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Film Series Roundup—Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2024

Animal Kingdom
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2024
Through March 10, 2024
Film at Lincoln Center, New York, NY
Back for its 29th edition, Film at Lincoln Center’s long-running annual series included 21 new films. Here are my reviews of a half-dozen of those entries.
The Animal Kingdom (Magnolia Pictures; opens March 15)
In Thomas Cailley’s dystopian drama, some humans have started mutating into wild animals including some who have developed large wings and try to fly; is civilization unraveling, or is it a new type of evolutionary leap into the future? François (Romain Duris), worried about his afflicted wife, moves with his teenage son Émile (Paul Kircher) to be close to her, and they enter a world of hybrid humans. Calley’s conceit is certainly a high-wire act—eye-popping makeup, effects and photography vividly bring this bizarre but all too real new universe to life—yet his film often wavers, whether in the obvious metaphors for the fear of outsiders or in a wan subplot featuring Adèle Exarchopoulos, an actress incapable of a false note, but who is hamstrung by her role as a sympathetic cop. She and Duris deserve better scenes than Cailley gives them. 

Vanessa Springora’s soul-baring 2020 memoir created a sensation in France as she described a nonconsensual relationship with writer Gabriel Matzneff, who was 50 when he groomed her as his lover at age 13, and now Vanessa Filho—who adapted the book with Springora—has made a daring, often difficult to watch adaptation that clearly details how the self-admitted pedophile (who wrote quite openly about his scandalous sexual behavior with young boys and girls but was shielded by a literary establishment that looked askance at the real-life consequences) stealthily to her under his wing, emotionally and sexually. Jean-Paul Rouve is creepily persuasive as the destructive Matzneff, Laetitia Casta is scarily pathetic as Vanessa’s complicit mother and the great Elodie Bouchez has a magnificent cameo as the adult Vanessa. But it’s the simply spectacular Kim Higelin, as Vanessa from ages 13 to 18 (Higelin is 24 in real life), who is the beating and bleeding heart of the film, a dynamic piece of acting that is also emotionally shattering to watch.

Just the Two of Us (Music Box Films)
Writer-director Valérie Donzelli pairs with current French cinema It Girl, Belgian actress Virginie Efira, for a twisty thriller that begins as a whirlwind romance when Blanche (Efira), still hurting from a recent breakup, falls for the charming Grégoire (Melvil Poupaud). They immediately marry, but it’s not long before she realizes he’s not the man of her dreams: yet it takes several years and two children before she finally takes action to escape his emotional and physical abuse. Efira is her usual powerhouse self, both as Blanche and her suspicious twin sister Rose, but not enough is made of the siblings’ relationship (or with that of their mother) to justify the amount of screen time it receives. Surprisingly, this routine feature was co-written with Audrey Diwan, who wrote and directed last year’s memorable abortion drama, Happening, doubling the disappointment.

Marguerite’s Theorem (Distrib Films US)
Co-writer-director Anna Novion has created pulse-pounding suspense from the seemingly mundane subject of math: a grad school numbers whiz, Marguerite (a superlative and complex turn by Belgian actress Ella Rumpf), sees her academic life fall apart when it’s discovered that the theorem she has worked on for years has a fatal error. Novion’s brilliantly observed character study follows a young woman who realizes that her life can consist of much more than mere numbers and proofs on a blackboard; director and actress make Marguerite one of the most compelling characters I’ve seen onscreen in some time, and it’s easy to share in her triumphs (her first orgasm is particularly wittily shot) and cheer for her ultimate mathematical—and personal—redemption.

On the Adamant
In a very distinguished career, French documentarian Nicolas Philibert has made insightful films about subjects ranging from French national radio to rural schooling—in his latest, he aims his sharp eye and lens on the Adamant, a barge on the Seine that serves as a mental health daycare center for adults and provides nurturing activities with a dedicated staff. Philibert, in his usual discerning way, records the interactions between the patients and the doctors and other staff members, along with perceptive and touching interviews, making for another in a long line of generously humane portraits.

Red Island
Robin Campillo’s most recent film, 2017's BPM: Beats Per Minute, was a feisty, angry and absorbing chronicle of ’90s AIDS activism in France and the formation of ACT UP. His latest, equally autobiographical, feature returns him to childhood, growing up on a French military base on the island of Madagascar. The young protagonist, Thomas, feels left out of family activities and often passes his time daydreaming about a superhero comic book—whose adventures are amusingly visualized by Campillo—and then finds a fellow friend in a young Vietnamese girl, Suzanne. Campillo has made a moody if diffuse work that shows a sympathetic eye but also too often a preference for visual audacity over depth.

Festival Roundup—New York Jewish Film Festival

33rd New York Jewish Film Festival
Screenings through January 24, 2024
Walter Reade Theater, 155 West 65th Street, NYC
Remembering Gene Wilder
The 33rd edition of the New York Jewish Film Festival comprises the usual enticing mix of features, shorts and documentaries for its annual two-week stay at Lincoln Center. This time around, I saw only documentaries, starting with the fest’s bittersweet closing night film, Ron Frank’s Remembering Gene Wilder, a lovely and ineffably sad valentine to the beloved actor, who died of Alzheimer’s in 2016. Letting Wilder himself narrate his own life story (thanks to an audiobook he’d recorded years earlier), Frank adroitly mixes film clips, vintage interviews and on-set tomfoolery as well as poignant talking-head reminiscences from many people including Wilder’s widow, Karen; Richard Pryor’s daughter, Rain; writer Alan Zweibel; and—of course—Mel Brooks.

Laura Bialis’ Vishniac (opens Jan. 19) chronicles the rich and complicated life of Roman Vishniac, a Russian-born photographer known for his historic images of 1930s Jewish communities that became important documents after so many of them were destroyed by the Nazis, through the nuanced testimony of his daughter Mara (who died in 2018). Although Bialis relies rather too heavily on reenactments—they’re usually a distraction in any documentary—she has put together a worthy tribute to a man who will be remembered for his photographic and scientific work long after his occasional tall tales about himself will be forgotten.
James Joyce’s Ulysses

In Adam Low’s James Joyce’s Ulysses, the greatest book by a 20th century author in English takes center stage; in a fleet 90 minutes, Low provides an illuminating look at the genesis of Joyce’s  massive novel, which spends one day (June 16, 1904) in Dublin with protagonist Leopold Bloom as he interacts with others in a parody of the classic Greek myth. Along with informative commentary by a variety of Joycean experts, Low does misstep by showing sequences from Joseph Strick’s rather wan 1967 film adaptation to illustrate various moments from the book. Otherwise, anyone interested in Joyce or the back story to his greatest creation will find much to ponder.
The Books He Didn’t Burn
What makes Claude Bredenbrock and Jascha Hannover’s The Books He Didn’t Burn so disturbing is not that it takes on the difficult task of exploring what literature Adolf Hitler loved, had in his library and drew his fascist and murderous influences from but that there’s an unspoken undercurrent that there’s a distinct possibility that it can happen again, a lot closer in time or place than we might think. 
Looking for Chloé
Isabelle Cottenceau’s engaging Looking for Chloé brings back to life a nearly forgotten trailblazer, Gaby Aghion, a Jewish woman from Egypt who founded the Parisian fashion house Chloé and who is credited with inventing the concept of pret-a-porter. Cottenceau not only shows rare archival footage of Aghion and the fashion industry milieu but also cannily recreates an interview with her that demonstrates how she overcame prejudices to make her mark and flourish artistically.
In Matthew Mishory’s incisive Fioretta, Randy Schoenberg, a genealogist and attorney who specializes in recovering artworks stolen by the Nazis, takes a journey with Joey, his reticent teenage son, to discover Fioretta, their long-lost European ancestor. Mishory follows Randy and Joey (who have a very famous ancestor, composer Arnold Schoenberg, Randy’s grandfather) to the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, as they discover nearly half a millennium’s worth of family history.
999—The Forgotten Girls
Lastly, there’s Heather Dune Macadam’s piercing 999—The Forgotten Girls, which revisits the harrowing memories of several survivors of the cruel 1942 Nazi roundup of nearly 1000 young Jewish women in Czechoslovakia who were sent to Auschwitz. Macadam hears stories from the anguished women’s remembrances, 80 years later, about how their friends and family members died in such squalid conditions, but much of her powerful film records the incredible resilience that allowed them to survive for nearly three years.

Film Series Roundup: Open Roads—New Italian Cinema 2023

The Hummingbird
Open Roads—New Italian Cinema 2023
Through June 8, 2023
Film at Lincoln Center
165 West 65 Street, New York, NY
This year’s edition of Open Roads, Film at Lincoln Center’s annual survey of the latest films from Italy, includes the new feature from one of our greatest living directors, Gianni Amelio, along with a drama that imagines the genesis of the best-known play by one of the greatest 20th-century playwrights.
The Hummingbird
Francesca Archibugi’s adaptation of Sandro Veronesi’s prizewinning eponymous 2019 novel follows the decades-long relationships, triumphs and tragedies of several generations of a large family, either sentimental or melodramatic by turns. Archibugi films it all with her usual sophistication, and her superior soap opera owes its jumbled-chronology, everything-is-connected structure to the films of Julio Medem. Best of all is the acting: Nanni Moretti, Laura Morante, Kasia Smutniak, Sergio Albelli and, in the leads (and, at the end, pretty wretched old-age makeup), Pierfrancesco Favino and Bérénice Bejo, both adept at being attractive and exquisite no matter what’s happening. 
Lord of the Ants
Along with Marco Bellocchio, Gianni Amelio is a true living master of Italian cinema, with such memorable films as 1982’s A Blow to the Heart, 1989’s Open Doors and 1992’s Stolen Children. His latest, intelligently told, is the true story of Aldo Braibanti, a homosexual poet and author who ran afoul of Italy’s repressive laws in the 1960s, put on trial and jailed for “grooming” younger men. Although at times it’s simply a conventional courtroom drama, there’s a quiet urgency to Amelio’s filmmaking as well as Luigi Lo Cascio’s sensitive turn as Braibanti.  
In Paolo Virzì’s apocalyptic drama set in Rome, a variety of characters, from billionaires to scientists, unemployed actors, Uber drivers, hospital workers and prisoners, must deal with a severe water shortage—no rain for three years!—government rationing of available water and a mystery virus that might be from the roaches infesting the city. Shuttling among these people (and letting some come together at the end to wrap up loose ends), Virzì has made what amounts to an Italian Crash but without the surfeit of bludgeoning, ham-fisted pronouncements. Although it loses dramatic momentum, Dry is saved by a uniformly excellent cast that’s led by Sara Serraiocco as a heavily pregnant nurse whose absent father has inadvertently left jail and Claudia Pandolfi as a famous actor’s wife who’s reduced to working as a cashier to make ends meet.
The life of Saint Claire, first woman follower of St. Francis of Assisi, is illuminated in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s steely period drama, which depicts the rough-hewn Middle Ages as no film has since Bertrand Tavernier’s 1987 Beatrice. Anchored by a beautifully unadorned performance by Margherita Mazzucco as the eponymous heroine who turned her back on her family to enter the convent and found the Order of Poor Ladies in homage to Francis (a fine Andrea Carpenzano), Nicchiarelli’s transfixing film intersperses musical numbers that add unexpected nuance and flavor to the story of this humble young woman’s eventful life.
Like Turtles
When her beloved husband Daniele decides to move out, humiliated mom Lisa decides to move in—to the bureau that’s now empty after he took all his clothes. Monica Dugo wrote, directed and stars in this often perceptive but equally one-note study about how a “perfect” life can crumble in an instant despite the support and love of our heroine’s teenage daughter, young son and judgmental mother. Actress Dugo is understatedly poignant as Lisa, but director Dugo seems to sense that there’s not much here: the movie lasts a bare 80 minutes without making a big impression, despite Dugo’s and her talented costars’ efforts.

A startlingly realistic look at marginal people barely noticed in Italy—Ethiopian sex workers barely scraping by, dealing with awful potential customers and the possibility of police chasing them (on horses yet)—director Roberto De Paolis’ drama follows a proud young woman, Princess, who finds kinship, and maybe more, with a charming misanthrope she meets while he’s picking mushrooms in the woods where she plies her trade. Skirting melodrama, De Paolis’ film is buoyed by its healthy sense of humor and the spellbinding discovery, Glory Kevin, who makes Princess’ plight compelling and humane.
How did Luigi Pirandello come to write his seminal play, Six Characters in Search of an Author? According to Roberto Andò’s faintly silly movie, it’s when Pirandello returned to his hometown in Sicily while mired in writer’s block, and became friends with offbeat members of a local theater troupe. While entertainingly crammed with allusions to Pirandello’s play and characters, Strangeness seems kind of a lesser Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s infinitely more lively riff on Hamlet. Toni Servillo carries himself brilliantly as Pirandello, but his talent would have been better used in a proper biopic. The final segment of the Taviani brothers’ best film, 1984’s Kaos, is a far more memorable paean to Pirandello’s greatness.

Existential Dread Found Live on Stage at the Irish Rep in Samuel Beckett’s Challenging “Endgame”

Play: “Endgame”
Writer: Samuel Beckett
Director: Ciarán O’Reilly
Cast: John Douglas Thompson, Bill Irwin, Joe Grifasi, Patrice Johnson Chevannes
Run: Until April 16th (last four performances will also be live streamed)
Venue: Irish Repertory Theater
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage
132 West 22nd Street (between 6th & 7th Avenue)

In this world of upside-down values, Bizarro politics and contradictory social analysis, a viewing of any play by ultra-absurdist Samuel Beckett makes much more sense. So, when a new production of “Endgame, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, opened at New York City’s Irish Repertory Theater recently, it became something one must experience. Previews began at the end of January with an opening date taking place on February, 2nd, 2023. Starring John Douglas Thompson as Hamm, Bill Irwin as Clov, Joe Grifasi as Nagg and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Nell, the production was originally scheduled to run until mid March, but thanks to audience demand, it has now been extended until mid April.

This stark, one-act tragicomedy is focused on a blind, partially paralyzed, dominating older man (Thompson) sitting at center stage, his harried, servile companion (Irwin) and his geriatric parents (Grifasi and Chevannes) in an ramshackle old house in what seems like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Two garbage cans sit to the left of Hamm’s wheelchair. Only two small windows at the back suggest there is a world outside.

Hamm references some unspecified “end” whether it is to be the end of their lives or death of the world in general or the end of the events which make up the actual play. Much of the content consists of terse, back-and-forth dialogue between the characters which alternates between bantering and whimpering. Along with trivial stage actions, we are forced to wonder just how they ended up here.

What plot there is held together by Hamm’s telling of a grotesque story-within-a-story that erupts from his mouth from moment to moment. He does this with sometimes bombastic outbursts and other times, a pathetic whining.

An aesthetically profound part of the play is the way the story-within-story and the actual play converge at roughly the same time bringing this skeletal drama to a close. With such skillful actors as these, they eke out humor despite the bleakness, often delivered not with dialogue but with the silent profundity of a head nod, their expressive eyes or awkward gestures.

Upon Hamm’s loudly modulated voicing of the lines, Clov reacts with a world-weariness that lets us know this is not the first time this dynamic between them or the foursome for that matter, has taken place. If anything, Beckett has set this up as if we have been allowed a glimpse into these final moments. The play’s title refers to chess and frames the characters as acting out a losing battle with each other or their fate. Certainly, it’s an odd set of moves that has awarded this play with praise and proclamations that it is the ultimate expression of the existential dilemma — we keep going on no matter how absurd that notion is.

Taken as a whole, much of the dialogue adds up to nothing but bit pieces — sutured together within the context of these 85 minutes, they provoke, prod and compel the audience’s emotional reaction to the infuriating plight of the characters — mostly driven by Hamm’s powerful presence. Though it seems thoroughly unrelenting in its darkness, Clov begins to see a light at the end of the tunnel so there is a glimmer of possibilities.

Originally written in French (“Fin de partie”), the play was translated into English by Beckett himself and was first performed in French on April 3, 1957, at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Written before, but premiering after his most well-known play, “Waiting for Godot,” “Endgame” is among Beckett’s best works and a crucial influence on so many young avant-garde playwrights.

Renowned literary critic Harold Bloom has called it the greatest prose drama of the 20th century, saying, “I know of no other work of its reverberatory power.” Though some might consider “Waiting for Godot” his masterpiece, Beckett considered “Endgame” the most aesthetically perfect, compact representation of his artistic views on human existence. But both plays require repeated viewings to fully appreciate them.

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