Saturday, November 9, 2013

Blue Is The Warmest Colour

When a Steven Spielberg-led jury awarded the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or to Blue Is The Warmest Colour earlier this year, it served as yet another example of how meteoric a film's rise at Cannes can be. Not selected as an early favorite, the film had become a frontrunner by Festival's end, and the jury took the unprecedented extra step of awarding the Palme to both director Abdellatif Kechiche and stars Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. I've been particularly excited to see the film, and was particularly pleased at the idea of a film depicting a same-sex relationship getting such a positive response. Even as it becomes much more common, it's just not the kind of thing that happens often enough.

The film tells the story of Adele, a high school student, and Emma, a senior in college, as they meet, fall in love, and make an attempt at "happily ever after." It's a common enough story, but the way it's told is what sets it apart both positively and negatively. 

It's hard to get around the fact that Blue Is The Warmest Colour is knocking at the door of a 3 hour running time, with all of the potential for positives and pitfalls that such length engenders. The film gets off to a strong start by focusing clearly on the beginning of 17-year-old Adele's exploration of same-sex attraction. There's a wonderfully effective scene in which she's forced to come to grips with the divide between her own feelings about a classmate and that classmate's feelings for her. I also really enjoyed the way that Adele and Emma first start circling each other. Emma's older and clearly has a much richer life experience, to say nothing of her sexual history. Despite that, she treats Adele with tenderness and affection without seeming to be predatory or self-serving. When they first kiss, it's Adele that initiates it, and it works beautifully. 

Unfortunately, after a really nicely paced first hour or so that strikes a really nice tone, the film starts to veer off the rails with missed opportunities, poor stylistic choices, and some rather silly mistakes. After an extended period in which the particulars of their relationship aren't entirely up for public dissemination, the characters are suddenly depicted as being having been together for a year or two. It's a big jump with a lot of ramifications that aren't even touched. It seems strange that a film this long should have have what amounts to a missing section. 

Then, once we arrive in domestic bliss and things start to go wrong, there's a level of hypocrisy that I found really annoying. I'll try to be vague. One character gets extremely angry at another for behavior that she herself had been part and parcel to at least once before and is probably guilty of at the same time . . . and it's not even mentioned once, even though it's the logical end to that or some other conversation. While this might be claimed that this is the kind of thing that real people actually do, I'd disagree that the average person wouldn't stand up for himself/herself as much as possible by fighting fire with fire. For the film to go to such lengths to ensure that this discrepancy isn't even mentioned seems to be a really silly mistake, and an unnecessary exploitation of the character who's made a martyr. 

Additionally, one of the things that hinders Blue Is The Warmest Colour is the very thing that's supposed to set it apart. The sex scenes. While I've spoken out against the MPAA's unfair use of the NC-17 rating with regard to films like Blue Valentine, this time the adult rating is entirely deserved. 

I'm a strong proponent of the idea that almost any word or theme can be used appropriately given the right context. That said, the sex scenes in this one are pornographic. Simple as that. I find it very difficult to imagine that they were entirely simulated, given the graphic depiction of a number of different sex acts and how up close and personal the actors are. I'm not suggesting that pornography is indecent so much as that if I'd wanted porn, I'd have just watched porn. 

For me, the purpose of a dramatic narrative isn't to imitate "real life" or try to titillate the senses  for its own sake. I have no problem with a little titillation and some discomfort when I'm watching a film . . . if it works in context. While I want to have a bit of a character's life experience illuminated for me in a such a way that either helps me put my own thoughts into context or encourages me to explore new ideas, I do not like to be made to feel like I'm staring. 

A few minutes into the major sex scene in Blue Is The Warmest Colour, I started to ask myself what purpose the filmmaker was trying to serve by showing me that amount of raw sex. Does he think that nobody knows how people have sex? Does he think that nobody understands how two women have sex? By the time that the film enters the second extended sex scene (not long after the first!), I rolled my eyes in despair.

It would have been far more effective to show the characters having sex without showing the actors having sex. Nothing would have been lost except for an unnecessarily high level of the "shock factor" that the film tries unsuccessfully to bank on, and it would have gained so much more from a more restrained approach. In contrast to Emma and Adele's first two sex scenes, there's a scene in which the two women have sex in Adele's house and try to keep quiet so that her parents don't realize that they're a couple. It's tender, caring, and so, so sweet. What makes this scene work isn't an overabundance of graphic sex. It's the loving interaction between Adele and Emma. This 3 minute love scene was infinitely more satisfying than either of the overlong sex scenes that preceded it.

Similarly, there's another silly use of sex that strikes entirely the wrong tone. Toward the end of the film, there's an almost unbelievable scene between the two women in which they nearly have sex in a (very!) public place. For a restaurant to have instantaneously emptied or suddenly been filled with deaf/blind patrons seemed utterly ridiculous and wasted some wonderfully tender dialogue from earlier in the scene. 

Ultimately, while the film has two strong lead performances and some truly lovely photography from Sofian El Fani, I think that the blame for the film's missteps should lie at the feet of writer Ghalia Lacroix and writer/director Abdellatif Kechiche. Had this same story been tackled from a different angle thematically and stylistically, particularly with regard to the ridiculous sex scenes, I think that it would have been infinitely more successful. 

It's not that Adele and Emma's story isn't a worthy one. It's just that the way it's told makes it difficult to focus on the truth of their relationship. When I'm sitting in the theater trying to communicate telepathically with the characters about extremely basic things that they ought to be thinking about, I think it's a sign that somebody didn't think things through as well as he/she might have. The French title, The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 & 2, implies that there's going to be a sequel, which it's safe to say I don't feel a lot of enthusiasm toward. Here's hoping that, if the story continues, it does so in a way that serves these two characters much better.

A big swing and an unfortunate miss.

2 stars (out of 5)

Click on the titles below for my thoughts on the previous 3 Palme d'Or winners and click here for more reviews of Cannes titles and Festival awards coverage.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

New Orleans Film Festival

Tennessee Williams once said that only San Francisco, New York, and New Orleans were American cities and that everywhere else was some variation of Cleveland. After checking New Orleans off the list, I'm inclined to believe him, though I hold off some strange kind of soft spot for Los Angeles, the megacity of my nearest acquaintance, despite my dislike for the place.

Where to begin?

Upon arrival in New Orleans, I found myself at a "bounce party," which would seem to have something to say about both the bounce house in the center of one room and the music blasting out on the dance floor. Seemingly possessed by the spirit of Miley Cyrus, the "twerk" was the dance move of choice, though I have to give greater props to both the tequila slushy and the Dat Dog that I consumed relatively quickly. Let me tell you, that is one proper hot dog! As far as my own dance moves went, I've always found Will Smith's advice in Hitch about the step-touch-and-snap to be the single best way to go on any dance floor.

Now, onto the movies . . .

First and foremost, our purpose there was to promote the NOFF's two screenings of Bible Quiz, but we had plenty of time to catch a handful of screenings.

Animated Shorts - Whenever I attend a Festival, I try to make a point of going to the Animated Shorts program. For one, it's usually one of the most enjoyable screenings of the entire Festival ('cause who doesn't like to feel like they're 8 years old again?), and it tends to provide a really exciting look at the work of some wonderfully talented people who may not get the recognition that they deserve. We arrived a little late due to attending the filmmaker brunch/awards presentation, but get this . . . the brunch was held in Mardi Gras World amidst all the floats! So, while we missed a few films, I got a chance to see a float that's either the BatBoat or the BatPlane (I'm still not sure). I think I win.

My favorite animated shorts tend to have a tightly focused narrative, are a lot of fun, and don't overstay their welcome. To that end, I was a little surprised to find that a significant segment of the program was devoted to films that were extremely anticlimactic. From a programming standpoint, it seemed a bit odd that they'd all been placed back-to-back-to-back as opposed to being spread out to allow the audience some time to cleanse its palate. 

Here are my four favorites from the program. As an added bonus, I was able to find almost all of them online for you, so click on the title to watch the film or see a trailer!
  • Head Over Heels - Easily my favorite film in the program. It's a lovely look about a man who lives on the floor and a woman who lives on the ceiling and the way that they rediscover how much they love each other. Claymation isn't normally my favorite form of animation, but this really worked for me. There's serious magic at work here, folks.

  • Chicken Or The Egg - Heartfelt hilarity. This one's about a pig who's addicted to eating eggs . . . until he falls in love with a beautiful hen. Let's just say that he's got some difficult adjustments to make. Directors Elaine Wu and Christine Kim never step wrong here, and I'm excited to see where this one's going.

  • Shelved - A great combination of live action and superimposed CGI. A bumbling duo of factory robots are taxed with getting a coworker's farewell card signed only to find that they're all being replaced . . . by humans! 

  • The Sunshine Egg - 6 minutes of avian existentialism, introspection, and liberation.
Feature Documentaries - 

  • The Whole Gritty City - Programming this one was a no brainer for the NOFF, as it takes a look at New Orleans' rich tradition of connecting young people and marching bands. The film looks at the way that the marching bands from L.E. Rabouin High School, O. Perry Walker High School, and the Roots of Music provide a source of structure for the kids participating in the program. Each program is blessed with a charismatic band director, and the contrasting ways that each man chooses to operate his program provides for some of the film's most interesting bits. 

    However, while The Whole Gritty City has a lot of passion for its subject, the film's narrative isn't as focused as it should be to achieve maximum emotional impact. For example, there's a character that's introduced near the very end of the film only to be killed off after about 20 minutes. Had this character been a more consistent part of the film, his death could have been a true climax to the film, instead of the almost arbitrary way that it's almost tossed in to cap off the narrative. 

    While the film's compelling enough and has some really great sequences, (including a FANTASTIC rendition of "Stand By Me" by a gargantuan band), it doesn't really manage to be much more than just all right despite its aspirations for greatness. 
Feature Films - 
  • Nebraska - I was particularly excited to see that NOFF had the newest film from Alexander Payne, the writer/director of SidewaysThe Descendants, and About Schmidt. As the film was completely sold out, we weren't sure if we'd be able to get in, but some time in the rush line, good luck, and our stunning good looks won the day for us.
    Unfortunately, the film's a bit of a dud. Phedon Papamichael's black-and-white photography is lovely, but with the exception of Bruce Dern's solid performance, the whole thing has its tongue so firmly embedded in cheek that it's just about to be sticking out the other end. Essentially, if one was going to try to write a campy parody of life in small town Montana, this is exactly the kind of dialogue that would result. Now, if the performances were better, the material might have worked, but the actors play the jokey material in the most stereotypical way possible. There's a scene where Dern's son meets his father's high school sweetheart, and it's written and played EXACTLY the way that you'd expect from a writer trying to have a little fun at the expense of these small town folks. Unfortunately, while the second half rebounds from the lackluster start, too much of Nebraska feels tone-deaf instead of hitting home.

  • A Will For The Woods - this one was an emotional roller coaster like few films I've seen in recent years. Tackling "green burial," a topic I knew next to nothing about, through the eyes of Clark Wang, a man I'd never heard of, the filmmakers have a clear vision of exactly what they want to say and they're adept at painting a good picture of a vibrantly funny guy.

    Where the film goes wrong (though I hesitate to use that word) is in its relentlessly sad final act. It's obvious from the outset that lymphoma will kill Clark, but his family and friends grieve in such a way as to make their sorrow almost tangible. I could literally hear the people around me breaking down, and eventually, I was one of them.

    I certainly don't have anything against a filmmaker attempting to tackle subject matter that's not sunshine and rainbows, but the way that the film lingers on grief becomes, albeit unintentionally, almost morbid. They wash, anoint, and sing to the body and his widow sleeps next to the casket on an air mattress in the living room. 

    I'm certainly not saying that everyone's expression of grief is or should be the same. If you're doing what works for you, it's not my place to tell you that you should be doing something different. . . but given my recent past, this film was just too persistently sad for me to be able to recommend, despite the fact that it's very well-made.

Going to a Festival with a film's team instead of being there just to scout films was a really interesting experience. I was able to take in a lot of the city and was very lucky to have my good friends Nicole and Katie there to share it with. I'm really grateful to have been invited to be a part of the Bible Quiz tour, and that the audience proved so responsive to the film!

Having the opportunity to eat beignets at Cafe Du Monde, drink Hurricanes at Pat O'Brien's, and eat po' boys and muffelattas and watch the sunset over the Mississippi and watch a group of midnight drunks try desperately to find the beat to "Bohemian Rhapsody" and wander the streets of the French Quarter in search of a veggie po' boy and make sermons out of pop songs and find ourselves at a square dance on a Monday night . . . was fantastic! We also just might have been the people walking down the street (sober!) with the lyrics to Lorde's "Royals" pulled up on somebody's cell phone in order to serenade whoever might have been listening. 

Yep, that was definitely us. 


I'll be attending AFI Fest (my favorite fest!) next week and will be posting a wrap-up of the films I see when I get back, so keep a weather eye out for that!