an amateur sleuth on-the-run style of film, rounding up all the usual suspects while revisiting many of the familiar places of LA, including a ride through Mulholland Drive and the Hollywood hills, with that beautiful overlook of the city off in a distance glittering in lights.  Using his regular cinematographer, Andrew Reed, the city looks radiant on the surface, including an artfully designed color scheme, while highlighting a series of stunning architectural locations that accentuate a new, upscale Hollywood, interestingly filled with much younger clientele.  This actually has the feel of earlier Michael Mann films, as the artistic design fused with sophisticated jazz tones is striking, featuring the relaxed vibe of Southern California while accentuating the cool surface textures.  

What’s perhaps most remarkable is just how normal Jill seems, her adroit self-assurance, unbothered by all the pressure building up around her, as clearly she is an over achiever, yet prefers the anonymity of allowing someone else to shine, knowing they will be shown in the best possible light due to all the behind-the-scenes work that she puts in, taking care of all the little details, none of which are actually part of her job description.  At one point Detective Ahn asks where she’s from.  “Portland,” she responds, to which he inquires, “Maine or Oregon?”  These little asides are beautifully written and perfectly executed onscreen, with just the right timing and inflections.  Both Kirke and Cho give superb performances, always in balance as both ally and adversary, adding a contemporary demeanor for an updated, more laid back tribute to Raymond Chandler’s sleazy Los Angeles, where crime, betrayal and deception lurk around every corner, but instead of tough talk we get the common sense of a girl clever enough to figure things out.  While the first order of business is purchasing a disguise, Jill finds the most pretentiously cheap outfit imaginable, one that challenges anyone’s view of fashion sense, something of a knock on glamor in show business, bleaching her hair blonde (though it looks like a wig), adding a trench coat and silly hat, along with cheap sunglasses, looking pretty much as she did before in this surprisingly upbeat whodunit.  Humorously playing on character and identity, where Jill seems to be Heather’s other half, which hides her own persona, begging the question are things ever what they seem?  In this film, only Jill seems totally grounded in reality, while the world around her is a shape-shifter, constantly exchanging looks, discovering new identities with each new role, revealing yet another side to the media, exposing only what you want to expose, where charm is cynically scripted, hiding the real truth behind the scenes.  Similarly, there are baffling twists and turns ahead that may leave an audience perplexed and asking questions, yet following the clues, Jill’s persistence pays off, but not before her journey becomes a surprisingly fresh riff on hard-boiled detective capers, slyly subverting the genre, with Jill becoming the alter ego of the writer/director, where they seem to be in a running dialogue with each other in a kind of symbiotic relationship, literally matching wits with all the other characters.  At one point, decked out in black leather gear from head to toe, she seems to be the answer to a Russ Meyer fantasy.  Still, the pulsating rhythm and tone, along with the remarkable look of the film is attributable to the director in this brilliantly paced film, feeling electric at times, and always enjoyable, showing there’s no special tricks required for good filmmaking.