Wars are shocking and impactful phenomena that have devastating consequences for the human experience. As Betrand Russel once said, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” It is in this vein that French filmmaker Christian Carion has directed his latest film, Come What May, a suspense-filled drama he co-wrote with Andrew Bampfield and Laure Irrmann that depicts Nazi atrocities in such a vivid way it will get the audience furious all over again about that terrible regime. Despite a formulaic feeling that will be familiar to those who have seen many World War II films, the violence is quite vivid and inescapable, set in contrast to the bucolic European landscape, which is heightened by strong camera work and a score from a well-known composer.

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The science fiction film genre offers so much potential. It’s too bad that it’s so easy to screw up (see this recent review). But then, you have movies like The Man Who Fell to Earth, something I once called “the last of the great sci-fi revolution.” Then, of course, there’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film I wrote my MA thesis on. It is among those inventive, quality movies that the 1973 animated film Fantastic Planet (La planète sauvage) stands. Now this film directed by René Laloux has been restored for 4K theatrical presentation, and it’s coming to our South Florida area thanks to the Miami Beach Cinematheque.

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With a title like The Measure of a Man, French writer-director Stéphane Brizé sets up the audience to consider a summary judgement. What makes a man in the moral sense? It’s a challenging set up for a reductive conclusion. That the film works as well as it does is a combination of Brizé’s cinematic technique and a beautiful yet inconspicuous performance by Vincent Lindon, who won the best actor prize at Cannes after the film’s world premiere last year. Utilizing spare film craft, including handheld camera and minimal editing, Brizé encourages an objective perspective on the man in question, Thierry Taugourdeau (Lindon), a 51-year-old unemployed machinist and father struggling to survive on a diminishing dole while trying to support his wife and disabled son (played respectively by non-actors Karine de Mirbeck and Matthieu Schaller).

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Every once in a while a movie comes around that solely achieves its greatness due to its performances. It seems like French writer/director Guillaume Nicloux has made such a movie by design. The performances of Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu drive Valley of Love so much so that their characters are even called Isabelle and Gérard, and the actors are only credited with their last names (see also the poster, which has their names presented in larger type above the film’s title). It’s an acting reunion 35 years in the making, and boy have these screen presences evolved since Maurice Pialat’s 1980 film Loulou.

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The Coral Gables Art Cinema may have a hit in its specialty programming. They have scored the U.S. premiere of Return to Ithaca, the latest film by the Oscar-nominated French director Laurent Cantet based on and co-written by Cuba’s most prominent writer Leonardo Padura, who also co-wrote the screenplay. As I noted earlier in a review of the film (Return to Ithaca presents a vivid and intense portrait of a life lived in Cuba – a film review), it’s a profound portrait of what it is like to live under the Castro regime and all its history, which spans more than 50 years.

We had the opportunity to interview Cantet over Skype while he was still in Paris, ahead of his recent visit to Miami for the film’s premiere. We spoke about his personal interest in Cuba, and this story in particular. We also talked about his film-making techniques. For instance, why do his films have no musical score? Here is some of our conversation…

Hans Morgenstern: What interested you and making this film, from a personal level?

Laurent Cantet: I went many times to Cuba, and there was a feeling of falling in love with the country — it happened quite fast for me — and of course people I met there. I met a lot of interesting people who really wanted to speak. I felt their story was very important for me because even if I’m a little bit too young to have been involved in what happened in Cuba, there is a sort of mythology of Cuba for every French guy from the ‘60s, and this mythology is so far away from the reality that you discover when you go there. I think it was interesting for me to confront the reality of this mythology. Also I had a feeling I could share their story, too, because it’s not just a question of nationality. I think what they experienced during all this time was something so human and so involving for them that there are a lot of things I could share, especially the disillusion. I’m 55 now, and I … I don’t think I a lost my ideals, but I think I have a colder way of thinking than a few years ago. It’s the sort of thing you always face when you are in Cuba, especially this generation, people from 55 to 60 years old. They have been raised in the atmosphere of the revolution, the schools were revolutionary. Their way of thinking was really marked by this revolutionary feeling, and they really believed in it, and after 50 they had more doubts about that.


I think the rooftop where much of the film takes place is a brilliant setting. The Malecón and these little glimpses of Cuban color, from how the city looks to how the people act. How did you come to choose this setting?

I didn’t want to make a film that takes place in different places in Havana. I wanted to focus on the stories of the characters, and be close enough to just look at their faces, listen to the way they speak, so I thought a sort of theatrical setting would be the best solution for that. Then, I wanted to find a place where I could feel the city, and of course, a terrace for that is perfect. It was also based on one chapter of Leonardo Padura’s book, La historia de mi vida, en español, where a man comes back from Spain and meets his old friends on a terrace, like this, so we started from this, and I decided to stay there, especially because I wanted to have the feeling of the city without having a touristic point of view of it. As soon as you arrive in Havana, you are facing all the clichés you can imagine, all the old American cars, music everywhere, all the flags, all the signs and all that would have been difficult to avoid if we would go downstairs, and I like the situation of the Malecón, which is really the heart of the city, where people meet at night, where they dance, speak, sing and make love sometimes and have this point of view of the sea because the sea is a frontier for them and sometimes it’s very appealing. They would like to go through, and sometimes it’s scary too, so I think this feeling is pretty strong, especially at night when the city becomes just a black hole.

The music all comes from the scenes. I also don’t think you had a music score for The Class [his 2008 Oscar-nominated film]. Why?

I tried, but I couldn’t manage to find space for it. Here it would have been the same problem because they speak a lot, and they listen to music, so I didn’t do more than that. Especially because I think it’s important to have the sound of the city that changes according to the hour of the day or the night, and I prefer to focus on this sound, trying to build an ambiance that gives the feeling of the city more than adding music that would destroy it.


You have a strong cast of Cuban actors. Was it easy to convince them to appear in this movie?

It was quite easy. I saw some actors because I didn’t know many Cuban actors, but I didn’t meet much more than the ones who were in the film because they were so involved in the process, from the first moment. I felt that we would do something great together, and it was very moving to see how important the film was for them, and how they wanted to be in it. For example, Isabel Santos, she told me, ‘Usually I try to hide myself behind my characters. I don’t want people to know who I am, to know how I feel. I’m just an actress. I do my work, and I try to embody something.’ And here she was very surprised to finally build a character on what she is herself, and she didn’t try to avoid that.

I see you had a commercial release in France. How has the reaction been there?

The press was excellent. It was not a blockbuster, so we were not expecting one million entrants, but the numbers were quite good, something close to 100,000. That was pretty good for this kind of film. Even in France you had a lot of people coming out of the theaters crying because I think the film speaks of something universal in us. People can understand it and share it with the Cubans.

Do you have hope a U.S. distributor will pick it up?

That’s something I would really like. Yes, of course. I think the moment is the right one, too. I’ve been surprised. All my other films have been sold in the States, except this one.

Do you think other cities outside the Miami in the U.S. will understand the movie?

As well as the French audience, as well as the Spanish one, the English one. The film has been released in many countries and has had a pretty good reception. People could really understand it and really get moved by it, so why not the States … At the same time, I’m sure for American people it’s also sort of a fantasy. I think that, of course, on both sides, we’ve been influenced by propaganda and having a point of view that comes from inside I think is interesting.

*  *  *

Cantet also shared his feelings about the film’s rocky road to a triumphant screening in Havana and how he feels about showing the film in Miami, a city rich in Cuban exiles. You can read all about that in the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog, by jumping through its logo below:

NT Arts

Hans Morgenstern

Return to Ithaca is currently playing exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. All images are courtesy of Funny Balloons, except the on-set image at the top, that came from here.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Poster artFrench director Bruno Dumont works in an elliptical manner. Though he consistently works with powerful visuals, his work requires an audience with an open mind and some patience. His latest, Camille Claudel, 1915, though somewhat based on true events, remains no exception. It stars Juliette Binoche as the titular sculptor turned committed psych patient. As noted by the year in the film’s title, the story focuses on her early years at an asylum in Montdevergues (she would die there, her body interred in a communal grave, in 1943).

She was placed at the psychiatric hospital against her will by her family. Her younger brother, the poet Paul Claudel, co-signed the papers. He was also the only person who would visit her. Often, years would go by between visits.

As Dumont is no ordinary filmmaker, Camille Claudel, 1915 is no ordinary biopic. The drama focuses on only three days. Early in the film, Camille receives word of one of Paul’s visits. She has high hopes he will agree to discharge her. In the meantime, she waits.

Left to languish, she often sits alone when she is not helping the nuns attend to other patients (all are played by actual nuns and real mental patients). She mostly suffers quietly between manic periods of elation at the impending visit and tearful fits of sadness over her abandonment. There are also outbursts of frustration and moments when she finds some reserve to offer care to the other patients. It all speaks to her strength as a powerful woman trapped in the wrong time.


Binoche does far more than emote. The script, credited to Dumont, is mostly based on improvisation after Binoche studied Camille’s letters. She brings intensity to a few standout monologue sequences, which Dumont treats with the utmost respect by not allowing for a single cut to break her performance. He has placed much trust in Binoche, and she delivers. As Paul, Jean-Luc Vincent also delivers, despite his lack of acting experience. Though he plays a seemingly composed, well-put-together man, an impressive question arises from his moments of speechifying. As he reveals an almost zealous devotion to God, one has to wonder who is more insane, the brother or sister?

Dumont never overtly presents this question. After all, his is the language of visuals and sounds, and he packs much baggage into his film through mostly extended scenes that sometimes feature no dialogue. As always, his shots are not only immaculately composed but loaded with meaning. His camera angles are occasionally askew, representing a world misaligned. Camille’s complexity is exposed as much with her actions as reflected by the mentally disabled around her. They stand as living, breathing fun house mirrors. As Mademoiselle Lucas laughs maniacally, her gaping mouth exposes a large hole in her front teeth. Camille stares back with a mix of curiosity and resilient reserve.

As with his other films, Dumont seems fascinated by asymmetrical faces. He even shoots Binoche at an angle that highlights a raised eyebrow and crooked lips, 607a visual appearance hardly emphasized in other films featuring the 49-year-old actress. Dumont allows the camera to sit on many faces, inviting contemplation, despite some uncomfortable scenes that highlight the grotesque appearance of the patients.

One of the film’s more multi-dimensional scenes features Camille sitting in a chair as sunlight bathes her through a curtain. Dumont carefully cuts to the carpet, a wall covered in ornate wallpaper, a fidgety, elderly patient on one side and a stiff, grinning woman on another. All the images feature some variation of sunlight and shadow. It’s an expressionistic scene that is as much about an internal representation as it is a staged moment. What these images and their sequence mean are given to the viewer to consider into the loose plotting of the film.

One cannot also fail to notice the significance of the landscape in the films of Dumont. Camille Claudel, 1915 is no exception. Dumont loves utilizing the wild brush of the landscape, and a day trip out to the top of a dusty hill with the wind blowing through the desolate land implies the artists’s lack. Early in the film, an enormous, dead tree in a courtyard greets Camille when she excuses herself to sit outside. Its gnarly, brittle branches reach toward a heaven that seems non-existent, as we all know there will be no redemption for poor Camille in her lifetime.


As with his previous film, Outside Satan (read my review: Bruno Dumont’s ode to the land ‘Outside Satan’ – a film review), Dumont stages much of his action outdoors. During Paul’s travels to visit his sister, he stops to speak with a priest. They walk among unkempt brush, as Paul speaks about his Catholic enlightenment. Meanwhile, the overwhelming nature crowds them onto a strict path. Dumont is a naturalist who often relies on the magic hour to light his scenes, and it’s clear he adores shooting the outdoors. Indoors, he’s all about symmetry, and when he shows Paul inside a cathedral it marks a breathtakingly beautiful moment. But, just as he loves crooked faces, Dumont seems to prefer the random quality of nature, and he harnesses it to evocative effect with an unparalleled ease.

Claudel’s love affair with Auguste Rodin was well-known, and his work overshadowed hers. References to the affair emerge in the film to heart-breaking effect that only further highlight this poor artist’s abandonment. During a brief therapy session with a doctor where Camille implores for her release, expressing her sense of betrayal by her family and Rodin, the doctor ends it by stating, “Your relationship with Rodin ended 20 years ago. We’ll see you in a week.”

Despite the film’s rather tragic tone, Dumont has intense sympathy for Camille. This is not some emotional torture porn flick, this is a humanist tale fueled by tragic affection for the titular subject. Throughout the film he celebrates Claudel as he suppresses her. She was a kinetic force whose creativity was cut short confined for too many years before a rather pathetic end. Covering only a brief period, Dumont pays intense respect to not only a singular artist but a creative energy squandered to man’s zealous determination to control. Camille Claudel, 1915 stands as a rather beautiful piece of mourning for the loss of creativity.

Hans Morgenstern

Camille Claudel, 1915 runs 95 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is unrated (expect some brief nudity and language). It opens exclusively in our area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday, Nov. 8, which provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Two movies about two different queens of two different Versailles hit local indie art houses today. Though one focuses on the most famous queen of Versailles: Marie Antoinette and another a wannabe queen of capitalism in today’s socioeconomic climate, the parallels between the two films are compelling.

Farewell, My Queen provides a glimpse into the final days leading up to Antoinette’s flight from Versailles after the storming of the Bastille by the people. The Queen of Versailles, meanwhile, examines the financial downfall of a wealthy Orlando, Florida family who has to stop the construction of what would have been the largest house in the United States, based on the floor plan of Versailles.

Marie Antoinette’s story seems almost mythic in its lessons of decadence. Yet, people never seem to learn, as the great empire of the United States of America now seems to barrel toward oligarchical rule, and the class divide grows more and more real. From the US government’s struggle to balance human versus corporate rights to the programming that celebrates the rich and famous on TV, you’re either rich or you want to be rich. Just to side-track into another film-to-film comparison, look at the French production of Farewell, My Queen compared to the American-made, Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette, both films offer distinct views on that icon of France’s history. Coppola seems to celebrate the decadence and paint Marie as a victim of her fate, while indulging in a beautiful mise-en-scène. Meanwhile, Benoît Jacquot, the French-born director of Farewell, My Queen is of the French socialist majority who will not soon forget the starving of the people under the decadent reign of King Louis XVI and his queen.

Farewell, My Queen covers the last few days of Louis XVI at Versailles. Day one of the film features some grand sweeping shots of the royal grounds. The colors, light and shadow are so brilliantly contrasted the scenes look like paintings. It’s July 14, 1789. If you are not French, you might have to read up on French history to understand the significance of the date marks the start of the French revolution with the storming of the Bastille, now known as Bastille Day. One key point about the French people’s rise against the monarchy that has resonance today is a tax that was unfairly distributed, hitting the poorest hardest.

We never see this majority that rebelled depicted in Farewell, My Queen. They only “appear” in threatening letters to Versailles naming  the nobles the people wanted to see beheaded. Hints of the monarchy’s slipping control appear in the form of dead rats that float in the canals on the property where even servants can relax in a gondola ride. Servants also complain of being served stale bread. “Some people make it last a week,” a kitchen server tells the girl Louison (Lolita Chammah – Daughter of Isabelle Huppert!), one of Antoinette’s handmaidens.

The film is actually most focused on Louison’s roommate, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), another handmaiden, who seems to be a favorite of the queen. Sidonie seems an obedient girl but also sycophantic, passively trying to get close to the queen. Sidonie seems to treasure the gold-leafed clock the queen has given her to wake her up on time to come read to her, and it stands out in her modest servant quarters.

Diane Kruger plays Antoinette as a fragile lunatic on the verge of falling to pieces as her empire crumbles around her. She is the embodiment of social disconnectedness, almost catatonic and sickened by the fancy garbs and gorgeous rooms she must inhabit. The sets and costumes look gorgeous through the lens of cinematographer Romain Winding, but weigh heavy on the queen. Kruger gives an ethereal performance.

Despite the film’s almost oppressive ornate quality and the impending revolution at Versaille’s door, Sidonie remains devout. When it comes time to help Antoinette’s dear friend and implied lover, Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac (Léa Seydoux),  leave Versailles, Sidonie is willing to put her own life on the line to help in a scheme protecting her from the bloody-thirsty masses.

While Farewell, My Queen seems a slow-burn take of the burden of riches, The Queen of Versailles is a sprightly piece by comparison. Documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield focuses her lens on the Siegels, the patriarch of whom is currently suing Greenfield for misrepresenting his timeshare empire as a crumbling mess (Read “New York Times” piece). But David Siegel, like Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette, seems a bit player to his wife, former model and mother of eight, Jackie Siegel. During the quick-paced opening, a newspaper headline flashes on the screen: “It’s good to be the Queen,” just as Jackie is introduced. At first, the film seems focused on the half-finished mansion David, 74, aims to build for his 43-year-old wife. Once complete, it will be the largest house in America, and it just happens to be based on the palace of Versailles. But the film soon turns into something more profound: a surreal reflection of the common man extending his credit into bankruptcy, a symptom that led to the Great Recession of 2008.

Both of the Siegels never make any apologies for their extravagance. “Everyone wants to be rich,” Jackie says. “If not, they want to feel rich, and if not, then they’re probably dead.” That line would probably have some resonance over poor Sidonie who tries to stay by her queen’s side to the bitter end. Of course, everyone knows how it ended for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (spoiler alert: they were beheaded).

Meanwhile, David believes he put George W. Bush in office. He then adds, with a nonchalant laugh, that must mean he is also responsible for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So who cares about the loss of life there? Not the Siegels… that much.

Lost in her own cloud of blinding, never-ending riches, it never occurs to Jackie that it might be a challenge to maintain eight children until her husband tells her she needs to cut back. She says she just kept having the kids because it would be fun. Why should she care when she has a devoted live-in nanny? The nanny, Virginia Nebab, lives in a miniature playhouse outside the Siegel’s home. Inside the playhouse, which the daughters of Siegels didn’t care much for, Nebab must fold up a cot to walk around. She talks about having to sacrifice raising her own kids back home in the Philippines to work in the US and send money home. Though she left her son when he was 6 years old, 20 years ago, and has not seen him since, she says, “It’s OK. I still have kids. The Siegel kids,” and then wipes tears from her eyes.

Both films prove something horrible about greed: it’s dehumanizing quality. All of these people seem out of touch. When his timeshare leasing empire falls on hard times, David spends all his time cooped up in his dark office at home trying to crunch numbers and save the derelict Versailles II. His wife has to coax him to the diner table to sit with the children for dinner on his birthday. When asked if he gets any strength from his marriage. He says plainly after a pause: “No.”

Both films are quite different in tone. Farewell, My Queen offers a sombre, steady countdown to the end of an empire. Meanwhile, the Queen of Versailles has an ironic, almost black humor. Still, both offer a powerful focus on the consequences of decadence. You feel the ignorance of that famous, almost flip statement by Antoinette hanging over both films: “Let them eat cake.”

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer for Farewell, My Queen:

Trailer for The Queen of Versailles:

Farewell, My Queen is Rated R, runs 100 min. and is in French with English subtitles. It opens today, Aug. 3 at the Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and the Tower Theater in Miami and then on Aug. 10 at the Cosford Cinema.

The Queen of Versailles is Rated PG, runs 100 min. It opens today, Aug. 3 at the Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton and O Cinema in Miami and then on Aug. 10 at the Cosford Cinema.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)