Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Taste of Western Europe

Switching gears for a bit to witness themes of love against culture and tradition, voyeurism, affairs, mafia crime & a tale of a boy genius.


Where Fig Trees Grow (2004, Director Yasmina Yahiaoui): Rating 7.5/10

Another in a line of French productions depicting life of North Africans settling into their new French life. The story is similar in parts to Inch'Allah Dimanche but that film dealt with the relationship and marriage issues in a serious tone. Where Fig Trees Grow adds a touch of humour while depicting how a barber balances his feelings for a local belly dancer and his wife. The barber enjoys his profession and secretly loves his belly dancing neighbour. But his life is complicated when his parents force him to get married to a sweet innocent woman because of family honor. The title comes from Rue des Figuiers (Fig Tree Road) where the characters live; as the film progresses, we witness the growth of love and understanding among the main characters. But then there are some characters who choose to not inhale the air surrounding them and are content in rooting themselves in a land far away.

Exterminating Angels (2006, Director Jean-Claude Brisseau): Rating 7/10

A darkened room, a couple sleeping. Two shadowy figures mumbling in the background. A radio transmitting messages over the air. Then a clue -- the two figures are fallen angels, doomed to follow instructions and induce human behaviour and desire by suggestions. Even wonder where those thoughts enter our brains? Well the fallen angels ofcourse!

While the radio transmitter element feels straight out of Jean Cocteau's brilliant film Orphée, the rest of Exterminating Angels feels like a mix of Brisseau's defense of his previous film, porn portrayed as art and voyeurism. One can't judge the film without taking each element into consideration:

Secret Things was an interesting take on power that sex can wield. In that film, two woman freely toy with men by teasing and arousing them. Both decide to use their sexuality to advance in the world. What they didn't count on was running into a ruthless man who could crush both of them in an instant. It was an interesting film that was not afraid to take risks with plenty of nudity and sexuality shots which fit in nicely with the film's structure. But a nasty lawsuit resulted from the film when an actress claimed that Brisseau exploited her to do certain risky scenes in public. Brisseau has taken this scandal and made a film that attempts to explain his reasons for wanting his actresses to do simulated sex scenes because that is the only way he can decide if he wants her for the role or not. Now, is this exploitation, voyeurism or just plain disturbing?

I am not very fond of films using extreme sex scenes and trying to pass them off as 'art'. And there are plenty of such scenes in Exterminating Angels especially the main scene with three women pleasuring each other while François (the film director playing Brisseau's alter ego) watches and films them. This is one of the best shots of the film as the fast past music and dim lighting really lend to the mood. But still, is there a need for this scene in the film, even though it looks enticing? In order to defuse any criticism, Brisseau has added such questions in the film with François' wife asking him the need for having such shots. Also, his wife tries to talk some sense into François by telling him that he is being used by the girls. François feels he can accurately understand sexuality by filming women pleasuring themselves; he wants to understand what goes on in their head as their bodies hit peaks of pleasure. But as his wife points out, he is not just a mere observer because he is directing the women -- he is telling them what to do and in most cases, the women are telling or showing him what he wants. Is that still a natural observation?

The dialogues in the film are mostly hollow and pointless. After a while, even the repeated scenes of women living out their fantasies in front of François get taxing. Still, there is some merit in this film even though it appears to be exploitative cinema.


Summer 04 (2006, Director Stefan Krohmer): Rating 9/10

A wicked little German film which feels part Roman Polanski (A Knife in the Water), part Eric Rohmer (Claire's Knee), a touch of Lolita and even has a hint of the creepiness and awkwardness in Michael Haneke's Funny Games. A German family head out to the lake for a vacation. Along with the couple is their 16 year old son with his 12-13 year old girlfriend. While boating, the 13 year girl meets a much older stranger who clearly fancies her. That sets up an interesting dynamic within the family which gets even more complicated when the mother also starts taking an interesting in this stranger. The older man liking the young girl feels like Lolita and the key scenes on the boat contain the air of tension that Polanski's first film had. Powerfully acted by Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Other) as the wife and mother, this was a really engaging watch.


Romanzo criminale (2005, Director Michele Placido): Rating 8/10

Based on the real life Roman gangs of the 1970's, Placido has carefully crafted an intense look at the rise and fall of the group that wanted to conquer Rome. Based on Giancarlo De Cataldo's novel, the film contains plenty of scenes familiar to mafia films -- the childhood friends getting into crime, drugs, gun fights, gang's family elements, mob vs police battles and the eventual decline. Also, thrown in is the love story with a prostitute which causes one of the gang member's wanting to get out of the gang, which leads to the often repeated dialogue that mafia is something one can't get out of. Despite all the familiar elements, it is still an interesting watch that is very well acted even though the movie feels quite long at 140 minutes.


Vitus (2006, Director Fredi M. Murer): Rating 6/10

A run of the mill film about a genius child prodigy. As a six year old, Vitus has a gift for playing music which leads to his parents pushing him more and more. But Vitus has an interest in other things, like flying, which is helped by his grandfather who encourages him to do what his heart desires. As Vitus grows up, he discovers how to use his talents in other areas -- at 12 he understands the stock market which leads to a lively second hour where he is able to structure a company and share his riches with his grandfather. The first hour is much duller than the second hour where things take on a lighter tone because of how Vitus is able to manipulate and run a fake company.

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