You see how pretty that image is? This film is FULL of pretty images like this. Dreamy looking fields, a carnival lit up at night, an ant trapped inside a vacuum cleaner, an infant bundled up and lying on the grass — just gorgeous stuff.
The kind of beautiful images that purportedly surround us in everyday life but that we tend to ignore because we are so caught up in the business of life. I guess that’s the central message of the movie and the beauty and freedom represented in these images do a pretty good job of making that point. Unfortunately, the rest of the film was far less convincing for me.
First and foremost, this is a really really conventional story. One that we’ve seen several times before. It’s Rain Man + Forrest Gump + whatever that Jim Carrey / Adam Sandler movie was where he doesn’t have time to attend his kids [insert activity here] because of a meeting at work. Except it’s in French and features two really good actors. But even the superb acting talent couldn’t make the content fresh for me. Side note: I love Daniel Auteuil but I am surprised he won an acting award for this movie. I found him really unconvincing especially in the scenes where he has to burst into laughter or start sobbing uncontrollably. Pascal Duquenne, otoh, was truly wonderful. He’s both intense and spontaneous and is clearly incredibly talented.
Outside of that performance though, the film was just too much of a Hallmark card for me to embrace. Just too by-the-numbers. Right in the opening shot, we hear an alarm clock ringing and Daniel Auteuil’s character is caught in a traffic jam while getting to work. For good measure, he’s a salesman who gives motivational speeches to his trainees. These scenes of ringing alarm clocks and traffic jams are repeated multiple times just in case we didn’t know that was all his life revolved around. He gets delayed at work when he’s supposed to pick his kids up from the train station and as he races against the clock and stalled traffic, the score (more on that later) plays mournful music and we see the kids get into the train and depart as Auteuil watches from the platform.
You can guess the rest, right? Circumstances lead to Auteuil (Harry) getting stuck with the enchanting Georges, a man-child who suffers from Down’s syndrome and leads a far simpler, happier life and has the capacity to fill everyone around him with joy. No points for guessing how all this ends.
I wouldn’t have minded the conventional storyline so much if the treatment was fresh at least. But I just found the filmmaking extremely heavy-handed. Harry’s world (when he is alone) is always shot in these blue / gray tints and in contrast, Georges world is colorful and filled with sunshine and ladybugs. Also, I really think that the movie oversimplifies Georges condition. Thankfully, Duquenne is so good an actor that his performance manages to transcend the poor writing and add depth and genuine pain to Georges.
Secondly, there are all these scenes that in a better film could’ve been magical. Scenes where a character walks on water, where a carnival / amusement park comes to life in the middle of the night and so on. But the film is so predictable and so overly sentimental that I got no joy from these scenes. Same with the ending.
I am so sorry, Emiliana . I really wanted to like this film and to a large extent, I do think it is my horrible, cynical world view that perhaps keeps me from enjoying a film like this. I know my review is really harsh but I really did enjoy seeing Duquenne on screen. He is so charming and seems to just open up to the camera entirely and that’s always a pleasure to watch.
After recently watching and raving about Still Life and Up the Yangtze, I was skeptical about finding something new and interesting n yet another movie set in one of the villages that is soon to be submerged in service of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In a way, this is reminiscent of those films in that like both of those films, here again, we have parallel narratives where we follow three different protagonists. Initially, we are introduced Mai Qiang, a somewhat naive and lonely signal operator who is being visited by his more worldly friend, Ma Bing and his female friend Li Li. The beginning of the film is just these three people spending time at the isolated signal station, watching television even though there doesn’t really seem to be anything to watch and trying to come up with ways to spend time. The pace is desultory and sluggish but it didn’t bother me at all. I felt like it perfectly captured the way time seems to have come to a standstill in that town and the sense that everybody is just waiting for something that is about to happen (the flooding of the village in this case, I suppose). Then suddenly we go from these mostly indoor scenes to the outside world and get introduced to a single mother who works at a hotel in a nearby town. She is contemplating marriage and ends her affair with her boss which obviously doesn’t leave him very happy. Somehow, out of seemingly no plot, a story starts to emerge and we finally meet the third protgonist, namely a cop, who comes in to investigate an alleged rape.
Zhang Ming just seems to have this amazing ability to paint this really vivid and intimate portrait of these people’s lives in a really economic way. We don’t get any backstory nor do we hear much exchange of dialogue but somehow the quiet desperation with which these people are living their lives comes across so clearly. In that sense, this movie felt like the antithesis of A Single Spark. Here, the director seems to almost want to avoid telling us what to think to an extent where I think some people may find the pace too slow or conclude that nothing really happens in this movie. I didn’t feel that way at all. I found it incredibly powerful and tragic and poignant. The performances are all really good especially Xianmin Zhang who plays Mai Qiang and Ping Zhang, who plays the hotel receptionist.
When I was watching Beau Travail, my very first Denis film, one thing that really struck me was the way Denis uses textures and sounds as important components in telling her story. It also helps that Agnes Godard is able to capture textures so gorgeously whether it’s the bodies of French legionnaires as in Beau Travail or pizza dough and pastry as in Nenette et Boni. Maybe the reason I liked this film so much is because there is a lot of that in this movie.
I love the way we are introduced to the main characters in this film. When we are first introduced to Nénette in this movie, we see her floating serenely and blissfully in a pool in an oversized t-shirt until she is instructed by the gym teacher to get out of the pool due to improper attire. It’s the perfect introduction given everything we learn about her afterwards. Similarly, when we first see Boni, we see him swearing over his mother’s grave that he will “have” the baker’s wife after which he proceeds to read out his sexual fantasies from his smutty journal. Think of me what you will but Boni’s sexual fantasies were absolutely the most fun parts of the movie for me. They combine all these slow-motion shots of beautiful decadent pastries after which the camera gradually switches to shots of the baker’s wife leaning over her pastry-case. I couldn’t help smiling at the way the baker’s wife is always clad scantily in pink furry lingerie in Boni’s fantasies and the way Boni imagines her life with the baker as an endless series of sensuous making-out sessions . What is even cooler is the way our own perceptions of the baker’s wife mirror Boni’s views on her. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Boni bumps into her in the mall and the conversation that ensues. Just by focusing the camera tightly on her face, her movements, her gestures and mannerisms, Denis reveals how ordinary she really is outside of Boni’s fantasies.
But the movie not just all sexual fantasy and Boni goofing around with pizza dough in his pizza van. The real focus of the film is what happens between Nénette and Boni. Denis builds this story brick by brick sometimes connecting the dots through images, sometimes through dialog leaving a lot of it for us to interpret. There are scenes of violence, anger and real palpable tenderness between the two siblings. Some fleeting shots of events from the past that in a flash manage to convey a lot about the memories these people are carrying – enough for us to understand their actions. The film never feels sentimental or condescending towards these characters. Everything about the way these two people communicate and interact with one another feels completely real which really helped me buy into what I admit is a somewhat unrealistic conclusion to the movie.
This movie felt different from all the other Denis films I’ve watched so far. It felt more playful perhaps because of all the fantasy sequences which are really funny. Also, I felt like Denis always maintains a distance from her protagonists in her other films as though she is observing them from the outside but I didn’t feel that here.
Like in Beau Travail, here again there is a really cool musical sequence set to the Beach Boys’ God only Knows. The cast is fantastic all-around. Alice Houri manages to look like a normal teenager and still be strikingly beautiful. It was fun seeing Grégoire Colin again here. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi is perfect as the baker’s wife. Vincent Gallo wears a sailor suit and looks appropriately shady.