Info

Art Opinions

Posts tagged The New French Extreme

““Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
― Ernst F. Schumacher

If ever a filmmaker has attempted to avoid moving his films in a conventional and contrived manner, it would be Benoît Jacquot. This is a film director who aims for realism without offering much in the area of character motivation or any level of explanation regarding the choices, actions and behavior of the character(s.) This mode of pursuit is not unique, but when it comes to several of Jacquot’s films it is an essential choice. This is a choice that many embrace but often more try to reject. And yet, Jacquot’s often quirkily passionate films have a way of lingering on in our memory. They should not be easily dismissed.

Pas de scandale / Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquet, 1999

Pas de scandale / Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquet, 1999

I had just hit my 30’s when I first volunteered for both The Boston Film Festival and the then fairly newly established Boston French Film Festival. I knew a great deal about movies and was not dazed by the idea of “celebrity.” Not one to be intimidated or one to be intimidating in my communications, over a couple of years I began to be offered more interesting opportunities. Sadly, my professional life prevented me from becoming too involved. Even still these were eye-opening experiences.

Appropriately titled... À ma soeur! Catherine Breillat, 2001

Appropriately titled…
À ma soeur!
Catherine Breillat, 2001

One film that had come to the attention of both festivals was Benoît Jacquot’s Pas de scandal (or No Scandal.) Jacquot was most assuredly established within the world of International Cinema. His 1995 film, A Single Girl, which attempted to adhere to the style set forth by Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, had been embraced. Any discussion of A Single Girl without reference to the La Nouvelle Vague would be a crucial mistake. Another crucial aspect of Jacquot’s A Single Girl that must be mentioned is it’s complex simplicity. Virginie Ledoyen’s “Valerie” is not dealing with her immortality as Varda’s “Cleo.”

This is not to say that Valerie doesn’t have a great deal on her mind. Just starting a new and often humiliating job at a swank hotel, she is pregnant and increasingly stubborn in not wanting marriage or support from the child’s father. This independent choice is not so much a statement of Valerie’s individuality as much as it is tied to a young woman’s often irrational and immature reaction(s) to the situations into which she finds herself. She is rebellious. She is determined. She is manipulative. She can be cruel. She can be kind. She is intelligent. Most of all, she is unpredictable.

La fille seule / A Single Girl Benoît Jacquot, 1995

La fille seule / A Single Girl
Benoît Jacquot, 1995

As Jacquot follows Valerie throughout her first day of new employment, it is filmed in “real” time. Whatever we learn about his central character is largely limited to the way she pursues her day. And the way she pursues it does not always make logical sense. But how many of our own actions are consistently logical? This film arrived at just the right time to catch audiences attentions. The film was highly valued despite a number of production goofs. One of the main issues with A Single Girl is the low-budget style of filming on the busy streets of Paris. In more than a few scenes we see Parisians and tourists staring at the camera and small film crew. It didn’t matter, the lead actor’s presence, beauty and skill merged with Benoit Jacquot’s story and camera were a perfect match. And it wasn’t the bearing of mortality that made the film interesting. It was the often mundane interactions which Valerie often imposes an odd will and assertion that made the awkward all the more strange.

La fille seule was correctly translated to A Single Girl. It was quickly learned that the title for this film’s North American release was to be retitled Keep It Quiet. Yet another odd choice within the realm of foreign film translation to English title choices. My votes for the two most achingly bad translation titles remains Chabrol’s brilliant Merci pour le chocolat which became Night Cap and Breillat’s À ma soeur! which was changed to Fat Girl.

An inappropriate title for North American distribution... Fat Girl Catherine Breillat, 2001

An inappropriate title for North American distribution…
Fat Girl
Catherine Breillat, 2001

A problematic choice to say the least, To My Sister! would have been a far more appropriate title. At the time, it almost felt like the North American distributors seemed to think that Breillat’s disturbing film was not provocative enough!?! The American title leaves an unintended extra sour taste in the mouth. Yet nothing could eclipse the brilliance of this angry and potent 2001 film. À ma soeur! or Fat Girl, an essential chapter in The New French Extreme shocks with a purpose. No title can change that. Sadly, the North American title of Night Cap assigned to Chabrol’s profoundly Hitchcockian bit of dark humor and suspense did confuse many a potential ticket buyer back in the day of its initial release. Merci pour le chocolat appeared to be a quiet and intellectual drama. It was a very poor marketing choice for one of the cinematic master’s finest later works.

However, Keep it Quiet was a surprisingly solid title translation choice for Jacquot’s strange little film. If ever a film appears to excude French culture, it is 1999’s Pas de scandal. The film is simple, yet deeply complex. It concerns a family of wealth. There is a bold honesty constantly at play, but continually muted. The characters carry intellectual, mildly quirky and stylistic personas thanks to their physicality, actions and nuanced glances. Keep It Quiet has an interesting air of sophistication, elegance, intelligence and emotional distance.

Please, whatever you do, do not cause a scene in public. Isabelle Huppert and Fabrice Luchini do not need much in the way of dialogue to express the complex and illogical of their choices and actions. Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Please, whatever you do, do not cause a scene in public.
Isabelle Huppert and Fabrice Luchini do not need much in the way of dialogue to express the complex and illogical of their choices and actions.
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

What makes Keep It Quiet unique is that while it is all of these things, it is not verbally articulate. One of the film’s core concepts is that none of the three main characters seem to know how to communicate or even remotely articulate their respective feelings and thoughts. The result is a surprisingly charming and sad family study in which the characters act like human bumper-cars. The characters are constantly bumping into each other, but are careful to never crash. No car is completely thrown off the road. However, it is plain to see that all of them would most likely prefer that to staying the course that their respective personal choices, compulsions and obsessions have sent them speeding down an uncertain road.

Released in France and Europe as Pas de scandale (obvious meaning being No Scandal) the film fared well commercially and even better from a film criticism standpoint. But even though the film is blessed with the appearance of rightfully respected International Film Star, Isabelle Huppert, it was barely released in North America. A quick debut at The Toronto Film Festival and a very limited screening in a few major American cities, the film went unnoticed. Part of the challenge faced with marketing this highly innovative film was the fact that it avoided exploration of the transgressive. There is no real violence to speak of, a very brief scene of nudity and sexuality and none of the extremities that French Film was becoming known for a the time. And while the American title makes sense, it is hardly an attention grab.

Fabrice Luchini Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Fabrice Luchini
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

Fabrice Luchini plays one of two brothers from a French family of considerable wealth and power. The eldest and more business savvy of the two, he has taken over the family business. He has been responsible in building the business into what appears to be an International Empire. Interestingly, we never learn much about the family business beyond it is powerful and creates a great deal of money. While the business has flourished under the elder brother’s leadership, he made some morally and illegal decisions that have caused him to be convicted and serve a time in prison. It is never actually stated what criminal action Gregoire Jeancourt has committed, we determine it was significant enough to cause an national scandal. One could even argue that it is unclear if Luchini’s character actually committed the crime or simply took the fall for the family.

The film begins with his first day freed from prison. Fabric Luchini sits passively with a cup of tea in a cafe. His face has a child-like level of curiosity with hints of sadness. When Isabelle Huppert enters the cafe, we see Luchini’s face light up with hope. Huppert is clearly moved, but it is unclear as to which emotional direction she is moving. Both are uncomfortable. Huppert’s Agnes presents a pleasant but fully removed presence. Yet when she starts to speak Agnes reveals there is a great deal just beneath her distant surface. It is only through an awkward bit of conversing that we realize this is Gregoire’s wife. This is the first time they have seen each other since his imprisonment and declaration of corporate guilt. Agnes’ attitude toward her husband quickly becomes a basic assumption projected onto Gregoire: he seems disoriented, confused and perhaps even a bit insane.

Sighing and lost between the struts and flirts.. Vincent Lindon Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Sighing and lost between the struts and flirts..
Vincent Lindon
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

The younger brother is played by Vincent Lindon who for a never explained reason(s) was pushed out of the family business altogether excepting a share of the profits. In the meantime, Louis Jeancourt has firmly established himself as nationally admired TV Chat Show host which aims to be intellectually challenging vs. the normal exploitive aim of most popular chat shows. He has lived his live as a playboy. Ever flirting and seemingly ever uncomfortable with any level of romantic commitment. Even more odd than his sister-in-law, he appears to be more than a little uncomfortable with his elder sibling’s release from prison. Less concerned with “seeing” his brother or offering a greeting, Louis is only concerned with how the public will perceive Gregoire and their family name. Like almost every character in Gregoire’s pre-prison life, his brother thinks that there is something emotionally disturbed about his older brother.

Gregoire’s beautiful wife treats him with an icy demeanor and is more concerned with getting to her beauty salon than catching up with her husband. She is even more clear that she holds no sexual interest, when she surrenders to his sexual needs she seems shocked that his focus is more on giving pleasure than taking. No words of this brief, intimate but non-explicit scene are offered, but it seems clear that Agnes is more shocked than aroused by the experience. The husband and wife seem to constantly be in situations in which each wants to state something of emotional importance. Neither are able to do this. Never clearly stated, it would seem that Agnes remains out of duty but her husband yearns to express his love and need for her. In one of the film’s more oddly powerful moments, he tries to make his wife listen to his planned comments for an upcoming national interview. Agnes puts out that she is far too busy to sit and listen to his speech. But when it emerges that the real reason he is wants her attention is not to actually review planned statements but to offer her his personal declaration of love.  When we see a bit of his interview he sits in awkward but oddly comfortable silence. Immune to the questions regarding his guilt and corporate gaul, he simply looks out as if focused on something off in the distance.

The wife and the would-be-mistress remain kind and gentle, but an undercurrent of resentment is just hanging like a vague threat above both of them. Isabelle Huppert and Vahina Giocante Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

The wife and the would-be-mistress remain kind and gentle, but an undercurrent of resentment is just hanging like a vague threat above both of them.
Isabelle Huppert and Vahina Giocante
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

Benoit Jacquot fully employs the use of Olivier Lebé’s lush musical score. The film’s score if of import because during the first half of the film is seems in opposition to the images warmly captured by Romain Winding’s cinematography. Most of all the ambitious and gushing score seems far too musically emotive for the film’s characters and story. As the film develops toward it’s ending point this mismatched music begins to not only work, but has a schism-like impact that fits in nicely with what becomes both a passionate and cleverly intellectual film.

Gregoire may very well be having a sort of emotional break, but it is more likely that time away from his life has given him pause to reappraise his priorities. As he attempts to find a way to fit back into his life, he once again must reappraise his connections to family and his firm. There is nothing at all simple about this movie. Vincent Lindon’s Louis is deeply wounded, limited and afraid of life. He seems to hide behind his public persona to shield himself from having to significantly connect to anyone. Agnes is not the icy and distant woman she seems trying to be. Instead we begin to see that she is a loving and caring mother. We also see that while her love for her husband may be forever tarnished, there is love there. As we see she and her younger brother-in-law interact there is an increasingly uneasy feeling that their relationship has at some point taken a turn for the inappropriate. None of this is ever clearly discussed or validated, but there is a sense that Agnes’ concern for Louis goes far deeper than that of a sister-in-law. In another of the film’s most powerful moments, she and Louis meet for a cup of coffee. As Louis works up the courage to reveal a surprising truth, her intellectual reaction is both filled with humor and logic. Her physical reaction and his to her reveals something far deeper. Is her brother-in-law the actual father of one of she and Gregoires’ children? Or, is there some deeply real romantic desire between them that must remain unexplored?

Is there more here than meets the eyes? Isabelle Huppert and Vincent Lindon Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Is there more here than meets the eyes?
Isabelle Huppert and Vincent Lindon
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

And as Gregoire’s patience with his family’s dismissal of him as disoriented or a bit insane wears thin, we see him reach out to a young woman who seems less interested than intrigued by his advances. At an uncomfortable and awkward family dinner we realize that Gregoire is far more aware of himself than others are giving him credit. He seems to prefer the company of strangers because he might find more honesty and less animosity. Jacquot’s film takes an unexpected final act twist when the wife finally steps forward with a single sentence that propels the audience to a new understanding of not only the family and the scandal: it provides us with a satisfying conclusion that explains more than it attempts to answer our questions. These actors have not just been playing characters in a story — they have slipped into the personas of the human condition. Suddenly the idea of a plot seems less important than the idea of having watched intelligent and well-intended people wandering confused through a challenging situation. Keep It Quiet is a bluntly realistic film that often pushes against ideas of logic and story-telling. Sometimes the human condition makes little sense from outside perception or even personal introspection. Nothing here is black or white. Nothing is simple, but all the complexities are presented with simple precision. Every shot of this film seems carefully planned. Benoit Jacquot has simply presented the complex.

"Go after him." Vincent Lindon and Isabelle Huppert Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

“Go after him.”
Vincent Lindon and Isabelle Huppert
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

Jacquot seems to be studying the unstated and the unseen. The film is at once limited within it’s own odd universe, yet is a constant reminder that these characters are not as odd as they appear. Does a spouse who has faced public ridicule and inspection due to the other spouse’s criminal activity automatically rush forward to embrace said life partner as soon as he is released from jail? Or does the experiences of dealing with a public scandal fill her with a sort of dread and discomfort at welcoming her husband home? Does the newly freed husband become angry or does this reaction cause further escalation of disorientation? Does his celebrity chat host little brother rush with open arms to his older brother who has just served a year in prison? Or like his sister-in-law, is he apprehensive and perhaps even angry for PR nightmares that the brother’s actions have caused?

Taking Existentialism to a whole other kind of level... Fabrice Luchini Keep It Quiet Benoît Jacquot, 1999 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Taking Existentialism to a whole other kind of level…
Fabrice Luchini
Keep It Quiet
Benoît Jacquot, 1999
Cinematography | Romain Winding

More to the point: Are all three people suddenly dropped into a disturbing situation with which none of them know how to deal?  For a film with very little dialogue that deals directly with the core concerns of it’s characters, Keep It Quiet is startling revealing and confoundingly curious. And in a rare moment of clarity, the North American title translation is actually better than the French film’s original title. This is not a film about scandal or the need to hide or defend it. This is a film about human beings who are unable to open up to each other. And in some cases, even unable to open up to themselves.

After making Keep It Quiet, Benoit Jacquot seemed to turn his attention to costume or period pieces. Most notably the exquisite 2012’s Farewell My Queen, which focused on the final days prior to the French Revolution through the eyes and experiences of one of Marie Antoinette assigned court readers. This film was extremely well-crafted and garnished a great deal of praise. But in 2009, he had returned to the complicated waters of human identity with his adaptation of Pascal Quignard’s novel, Villa Amalia. A fascinating and often stunning film, this movie was primarily focused on capturing another carefully textured performance from Isabelle Huppert. Despite the costumes, eras or the cinematic intentions, all of Jacquot’s films are closely tied to the unpredictability of human nature and the often absence of logic. In September of 2014, his 3 Hearts premiered in North America at the Toronto Film Festival.

3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014

3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014

In the past decade universally-shared languages has evolved to the point where foreign distribution to North America no longer seems to require odd “translations” for titles and improved subtitles. So much so that it made me chuckle when US distributors felt it necessary to release Jacquot’s 3 coeurs to 3 Hearts, but the title translation failed to aid the film in securing a decent US release. Despite screenings at one other US film festival, this film was largely limited to only a few larger US cities.

It is not surprising that this strange little film received mixed reviews and reactions. Despite the fact that there is a most certain connection to Leo McCarey’s 1950’s classic, An Affair to Remember, it seems many were unable to accept the idea of bizarre coincidences or odd logic to a romantic story. However, my initial response to a screening of this film last year left me somewhat conflicted. So confused was my response to 3 Hearts that it has taken me this long to comment on the strange film. It took another four viewings before I was able to clearly sort through my own issues with the film. One thing remained solidly in my mind from the first screening, this is a Benoit Jacquot movie. In fact, this might be Jacquot at his most unfettered. One should expect cinematic aspects that are both deeply complex and opposingly simple. The filmmaker is creating more than just a love story, he is playing with cinematic sensibilities without turning away from the illogic of the human condition.

A family of beautiful but strikingly different women lay at the center of this tightly-structured universe... Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve and Charlotte Gainsbourg 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

A family of beautiful but strikingly different women lay at the center of this tightly-structured universe…
Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve and Charlotte Gainsbourg
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

“3 Hearts” is an overtly romantic tale lensed as if it were aiming to be a psychological thriller. Bruno Coulais’ ominous musical score is an over-powering ode to Hans Zimmer’s effective score for “Inception.” Coulais’ musical score acts as a prominent character in this film. As the various production companies logos take form on the screen and the credits begin on black title cards, the almost apocalyptic warning of music starts to churn. The viewers are immediately placed off-balance with what is shown through Julien Hirsch’s cinematography.

The plot is challenging when compared to the mundane realities of life. Or is it? Many critics have complained that the “set-up” is unbelievable from the two beautiful female characters being almost obsessive in their shared love of one rather plain looking middle-aged man. This man works as a  Tax Accountant played by Benoit Poelvoorde. Poelvoorde is best known to US audiences for his unforgettable turn as Ben in the low-budget Cult Film, Man Bites Dog. Certainly far from conventionally handsome, Poelvoorde has never been a gym-perfected, surgically enhanced leading man. He looks his age. Carries a bit of paunch yet manages to retain a bit of his gangley-charm. In 3 Hearts, he moves about in an almost constant state of worry.  Perpetually stressed, Poelvoorde’s Marc is a bit of sweaty mess. Yet even as he fights through his panic attacks or possibly more serious heart condition, he puts forth a considerable amount of masculine charm.

Two incredibly close-knit sisters find their relationship unravel... Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Two incredibly close-knit sisters find their relationship unravel…
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Several highly respected critics questioned why characters played by the likes of Charlotte Gainsbourg or Chiara Mastroianni would fall so hard for Poelvoorde’s nervous, goofy face and often comical physicality. This criticism in of itself is problematic. First and foremost, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sexual allure and beauty are already on the wilder side of populist ideas regarding female beauty. Without question she is someone the camera loves, it is impossible to not note that she carries a good deal of androgyny. She is closer to a middle-aged Patti Smith than normal notions of cinematic beauty. This is not a bad thing. Actually, it has assisted Ms. Gainsbourg ascend to a level of cinematic success that many would have thought impossible. Typically drawn to transgressive characters, Gainsbourg has never been shy about playing out the darker corners of sexual or erotic psychology. In addition to being a highly skilled actor, she has no fear when it comes to what and how she plays a role. But like Benoit Poelvoorde, she barely fits into the idea of conventional beauty. More “hot” and “erotically-charged” than beautiful, Gainsbourg has a strong level of power on screen tinged with a little girl’s voice.

Is anyone in there? Charlotte Gainsbourg 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Is anyone in there?
Charlotte Gainsbourg
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Chiara Mastroianni may be the real-life daughter of Catherine Deneuve and the late Marcello Mastroianni, but she has actually inherited very little of the angelic beauty of her mother or the carnal eroticism of her father. That being stated, anyone can see she is their daughter. Unlike her parents, Chiara Mastroianni has never give the impression that she was too worried about “beauty.” This is a serious actor who is not only highly skilled at what she does, she is intelligent in the way she approaches her roles. Like Gainsbourg, she is clearly comfortable with nudity and sexuality. However, I’ve never seen Ms. Mastroianni aim for provocation or even eroticism. This is an actress who plays it legit. Like her parents, she is blessed with a great deal of on-screen presence. As she has moved into her early 40’s, she brings forth a confidence that fully embraces her facial lines and moles. Certainly a beauty, she does not fit easily into the current mode of cinematic conventional beauty.

Realistic Cinematic Beauty  Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Realistic Cinematic Beauty
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

This of course if also why these two women stand out in the world of International Film: They do not conform to the hopelessly pathetic ideas of populist beauty. By refusing to even attempt to conform,  they define the rules of their careers. Their beauty is of more natural origin, but both bring an oddly grounded level of attractiveness to the table. From this perspective, it is reasonable to state that all 3 characters (our 3 Hearts) are a cinematic idea of normal/real looking actors. Even if we should accept the assertion that these two women would never turn their head in Benoit Poelvoorde, there is something important to note:

We human beings are a complicated bunch. We make illogical choices all of the time.

Benoit Poelvoorde  3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Benoit Poelvoorde
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

And we often fall for people that may not be the “obvious” choice. In reality, we are drawn to love by far more than just looks. Peolvoorde’s “Marc” is likable, charming as well as being more than a little lost and complicated. These characteristics are pure cat-nip coming from any sex that can often become an object of desire or obsession to another.

The story is of an unhealthy man who is either dealing with heart problems or severe anxiety. He misses his train back to Paris and accidentally meets Gainsbourg’s  “Sylvie” with whom he shares an almost instant attraction. Played with her typical grace and androgynously erotic charisma, the two spend the entire night talking. Somehow they fail to exchange the basic information of names, phone number and other essentials. But they make a date for later in the week. As they have no info about each other, circumstances prevent the date from being kept. Sylvie assumes she has been stood up and follows her life-partner for whom she seems to have little to no real love to live in the US.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and  Benoît Poelvoorde 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Benoît Poelvoorde
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Soon Marc crosses paths with the plainer but more grounded, Mastroianni’s “Sophie.” This is a softer and more needy woman. Marc falls for her immediately and she quickly returns the attraction. Marc’s heart issues and panic attacks subside. It is only as they near their wedding date that Marc realizes that Sophie is Sylvie’s sister. Another plot point that seems to defy logic. There is some merit to this claim, but as the film reaches its conclusion — this plot device actually makes sense. Jacquot has stated that he employs a cinematic idea first outlined by Alfred Hitchcock in which love and scenes of love are filmed and approached like scenes of suspense. Enter the use of Bruno Coulais’ intense musical score. The film is exceptionally paced. As the romance, sexual obsessions and desperate heart-aches churn, the film’s music never lets up. A constant gush of swelling worry indicating that serious danger looms over all three characters.

Catherine Deneuve plays the sisters’ mother. She is not given much to do, but what she is given she does brilliantly. Deneuve, much like Isabelle Huppert, can say more with a glance than most actors can do with an entire page of dialogue. This is a skilled gift Deneuve has gained over almost five decades in front of the camera. Always blessed with movie star charisma and presence, over the last three decades she has become one of the most respected film actors in history. In 3 Hearts, the character of the mother serves as a sort of calming logic as well as the sole character who seems to gain insight into the dangers as they begin to unfold and upend her daughters’ happiness. When the ramifications of these dangers are revealed, it is at once dire and expected.

Is domestic bliss enough? Benoît Poelvoorde and  Chiara Mastroianni 3 Hearts Benoît Jacquot, 2014 Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

Is domestic bliss enough?
Benoît Poelvoorde and Chiara Mastroianni
3 Hearts
Benoît Jacquot, 2014
Cinematography | Julien Hirsch

I’ve spent some time with this film because I have felt torn regarding my opinion. I’ve reached the conclusion that my “need” to watch it more than a couple of times indicates that something within the film’s universe fascinates me. And while there is a great deal of reality at play, this film creates a very tightly constructed universe unique to itself. As both Sylvie and Sophie offer to their Marc, they are living in small country France. These comments seem to carry more meaning than simply the provincial. This is a different sort of world within which these owners of three hearts are operating. As Marc slips in his chair and his head drops in a mix of despair and pain, the musical thunder delivers us to a perplexing and somewhat confusing scene. A scene that calls the cinematic perspective into question. Like the three characters, we are left disoriented and oddly enchanted.

3 Hearts and Keep It Quiet may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Like all of this director’s films, these two fall into many of the almost hopelessly stereotypical French Cinematic Style. But I do find it difficult to believe that an Art House Film Lover will find it easy to fully dismiss or forget either of these films. There is something to be said about Benoit Jacquot’s presentation of simple choices, illogic and accidents propelling characters into a dire fates that packs more than a few punches.

Even a historical fictionalization costume dram offers a realistic depiction of humanity... Diane Kruger as a real and very complicated Marie Antoinette Farewell, My Queen Benoît Jacquot, 2012 Cinematography | Romain Winding

Even a historical fictionalization costume dram offers a realistic depiction of humanity…
Diane Kruger as a real and very complicated Marie Antoinette
Farewell, My Queen
Benoît Jacquot, 2012
Cinematography | Romain Winding

Cinematic and odd. And ultimately Jacquot gives us an ambiguous twists. Is true happiness only a thing of dreams, chance or fate? Benoit Jacquot never fails to offer amazing insights and surprisingly strong performances.

Béatrice Dalle first came to cinematic fame in 1986 when she played the female lead in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s controversial but very successful, 37°2 le matin or Betty Blue as it was titled for release outside of France. Prior to that she had been working as a model. In retrospect I realize that I should have known that her beauty would age oddly. Or, maybe that is unfair. Now, at 50 years of age she still carries a distinctly unique sort of beauty. And if I remember correctly, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s did say that he saw “something different” about her. It was that “something different” that led him to cast this unknown and untrained woman as the tragic female lead — which was loaded with challenges. But he sensed a sort of erotic energy that almost scared him. At the time she was involved with Jean-Hugues Anglade, the highly skilled actor who would be in the lead role. A few years after the films release, Beineix’s mentioned that he wanted to capture the intensity of their erotically-fueled relationship. Apparently neither minded that aspect of their jobs in the film.

Beatrice Dalle French Elle Magazine Photograph | David Lynch, 2007

Beatrice Dalle
French Elle Magazine
Photograph | David Lynch, 2007

Jean-Jacques Beineix’s ultra-erotic story of love, passion, obsession and tragedy shared between a simple repairman and a mentally fragile young woman quickly captured the psyches of two generations of American and UK youth. Betty Blue was beloved equally by both sexes in the late 1980’s. The reason that we loved it so much was tied into the frantic fusion glossy colors, intense romance and graphic sexuality in ways that appealed as much to young women as it did to young men. An odd occurrence. And, none of us had ever seen what appeared to be unsimilated sex mixed with dire romance. And in such vivid and pretty colors?!?!

Beatrice Dalle and the stylish Betty Blue poster found a place on more walls than can be imagined.

Beatrice Dalle and the stylish Betty Blue poster found a place on more walls than can be imagined.

For a while young people projected romance and depth onto Betty Blue in the same way that young girls often project misplaced romantic notions onto Sylvia Plath’s work. In my memory it seems like nearly everyone I knew had the Betty Blue poster in their bedrooms, dorm rooms and apartments well into the mid-1990’s. I had only ever seen it once in 1987. But I saw it again in 2010 and just recently. It still somehow feels important. But through my adult eyes Betty Blue feels exploitive and cruel. And, it is more than a little worrying how Jean-Jacques Beineix romanticizes both the uncomfortable obsession and mental illness all at once. Béatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade share an erotic chemistry that still wants to melt the plasma monitor of our big screen TV.  Both actors carry disarming cinematic presence, but not in the way I had remembered. Anglade is kind of sexy in a more grounded way that we were not accustomed to leading men in American or British film.

Jean-Hugues Anglade is a very real and sweaty looking leading man for 1986. Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beineix. Cinematography | Jean-François Robin

Jean-Hugues Anglade is a very real and sweaty looking leading man for 1986. Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beineix.
Cinematography | Jean-François Robin

Béatrice Dalle is not as beautiful as I remember thinking in 1987. Through my adult eyes she still oozes sexuality, but there is seems to a something remotely odd about her that I didn’t notice when I was 19. Is it her teeth? Maybe her eyes? Most likely it is the charismatic, but worrying energy she brings to the screen.

Beatrice Dalle and that something different make their entrance in Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue, 1986. Cinematography | Jean-François Robin

Beatrice Dalle and that something different make their entrance in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue, 1986.
Cinematography | Jean-François Robin

And, yet, close to 30 years later — I still can’t take my eyes off either of them.

Beatrice Dalle & Jean-Hugues Anglade in the morning. Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beineix.  Cinematography | Jean-François Robin

Beatrice Dalle & Jean-Hugues Anglade in the morning. Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beineix.
Cinematography | Jean-François Robin

But that same erotic intimacy along with the odd mix of actual penetrative sex, love, obsession, insanity and grotesque resolution now border on the offensive. I still can’t pull myself away. Part of it might be nostalgia, but I think there is just “something different” about the movie. I doubt today’s teens would even put up with more than a few minutes. But, I will always hold Betty Blue close to my heart. However, I threw my poster away when I left home in 1990. I would not see Beatrice Dalle again until her memorably unsettling supporting turn in Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day.

Beatrice Dalle about to start a fire in The New French Extreme. Trouble Every Day, Claire Denis, 2001 Cinematography | Agnès Godard

Beatrice Dalle about to start a fire in The New French Extreme. Trouble Every Day, Claire Denis, 2001
Cinematography | Agnès Godard

I mentioned this film in my last post regarding The New French Extreme that emerged in the late 1990’s and into the 21 Century. It wasn’t until the credits rolled that I realized that I had just seen “my” Betty Blue do everything from cannibalism to self-destructive pyromania.  Trouble Every Day is an exceptional film. It may go a bit too far, but Denis has her reasons. Mainly, I had to face the fact Beatrice Dalle no loner looked like Betty Blue. Or did she?

Fresh, young, not so innocent and more than a little different. Beatrice Dalle as Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beineix. 1986. Cinematography | Jean-François Robin

Fresh, young, not so innocent and more than a little different. Beatrice Dalle as Betty Blue, Jean-Jacques Beineix. 1986. Cinematography | Jean-François Robin

Let’s be fair, it had been 15 years since I had seen her in anything. And yes, I know what you are thinking. No, I somehow missed Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. Not sure how, but I did. Anyway, I know I changed a lot in 15 years. But is is disorienting when we see our movie stars age. Though it is probably far more disorienting for them. Beatrice Dalle would be cast in another key supporting role in Claire Denis’ L’intrus and in Michael Haneke’s Time of the Wolf. While she fit perfectly into Denis’ challenging film world, she seemed a bit out of place in Haneke’s movie. She gave a solid performance, but something about it seemed disconnected from the rest of the cast.

It wouldn’t be long before she re-entered the area of The New French Extreme again. This time Alexandre Bustill and Julien Maury reportedly begged her to star in their brutally surreal À l’intérieur / Inside. Putting the controversies of this film aside, you would be hard pressed to find a more effective actress for the horrific role of La Femme who only utters a few lines throughout the “ordeal” of horror / torture she inflicts. When Beatrice Dalle growls, “Let me in.” — it is truly terrifying. Despite the fact that Bustill and Maury

Beatrice Dalle wants to be let INSIDE, Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo, 2007.  Cinematography | Laurent Barès

Beatrice Dalle wants to be let INSIDE, Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo, 2007.
Cinematography | Laurent Barès

take the film to a level of disgustingly realistic gore. Before it is all over the gruesome onslaught escalates into an unspeakable act of brutal cruelty. Inside was a major sleeper hit. It has made even more money via the DVD/VOD markets. Inside is so cruel in its violence that I hesitate suggesting it to anyone. But it must be noted that Bustill and Maury created one of the most unnerving, scary and entertaining movies of that year. It is a surreal examination of guilt that has no appropriate boundaries.

"Let me in." Beatrice Dalle in INSIDE, Alexandre Bustillo &  Julien Maury Cinematography | Laurent Barès

“Let me in.” Beatrice Dalle in INSIDE, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Cinematography | Laurent Barès

"Let me in!" Beatrice Dalle in INSIDE, Alexandre Bustillo &  Julien Maury Cinematography | Laurent Barès

“Let me in!” Beatrice Dalle in INSIDE, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Cinematography | Laurent Barès

It may go way too far for many, but for those who can stomach it — one hell of an intense, horrifying and surprising ride awaits. A ride that is as metaphorical and surreal as it is repulsively shocking.

Beatrice Dalle & Alysson Paradis's arm in INSIDE, Alexandre Bustillo &  Julien Maury Cinematography | Laurent Barès

Beatrice Dalle & Alysson Paradis’s arm in INSIDE, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Cinematography | Laurent Barès

Beatrice Dalle and Alysson Paradis are both outstanding in their respective roles, but the real success of the film is found in Dalle’s full-on ‘ownership’ of her disturbing presence. It is a slow, steady and all-too human level of insanity that Dalle channels into her character,  La Femme. It serves as a true gift to the filmmakers who utilize her allure to escalate the horror with each movement and minimal comment Dalle makes or states.

Beatrice Dalle's La Femme takes a cigarette break before she invokes more vengeance. INSIDE, Alexandre Bustillo &  Julien Maury Cinematography | Laurent Barès

Beatrice Dalle’s La Femme takes a cigarette break before she invokes more vengeance. INSIDE, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Cinematography | Laurent Barès

This is one film that is not easily forgotten. In 2010 Dalle once again lent herself to Bustill and Maurys’ world of horror. Released in 2011, Livide failed to achieve the level of success and acclaim that Inside enjoyed. Livide is not extreme, but it is a disturbing and entertaining exorcise in horror. In a supporting role, Dalle once again leveraged her allure to help the filmmaker’s achieve their vision of a post-gothic blood lust.

Beatrice Dalle instructs her pupils in Livide, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury Cinematography | Laurent Barès

Beatrice Dalle instructs her pupils in Livide, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Cinematography | Laurent Barès

Livid failed to even gain release in the US/Canada. Though, it has attained a cult status in France and the UK. Rumors of a big budget Hollywood remake continue to spread.

Beatrice Dalle can still see you in Livide, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury Cinematography | Laurent Barès

Beatrice Dalle can still see you in Livide, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Cinematography | Laurent Barès

Dalle is one Ballet Instructor you do not want to ignore in Livide, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury Cinematography | Laurent Barès

Dalle is one Ballet Instructor you do not want to ignore in Livide, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Cinematography | Laurent Barès

Though, Dalle is given little screen time in Livid, it’s all the time required to set the tone of menace and tension.

To be fair, Beatrice Dalle did warn her little ballerina in Livide, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury Cinematography | Laurent Barès

To be fair, Beatrice Dalle did warn her little ballerina in Livide, Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury
Cinematography | Laurent Barès

But, Dalle found her way in the leading role of Patric Chiha’s Domain. Released in France in 2009 and the US in 2011, this film perplexed many film critics. In France it was greeted with mixed reviews but generated discussion around the power of Beatrice Dalle — and, perhaps most interestingly, the focus of mathematics’ impact explored within the framework of Chiha’s detached cinematic study. The main reason I sought this film out before it was actually “released” in the US was related American Rebel Film Artist, John Water’s passionate praise. One must understand that much of what John Waters likes about this film is exactly why many will hate it. I loved this movie, but not for anywhere near the same reasons Waters praised it.

Beatrice Dalle stars in Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009.  Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

Beatrice Dalle stars in Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009.
Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

Patric Chiha’s DOMAIN generates disarming level of tension and the inappropriateness that is constantly brewing beneath the surface as the movie takes the audience on a series of walks. The relationship is between a bored and openly gay 17 year old nephew and his admittedly eccentric aunt, Nadia. Nadia is a respected Mathematician who seems to approach math as a more of a philosophy than a science. Her obsession with the interplay and precision of numbers and logic seem to do more than influence the way she approaches life — it seems to trigger something far more worrying within her psyche. Instead of falling on the Hollywood-like caricature of mathematician or scientist as being “crazy” — Chiha uses Nadia’s mathematical obsession to point out the fact that Nadia is all too aware of her looming descent toward self-destruction which could  be fully induced by her obsessive ideas as easily as by her growing alcoholism. Nadia is not insane, she is surprisingly self aware. Nadia clearly understands that her obsession with the deductive and/or formal theory of the axiom / theorem has inverted and greatly limited her grasp of logic as it relates to daily life. While Chiha is wise is never fully articulating Nadia’s mental and addictive disorders because it allows the audience to specutlate on wether or not Nadia’s fears based in mathematical elements are grounded or have created a perverse manifestation into her inertia and dangerous addictions. It is within the distorted framework of Nadia’s reality that Chiha achieves a perfectly matched level of tempo with his leading lady that lends an even deeper of layer of tension. There is a consistent feeling that her nephew’s love and his need to slip into her life that could potentially lead to her deepest fear: this could be the ideal combination to set off a literal  chaos theory from which she might never escape. Further to the point, that element of chaos could also pull her nephew into a virtual black whole.

Beatrice Dalle's Nadia's love of mathematic theory sets the pace of her long walks in  Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009.  Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

Beatrice Dalle’s Nadia’s love of mathematic theory sets the pace of her long walks in Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009.
Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

The pace is often purposely slow. It is thanks to the pace that Nadia and Pierre bond forms in a believable way. Their shared walks through Nadia’s favorite areas of Paris, began to offer the audience insight into her fragile grasp of reality. The walks gradually intensify as Nadia begins to elaborate on logic-based theories that have no rational relationship to the surroundings and topics she discusses. Pierre, just on the cusp of a full adulthood formed within the protective cocoon of the upper-middle class, is still too naive to understand Nadia’s ramblings. To Pierre, his aunt in an enchanting and brilliant woman. It is to Beatrice Dalle’s skill that we pick up the sense that as much as she doesn’t want to pull her nephew into life — His adoration and attention are too enticing for her to reject. Instead of recognizing the vacancy and suspect nature of Nadia’s “friendships” Pierre begins to eroticize them. It is within the confines of what appears to be a gay dance club that the film dips its toe into the surreal.

Nadia leads her nephew into a deceptive world of glam that seems to almost slow to the most minimal level of dance movement. Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009. Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

Nadia leads her nephew into a deceptive world of glam that seems to almost slow to the most minimal level of dance movement. Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009.
Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

It is as if Pierre has slipped into a whole other level of reality as he attempts to find a groove into not only the beat of the dance, but into Nadia’s deconstructed interpretation of the electronic music. As Pierre discovers his aunt’s beat, his perception of reality begins to twist. What appears to be a seedy gay dance club mixes with the cigarette smoke and morphs into an erotic world where everything slows down to equate itself to Nadia’s perverse Theorem. From Pierre’s limited perspective, Nadia is the primary center of this world. It is at this point that an uneasy and inappropriate bond forms between aunt and nephew. Pierre has become a key component in Nadia’s skewed logic of reality. This is a reality ruled entirely by Nadia’s twisted Mathematical Theorem. Once again, she is aware of the problem her life’s equation has created, but there is no turning back for her or Pierre as they begin a danger-fueled and perverse dance. The blunt editing, Pascal Poucet’s self-conscious cinematography, Beatrice Dalle’s performance (in which her strange beauty is just as essential as her casually corrupt read on Nadia) blend seamlessly with the naturalistically innocent charm Isaïe Sultan brings to Pierre and forms into a cinematic stew.  It is stew that tastes a great deal like something from the cinematic alchemy of Chabrol or Hitchcock. This comparison might insult certain lovers of  both iconic filmmakers, buy it rings true.

Beatrice Dalle lost in the pulsating rhythms of number logic in Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009.  Cinematography |  Pascal Poucet

Beatrice Dalle lost in the pulsating rhythms of number logic in Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009.
Cinematography |
Pascal Poucet

 

So much walking, thinking and precise living to be done, so little time to waste on comfort. Beatrice Dalle & Isaïe Sultan in Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009. Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

So much walking, thinking and precise living to be done, so little time to waste on comfort. Beatrice Dalle & Isaïe Sultan in Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009.
Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

Béatrice Dalle sensuously pulls Pierre into the slips and slides in her world of mathematical obsessions, perverse pleasures and addictions. For a while his unconditional devotion seems to propel his aunt forward. And despite his mother’s concerned warnings and Nadia’s own instinct to pull away, Pierre is hooked to Nadia’s tragic flamboyancy. As the audience begins to really feel the ever-growing danger. This odd woman is capable of harm. Harm that could come at any moment. It is impossible not to note that over the years Béatrice Dalle’s once unique beauty has taken on an unsettling quality. It is so easy to get lost in her face, movements and voice. Her beauty and eroticism give the feeling that it could all unhinge into something ugly and verge into a Chaos Theory of a whole new logical dimension. It would be foolish to underestimate Béatrice Dalle skill and Patric Chiha’s movie walks, stumbles and titters its way to a conclusion that, depending on the viewer’s sensibilities, could be correctly interpreted as either benignly abrupt or alarmingly horrific. It is to Patric Chiha’s benefit that he applies the same level of precision that Nadia so admires in the measured way he gives us the exact amount of information to pull us in.

Isaïe Sultan gently kisses his aunt, Beatrice Dalle in Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009. Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

Isaïe Sultan gently kisses his aunt, Beatrice Dalle in Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009.
Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

And he carefully dispenses too little for us to really know for sure where he has taken the aunt and her adoring nephew. It is a surprisingly potent conclusion.  Domain has held my attention since I first saw it. I often come back Domain. I always discover new aspects relating to mathematical theories, perceptions, philosophy, cinematography and vexing performances that do more than just engage us — these actors, Béatrice Dalle most notably — threaten us.  The film takes on an almost hypnotic quality.

Beatrice Dalle leads Isaïe Sultan on a series of walks that become more worrying with each step in Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009. Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

Beatrice Dalle leads Isaïe Sultan on a series of walks that become more worrying with each step in Domain, Patric Chiha, 2009.
Cinematography | Pascal Poucet

And Patric Chiha’s clever manipulation of tone is consistently creeping with tension and ever-present danger.My admiration for Domain has continued to grow. I’d be surprised for anyone to find it boring. I’d be even more surprised if someone found anything about it that is particularly familiar beyond the clear but loose thread to Chabrol or Hitchcock. Domain occupies its own quirky place. As does the woman who once adored more dorm rooms that we could count.

Béatrice Dalle Paris, 2007 Photograph | Kate Barry

Béatrice Dalle
Paris, 2007
Photograph | Kate Barry

I want to stress that this should not be taken as a direct quote, but I do know that Béatrice Dalle was once asked how she goes about choosing her roles, films or filmmakers with whom she wants to work. This is from my memory and I haven’t had time to search the Internet to get the actual quote. I seem to remember this question was in relation to the promotion of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. But I’m confident in providing a summation of her response which was both immediate and and interesting:

I don’t choose the director as much as the director chooses me. And you must trust the artist and follow where that leads. 

 

When does art go too far?

Monica Bellucci embarks on short walk to savage and misogynistic human cruelty in Gaspar Noé's Irréversible, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

Monica Bellucci embarks on short walk to savage and misogynistic human cruelty in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

We all know that the debate regarding when works of art become “inappropriate” or “unacceptable” is not new.  Most of us jump up to fight censorship and the right of the artist to express his or her “self” in any manner their vision requires. And most of us would equally agree that each individual is free to critique or express their disgust with anything the artist creates. These are two key rights of the audience and the artist.

Christians protest outside the Ziegfeld Theater against the screening and attendance of The Last Temptation of Christ,  Martin Scorsese, 1988 outside the Ziegfeld Theater, NYC, 1988 Photograph by Barbara Alper/Getty Images

Christians protest outside the Ziegfeld Theater against the screening and attendance of The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese, 1988 outside the Ziegfeld Theater, NYC, 1988 Photograph by Barbara Alper/Getty Images

When we see an organization pull its resources in an attempt to block an artist’s work many of us pull together in protest. I proudly remember skipping school so I could drive to Houston and cross through the mob of protestors to pay and see The Last Temptation of Christ. For the two of us, it was essential to protect that core belief of free speech. The level of Baptist and Pentecostal anger was more than a little scary, but me and my pal were very proud to support the movie. We went on opening day. Good thing we did. Nearly all the cinemas located in Southeast Texas pulled the movie with the first 4 days of screenings. Those angry Christians (very few of whom I think ever bothered to read the book or see the movie) succeeded in shutting the movie down in The Bible Belt.

To protest a work of art is very different than prevent it from being displayed or shown. It is a never ending conflict that artists will always face. The rights of artists and the audience must be protected.

Brooke Shields was 12 when she appeared nude and played a child prostitute in Louis Malle's 1978 film, Pretty Baby. Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Brooke Shields was 12 when she appeared nude and played a child prostitute in Louis Malle’s 1978 film, Pretty Baby. Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

But it is the rare individual who can honestly state that she/he has never felt the need to scream out from the highest mountain, “This is wrong! This must be stopped! This is inappropriate!” For me, any work that is created to or even unintentionally stirs up hate against marginalized people compels me to draw the line. Unless the artists’ hatred is aimed at Hitler or The Manson Family or any segment of society that I feel intrudes on the rights of another. Then, I’ll support that hate full tilt. Another area which I refuse to accept is art that sexually exploits children.

Or work that misuses violence. For me, there is a difference in using violence as method for exploring human psychology, history, realism or even as way to access horror. It is when violence is utilized in a manner of titillation instead of provocation that it goes too far for me. And nothing angers me more when I see a work of art that uses violence against children or women for no other reason but to shock us.

Many people were unaware that they were objects of satire and many were not paid. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Larry Charles, 2006. Cinematography | Luke Geissbuhler & Anthony Hardwick

Many people were unaware that they were objects of satire and many were not paid. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Larry Charles, 2006. Cinematography | Luke Geissbuhler & Anthony Hardwick

Ultimately the basic guidelines for unacceptable art is art in which anyone is actually harmed, any inappropriate exposure of people under the age of 18 or anytime that an individual is pushed into any level of cruel depiction without consent.

Now a true ethical dilemma for me is when I fail to apply my own guidelines. Because whether I like to admit it or not — there have been more than a few films that slip into some very murky ethical waters. And, I must confess that some of them I found myself not only supporting, but enjoyed. The two films represented by their major studio poster campaigns above are films that I like — both crossed my personal ethical lines or standards. 

But often I do fuel my ethical concern into logical critiques or I simply refuse to give money to offensive work.  What pushes us to create that sort of critique or hide our wallets varies. Such was my reaction by the time Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q reaches about the ten minute mark. I demand a full refund of my ticket and left the cinema.

Familial dysfunction has never been depicted with such de-tached cruelty and satire becomes inverted in Takashi Miike's addition to Japan's "love cinema", Visitor Q, 2001. Videography | Hideo Yamamoto

Familial dysfunction has never been depicted with such de-tached cruelty and satire becomes inverted in Takashi Miike’s addition to Japan’s “love cinema”, Visitor Q, 2001. Videography | Hideo Yamamoto

Yet it is hard not to catch some smart film references in this twisted chapter of the Japan banned series of Direct to Video series called “Love Cinema” — This movie enjoyed some praise in the US while on the festival circuit. Visitor Q remains a cult classic for many. Just for the record, I’m not one of them. In 1999 Miike created Audition. There were more than a few times I found myself feeling I should leave, but the interesting twists in tone, artistry and sheer audacity were far too interesting for me to dismiss. My guidelines shifted for this movie.

"Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri!" Children, women and men are all tortured to extremes so over-the-top it becomes surreal in Audition. Takashi Miike, 1999. Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

“Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri!” Children, women and men are all tortured to extremes so over-the-top it becomes surreal in Audition. Takashi Miike, 1999. Cinematography | Hideo Yamamoto

Takashi Miike’s Audition utilizes torture and gore as not only as an “attraction” to horror film fans but a clever metaphorical tool to explore his lead character’s inner-most fears of women, grief and sexuality. It took me several years before I was comfortable in recommending it to friends and discussing the idea of securing Takashi Miike as a festival guest. The festival’s board admitted to the artistry involved in much of Miike’s work, but they were equally offended by it as well. To be honest, I never found a way to defend my opinions of many of his films.

But very few films have ever made me as uncomfortable and repulsed as Gaspar Noé’s experimental film, Irréversible.

"Take the underpass. It's safer." Irréversible, Gaspar Noé, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

“Take the underpass. It’s safer.” Irréversible, Gaspar Noé, 2002. Cinematography | Benoît Debie & Gaspar Noé

The film’s narrative deconstruction, cinematography and acting were so polished and unique. I have never worked out how I feel about Gaspar Noé’s depiction of his lead female character’s suffering at the hands of a rapist. The line between valid depiction and grotesque exploitation is not just blurry — it appears to have been erased. Did Noé go too far or did he go just far enough to capture the all-too-real horror that seems to be ever lurking for women? I do not have an answer.

Irréversible was one of many French Films which began to emerge as we entered the 21st Century. Prior to Irréversible, Gaspar Noé shot I Stand Alone. This was another deeply disturbing film which follows an emotionally damaged horse butcher as he contemplates the misery of his life, his threatening visceral cultural rage, suicide and his uncontrollable sexual desire for his daughter. …who happens to be living in a sort of insane asylum. Aside from being grimly nihilistic, I Stand Alone also approaches every aspect from a visually graphic perspective. The film was widely praised and Gaspar Noé received The Mercedes-Benz Award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. Despite my repulsive reaction I also consider it an important film.

Catherine Deneuve as the  somewhat perverse mother in Leos Carax's experimental re-working of Melville's "Pierre, or, the Ambiguities", Pola X, 1998.  Cinematography | Eric Gautier. Deneuve was one of the few actors who did not engage in unsimulated and penetrative sex.

Catherine Deneuve as the somewhat perverse mother in Leos Carax’s experimental re-working of Melville’s “Pierre, or, the Ambiguities”, Pola X, 1998.
Cinematography | Eric Gautier. Deneuve was one of the few actors who did not engage in unsimulated and penetrative sex.

It was these films that also included Catherine Breillat’s Romance, Leos Carax’s Pola X, Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise-moi, Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day and Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension that led then Artforum Critic, James Quandt, to coin the intentionally derogatory term, The New French Extreme. Quandt defined the The New French Extreme in Artforum with a nod to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975’s highly polarizing Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom serving as a turning point in Film Art that is only growing more perversely articulated by French film artists who are suddenly “…determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.”

James Quandt  and Artforum created a term for French cinema's graphic focus on the transgressive.

James Quandt and Artforum created a term for French cinema’s graphic focus on the transgressive.

Interestingly, rather than create an aversion toward these filmmakers and their work — he actually ended up drawing more attention to it. And, only a few of the French filmmakers were even vaguely offended by the label. Catherine Breillat was the only film artist I can remember being at all perplexed with Quandt’s label. Catherine Breillat has built a distinguished film career around her obsession with the ways in which sexuality impact an individual’s life. Most often, she pursues psychological and physical sexual themes that are nearly always graphic, perversely cerebral and unsentimental. Her career in the arts started at 17  when she secured a publishing deal for her first novel, Early Man, in 1965. The French Government quickly banned the novel from any readers under the age of 18. Almost immediately as the novel was published it was optioned by two film producers. It would not be until 1976 that the producers had the funds, but Breillat was allowed to adapt her book and to direct it. It is interesting to note that the producers went bankrupt as the movie, A Real Young Girl,  was too controversial to secure a distributor in the late 1970’s. In fact, the French Government banned the film. It would not be until 1999 that the film would be released.  The history of this novel and subsequent movie is an early and accurate summation of her entire career. Breillat’s interests and the manner in which she portrays them are often received with interest, but almost consistently create such controversy that success is somewhat limited. Despite the challenges of making profits, her skill as a filmmaker are indisputable. Catherine Breillat has always followed her vision and made it very clear that the audience will either reject her films or not. So, I remember being surprised that she even bothered to address the appointed label of being a part of The French Extreme. She felt that her work was more aligned to that of David Cronenberg and she suggested that she felt they both made films that fell into the realm of Cinema of the Body.

Of the following three French films only one of them was not considered a part of The French Extreme.

Catherine Breillat’s À ma sœur! was released in 2001. It remains my favorite example of The French Extreme. The title of the movie actually translates as “To My Sister!” but for some inane marketing reason Canal+ assigned it a new title for non-European release. And, so I once again find myself ignoring my guidelines as I enter the world of Fat Girl.

Anaïs Reboux stars as Anaïs Pingot in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Anaïs Reboux stars as Anaïs Pingot in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

In 2001 I wrote that Fat Girl was a controversial, provocative and potent examination of female adolescence. Without even the slightest hint of empathy or sentiment for her lead character — or any others in the movie — the movie is unflinching in its commitment to perversely turn the film against the audience rather than to provoke the audience against the movie. Breillat seems to be lensing the entire film with a driven by the same adolescently stunted emotional confusion, rage, jealousy and loneliness of the main character, Anaïs Pingot. Adolescence is never easy, but is proving to be even more so for Anaïs. The US/UK/Canadian releases for this film have been changed from To My Sister! to Fat Girl. As inappropriate as this new title is, it is a great example at the way our society views females. Even at the hands of the movie’s distributor poor Anaïs is reduced to being nothing more than a fat girl. She is already judged.

Anaïs Reboux in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Anaïs Reboux in Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography |

Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography |

Far more graphic than it needs to be, Canal+ has made it clear that this time out Breillat did not require her actors to have sex. But give the fact that the movie utilizes prosthetic penis hard-on’s and full frontal nudity and graphic simulated sex scenes, it feels real. Breillat films her lead character played by a 13 year old non-actress partially nude and places her in not only sexual situations but in truly disturbing scene of sexual violence.  While it is on many levels inappropriate, it never feels like Breillat is trying to exploit this little girl. It often simply feels tragically real as this young girl is only beginning to seriously contemplate her sexuality and the way her body is actually perceived.

Roxane Mesquida and Anaïs Reboux are sisters at once as one and then next as enemies. Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Roxane Mesquida and Anaïs Reboux are sisters at once as one and then next as enemies. Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Her sister is her best friend one minute and her enemy the next. Her parents do not seem to really pay much attention or care about her. One gets the feeling she is evolving into an angry misfit. The movie takes a very blunt and shocking turn in the last few minutes. The audience at the screening I attended sat in silence as the credits began to roll. Some were offended. Some thought the experience was amazing. Several of the people gathered together in the cinema lobby. I attended the film alone. I listened as each person gave their perspective. Everyone seemed a bit disoriented and upset.

 "If you don't want to believe me, then don't." Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001 Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

“If you don’t want to believe me, then don’t.”
Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat, 2001
Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

When it came to my turn to express my thoughts I could only say that I was certain we had just seen a brilliant bit of cinematic art that is both unforgettable and unforgivable. 14 years later, I still feel the same.

What to do when everything that happens seems to reflect the way you feel? Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat. Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

What to do when everything that happens seems to reflect the way you feel? Fat Girl, Catherine Breillat. Cinematography | Giorgos Arvanitis

Whenever someone asks me about this film, I always warn, “It is not for all tastes.”  — I should probably add that this is one of the points of every film Catherine Breillat has ever made. Fat Girl takes no prisoners. She refuses your judgement. She will not break.

Christophe Honoré’s 2004 film, Ma Mere, has also been labeled as an entry into The French Extreme.

Isabelle Huppert as Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Isabelle Huppert as Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

It is actually rather surprising that it took so long for Isabelle Huppert to take a role in one of these films. If ever there were a fearless female actor is it Isabelle Huppert. This actor is an essential part of this controversial movie. In many ways, it seems as much her film as it’s director, Christophe Honoré. Unlike Fat Girl, this film never really puts me at odds my guidelines. It does something far worse. It actually fascinates me. Christophe Honoré simplistic aesthetic is often curiously mismatched to Huppert’s nuanced but harsh performance. It is this simplistic and minimalist mode of storytelling merged with a deeply layered performance by Huppert that seems to provide the fuel to both the plot and to the characters. Huppert’s Hélène is a puzzle of a character that is never fully put together to answer questions. But Huppert is somehow able to play this perversely cruel woman with not only a lingering sort of sadness. It is also much to Huppert’s credit that she is able to interpret Honoré’s almost “camp” level dialogue in unsettlingly believable ways.

"The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit." Isabelle Huppert & Louis Garrel in Christophe Honoré's Ma Mere, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit.” Isabelle Huppert & Louis Garrel in Christophe Honoré’s Ma Mere, 2004. Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Her son is played by Louis Garrel who manages to keep up with both his director and the iconic actress with whom he shares the screen. We learn that Hélène and her much older husband lost custody of their son and were essentially banished to the Canary Islands because her husband’s wealthy family wanted to keep there lifestyles as far from the family as possible. Though never clearly stated, we quickly learn that subversive and the kink of BDSM is far less about pleasure as it is about punishment. The son is desperate to connect with his mother. Hélène is not so interested in that. Instead, she is hellbent on manipulating his innocence to push him through a constant bombardment of challenges to his mannered way of life. And she does so in an almost ritualistic planned events. So eager to please his mother and also worn down from his grandmother’s Catholic influence he pushes through each challenge until his humanity is completely debased. While Christophe Honoré’s film earned an NC-17, it is actually visually reserved for a film considered as French Extreme.

Dominique Reymond knows far more than she lets on to the son in Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004   Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Dominique Reymond knows far more than she lets on to the son in Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Not that Honoré doesn’t push the envelope on graphic nudity and graphic moments involving domination. But he never really takes the visual to the level of extreme I was expecting. The truly offensive and controversial aspects of this film come from the tone and the manner in which the actors, particularly Huppert, are so genuine in their convictions to hedonism. By the time Honoré actually brings us the mother and son to the final challenge of incest, Hélène chooses to deliver her cruelest to her son. We don’t actually see what the son is doing as he looks at a corpse, it is all the more shocking that we don’t. And as he runs away from the morgue in a state of total panic it almost feels like it is his mother has somehow taken control of the film’s soundtrack.

"Wrong isn't what we're about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it." Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004  Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“Wrong isn’t what we’re about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it.” Ma Mere. Christophe Honoré, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Suddenly, as this broken son runs all we can hear is “Happy Together” by The Turtles. Much like Leos Carax’s controversial “epic” reworking of Herman Melville’s Pierre, or, the Ambiguities in Pola X, Christophe Honoré has used Georges Bataille’s controversial cultural critique novel, My Mother, as the source for his film — he is far less concerned with providing a cultural / societal commentary as he is in exploring the depravity of a parent and the way it can eventually can pull the child to an even darker level of perversity. And, just as The Turtles hit the last chorus — “...so happy toge-”  Honoré cuts them off mid word and his screen immediately switches to white. Ma Mere ends with a thudding silence that lingers long after it has been viewed.

"This goes to your mother. The Mediterranean bitch." Isabelle Huppert & One of her Disciples in Ma Mere, Christophe Honoré, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“This goes to your mother. The Mediterranean bitch.” Isabelle Huppert & One of her Disciples in Ma Mere, Christophe Honoré, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Over the course of the last decade, The French Extreme had de-evoloved to mostly disgusting torture porn. The goal of these films seems to shock the audience with an assault of savage gore.  The original French artists who are most associated with The French Extreme have pretty much all changed gears. Even Catherine Breillat has started to look at other aspects of human life. Her greatest challenge is the fact that she suffered a stroke. But this only seemed to push herself harder to craft a film loosely based on her experiences during and after her stroke.

" I've sunk like the Titanic. But if I ever resurface, I'll be an atomic bomb." Isabelle Huppert in Abuse of Weakness, Catherine Breillat Cinematography | Alain Marcoen

” I’ve sunk like the Titanic. But if I ever resurface, I’ll be an atomic bomb.” Isabelle Huppert in Abuse of Weakness, Catherine Breillat
Cinematography | Alain Marcoen

Certainly powerful stuff, but not so extreme.

The last film of the genre I saw that displayed incredible skill and intelligence was simultaneously the most unpleasant torture porn I have ever seen. Particularly appalling was the fact that it simply was too well made for me to question it. It was Pascal Laugier’s 2008 Martyrs. Which Hollywood has been trying to re-make in a “less dark way”?!?

"Keep doubting." Martyrs,  Pascal Laugier, 2008 Cinematography | Stéphane Martin,  Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky & Bruno Philip

“Keep doubting.” Martyrs,
Pascal Laugier, 2008
Cinematography | Stéphane Martin,
Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky & Bruno Philip

But, that would be a whole other sort of post.