Titane

Release: Friday, October 1, 2021 (limited)

👀 Theater

Written by: Julia Ducournau

Directed by: Julia Ducournau

Starring: Agathe Rousselle; Vincent Lindon; Garance Marillier; Bertrand Bonello; Adèle Guigue

 

 

 

*****/*****

Really the best way to follow up a critical success is to make another, while further pushing boundaries to see what you might get away with. Titane certainly tests some limits. This is a potent, unpredictable and morally challenging exhibition that will either have you recoiling or marveling at the audacity of the artist.

A story involving cars, sex and violence sounds pretty mainstream but then this is Julia Ducournau, far from your garden variety director. Thus, gearheads and Fast & the Furious fans need not apply. For the moment, Ducournau seems enamored with transformative narratives that fixate on the body and alienate her protagonists from their own skin. But where her cannibalistic début feature Raw was more literal, in Titane it’s more about skin as one’s interiority, their sense of self. Though vaguely thematically related I suspect not even Raw‘s hard-to-stomach content would serve as adequate prep for the wild and uncomfortable ride she offers with her follow-up.

Titane deals with a young woman named Alexia who we first meet as a child (chillingly played by Adèle Guigue) in the jolting opening sequence — a car crash caused by her distracted father (Bertrand Bonello) which leaves the little girl with a titanium plate in her skull. Jumping forward in time Ducournau’s camera shadows older Alexia (Agathe Rouselle) as she heads in for another shift as a sexed-up model working seedy auto shows. When not writhing around suggestively on top of shiny hoods she’s signing autographs for desperate dudes . . . and murdering them when they try to get cute.

Indeed, it doesn’t take long to appreciate Alexia’s wired differently than most, the scar on the side of her head a kind of red marking to warn off her prey. And her prey turn out to be alarmingly susceptible. Acts that begin in self-defense become upsettingly random. We also quickly learn her sexual preferences are in constant flux and, uh, exotic.

There’s a girl, Justine (Garance Marillier), and a steamy moment where you begin to believe the movie is about to course-correct into a more familiar drama about being lost and desperately hoping to be found. However all bets are off when lovemaking with a car turns out far more productive than with her coworker, the former leaving Alexia pregnant and the latter devolving into a multi-room, multi-victim bloodbath that forces her to go into hiding by committing to an elaborate ruse that will have profound physical and psychological impacts.

Though the surreal, foreboding atmosphere never relents and disbelief and discomfort remain constant companions, Ducournau’s monstrosity (a term of endearment, in this case) evolves as a tale of two measurably different halves, distinguished not by quality but rather purpose as well as a noticeable shift in tone away from something fiercely feminine and toward brute masculinity. All the while this moody, bathed-in-neon head trip also morphs into something that for awhile seems out of reach; it becomes relatable.

French screen veteran Vincent Lindon provides a crucial link and the sledgehammer performance needed to match his co-star. He plays an aging fire chief who continues to mourn the disappearance of his boy Adrien ten years ago while blasting himself through with steroid injections, often to the point of collapse. When Adrien seems to reappear in police custody joy is soon replaced by concern over his son’s mute, sullen behavior. He attempts to integrate Adrien back into society, with mixed results.

In only her second film the 37-year-old provocateur is a rising star in her own right. The fact that she manages to turn so many negatives into a small but notable positive takes serious talent. But let’s not get things more twisted than they already are. There are many aspects that help inform the off-kilter vibe she’s going for — the rattling, industrial score and disturbing make-up work loom large — but not one thing, not one person commands your attention like newcomer Agathe Rousselle, an androgynous actor who burns up the screen, leveraging her lack of A-lister conspicuousness into one of the most compelling characters and performances this year has to offer, one that’s hauntingly human-adjacent.

The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes 2021, Titane might be memorable for timing alone, winning in a year in which the pomp and glam returns to the French Riviera after the event’s first hiatus since World War II. But Ducournau has the bizarre content and undeniable confidence to justify the strong reaction. Titane isn’t a crowdpleaser, it’s a crowd shocker, designed to start a conversation or quite possibly end one.

Not quite Titanic

Moral of the Story: I stop short of saying best movie of the year because ‘best’ is such an awkward term to apply to something so uncompromising and unusual, a movie touting a very challenging character to root for, no less. So to be more accurate Titane sits comfortably among the most unique cinematic experiences you are going to have in 2021. For all that is bizarre and unpleasant, I put it in the category of must-see-to-believe (or not). A stunning effort from a name already making noise in the industry. Spoken in French with English subtitles. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “My name is Alexia!” 

Strap in and hold on for dear life in the Official Trailer from Neon Productions here!

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Divines

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Release: Friday, November 18, 2016 (Netflix)

[Netflix]

Written by: Uda Benyamina; Romain Compingt; Malik Rumeau 

Directed by: Uda Benyamina 

Divines provides a bleak but brilliant look into the lives of two teens in the Parisian banlieue. It follows Dounia and her best friend Maimouna as they seek out ways of making quick money so they can one day break free of their oppressive environs, an urban sprawl so neglected it almost looks post-apocalyptic. Small-time hustlers turn big-time drug pushers in this searing indictment of the socioeconomic climate of modern France, where the rich get richer “because the poor aren’t daring enough.”

Powerful female performances dominate but the French-Moroccan Uda Benyamina in her feature debut stops just short of making a film explicitly about female empowerment, and in so doing she creates a film that’s a little more open to interpretation. The narrative is more concerned with economics and how simply the lack of money so often coerces good people into making poor decisions. It just so happens to feature two impressionable young women going to extreme measures to realize a dream. Along the way Benyamina also examines the prominence of religion in poor communities. It is no accident the film opens with a sermon.

Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, the director’s sister) comes from a broken family, her mother an exotic dancer who sleeps around and is more often drunk than sober. There’s no real father figure as such, aside from a cross-dresser who hangs around for casual sex and to feign giving emotional support to the quietly angry teen. Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) comes from a more well-to-do family, her father a prayer leader at a mosque. The film’s major themes — poverty and religious devotion — become increasingly apparent through the perspectives and conversations had between the two girls. They are first seen peddling whatever items they have been able to thieve from a shopping mall on the streets to whomever will give them cash. When Dounia discovers a potential fast-track to success she starts cozying up to a drug dealer named Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda).

Divines is hardly the first film to filter the political and economic turmoil of Western Europe through the experiences of young and naïve characters — in this case, young women from a Parisian ghetto. It will not be the last. That doesn’t mean Divines is a predictable or insignificant affair. Quite the contrary, actually. The story revitalizes tropes and breathes new life into expected character arcs, patiently building toward one of the most punishing endings you are likely to see. Julien Poppard’s cinematography, a heady combination of gritty realism and ethereal experimentation, forces viewers to acknowledge Paris as something other than just the City of Lights. This is a city of darkness. It’s worth noting the juxtaposition of these slums against iconic landmarks like the Arc de Triomphe. Poppard often frames the city in a contradictory manner, imprisoning the characters within a crumbling square betwixt decaying buildings while tossing in plenty of romantic stimuli to assure viewers are where the street signs say they are.

While the edifices certainly could use some attention, Dounia in particular is desperate for it. Or at least some sort of positive influence. As the narrative expands she is shown a door to an altogether different life with a dancer named Djigui (Kévin Mischel) whom she has been spying on from the rafters of the theater she and Maimouna frequently break into. (Initially I was put off by their ability to sneak in so easily but then I realized the set-up was quite intentional, that perhaps the motif is microcosmic of Benyamina’s frustrations over the French government’s failure to protect and look after all its citizens, as any good government should.) Djigui seems an odd sort, if only to the girls who don’t envision men as dancers. His commitment to his craft is what could lead him to better things. Dounia becomes fascinated by his devotion.

Divines is at its most heartbreaking when it offers the wayward teens a choice. As is the case in reality, they are forced to make decisions over the course of an hour and forty-five minutes that no teenager should have to make. The economics that have outlined her past as well as determine her future make Dounia an utterly tragic character (the less said about Maimouna’s fate, the better). Yet she’s far from an entirely empathetic person. She carries a lot of anger inside of her, and she often makes the wrong choice when it is plain to see there is a better one. She is seen in the film’s opening in temple with her best friend. By the end she couldn’t seem further from salvation. That contrast is not only heartbreaking but wholly convincing. It is the world we live in.

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Recommendation: Richly textured, occasionally symbolic and often breathtaking cinematography and some artistic but not distracting stylistic choices — some portions of the film are created such that we are “receiving” Snapchat videos — make Divines a physical beauty to watch. The story is dark and saddening and a conclusion that’s nothing short of devastating makes this a noteworthy film for the politically minded and the socially conscious. And fans of unorthodox directors need to add this to their shortlist. Good for Uda Benyamina for getting this film made. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 105 mins.

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TBT: Amélie (2001)

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Our second stop this December on Throwback Thursday finds us head-over-heels in like (?) with a very unique girl. A hopeless romantic. A dreamer. A dream-weaver. Though this entry doesn’t strictly qualify as a film that spreads holiday cheer, it’s one that spreads cheer and is the definition of a feel-good film. It’s a testament to the combined strengths of the performances, some delicious cinematography and memorable visual effects that I was eventually won over by this film. I was so very tempted to shut this thing off after about 40 minutes as it is a rather slow journey. But by the end I was actually kind of moved. For the second time this month I’m having a new experience with  

Today’s food for thought: Amélie (2001).

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Romancing the City of Love since: November 2, 2001

[Netflix]

The City of Love dazzles and shines in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s fantastical portrait of a young girl touching the lives of many a downtrodden Parisian. It aches with a melancholy the warm yellow hues of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography (he helped set the mood for Inside Llewyn Davis with his distinctly colder, bluer photography) help offset, but only just. There are people everywhere but not much life to be found. People are shells of their former selves, save for Amélie, who has grown up in a unique but largely unenviable way.

Her parents, both hard workers but far from ideal caretakers — her father, never spending much time with her, had his only daughter incorrectly diagnosed with a heart condition; mother, a bit of an emotionally cold person who sadly lost her life in a most bizarre manner — effectively isolated Amélie from social settings. She was homeschooled. Amélie’s upbringing created many challenges for her, but that didn’t stop her from being curious about the world of which she was a part.

After witnessing the news of the death of Princess Diana and coming to the realization that life is all too fleeting, she became hooked on the idea of spreading joy to other people’s lives. She hoped maybe she could help them improve their outlook and in so doing, make her life have meaning. She sets about helping an older man recover a box filled with all sorts of memories from his past; a reclusive artist learn how to socialize; a young boy overcome his circumstances working for a nasty, ungrateful boss at a corner market. She even starts working her magic at The Two Windmills, a small café she has been working at, playing Cupid for one of her co-workers who can never seem to attract the attention she longs for from a regular customer.

It’s strange that someone who suffered such a cruel childhood could grow up to become such a romantic and an eternally kind-hearted person. In fact this protagonist is so incongruent to the way in which the real world works she comes across as a character only a movie could create. Amélie is a little girl nobody really seems to pay much mind to, yet she’s larger than life. I found it difficult to buy into her blossoming as a young woman. Not to mention, the film takes an eternity to get to where it really wants to go. The first half of this picture is nothing short of a slog as it sets about establishing dynamics between these many other lost souls who have all, in some way, shape or form had their hearts turned to stone.

Despite the unlikeliness of this enigmatic personality, it’s something of a task to resist her charms. Amélie may crawl like molasses spilling forth from the jar but it’s this process of slow absorption that finally won me over. I just couldn’t help it. I mean, how can you not fall in love with this girl, the short-cut, jet-black-haired woman with a perpetual twinkle in her eye that suggests she’s up to something? Parts of her recall Macauley Culkin in Home Alone, what with her mischievous nature as she goes to lengths to make life a little more difficult for the people who deserve it, while sending a potential lover, Mathieu Kassovitz’s Nino, on a whimsical journey across the city, scattering clues all over in an attempt to win his heart and, in effect, make her first true connection to someone in the real world.

And this is what, for me, made Amélie often a challenge to root for. She can be so helpless. She’s been programmed not to make direct contact with others, despite her affinity for passing through their lives like wind through the leaves on a branch. As the reclusive Dufayel observed, unable to conceal his disdain: “she would rather imagine herself relating to an absent person than build relationships with those around her.” It’s not all her fault of course but at some point it’s less about her failure to make that contact as it is her fault that she fails to do so on so many different occasions. “For Pete’s sake, go and get him!”

Indeed the film is nothing if not a traditional love story, steeped in karmic and coincidental reality. Amélie seemed destined to help others, but — and the film is almost too conscious of it — she’d be a fool if she would forget about her own happiness in the process. As the film builds into a crescendo composed of the efforts she has made to brighten others’ days, it begins to gain an unwieldy belly that, for the most part sits content, but often can feel a bit overstuffed and bloated. Engorged on sugary romance. Part of me wants to say this film isn’t exactly my tasse de thé and if it weren’t for Tautou’s mesmerizing performance I would have never made it past those first 40 minutes.

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Recommendation: A film defined by its central performance, Amélie is one for romantics at heart and French cinema enthusiasts. While bearing some fantastical camera techniques that remind one of Charlie Kaufman, this is a decidedly more upbeat and optimistic film than anything he’s done. Entertaining, beguiling, entrancing. This is a pretty great movie and I was ultimately rewarded for committing to it.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: Of all the things this movie inspired, it wasn’t so much passionate love affairs, but rather the advertising campaign of Travelocity. Throughout the film, Amélie, in an attempt to inspire her shut-in father to get out and see the world, hatched a scheme wherein the family garden gnome would be sent to various famous international locales and have its picture taken and sent back to him. Hence, the Travelocity Gnome.

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The Walk

Release: Friday, October 9, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Robert Zemeckis; Christopher Browne

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

In this episode of Remarkable Feats of Human Spectacle and/or Idiocy, Joseph Gordon Levitt balances on a one-inch thick steel cable rigged between the newly-constructed towers of the World Trade Center, looming steel giants that would go on to cast infinite shadows across Lower Manhattan in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Levitt portrays a man with an insatiable death wish, French high wire artist Philippe Petit, who, after coming across a magazine article in a dentist’s office about the towers, becomes obsessed with the idea of creating the “artistic crime of the century.”

If you like going to the circus, Robert Zemeckis’ sensationally goofy ode to stunt/suicidal men should sit right with you. The Walk tiptoes precariously between harmless popcorn entertainment and shameless exploitation, using Petit’s brazen decision to defy death in the most ridiculous way possible to remind the world once again of how terrible a day Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was. In fact, Zemeckis is so obsessed with recapturing what our world looked like physically prior to that day of darkness that I lost track of the number of vertical-panning shots of these most uninspired-looking structures.

If you’re not a fan of the circus, you may find The Walk to be, in the words of my generation, a shit show. Not in the traditional sense of the phrase, in that Petit or his many accomplices that he guilt-tripped into assisting him were perpetually drunk throughout the picture. Rather, this show is just shitty. It’s not particularly well acted (save for Levitt who, as per usual, is clearly dedicated to his craft), it drags for at least half the runtime and it tries to compensate for the recklessness by striking a fanciful tone. The whole thing comes dangerously close to being pointless as tension fails to be generated given we know the outcome before the opening scene spirits us away to Paris and before we’re inundated with a lot of exposition covering the man’s personal and early professional background.

During one of my many periods of zoning out I recalled when American daredevil Nik Wallenda deemed it a good idea to fix a line between a narrow section of the Grand Canyon and walk it without the aid of safety nets or harnesses. (These people view that kind of silly stuff as some form of emasculation.) If we’re talking entertainment value, there’s no comparison between waiting for this fairytale’s happy ending and realizing Wallenda’s walk carried with it the very real potential of having an actual death broadcast on television. Macabre? Maybe, but at least the threat was right there, making viewers the world over extremely uncomfortable for the better part of an hour. Some families reportedly didn’t allow their children to watch it. They’d be fine watching this, though. It’s completely kid-friendly, one of a small handful of aspects you can stick in the Positives column.

As The Walk progresses, something strange happens. As we draw ever closer to the red letter day (August 6, 1974) — that is to say, as Petit’s dream becomes more real — the less authentic this true story feels. Maybe it’s because the actor’s safety never being in question is too thinly veiled. Maybe it’s just because Levitt is such a nice guy he fails to convey the level of arrogance necessary to fully transform. (His accent doesn’t help, either.) Despite Dariusz Wolski’s breathtaking cinematography culminating in several vertigo-inducing shots as we dare look past Petit’s feet and into the abyss, more often than not the film is unable to escape its Hallmark movie channel sheen.

The Walk relies on the power of illusion. This is Barnum & Bailey on the big screen. If I had known that that was what I was paying to see I would have stayed home and forced myself to rewatch Man on Wire; of course that would mean having to endure the actual high wire artist’s grating cocksureness. In the end, I’m really not sure why I put myself through this. Maybe it’s me and not Petit that needs the psych evaluation.

Recommendation: I’ve said it once but I will say it again: if your circus experiences have served you well in the past, here’s another you can attend but this time from the confines of a theater chair. I suppose in some way The Walk is more than just the single act; it is a respectful tribute to the twin towers as well as reminder that it’s pretty impressive what people can do when they put their minds to it. But my recommendation comes down to something simple: whether or not you can stand listening to people say things like, “You gave that building a soul,” or “It’s amazing how you never gave up on your dreams.” If you cringe at stuff like that, then I think for you the carrots are cooked, as they say.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “The carrots are cooked.”

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Now You See Me

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Release: Friday, May 31, 2013

[Theater]

I’m sorry, but director Louis Leterrier simply shot himself in the foot when he didn’t have to here. He’s crafted a thoroughly entertaining film that is in equal doses gleefully deceptive and smartly funny. The main cast truly has the time of their lives playing four wunderkind illusionists: J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) are given terrific parts and are without a doubt collectively a good enough reason to give Now You See Me a try. However, M. Night Shyamalan may as well have been directing this with the unconscionable twist that occurs in the final act.

Consider that more of a caution flag than a spoiler, though. While some films are best enjoyed when you go in without any substantial knowledge about what’s going to be happening, here’s a case where the potential for enjoyment could be maximized if you are at least warned beforehand. Now You See Me is a film that likes to take the scenic route to the conclusion — whether or not you are satisfied with the ending is beside the point at this juncture. The point is, however, that you should try to enjoy the ride while you can.

The build-up of anticipation and drama, (most of) the dialogue and the kinetic spirit amongst the characters is absolutely fantastic. The film in a very general sense is a whole mess of fun, and it’s nice to see Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman back in a movie where they are playing opposite one another, and in slightly less favorable roles.

Now You See Me begins with, yes, a magic trick. Eisenberg’s overly confident Daniel Atlas is showing off some sleight of hand card tricks for his vastly female audience, and you guessed it — this works like a charm on a few. Meanwhile, Isla Fisher is the alluring stage presence otherwise known as Henley and she’s really good at getting out of ‘fishy’ situations. . .(when you see this film you’ll realize how corny that line is). Then the camera swings around again to introduce us to two more brilliant performers. Woody Harrelson is what is known as a mentalist, and is perhaps the funniest of them all. Franco rounds out the ‘Four Horsemen’ as Jack, who seems to be more of a professional pick-pocketer and con artist than a magician. Alas, we have four very different acts who are one day randomly brought together when they each receive a calling card of some kind, with the same address printed on the back of all four cards. They unite in front of an apartment door, and, following some bickering thanks to their overblown egos, discover the apartment to be more or less abandoned.

From here on out they’ll be known as this Four Horsemen act, touring the country and performing to large audiences some of the most inventive and crowd-pleasing tricks ever attempted. They pull off a bank heist in France from the comforts of their Las Vegas stage and shower the audience in millions of stolen bills (I wonder if they would have been pissed knowing all of that was just in Euros?); they successfully strip a high-profile millionaire of most of his riches in front of his own eyes during another gig in New Orleans; and they create quite a commotion in the climactic scenes in New York City.

The long-distance bank robbery attracts the attention of the authorities, of course. Detective Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) is a cranky law enforcer bent on capturing the magicians who have just crossed the line into criminal status. With the (read: unwanted) help of Interpol agent Alma Dray (Mélanie Laurent) they must stop the Four Horsemen at all costs, lest they all be made fools of by a group of stage performers.

This game of cat-and-mouse endures for the remainder of the film, and although there’s nothing special about the chase itself, the notion of cops going after these evasive magicians/illusionists/robbers….whatever the hell you want to call them — is very compelling and somewhat original. (There are more than a few comparisons one can make to Ocean’s Eleven, or even The Italian Job, but make no mistake, this is far less realistic a caper than either of those were.)

Where the movie simply falls apart is in the reveal of one particular character. I am not going to be as nasty as some have been and dismiss the movie any earlier, but the film quite literally collapses in one five or ten-second shot. It’s not only disappointing, but perversely cliched.

And damn it if I haven’t gone completely cynical by now and hold little to no hope for the type of film Now You See Me is modeled after: the mystery that likes to unravel until the very last second, where it becomes more and more obvious that even the characters involved don’t seem to know how they are going to wrap things up effectively. You can’t call this movie a cash-grab, but it’s closer to being one thanks to how quickly the third act turns to old, familiar territory. To be very cheesy yet again, the final magic act feels like a cop-out. Whoops. Whoa, that play on words is actually a little more revealing than I meant for it to be. (If you don’t see this movie, maybe that reference also will remain more vague…)

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3-0Recommendation: I feel as though I may have covered this part sufficiently in the above review. But, in case it’s not clear already ….. this film is worth checking out, but beware of the twist. (Again, it’s remarkable how Shyamalan-y it feels to have this element in here.) The acting is great, the characters all likable (for the most part) and there’s plenty of action and brain involvement to ensure you don’t nod off in one of the magic acts. That said, I could totally see a release of this movie on DVD coming with an alternative ending featurette or something. . . .

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

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