Staying Vertical (2017; Dir.: Alain Guiraudie)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, March 3, at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
Alain Guiraudie’s self-contained, cryptic, borderline pornographic, Hitchcock-goes-homoerotic Stranger by the Lake was a jaw-dropping breakthrough in 2013/2014, but it was actually the sixth feature film for the 52 year-old French writer-director. Staying Vertical is his highly anticipated follow-up (it premiered last summer at Cannes), and anyone bothered by the elliptical nature of Stranger by the Lake will be driven mad by this strange and inscrutable squirm. A fractured and scowling narrative that alternates pitiless darkness with the elements of a rollicking comedy, Staying Vertical follows Léo (Damien Bonnard), a drifting screenwriter dodging his obligations in the French countryside. Léo shacks up with and impregnates a sheep-herding single mother, but when he can’t commit to a life together, she abandons him with the baby and her disturbed father. Guiraudie frequently abandons the audience in the story – we drift in and out of the narrative just as Léo drifts in and out of people’s lives – but for all of the film’s self-infatuated drifting, it also offers no shortage of deeply disturbing show-stopper sequences, peaking with a scene in which Léo tenderly sodomizes an old man to death while prog rock blasts in the background. That’s not something you simply watch and forget.
My Life as a Zucchini (2017; Dir.: Claude Barras)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, March 3, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Spoiler alert: this film is not about a little boy who transforms into a zucchini. That goofball title and the Pop Art-meets-Cubist character designs do nothing to prepare you for this relatively realistic and fairly dark portrait of abused and abandoned children. Director and co-writer Barras adapts a 2002 novel from French writer Gilles Paris into a stop-motion animated coming-of-age dramedy. It’s an interesting choice of format for the adaptation, given the subject matter – a boy accidentally kills his alcoholic mother and gets sent to a rural orphanage, where he feuds and bonds with his damaged housemates, and is frequently visited by a kindly policeman – and the movie possesses a naturalistic tone, style, sound and pace quite unlike anything else in the current world of animated film. But that sore thumb status doesn’t always work in the film’s favor – as much as My Life as a Zucchini is French-in-a-good-way (intelligent, searching, free from repression), it’s also pretty French-in-a-bad-way (formless, meandering, pitiless yet sentimental). Animation aficionados need to ingest this thing post haste; all others, tread lightly.
Evolution (2016; Dir.: Lucile Hadzihalilovic)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
An unusual, fairly original entry into the horror genre, blending together Lost-style intrigue, Cronenberg-ian body horror and European neo-miserable disaffection. Unfortunately, despite a truly disturbing core and some nightmarish moments, I often felt disconnected from and unmoved by French director Hadzihalilovic’s icy approach and occasionally indifferent style. Even though the first significant plot reveal comes less than fifteen minutes into the film, Evolution is fairly impossible to write about without digging into spoilers, if only because the entire story could be described from start to finish in a couple of well-worded sentences. I’ll ladle out this much soup: it’s set on a remote island run by fish-faced women who dote on their sons with a little too much intensity. And I’ve said too much already! Bizarre and singular enough to maintain your interest, with some potent images and icky ideas, but the film’s long, terse tease proves equally enticing and frustrating.
Being 17 (2016; Dir.: André Téchiné)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, October 27, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
Pampered, white, tentatively out teen Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein, who also starred in the MVFF39 offering Keeper) gets driven to school in a minivan by his beautiful and compassionate doctor mother. Taciturn, black, deeply closeted adopted teen Thomas (Corentin Fila) trudges ninety minutes over a snowy mountain just to make it to class on time. Mutual outcasts and inexplicable enemies at school, the dizzily hormonal boys literally can’t decide whether to fight or fuck each other, a situation exacerbated when Thomas goes to live at Damien’s house. An unexpected pregnancy sets the plot in motion, so instead of three acts, Téchiné divides the story into three trimesters, and while the artificial constructs only pile on from there, very little about the film feels false – Téchiné totally captures the blinding insanity, curiosity and self-doubt of, well…shit…of being 17 years old. As a seemingly self-referential joke about the film’s crushingly literal black-white dichotomy, Thomas at one point admonishes Damien on his use of “heavyhanded” symbolism, but it’s the more outwardly artificial first two trimesters that work the best, while the emotionally sincere final third of Being 17 is a bit of a poorly paced drag. The purity of the performances and Téchiné’s low-key visual intensity are still enough to earn the Bump.
Elevator to the Gallows (1958; Dir.: Louis Malle)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, September 9, at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
This punchy debut feature from French New Wave satellite Louis Malle recently received a 2K digital restoration and a restored soundtrack, all the better to admire the documentary-style depiction of Paris nightlife and the electrifying jazz score by Miles Davis. Lovers Florence and Julien (Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet) plot the perfect murder, but when Julien returns to the scene of the crime to fix a crucial mistake, he gets trapped between floors in a high-rise elevator, leaving a distraught Florence to ponder his whereabouts. From there, the narrative splits into three threads, alternating between Julien’s precarious situation in the elevator, Florence wandering the streets and seedy bars of Paris like a zombie, and a young couple who kick off a crimewave by boosting Julien’s car. The narratives re-intersect in a way that makes Elevator to the Gallows feel like a direct influence on twisty 1990’s indie crime movies, but the film’s finest quality is a very Malle-ian interest in physical environments and clashing cultures. It’s compelling but a little gangly, very much a first film, with a few head-scratching plot holes (whatever happened to that dangling rope, anyway?), but those complaints seem insignificant in the glare of the Paris lights, the flare in Jeanne Moreau’s eyes and the blare of Miles Davis’ trumpet.
Phantom Boy (2016; Dir.: Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley.
The New York-based independent distributor GKIDS is becoming as important an imprimatur of quality animated cinema as Pixar or Laika. Specializing in importing the best in hand-drawn foreign fare, GKIDS has racked up eight Best Animated Feature Oscar nominations in less than a decade, and in the last few years alone they released such enchanting and challenging movies as Ernest & Celestine, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Song of the Sea, When Marnie Was There, Boy & the World, and this year’s April and the Extraordinary World. Their latest film is Phantom Boy, directed by the same French team that made the Oscar-nominated GKIDS import A Cat in Paris, and it’s as charming and inventive yet modest and unpretentious as most of the films that carry the GKIDS label. Phantom Boy weaves together comic book, film noir and supernatural sci-fi tropes into a sensitive (but not lugubrious) story of a young chemotherapy patient discovering new powers while his mortal body wastes away. As a phantom, the boy can travel anywhere he chooses, teaming up in the hospital with an injured cop to bring down a disfigured supervillain who tries in vain to reveal his origin story. There’s just barely enough film here to make it to feature length, even with a silly finale that involves guessing a computer password while a clock ticks down, but there’s a nice balance between genre homage/send-up and a genuinely eerie and affecting story of death and disease, with a vision of New York City so loving and romantic that it could only come from a foreign visitor.