“Venus in Fur” (2013) starring Mathieu Amalric & Emmanuelle Seigner

Based on the Tony-winning Broadway play by American writer, David Ives, Venus in Fur is a 2013 French film by famed/controversial director Roman Polanski. Alone in a Paris theater after a long day of auditioning actresses for his new play, writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric), complains to his fiancee (on the phone) that no actress has what it takes to play the lead female character. Thomas is about to leave the theater when actress Vanda (Emmanuelle Seigner) bursts in, a whirlwind of energy. At first, she is pushy, desperate, and not prepared- or so it seems. Under her coat, Vanda wears a risque black leather and lace outfit (w/ a dog collar). Thomas reluctantly agrees to let her try out; he is stunned by her transformation. Vanda is perfect (even sharing the character’s name); she obviously researched the role, learned the lines by heart, and brought along some props! As the audition continues, Thomas’ feelings go from from attraction to obsession, and Vanda takes on a more dominant role in the story. Vanda comes to tower over Thomas as she becomes stronger.

This was Polanski’s first non-English feature film in over 51 yrs; I saw it several years ago (and didn’t realize he was the director). I re-watched it on YouTube (it’s available for rent). The lighting is superb and the music (composed by Frenchman Alexandre Desplat) is used very well. He moves the story from NYC to Paris, b/c Polanski wanted to work w/ his wife in her native language- French. Originally, Vanda was a 24 y.o. actress (thus her short resume) and Thomas was a young playwright (w/ a few plays under his belt). On Broadway, then recent NYU grad- Nina Arianda- made a name for herself (2010-2012) as Vanda opposite Wes Bentley and Hugh Dancy. In London, Natalie Dormer (The Tudors; Game of Thrones) played the role opposite David Oakes. Louis Garrel (who is young and conventionally handsome) was originally cast as Thomas for this movie. Amalric is middle-aged, w/ a small build, and dark/intense eyes. As some viewers noted, he resembles a younger Polanski. Amalric’s mother comes from a Polish/Jewish family; she was born in the Polish village where Polanski lived w/ his family before WWII. Directors don’t make decisions w/o a reason!

Forget that badly-written and adapted Fifty Shades trilogy! There are several layers to this clever story of power imbalance: woman vs. man (in the play set in 1870), actor who wants the role vs. director who decides who gets the role (in the theater), and man vs. goddess (Venus AKA Aphrodite). It’s also about life imitating art, hidden desires, misogyny, and role playing. Thomas has to read w/ Vanda b/c none of the actors are there; it turns out that he’s really into it. Thomas starts out directing Vanda, but later she doesn’t hesitate in directing him. She even knows how to adjust the lights in the theater- hmmm. They put on and take off clothing to create these characters, as is common backstage in the theater. They quickly and easily switch from being themselves to the characters in the play!

[1] Thanks to the brilliant connections between literature, stage and reality, and thanks to the many things that remain unclear about the character’s real identities and motivations, this movie sounds much more like a question than like a an answer…

[2] The characters conflict with each other perfectly, I don’t mean that they completely disagree on everything, I mean that they disagree on a certain number of things and they agree on a certain number of things for their characters to have great chemistry.

[3] What was most surprising for me is how much we laughed during the film. It was really hilarious…

[4] The mystery of who exactly Vanda is keeps getting bigger until it reaches deific proportions…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

SPOILER-FREE Review: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

This French film (in limited release in the U.S.) was runner-up at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival; the South Korean film- Parasite- was the winner. It is written/directed by a woman (Celine Sciamma) and focuses on the love between two women living in 18th century France- an independent/well-traveled painter, Marianne (Noemie Merlant), and a noblewoman educated in a convent, Heloise (Adele Haenel). It also has much to say about being a female artist, as well as the power of bonds formed between women (as friends across social classes). Through research, Sciamma discovered that there were hundreds of women who not only posed as models- they were also painters in this time period.

Marianne travels to the remote island of Brittany where she has been hired by La Comtesse (model turned actress Valeria Golino- now in her mid-50s) to paint a portrait. The subject will be her daughter, Heloise, who is betrothed to a nobleman in Italy; this stranger will marry her if he likes the picture. This was commonly done in this time; in S3 E6 of The Tudors (Search for a New Queen), Henry VIII has Hans Holbein- the most famous portrait artist of that time- paint a potential spouse, Anne of Cleves. There was a painter who came before Marianne, but his work was unfinished; Heloise refused to pose. La Comtesse says that the work must be done in secret; Heloise is told that Marianne is a companion for walks. Marianne settles into a small parlor on the first floor w/ her supplies; she learns a bit more about the situation from a young maid in the household, Sophie (Luana Bajrami).

This is an unique film that has been loved by many critics; the theater was mostly filled when my friend and I saw it last weekend. Time is taken to build up the characters and move the story forward; it has a powerful payoff. I was surprised to be feeling emotional in the last act; I’ve seen many films, but not quite like this! There is no musical score, aside from one song. As several critics noted, every shot looks like a painting. The co-leads seem to be opposites, at first, w/ Marianne as the dominant (more interesting) character. In time, they are seen as equals; both are strong-willed individuals who chafe against the limitations placed upon them. The actors have terrific chemistry together! The love scenes are done in a sensitive manner; this is the (rare) female gaze in cinema. There is also much natural beauty to admire- ocean waves, towering cliffs, and untouched beaches.

SPOILER-FREE Review: Parasite (2019) directed by Boon Joon-ho

A struggling family in Seoul, South Korea scheme to enter an upper-class/well-connected household in this genre-bending thriller from director Bong Joon-ho (Okja; Snowpiercer). As a young boy, Boon saw a (censored) version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and was “overwhelmed” by the music and structure of the house (behind the Bates Motel). Parasite is the first Asian film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It was described by Bong as “a comedy without clowns and a tragedy without villains.”

Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is an unemployed family man and head of the Kim family, which includes wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), a 20-something artistic daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and idealistic college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik). One day, a former school friend of Ki-woo’s drops by w/ a gift (and possible job opportunity). While Min is studying abroad, he wants Ki-woo (who he trusts) to take over as the English tutor for a teen girl, Da-hye. At first, Ki-woo is hesitant; Min explains that it’s fine since he has a recommendation. The Parks live in a mansion which wouldn’t be out of place in southern California. The coldly handsome father (Sun-kyun Lee) has studied abroad and works in his own tech company. Da-hye has an 8 y.o. brother, Da-song, who loves anything connected to the Boy Scouts. The mother (Yeo-jeong Jo), though still youthful and pretty, is also “simple” (gullible).

There are quick changes in tone, as the audience is taken on a journey from the Kim’s crowded sub-basement apt. to the Park’s spacious house (designed by an internationally-known architect). The musical score fits seamlessly w/ the movie; Boon recommended baroque music and works of Bernard Herrmann (one of Hollywood’s finest composers) to his own composer. It’s not only clever, it’s also suspenseful, scary, and darkly funny w/ pointed social commentary. Though all the main 10 characters get their time to shine, the heart of this tale is Woo-shik, a youthful 29 y.o. w/ a slim build who grew up partly in Toronto. The audience I saw it w/ definitely was rooting for him, esp. during the (wild) third act. The crux of this story is the relationship between the son and father (the director noted); Song Kang-ho (who is a star in his native land) gets the chance to show many different sides to being a man getting by somehow in today’s society. This is a must-see, even if you don’t get hyped for scary films! I had passes to a free screening at Landmark E St the night before opening.

2017 Washington Jewish Film Festival: In Between

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It is the time now for women to come and speak up. Until now, we were listening to men, and they were the ones to run everything. -Maysaloun Hamoud (writer/director)

Arab-Israelis make up about 20 percent of Israel’s citizenry. They share the same ethnicity, language, and culture of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; many identify as Palestinians rather than Israeli. This film (written and directed by 35 y.o. Maysaloun Hamoud- pictured below) tells the story of three 20-ish Arab women (two Muslim and one Christian) who have left their hometowns to work/study in Tel Aviv. They find themselves stuck between traditional Arab society (which values modesty, virginity, arranged marriage) and a more open/Westernized Israeli society (w/ dating, alcohol, drugs).

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Laila (Mouna Hawa) is an attorney sharing an apt. w/ close friend, Salma (Sana Jammeieh). Into their world enters Noor (Shaden Kanboura), a hijabi Computer Science major who is prepping for finals. We can see that the pals are dismayed to be stuck w/ this new roomie. Though Noor is religious, she is NOT judgmental re: Laila and Salma’s smoking, drinking, and parties w/ a diverse group of friends. She focuses on studying and keeping in touch with her fiance, Wissam. She cooks for him when he comes over to her new place. Wissam keeps pressuring her to move up the date of their wedding. He does NOT approve of her new building or roomies (who slowly become her friends). 

Laila (who loves to flirt) starts seriously dating a man, Ziad, who had his eye on her from a wedding they both attended. Ziad is VERY attracted to Laila, particularly b/c she is an uninhibited/beautiful/strong woman. Salma quits her restaurant job, after she and a fellow Palestinian coworker are yelled at by their (Israeli) boss for joking around (in Arabic) in the kitchen. She also has to deal w/ dinners set-up by her wealthy parents to introduce her to single men. 

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[1] …the movie is also very much about sisters doing it for themselves. There’s an automatic solidarity whereby women– at least young women of similar ages– are all automatically soulmates; and men, it almost goes without saying, are swine. Despite those stereotypes, the movie holds interest by virtue of believable acting and believable situations. 

[2] The three women characters were believable, warm, expressing solidarity to each other despite their very different personalities and lifestyles. The theme of personal conflicts between tradition and modernity is not new. What makes this film different is that the issues are very real and current and those outside the tradition don’t see it. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

The Salesman (2016) directed by Asghar Farhadi

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Actress Taraneh Alidoosti and director Asghar Farhadi

For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hardliners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears. Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals.

However, I believe that the similarities among the human beings on this earth and its various lands, and among its cultures and its faiths, far outweigh their differences.

-Excerpt from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s official statement re: not attending the 2017 Oscars (where this film has been nominated Best Foreign Language Film of the Year)

NOTE: This review contains SPOILERS for the film.

The film is openly an allegory about social, urban and marital decay. But way beyond it, it is about the costs of masculine pride. …this is a superb statement about the unbearable consequences of trying to live up to codes of honour that centre on the female body.

-Excerpt from IMDB review

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Shahab Hosseini in A Separation

This is the new film from the famed/respected Iranian director who brought us A Separation. I went to see it two weeks ago (it was a sold-out screening) at AFI in Silver Spring, MD. This movie is NOT as interesting as A Separation (which also co-stars Shahab Hosseini), BUT it’s worth a look (esp. if you like naturalistic cinema). It would’ve been more effective if had been shorter; the running time is a BIT over 2 hrs. There is a much left unsaid (b/c of censors); the limits put on artists are referred to also in the play (A Death of A Salesman) w/in the film.

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Raana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) in The Salesman

A married couple in Tehran, Emad (Hosseini- an engineer turned actor) and Raana (Taraneh Alidoosti), recently moved into a new apt (thanks to their older friend, Babak). They are irritated to discover that one room is locked b/c the previous tenant (“a woman who had many male visitors”) hasn’t come to get her stuff. Babak’s calls go unanswered by the former tenant, so Emad’s friends pry open the door and empty out her stuff. We learn that this woman (no one ever mentions the word “prostitute”) had a young son; his drawings are in one corner of the room.

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Shahab Hosseini at the Cannes Film Festival

WHAT exactly happened to Raana the night she was mistaken for this prostitute and assaulted? It’s left up to the audience to decide, b/c we don’t hear SVU-style details. Hosseini (winner of the Best Actor award at Cannes Film Festival) is in almost every scene; he characterizes an Everyman who slowly breaks down. He can’t communicate well w/ Raana, get help from the law (she wants to forget about it), so gets obsessed w/ finding the attacker (revenge).

…words of truth are spoken not in the real life, but on a theater stage while playing roles.

-Excerpt from IMDB review

Now, this is NOT the type of man you’d expect to act irrationally, being a mild-mannered teacher at a boy’s high school (day job) and actor (in the theater after work). Raana is also acting alongside him and their friends. One of the actresses in the troupe is a divorced single mom w/ an adorable young son. Though Raana and Emad don’t have kids, they are good w/ this boy when they babysit him one evening.

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Emad (Shahab Hosseini) gets his makeup done before the play.

How does Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman relate to their lives? Sorry, I can’t answer that, b/c I haven’t read/seen that play yet. Farhadi said in an interview that the play is VERY popular in Iran, where modern audiences have embraced it.

The last twenty minutes of film are really breathtaking and the spectators associate with Emad more than anytime and I think they regularly ask themselves “if I were him, what would I do?”

-Excerpt from IMDB review

If you’re looking for suspense and tension, then wait until the last quarter of this film. There are intense moments, for sure! By then, Emad is VERY on edge, and getting close to becoming the villain in his own story. Maybe he’s NOT that far from the domineering, volatile, working-class man he played in A Separation? Raana, who has been in a fog of depression, is shocked when she sees his behavior. We wonder: What will happen w/ their marriage?