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last update 2.Aug.10
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3/5   Vie Héroïque
dir-scr Joann Sfar
prd Marc Du Pontavice, Joann Sfar
with Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones, Anna Mouglalis, Mylene Jampanoi, Sara Forestier, Kacey Mottet-Klein, Razvan Vasilescu, Dinara Droukarova, Philippe Katerine, Claude Chabrol
casta and elmosnino release Fr 20.Jan.10,
UK 30.Jul.10, US 2.Sep.11
10/France Focus 2h10
Gainsbourg Bristling with invention, this fast and full-on biopic of French superstar Serge Gainsbourg is rather too stylish, mashing fantasy with real events to the point that we're never sure where the truth lies. But it's eye-catching filmmaking.

Lucien Ginsburg (Mottet-Klein) was born to Jewish parents (Vasilescu and Droukarova) and, after surviving the Nazi occupation, studied art and music. It's his skill at songwriting that propels him to stardom. Now known as Serge Gainsbourg (Elmosnino), he goes through two marriages, two children and a passionate late-1960s affair with Brigitte Bardot (Casta) before falling in love with the young British actress Jane Birkin (Gordon) and then the model Bambou (Jampanoi). His increasingly manic behaviour, fuelled by alcohol, sabotages his relationships even as it adds fire to his work.

Springing from his own comic-strip about Gainsbourg, filmmaker Sfar infuses the film with Jonze/Gondry-style visual trickery. This lushly crowded movie is a riot of clever camera angles, animation, effects work and puppetry, all bringing Gainsbourg's imagination to life. Sfar creates a pointy spectre called La Gueule (Jones) who follows Gainsbourg through life, spurring him to artistic and personal excess like a demonic muse in contrast to the more angelic Bardot, Birkin and Bambou.

This is a visually intriguing idea, but even as we understand the point quickly, Sfar keeps this up for two tiring hours. Fortunately, the actors are extremely good, especially from a casting perspective: none of them needs an introduction since they look uncannily like the person they're playing. And Elmosnino gives a surprisingly engaging performance, managing to make Gainsbourg likeable and magnetic even while indulging in his worst behaviour.

Although this is where Sfar's indulgence becomes distracting, because Gainsbourg's story is genuinely gripping, and we want to see it more clearly, without the strange omissions (no mention at all of his filmmaking career) and fantastical asides. This is a bright child who struggled to find his voice and then to keep the creative juices flowing. And his legacy, from the breathy classic Je T'Aime ... Moi Non Plus to his gifted daughter Charlotte, is much more iconic than this film suggests. Frankly, despite a good effort, one movie can't contain him.

15 themes, language, innuendo, nudity
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Le Refuge
aka: Hideaway
dir François Ozon
scr Mathieu Hippeau, François Ozon
prd Chris Bolzli, Claudie Ossard
with Isabelle Carré, Louis-Ronan Choisy, Pierre Louis-Calixte, Melvil Poupaud, Claire Vernet, Jean-Pierre Andreani, Marie Riviere, Jerome Kircher, Nicolas Moreau, Emile Berling, Dominique Jacquet, Tania Dessources
carre and choisy release Fr 27.Jan.10,
UK 13.Aug.10,
US 11.Feb.11 dvd
09/France 1h28

refuge Ozon is back in sensitive-drama mode for this almost subliminal personal story of a young woman trying to piece together the fragments of her life and understand her conflicting expectations and desires. But it's not easy to get a grip on.

In a posh Paris apartment, Louis and Mousse (Poupaud and Carre) live in squalor, addicted to heroin. They overdose, end up in hospital and, when Mousse wakes up, her doctor surprises her with the news that she's eight weeks pregnant and alone. Louis' mother (Vernet) blames her for everything, so Mousse escapes to an isolated house on the coast. She's joined there by Louis' more sympathetic brother Paul (Choisy). And even though she knows that he's gay, she starts falling for him. Even when he hooks up with someone else (Louis-Calixte).

The film is directed in a minimal, contained style, quietly watching the characters and their interaction without over-explaining the straightforward plot. This makes the film feel a little aloof and simplistic as a result, but Ozon's sure-handed touch is delicate and telling. He is also gently exploring the politics of attraction and how difficult it is for us to control whom we fall in love with or where our lives take us.

The film has a quietly intense tone, mainly due to the understated strain between the characters as they learn more about each other. This gives the actors much more interesting material to work with than the usual romantic drama, as their attraction has to be tempered with the knowledge that they aren't likely to end up together. Carre and Choisy are terrific in the roles, and have a strong but intriguingly fragile chemistry.

In the end, the film is rather too vague to really resonate. In some ways, it feels like a 30-minute short stretched into a feature. But every scene is beautifully observant, and really catches the sense that we usually find peace in the most unexpected places. And we all need some way to escape from the grim reality of our lives if only for a little while, because it's the only way we will find the strength to face up to the facts.

15 themes, language, drugs, sexuality, violence
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22 Bullets
3.5/5   L’Immortel
dir-scr Richard Berry
prd Luc Besson, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam
with Jean Reno, Kad Merad, Gabriella Wright, Richard Berry, Marina Fois, Claude Gensac, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Fani Kolarova, Venantino Venantini, Dominique Thomas, Denis Braccini, Josephine Berry
reno release Fr 24.Mar.10,
UK 3.Sep.10
10/France Europa 1h55

edinburgh film fest
22 bullets As violent as this mob thriller is, it also has a terrific sense of its central characters, focussing on strong emotions and moral decisions. And even though it's overcomplicated, the result is a sleek and very classy.

Charly (Reno) retired from his job as a Marseilles mob boss to spend time with his family. But someone has it in for him, and after he survives being shot 22 times, Charly and a cop (Fois) start looking for who did it. Charly immediately turns to the other local bosses (Merad and Berry), childhood friends with whom he took a vow of loyalty. But soon all-out war breaks out between thugs on various sides, and the division of loyalty isn't as clear-cut as it should be.

Reno is terrific in the role as a haunted man who knows he can never escape his violent past ("Spilled blood never dries," he says). He's such a compelling central character that he holds our attention even as seemingly hundreds of other people crowd around him. It's virtually impossible to keep track of who's who and which side everyone's on, but as Charly steadily moves through each scene, like the calm point in a storm, we feel like we're in safe hands.

And Berry has an assured directorial hand, skilfully navigating both the action and emotion to draw us in right from the opening shot. Yes, this is still a Besson-produced romp, with loads of brutal set pieces and an almost overpowering sense of violent retribution, but unlike Besson's other big thrillers (like Taken), this one has a soulfulness that lets us identify with its characters even in the most grisly situations.

And it gets very grisly indeed. For someone who has taken a vow of pacifism, Charly metes out extremely brutal vengeance. In Besson World, he is driven to this by the viciousness of those who are coming after him. Fair enough. Except that Charly exceeds everyone else's cruelty at each turn while indulging in rather selective morality. This senseless mayhem makes us pause, knowing that something is deeply wrong with the premise. But it's so entertaining that we let the filmmakers off the hook.

18 themes, language, strong violence, drugs
17.Jun.10 eiff
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4/5   Contracorriente
dir-scr Javier Fuentes-Leon
prd Javier Fuentes-Leon, Rodrigo Guerrero
with Cristian Mercado, Manolo Cardona, Tatiana Astengo
mercado and cardona
release US Jan.10 sff,
UK 6.Aug.10
09/Peru 1h40

edinburgh film fest
undertow This sensitive and thoughtful Peruvian drama addresses the thorny issue of Latino machismo with a story that blends gritty honesty with magical realism. It also takes a remarkably astute look at sexuality from a uniquely telling angle.

Miguel (Mercado) is a natural leader in his coastal fishing village, with strongly respected religious beliefs and a loving wife, Mariela (Astengo), who's about to give birth to their first child. But Miguel has a secret: he's in love with his childhood friend Santiago (Cardona), who has returned as a photographer-painter, immediately arousing the suspicion of the old guard. Miguel believes that to be a real man he needs to be a husband and father, and Santiago is getting impatient to run off together. Then fate steps in.

What happens from here involves a surreal twist that allows the men to live a sort of idealised open romance in the village. And while this is superficially happy, it's also profoundly sad, as any hint of homosexuality is simply banished from thought in this culture. Where the story goes next brings this out with bleak, emotional honesty as everyone struggles to cope with the truth, but no one seems willing to say what needs to be said.

The isolated seaside setting adds to the movie's otherworldly quality as its characters struggle to escape their culture, as if they're trapped on a deserted island. References to the more tolerant outside world are rare, while the sunny, dusty village sits in contrast to the tropical idyll of the lovers' private cove with its cool caves and dangerous reefs. Against this background, the actors are able to breathe real life into their characters, adding layers of subtext and complexity that are rare for this kind of drama.

And while the plot may seem melodramatic, and perhaps a bit too dark and heavy, the film has real visual and thematic depth. Everyone in this story feels both like an integral part of their community and an outcast, and the result is that the film makes us as an audience experience these feelings as well. And in the end, writer-director Fuentes-Leon takes the story further than we expect, with an extended final coda that drags on a bit but makes even more potent comments that are relevant in any society.

15 themes, language, violence, sexuality
26.Jun.10 eiff
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