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War of the Buttons

After The Chorus and Paris 36, Christophe Barratier—one of France’s least interesting living directors—offers up another gooey slice of Gallic nostalgia: War of the Buttons, a reboot of Yves Robert’s 1962 original. (In a bizarre industry twist, a second War of the Buttons remake was released in France just one week before Barratier’s.) Barratier and screenwriter Thomas Langmann have set the story of warring preteen-boy gangs against the sinister backdrop of 1944 Vichy France; the village in which the action unfolds is under threat of Nazi occupation, and a Jewish girl (Ilona Bachelier) is in hiding, protected by a kindhearted local beauty and a dashing schoolteacher (played in noble eye candy mode by Laetitia Casta and Guillaume Canet). But despite its darker themes, Barratier coats War of the Buttons in his typical gloss, draining it of any sense of danger, authentic emotion, or spontaneous humor with his blandly composed images, cookie-cutter period detail (berets and baguettes galore), and pandering score. Of course, everyone in the film—aside from one or two conspicuous villains—turns out to be a resistant, making an otherwise harmlessly corny movie something slightly more bothersome: a revisionist fantasy of French heroism. As one non-critic friend wondered aloud upon seeing the film: “When will the French stop jerking off to their own history?” It’s a good question, especially because France’s present, rich in diversity and roiling with tensions, has so many stories yet to be told on-screen.

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Little White Lies

A bloated spin on The Big Chill, Little White Lies follows a septet of grating, mostly Gen X Parisians as they half-guiltily decide to proceed with their summer-holiday plans in Cap Ferret after one of their clique (The Artist‘s Jean Dujardin) lies in intensive care after a motorcycle accident. How these friends met is never made clear; the women in the group, save for the ethnologist played by Marion Cotillard (the real-life romantic partner of writer-director Guillaume Canet, best known for 2006’s overrated Tell No One), appear to have no roles other than scolds, weepers, and/or sexually unsatisfied helpmeets. The din of this crew’s constant caviling and passive-aggressive insulting is further intensified by the puzzling, nonstop boomer soundtrack (I guess rights to songs by CCR and the Isley Brothers are cheaper than those by Oasis and the Fugees). By the fifth scene of everyone climbing onto the yacht owned by high-strung hotelier Max (François Cluzet), you might as well be watching someone else’s unedited, logorrheic vacation footage—which you will soon be doing when the gang gathers round the TV to coo and laugh at a compilation of their past beach sojourns. Of sole interest is Benoît Magimel’s Vincent, who sheepishly confesses a same-sex attraction to one in the cabal; his moments on-screen provide the only break from this slog.

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Tell No One

Dir. Guillaume Canet (2006) Canet’s labyrinthine crime thriller stars François Cluzet as a pediatrician still grieving over his wife, who was murdered eight years ago—or was she? The standout among the excellent supporting cast is Kristin Scott Thomas, playing the doctor’s tetchy lesbian sister-in-law.

Fri., July 6, 8:30 p.m., 2012

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About Last Night: It’s a Bad Facsimile of Desire

This glossy will-they-or-won’t-they adultery drama stars Keira Knightley as Joanna, a writer who accompanies husband Michael (Sam Worthington) to a work party and catches him in discreet flirtation with sultry colleague Laura (Eva Mendes). The young marrieds fight, and before embarking on a business trip with said temptress, Michael almost convinces his wife that she’s just being paranoid. Five minutes later, Joanna runs into Alex (Guillaume Canet), the scruffy-hot French dude with whom she cavorted in Paris when she and Michael were on a pre-marriage break. While her starched-stiff husband’s away, will the sometime-shrew play with the artsy Eurostud who got away? Programmatically cutting back and forth between the two sets of would-be cheaters, each engaged in night-spanning epic conversations about why they’re not having sex, Last Night adopts the “tasteful” erotics of luxury fetishism familiar from the world of fashion propaganda. Here, as in a cosmetics ad, the performers are assigned to telegraph desire as characters defined by visual stereotype, their empty chatter decorated with facile metaphors (e.g., Joanna can’t resist sneaking cigarettes behind Michael’s back—foreshadowing her inability to give up bad habit Alex). The production design is richer in subtext, with the film’s exploration of forbidden intimacies set entirely in non-intimate spaces—open-plan Tribeca lofts, a business-traveler hotel, the awkward-run-in trap that is the trendy Manhattan restaurant. First-time director Massy Tadjedin conjures some essence of constrained desire, but mostly from the architecture.

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Tell No One Twists Away

François Cluzet, who looks like Daniel Auteuil and runs like Dustin Hoffman, simmers beautifully as a Paris pediatrician who, eight years after the brutal murder of his beloved wife (Marie-Josée Croze), receives an e-mailed video purporting to show her alive. His search for her or her captors is, to understate the situation, complicated by their search for him and the growing suspicions of the police—who reopen the case after two more corpses pop up—that the doc is his wife’s killer. That I can’t parse the plot of Tell No One without recourse to multiple subordinate clauses gives you some idea of the labyrinthine twists in Guillaume Canet’s soignée adaptation of Harlan Coben’s rather less elegant crime thriller. Among the movie’s many delights are the fluctuating rhythms of its pacing, an atmospheric volatility that sets off the doctor’s blooming paranoia against his sunlit, leafy surroundings, and a terrific cast that includes Kristin Scott Thomas as a bitchy lesbian with heart and a quietly funny François Berléand as an obsessive-compulsive detective. Canet’s grasp of the way institutional and personal corruption feed on each other is sure, though his excursion into France’s racial wars gilds the lily of a plot that already creaks with complication. Crucially, though, the love story at the movie’s heart is flat, cliché, and much less engaging than the satisfying mixed motives of its lively supporting characters.