phoenix posterA mystery movie doesn’t always need to have its mysteries hidden away, obliging itself to constantly stringing along the audience with questions and twists. There are other ways to create thrills, and German director/writer Christian Petzold (Film review: ‘Barbara’ – transcending suspicion with grace) has devised an unequivocal experience with Phoenix. Working with regular co-screenwriter Harun Farocki, Petzold has adapted Hubert Monteilhet’s 1961 novel Le Retour des cendres (Return from the Ashes), which already had a bit of a convoluted film adaptation in 1965 by J. Lee Thompson starring Maximilian Schell. Hence, the possible title change.

There is some elegance in Monteilhet’s original title, which offers a more deliberate reference to where the film’s main character comes from, as a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. However, Petzold and Farocki have streamlined the story quite a bit, dropping characters, and focusing profoundly on the notion of love and the past, and the two characters at the center of the film, the Jewish singer Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss, Petzold’s go-to lead actress) who finds several levels of freedom following liberation by the allied forces, and Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), her gentile husband, a pianist who performed with her, until the Nazis separated them. He thinks she, as is the case with her entire family, is dead.


Nelly first appears onscreen with her face wrapped in bandages. She is driven into Berlin by the only friend she has left, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), where a surgeon will help repair her face, a process he clarifies is “not reconstruction” but “recreation.” Though Lene promises Nelly that they will find their true sanctuary in Palestine, Nelly remains obsessed with finding her husband in the ruins of Berlin. Though Lene tells Nelly that Johnny betrayed her to the Nazis, Nelly goes out at night secretly searching. Nelly comes across Johnny working in the maybe too aptly named Phoenix lounge. She takes advantage of her new face to feel him out and introduces herself as Esther. So begins a deception that explores moral character in the wake of an atrocious past.

Lene is desperate to find love again, but the question always lingers whether Johnny loved her to begin with, and if so, what was that loved based on? The answer might seem simple when Johnny notes enough of a similarity in “Esther” to his wife Phoenixthat he comes up with a scheme to use her. He suggests that she might be able to impersonate Nelly, so he might get his hands on her inheritance. But Phoenix is a much more complicated film than that. Petzold instead has created a film that feels like an inversion of the film noir. The femme fatale is duplicitous, yes, but she loves someone, or an idea of someone, and that someone is a man she is both scamming and scamming for.

The conflict and irony of her actions is what make Phoenix‘s drama so compelling. It’s in the small moments when Nelly lets out a smile behind Johnny’s back, as he gives her a ride on a bike to their old hiding place. There’s a practicality in his relationship with “Esther” that fills a void for Nelly who wants to be herself in the past, but cannot seem to face her new reality even with a new face. The lack of existence is revealed an intensity that lies in the smallest gestures.


Not only is Petzold working again with his co-writer and Hoss, who again brings a soft-spoke grace to a complicated female character, but also with cinematographer Hans Fromm. Fromm has always had a knack for brightening the dark moods of Petzold’s films, and he does it again in Phoenix. Film noir comparisons would be incomplete without recognizing how this movie plays with shadow and light. From the harsh red neon glow of club Phoenix, the site of Nelly’s rebirth, to her struggles of devotion enhanced by the subtle contrast of shadow and light in the home Nelly and Lene are taken in as lodgers, there is hardly any incidental lighting. There’s also a different kind of light and darkness in the set pieces. There are deep shadows in the ruinous devastation of Berlin that speak to the past of the city as well as that of Nelly and the natural, green bucolic beauty in the still very intact, lakeside mansion where Lene once hid from the Nazis.

An intelligent film with style to spare, Phoenix is driven by a strange mystery, in that it invites the audience to contemplate deception from another angle. Driven by a dramatic irony that lets the audience in on everything, Phoenix becomes something else entirely, much like the main character who finds empowerment in her wounds.

Hans Morgenstern

Screening update: By popular demand the following have for Sept. 4:

Aventura Mall 24 Theatres – Aventura
Indian River 24 – Vero Beach
Silverspot at Coconut Creek – Coconut Creek
Last Picture Show 5 – Tamarac

Phoenix runs 98 minutes, is in English and German with English subtitles and is rated PG-13 (it has its disturbing moments). It opens in our South Florida area on the following schedule:


  • MDC’s Tower Theater in Miami
  • Miami Beach Cinematheque
  • Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale


  • Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables
  • Movies of Lake Worth
  • Movies of Delray 5
  • Living Room Cinema 4 in Boca Raton


  • Silversport Cinema in Naples
  • Prado Stadium 12 in Bonita Springs


  • Lake Worth Playhouse

It first premiered in Miami at the Miami International Film Festival. IFC Films shared a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. All images are courtesy of Christian Schulz for IFC Films.

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

duke 1sheetIt’s funny that the 50 Shades of Grey movie will hit the multiplex on the same day as The Duke of Burgundy enters select art house theaters. I haven’t seen 50 Shades, but there’s no way it can present as complex a picture of a relationship between a sadist and a masochist than The Duke of Burgundy. Director Peter Strickland, who also wrote the script, presents a bold vision of S&M that not only tests the limits of its value in a relationship between an amorous couple, but he makes the couple women. He heightens the relationship further by placing them in a world only populated by women (the title actually refers to a variation of a genus of butterfly, but there is no “Duke” in the film, per se). Furthermore, Strickland also adopts a cinematic style that recalls early 1970s Euro sexploitation films like those by Jesús “Jess” Franco and Jean Rollin.

The atmosphere of the film is so on point and other-worldly, the viewer will forgive any superficial judgment of the two women at the center of the film, as the director explores the dynamic break-down of the relationship that gradually frays feelings and questions the roles between these two women, the lepidopterist Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and her younger lover and servant Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna), who reveals an amateurish interest in the moths and butterflies Cynthia studies. The film’s opening scene immediately seems to fetishize atmosphere. We meet Evelyn in a velvet cape sitting by a babbling brook, her back to the camera. Smash cuts to close-ups on some green moss that coats the bottom a tree trunk and protruding, brown mushrooms emphasize a fantasy world. Then there’s a cut to the brook and its sparkling surface reflecting the sunlight that dapples through the leaves overhead.


Next, there’s a wide shot of the mountain forest, what appears to be a Bavarian wilderness. Evelyn rides out of the trees on her bicycle, as the opening titles begin with the film’s theme song by the film’s composers, Cat’s Eyes, a duo from London, who have a sound comparable to the ‘60s-influenced Broadcast, the composers of the music in Strickland’s last film, Berberian Sound Studio (2012). At a time when many Hollywood films are eschewing the opening title sequence in favor of cutting to the action, this moment in The Duke of Burgundy stands as a terrific musical testament to the importance of setting a mood for a film. First, the music sounds like a slight chamber pop song from the late ‘60s. Over the bright, pastoral rambling of an acoustic guitar, Cat’s Eyes vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Rachel Zeffira punctuates the soft tap of a beat with staccato sighs. After a flute plays a circular, cheerful melody, shimmering, languid strings join the track, and Zeffira hushedly (maybe) sings, “One day you’ll be back … when you’re done dreaming … about lust.” Her breathy voice sounds as though it is coming out of the ether of a dream. Her partner in the duo, Faris Badwan, who also sang on the band’s previous self-titled record, has no vocal duties in the score, once again, keeping the film strictly female-centric.

As the credits appear, the pictures freeze, like what Ti West did with the opening of The House of the Devil (2009), another contemporary indie film interested in recalling a film style of the past. Strickland takes it further, washing them out to monochromatic images of various colors using flickering filters of various primary colors. Another funny detail in the credits: lingerie and perfumes are given credit. Early in this sequence, when Evelyn pedals her bike out of the forest, the music is interrupted as a distant voice calls out her name and a young woman on another bike travelling the opposite direction waves at her. Her echoing voice has a surreal, archaic quality that speaks to Strickland’s detailed tribute to the past style he is emulating.


Sound is incredibly important in this movie. When the title song ends in a flourish of flutes, twinkling harpsichord, swooning strings and that sighing voice, the chirp of birds and the mundane rattle of Evelyn parking her bike and grabbing her hard leather bag sounds jarringly pronounced. After buzzing the doorbell, Cynthia opens the front door with a creak and greets her with, “You’re late.” Evelyn does not reply but follows. The sound of their footsteps even vary, speaking to Evelyn’s smaller size to the older and taller Cynthia. When they speak, there’s an almost disembodied character to their voices, as if the dialogue has been dubbed into English. One could go on and on about the sound in this movie, which gradually grows from scandalously suggestive (behind a closed bathroom door it won’t take much imagination to figure out what one of Evelyn’s punishments entails) to surrealistically evocative (in several montage sequences the dissonant sound of insects, from chirps to fluttering wings evoke the internal state of things).

One could also go on at length about the rich use of lighting and shadow or the dynamic camera work, which often highlights reflections and double images, not to mention the atmospheric set design and the loaded mise-en-scène within those refracted images, as duality and role-reversal abounds. It’s also important to note that none of this could be pulled off without the sincere, heartfelt chemistry between the two leads. The Duke of Burgundy is such a rich film that upon returning to the opening scene after the first watch, I could not help but notice the witty foreshadowing of the babbling brook and all the water Cynthia gulps down as the movie unfolds.


Though it all might sound a bit salacious or gratuitous, the film never goes there. Strickland keeps much of it suggestive, and that’s where the sex appeal lies. I think there was only one nipple shot in the entirety of the film, and when Cynthia sits on a chair with her legs open, all you can see is darkness. It’s not about keeping it classy, though. Strickland seems more interested in evoking mystery. Who knows? Maybe the women in this world do not even have genitalia. There’s always a sense that something is missing. During a languid pan of the audience at one of Cynthia’s lectures, the camera reveals not only are there no men in the audience, but there are also some mannequins of women sitting in the audience. It’s a stylistic flourish that calls attention to something being amiss in a world of only women.

The film soon reveals that S&M seems to be the de rigueur choice for intimacy between women who have paired off in the world of this movie. At least in the case of Evelyn and Cynthia, it is also revealed that their relationship is so mannered that it is the master Cynthia who is actually obliging herself to the commands of her servant Evelyn, who leaves notecards with instructions of what Cynthia should tell her as her punishment looms. Evelyn’s desperation to be punished also makes it feel as though the passion between this couple might falter at any moment despite such declarations as Evelyn whispering to herself, “Cynthia, as long as I am yours I remain alive.”

As the film lumbers along to even more twists, scenarios are repeated between the couple that reveal the terrible thread they have hung their relationship on. The idea that the spice of sadomasochistic sex might heighten romance is profoundly questioned in this film lush with atmosphere and a disturbingly probing insight into relationships. I highly doubt 50 Shades of Grey will dare to go as far as The Duke of Burgundy.

Hans Morgenstern

The Duke of Burgundy runs 105 minutes and is not rated (this film features all sorts of advanced sexuality between women except for the kind you might expect). It opens in the South Florida area exclusively at Miami’s O Cinema Wynwood on Friday, Feb. 13. It will later expand to the Miami Beach Cinematheque on March 12. It could be playing in your area if it isn’t already on its way. It’s also available on VOD, but we always encourage the viewer to give in to the controlling mercy of the dark theater. IFC Films sent us a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

Once you’ve seen the movie, you may want to return to the soundtrack. Stream it here for the time being, or you might want to just go ahead an pre-order the vinyl version here.

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

poster_100794With their new film, Two Days, One Night, the sibling directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have stayed true to their spare but powerful aesthetic, using handheld camera, extended scenes often featuring simple framing in two-shots and straight-forward, understated smash cuts to move the story along. In fact, we could start this review by the Belgian brothers just like the last review we published here about their previous film (‘The Kid With a Bike’ harnesses potency of simple filmmaking). However, there are a few subtle changes worth noting in this new film. The Dardennes use no extra-diegetic music this time, and for the first time, they are working with an international star: Marion Cotillard.

The actress delivers a marvelous performance that only bolsters the focused gaze of the Dardennes. Wearing minimal if not any makeup, Cotillard delivers a heart-breaking performance as Sandra, a factory worker in Seraing, an industrial town of Liège in Belgium, who, upon her return to work after a medical leave due to depression, faces dismissal from her job. The boss has found a way to streamline work without her and has offered her co-workers to choose between keeping Sandra on the team or receiving a one-time bonus of €1,000. The outcome is exactly what you might be guessing: self-interest prevailed, and the majority of Sandra’s co-workers voted for their own bonus.

A colleague and friend, Juliette (Catherine Salée) convinces Sandra to ask the boss for another vote, as she has received word some of the employees were intimidated to vote for bonuses over Sandra. At first, Sandra appears weak, dubious and hesitant, but bolstered by her friend, who stands at her side, she asks the factory manager to Still9hold a second vote. It is a Friday evening and the factory owner agrees to hold the re-vote on Monday. The mother of two children, Sandra is also pressured by her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), who works at a budget chain restaurant, to visit her co-workers at home and in some cases their second jobs, to campaign for herself. Should she lose her job, after all, she will go back on the dole, and her family will have to move back into public housing.

With the intimacy of this story, Two Days, One Night presents an unwavering and heartfelt look at the realities of the European proletariat. With a stagnant unemployment rate in Belgium at 8.5 percent and weak economic growth, the realities of the working class in Belgium seem bleak (some numbers from the National Bank of Belgium). The Dardenne brothers are able to capture the complexity of the labor market while focusing deeply in a single character with an actress in immense control of her talents.

Over the course of time in the film’s title, Sandra tries to hold it together, popping Xanax pills for energy and muttering to herself “you mustn’t cry” on more than one occasion. Cotillard gives a brilliantly modulated performance, and the Dardennes’ distant camera catches the actress genuinely acting, working off other players. As she maintains a strong face in the presence of her work mates, alone and sometimes with her husband, she Still4seems to barely hold herself together, caving to feelings of despair. When Manu tells her early in the film, in an effort of support, “You exist, Sandra … I love you,” she dynamically takes in his tender reminder of her relevance. She holds on to the positive energy with a tight grip, pauses for a moment to nearly double over in tears, but then composes herself. It reveals how threadbare Sandra’s composure is in the face of the challenge that lies ahead.

Cotillard’s range in just those few seconds is heart-stopping, and it works so well with the reserved, purist style of melodrama by the Dardennes. There’s no need to heighten scenes with music, slow motion, montage or close-ups. As Sandra confronts the various characters she works with, all give an array of reasons for either voting for her or their bonuses. In every encounter with her co-workers Sandra changes a little. Her voice wavers, she re-gains strength and confronts her own fears of not being wanted. The decisions by the Dardennes to keep he camera rolling as she crosses streets or walks paths before facing her co-workers or waiting several beats to cut away at the end of these scenes, as she turns to leave, bring a focus to these small transformations without feeling intrusive or manipulative. You really root for and sympathize with Sandra.


It’s all beautifully shot by the Dardennes’ regular cinematographer Alain Marcoen. The images are often vibrant yet mundane. Again, it’s anti-romantic but movingly raw and real. Sometimes the camera is the editor. To emphasize one rare close-up, which the film earns impactfully when Sandra’s task seems insurmountable, a swish pan to Sandra allows hardly a moment of acting to be wasted. It all dynamically builds up to a moving pay-off that affirms the strength of an individual looking for value in one way but finding it another way. That the Dardennes pull it off so powerfully with such minimal cinematic flourish speaks to their focused storytelling and a major performance by Cotillard. The reflection of life by cinema is rarely this poetic and profound.

Hans and Ana Morgenstern

Two Days One Night runs 95 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some reason.

Screening update: There’s a series of encore screenings scheduled at the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting March 6.

It first opened in our Miami area Friday, January 16, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and then expanded to the north in Broward and Palm Beach Counties on January 30th at the following theaters:

  • Gateway in Fort Lauderdale
  • Cinema Paradiso in Hollywood
  • Movies of Delray in Delray Beach
  • Movies of Lake Worth in Lake Worth
  • Living Room in Boca Raton
  • Silverspot in Naples

Update: More South Florida screenings have been scheduled for Friday, February 6th:

  • Belltower Stadium 20 in Fort Myers
  • MDC’s Tower Theater in Miami
  • O Cinemas Miami Beach in Miami Beach
  • Hollywood Stadium 20 in Naples
  • Movies of Delray 5 in Delray Beach

IFC Films sent us a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

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


Director Peter Sattler has dropped into Miami to introduce his debut feature film Camp X-Ray, which stars Kristen Stewart, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema tonight, Friday. I spoke to him the day before, via phone. He spoke from his hotel room where he was working on the third act of his new script. He’s on his way to the Abu-Dhabi Film Festival with his film after his Miami appearance, which — if the weather clears up — should make for a nice pit stop before heading on to the Capital of United Arab Emirates. “I’m really excited to see what the reaction there is to the film,” he noted. “It’ll be quite a different audience to see the movie with.”

The film had its debut at Sundance earlier this year and has since traveled to other festivals around the globe. Sattler and Stewart attended several screenings. As the film begins its run in theaters and VOD, Sattler reflected on the reception of the film at the screenings he has attended. “It’s been great. A lot of weepy eyes at the end of the film, but everyone’s responded to it really well. Depending where you go, it’s interesting, people laugh at different things I think, internationally and whatnot, but generally the reaction’s been really good. It had a very universal message of just finding commonality in a stranger that transcends language and cultural barriers.”

Camp X-Ray focuses on the arrival of a new group of guards at Guantanamo Bay eight years after the attacks of Sept. 11. Stewart does impressive work capturing the experience of a wary but tough private whose mission is to “protect” the detainees from themselves. They are basically on 24-hour suicide watch. The film is all about the tension between the men detained and not officially charged with any crimes — though they are suspected of terrorism due to evidence that remains classified — and the guards who watch them. Eventually, Stewart’s character, Private Cole, strikes up a conversational relationship with one of the detainees, Amir (an intense Peyman Moaadi).

Stewart and Sattler and the Camp x-ray set

It’s a film that pays off thanks to Sattler’s attention to detail. With this film, Sattler does an impressive job in recreating Guantanamo Bay on a set. “Honestly, I did a lot of good, old-fashioned leg work,” he said of his research. “I read every memoir that I could find. I looked at every documentary that I could find. I got a hold of the standard operating procedure down there, which WikiLeaks put out, which was super helpful, and so from doing all those things, you can start to piece together some of the little facts and details about what life is like and really how it looks down there.”

But what gives the film its power comes from something bigger, as revealed in Sattler’s brilliant script and the performances of Moaadi and the too often underrated Stewart. Actual guards from Gitmo have actually reached out to Sattler with praise for his work. “I think the bigger challenge is how do you capture the feeling of what it’s like down there,” he added. “That’s something that you kind of have to intuit to some degree, to read between the lines. But, luckily, after the movie’s come out, I’ve heard from a few guards who’ve been down there that really complimented us on being able to capture that feeling and that strange conflict that these soldiers find themselves in, trying to operate in an honorable way in very uncomfortable and uneasy situations.”

You can read much more of my conversation with Sattler including why he pursued Stewart for the role and what she brought to the character. Jump through the “Cultist” banner below, which published my Q&A with Sattler earlier today:

cultist banner

Hans Morgenstern

Camp X-Ray opens exclusively in South Florida this Friday at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. The red carpet premiere is tonight at 7 p.m. For details of the premiere visit the event page here. The movie is also available on video on demand and has opened or will soon open at other theaters across the U.S. For screening details visit this link.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

war_storyWith recent headlines of journalists killed or under threat to be killed in war zones, the trauma of the conflict for those journalists, who are civilians, remains an under-explored theme on film. War Story tells the story of the aftermath of a journalist’s killing. After covering a conflict in Libya, photojournalist Lee (Catherine Keener) is left to mourn the loss of her partner during that assignment. The movie picks up after she has left Lybia. The information is sparse, one has to piece it together as the plot develops slowly and quietly. The mood is sad and somber but there is little in the way of dialogue. The camera zeroes in on a weathered Keener, trying hard to convey physical and emotional pain in silence, as she makes her way across the Mediterranean Sea. She’s headed to Italy to meet her mentor and former lover Albert (Ben Kingsley).

Lee arrives in Sicily and moves into a hotel where she has stayed in the past. After a few days of confinement in the familiar hotel room, where she tries to heal from mental wounds via nostalgia and physical wounds with time, the grief-stricken Lee ventures out and quickly feels the pull toward another crisis, the situation of Arab immigrants in Italy. She thrives in conflict and finds a reason to move forward, throwing herself into a cause through the character of Hafsia (Hafsia Herzi), who is in need of help as she is not only trying to escape the country that so virulently rejects her, but she is also seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy. All of this gives pause to Lee, who would rather move on to the next assignment than deal with her own tragedy. The camera lingers on Lee for extended periods of time, even when she is carrying a conversation with somebody else. Although the performance is strong something is missing, the attempt at storytelling through images falls short of its ambition, as the camera feels almost randomly placed in many scenes.


The most flagrant cinematic failure arrives when Lee gathers her strength to finally meet with Albert, a former mentor who was with Lee when she had traveled earlier as a journalist to a war-torn region. The moment is crucial, much of the film has been leading up to this, but when they meet the camera pans a large room full of books and hangs back for about half of their conversation. Two excellent performers are reduced to small, expressionless shadows sitting across from each other at a distant table. If director Mark Jackson’s poor composition choice had not been apparent earlier in the film, here is his biggest misstep. It was fine that Lee suffered in silence from much of the film, but to reduce revelations to expository dialogue in a scene where not even the expression of the actors matter only highlights the film’s weak visual storytelling. Jackson almost seems desperate to pack in information for the short time Kingsley is on screen, an artifice to drive the point home on the addictive nature of the job and the cautions against it. “You’re a woman. An amazing woman who has decided to go into war zones and take pictures. You’re a bit crazy to want to do that. And I think now you’re too crazy to stop.”


The culminating scene does not bring the story full-circle; rather, the bifurcated nature of the issues presented here: individual loss, grief and a feeling of impotence after losing a loved one in a war, along with the struggling North African immigrant in continental Europe fit together uncomfortably. The treatment of characters is then superficial. As much as the director tries to go beneath the surface with his camera work it all comes across as flat and staid.

War Story is the second feature film by Jackson.  With a mysterious and atmospheric mood, earlier in the film, Jackson successfully establishes a meta-narrative showing the anguish the photographer is incapable of articulating through words. The gradual narrative of the story is supposed to impart the impact of loss, tragedy and war. However, the pace is so slow and the narrative so subtle as to be nonexistent. It makes for lots of sleep-inducing moments rather than creating the potent moments these politically charged subjects call for. Instead, there are some superficial moments, like when Lee ignores the constantly ringing phone in her room, which could be a sign of grief, avoidance, trauma or all of the above. Jackson takes on themes that may have been too big to cover in one film, from journalism in war-torn areas, to segregation and the humanitarian crisis of immigrants in the global North, to abortion — the ideas are all too large to sustain as the film just feels incomplete.

Ana Morgenstern

War Story runs 90 minutes, is in English and Italian and is not rated (expect heavy themes). It opened in the Miami area at The Tower Theater this Friday and plays until Aug. 28. It’s also available on VOD. IFC Films provided us with a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Young-and-Beautiful-Movie-PosterOf all the filmmakers across the globe, the French always seem to deliver the deepest ruminations on human relationships through intimate corporeal exchanges. One of France’s best is François Ozon. Though his film last year did not completely impress me, his newest stands as one of his best in a long time. Young & Beautiful follows 17-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) exploring her newfound sexuality by prostituting herself over the Internet and facing the consequences once her divorcée mother, Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas), finds out about her sexual escapades. The impressive thing about the manner in which Ozon handles the drama is that he never looks down on his protagonist even while recognizing her imperfect choices.

When one considers how Hollywood handles female sexuality, it’s either chaste, superficial or deviant. Even foreign directors are guilty of getting it wrong sometimes; Lars Von Trier certainly botched it up with his (unintentionally?) hysterical portrait of a woman and her sex life with Nymph()maniac. With his new film, Ozon certainly proves he understands women with more depth than Von Trier, who seems obsessed with working out his personal demons through the feminine identity. Ozon’s insight comes out bracingly when Isabelle has to face the consequences, not with society, but with her heartbroken mother. Vacth and Pailhas bring a delicate pathos to their characters that speaks to both the hard lessons that loom for Isabelle and her mother’s regret of youth gone by.


The film introduces us to Isabelle while she is on summer vacation with her family, who also includes younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat) and stepfather Patrick (Frédéric Pierrot). Alone on the beach, she hesitatingly removes her top. The action happens through the lenses of a pair of binoculars. It will turn out that her little brother is on the other end. Later, it is he who pushes her to give up her virginity to Felix (Lucas Prisor), a German tourist she seems to have grown fond of while on this trip. When she does it, Victor wants to know all about it. To some, this might seem like incest by proxy, to others, these are children left alone to discover what is this thing called sex. Let’s face it, most kids learn about it through experience, and it’s ultimately personal.

Beyond Vacth’s restrained performance, Ozon captures her anxiety with an appropriately reserved style uncharacteristic of his earlier films. He uses camera gestures sparingly, so when cameraman Pascal Marti pulls in to the actress’ face after Felix casually invites her to a party, it draws the viewer in to her internal experience as opposed to making a spectacle of it. Sex isn’t easy for this girl, and she has high expectations. When it does happen, in a rare instance of overt stylization for this film, Ozon presents it as an out-of-body experience for the teenager. Jeune-et-JolieThere is still a rawness to the scene, as it features nothing more than her clothed Self standing on the beach watching her ravaged, almost catatonic body being aggressively humped by Felix. It becomes a memory she hesitates to relate to Victor and wants to leave far behind. She does not even tell a close friend at school she has lost virginity even as she coaches her on how to handle sex for the first time. There is clearly a gap there in connecting sex to herself, so no, the audience should not be surprised when Isabelle takes the name Lea and presents parts of her body on the Internet advertising herself as a 20-year-old call girl.

Ozon grants her forgiveness in another stylized scenario. Students in her class take turns reading Rimbaud’s “Novel,” with its famous opening line, “No one’s serious at seventeen.” They read against a solid blue background, a scene that recalls a similar moment from Ozon’s last film following a sociopathic student from In the House. But Young & Beautiful does not dwell on such craft for long. Besides a montage of the older men caught in the ecstasy orgasm with Isabelle, Ozon maintains a severe4 yet tender tone throughout the film. There is life for this young woman after this nefarious journey into the dark side of sex. She does try a house party with schoolmates she once wrote off as “runts,” cruising the rooms filled with uninhibited youths to the intoxicating sound of M83’s “Midnight City.” But it turns out it’s not that easy to begin a new life again. That no easy resolution comes to Isabelle’s life speaks to how complicating her exploits have affected her life. It should be difficult, and Ozon does not taint it by offering any easy, trite conclusion.

Young & Beautiful is a refreshingly emotionally complex film that follows a young woman’s growth in a world weighed down by double standards. Even her mother is not excused from culpability. But the heart of the drama lies in the trust that is lost between mother and daughter, as the mother understands the potency of Isabelle’s gesture. It’s a moving thing to watch as these two generations of women tangle with the aftermath of this predicament. It cuts to a core of a young woman’s relationship to her sexuality that few male directors can handle so well and with such focus. There is some ironic use of French pop songs, but no added bits of sentiment can add or subtract from the substance of this drama, and thankfully Ozon seems quite in touch as only the French can be with such a subject.

Hans Morgenstern

Young & Beautiful runs 95 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (considering the subject, it’s clearly for the more mature audience member). IFC Films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens this Friday, May 23, in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema and the Tower Theater. It is also available on demand, but it’s a beautiful big screen film. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website here.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)


The other day, I ran a review of one of only a few films I have seen this year that I would already consider among the best of 2013: Frances Ha. It’s also one of those movies worth re-watching during its theatrical run, which began on Friday. But between writing the review and fretting about other writing assignments, I decided to squeeze in one more project: talk to the filmmakers behind the movie. When I inquired, it would turn out the studio, IFC Films, had been lining up phone interviews for the near future with the film’s star and co-writer, Greta Gerwig. A few pitches later, and I found myself second in line for a 15-minute chat with her. “Miami New Times” took the feature piece I wrote as a result. You can read it by jumping through the logo for “Cultist,” the alternative weekly’s art and culture blog; here’s a the link:

cultist banner

Of course, I am always left with extra bits of my conversations with my subjects, so here are some outtakes that cover how she and Frances Ha director/co-writer Noah Baumbach started writing the film, her feelings about being one of the pioneers of the mumblecore film scene and a little exchange about Whit Stillman, who directed her in Damsels In Distress, and was one of my more recent subjects (A cup of coffee in which director Whit Stillman and I reconsider my negative review of ‘Damsels In Distress’).

Hans Morgenstern: Is it accurate to say that you and Noah began writing this script when he sent you some emails asking you about your generation after you had completed Greenberg [their previous film together; Read the review here: Greenberg: The Great Projector]?

Greta Gerwig: He emailed me, and he asked me if I wanted to write something together that I could play and that he would direct. And that was the first interaction. Then I sent him a list of ideas that I had, which weren’t specifically about my generation. They were just character ideas, moments, small exchanges of dialogues or scenes or something I thought could go into a movie and some of those made it into the final movie and it was about three pages long, and he liked it. He added to it, and we just started writing scenes, and that was really how it began and how it developed. Most of it was written apart, in terms of the actual writing. It was sort of scene by scene, and we switched them off, but it was a slow process. It was about a year, and then, once we had a script, we did it as perfect as we could get it. Then we went figuring out how to shoot it.


You had your start in some of the indiest of indie films, which even frustrated some art film critics. I remember [“Film Comment” critic] Amy Taubin said she hated mumblecore (“Mumblecore: All Talk? Pros and Cons of the Much-Hyped Neo-Indie Movemenr”)

(Giggles) Yeah, she did not like it, but we’re friends now.

Did she revisit her analysis of those films at all?

No, I think she still hates those films, but she likes Frances, so she’s come around, I guess. But I think she still hates those films, which is totally fine. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion.

My wife likes them, but I too don’t care for them, I have to admit.

That’s the thing about this, you’ll never make anything that will get a hundred percent approval, as much as you might want it (laughs).

Then you worked with Ti West and Noah. Did you feel you were on another sort of playing field with these directors?

It definitely felt like … it was such an interesting process of how I got to have the career I have, and I’m so grateful to all these different people at different moments I worked with who’ve taken me on as an actor and really taught me a lot. I feel very lucky. I would say the biggest difference is that when I was doing movies with Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers, they were so improvisation heavy, the Duplass brothers a little less so than Joe, Mark Duplass and Greta Gerwig in Hannah Takes the Stairsbut those movies, I was almost writing while I was speaking, I was figuring out what the scenes should be and then executing them while I was playing with scenes and that was actually great because it felt really free, and it felt like I got to work out a lot of ideas, and see how things played and almost experiment on camera, but then with Ti and with Noah and with Woody Allen and with Whit Stillman and Arthur and all the other films that I did since, as soon as I had a script-script, that was the departure and executing jokes and getting rhythms perfect, really find the art in the structure, and I think I really— at this point— I enjoy that a lot more. It’s not that I’ll never do the other thing again. It’s just I feel like I really did it for a while, and I just kinda wore thin on it, and I feel like, right now, as a writer, I like to make things as perfect as they can be, working with great writing, and as a viewer I like to see great actors execute great writing, but that might change for me. I might step back from that later and feel I like another thing, but I feel like one of the nice things of getting to do this for a while is I feel like I passed through a phase of my artistic interest, and I’m not as interested in that anymore.

I recently had a nice long lunch with Whit Stillman when he was in Miami.

Oh, I love Whit!

We had a fantastic couple of hours where we discussed my mixed review of “Damsels” which I have grown to have a deeper appreciation for over time.

Yeah, he’s great. He reads every single review, so I’m sure he read yours (laughs). He’s very, very engaged with his own critics, which I think it totally suits him. He’s good at that.

* * *

Hans Morgenstern

Frances Ha runs 86 minutes and is rated R (frank talk, including sexuality). It is now playing at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and the Regal South Beach Stadium 18 in Miami Beach. IFC Films provided an on-line screener for the purposes of this review. It arrives in West Palm Beach on May 31 at Living Room Theaters, Regal Shadowood and Regal Delray. Late next month, it will arrive at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here.

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