Grand Central (Rebecca Zlotowski, Austria/France, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, French Cinema

This blog posting serves as a written form for what I shall say by way of an introduction to Grand Central at Brixton’s Ritzy Picture house on Tuesday 16 September 2014 at 6.30pm.

The film tells the story of Gary (Tahar Rahim), a young man who has dropped out of formal education and who takes on a job with two friends, Tcherno (Johan Libéreau) and Isaac (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), at a nuclear power plant in the Rhône-Alpes region of France.

In part the movie is a work of social realism, as is arguably made clear by the choice of Olivier Gourmet to play Gilles, the man who takes Gary and friends under his wing and who trains them in the job at hand: the maintenance of the plant and the disposal of radioactive waste. For, Gourmet is a stalwart of films by the Dardenne brothers; indeed, an eagle eye might have spotted him in the similar (if less pleasant) foreman role in their latest film, Deux jours, une nuit/Two Days, One Night (Belgium/France/Italy, 2014).

The social realism is also in evidence via the use of locations, the mumbling acting styles, and the film’s concern with outlining the dangers of working in a nuclear power plant. Getting the so-called radioactive ‘dose’ is not simply something that could happen as part of this job; it is something that inevitably will happen at some point. Furthermore, Zlotowski takes care to detail the petty corruptions that take place almost daily: cheating one’s radiation exposure measurements, stealing equipment from the plant, turning a blind eye to ‘malpractice.’

However, while it is a fascinating insight into the life inside a nuclear power plant (Homer Simpson this is not), the film also takes on a poetic, as opposed to social realist, dimension, both through its love story and, as I shall discuss below, through its imagery.

Gary falls for Karole (Léa Seydoux), who is engaged to be married to Gilles’ friend, colleague and neighbour, Toni (Denis Ménochet). However, while Karole and Toni’s relationship has little wrong with it, she cannot but be attracted – somewhat animalistically – to Gary. An affair begins and, avoiding spoilers, they are on a timeline towards disaster – even if the Karole/Toni relationship is signalled as ‘unnatural’ in some respects both by Toni’s inability to have children – an inability brought on by his job at the nuclear plant – and, in a more meta-cinematic fashion, by the casting of Ménochet as Toni. For Ménochet played Seydoux’s father in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany, 2009). To play now her fiancé seems a step towards the unnatural.

As an itinerant worker, Gary seems to be updated version of a different Toni – the one played by Charles Blavette in Jean Renoir’s early social realist classic, Toni (France, 1935). Indeed, where Renoir is concerned not just with realism but also with poetry via symbolism, so, too, is director Zlotowski in this her second feature film. Perhaps this is also implied by the fact that Zlotowski’s film ends with a shot of Toni (and not of Gary or Karole), a shot that I shall discuss below.

At present, however, let me explain what I mean by the film’s symbolism via what seems to be another – at least implicit – reference point to Zlotowski, namely the work of nineteenth century French naturalist novelist, Émile Zola. In a letter to fellow writer Henri Céard, Zola writes:

Nous mentons tous plus ou moins, mais quelle est la mécanique et la mentalité de notre mensonge ? Or – c’est ici que je m’abuse peut-être – je crois encore que je mens pour mon compte dans le sens de la vérité. J’ai l’hypertrophie du détail vrai, le saut dans les étoiles sur le tremplin de l’observation exacte. La vérité monte d’un coup d’aile jusqu’au symbole.

A (relatively loose) translation of this might read as follows:

Basically, we [writers] all lie at some point, but what are the mechanisms and the mentality behind this lying? Now, perhaps I am exaggerating here, but I still think that I personally lie in order to achieve a sense of truth. I gorge on true detail, and I leap to the stars on the trampoline that is exact observation. The truth suddenly takes wing and flies up into the realm of the symbol.

What more evidence need we have of Zola’s use of symbolism than the ending of his great novel, Germinal (1885)? This book, which details at length the lives of French miners, ends with the image of grass growing, pushing up from underground – a symbolic insistence, then, that the miners will themselves emerge from the ground and become once again a part of nature.

And it is in particular in her juxtaposition of nature and the man-made that Zlotowski’s film, like Zola’s novel, becomes most poetic, most symbolic, in spite of its otherwise naturalistic/social realist approach. This is of course signalled in that most Zola-esque of fashions, in the afore-mentioned animal attraction that takes place between Karole and Gary. However, it is also there in the imagery that we see.

Water, for example, plays a key role in the film. Gary demonstrates great thirst early on when he drinks all of Gilles’ water (this is a man who is ‘thirsty’ for success, who has large appetites and so on), while Gary is also associated with the lake next to which the characters live in their trailers. Water is what is used to hose down the characters when they have been exposed too much to radiation; here we see it explicitly take on a ‘cleansing’ role in opposition to the unnatural life in the nuclear power plant. Finally, torrential rain will of course also play a key role in conveying to us the ‘natural’ attraction that exists between Karole and Gary.

At one point early on, Karole compares the sudden loss of vision and the sense of confusion that is raw desire to the exposure to radiation that is what the characters call a ‘dose.’ Desire, it seems, is similar to radiation – but one is healthy and (re)productive, while the other is noxious and damaging.

The greenery of the countryside – the fields where Karole and Gary repeatedly walk and make love – is also juxtaposed with the grey of the cooling towers that we see looming almost consistently in the background. In the framing and the colour scheme, then, we have a clear comparison between nature and modernity – an almost painterly eye that sees (for want of better examples) the rurality of Sir John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-1852) combined with the industrial urban landscape of The Pond (1950) by L.S. Lowry – with the human remaining also a key component to both images, and to Zlotowski’s.

The soundscape also ‘symbolises’ the possibility of the plant’s threatening nature: its ominous siren calls tell us if someone has had an accident in the plant – with the obligatory and ‘unnatural’ loss of hair that this inevitably entails. What is more, the haunting score by Rob (Robin Coudert) also plays an important part in the film, itself signalling a leap into the heavens as it creates a sense of foreboding throughout.

Finally, there is also a strong emphasis on shoes in the film: Gary carries his shoes around early on in a bar scene, while changing shoes takes place every day at work as the crew steps into the zone where they must wear their protective uniforms.

I am not certain of the ‘meaning’ of this – but it perhaps signals the constraint of the human in clothing. This may seem a bit far-fetched, but the French for shoe is chaussure, which comes from the Latin calx (foot) and calcāre (to tread, but also to crush). Not only does the shoe itself tread and crush, but the shoe might also do this to the foot. The word inculcate, meaning to tread down/stamp in/force upon, comes from the same root: Gary will not be downtrodden.

I have only offered a brief sketch here of Zlotowski’s film, but it is a rich and engaging film, featuring performances from a handful of French cinema’s finest talents, telling a fascinating story not just about the perils of nuclear power, but also about the impossibility for human nature to be extinguished. Nonsensical desire will always dictate our lives more than empirical science can possibly hope to achieve.

As mentioned, the film ends with a fascinating double exposure of Toni, of all characters, on an electronic rodeo bull – the same bull that we have seen Gary ride and defeat near the start of the film. Mysterious and beautiful, it suggests that perhaps even impotent Toni will not be vanquished. It is not that he conquers desire – in the form of a bull; it is that he conquers the mechanisation of desire – in the form of a mechanical bull. The doubling of his image through the double exposure/superimposition suggests multiplication, too, as he is set out twice against a black background: not only will Toni not go away, but there will be of him, more people like him.

Like a ray of light in the darkness, Toni has become the star in the heavens – into which the film has leapt via precise observation. Perhaps if Zola were alive to make films today, this would be the sort of movie that he’d produce.

Alceste à Bicyclette/Cycling with Molière (Philippe Le Guay, France, 2013)

Blogpost, Film education, French Cinema, Ritzy introductions

This blog post is basically a summary, or even a detailed version, of my introduction of Cycling with Molière at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London, this evening (9 September 2014).

Cycling with Molière tells the story of an actor, Serge Tanneur (Fabrice Luchini), who has gone into self-imposed exile on the Île de Ré, near La Rochelle in France. A former colleague and successful television star, Gauthier Valence (Lambert Wilson), tracks him down in order to persuade him to take part in a new stage production of Molière’s Le Misanthrope – a play about a man, Alceste, who becomes disillusioned with the hypocrisy of French society and who decides to be entirely candid with everyone with whom he interacts. Naturally, Alceste’s ‘honesty’ leads him to become ever more alienated by society, a kind of alienation that Alceste perhaps even craves, as he tells people precisely what he thinks of them.

Le Guay’s film takes place over more or less a week, during which time the two leads rehearse and/or spar, swapping the roles of Alceste and his best friend, Philinte, who in Molière’s play is the raisonneur character, or voice of reason, who tries to convince Alceste that being more economical with ‘the truth’ can in fact lead to finding a comfortable place in the world and, perhaps, some sort of happiness.

During this period they also meet an Italian divorcee, Francesca (Maya Sansa), who is planning on leaving France; a young porn actress Zoé (Laurie Bourdesoules), who potentially aspires to become a stage actress; and a taxi driver (Stéphan Wojtowicz), whose mother has broken her femur and for whom Gauthier promises to find a doctor.

Broadly speaking, the film sees Serge as Alceste, the man who refuses to be a part of society, and Gauthier as Philinte – and it is these roles that the two for the most part adopt in their rehearsals of Le Misanthrope. However, the film explores how Serge equally has elements of Philinte about him, as Gauthier does Alceste, too. Serge, for example, can be entirely dishonest at times, as seen in some of the tricks that he plays on Gauthier (taking a phone call and loudly saying that he is not doing anything as he watches an episode of Gauthier’s House-style medical drama, Le docteur Morange, with Gauthier and Francesca). Meanwhile, it is Gauthier who at times expresses disappointment at the world of today – for example, gawping at house prices on the Île de Ré.

In other words, both characters have elements of both Philinte and Alceste about them. This is not to say that Molière’s characters are one-sided (and it is certainly not to say that the film is superior to Molière’s play), but it is to say that the film tries to bring Molière’s characters a new context – namely contemporary France.

Indeed, in addition to the character study that the film predominantly is, with two fantastic performances from two of France’s strongest actors, it is the asides on contemporary France that are perhaps a prime focus of the film.

As mentioned, property prices – together with discussions of money in general – loom large in the film, as does a disappointment with the ubiquitous nature of the mobile phone: Serge and Gauthier argue about the latter’s addiction to his phone, while Zoé seems more concerned with her phone than with watching Serge and Gauthier perform Molière’s play.

‘We live in an extraordinary age,’ says Serge at one point. And it seems as though this is a world in which good old-fashioned values have been lost. This becomes clear during a discussion of Molière himself: Gauthier wants to do a more up-to-date version of the text, while Serge insists that one must respect the original text, particularly its Alexandrine poetry (each line is composed of 12 syllables).

Serge wants to preserve the past, in effect, while Gauthier wants to move with the times (and arguably he is of the times as his prime motivation seems to be to make money – hence his work as Dr Morange – for €200,000 per episode). This is also signalled by the way in which Serge wants to ride a bicycle everywhere on the Île de Ré – the construction of a bridge to which Serge also laments.

Gauthier initially rides a bike and falls off. However, he soon is taken in by the charms of the bike, and by the end of the film, it is Serge who falls off his bike and into a canal. Tables turn in the film, such that by the end we somehow want both to resolve their seemingly irreconcilable differences, but are worried that somehow they won’t.

What we do have, though, is both characters kind of stuck in their ways – which is indeed a very Molière-like trope. In play after play, Molière presents to us a monomaniac: Alceste who believes he must always speak the truth, Dom Juan who must chase after women, Orgon in Le Tartuffe who insists that his family must obey him. And in play after play, the monomaniac is not quite cured by the end, but still somehow in search of what they want to find – Alceste goes off into the wilderness; Dom Juan refuses to repent; Orgon seems to suggest that while Tartuffe may have been outed, he still wants total control over his family.

And so it is in Alceste à bicyclette that we have neither Serge nor Gauthier as necessarily having learnt anything. Serge is on the Île de Ré as Gauthier realises that he still cannot get right a line from the first act of Le Misanthrope. ‘You wish an evil to befall humanity,’ says Philinte, to which Alceste normally replies: ‘Yes, I have conceived horrifying hatred for humanity.’ Except that Gauthier repeatedly says ‘Yes, I have conceived an unspeakable hatred for humanity.’

The difference between horrifying and unspeakable, effroyable and indicible, are important, says Serge. And it perhaps points to the way in which it is Philinte who is the real pessimist – believing that since humans cannot and will not change, then it is just worth playing along with the mores of a society in order to succeed. This means being insincere, as we see in Gauthier’s faux concern for the taxi driver’s mother, a concern that leads Gauthier to be in a fight at one point in the film.

It is Alceste, then, who is the optimist of the pair, because it is he who believes that humans can do better and who refuses to compromise in his bid for humans to be better, less conniving and more honest. Wayward as this quest may be (because it perhaps overlooks some of the benefits of dishonesty – a dishonesty that both Alceste and Serge at times share), it is in some ways admirable.

And in saying that his hatred for humanity is unspeakable, Gauthier in fact speaks precisely of his hatred for and cynicism concerning humanity – a fact also revealed subtly by his womanising, while Serge dreams of/idealises a more pure and innocent love, one that ultimately is not forthcoming (though we do not have Serge decry Francesca or the other female characters as Alceste decries Célimène in Molière’s play).

Serge plays at the idealist – but like the pipes in his garden, they cannot but burst at some point. While Gauthier plays at the realist, but whose underlying idealism is undermined when he comes into contact with reality – a jacuzzi that does not work, a fight with a cab driver. As such, Le Guay offers us a complex and thoughtful study of two characters, inspired by one of the great works of French and world literature.

‘On rît dans l’âme,’ said Molière of Le Misanthrope, though the phrase might apply to his plays more generally, since they are often described as comedies, but in the telling of which tragedy is never very far at all (indeed, when there is a comic/happy ending, as in Le Tartuffe, it normally happens via an unlikely deus ex machina device). We laugh in our souls, but not out loud. Alceste à bicyclette is a comedy, but not one full of belly laughs (though there are a couple of those). It is a comedy to provoke thought, some sort of nourishment for the soul, and for the mind. I hope that you enjoy it and get as much food for thought as I did.