Film Reviews

TIFF 2007 Coverage: Part 1

Les Chansons d’Amour and The World Unseen

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Les Chansons d’Amour

Les Chansons d’Amour is a beautifully shot tour of Paris, set to lame, cheesy love songs, and a strange story that doesn’t quite work, derailing into a plot that it never manages to satisfactorily set us up to expect. Ismael (Louis Garrel) and Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) are a young couple in love – I think – but they’re too scared to admit their true feelings to one another, and instead of trying to work things out, talk things through, and enter the scary territory of a meaningful relationship, they choose, instead to start a ménage a trois with Alice. It’s never quite clear who the threesome is for; I think it’s for the both of them. With a third party around all the time, the young couple never really have to deal with their feelings or affections for one another; they can, instead, focus on playing mind games of power politics and jealousy with one another. I had expected the movie to be about how the relationship between the two women and Ismael develop, how they hurt each other, confuse each other, and either ultimately end up miserable, or actually manage to work things out. That would be an interesting film.

But that is not the film I saw. Instead, Julie gets killed off abruptly after the first half hour, and the rest of the film is a long and drawn out story of grief and acceptance, as Ismael regrets her loss, though maybe not quite enough. I think he loved her, but I’m not sure if they were really a couple for life, though her family still dotes on him, and walks in on him in his apartment unexpectedly (they have a key), and encounter his various flings. He meets an attractive young man, Erwann, a student who seems to stalk him. Ismael takes comfort in him – not really because he’s suddenly discovered his homosexuality or even because he’s truly smitten. Erwann is just there, needy, giving, and convenient. They have some romantic scenes, but it’s more a romance of right-time-right-place-won’t last. I don’t think we can infer that his relationship with Julie was flawed because he secretly wished she were male. The direction the film takes us is interesting, and it kind of works, though it’s admittedly much less interesting than the movie I was expecting from the first half hour.

The songs have lame lyrics that are hardly any good in French, let alone in their washed-out English-translated-subtitles form. They’re not whimsical or goofy the way the mediocre music of 8 Femmes was. And if you heard them on the radio, you’d probably cringe with their overly pop-y style. I like musicals, so even despite the awful music, I kind of like the fact that they do sing. But the goofy songs prevent the film from carrying any real emotional weight: it’s impossible to take it seriously. The film also veers into a strange perspective: we start seeing things through Julie’s perspective, and then all of a sudden she’s dead and we’re following Ismael around. Louis Garrel is an attractive young actor, but he’s not much more than a pretty boy; he doesn’t have much presence nor does he have much of any chemistry with any of the other characters. Nevertheless, his love affair with the younger man is tender and a little sweet. And as a whole, the movie isn’t a total disappointment. It just seems to drag on and on and on; the one-third mark seemed like the ending, not the launching point for the rest of the movie. When it was finally over, I was glad, but I didn’t really regret the hour-and-a-half I spent taking in Les Chansons d’Amour.

The World Unseen

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The World Unseen was the only real dud I saw at the festival this year; the writer-director of the film is also the author of the novel that it’s based on, so it’s not altogether surprising. Actually, had I managed to notice that fact, I probably wouldn’t have wasted my time on this movie. With a title like this, I went in expecting to see a movie about an untold story, but instead The World Unseen merely tells the story the world has seen many, many, many times to the point that it’s long past clichéd. Amina (Sheetal Sheth), is a young, radical Indian woman, in Apartheid South Africa in the 1950s. She has a black business partner, Jacob, and runs a café for misfits, that really seems to be trying to invoke Rick’s Café of Casablanca fame. She’s an open pants-wearing lesbian; it even gets annoying that the film explains her strength and street smart ability to survive in a ‘man’s world’ by her sexual orientation. Can’t a woman be strong, wear pants, and be straight?

She falls for a young, scared, but tender Indian woman, Myriam (Lisa Ray), in an unhappy and abusive marriage. The film recycles every cliché of the wife-beating husband except the Marlon Brando wife-beater t-shirt. The two women fall in love sort of, though it seems more like Amina is forcing Myriam into a sexual relationship when what they had should have been just a close friendship, but Amina seems to be unintentionally taking advantage. Doesn’t that make her almost as bad as the husband that won’t give his wife any freedom, meanwhile he has an affair with his friend’s slutty wife, who gives the most awful performance in the movie, that offends the senses on every level; she just really doesn’t belong in this movie. I kept hoping to see “The World Unseen” of apartheid: the difficulty of being a lesbian during Apartheid, the discrimination the minority Indian population experienced. But the film never really took us there. Instead, it just told us the same old clichéd stories of intolerance and abuse that have been better told in better films.

Granted, there were some genuinely good scenes. Although it’s nothing new, the relationship that the black Jacob and the sweet but white post-office woman, Madeline strike up is heartfelt. Their struggles through the laws of society are heartbreaking; their relationship is ultimately doomed. But the film plays this story well. When Jacob goes into the post office, there are two lines: one for whites, and one for non-whites. Since Madeline is the only person working at the time, she decides to serve the sixty-something Jacob in the whites line, but not without objections from the young 20-something white man who degrades Jacob by calling him ‘boy’ and orders him around. Although we’ve seen this story before, I still found this rendition powerful. His embarrassment in front of the woman he desires is heartbreaking and the very visual division between where white people can go and where non-white people can go is frightening. Yet even their relationship seems to spout somewhat out of rebellion against the laws – they both dislike apartheid equally – than true affection, though there certainly is a real attraction.

I occasionally got that nudging feeling in my stomach that I so wanted to feel from the discomfort of all the disgusting prejudice being displayed. But there are films that pull that out of you more with more merit. The outcome of the movie is obvious from the first five minutes, and it never strays from the expected beaten path. The scenery of the countryside in South Africa is breathtaking; I wish we saw more of it. Instead, we get a self-indulgent story that doesn’t show us anything new, doesn’t even give us particularly endearing characters, Jacob and Madeline, excepting, and it drags. The film is bad enough that it can spark long outraged discussion afterwards, but why waste those two hours just so that you complain about it? Then again, it’s not as bad as wasting three hours on Inland Empire just so you can complain about it and spend the next few months repressing the painful memory. See To Kill a Mockingbird, instead: it does a better job of doing what this movie tries to do and even its over-sentimentality is better.

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