Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Young, Beautiful, & Blue

Most readers who keep an eye towards international cinema will have, most likely, heard at least rumblings about two of the most sensational films from this past year's Cannes Film Festival, and since they're either finding or found their way to home video releases, now seems like the perfect time to talk about two of my favorite films of last year.

Despite it's controversy (more on that later, maybe), Blue Is The Warmest Color has become a critical success pretty much from go, and it managed to secure the Palme d'Or for the director, Abdellatif Kechiche, as well as both Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, making them the first (and only!) women since filmmaker, Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993, to win the award (not to mention Exarchopoulos being the youngest ever recipient).  While both actresses are excellent, I found Exarchopoulos to be the breakout performance as it's her character (also named Adèle) that the audience gets to see grow throughout the film as she meets Emma (Seydoux), the young woman with blue hair with whom Adèle begins a life-changing relationship with.
Though the film is based (kinda) on Julie Maroh's graphic novel of the same name (making Blue the first film based on a graphic novel to ever win it's esteemed award), the film differs slightly, as it was also the product of filmmaker, Abdellatif Kechiche's, original concept that he found mirrored Maroh's story that he came across as he was still developing it.  Aside from the changing the character's name from Clémentine to Adèle, it's the ending and preceding character changes that delineate the two versions; and as much as I love to side with source material, I found the film to be much more interesting, and the ending of the film drove home everything that I loved about it.  In fact, one of the reasons why Maroh wasn't mentioned in last month's article on female artists was that I wasn't too terribly impressed by her version of Blue Is The Warmest Color, as I didn't find her ending as satisfying.  It's also interesting to note the film's original French title, La Vie d'Adèle - Chapitres 1 & 2 (Adele: Chapters 1 & 2), which I find probably more appropriate, given it's structure, as well as the overall impression the film left with me.

As I mentioned above, the film garnered it's share of controversies and criticisms; some of it came from alleged working conditions during filming, but the film's reputation was criticized, even by Maroh herself, disapproving of the film's several lengthy sex scenes, comparing them to pornography.  I found that the rest of the film's visuals were not to be overshadowed though, and the lovely (if not so literal) use of blue in the film's rich color palate was very striking and reminded me of Glyn Dillon's The Nao Of Brown and it's brilliant use of red as it's own central palate; in both instances, neither color overwhelmed the senses nor felt overused, but in fact added to the overall design of both pieces, making them feel like complete, well-rounded artifacts.  Blue Is The Warmest Color is just that; both a color and a mood.

My second favorite film of last year, and also a nominee of the Palme d'Or, was François Ozon's Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie).  I have been a tremendous fan of Ozon for a while now (as with the continuously promised Wong Kar Wai article,there is an Ozon omnibus post coming soon as well, I swear!), and I have yet to see him turn in anything I haven't enjoyed (though I will admit to not seeing absolutely everything he's done); Young & Beautiful was no exception.
The film focuses on the seventeenth year of Isabelle, played by Marine Vacth, who, after losing her virginity while on vacation with her family in south France, decides to explore her sexuality by becoming a prostitute.  Simple enough Cinemax style setup, I suppose, but Ozon's film shines in much the same manner as the rest of his films; almost like an alternate universe Yasujiro Ozu, François Ozon's films often deal with families and the relationships between generations, and it's that relationship and subsequent fallout of Isabelle's alter-ego Lea that feeds much of the film's conflict.  After a shocking event, Isabelle is quickly found by the police and her parents are notified, straining her relationship with her mother.

In true Ozon fashion, he deliberately and frankly sees his events through to their conclusion, and as the film encompasses an entire year, the audience is able to see real growth in the characters through the performances of actresses Marine Vacth and Géraldine Pailhas, who played Isabelle's mother, Sylvie.  Vacth is able to portray a young girl both experienced and unrefined, and it's her penetrating, weak, yet almost blank gaze throughout many of her sex scenes that belie a sense of innocence in her incongruous professionalism.  Pailhas reacts with all the stoicism of a lost parent, and it's through a series of tough love, treading water, and trust exercises that the two develop back into their former relationship, at once pretending that nothing happened while silently acknowledging their conjoined shadow, lurking just under the surface.

The film is interceded by four chansons (one for each season) by Françoise Hardy, whose recording of the German song, "Träume", was featured at the end of Ozon's Water Drops On Burning Rocks (an adaptation of an early Fassbinder play, so, you know, it's awesome that that's a French reinterpretation of both a song and a movie; just saying).  The effect is very French, and it gives the film a sort of timeless quality; much like his previous films, Young & Beautiful doesn't cater to social trends in either filmmaking or setting, and if it weren't for the inclusion of cell phones and computers, I feel like Ozon could have made the same film fifteen years ago.  In fact, the visual style of Blue Is The Warmest Color even reminded me quite a bit of Diva, a personal favorite of mine by director Jean-Jacques Beineix, so it's almost as if in 2013 France has reached a new neo-classicist period, though I'd still hesitate to rename an era every time a couple of dudes make a few really excellent films; for all we know, these are isolated incidents, but I'm still going to be excited when said dudes release their next films.
Funnily enough, despite filmmaker François Ozon's frequent use of deliberate sex and graphic violence, his films rarely if ever have any controversy surrounding them, and even in the face of some misplaced comments suggesting that many women fantasize about being prostitutes, Ozon stands by his films in a way that maybe Kechiche finds himself unable to do in the face of his critics, even at one point threatening legal action against actress Léa Seydoux for criticizing his shooting methods.  Despite both Ozon's comments and Kechiche even denouncing his own film in weekly French magazines and the like though, the films have been popular and critical successes, and it's nice to see that art can still sometimes speak for itself.