Today marks the introduction in a new kind of special retrospective article I’m going to try out which I’m calling “Closure.” Unlike the “Crash Course” posts I’ve been doing that are intended to act as introductions and kick starts to certain cinematic topics, these are meant to close out various lifelong pursuits once and for all. More than likely this will focus on certain auteur’s filmographies, situations where I’ve already seen the lion’s share of a director’s work but just need that extra nudge in order to finish things off and watch the last handful of films I haven’t seen from them. Of course most of these are going to be filmmakers who are alive and working, so there’s some possibility I’ll just fall behind later as the continue making films, but at least I’ll be caught up in the first place. For my first “closure” article I’ll be looking at the work of a filmmaker who has been something of a white whale for me for a while: Ridley Scott. I still like Scott a lot but when I was a teenager he may well have been in my all-time top five directors and I sought out a ton of his work including some lesser works like Black Rain and White Squall but there were certain films like 1492: Conquest of Paradise (which I did finally see two years ago when it showed up on CBS All Access, not good) that were going to be unavailable to me so gaps remained and then later in his career he made some stuff that seemed skippable and my interest waned. But looking at what remains, there are only five Ridley Scott movies I haven’t seen: one from the 80s, one from the 2000s, and three from the 2010s, and it seems like a good time to just finish this out.
Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)
In 1982, Ridley Scott cashed in his clout from making Alien in order to make his masterpiece Blade Runner, a film that’s now considered a classic but underperformed with audiences. Scott still impressed people enough with that movie to get 1985’s Legend greenlit, and that didn’t really succeed either critically or financially so it’s pretty clear that by 1987 he needed to maybe scale down his ambition and make a “normal” movie and the result was a film starring Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers called Someone to Watch Over Me. You don’t really hear much about the movie these days, and for good reason, because it’s quite forgettable. The film is about a police officer tasked with acting as a bodyguard for a socialite who has witnessed a crime and starts to fall for her. This, of course, is basically the same plot as 1985’s Witness except without the Amish angle and without most of everything else that made that movie good and interesting. The one difference here is that the cop is married and his bodyguarding antics bring him to the edge of infidelity, which maybe could have been the germ of something interesting but it never really goes anywhere and there isn’t that much chemistry between Tom Berenger (who does not aquit himself as a leading man here) and Mimi Rogers. Directorially, Ridley Scott is a bit out of his element here, he sets some scenes at New York landmarks like the Guggenheim Museum but otherwise isn’t able to turn this into a spectacle like his previous films and isn’t able to transcend the film’s uninteresting script. These days we lament that every movie coming out of Hollywood is seemingly trying to be an epic tentpole, and yeah that’s not ideal, but it’s worth remembering that the previous system used to involve pumping out a lot of uninspired movies like this that were just hoping that some star chemistry would bring them to life and when they didn’t the results were total nothingburgers like this.
** out of Five
A Good Year (2006)
A Good Year feels like a strange aberration in Ridley Scott’s career in that its mostly devoid of the big production values that tended to define his career, especially in this post-Gladiator period. A romantic comedy about an investor deciding what to do with a vineyard he inherited from a dececed uncle certainly isn’t a project that screams “Scott Free Productions.” On the other hand there was a certain logic to it: Scott had scored a solid critical success with the small scale conman film Matchstick Men three years earlier and it was starting to look like he’d make a habit of making similarly small movies in between his epics and he had an obvious report with Russell Crowe that he wanted to revisit with this breezy little project. Unfortunately this is no Matchstick Men. So, there’s this formula that exists in Hollywood movies where people with busy urban lives wind up through circumstances traveling to small towns (often their hometowns) and dislike it at first but slowly come to see the charms in the slower rural life and decides to settle down there with some local they find themselves romancing. It’s the formula of Hallmark movies and I hate it. Firstly because it’s trite and predictable but also because it’s implicitly insulting to the wide swaths of people who choose to live in cities. Also the movies have a strong whiff of hypocrisy; the people making them plainly don’t actually believe in leaving behind fast moving urban careers (as evidenced by the fact that they’re making a Hollywood movie) but are just adopting this bullshit to pander to middle America. However, at the very least most of those movies have the common sense to be set in actual middle America, this movie on the other hand has the gall to apply that formula to a character who has the luxury of inheriting a vineyard estate in the South of France.
Yeah, I’m not normally much of a class warrior but this thing kind of did have me wanting to find a guillotine. It’s probably for the best that this got made in 2006 because you probably couldn’t make a movie that’s this blasé about lives of luxury two years later after the 2008 economic crisis. Indeed, later in his career Scott would in fact become a lot more critical about what wealth does to people but here he’s just pushing this very out of touch story about someone trying to decide whether to trade one life of luxury for another one with minimal real consequences involved in making one choice or another. Beyond that this is a pretty good example of why they normally don’t hire people like Ridley Scott to make lightweight romcoms. The extra skill he brings behind the camera kind of subconiously make you expect something better to be on the screen than the formulaic nothing you’re getting. The actors certainly try their best to make the material work. Crowe does a decent job of making his character an arrogant asshole without making him completely unlikable and both Marion Cotillard and Abbie Cornish are charming and attractive in their roles but they can’t overcome the script’s shortcomings. After this thing came and went Scott maybe overlearned the lessons of this and probably leaned too much in the other direction towards making nothing but dour large scale movies and wouldn’t try to make something that’s even a little bit light and comedic again until The Martian almost a decade later.
** out of Five
The Counselor (2013)
Of the five Ridley Scott movies I’m looking at to clear up his filmography this is definitely the one that had me the most intrigued. In addition to being directed by Scott the sported an all star cast including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Cameron Diaz, and perhaps most intriguingly the film had an original screenplay written by the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, whose No Country for Old Men and The Road had been brought to the screen around the same time with great success. Rarely has a film looked so promising on paper to just die an ignoble death upon release. The film was defended by some critics but was by and large dismissed, earning just a 34% on Rotten Tomatoes and mostly bombed at the domestic box office (though it did do a little better internationally, saving it from being a complete boondoggle). I came close to seeing it back in 2013 out of sheer curiosity but I was busy at the time and on a budget and ultimately opted not to and never really caught up to it until now.
In some ways Ridley Scott made sense as a person to direct this somewhat opaque and literary take on the drug trade. He’d long been rumored as a potential helmer of an adaptation of McCarthy’s most acclaimed novel “Blood Meridian” and in general he’s considered a top talent and he’s one of only a few auteurs on his level that generally don’t write their own screenplays. However, in a lot of ways he was actually an odd choice for this project. Scott is, if nothing else a very straightforward filmmaker whose films tend to be a bit surface level. Occasionally he’ll make something like Blade Runner that is a little more interested in subtext but normally what you see is what you get from him, so he isn’t necessarily the most obvious choice to be parsing something that’s sparse and literary in the way that McCarthy’s prose often is. Scott certainly lives up to his end on a technical level; the film is beautifully shot by Dariusz Wolski and has some moments of violence that are pretty striking and memorable. There are also some fairly opulent sets here, and you can kind of see the roots of some of his more recent movies about the dangers of opulence like House of Gucci here. However, this screenplay is quite the headscratcher.
On a surface level this story feels like some fairly insubstantial crime hokum, which would of course also arguable be the case with No Country for Old Men, but the Coen Brothers were much more of a position to make that story work cinematically and bring its themes to the surface. Here we don’t really have an intermediate writer to make McCarthy’s style work more cinematically, nor do we have a director who’s inclined to really challenge the writing or recontexualize it, so this is very much McCarthy’s world and it’s kind of up to you to find meaning in it… and I can’t say I was able to do that. I can’t exactly dismiss the film, it looks good and it’s just generally interesting that it exists, but I don’t know that there’s much of anything in the way of a profound message at its center beyond some fairly obvious points about greed and human nature, and it’s in this kind of odd place where it’s too weird to be conventionally entertaining but not weird enough to feel like some kind of gonzo romp. Just kind of a missed opportunity all around. Had McCarthy stuck to what he was good at (writing novels) and just left it to someone like Paul Thomas Anderson to adapt said novel we would have been on to something, instead we have… this.
*** out of Five
Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)
Ridley Scott has at times been called the Cecil B. DeMille of his times, perhaps rather superficially, because he’s basically the only director left standing who could be said to specialize in making period epics with “a cast of thousands” (even if that cast of thousands are conjured by computers these days). Slightly less superficially he may have earned this comparison because he’s a commercial Hollywood filmmaker whose style is very much defined by his sense of production, particularly large and elaborate sets, which are present even when he’s making non-period epics like Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, or The Martian and is even present when making things like House of Gucci that are filled with mansions and scenery. This comparison can, however, be taken far too literally. This was the blunder that Scott himself seemed to make when he agreed to make Exodus: Gods and Kings, a take on the biblical Exodus story, which was famously brought to the screen by DeMille both in the silent era and again at the tail end of his career with the 1956 blockbuster The Ten Commandments and it’s pretty much impossible not to compare this version to that one and the comparison kind of puts into relief how different Scott actually is from DeMille and how different the idea of an “epic” is today.
It’s no secret that Hollywood is obsessed with franchises and remakes, much to the chagrin of film buffs like me who thinks certain Hollywood classics are sacred and shouldn’t be touched. Thing is, if I’m being honest I realize that the public does not share my reverence for movies like Clash of the Titans, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or The Poseidon Adventure and will happily take in a new version with “better” special effects but I’m not sure the same can be said for The Ten Commandments, one of the most widely seen “old” movies thanks to the annual broadcasts it still gets to this day on network television around Easter/Passover season. So this had a lot to live up to, especially given just how long this story has cinematically been synonymous with the very idea of “special effects spectacle” and truth be told I don’t think there was any possible way for anyone to ever turn this story into an eye-popping spectacle in the way that other movie was to audiences in 1956. This is kind of where the DeMille comparison becomes a problem for Scott as, however epic his movies are, he hasn’t truly shown audiences anything they haven’t seen before since 1982… in reality the moniker probably fits someone like James Cameron, who’s always been on the cutting edge of effects and setting box office records, a little bit better. Beyond that though, Ridley Scott’s movies tend to be a bit darker more down to earth and more R-rated (or hard PG-13 rated) than DeMille’s movies ever were. In the case of something like Gladiator or The Last Duel that’s a big plus, it makes the genre more relevant to modern audiences but I think I can safely say it’s probably not the right approach to bible stories.
Exodus: Gods and Kings was originally envisioned as… well I’m not exactly sure what the vision was. On some level Scott seemed to view this as a more down to Earth and historical version of the bible story but… well, it’s kind of impossible to do a historical version of the Exodus story because there’s basically no historical record to back up the Moses story at all. There’s literally more secular evidence of Noah’s flood than there is of Jewish slaves in Egypt. Scott at one point discussed looking for “natural causes for the miracles, including drainage from a tsunami for the parting of the Red Sea” and star Christian Bale was at one point thinking that Moses was “likely schizophrenic” to explain his visions. So I guess they were planning to make a borderline atheistic Moses story… which on some level is something that I should appreciate as a secular person who isn’t in the market for bible movies, but I’m pretty obviously not the target audience for one. The final movie is much less ambiguous about the divine intervention in the story and the “Tsunami drainage” idea doesn’t make the final film, but that mindset is still present and the whole movie feels like something of a cynical compromise between religion and secular tone that will basically please no one.
But really, the movie’s ultimate downfall isn’t its tone or approach to religion; it’s its uninspired screenplay and frankly lifeless direction. The film does very little to make the political dynamics of Egypt’s supposed slave economy interesting and the film’s characters feel like uninteresting archetypes. Bale isn’t doing one of his signature transformations and the supporting cast isn’t doing much either. The film was criticized at the time for casting white actors in middle eastern roles, which seemed a little weird to me at the time given the long history of Hollywood stars playing bible characters, but seeing a shaved head Joel Edgerton in an Egyptian pharaoh getup I was kind of swayed to think that casting was misguided. The film does kind of come alive during the plague scenes and during the red sea parting at the end, making it rather obvious what interested Scott in the production and what didn’t, but if all you’re going to bring to a project is well rendered disaster scenes then you might as well hand off the project to Roland Emmerich. And this also brings up the fact that, in 2010s these effects scenes are just never going to be as impressive to audiences as they were in the 50s so unless you have a very novel take on it this material just isn’t going to be the same kind of spectacle as it once was and it’s probably a mistake to invite the comparison.
** out of Five
All the Money in the World (2017)
I think it’s a near certainly that the ultimate thing the 2017 film All the Money in the World will be remembered for is the rush reshoots it had to make at the last minute to replace Kevin Spacey with a (more age appropriate) Christopher Plumber after abuse allegations came out about Spacey. That’s certainly a fascinating bit of trivia, and while watching the film you can’t help but try and spot which of Plumber’s scenes were shot on a green screen, but there is a movie beyond that story and I do want to try to see if it works on its own merits. The short answer is that it kind of does but there’s probably a reason people talk more about its behind the scenes drama than the actual movie. The film is about the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, a teenage heir to the Getty Oil fortune, while traveling in Italy. Family patriarch J. Paul Getty famously initially refused to pay the ransom, reasoning that doing so would put a target on the rest of his family. The film is primarily told from the perspective of the kidnapped boy’s mother (played by Michelle Williams) and a former CIA agent on J. Paul Getty sr.’s payroll (played by Mark Wahlberg) who is trying to track down the kidnappers and negotiate the release. The film does not really play particularly well as a thriller, as this dilemma takes place over such a long time and Scott doesn’t really go too far out of his way to put Getty III in a lot of real danger. So, this is more of a procedural about the negotiation and tracking process, which is hampered a bit by Whalberg, who is not great a playing characters who are supposed to seem… intelligent. And then of course the film is meant to be something of a study of the senior J. Paul Getty’s lifestyle and greed, which is probably the film’s most interesting element but it doesn’t take up a ton of the film’s actual runtime. Ultimately the movie’s just kind of average; not a terribly deep exploration of wealth and class, but a decent rundown of the true story at its center.
*** out of Five
And with that, I can now say that I’ve seen every one of Ridley Scott’s movies… for now anyway. Scott is of course still alive and working so keeping up with his work will be a continuing process for the forseeable future, in fact he as a Napoleon movie in the pipe right now with Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby which will probably be coming next year or maybe 2024 and with how prolific Scott is I imagine he’s got something else lined up after that. The five movies I watched for this were… not great, that’s kind of in the nature of the assignment as the last movies I haven’t seen from a filmmaker have usually been put off for a reason, but I think I got some insights into Scott just the same.
It’s kind of crazy that I, despite generally trying to keep up with world cinema, have never seen a film from the French Auteur François Ozon. For pretty much the entirety of the 21st Century this guy has been a fixture of the European festivals and usually also gets American distribution for his many, many, well received films. The guy has almost two dozen movies, most of them well liked, under his belt and yet I’ve never gotten on board. Why is that? Well, as omnipresent as Ozon has been over the last twenty five years he’s perhaps better known for his body of work than he is for any individual film. There’s a bit of an “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” quality to how his movies tend to be received: he’s constantly a fixture at festivals and usually gets good marks but at least stateside he never seems to be the center of attention either among critics or at the arthouse box office. So, I’ve never felt a ton of pressure to finally show up to one of his films and without that pressure skipping his movies has always kind of been the path of least resistance because with how long he’s been making movies it’s always felt odd to show up to whatever his latest has been without catching up ahead of time and knowing the context of what I’m getting into. Well, I’m finally doing that catch up. Now, this is going to be a slightly awkward survey because I do think I need to make sure to see what is probably the closest to being his signature film, 2003’s Swimming Pool, but then I’m going to jump forward about ten years and spend the rest of the Crash Course focusing on the more recent work he’s done in the 2010s, which is easier for me to obtain and would also be more relevant to preparing me to tackle any new work from him as it comes along.
Swimming Pool (2003)
Swimming Pool came out in 2003, when I would have been about 15: film literate but not yet regularly attending new foreign cinema. So it’s a movie that’s timed about right to be known by people of my generation and sure enough it’s the Ozon movie I’ve heard about the most over the years. That it would be more famous amongst people I know is probably because of three aspects of it: 1. it’s something of a bilingual movie that’s about 50% in English, 2. it features a great deal of female nudity, and 3. it has a twist ending in an era where movies with twist endings were very popular, especially among so-called “film bros.” I’m not really sure why it took nearly twenty years for me to catch up with it, I guess there were always just other priorities. The film stars Charlotte Rampling as a mystery writer who’s in a bit of a rut, so her publisher (played by Charles Dance) invites her to stay at his French vacation home while it’s empty. She takes him up on the offer but shortly after arriving there the publisher’s college aged daughter shows up, not knowing the place is already occupied and the two need to share the place. This becomes kind of tense because the daughter turns out to be a straight up nympho that seems to compulsively get topless and brings home a new man every night.
So what we’ve got here is a small movie with a pretty small cast that’s primarily set at one location. It’s sort of a thriller, but not really. It’s not really built on suspense sequences and aside from one scene of violence danger doesn’t really pervade the film. Instead it’s kind of an unusual battle of wills between these two women that takes a pretty radical turn at a certain point and becomes something else… or does it. The film is also partly about the artistic process as the protagonist tries to overcome her writer’s block and starts to view this new house guest as a possible subject for her writing and the knotty ethics involved in that. In fact the film’s final twist rather firmly seems to place that as the film’s central theme but that isn’t entirely apparent on a first viewing. Overall this was a movie that I found… interesting. In a lot of ways it feels kind of like a throwback to domestic semi-thrillers of a previous era, especially the almost identically titled La Piscine, which this comes close to being a remake of in some ways. I’m don’t necessarily think this movie would have blown me away when it first came out, but it’s a strong movie worth knowing about.
***1/2 out of Five
In the House (2012)
François Ozon’s 2012 film In the House was considered a bit of a comeback for the director which won quite a few festival awards despite not quite becoming a breakout at the domestic art houses. That’s unfortunate because it was produced slickly enough that I think it could have become a bigger deal than it was if it was promoted correctly. The film is set in contemporary France and focuses on a high school teacher literature teacher at what appears to be some sort of private school where a star pupil named Claude has caught his eye. This student, has turned in a writing assignment in which he describes his time tutoring at the house of a wealthier classmate. The story describes this house with a great deal of disrespect towards the classmate but a certain obsession with his house and the life of his family, and especially his mother. The writing ends with a literal “to be continued” at the end, which leaves the teacher in something of a dilemma. He likes the prose in the story and wants to encourage the student to continue both for the students development as a writer but also because the teacher is interested to hear more, but encouraging the student to continue to embed himself in the family life of his classmate for voyeuristic reasons is not exactly healthy. As further installments are turned in it seems that this game is becoming more and more dangerous (or is it?) but also the teacher has become more obsessed in seeing it through.
Though it doesn’t always feel that way, the film is steadfastly told from the perspective of the teacher character. We see many of Claude’s shenanigans at the house on screen, but these are all framed as dramatizations of the writing he turns in to the teacher. The teacher believes these writings to be fictionalized to a great degree, so we’re never sure whether that’s the case or if they’re total fabrications or if they’re in fact disturbingly factual and this kid really is kind of a stalking creep to this other family. So that’s a suspense element throughout the film, and it doesn’t take a great follower of cinema to view this combination of suspense and voyeurism as something of an unexpected riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (a film that is openly referenced with the movie’s final shot). Indeed these re-enactments of the kid’s writing are on one level the kid’s own voyeurism on the family, but also the teacher’s voyeuristic interest in the story the kid is weaving, and also the audience’s voyeuristic interest in the whole story as cinemagoers. So that’s all very clever and exhistential, but the movie never does really turn into a conventional thriller despite threatening to a couple of times, and it’s focus on the writing process in the context of an anti-thriller invokes Ozon’s own Swimming Pool. All in all it’s a really cleverly crafted and interesting drama that I enjoyed quite a bit.
**** out of Five
Young & Beautiful (2013)
For a self-identified gay man (who as far as I can tell has never claimed to be bisexual), François Ozon sure seems interested in the sex lives of promiscuous young women. Between this and Swimming Pool two of the three movies of his I’ve looked at are kind of fixated on the sex drive of an unusually active young woman and how the world around her responds to this. The central character here is a seventeen year old in a bourgeois home who loses her virginity on a summer vacation fling and then, upon returning to Paris, finds herself becoming a call girl to various usually middle-aged to elderly clients. If Swimming Pool (a film this establishes a clear kinship to in its closing moments) is like a response to La Piscine, and In the House is like a response to Rear Window, this would seem like a sort of Ozonian take on Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live) in that it’s trying to take a somewhat non-judgmental and procedural look at someone’s choice to engage in prostitution, but the protagonist’s age and financial situation adds a layer of mystery to the proceedings. The film is trying to explore what drives this character to enter this line of work. She doesn’t need, or seem to even spend, the money she earns while doing this. She acts alone and doesn’t seem to be pressured by anyone. She also doesn’t seem to express much in the way of physical satisfaction from these sexual encounters, and simple teen rebellion doesn’t seem to really explain it either. Eventually her “side-job” is discovered and the film looks at the way the people respond to this and the, usually not great, ways they try to “cope” with the fact that this family member was acting as a “whore.”
It reminded me of other movies from around that time like An Education and The Diary of a Teenage Girl about teenage girls finding themselves essentially groomed by older men but also finding their way out these abusive situations and finding some degree of normalcy later on. Those were, however, films made by female directors adapting other women’s autobiographical works and were also based around situations where the central protagonists have a bit less agency over their situations than this one does. I do wonder if this is another place where Ozon’s homosexuality comes into play because in a lot of ways this story might seem a bit more plausible if, instead of a straight teenage girl at its center there was a gay male teenage hustler exploring his sexuality by turning tricks because he’s stuck in a situation where there’s no other healthier way to do it. That would certainly add a bit of a different dimension to the film’s third act as it would give the family a much different thing to need to respond to after learning about the protagonist’s behavior. I’m not sure if that would be a better movie though as it would in many ways make this more of an “issue film” than a character study and the film might get more out of the unusualness of the situation at its center. It’s a tough film to talk about and a tricky one to recommend, but it’s certainly well-made and I ultimately quite liked the way it handled its subject.
***1/2 out of Five
The New Girlfriend (2014)
Though François Ozon is a gay man, this is not always central to his filmmaking. He’s made plenty of films where “queer” themes are front and center but he has also avoided being defined entirely by his sexuality. The three movies of his I’ve watched recently had some elements of queerness on their peripheries but they were by and large movies about decidedly straight people. His 2014 film The New Girlfriend, is however much more clearly a work of LGBT cinema, though it’s about the T and to some extent L and B parts of the acronym rather than the G which Ozon has personal experience with. The film is about a seemingly straight and seemingly male person who was in a heterosexual marriage to a woman but shortly after she gave birth to his daughter this wife dies of some unnamed disease leaving him alone with this daughter. All of this is told from the perspective of this wife’s lifelong best friend Claire, a seemingly straight woman in a heterosexual marriage, who visits this widower unannounced and is surprised to find him in the house wearing a dress and behaving like a woman. Now I’ve been dancing around pronouns with this character, who alternately goes by David and Virginia, never declares himself a true transwoman over the course of the film, does not seem to be dedicated to living as a woman 24/7, and may instead be some sort of crossdresser or genderqueer person, the film is not big on labels.
As this scenario might suggest this is not really an “issue” movie that’s trying to give a particularly sensitive or representative depiction of trans issues. Instead it gives us a very Gen X version of gender fluidity that is broadly tolerant of this person’s choices but is also perhaps trying to shock and challenge its bourgeois audience with the outrageousness of the situation. The whole scenario wouldn’t be totally out of place in a Pedro Almodóvar film, perhaps because of their shared affection for melodrama (both filmmakers are big fans of Fassbinder). I don’t know that this movie will be winning any GLAAD awards for its depiction but maybe not every movie about trans issues should be watched in stifling “representation matters” terms. In fact I think if this movie suffers from anything it’s that it’s not wild and reckless enough. There’s a sort of weird emotional affair at the center of the film between Claire and “Virginia” though rather specifically not “David” which certainly operates on very melodramatic terms and never quite gets as sordid as I think Ozon wanted it to be. This is perhaps a movie that came out a bit too late, it sort of feels more like it should be a product of a slightly earlier time (maybe even just four or five years earlier) when trans issues were a bit more taboo and there was more of a reason to use outlandish projects like this to explore them.
*** out of Five
François Ozon has continued to seem kind of hard to pin down for me as every time I think he’s going to zig he instead kind of zags. When I start seeing him as something of an impish provocateur he’ll make a movie like Frantz which is a pretty sincere bit of classical filmmaking. This film is ostensibly a remake of a 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film called Broken Lullaby which I haven’t seen and which was itself based on a mostly forgotten 1920s French play by Maurice Rostand. Its set right after World War I and concerns a French veteran of that war traveling into Germany to lay flowers at the grave of a dead German soldier named Frantz for mysterious reasons. He encounters the Frantz’ fiancé and when asked says that he knew him before the war when Frantz was living Paris. This seems genuine, so the fiancé comes to know this French soldier and while her family resents this man and every other Frenchman for what happened during the war, they eventually come to accept him as well, but it turns out he’s harboring a bit of a secret that could change things.
[Spoilers] I will say that I was a little surprised by the nature of that “dark secret,” but because it was shocking but more because it wasn’t particularly. Given some of the sexual provocations that Ozon has been inclined towards in the past I was pretty sure that it would be revealed that Franz and this Frenchman had been homosexual lovers, but no, the secret was closer to what you might have expected from a version of this story from a previous era: the Frenchman had killed Frantz on the battlefield, felt immense guilt about it, and was aware of the fiancé his time in Paris from a letter he retrieved on the man’s body. So the film isn’t really trying to subvert the melodrama of this situation with modern sensibilities, rather it’s kind of trying to make a straightforward old fashioned melodrama using modern tools. The film is partly in black and white and partly in color, with the color sequences which seem to come into the film during moments where the characters are able to put their grief aside during moments of love or moments when they’re experiencing beautiful things like music. The film is also interestingly bilingual with both principal characters being fluent in both French and German and speak both when appropriate and the whole film is very much about the two country’s perceptions of each other during this tense moment in history. I particularly enjoyed a scene late in the film where this German woman finds herself in a Parisian bar when the patrons burst into a rather martial rendition of “”La Marseillaise” which feels like something of a retort to the famous scene in Casablanca where this same song is sung heroically. All in all this is an interesting little period piece but I’m not sure it ever quite finds that “x factor” to make it truly memorable.
***1/2 out of Five
By the Grace of God (2019)
On January 6th 2002, The Boston Globe published the article “Spotlight: Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years,” as a result of the investigation that would later be chronicled in the movie Spotlight. So it’s been over twenty years and we’re still witnessing the fallout of what ended up being a worldwide pattern of conduct by this institution. By The Grace of God is a film that dramatizes one of these stories, one that’s not dramatically different than the others (unfortunately) but which is perhaps representative of the situation at large. The film looks at the investigation into a priest named Bernard Preynat who appears to have molested dozens if not hundreds of children on church sponsored camping trips over the course of decades and the church responded to this through their usual sleazy tactics of moving him around to different parishes and by the 2010s they somehow still had him working with children despite numerous complaints and the guy did not even seem to be denying his guilt. That last part is what’s truly baffling about this case, this wasn’t something that emerged early in the church’s abuse scandal: they had been dealing with it for over a decade and yet they were still standing by this guy beyond any and all reason and saying shockingly tone deaf things about the case like one moment where (for reasons that defy explanation) a church official said at a press conference that “by the grace of god” the statute of limitations on this priest had already expired. In fact by the time this was released in France the priest still hadn’t been defrocked (though he would months later).
This is not, however, a situation where the Church’s issues were uncovered through investigations by journalists or the police, both of whom seemed to have involved themselves in the situation rather belatedly. Instead this mostly seems to have been uncovered through organizing by the victims themselves. In particular the film focuses on three of the men involved in this organizing including the man who filed the initial police report and the person who did much of the grassroots organizing. The three represent varying degrees of “brokenness” by what happened to them and different relations to the church in the wake of what they experienced. The film essentially shifts perspectives between the three of them as it goes, starting with the successful family man and continued church goer who first reported it to the eccentric but stable atheist who did the organizing to the third victim who has been left traumatized and dysfunctional by what happened to him. Along the way we get a pretty detailed account of everything they went through, each time thinking they’d caught this guy red handed only to see nothing happen as a result. François Ozon remains pretty restrained and matter-of-factual in his accounting of all this. He’s sort of an odd choice to direct this as this isn’t really material that’s suited to his usual playfully provocative style, but he clearly saw this as material worth adjusting himself to.
**** out of Five
And that’s a wrap for my François Ozon crash course. I was by and large impressed by what I saw but don’t think any of these movies were new classics and I do sort of get why there’s been a bit of a plateau on how enthusiastically Ozon tends to be received. On the other hand, given how prolific this guy is I don’t think I’ve really gotten the full picture by watching these six movies and kind of suspect that I didn’t really curate an entirely representative sample for myself. I definitely plan to check out more eventually, for now I’ll just say he’s pretty good.