Suite Française

Suite Française

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Dir: Saul Dibb; Wri: Saul Dibb, Matt Charman; Pro: Romain Bremond, Andrea Cornwell, Michael Kuhn, Xavier Marchand; DOP: Edouard Grau; Ed: Chris Dickens; Mus: Rael Jones. Cast: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie

 

A soapy wartime yarn elevated by a handsome production and some strong performances, Suite Française cannot, by definition, capture what makes Irène Némirovsky’s source novel such an intriguing proposition. Written during the Nazi occupation of France but left incomplete at the time of Némirovsky’s death in Auschwitz in 1942, Suite Française was completed posthumously and published in 2004. The novel’s unique provenance has little bearing on its plot, though, which has been streamlined here into a familiar, but mildly engrossing, story of forbidden love.

 

Michelle Williams takes the central role of Lucile, a young woman who lives with her frosty mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) in a small French village, at the beginning of the Nazi occupation. When the women are forced to accommodate a German soldier, Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts) in their home, an unlikely secret romance blossoms, leading to assorted melodramatic ramifications. Williams has a natural subtlety that was genuinely affecting in her breakthrough role in Brokeback Mountain (2004), and has served her well in her two collaborations with Kelly Reichardt. Here, her reserved, watchful quality brings some much needed shading to the thinly written character of Lucile. There is, however, a distinct lack of spark between Williams and Schoenarts, leaving the plot’s engine sputtering. Schoenarts certainly looks the part of a paperback romantic hero, but the script’s insistence on presenting Bruno simply as a good man in a bad situation are bland at best and disingenuous at worst, and leave the character less neutral than neutered.

 

The tone is generally old-fashioned, with the crisp British accents in which the French villagers communicate evoking – with a certain charm – the Warner Bros. pot-boilers of the 1940s. Director Saul Dibb, who made his debut with the inner-city gang drama Bullet Boy (2004), deploys a more contemporary sensibility only fleetingly, and usually in scenes of action and violence. An early air-raid sequence is terrifically handled, cleverly presenting the open air and sunshine of the French countryside as a source of terror, while brief glimpses of executions and interrogations stand out starkly against the curiously cosy tone of the film. These moments aside, one feels that Suite Française may play better on television, its mild intrigues and lovingly rendered period trappings seeming a perfect fit for a Sunday evening BBC drama.

 

Of the supporting cast, Scott Thomas is on autopilot mode, but still walks off with most of her scenes. Others, such as Eileen Atkins and Ruth Wilson, are given less to do, while rising star Margot Robbie is prominently billed, but has just a handful of lines as a rustic wench. That the part registers at all is more down to Robbie’s own peculiar blend of carnality and innocence than to anything in the script. Although the overall pacing is fairly smooth, the underused cast and truncated sub-plots suggest that the film has either been cut down from a much longer running time, or has been substantially reshaped in editing. Further evidence of tinkering comes in the form of a needless voice-over that is presumably intended to underscore Lucile’s emotional awakening, but has the unintended effect of making Williams’ understated central performance seem less expressive than it is.

David Turpin

15A (See IFCO for details)
107 minutes

Run All Night is released 13th March 2015

 

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Cinema Review: Before the Winter Chill

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Dir: Philippe Claudel • Wri: Hayao Miyazaki  • Pro: Yves Marmion, Romain Rojtman • Ed: Elisa Aboulker • DOP: Atsushi Okui • MUS: André Dziezuk DES: Samuel Deshors • CAST: Daniel Auteuil, Kristin Scott Thomas, Leïla Bekhti

Paul (Auteuil) and his wife Lucie (Scott Thomas) live a privileged, upper-class life. While their many years of contented marriage may have reached a state of complacency and comfortable routine, they none the less remain in love. As a highly successful neurosurgeon, Paul enjoys a reputation among his patients as a kind and reassuring surgeon. One day, he runs into Lou (Bekhti), a woman who claims to be a former patient and who shows a disconcerting amount of gratitude and enthusiasm toward Paul. Dismissing these clear advances of the younger woman, Paul thinks nothing of it until bouquets of flowers begin arriving at his home and workplace every day, which he naturally assumes are being sent by the younger woman. With this unexpected interruption to their stagnant home life, the beginnings of a rift between Paul and Lucie emerge. Unspoken understandings begin to be questioned, Lucie’s frustrations about her suffocating domestic life take hold and Paul’s obsession with unravelling the enigma that is Lou threatens both his marriage and ultimately himself as a much deeper and more dangerous mystery emerges.

As a trio, director Philippe Claudel, Scott Thomas and Auteuil are an excellent collaborative force. It’s often a failing of films such as this which attempt to quickly create some form of idealised home life only to disrupt it, to simply tell us that the characters are in love. Claudel instead takes his time allowing us to observe their routine while Scott Thomas and Auteuil have a thoroughly believable and lived-in chemistry which shows their relationship through subtle, silent moments of intimacy rather than forced dialogue. Scott Thomas is as ever effortless, here playing the polite, smiling wife whose family problems and growing frustrations at her static lifestyle begin to unravel her. Disappointingly she ultimately ends up as almost a tertiary character as even the revelations about her are overshadowed by Paul and Lou’s plot.

Claudel’s direction displays as much effortlessness as Scott Thomas’ performance. Combined with Lenoir’s cinematography, the film looks gorgeous. The large, ultra-modern, ‘glass-casket’ (as one character calls it) home of the characters is photographed beautifully through the changing seasons and is used very effectively to build an atmosphere of frustration and imprisonment for Lucie. Equally Claudel shows great discipline in the visual language he chooses to employ. For example, in the way Lucie is almost always seen in some form of confined or closed space; be it her home, packed restaurants or waiting rooms. Amongst the only time she’s ‘allowed’ to roam free is in the house’s expansive gardens which she meticulously maintains and shows to tourists but, which the film frequently reminds us, is closed off from the world by a large, solid, metal gate. It’s a pity then that all of this is in the end, in service of very little.

The core themes being explored are hardly unique.  The suffocating nature of domesticity for the wife concerned about the projected exterior image and her unfilled life in the shadow of the professionally more successful husband, are some of the most well-trodden ground in cinema. Gorgeous cinematography and an accomplished atmosphere of unease that makes the film feel not unlike NBC’s Hannibal (but without the killing) are definitely to be praised but it is little more than window-dressing without anything deeper to build upon it. The issue is that the film is playing a much subtler game with the audience, trying to distract them with the domestic plot to play down what its story is really about. Unfortunately it does too good of a job of hiding this to the point that when it’s finally revealed, it comes across as arbitrary and inconsistent with the rest of the film.

From the plot summary at the beginning you may notice it sounds not unlike the plot of Caché. That particular striking similarity only gets stranger when you realise both films share the same lead. Before the Winter Chill is without doubt more visually inventive and interesting than Caché but it also fails to commit to its central mystery the same way that film did. The film shrugs off its mystery-plot as nothing sinister when in fact it’s all the time building toward a revelation far more visceral and unambiguous than its spiritual predecessor. Sadly, the complete lack of focus or interest that the film shows in that portion of the plot means that when the twist is sprung on us it’s completely incongruous with what came before. It does justify what up until then seemed like the slightly schizophrenic characterisation of Lou but is again largely ignored in the dénouement and reacted to with a bizarre non-reaction from the characters in the final scenes.

This is by no means an unpleasant film. In fact, it’s quite enjoyable if ultimately a tad unoriginal in either its thematic explorations or its attempt at a mystery plot. On a technical and performance level the film is genuinely excellent with both leads convincingly carrying the film with ease. The cinematography alone is almost worth it, the whole enterprise is just let down by its own lack of focus, and then sudden extreme focus, on what should be its central mystery, leaving the overall experience a rather uneven one.

Richard Drumm

103 mins

Before the Winter Chill is released on 9th May 2014

Before the Winter Chill – Official Website

 

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Cinema Review: In Your Hands


DIR/WRI: Lola Doillon • PRO: Saga Blanchard DOP: Mathieu Vadepied • ED: Marie Da Costa • DES: Stephanie Guitard, Stanislas Reydellet • Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Pio Marmaï, Jean-Philippe Écoffey

‘This is no fun,’ exclaims Dr Cooper, on a phone call to her former captor.  It may not be fun, but, solemn and serious, Lola Doillon’s second feature delivers the tension its theatrical premise promises.

Kristin Scott Thomas, continuing her edgy French-speaking career, plays Dr Cooper.  The film opens with Dr Cooper emerging from a building, dishevelled, dowdy in a yellow T-shirt.  She eventually gets home, where she charges her phone and checks for messages.  Her mother, her ex and her employer missed her.  She was supposed to be on holiday, but we soon learn what happened when she goes to the police to report an abduction and detainment

Yann Ochberg’s partner died during a Caesarean section operation performed by Dr Cooper, a gynaecologist.  He seeks revenge by kidnapping her.  What will he do next before she escapes?

French title Contre toi translates as ‘against you’, not as nice as In Your Hands, but it emphasises the conflict Dr Cooper endures with Yann.  Doillon’s film is a character study, examining so-called Stockholm syndrome, which describes captives’ attitudes to their captors.  By showing Dr Cooper escaping at the beginning, Doillon prepares the audience for a different kind of tension to that which audiences might expect, a tension more suited to theatre, with two actors playing it out in a confined setting.

Lola Doillon, daughter of director Jacques Doillon (Ponette) and film editor Noëlle Boisson, overcomes any theatricality.  The austere colour palette avoids primary colours (apart from the yellow T-shirt).  Shades of grey and navy predominate, and stark white backgrounds underline the bleak atmosphere.  Silence on stage can be awkward or dull, but the camera captures in close-up expressions and gesture, while editing allows the drama to unfold in short, often wordless scenes.  The soundtrack features heavy breathing, the sound of locks opening and closing, doors slamming shut, and the score, featuring sombre strings and piano, complements the film’s tone.

The film’s showpiece is Scott Thomas’s performance.  Watch her face, her eye movements, her poise.  She excels in conveying Dr Cooper’s fear, anger, denial, depression.  She agreed to do the film for little money immediately upon reading the script.  Doillon filmed sequentially, adapting it to the organic development that this approach allows as actors come to know their characters intimately.  Pio Marmaï is also effective, playing a difficult character, someone who is not quite sure what he’s doing but whose emotions are strong, violent.  Indeed, the film is most effective in capturing the threat of violence, sexual violence, and the situation’s strange intimacy.

The film’s drawbacks are its coldness and doubtful credibility.  Dr Cooper leads a solitary life, her relationships depending on contact by mobile phone.  The kidnapping disrupted her vacation, but there is no real sense that her holiday was going to be fun.  Her loneliness may explain why she begins to feel for Yann the way she does, but her motivations remain muddled, which, for audiences, may be intriguing, but not exactly fun.

John Moran

90 mins

In Your Hands is released on 20th July 2012

In Your Hands – Official Website

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Leaving

Leaving

DIR: Catherine Corsini • WRI: Catherine Corsini, Gaëlle Macé • PRO: Michel Seydoux, Fabienne Vonier • DOP: Agnès Godard • ED: Simon Jacquet • DES: Laurent Ott • CAST: Kristin Scott Thomas, Sergi López, Yvan Attal, Bernard Blancan

Kristin Scott Thomas is slap bang in the middle of her comfort zone playing Suzanne, a frustrated middle-aged, middle-class housewife who falls in love with a dusky Spanish labourer, Ivan (Sergi López,). But to be fair to her she is very good, particularly in the film’s first half. Suzanne, a qualified physiotherapist, is returning to work after fifteen years so the family garage is being converted into a consulting room. At one point early on she surveys the work Ivan has done and her face lights up as she visualises the room and the small measure of independence and self worth it will bring. This is all played out in a brief moment on Thomas’ face. And this is where the film itself is also at its best, in presenting these small gestures and the importance they can have. For instance, the way her husband Samuel (Yvan Attal) casually trivialises her ambitions. Or later on, during an impromptu trip to Spain, when a bee flies down her top Suzanne catches herself reacting in a gleefully absurd way that would never have occurred to her back in her cosy life in France.

As the film goes on, however, and Suzanne’s marriage falls apart such subtleties get lost in over the top melodrama – not helped incidentally by the intrusive music. Attal isn’t given much to work with as Samuel and the character comes across as a one-dimensional bully. As a result, a potentially interesting study of power and control is left unexplored. Suzanne’s two teenage children David (Alexandre Vidal) and Marion (Daisy Broom) each ally themselves with a different parent. But their motivations are never addressed and neither are their relationships with their father or each other. Even their relationships with Suzanne are dealt with in a pretty perfunctory manner. This may all have come from an understandable desire to present the story only from Suzanne’s point of view, but the film can only suffer for this lack of depth and whole thing is very unsatisfying. And all the while the plot gets increasingly preposterous so by the end we’re left with something like a daytime TV soap opera. Shame.

Geoff McEvoy

Rated 16 (see IFCO website for details)
Leaving
is released on 9th July 2010


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Nowhere Boy

Nowhere Boy

DIR: Sam Taylor Wood • WRI: Matt Greenhalgh • PRO: Robert Bernstein, Matt Delargy, Kevin Loader, Douglas Rae, Paul Ritchie, James Saynor • DOP: Seamus McGarvey • ED: Lisa Gunning • DES: Alice Normington • CAST: Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Sangster, Aaron Johnson, Anne-Marie Duff, Sam Bell

2009 brought about quite a revival for The Beatles. We’ve had a video game in Beatles Rock Band, a complete renewal of their back-catalogue with the remastered albums, and now (in a move more familiar to the horror genre) we get the ‘origins’ movie. Nowhere Boy is based on John Lennon’s sister Julia’s memoirs Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon, which lends credibility to this previously untold story of the adolescent Mr. Lennon. The film follows John (Aaron Johnson) from his mid-teens through a time of self-discovery, ending as The Beatles leave for Hamburg to learn their trade.

The narrative is predominantly concerned with John’s relationship with the two women (ir)responsible for his upbringing. John’s largely absent and wayward but ultimately loving and passionate mother is played with fervour by Anne-Marie Duff. In his mother’s absence, John’s upbringing is left to his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) whose absolute dedication to the English tradition of stiff upper lip leaves John unfulfilled in his youth. Their combined influence on the rebellious youth vie for balance as John’s schoolwork suffers through his growing love for music and the lifestyle which accompanies it. John’s mother introduces him to rock ’n’ roll much to Mimi’s chagrin, but in doing so sparks the creative flair in her son which had lain dormant until then. Mimi’s influence is more evident in the eloquent and matured John Lennon whom this Elvis-obsessed youth would one day become.

The adolescent John Lennon of Nowhere Boy is the embodiment of the myth which this man became following his premature death. That the film is tinted by a romantic’s vision becomes evident upon the introduction of Paul McCartney. Paul is played by Thomas Sangster – who you may recall as the love-struck son of Liam Neeson in Love Actually and has apparently not grown since – who occupies roughly half the space of the muscular, handsome and charismatic Lennon and drinks tea when not playing a guitar twice his size.

Nowhere Boy, despite its obvious allegiance to Lennon and not McCartney, emerges as a fascinating biopic. That it is based on a first-hand account of events that unfolded behind closed doors, and which shaped the man that was to become Lennon, affords the film credibility where another version of the same story would be purely fiction. As with Control, an enthralling biopic of Ian Curtis, the screenplay for Nowhere Boy was penned by Matt Greenhalgh. Both films are chiefly concerned with the mentality of their protagonists; Nowhere Boy is an attempt to get inside the head of John Lennon through the people and events which made him who he was, with family naturally a dominant aspect.

As a story, it is unremarkable when separated from the subsequent fame of Lennon and The Beatles. If this were purely a coming-of-age story about your average Joe Soap there would be little to recommend it. However, because of the man Lennon would later become there is plenty here to interest, entertain and possibly enrage your average Beatles fan. This is only the first chapter of Lennon’s story, but it forms the basis of everything that would follow.

Peter White
(See biog here)

Rated 15a (see IFCO website for details)
Nowhere Boy
is released 26th Dec 2009

Nowhere Boy
– Official Website

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