Francofonia (2016; Dir.: Alexander Sokurov)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opening tomorrow at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
Another meta-documentary about a famous museum from Russian Ark director Alexander Sokurov, and seemingly starring the same faceless narrator, but Francofonia is less of a swooning and immersive cinematic experience than a free-range, multi-media essay about the survival of art and culture in an inherently destructive world. Russian Ark focused on the Hermitage Museum in Sokurov’s Russian homeland, and Francofonia concerns the Louvre in Paris, a 12th-century fortress that became the world’s greatest treasure chest of war spoils. A docu-narrative discombobulation of historic footage, new footage, reenactments, photographs, pixellated Skype sessions and drone shots, Francofonia is just too punishingly cerebral and preciously meta-textual to fully embrace (we see a clapper, we hear a director’s voice, we get it…I can appreciate the artificiality of narrative constructs at home, you know), but there’s also too much going on in Sokurov’s head to ignore his tenuously connected ravings. Sokurov seems especially interested in the strangely overlapping agendas of art preservationists and conquerors – the ghost of Napoleon wanders the Louvre halls at night, at one point grabbing the camera-eye by the hand towards his own portrait – and the film lingers longest on the curious collaboration between a French civil servant and a Nazi aristocrat that kept many great works of art away from Hitler’s mitts. If nothing else, Francofonia is some unusual-ass shit, a singular vision in a world of bland homogenization. I just wish I liked it a little more.
Louder than Bombs (2016; Dir.: Joachim Trier)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opening Friday at the Landmark Clay in San Francisco, the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
Denmark-born, Norway-based filmmaker Joachim Trier scored a critical hit in 2012 with the dark-night-of-the-soul drama Oslo August 31st. That somewhat overpraised film followed a recovering junkie descending back into addiction over the course of a long night. The more properly praised Louder than Bombs is Trier’s long-awaited follow-up and English-language debut, and while it’s just as ineffable and mopey as its predecessor, the structures and themes fall more in line with dime-a-dozen American suburban angst dramas. A true ensemble piece, Louder than Bombs features Jesse Eisenberg, Gabriel Byrne and Devin Druid as the surviving family members of Isabelle Huppert’s free-spirit photojournalist, a woman whose suicide continues to haunt them all. Every one of them is burning to tell their story (even the dead woman), to reshape their lives into something they can live with, while also struggling to keep their true selves hidden. Trier allows memory and memoir to waft together like curls of smoke, and while it’s all quite beautifully constructed and well-acted, it also wallows in the same wishy-washy style and casual exploitation as Oslo August 31st. Of course, I could never completely write off any film that re-purposes the 1987 Shelley Long comedy Hello Again into its characters’ universe, but otherwise Louder than Bombs is a humorless drag, not much more than tony, buttoned-up misery porn.
Fireworks Wednesday (2006; Dir.: Asghar Farhadi)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco at the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
After the overwhelming acclaim of A Separation and a mini-crossover with The Past, the un-imported early films of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi have started trickling into American arthouses. His excellent 2009 film About Elly was released stateside last year, and now his 2006 drama Fireworks Wednesday is getting a brief Bay Area run. Compared to his later works, the production values in Fireworks Wednesday are positively primitive, close to a glorified student film in the use of simple sets, so-so actors and stock sound effects. And yet the maturity of the mise-en-scene and the quiet confidence of the storytelling indicate a major talent, one that would flower in later and better films. The story is simple but still a bit bloated – on the eve of her wedding, a cleaning woman gets trapped in the middle of a wealthier couple’s domestic dispute, held out all night as the suspicious wife and bellowing husband play out a bourgeois drama. It all takes place on the fireworks-heavy celebration that precedes the Iranian New Year, and the constant sound of explosions on the soundtrack makes for a brilliant (if on-the-nose) commentary on the narrative. There are some slow passages but also some stunning sequences, such as a shot of a violent street scene taken from a moving glass elevator, and it’s interesting to see Farhadi work out his thematic obsessions (e.g., the limited options for women in Iranian society, and the ways that bureaucratic systems rub off on their subjects) in an early and semi-formed effort.
April and the Extraordinary World (2016; Dir.: Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci)
By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing at the Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Pure enjoyment, but then I’ve always been in the bag for humanist sci-fi, lizards wearing robot armor, unusual and meticulous production design, and adventure stories where one of the heroes is a brainy woman and the other is a talking cat. A cheeky but emotionally mature vision of a retro-future past where Napoleonic rule continued into the 20th century, but a string of unsolved kidnappings of famous scientists kept the world stuck in the steam and coal age, April and the Extraordinary World feels utterly fresh and genuine compared to a please-all-masters appeaser like Disney’s Zootopia. Married scientists Paul and Annette are working to create a serum of invincibility and immortality when they’re captured by a mysterious force and presumed dead. Years later, their determined daughter works in secret to recreate the serum, aided only by her self-aware feline Darwin, but pursued by the same forces that took her parents. Marion Cotillard voices April/Avril in the French-language version that I screened, and other voice actors in that cast include the legendary Jean Rochefort and Dardenne brothers favorite Olivier Gourmet (meanwhile, Paul Giamatti, Susan Sarandon and J.K. Simmons contribute to the English-dubbed version). It’s part steampunk whimsy, part Lost-like mystical conspiracy, part science vs. nature philosophical discourse, part slapstick-laden intellectual hero’s journey, but all respect-yourself-in-the-morning animated fun.
My Golden Days (2016; Dir.: Arnaud Desplechin)
By Daniel Barnes
*Now playing at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
A somewhat embarrassing admission: My Golden Days is my first Desplechin film, so I’m no position to judge whether it’s a good, bad or mediocre version of the French auteur’s work. I just know that I loved its strange magic – a multi-planed memoir with a fleeting interest in genres, My Golden Days follows mercurial French ex-pat Paul (Mathieu Amalric) as he returns to his home country for the first time in a decade, setting off a series of nesting doll remembrances and counterpointing narrative framing devices. There is such an enrapturing stylistic mix of the theatrical and the familiar, as well as an effectively fluid use of contradictory musical moods on the soundtrack, you can tell that Desplechin was a major influence on the controlled chaos of John Magary’s The Mend, and possibly on the embittered romanticism of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. After going down a few seemingly blind alleys, the story finally settles on Paul’s teenage years with the aloof and depressive blonde beauty who got away. The details of the story aren’t particularly compelling, but Desplechin’s telling casts a spell that’s curiously thrilling, as the film seems to be constantly reinventing itself as it goes, mutating and evolving like an unpleasant memory.