Saturday, March 31, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.15: Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married



In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme.

Grade: 96 (A)

After years of commercial and critical disappointment, Jonathan Demme more or less retired from making commercial films. Besides, he loved making documentaries, and he found ways to make documentaries work without needing too much money. But when Jenny Lumet (daughter of the late director Sidney Lumet) sent Demme her script about two sisters- one an addict, one a bride-to-be- the director loved it too much to pass. 2008’s Rachel Getting Married was Demme’s best-reviewed film since The Silence of the Lambs, but the film feels more like a return to the classic, kooky humanism of Demme’s 80s comedies (Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, Married to the Mob). It mixes warmth, joy, sadness, and raucous fun as well as any film in recent memory. While there were plenty of great films from 2008 (WALL-E, The Dark Knight, Funny Games, Wendy and Lucy, Milk, Che, Man on Wire), no film quite captured what I love about film in 2008 like Rachel Getting Married.

Kym (Anne Hathaway) is a recovering drug addict let out of rehab for the wedding of her older sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Her family is warm, inviting, and constantly hovering over her. Her father Paul (Bill Irwin), a music producer, smothers her with attention. His ex-wife Abby (Debra Winger) seems distant from Kym. Rachel’s feelings for her troubled, often narcissistic sister oscillate from affection to resentment. And Kym’s troubled past can never quite stay buried even at an occasion as joyous as her sister’s wedding.

It sounds like a rather thin film, but the joy lies outside Lumet’s (still formidable) script and in the details. Demme’s compositions are, as always, beautifully busy, with something always going on in the foreground and in the background, whether it’s something of great importance or just musicians playing on the side. What separates Rachel Getting Married from many of Demme’s earlier works, however, is the difference in cinematography. Gone is the fluid, beautiful camerawork of longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. Demme instead brings in remarkable digital photography from Declan Quinn for a messier hand-held style reminiscent of the Danish Dogme movement (Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, Lars von Trier’s The Idiots) and Demme’s own documentary work. The result is a more direct fly-on-the-wall feeling that meshes beautifully with Demme’s lively sensibility. The film isn’t completely removed from the look of Demme’s past films, however: the director makes extensive use of close-ups to highlight the joy and pain of its characters, using long, unbroken takes as characters confess what’s bothering them.
Demme also brings his love for kitsch Americana to Rachel Getting Married: the All-American home, the AA group meeting, and the melting pot of a wedding (black, white, and Middle Eastern garb is everywhere while the bride and bridesmaids are dressed in saris). It brings a wonderful liveliness missing from most American indie films these days.

If Rachel Getting Married sounds like a typical indie-dirge, Demme brings the film to life with lively scenes of partying and music-making. The film’s use of on-camera music is remarkable (and another carry-over from the Dogme movement). The fact that Rachel and Kym’s father is a music producer and Rachel’s fiancĂ©e Sidney a musician only gives excuse to have music happening all the time- the score is played not on the soundtrack, but in the background by talented musicians and composers Donald Harrison and Zafer Tawil. Characters compose music as a dedication to Rachel and Sidney’s wedding, and the composers subtly give appropriate themes for its two central characters (moody for Kym, hurt and heartfelt for Rachel). It doesn’t end there: Sidney’s wedding vow is an a-capella version of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” (a tie-in to Demme’s Young documentary Heart of Gold). Paul’s connection to the music business allows Demme-regulars Sister Carol and Robyn Hichcock (another subject of a Demme documentary, Storefront Hitchcock) to perform at the reception (Hitchcock’s new version of “America” is superior to the studio version). Demme even brings world music and hip hop into the wedding reception- it’s  a big party from an eclectic bunch, and no music is off-limits.

Demme’s 80s films in particular had a wonderful sense of both A. a “One World” philosophy where people of all ethnicities could mix without it being a big deal, and B. a sense that the side characters could take over the film at any moment. Rachel Getting Married has the best sense of this of any of Demme’s post-80s films. Supporting characters (Anna Deavere Smith as Kym’s stepmother, Mather Zickel as the best man/fellow recovering addict, Anisa George as Rachel’s best friend) bring great kindness and caring to the proceedings. Kym’s fellow addicts are more good people trying to take control of their lives (old, young, and what looks like an Elvis impersonator). Along with Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carl East, the wedding guests include Demme-mentor Roger Corman (apparently as himself) and Demme’s own cousin Rev. Bobby Castle (of the documentary Cousin Bobby) as the priest. Sidney’s family is black, Rachel’s white, but it hardly matters- we can all love. Sidney himself is played by TV on the Radio-frontman Tunde Adebimpe in an impressive performance as a kind, patient man trying to deal with the craziness of Rachel’s family, and doing a pretty good job (his bond with Paul is particularly nice).

As a side note, because I can’t not mention it, the part of Sidney was initially  offered to Paul Thomas Anderson, a Demme-fanatic and my pick for the for being the finest filmmaker working today (Sydney/Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood). PTA had to turn it down, as he was busy with post-production for There Will Be Blood. While Adebimpe is fantastic and brings that “One World” philosophy Demme does so well into the film, I can’t help but want a peek into a world with an alternate, PTA co-starring Rachel Getting Married.
The film wouldn’t work without strong central characters, however, and everyone is up to task. Hathaway, DeWitt, Irwin and Winger are wholly believable as a loving but dysfunctional family. Hathaway had showed promise before (most notably in Brokeback Mountain), but her performance in Rachel Getting Married is a revelation, completely devoid of vanity or self-importance. It’s key that the Demme-style role of a strong woman trying to reinvent herself be cast right, and Hathaway nails Kym’s neuroses, narcissism, attitude and sarcasm. She loves her family but feels like they’re constantly judging her and watching her. She picks at her sister for not making her the maid of honor (although Rachel acquiesces) and at her father for constantly lingering over her. Yet for all of her problems, it’s impossible not to sympathize with her struggle to do good and to change. Hathaway was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, losing to Kate Winslet for The Reader. She was robbed.

DeWitt is equally impressive as Rachel, who clearly loves her sister but who has had to live in the shadow of her troubles. She has fought for Kym in the past, and now as Kym threatens to take over the wedding (Kym makes the 12-Step Program’s “amends” step in a completely inappropriate situation). Sometimes it’s impossible for Rachel to extend any warmth towards her sister, particularly after a particularly nasty revelation in the film’s second act. But through thick and thin, they’re sisters, and when Kym comes home after yet another fuck-up, Rachel takes the time before her wedding to bathe her sister and clean her wounds.

Winger has a smaller but crucial role as Kym and Rachel’s distant mother. Winger’s history as an actress is important: a big star in the past, Winger retreated from film in the late-90s. The “where have you been” feeling informs her presence here: Abby and Paul divorced after a traumatic event involving Kym tore them apart, and she’s been less involved in the sisters’ lives since the divorce. She’s not a bad person, but she doesn’t deal with loss well.

The secret hero of Rachel Getting Married, however, is Bill Irwin, a theatre-actor and clown (yes, really) whose natural expressiveness and warmth helps make Paul one of my favorite characters in recent film. His joy when he learns of Rachel’s pregnancy is one of the most infectious moments I’ve ever seen on film, where his pain as things start to go south is absolutely heartbreaking. He’s a grown-up version of Demme’s moral young man, someone who’s trying his hardest to keep everyone happy and who truly loves his family. He exemplifies the family in this film, which is a group of people with nothing but the best intentions who can’t help but hurting each other (Demme does this well in Melvin and Howard and Something Wild as well).

There’s nothing about Rachel Getting Married that I don’t absolutely love, and I could go on about the film forever, but there are two set-pieces that best demonstrate the film’s terrific mix of joy and sorrow. The first can only be described as “the dishwasher scene”, in which Paul and Sidney compete to see who’s the master of loading the dishwasher (a mundane activity made beautiful and joyful). The two shoot mocking barbs at each other (“You’re a wonderful young man, but you don’t know shit about loading a dishwasher”- “The mantle has passed”- “All you young people who just applauded should go fuck yourselves, now I’m going to open up a can of whoop-ass on this young man!”), compete…and then something happens that calls back to a past trauma and Paul can no longer compete.



Better still? The entire third act, in which a hurt Kym joins in the raucous, joyful wedding ceremony where everyone is welcome and everyone is having fun. It’s honestly the best wedding on film I can think of (yes, including The Godfather). It’s so full of life and joy that it’s damn near impossible to not get swept away. Very little new plot points happen in the third act- it’s all celebration, with a hint of sadness as Kym tries to avoid her mother, with whom she had a hurtful confrontation with each other. Robyn Hitchcock sings the shoulda-been-nominated-for-best-song “Up to Our Nex”, the key line being “forgive yourself, and maybe you’ll forgive me”. This is a film filled with complicated characters with difficult pasts and more difficult futures, but there’s hope that everything is going to be OK.

And that’s what’s beautiful about a Jonathan Demme film- the sense that after all that pain and all that hurt, it’s all going to be Ok. The sense that a film can be as unpredictable as life. The sense that people, for all of their flaws, are basically good. The sense that we can all live together and love together, all to the soundtrack of incredible music of all sorts. Demme isn’t as lauded or as successful as Scorsese or Spielberg or as cultishly adored as David Lynch or David Cronenberg. It doesn’t matter- he’s a filmmaker like no other, and those who have taken something away from his films- Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh- are among the very best filmmakers working today. This has been a labor of love for me: Demme is one of my personal heroes when it comes to film, and that in his 60s he can make a film as beautiful and unique as Rachel Getting Married is inspiring. He’s making documentaries (I’m Carolyn Parker is still looking for distribution), Hollywood films (an adaptation of Stephen King’s acclaimed novel 11/22/63) and personal projects (Zeitoun, which promises to be as experimental and as unique as any of his films), and I’m excited for and optimistic about all of them. Given his track record, how could I not be?


With that, the Director’s Spotlight on Jonathan Demme is done. A few orders of business:

1.    -The name of the feature is now “Director Spotlight”- it flows better.
2.     
     -New feature starting this month, “Genre Spotlight” will look at a genre in a certain time and place and see how it reflects the time period. There will also be an attempt to compare it with the director of the month. This month’s genre: 70s political thrillers.
3.     
     -The next director: Brian De Palma, master of the macabre, director of unforgettable thrillers (Sisters, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, Femme Fatale), horror movies (Carrie), crime movies (Scarface, Carlito’s Way), comedies (Greetings, Hi Mom!) and even a few blockbusters (The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible).

Tentative April Schedule:

April 1: Murder a la Mod, Greetings/Hi Mom!
April 2: Get to Know Your Rabbit, The Day of the Jackal
April 3: Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise
April 4: Obsession, Pakula thrillers
April 5: Carrie
April 6: The Fury, Home Movies
April 7: Dressed to Kill
April 8: Blow Out, Blowup/The Conversation
April 9: Scarface
April 10: Body Double
April 11: Wise Guys, Three Days of the Condor
April 12: The Untouchables
April 13: Casualties of War, Marathon Man
April 17: The Bonfire of the Vanities
April 18: Raising Cain
April 19: Carlito’s Way
April 20: Mission Impossible
April 21: Snake Eyes
April 22: Mission to Mars
April 23: Femme Fatale
April 24: The Black Dahlia
April 25: Redacted, Winter Kills


Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Friday, March 30, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.14: Jonathan Demme's Documentaries


In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme. This week’s entry covers five documentaries directed by Demme between 1990 and 2010.

Cousin Bobby Grade: 82 (A-)


After his Oscar win for The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme’s career as a feature filmmaker seemed to wane. Philadelphia was a deserving commercial and critical hit, but Demme was taken to disappear from narrative filmmaker for years at a time, resurfacing only to critical and commercial disappointments like Beloved and The Truth About Charlie (The Manchurian Candidate was well reviewed but a disappointment at the box office). And while many of these films have their merits, none of them captured the imagination like Demme’s earlier work. Where was the hipster filmmaker with an offbeat sense of humor and a warmly humane view of the world? Those looking only to his Hollywood movies were bound to be disappointed, but remember, Demme is also a skillful documentarian, and his documentaries of this period brim with the life and vitality of his best work. They show his generous, giving nature and willingness to let his subjects take over the film without surrendering his personality.

Demme’s first post-Lambs film, 1992’s Cousin Bobby, is perhaps his most personal work (his opening credit reads “A Film by Cousin Jonathan”). His first non-performance oriented documentary, it follows his cousin, the Episcopalian Reverend Bob Castle. Castle is a sixty-something year old white man, but he lives and preaches in Harlem to a mostly black and Hispanic congregation. Castle preaches as a religious man and as a community activist seeking to correct racial and social injustice, and he also has a background as a civil rights activist in the 1960s and 70s (including ties to the Black Panther Party).

Demme’s cousin Bobby is perhaps the ultimate Demme subject- warmly humane, socially conscious, politically active, loving towards his family (including three kids), and accepting towards all faiths and ethnicities. He’s the embodiment of Demme’s “One World” philosophy (and a welcome reminder that there’s more people like Demme out there)- he invites people of Jewish and Islamic faith to preach alongside him both on the streets and in his church. He believes in God and Jesus, but he believes in a God that’s accepting of all people and all faiths. He’s a deeply religious man, but he’s never sanctimonious.

Demme uses simple, hand held camerawork to photograph moments so intimate they sometimes feel like particularly compelling home movies. Sometimes they are: Bobby’s 60th birthday serves as a Demme/Castle family reunion where relatives who haven’t seen each other for 30-40 years get together like no time has passed at all (and for the first time, we really get to see Demme!). They share colorful anecdotes of Bobby’s father “Uncle Willy” bowling a 300 game or Bob’s strange birth. Demme and Bobby revisit  the last place they spent time together as kids. In a deeply moving moment, they visit the grave of Bobby, Jr., who drowned as a child. It’s a family so warm and inviting that it instantly reveals how people as good as Demme and Bobby could come out, go into completely separate fields, and still have common ground as far as their lives went.

Of course, the film is more focused on Bobby’s work as a religious man and as a social activist. One notable scene involves a mass/protest in the streets, where Bobby talks about the need for a stoplight at a dangerous intersection and for a year-old pothole to be filled in. No one from up in the rich side of New York cares, so they need to make some noise. They need to keep their kids away from drugs and gangsters. A member of the church says how he doesn’t want the local shop to play adult videos where there kids can see them (though “whatever they do in their own homes is OK”). They need to keep a pediatric center in Harlem so the poor kids can stay healthy. They need to repair a broken down apartment building that recently suffered a fire.

Bobby is a man of great compassion- he cries out that institutional racism is sewed within the fabric of the nation. “We’re here because we care…they’ve stolen, ripped off, and raped this community, and they owe us.” Demme’s films often stress the positive effects of community, but rarely has he found a subject that so perfectly fits his view of social justice and community ties together so well. Bobby doesn’t want to romanticize the civil rights movement or the Black Panthers, but he stresses that the man he knew best fought so hard against drug dealers in his community that they murdered him, and that he cared so much about his people that he often wept for the fate of the children.

Cousin Bobby is a loose film that feels a bit slight at barely 70 minutes, but it’s vital filmmaking and perhaps Demme’s best look at racial injustice (Beloved doesn’t work nearly as well). The film ends with shocking footage of riots and racial injustice as the song “Edutainment” by socially conscious rapper KRS-One’s group Boogie Down Productions. Bobby’s been fighting for what’s right- what’s keeping everyone else?

The Agronomist Grade: 82 (A-)

Cousin Bobby wasn’t Demme’s first politically minded documentary, however. The director visited and fell in love with Haiti in the late 80s. He had planned to make a documentary about the social unrest in the country, but the hour long film Haiti: Dreams for Democracy wasn’t exactly what PBS had in mind when they agreed to broadcast it. Still, something came out of the whole ordeal: Demme became acquainted with Jean Dominque, the owner of Radio Haiti and a social activist fighting for democracy for his country. Through the many trials and tribulations the nation faced, Dominque often fled to New York and waited for better times, but his support for his home never waivered. Demme met with Dominque many times between 1986 and 2000, frequently interviewing him and developing a friendship with the man. When Dominique was assassinated in 2000, Demme made it his mission to put the existing footage together as tribute to the man. The resulting film, 2003’s The Agronomist, is a badly-titled but compelling film about the struggle one man and a nation endured for the right to be free.

Demme brings the same intimate hand-held camerawork to The Agronomist that he did with Cousin Bobby, but his personality also comes through with terrific sound design (sound of gunshots when showing the bullet holes in the Radio Haiti building) and music. Always one with a fascination in world music, Demme includes Creole music, most notably a score and soundtrack by Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean, a refugee from his home whose hip hop group The Fugees released the fantastic album The Fugees (and whose solo album The Carnival is also an essential). In the final song, Jean raps exclusively in French Creole as a throwback to his home and a tribute to a fascinating character. Demme himself is so committed to making this Dominique’s story that he eschews any narration (his voice only pops up a few times in interviews with Dominique).

Dominque was an agronomist (genetic plant breeder), an aspiring filmmaker (he brought films as diverse as The Third Man and La Strada to Haiti and started the short-lived Haitian filmmaking scene), and finally a radio personality who used the medium to promote ideals of freedom and democracy for Haiti. “You cannot kill truth, you cannot kill justice”, Dominque tells Demme, and he makes people believe it through sheer force of personality. Demme covers Dominique’s personal relationships with wife/fellow activist Michele Montas and their daughter, but above all else he covers Dominique and Montas’ connection to the Haitian community, particularly the downtrodden peasant class.

Dominique opposes the oppressive Duvalier regime despite constant death threats and repression. He recounts stories of improved human rights records in Haiti following Jimmy Carter’s election, only to have hopes dashed after a “cowboy” like Ronald Reagan takes over and stops support for the Haitians’ plight. When Jean-Bertrand Aristide becomes the first democratically elected president of Haiti, Dominique grows hopeful. When Aristide is overthrown, Dominique flees. As President Clinton gives support to Haiti, Dominique gains hope again even after learning that the CIA supported the Duvaliers and other oppressive leaders for fear of leftist regimes in Haiti. Through all the ups and downs, Dominique never stops fighting for social justice or gives up hope.  When Dominique is assassinated, the people of Haiti come together and pay tribute to him in a moving funeral procession. Dominique’s wife insists on the radio that Dominique is “not really dead”, and that his memory lives with the nation. Montas would eventually be forced to flee from Haiti, but her dedication has not faltered, and Demme’s respect and affection for her and her late husband is undeniable.








Man from Plains Grade: 55 (B-)

I’ll reveal my bias: former president Jimmy Carter was one of the last truly decent men in the White House, a man who had too much on his plate and just couldn’t get it all done to the satisfaction of the American public. He knew the struggle would be difficult and wasn’t willing to sell false easy answers to a people who had spent two decades in turmoil (Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was plenty willing). And Carter’s mission to promote diplomacy and understanding in the late-2000s, during the Bush administration’s intellectually incurious, ineffective “don’t talk to the people we don’t like” policies rampaged across the globe. Carter’s controversial book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid caused unfair accusations of an Anti-Israel bias (and often even more unwarranted charges of Anti-Semitism).

2007’s Man from Plains shows Carter on a book tour arguing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more complicated than “Israel good, Palestine bad” and that the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinian rights has been questionable (although he also stresses that the role of terrorism to exasperate the situation shouldn’t be minimized). He raises points that the U.S. is far more reluctant to criticize Israel than Israeli citizens are, and that a dialogue needs to be started between Israel and Palestine in order to promote peace and understanding above all else. Carter’s mission is admirable, and Demme clearly considers it a worthy subject for a documentary. The problem is that while Carter is a good man promoting a worthwhile cause, he isn’t a terribly dynamic figure in the sense that Jean Dominique and Reverend Bobby Castle are. Demme’s film shows the same concerns for community, political awareness, and “One World” philosophy that his earlier documentaries do, but the film is too long at 2 hours and too shapeless, and it comes awfully close to hero worship. It’s not a terrible film, but it’s not terribly compelling film either.






Storefront Hitchcock Grade: 83 (A-)

But the socially conscious documentary is hardly the only type, nor the most effective. Demme’s first documentary, the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, is still the definitive rock and roll film, while his underrated Spalding Grey performance film Swimming to Cambodia shows his strength at making a show as simple as one man talking fascinating. Demme’s criminally underseen 1998 film Storefront Hitchcock combines the two: it’s a concert/performance film of English singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, a quirky musician given to breaking up songs with trange onstage monologues and one-liners (“This is the most upbeat song I’ve ever written; it’s about death and cancer”) that fit his surreal lyrics and jangly guitar playing.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to Storefront Hitchcock. Demme takes a lot from Stop Making Sense cameras from the frame and uses long takes to build up an almost narrative momentum to the show. He doesn’t show the audience (much smaller than that of Stop Making Sense) so as to keep the focus on the performer. There’s some odd props and stage changes during the show. Above all else, though, it’s just one guy up there with his guitar and harmonica (with a few notable exceptions as two side musicians come up for a few songs) in an average shop in New York (passersby occasionally stop and look into the window). The result is a more stripped down and spare concert film (and a less expansive one at 77 minutes), but it’s an exciting film nonetheless.

Hitchcock is another fascinating Demme “character”- odd looking, lanky, big-nosed, quirky, and with an ironic sense of humor. They range from exciting (“Devil’s Radio”) to mournful (“1974”, which mourns the inevitable death of the hippy dream), from low-key (“Glass Hotel”) to frenetic (“Freeze”), from past favorites (“Airscape”) to otherwise unreleased (“Let’s Go Thundering”). He’s a fascinating individual, a unique songwriter, and an exciting performer. His songs are melodic yet offbeat- they’re perfect for a Demme film. (EDIT: Side note, this film is available on Netflix Instant. Definitely check it out).



Heart of Gold Grade: 91 (A)

Demme’s best documentary of the period is yet another concert film, this time about another singer-songwriter: influential 60s/70s icon Neil Young. The title Heart of Gold comes from the classic song of the same name, but the concert’s material follows Young’s career from the beginning to the near-end. Young’s father had recently died, and he faced death himself with a brain aneurysm. His 2005 album Prairie Wind is a beautiful reflection on his life, growing old, his experiences with death, and the passage of time. Demme’s 2006 film documents the premiere concert performance of the album in Nashville, plus a handful of old tunes Young had recorded in the city over the years. The film is without a doubt the most moving documentary in Demme’s filmography.

Pre-show interviews show Young and his backing band of close friends discussing Young’s life “flashing before his eyes” and the sense that certain elements of their past might be forgotten after they’re gone. When they hit stage, though, there’s no time to waste. They’re old guys, but they’re hardly doddering. The music fills them with life, and while it’s a quiet, more intimate show than Young sometimes gives, that quietness should not be mistaken for lack of vitality. Young says he just “wants to play a show with my friends…give the best show that I can…”, and Demme captures it in all of it’s glory (bonus Demme points: it’s a multiracial band featuring both men and women).

The film has the best narrative drive of any Demme documentary since Stop Making Sense: the first half of the concert covers the Prairie Wind album, with songs about growing old (“The Painter”), frustration with the Bush administration (“No Wonder”), the possibility of dying (“Falling Off the Face of the Earth”) or being forgotten (the beautiful “It’s a Dream”). There’s tributes to his father (“Far From Home”, “Prairie Wind”) and his college-aged daughter (“Here For You”). It’s all gorgeously performed by a man not afraid to show his vulnerability before a crowd of people- he feels accepted in Nashville, and that it’s more accepting than many might give it credit.

The second half of the film is a retrospective on Young’s interests over time: racial harmony (Buffalo Springfield-era song “I Am a Child”), love (the delicate “Harvest Moon”), friends lost to drugs (“The Needle and the Damage Done”), and even a favorite song from his childhood (“Four Strong Winds” by Ian Tyson). Three songs highlight what it’s all about: the final song “One of These Days”, in which Young recognizes people he’s drifted apart from who matter to him; the credit song “The Old Laughing Lady”, a song from his first album almost certainly about the inevitability of death (with the credit “For Daddy” popping up at the end); and the Neil Young theme song, “Heart of Gold”, a song which highlights the similarities between the folksy Young and the quirky Demme.

The line “keep me searching for a heart of gold/when I’m getting old” showed youthful concern that Young would stop caring about what’s right when he gets old. But Young and Demme are too good to stop caring. The two would team up again for the respectably received Neil Young Trunk Show, a film which documents a louder, rowdier Young concert. But it’s hard to follow-up what’s the finest concert film in recent memory, even from a man who knows how make a concert film better than anyone else.


Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.13: Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie/The Manchurian Candidate


In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme.

The Truth About Charlie Grade: 59 (B-)

Following the critical and commercial disappointment of 1998’s Beloved, Jonathan Demme took yet another extended break between films. Four years later, he turned up with The Truth About Charlie, a remake of the Stanley Donen classic Charade. If ever there were a director suited to remake Charade, it would be Demme: the original Donen film oscillates between Hitchcockian tension and screwball comedy while finding a wonderful romance between Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant that fits both tones. Demme specializes in this kind of genre-mixing and subversion, and his idea to use the original Charade as a framework for a tribute to the French New Wave was a rather inspired idea. Better still were his original casting decisions: the oft-underutilized Thandie Newton in the Audrey Hepburn role and endlessly charming, charismatic Will Smith in the Cary Grant role. One problem: production on Michael Mann’s Ali went over schedule and Smith had to drop out. So who’s the replacement? Mark Wahlberg? Oh…




British woman Regina Lambert (Newton) has recently married Parisian Charlie. After a vacation in the Bahamas, she returns home with plans to divorce Charlie, only to find their apartment completely empty. The French police inform her not only that Charlie has been murdered, but that he has lied about who he really is. American agent Hamilton Bartholomew (Tim Robbins) informs her that Charlie and his former army buddies (Ted Levine, Joong-Hoon Park, Lisa Gay Hamilton) stole millions of dollars from the U.S. government. The three army buddies are now in Paris searching for the money, and they may or may not be responsible for Charlie’s death. Things get complicated as Regina falls for Joshua Peters (Wahlberg), a charming man she met on vacation who may have some secrets of his own.

The Truth About Charlie follows the plot of Charade fairly closely, so it’s strange to see that it’s so much more confusing than its predecessor. For whatever reason, Demme and fellow screenwriters (most notably Jessica Bendinger of Bring It On fame) lose track of the plot at several points. A Hitchcockian story in this vein needs a strong script with a solid through-line and a meticulously planned out plot, something The Truth About Charlie is sorely lacking. Demme has admitted in the past that he’s a less talented screenwriter than a director, but it mattered less with the films that Demme wrote in the past (Caged Heat, Fighting Mad) because they were exploitation films that didn’t require tight scripts. Here it nearly kills the film.

The romantic elements of the script are a bit stronger, but for them to work it’s essential that both of the romantic leads are up to task. Mark Wahlberg has wrongfully been marked by some as a bad actor by some. In all truth, Wahlberg is often terrific (Boogie Nights, The Departed, The Other Guys, anything he collaborated on with David O. Russell), but he needs to be cast right or he absolutely will not work. Wahlberg brings an earnestness whenever he’s miscast that’s easy to admire- he’s trying to make this work, damn it, not just phoning it in- but god help him, he’s just not the suave Cary Grant-type the part requires. As with most of his miscastings, he mostly comes off as bewildered by his surroundings.

Inadequate as Wahlberg is, however, the other two leads more than make up for him. In a role originated by Walter Matthau, Robbins makes for an amusingly banal agent with an affable squareness to him. Robbins is perfect because he doesn’t let on that anything he’s doing is funny- he’s awkward, but he’s awkward in the right way. He’s almost a parody of the likable dorks populating the sidelines and frontlines of Demme’s earlier works. Better still is Newton, an actress who rarely gets to show off the depth of her talent. Her previous collaboration with Demme in Beloved had her playing an impossible role, but The Truth About Charlie has no small task itself: she needs to be a modern Audrey Hepburn. Fortunately, Newton shows off a graceful charm worthy of her iconic predecessor; it’s another strong female role that Demme does so well (Walhberg populates the moral young man role a bit less skillfully).

The Truth About Charlie also features several of the colorful Demme side characters mostly missing from his last feature. Many of these characters threaten to take over the film at several points (would that it were so): the male and female French police officers, whose cute romance feels like a window into another charming movie; Charlie’s mother, a bitter, odd looking old woman seeking revenge for her son’s death; Levine, Hamilton and Park make for appropriate, often amusing replacements for the original Charade’s George Kennedy, James Coburn and Ned Glass. The mixed ethnicities of the criminals brings about Demme’s pronounced “One World” philosophy- even the bad guys aren’t prejudiced, and it turns out they’re not completely irredeemable after all.

Best of all are the knowing nods to the French New Wave, from casting filmmaker Agnes Varda in a bit part to Godard muse/ex-wife Anna Karina as a lounge singer to two spectacular scenes involving Shoot the Piano Player star Charles Aznavour literally showing up in the middle of a romance scene after Wahlberg puts an Aznavour CD on (it honestly has to be seen to be believed).

Where the original Charade was a classic Hollywood thriller/comedy set in Paris, Demme mostly uses The Truth About Charlie to explore his love and fascination with the French New Wave- after all, Francois Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player made Demme realize what directing really was in the first place. Demme brings often intoxicating use of montage, differing film stocks (or at least looks), skewed perspective, and forced perspective (the best being from the “view” of Charlie’s corpse) to the fray while he explores the most bohemian sides of Paris, from the cafes to the French market. He populates the soundtrack with offbeat French pop, rock, and hip hop; even better is the Karina scene, in which the characters tango together while expressing their admiration for each other.  Yes, The Truth About Charlie is a lively, enjoyably frothy piece of filmmaking, and in some ways a return to the classic Demme moviemaking of the 80s. Pity that the damn plot has to interfere so often.




The Manchurian Candidate Grade: 77 (B+)

The Truth About Charlie received mixed notices and was a box office bomb, but Demme was in better form with his next film, another remake. Demme’s version of The Manchurian Candidate isn’t as light as The Truth About Charlie: it takes the same serious tone of Demme’s 90s projects (bearing the most similarities to The Silence of the Lambs). The film was mostly well liked, but it only made $96 million against an $80 million budget and seems to have been relegated as a footnote in Demme’s career. It’s a pity, considering how smart an update of the classic Cold War-era thriller it is. In the original 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate, the enemy is communists abroad and within the U.S. borders. With the 2004 remake, the enemy isn’t some threat that’s invaded our capitalistic system, but rather that system run amok.




Major Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) led a unit in Operation Desert Storm that included Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber), the current candidate for the Vice-Presidency of the United States. Marco and his fellow soldiers had testified that Shaw saved their unit in an act of heroism that won him the Congressional Medal of Honor. The only problem: Marco doesn’t actually remember the act the way he and everyone else claimed it had happened. His testimony was compulsive. Slowly but surely Marco puts the pieces together: he and his unit were kidnapped, detained, and brainwashed by powerful members of their government connected to Manchurian Global, a corporation dabbling, among other things, in nanotechnology that can control minds. This company now has control over Shaw, who most likely will be in the White House. Now Marco has to put everything together while facing a government seeking to discredit him as mentally ill, Shaw’s disbelief of his story, and Shaw’s powerful senator-mother Eleanor (Meryl Streep).

The Manchurian Candidate has the opposite problem of The Truth About Charlie-the film’s plotting is intricately worked out and often thrilling, but Demme forsakes certain aspects of his quirky personality in favor of a somber tone that’s appropriate yet somewhat less invigorating than his earlier works. Demme’s usually peerless use of music is largely relegated to a charged opening credit sequence set to socially conscious hip-hop star Wyclef Jean’s cover of the classic Creedence Clearwater Revival protest song “Fortunate Son” (the original version was used by Demme in Melvin and Howard). Demme’s use of kitsch Americana is fairly minimal as well: there’s an interesting early scene involving Marco speaking in front of a Boy Scout Troop that has an interesting connection to how idealistic young boys aspire to something far more complicated than they realize, and conspiracy theorist Geoffrey Wright’s apartment is appropriately disheveled; but the film’s Washington, D.C. sometimes feels a bit too standard, almost as if Demme lost his personality amidst his focus on plotting and cries of social injustice.

These are minor complaints, however, in an otherwise strong thriller. Demme and regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto make good use of close-ups on the uneasy facial expressions of Washington, Wright, Schreiber, and others. The two also bring their skill with perspective shots, the best being a scene in which Washington discovers a hidden security camera, as seen from the camera’s point of view.

Demme handles the flashback scenes, in which Washington re-experiences his detainment with a fever dream intensity that plays like a more overtly nightmarish re-imagination of the surreal dream sequences in the original film. The rest of the film combines the paranoid intensity of the John Frankenheimer original with expertly-crafted Hitchcockian suspsense (we often realize what’s about to happen long before anyone else does), but Demme handles these nightmarish sequences and exploration of the dark side of technology  with eerie control and brutality not unlike that of a Kubrick film. And where the original film’s villains used hypnosis as a means to control their subjects, the villians of Demme’s version use creepy nanotechnology in body-horror that plays like a more subdued Cronenberg.

Demme’s use of colorful milieu and music might be muted, but he creates plenty of fascinating side characters worthy of his best films. There’s a diversity among the soldiers of Washington’s platoon (Jewish Schreiber, African-Americans Washington/Wright/Anthony Mackie, white men, Asians) that show Demme’s “One World” mentality extending even to the military. Demme brings memorable character actors to fill in roles both big (Wright as the paranoid ex-soldier, Vera Farmiga as the All American Girl Schreiber loves, Bruno Ganz as an associate of Washington’s) and small (Dean Stockwell as a shady executive; Charles Napier, Miguel Ferrer, and Ted Levine as army officers, Bill Irwin as a scout leader). He tips his hat towards other political artists such as director Sidney Lumet (as a pundit), producer Roger Corman (as the Secretary of State), Al Franken (as himself), and singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock (as a treacherous civilian contractor).

There are three supporting actors worth singling out as particularly noteworthy: the first is creepy character actor Simon McBurney as a South African scientist employed by Manchurian Global despite his being wanted for war crimes. McBurney exudes false warmth and security as he invades the minds of decent men. Another standout is Jon Voight as a senator opposing Manchurian Global and U.S. foreign policy practices that “help create terrorists” (ironic, considering how hawkishly conservative Voight has become). Finally, there’s Kimberly Elise as Eugenie, a kind-hearted love interest to Marco. Here, Demme picks up on a theory involving a particularly strange (and unexplained) scene in the original film, and Elise makes the character’s shift wholly believable.

Washington is capable as ever as Captain Marco in a role that requires him to subvert his innate dignity for a more frantic performance (much like the original saw a less suave performance from Frank Sinatra). Marco is visibly a Denzel Washington character, but Demme and Washington quickly toss expectations to the wayside as the character starts to lose control of his situation. This is a man with a damaged soul, and he gradually becomes more paranoid and unreliable even as he tries to do right.

Schreiber is even better as Shaw in a role that subverts the average “moral young man” type Demme often puts at the center of his films. Shaw isn’t nearly as warm as those previous men- he’s cold, isolated, emotionally challenged, and hard to get along with. Yet he’s a good man who’s not afraid to differ with his mother’s more controversial policies, and he wants to do good for the little guy. He’s also, unbeknownst to him, under the control of a massive corporation.

The original film’s matriarch Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury in an Oscar-nominated role) is one of the most memorable villains in cinema history, but Meryl Streep is a more than capable actress to handle the update. With a handful of notable exceptions, Streep specializes in giving exceptional performances in mediocre to solid movies (come and get me). While The Manchurian Candidate isn’t a great movie, it’s certainly better material than she usually gets, and she gives one of the most underrated performances of her career. Eleanor Prentiss is a powerful woman with touches of Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, and, according to Streep, Dick Cheney in her personality. She’s cynical (she repudiates her son’s “one world” philosophy), she’s willing to resort to “political thuggery” in order to get what she wants, and, it turns out, far more insidious methods to gain absolute power. It’s not much of a surprise that Prentiss is connected directly to both Manchurian Global and their control of her son- it’s a warped plan that serves her creepily Oedipal relationship with her son.

Demme doesn’t specify which parties Prentiss and Shaw play for, and while one might assume that a leftist like Demme sides with the Democrats, The Manchurian Candidate takes a look past party lines. Demme has no illusions that only one party is dominated by corporate stooges willing to sell their souls for the political game. There are extensive referenes to the War on Terror and the Haliburton-like company Manchurian Global, but it’s a problem that extends to both political parties in a system that’s been fatally compromised for decades. The film’s pitch-black view of the American political system goes until the very last line: “there’s always casualties in war, sir.” Yes, but at what cost?

It’s unfortunate that The Manchurian Candidate hasn’t been more widely accepted by non-Demme die-hards, considering how intelligent and thrilling the re-imagination is. Perhaps the film will be reevaluated if Demme’s next film, an adaptation of the Stephen King novel 11/22/63, proves to be the hit thriller this film deserved to be. Whatever the case, the film’s big budget and disappointing performance might have worked out alright for Demme in the end. After all, it made the director go smaller for his next several projects: personal documentaries The Agronomist, Heart of Gold, and Man from Plains and his most recent narrative film: Rachel Getting Married.

Schedule:

March 30- Jonathan Demme's Documentaries
March 31- Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married


Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook or follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.12: Jonathan Demme's Beloved




In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme.

Grade: 53 (C+)

After the critical and commercial success of Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme did what any director at the top of his game might do: he did nothing. Well, that’s a bit hyperbolic: he did produce a number of strong, idiosyncratic projects such as Carl Frankin’s Devil in a Blue Dress and Tom Hanks’ directorial debut That Thing You Do!, and he also directed a handful of music videos and shorts, but Jonathan Demme the major American filmmaker was largely MIA. Demme finally resurfaced five years later with Beloved, an adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel produced by and starring Oprah Winfrey. Demme had certainly stepped up his ambition: the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is one of the most respected and lauded books of the last thirty years from a writer with vivid, often difficult prose. Demme’s adaptation is an admirable, ambitious work, but it highlights the challenge inherent in adapting Beloved: it is fucking impossible.

Sethe (Winfrey) is a former slave living in Reconstruction Era Ohio. Sethe’s home is terrorized by a poltergeist, which Sethe believes to be the ghost of her dead baby. The phantom’s terrors are so great that Sethe’s young sons run away from home, leaving only Sethe and her shy, withdrawn teenaged daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise) alone. When Sethe’s friend Paul D (Danny Glover), another former slave who had been held on the same plantation, arrives and begins a relationship with Sethe, the ghost disappears.  Paul D courts Sethe’s heart and charms Denver, but the new family’s dynamic is upset with the arrival of Beloved (Thandie Newton), a grown woman who behaves like a small, needy child, who clings to Sethe.

If nothing else, Beloved reestablishes Demme as a master of tone and empathy, an unheralded technical genius, a socially conscious feminist and supporter of the downtrodden, and a director of great ambition. Demme and longtime cinematographer Tak Fujimoto create a mood of uneasiness and squalor with dark, simple lighting that doesn’t give a postcard quality to the harsh surroundings of the characters or minimize their pain. It’s like the anti-Color Purple, another ambitious film with a feminist take on African-American life, which saw director Steven Spielberg out-of-his-element, frequently oversweetening the compositions and undercutting the pain of the characters (Spielberg’s later dramatic works thankfully corrected this error). The world of Beloved is caked with dirt and dust; this is no postcard, and Demme never sells his characters’ pain short.

Fujimoto brings a typically fluid camerawork to the everyday scenes, using perspective and close-ups extensively to highlight the fear, pain, and anxiety of the characters. Fujimoto and Demme bring expressive lighting to the ghost scenes worthy of the most frightening horror films; the film’s opening throws us right in the middle of “what the hell?” weirdness, and with Paul D’s entrance (camera askew), he asks the question better than anyone else could: “What kind o’ evil you got in there?” It seems off base to lament that Demme and Fujimoto have to leave this element behind, but watching leaving territory where they’re completely assured for the No Man’s Land of adapting the rest of Morrison’s novel is like watching a good friend head into a profession he clearly respects and cares about but has no chance at succeeding at.




Demme had always wanted to make a film about the black experience; his previous films had a kooky 60s-inspired “One World” vibe, where characters of various ethnicities would help and support each other through the good times and the bad. Always a man who sided with the underdog, Demme finally had a chance to explore the darkest time in America’s past: slavery and Reconstruction. To his credit, Demme doesn’t skimp on the horrors of the time: Sethe and Denver are marginalized people with little chance of succeeding in a white man’s world, and they carry ghosts of the past with them, both literal and metaphorical. Paul D knows this all too well: “as long as the white man is in charge, we in chains.” Demme hits the mark at it’s best when dealing with the harrowing flashback scenes, which are shot in a different light and grainier film stock than the modern scenes, almost like they’re a strange documentary of the past. Sethe, Paul D, and others suffer intense emotional and physical cruelty at the hands of slaveowners and others without ever feeling exploitative or turning them into empty martyrs. These are difficult, complex characters dealing with difficult times.

Winfrey, Glover, and Elise deserve some of the credit as well for playing fully formed characters. Winfrey had made impressive debut in The Color Purple, but by now she was a major star who could have coasted on her part. She doesn’t do that; the film is too important to her. Sethe is more than a passive victim. She’s suffered an interminable amount of pain and injustice in her life, but she’s ready and willing to fight for what’s hers. Glover had played an abusive husband to Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple, but here he’s a kind, decent man who understands the suffering of Sethe and her family. He’s another moral man of Demme’s (albeit an older one). Best of all is Elise in perhaps the most difficult role of the three: she undergoes the greatest change of any of the characters in the films, staring as a meek and timid girl pushed to the brink and ending as a strong, independent, intelligent woman.

There’s a lot to admire in Beloved, but that admiration unfortunately only goes so far. If the above descriptions make the film seem dynamic and alive, it only describes the film to a certain degree. The film is badly paced over three unending hours of men and women talking and talking to no end, often in somber tones. The scenes aren’t badly acted, but they never form a cohesive dramatic structure and feel strangely disconnected. There’s no dynamism, and after a while inertia sets in.  There’s too much time to cover and it’s often difficult to get a grasp on where we are and what’s happening and why. Minor characters flit in and out of the story with no explanation- Albert Hall is a great, underused actor, but his section doesn’t have much effect if we don’t know who he is. There’s too much material with the major characters to cover, and Demme’s strength with creating vivid minor characters is squashed as a result. It’s incredibly episodic stuff in a film that needs a solid through-line. It’s plain and simple: however vividly realized and well-acted, Beloved stubbornly refuses to be turned into a cinematic experience except in the more lively flashback sequences. This isn’t a film, it’s a book on celluloid.

Things get worse when Beloved arrives. Thandie Newton is a talented actress who doesn’t get the well-written roles she deserves to show off her talent. She often ranges from shrill (Crash) to one-dimensional (The Pursuit of Happyness) because of the material (there’s no one to blame but herself for her terrible Condoleeza Rice in W., though). Beloved is a juicy part and a unique character, and Newton give a fiercely committed, thoroughly unself-conscious performance. Problem is that Beloved doesn’t translate well onto film (great, if obvious, metaphor for the film right here): she starts out with a guttural voice that makes her sound like Regan MacNeil from The Exorcist and goes into an infantile character prone to childlike glee and childish tantrums. This is an impossible part.

Beloved is indeed the anti-Color Purple: where one film had too many characters and not enough time, the other seems inert from a lack of periphery. One is too sweet, the other is too somber. One was a difficult adaptation botched in the process, the other was doomed from the start. Quite a lot of Beloved is effectively directed by Demme, but to no avail. The director wanted to make a grand statement about the history of racism in America, and he got his chance. But he took on a Sisyphean task trying to adapt one of the most difficult novels of the past thirty years. A lot of work went into Beloved from Demme, Winfrey, and everyone else. There’s great moments littered throughout, but ultimately it just doesn’t work.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook or follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Overlooked Gems #27: Summer Hours


Grade: 85 (A-)

Over the past twenty years, French director Olivier Assayas has quietly built up a reputation in certain critical circles as being one of the finest directors currently working in world cinema. A former film critic for the influential film criticism magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Assayas brings great knowledge and appreciation of film’s past, present, and future to each frame without losing sense of how to tell a story with dynamic visuals. He has a great love for cinema from all parts of the world, be it Europe, Asia, or America. While he’s known for clever genre exercises/deconstructions like Irma Vep and Demonlover, Assayas nonetheless proved versatility in writing and directing 2008’s Summer Hours, an intimate family drama that nonetheless displays serious filmmaking chops.

Helene (Edith Scob), the matriarch of a French family, has died. She leaves behind an extensive art collection (most of it from her uncle, a famous painter in his time), a house, and three children.  Eldest son Frederic (Charles Berling), who lives in France, wishes to keep the house and the art collection intact to share with future generations of his family. Middle child Adrienne (Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche) lives in New York with her American boyfriend (Kyle Eastwood, Clint’s son) and has no real attachment to the art, her old home, or France. Youngest son Jeremie (Jeremie Renier) lives and works in China, has no plans to return to France again, and needs the money from the house and art collection to support his family. Through passive-aggressive arguments and half-hearted attempts to please each other, these siblings realize something: they don’t like each other very much.

Assayas expertly splits Summer Hours into three distinct acts. In act one, Helene tries to prepare her children for her death. She knows that she won’t live too much longer and wants to make things as easy as possible, but her knowledge that most of her family doesn’t have the same attachment to the past doesn’t get through to Frederic. In act two, the siblings react to their mother’s death- this was what they had in common, and now that’s gone. Frederic has an idealized portrait of his mother, where Adrienne and Jeremie acknowledge her romantic relationship with her uncle. Frederic is crushed by this knowledge and the knowledge that he’s losing what matters to him. In act three, after the sale and the departure of Adrienne and Jeremie, Frederic deals with his intelligent teenage daughter’s brush with the law and the art collection’s relocation to a museum.

The film is delicately directed by Assayas, who brings lush, flowing tracking shots that open up what could have been a static drama. Much credit must also be given to Assayas’ wonderfully subtle screenplay and the terrific performances by the three leads (particularly Binoche, one of the finest actresses in the world). The film is very talky, and the second act goes on a bit long with scenes that aren’t terrible in and of themselves but which bring the momentum of an already deliberately paced film to a halt. It would have been best had Assayas cut some of the scenes following the decision to sell the house and collection.

These are minor complaints, however, for what's otherwise a rich, beautiful portrait of the ever-changing nature of art, culture, and French identity. The matriarch of the family knows that with her death the world will lose stories, secrets, and a sense of the past, but only one of her children (the one who lives locally) cares about this. The others have their own lives to live in other countries, and they can’t live in the past. As Frederic looks on at his mother’s collection in the museum, he notes the loss of context and historicity when it’s been moved from it’s original home, but what can you do. And the daughter’s final scene, at a teen raucous party before her grandmother’s house is sold, sums it all up nicely: yes, it’s sad to leave the past behind, and we’ll lose certain memories. But life goes on.

NEXT WEEK’S OVERLOOKED GEM: Another Olivier Assayas film, 2010’s five-and-a-half hour opus Carlos.

Did you know you can like the Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!