Doodad Kind of Town

Seeing Europe at the Movies
July 23, 2007, 11:49 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

When the summer heats up, the cool darkness of the movie theatre beckons me.

Unfortunately, I have developed somewhat of an aversion – really, almost an allergy – to summer blockbusters. Loud special effects do not impress me. I have always been a connoisseur of quieter cinematic pleasures. Nor do I like crowded multiplex theatres. (In fact, I am not a fan of crowds anywhere.) So I have avoided all films with Pirates, Transformers, Harry Potter or Spider Man in the title.

Another siren song that sings in my ear when summer comes is the one which beckons me to travel. More specifically, to travel overseas. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Europe several times, but it’s become prohibitively expensive this year, what with the poor performance of the US dollar vs. the Euro. Not that Europe is that great a place to visit in the summer anyway, ’cause everyone is there! (See aforementioned aversion to crowds.)

Fortunately I’ve found a way to indulge both my summer passions at low cost and generally without large hoards of people in the popcorn line. I’ve been experiencing a little bit of Europe on the silver screen in art house theatres right here in the suburbs. Here’s a little on what I’ve seen:

“Paris Je T’aime” is a compendium of 18 short films, all set in the storied City of Lights, each directed by a different American or European director. It’s not quite the twinkly, picture-postcard travelogue you might expect, but it is very entertaining nonetheless. The films vary wildly in tone – from romantic to political, from sad to ironic, from knee-slapping funny to head-scratching weird. Highlights are: a love story between two mimes; a Coen Brothers-directed segment with Steve Buscemi being taunted and terrorized by a young French couple as he waits for a Metro train; Juliette Binoche as a grieving mother who finds a way to reconnect with her recently deceased young son, if only in her imagination.

A few segments, however, are flatter than last week’s champagne. I groaned at Alexander Payne’s segment, narrated by a fat, fanny-pack-and-Reeboks-wearing tourist in egregiously bad, American-accented French. It’s such a cheap and easy shot, and all too consistent with Payne’s tendency (in films like “About Schmidt”) to poke cruel fun at unsophisticated middle Americans. But, happily, he redeems the segment with an unexpectedly touching finale.

Then there’s the vignette in which old pros Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazara play a long-separated couple divorcing at last and discussing the details over a glass of wine in a cafe. Their wry, knowing humor would play well if the actors were about twenty years younger, but seeing this scene played by septuagenarians is just plain creepy. If hearing the 76-year-old Rowlands purr about her young, bicycle-racer boyfriend and the equally elderly Gazara chuckle ruefully about his pregnant, 30-year-old fiancee doesn’t make you squirm in your seat, I don’t know what will. It’s like watching your grandparents perform in a bedroom farce. Gerard Depardieu has an all-too-brief cameo as their bartender.

For a look at Paris of a bygone age – plus a side trip to swanky, post-WWII Manhattan – check out “La Vie En Rose,” a sensational bio of the iconic French singer, Edith Piaf. Marion Cotillard (last seen as the girl who stole Russell Crowe’s heart in “A Good Year”) is magnificent as Piaf. She surpasses mere impersonation of the legendary “Little Sparrow” to vividly embody both her fragility and the indomitable life force. In every one of Piaf’s incarnations – the teenager who sang in the streets to earn a few coins; the celebrated star of cabaret and concert hall surrounded by celebrity friends; and, finally, the tiny, ravaged woman, prematurely aged from years of heavy drinking and morphine addiction and fighting to stay alive and sing – Cottilard is breathtaking and emotionally true.

Many have criticized the film’s non-linear structure for being confusing, and they’re right: “La Vie en Rose” jumps back and forth between time periods in Piaf’s life with very little setup or explanation. It’s also been criticized for completely omitting significant events in Piaf’s life, and again, that’s probably fair. (On the basis of this film alone, you’d never guess that World War II even happened.) But neither of these flaws really bothered me. I was completely engrossed in what felt like a sort of impressionistic collage of Piaf’s emotional life. I left feeling I’d glimpsed the singer’s soul.

Oh, and Gerard Depardieu pops up again in an extended cameo as the man who discovers Piaf and launches her career. What up with Monsieur Depardieu and all these drive-by performances? Does he do starring roles anymore, or does he just pop in and add a tantalizing soupcon of his Depardieu-ness to help sell major French films overseas? Discuss….

One film bio to skip is “Klimt,” starring John Malkovich as the legendary Viennese painter. Gustav Klimt. Malkovich is rapidly devolving from a fine, interesting actor into a reliable but annoying purveyor of quirks, tics and eccentricities. He’s the go-to guy when you need a freak show performance in a little indie film. Here he’s a bit more contained, but there’s no real center to his performance, and you’ll come away knowing almost nothing about Klimt.
(What you do learn from this film may even turn out to be completely untrue. It’s strongly implied here that Klimt died of syphilis; in reality, he died from a stroke. Emilie Floge, Klimt’s real-life companion/muse/model, pops up everywhere, but Klimt barely pays attention to her and she comes off desparate and needy. In the context of the film, she may or may not be Klimt’s girlfriend, but she sure as heck wants to be.)
Like “La Vie en Rose,” “Klimt’s” structure is impressionistic rather than linear. Supposedly this is meant to evoke Klimt’s painting style, but it rarely does. The overall effect is more like a exhibition of every Bad Art Film cliche known to man: here is a Kafakesque “Sekretar” character who exists only in Klimt’s imagination and appears at critical moments to question him; here is a particularly laughable scene in which various people from Klimt’s life appear at different doors and Klimt must choose which door to enter! Wow, dude, that’s symbolic! The last time I was impressed by this kind of stuff, I was a college freshman. At least the Vienna scenes were visually sumptuous – and the many scenes set in Vienna’s pastry-laden coffeehouses gave me a mighty hankering for some apple strudel with vanilla cream.

Finally, this weekend I got around to seeing this year’s Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, “The Lives of Others.” I’m happy to report that this is that rare film from which I emerge to tell my friends, “That wasn’t just a good movie, that was a great movie!” Set in the bleak, pre-Glasnost East Berlin of 1984, it is the story of a government surveillance man assigned to monitor a well-known writer and his actress girlfriend who are suspected of having anti-socialist leanings. He bugs their apartment and listens to their every move and conversation, reporting back dutifully to his superiors. But in the process, something unexpected happens to this buttoned-up government operative: moved by the couple’s passions for art and for one another, he finds his conscience and his soul. Listening over the surveillance equipment as the writer plays a piano sonata in honor of a deceased friend, he weeps. He breaks into their apartment to steal a book of poetry which he reads, enraptured, in his drab little apartment. (WARNING – Spoiler ahead – stop reading now if you intend to see this movie). Ultimately he sacrifices his own career to ensure that the writer’s report on the alarming suicide rate in East Germany is smuggled out of the country and published in the West. The film ends on a redemptive note. I love any film in which a character is spiritually transformed by Great Art, and this one had me at Guten Tag. Every moment was riveting. Ulrich Muhe, who plays the surveillance man, gives a beautiful performance – tightly wound, furtive, controlled, but with a deep, haunted sadness in his eyes for a life half-lived. I’m picking this one up on DVD for my permanent collection.

(photos from and Google photos)

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