PIFF 2018: Take 2


41st Portland International Film Festival (February 15 – March 1, 2018)

La Villa (The House by the Sea) (France, 2017) dir. Robert Guediguian (107 mins) Trailer

Three siblings are brought together by their elderly father's illness. Their childhood home is in a lovely setting on the coast near Marseille, a house by the sea in what had been a small, vibrant community when they were young. Now only their father and an elderly couple remain of the original residents. The others have sold up to absentee investors who make a nice profit on vacation rentals.

Angèle is a successful actress who has not seen her family in many years. Brother Joseph was a student radical who dropped out of the university to become a worker in a factory. Eventually he ended up in management, where after ten years he has been laid off. He introduces the young woman accompanying him as his "far too young fiancé." He is writer who is unable to get published because his writing is not good. Armand tells Angèle and Joseph he has tried to keep up their father's idea of restaurant with low prices for people without much money, but it is too hard.

As the story plays out we learn of the tragedy that led Angèle to stay away for so long and the sense of failure that underlies Joseph's habitual gloominess and prickly disposition. There is a lovely tribute to the power of art when Angèle learns of her impact on a young fisherman whose father took him as a boy to see play her in a play by Brecht. With this comes his unsettling declaration of love. "But I could be your mother many times over," she says in exasperation. Meantime, Bérangère, the "far too young fiancé," accompanied Joseph only because she likes his father. She retains a certain fondness for him, but she has had her fill of his dyspeptic personality. And there is Yvan, a young doctor, son of the couple who live next door.

Things take a turn when soldiers come to the village because the remains of a boat have been found on the beach. The soldiers warn them that the boat probably carried migrants. They could be dangerous.

I don't want to say too much or give anything away for those who may see La Villa. The film is mainstream, accessible, and topical enough to imagine a regular theater run. And of course there is always Netflix, Amazon, etc., and the abomination known as home theater. Here I'd like to insert something one of the Coen brothers said to the effect that film is meant to be seen in a small, dark room in the company of maybe seventy people. Alas, I cannot locate the exact quote. I posted it on Facebook when I first came across it a few years back. The post elicited the comment "How elitist." I do not know if the charge was aimed to the Coen brother or at me or maybe both of us. I'm okay with it. The world is changing though, with or without me. No getting around that. Someday perhaps cinema as Coen envisages it and even physical books we hold in our hands and read, underlining passages and scribbling barely decipherable notes in the margins, will come to be seen as quaint artifacts of a bygone era. I see this as a loss. Others may deem it progress.

Thanks for bearing with the sermon. My takeaway on La Villa is that it is an old-fashioned little story that depicts the pathos and humor of ordinary life with grace and charm. It is a story with bickering and affection, acerbity and gentleness, an improbable love, the bloom of romance, and a discovery of things that bring meaning to existence. Above all it is a little story of hope and humanity. Uplifting and hopeful may not be words that come readily to mind these days. They do here.

Claire's Camera (South Korea/France, 2017) dir. Hong Sang-soo (70 mins) Trailer

Claire's Camera was filmed during the Cannes Film Festival while actresses Isabelle Huppert and Kim Min-hee were there to present other films.

Claire (Huppert) is an art teacher who has come to Cannes with a friend whose film is being screened at the festival. She is at ease striking up conversations with strangers she encounters at cafés and restaurants and while exploring the town. Invariably she asks if she can photograph them with her Polaroid camera. She also writes poetry sometimes but explains that she is not really a poet.

Man-hee (Kim Min-hee) works for a film distribution company until she is fired by her boss with the mysterious explanation that she can no longer trust Man-hee. Unable to change her budget plane ticket so she can return to Korea after being fired, she hangs around Cannes and of course her path and Claire's cross.

Nothing much happens beyond chance encounters and ordinary conversation, for most part precipitated by Claire. One such encounter is between Claire and Min-hee's former boss and a Korean film director from whom she learns something that enables Min-hee to figure out why she was fired.

Claire's Camera reminds me of Eric Rohmer. Not everyone will like the film. For me it has an ineffable charm in the way it captures something of how life is.

A Season in France (France, 2017) dir. Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (100 mins)

(trailer not available at PIFF website and I could not find one online at the time this piece was posted)

Abbas (Eriq Ebouaney), his young son and daughter, and his brother, Etienne, are refugees from civil war in the Central African Republic. Abbas was a French teacher. In Paris he works at a vegetable stand in the market. Etienne taught philosophy. Now he is a security guard.

Their situation is precarious. Abbas's application for asylum was denied, and he is awaiting a ruling on his appeal. He loves his girlfriend, Carole (Sandrine Bonnaire), while remaining in love with his wife, who was killed as they fled Africa.

Etienne lives in a shack and cares only for his beloved books. When he returns home one day to find the shack and his books in ashes and "migrants go home" spray-painted on the concrete wall nearby, he goes over the edge. Abbas cannot save him.

Abbas himself is thrown into despair when his appeal is denied. Carole takes the family in, putting herself at risk for harboring an individual without papers, but in the end Abbas concludes there is not a place for him and his children in France.

A Season in France is emotionally draining and heart-wrenching, an outstanding film that does not strike a single false note. It puts a face on those who have nowhere to go. The film was impossible to watch without reflecting on the rhetoric and policies of the American president.

I chatted with a woman named Françoise while we waited for Ava (review below) to begin. She had seen A Season in France the previous evening and did not sleep well that night, awakened several times by bad dreams. "What kind of world are we leaving our children and grandchildren?" she asked. I did not have an answer.

Ava (Iran/Canada, 2017) dir. Sadaf Foroughi (103 mins) Trailer

Ava plays violin and wants to study music. Her doting father is inclined to support her, while her strict, overprotective mother, a doctor, want her to study something practical that will enable her to own a living.

Her mother hauls a humiliated Ava off to a gynecologist when she learns her daughter was alone with a boy. The gynecologist assures the mother that nothing happened, but the already frayed relationship between mother and daughter is further damaged.

One day by chance Ava learns a secret about her parents that may be what underlies her mother's rigidity. Later in an intense, extended exchange between mother and daughter there is a terse remark that suggests her mother's attitude and actions are shaped by fear that her daughter might run afoul of Iran's guardians of the moral code.

Ava is a fascinating look into a culture so very different from ours where nonetheless we find a recognizably common humanity. This may not be the film for those who demand some kind of resolution or conclusion, to know how things come out, for good or for ill.

The image of Ava staring into the camera at the film's close remains with me.

The Third Murder (Japan, 2017)

dir. Hirozaku Kore-eda

(125 mins)

Trailer

Not many films are long, slow, and riveting.

Misumi is a man who thirty years earlier was convicted of the murder of two loan sharks confesses to killing the factory owner who fired him and burning the body. His lawyer is perplexed because Misumi keeps changing his story. The small are small but enough for his lawyer to wonder why Misumi cannot keep his story straight.

The lawyer calls in an elite attorney, Shigemori, to join the defense team. Shigemori, coincidentally, is the son of the judge who presided over Misumi's trial for the first murders and sentenced him to prison instead of imposing the death penalty. His concern is the formulation of an effective defense strategy. Truth is secondary.

Shigemori's investigation brings surprising revelations of unethical and illegal business practices at the factory, blackmail, and terrible family secrets that only lead to more and more questions.

The owner's schoolgirl daughter comes forward to tell Shigemori that she believes Misumi killed her father after intuiting that she wished her father dead. Now she wants to testify, but she is prevented when Misumi suddenly insists on pleading not guilty, claiming that he originally pleaded guilty because his lawyer convinced him it was the only way to avoid the death penalty. Everyone lies here, the daughter says to Shigemori after the sentence is pronounced. Who gets judged here? she asks. Who gets to decide?

Shigemori becomes obsessed with the truth as he tries to unravel the tangle of conflicting accounts and lies. What kind of man is Misumi? Did he change his plea to spare the daughter from having to testify about painful things? Did Shigemori go along with the plea change, knowing that it could lead to a sentence of death, because he wanted to believe that even a man like Misumi could do something to help another person?

The Third Murder is another film that does not strike a false note and another that is not for those who need a conclusive ending. I may see this one again if it has a regular theater run later in the year.

#Cinema

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David Matthews

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