The bookshop

“Watching this film was like reading a good book”, a friend once said to me as we were coming out of a screening. “So, it was not like watching a film?”, I replied. When reviewing a film adapted from a literary work, I seldom have read the book before seeing the film. My opinion of the film is solely based on the film’s quality. A film is not a novel, there is no reason why they should be judged by the same standards. The bookshop, Isabel Coixet’s adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald’s popular 1978 novel, is set in 1959 in the fictional coastal town of Hardborough, Suffolk. Recently widowed Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) comes to town to open a bookshop in the Old house. Invited to a small reception given by Mrs. Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), Florence is told by Mrs. Gamart that she cannot open a bookshop. According to Gamart, nobody reads in Hardborough, except the reclusive Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy), who lives in the house at the top of the hill. And Gamart plans to open an arts centre in the Old house. Despite the warnings, Florence opens the shop. To assist her she hires Christine (the excellent Honor Kneafsey), a young feisty girl. Mr. Brundish starts writing letters asking Florence to send him books she thinks he might enjoy. She sends Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. He likes it and wants to read more from Bradbury. Then she sends Mr. Brundish Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to read, asking him if she should order more. The widow display featuring the scandalous book creates a small scandal. And it seems that everyone in town is conspiring against Florence and the bookshop, even people she thought were her friends. Meanwhile, Florence and Mr. Brundish meet and become friends, and even more. He vows to fight to keep the bookshop open. For the first quarter of the film there is a female narrator, that very literary device, telling us what the characters are feeling, what they are doing and why. A good film with a good screenplay does not need and should not have a narrator. (There are exceptions: Martin Scorcese’s The age of innocence) If there has to be one, it must be used with moderation. For a while you thought the whole film would be like that. I was happy when the narration was dropped. It almost seems as if this is based on a children’s novel. In fact Penelope Fitzgerald’s The bookshop is very thin (about 118 pages). The evil Mrs. Violet Gamart, as played by a scene stealing Patricia Clarkson, is a good example of apparent civility. impeccably dressed, always smiling, she never raises her voice. Why would she? She knows that she has complete control and that she’s going to win. Coixet is using a lot of bright colors in the costumes or in the sets. It reverts back to a more innocent time, well at least it had the appearance of innocence. The film is too artificial to be taken seriously and to be believable. And there is that narrator that still irks me. Whatever the reasons. Only for those who like watching films as if they were reading books.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

The bookshop

 

Directed by:
Isabel Coixet

Screenplay by:
Isabel Coixet
Based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald

Starring:
Emily Mortimer
Patricia Clarkson
Bill Nighy
Honor Kneafsey
James Lance

113 min.

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Le brio

How would I define the French word “brio”? I’d say “brilliance”. An actor’s gives a “tour-de-force performance”. Le brio is a modern-day French Pygmalion. You just replace the dirty flower girl by a French Arab girl, and the misogynist linguist by a racist law professor. Law student Neïla Salah (Camélia Jordana) arrives late on her first day of class. She is met by Professor Pierre Mazard (Daniel Auteuil), who goes on a racist rant in front of the entire amphitheatre. Some students boo him, others cheer him. A video winds up online and Mazard is given an ultimatum. Coach Neïla for the yearly “concours d’éloquence” (a competition where two law students argue opposing sides of an issue), or you’re fired. Mazard is a man who thinks that intellectual knowledge makes him better than everyone else. But he can cite Schopenhauer, Rabelais and Nietzsche, but he has no desire to interact with people he considers inferior to him. Particularly if they are Muslim. He puts on a good show for Neïla, who has no idea he’s doing it to save his job. Still, he teaches her how to win an argument. In Mazard world, it doesn’t matter if you lie, what matters is to convince. (We ear a lot of that these days.) He teaches the art of the well articulated insult. Neïla learns to articulate with a pen in her mouth, or to recite in a crowded Paris subway. At home in the suburb, Neïla loves Mounir. Through the coaching Professor Mazard and Neïla get to know each other. The acting from Jordana (charming) and Auteuil is great, and the screenplay is a good insight into France’s Islamophobia. But it’s so sugar-coated with “fun moments”, well spoken speeches in “good” French. In reality, racism is not fun, no matter how “good” your French is. This film is an apology for someone’s bad behaviors. I’m not buying it.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Le brio

 

Directed by:
Yvan Attal

Screenplay by:
Victor Saint Macary
Yaël Langmann
Yvan Attal
Noé Debré

Starring:
Daniel Auteuil
Camélia Jordana
Yasin Houicha
Jean-Baptiste Lafarge

95 min.

In French with English subtitles.

Puzzle

Puzzle starts with suburban housewife Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) preparing for a birthday party. She has decorated her house with balloons. She bakes a cake, lights the candles and brings out the cake. It’s only when she blows the candles that you realise that it’s her own birthday party. She has done all the work to her own birthday party. She had no help from her auto mechanic husband Louie (David Denman) and her two grown sons, Ziggy and Gabe (Bubba Weiler and Austin Abrams). Among the gift she got there was a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. When she sits down to do the puzzle, she finishes it quickly, and wants to start another one. She’s emotionally invested in it for several reasons: it’s a time she can spend on herself and a thing that is her own unusual passion, while she puzzles, Agnes (who mentions that she was a good math student) mathematically works out how to solve the pieces, and it helps her concentrate, think out about her own life, the pieces of her own puzzle, and how the people she loves take her for granted. Agnes lives in a very conservative Catholic community, who expect things to be in their proper places and remain the same. When Agnes finds out that the puzzle store is in New York, a place she almost never visits, she seems to be scared to go there. But nevertheless, she takes the train and goes to the store. We’re surprised when Agnes answers an add about a puzzle competition, and she goes to meet champion Robert (Irrfan Khan). He tells her that he needs new partner for a national puzzle competition. She accepts but lies to her family about where she spends her afternoon. At home, Ziggy, her older son tells her he wants to become a restaurant chef rather than a mechanic like his dad wants him to be. Bur Ziggy is too scared to tell Louie. Meanwhile, Agnes and Robert are getting closer. Puzzle is a remake of the 2009 film Rompecabezas from Argentinean director Natalia Smirnoff. Its main draw is actress Kelly Macdonald, who gives so many layers of complexities to her character that she is quite difficult to figure out what she’s going to do next. Agnes is so confidently awkward. Like the Church lady once said to me as she was laughing “I’m anal retentive!”. She was defying my expectations. That’s what Puzzle is doing. Not a masterpiece, but good enough.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Puzzle

 

Directed by:
Marc Turtletaub

Screenplay by:
Oren Moverman
Polly Mann
Based on the film Rompecabezas by Natalia Smirnoff

Starring:
Kelly Macdonald
Irrfan Khan
David Denman
Bubba Weiler
Austin Abrams

103 min.

Rated 14A

Under the tree (Undir trénu)

In the 1929 comedy classic Big business, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy play door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen. Their potential client (played James Finlayson) becomes so annoyed by their repeated attempts to sell him a tree, that he starts clipping the tree. Stan and Ollie retaliate by doing some damage to the man’s house. The man then turns his attention to Stan and Ollie’s car. And they do that until there is no car and no house. I thought about Big business a lot as I was watching Under the tree, a dark comedy from Iceland. The feud this time is between neighbors. Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) and Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), an elderly couple, have a tree growing in their backyard. Their house is attached to Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) and Eybjorg’s house. The tree is casting a shadow on their lawn, and Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) requests that the tree be trimmed so that she could sunbathe. But Inga hates the too perfect Eybjorg and refuses to have the tree trimmed. Meanwhile, Inga and Baldvin’s adult son, Atli (Steinþor Hróar Steinþórsson), has been kicked out by his wife when she caught him watching a video of Atli having sex with her best friend. So he moves back with his parents while he’s fighting for custody of his four-year-old daughter. Fighting is the right word. He shows up unannounced at the kindergarden, leaves with his daughter without permission, brings her back late and harasses his wife, Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir) at work. Like mother like son. Inga becomes paranoid. Everything the neighbors do is suspicious, especially Eybjorg. The truth is that both Inga and Atli are still coping with the recent tragic death of the eldest son, Atli’s brother. When her beloved cat disappears, Inga is sure Eybjorg is responsible. Konrad and Eybjorg have a dog, she could maybe… Under the tree is full of bad people behaving badly. And, thanks to Edda Björgvinsdóttir’s deadpan performance, Inga is one of those classic neighbors from hell. But this is not as funny as Laurel and Hardy’s Big business (Not even close). It is definitely more drama than comedy, but its strong suit is the dark humour. And the last shot is one of the funniest ending I’ve ever seen. Some people might not like the darkness (Warning: Not for every stomachs.), but I did find Under the tree to be most refreshing.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Under the tree (Undir trénu)

 

Directed by:
Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

Screenplay by:
Huldar Breiðfjörð
Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

Starring:
Steinþor Hróar Steinþórsson
Edda Björgvinsdóttir
Sigurður Sigurjónsson
Þorsteinn Bachmann
Selma Björnsdóttir
Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir

89 min.

In Icelandic with English subtitles.

McQueen

Most of us know next to nothing about British fashion designer Alexander McQueen. But after seeing Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s documentary we now perceive McQueen as a brilliant conceptual artist, and not simply as a fashion icon. His runway shows were so dark and controversial. He titled his graduation collection Jack the ripper stalks his victims. The clothes had been sewn with bright red threads, lines of blood was running through the fabric. A later collection called Highland rape had models wearing ripped clothes, their hairs dishevelled. In the film we discover that as a child, Lee (as family and close friend called him. His full name was Lee Alexander McQueen.) was sexually abused by his brother-in-law, his sister Janet’s husband. Janet, who is interviewed in the film, confirms that. Other family members, close friends, lovers, boyfriends and collaborators talk about the darkness he carried with him throughout his life. Later, when he went to Paris to work for Givenchy, he was a bit more conventional. A bit! If you can call a double amputee model walking down the catwalk on carved wooden legs “conventional”. In one spectacular moment a model wearing a strapless white dress is standing on a rotating section of the catwalk and, while she is rotating, the dress is being sprayed by two robotic paint guns. VOSS, his 2001 catwalk, was insane. It was set in a padded room with mirrors, the models were acting as if they were crazy, pieces from the clothes were falling on the floor. A glass room was in the middle of the runway. Inside, it was revealed later, (when the glass walls came crashing down and breaking on the floor) there was a naked obese woman on a chaise longue wearing only a gas mask. One reviewer called it “the best pieces of fashion theatre I have ever witnessed.” “Fashion theatre” is I think a fitting description for what McQueen was doing. But McQueen was a troubled man. Troubled by too much drugs, the failure of his love life and the suicide of his mentor, Isabella Blow. What is clear in McQueen is that he was a genius and that, at 40 in 2010, he died too soon. We are grateful, through this documentary, to get a peek into his artistry and his brilliant mind.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

McQueen

 

Directed by:
Ian Bonhôte
Peter Ettedgui

Screenplay by:
Peter Ettedgui

111 min.

Rated 14A

Rodin

In 1880 French sculptor Auguste Rodin is 40 year-old. That year, he gets a commission from the French government to produce The gates of hell, which will include two of his most famous masterpieces The kiss and The thinker. Although Rodin (Vincent Lindon) loves his wife/partner, Rose (Séverine Caneele), he has a ten years tumultuous affair with his student Camille Claudel (Izïa Higelin). Rodin and Claudel seems to be fighting a lot. Elsewhere, many of Rodin works are monuments of French literary figures of the time. A commissioned monument of Victor Hugo was unfinished. It is interesting to see Rodin attempting to make a statue of French novelist Honoré de Balzac. First the rotund Balzac is represented naked, with his genitals fully exposed. Then Rodin has the bizarre instinct of covering the naked plaster-cast with a cape drenched with plaster. This monument was controversial at the time (1891), probably because it was outside of the norm. I found Rodin mildly interesting when we see him at work. But the off and on love affair between Rodin and Claudel is boring. There is too much talk. A unintereting talk-fest.

Rémi-Serge Gratton

Rodin

 

Directed by:
Jacques Doillon

Screenplay by:
Jacques Doillon

Starring:
Vincent Lindon
Izïa Higelin
Séverine Caneele
Edward Akrout

119 min.

In French with English subtitles