Marguerite (2016; Dir.: Xavier Giannoli)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens tomorrow at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco, the Albany Twin in Berkeley, the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, the Camera 3 in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.
A major award winner at this year’s Cesars (i.e., French Oscars), so apparently that voting body is also old and white. Marguerite stars the wonderful Catherine Frot as Marguerite Dumont, a wealthy 1920s socialite who fancies herself a great opera diva, despite her nails-on-the-chalkboard singing voice. Her patronage of a snobby music club has purchased Marguerite a captive private audience, but when her party is crashed by an unscrupulous critic (“Is there any other kind?” he laughed, washing his underarms and crotch with wads of payola), the dizzily unaware siren is led onto the public stage. Writer-director Xavier Giannoli mines a wealth of material from a one-joke premise, and the amazing accomplishment of Frot’s performance is that we both laugh at and pity Marguerite, and regard her celebrity as both a travesty and a tragedy. The film touches on ideas of image and public perception and the creative spirit, and it seems especially concerned with the ways that we indulge the filthy rich, either by compulsion or desperation (I thought a lot about billionaire James Dolan’s boomer rock band while watching Marguerite), although it ultimately settles for something a little more tranquil and trite. Inspired by the American socialite/incompetent opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins, the character of Marguerite is too much of an easy joke to fill the entire film, and a lot of the most interesting stuff occurs on the margins, including the strange journey of her somewhat faithful servant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), who serves as Marguerite’s protector, abettor, silent director and secret exploiter.
Mountains May Depart (2016; Dir.: Jia Zhangke)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at the Roxie Theater and the 4 Star Theater in San Francisco, the Albany Twin in Albany and the Lark Theater in Larkspur.
An alternately rapturous and ponderous story of Chinese tradition resisting the eraser of progress, Mountains May Depart stars Zhangke muse (and wife) Tao Zhao as Tao, a small-town girl whose flirtation with a “true capitalist” and rejection of a blue-collar worker mirrors her country’s culture-redefining economic fortunes. With her red pea coat and blithe sense of collectivism, even when she’s the focal point of a love triangle, Tao is an easy avatar for the apple-cheeked enthusiasm of the new China, and the film practically bursts with on-the-nose symbolism. For example, the rich suitor’s cherry-red German sports car serves as a counterpoint to the red pea coat, signifying a new era of consumption and loss. The filmmaking here is far more restrained than in Zhangke’s previous effort A Touch of Sin – there are only a few of the deceptively simple, swivel-against-the-motion long takes that dominated that film – but the storytelling in Mountains May Depart is just as forceful and bold. After a first act that turns out to be a 47-minute prologue, the film leaps forward to 2014 to cover Tao’s strained relationship with her namby-pamby son Dollar, and then follows the boy into a vapid, culture-less Australian near-future. Zhangke makes exciting and unusual decisions within a rigidly symbolic schematic (there’s a lot more Pet Shop Boys than you probably expect), and Tao Zhao does stunning work, but the other performances are a little more scattershot, especially the actor who plays her college-age son in the final movement. But it’s still a compelling and insightful and humane parable of the Chinese economy and traditions, past, present and future.