Sunday, August 14, 2016

movie review: Bernadette Lafont and God Created the Free Woman (original title: Bernadette Lafont et Dieu créa la femme libre)

(This review is part of a series, related to my professional development project of attending the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.)

Bernadette Lafont Poster

Bernadette Lafont and God Created the Free Woman (original title: Bernadette Lafont et Dieu créa la femme libre)
(France, 2016)
directed by Esther Hoffenberg

I did not know who Bernadette Lafont was before watching this documentary. The main reasons we chose to attend this particular festival screening were because it fit with our schedule and there were still tickets available! However, within minutes I was very pleased with our serendipitous choice--it was wonderful to be introduced to this bold, intelligent, successful French actor and to learn about her role in France's feminist movement. As a bonus, two of Lafont's granddaughters were in attendance and spoke briefly and movingly about their late grandmother.

Lafont started out in French New Wave films with rising directors Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol--her 1957 debut was in Truffaut's first professional film, a short called "Les Mistons" ("The Mischief Makers"). Lafont, 18 at the time of filming, appeared with her then-husband Gerard Blain. Not long after, the two split up, partly because (as Lafont explained it), Blain could not cope with her rising career and desire for a life outside the home and in addition to her role as wife and mother.

Not only does the film take us on a tour of Lafont's film career; it also delves into her rich and complex personal life. In interviews with her granddaughters and her close friend, actor Bulle Ogier, we learn about Lafont's joys as well as her tragedies, such as the accidental death of her daughter (actor Pauline Lafont) at age 25.

Lafont was a real force to be reckoned with, both as an actor and a feminist. She chose films that embodied her views on women's rights and used her fame to create a space for women to maintain a conversation about equality and feminism. Up to her death in 2013, she was still acting in major roles to much critical and popular acclaim. In her final film, Paulette, she played the starring role as a cranky pensioner who becomes a drug dealer to make ends meet. Paulette shrewdly uses the social invisibility of elderly women to her advantage: she can fly under everyone's radar because society assumes she has no agency.

I would highly recommend this documentary to anyone interested in French film and/or the history of feminism in French culture.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

movie review: Peshmerga

France, 2016
Dir. Bernard-Henri Lévy

Peshmerga's documentary team, led by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, follows a group of Kurdish military as they battle Daesh (aka ISIS) in Iraq. It's probably safe to say most Westerners don't know much about these smart, tough men and women, and that's a shame, because they are fascinating and admirable.

The film is tense, as you'd expect from a war documentary. It's clear the film crew doesn't know what will happen next as they travel with the soldiers from one beleaguered village to the next, and this uncertainty adds sometimes unbearable tension to the scenes. At certain points, Lévy's voiceover tells us exactly what happens after the scene ends, and although we are spared seeing the carnage, it packs an emotional wallop because we have just spent a considerable amount of time getting to know the newly deceased or injured.

Some of the most interesting scenes centre around women: we meet Helly Luv, who was among those present at the premiere I attended and was introduced to the audience as "the Kurdish [pop star] Madonna." Luv is an outspoken advocate for her people, not afraid to show up and raise morale in the war zone. We also meet a group of female soldiers who are treated as equals to their male counterparts. According to Lévy, these women strike terror in the hearts of the Islamic militants they are fighting, because to be killed by a woman means the ultimate shame and no glory in the afterlife.

Peshmerga is an excellent glimpse into this little known world. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

movie review: Blood Father

Blood Father
France, 2016
Directed by Jean-François Richet

I can't say I had high hopes when I found out the final movie at Cannes would be Blood Father, starring Mel Gibson as an ex-convict trying to save his daughter (Erin Moriarty) from drug dealers who want to kill her. First of all, I'm not a Mel Gibson fan (though I have enjoyed his earlier movies like Lethal Weapon), and secondly, the story sounded cheesy and tired.

Maybe it was because of my low expectations, but I found to my surprise that the movie was pleasantly entertaining. Mel Gibson turned in a performance worthy of his pre-nutball self--he and Moriarty had lovely chemistry as a father and daughter. The other supporting actors like William H. Macy and Diego Luna were also very good. The dialogue was funny and quick, the action sequences were nicely filmed, and the plot clipped along briskly without lagging.

The story, based on a novel by Peter Craig, is nothing particularly original, but it is logical and well plotted. In a sea of action movies that insist on weirdly intricate plots, its simplicity was actually refreshing. I was thankful that the straightforward plot allowed the focus to remain on the characters' relationship; most of the screen time is taken up by Moriarty and Gibson, and they are a genuine pleasure to watch.

With Blood Father, Mel Gibson seems to have taken a step back from the abyss of Hollywood purgatory he's (deservedly) been in for a few years. If he can keep turning in good work in roles like this one, Hollywood and the viewing public may forgive him yet.