Film & TV

Two New Candid French Films Make an Art of Introspection

Sandrine Bonnaire in Catch the Wind (Les Films du Losange)
Catch the Wind & Let the Sunshine In remind viewers what complex characters look like.

Now that Oscar season and its accompanying media promotion are over, filmgoers who finally catch up with the award-hyped movies are complaining about what they discover: Film by film, whether The Last Jedi, Call Me by Your Name, The Post, Three Billboards, or The Shape of Water, movie lovers are ultimately disappointed that the media industry seems to work against genuine emotional response and credible social experience. But two new movies, Gaël Morel’s Catch the Wind (Prendre le large) and Claire Denis’s Let the Sunshine In, go against this dire development. Both films, being about intensely personal experiences, encourage intensely personal responses.

In Catch the Wind, Sandrine Bonnaire plays Édith, a middle-aged French woman laid off from her textile-factory job who decides to relocate to the company’s offshore, low-wage facility in Morocco. In Let the Sunshine In, Juliette Binoche portrays Isabelle, a Parisian artist who in middle age, after motherhood and a divorce, cannot find fulfillment. These women personify a recognizable, perhaps global, Millennial discontent. In Hollywood, their circumstances would probably be reduced to politically correct martyrdom, providing some insufferable harridan or victim role for Frances McDormand, Cate Blanchett, or the interchangeable Brie Larson, Elizabeth Olsen, and Emma Stone. But Bonnaire and Binochet are both startling in roles that vivify complex personalities. These female characters don’t make excuses for themselves.

The balance of eroticism and consciousness is breathtaking — part of French cinema’s great gift to world cinema.

The difference is cultural but also political. American liberals never employ self-examination, which is also a major fault of contemporary Hollywood films — especially those that aspire to social consciousness, usually through characters who perceive injustice or are positioned to save lives or fight for self-righteous causes. But, thank God, French filmmakers are all about introspection. The Morel and Denis movies are fulfilling and riveting in the way they ask viewers to stand up to the challenge of self-examination. They call for empathy and catharsis, the ultimate art experience that Hollywood has recently forgotten.

Édith’s “redeployment” applies the term usually associated with military assignment to a personal, domestic situation—a switch that proves Morel’s ingenuity. As a protégé of André Téchiné (Morel starred in Téchiné’s 1985 masterpiece Wild Reeds), he makes films that show a similar style, flipping expectation, slyly inflecting social situations with sexual temperament. The balance of eroticism and consciousness is breathtaking — part of French cinema’s great gift to world cinema. Édith walking through sun-baked Tangiers — a blonde, white woman without hijab — is such a brazen image that along with conveying her own mad riskiness, it creates echoes that go beyond cross-cultural banality. There’s Marlene Dietrich in Von Sternberg’s Morocco, Visconti’s film of Camus’s The Stranger, and Bonnaire herself — 30 years earlier, in Téchiné’s Les Innocents, she was the center of a multiracial romantic triangle that gave France’s lingering Algerian problem the moral outline of a Greek tragedy.

Bonnaire’s Édith personifies all the stress of age-old colonialism. This virtual sequel to Téchiné’s film enacts those emotional conflicts as a national commonplace, which means Morel doesn’t have to deal with the modern guilt of the banlieues; his story’s overseas transition updates post-colonial consciousness beyond typical European socialist attitudes. (“You’re annoyed that I don’t buy all your ‘United We Stand’ crap!” Édith snaps at a French union organizer.) Édith’s “sacrifice,” partly in response to an estranged relationship with her gay son (Ilian Bergala), makes her personal politics as queer as an alienated child is to its parent. In this complex, stressed yet yielding, characterization, Bonnaire’s youth is pared away, now she’s more clearly sensitive, deeper. In contrast to Frances McDormand’s rigid, vengeful mother in Three Billboards, Édith’s perseverance and graceful acceptance of life’s difficulties light up her face.

In Morocco, Édith befriends a divorced hotelier, Mina (Mouna Fettou), whose own son, Ali (Kamal El Amri), smiles and brings Édith out of her isolation. This is the highest form of human connection (beyond the phony Negro–Mexican sisterhood of The Shape of Water). The effect is spiritually redemptive. Morel brings back the beauty of Les Innocents. Catch the Wind, showing at the French Film Institute May 1, is not to be missed.

***

Juliette Binoche in Let the Sunshine In

Isabelle’s postcoital complaint, “It’s never all at once,” shows that Claire Denis’s usual knack for fashionable sentiment and cynicism is not strictly political. The Denis–Binoche collaboration on Let the Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur) dramatizes dissatisfaction as a spreading social condition. This crisis is boldly physicalized in Isabelle’s short, tight leather skirts and heaving freckled cleavage, her constant short temper, and her promiscuity.

Each scene shows Isabelle in conflict — with a boorish married man (Xavier Beauvois), her ex-husband (Laurent Grevill), a group of art-world friends, and mostly with herself. These rude, selfish quarrels depict the everyday contradictions that now seem to have determined the end point of Western civility. The Denis-Binoche team’s emphasis on middle-aged flesh includes a brief liaison in which Isabelle meets her match: a vain, no-longer-young actor (Nicolas Duvauchelle) whose poignant declaration “I’m alienated” beats her to the bad-date punchline.

But Isabelle’s later comeback, “Don’t listen to what I say,” reveals her own exasperation. She tries losing herself in the exotic escapism of Etta James records, but even that turns hostile. Not since Marie Rivière’s hauntingly lifelike dissatisfaction in Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray (Le rayon vert) has any film heroine been so relentlessly at odds with the world. In this absolutely non-erotic film, Denis and Binoche give petulance a graver dimension that even most news commentators would dare impute to the political world’s most tireless complainer. Is it out of politeness or just another liberal refusal of self-examination?

Most new films continue to be sold in ways that are false to your need for entertainment, typically by promoting an obvious, even specious, political message. (Naïve reviewers call this appreciating a film “on its own terms.”) But Denis and Binoche might have created a feel-good-about-feeling-bad hit by daring contemporary moviegoers to face up to inner conflicts, the actual, socially destructive meaning of their “resistance.” The folly of this movement is exposed when Isabelle rejects all the nostrums of civility — especially after a bourgeois country retreat that collapses into a renunciation of Jean Renoir’s classic Rules of the Game (Le règle de jeu). Isabelle turns to mysticism and consults a clairvoyant. It’s a comically predictable liberal-agnostic impulse.

Since Denis has never been a filmmaker to indulge superstition, it’s a pleasant shock to see Gérard Depardieu playing this conman, who hides his own sexual dysfunction from his client, with pure movie-star aplomb. Advising Isabelle to seek the “big beautiful sun” inside herself, Depardieu is a sturdier, meatier, hilarious embodiment of this era’s weary self-deception.

***

Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams in Disobedience

The entire meaning of Disobedience is in its title. The movie itself features stick figures that make a progressive’s point about sexual freedom: Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams portray renegades from their London Orthodox Jewish upbringing who act on their lesbian impulses. Weisz is a grand rebbe’s daughter, and McAdams is married to a young rabbi (Alessandro Nivola) who is slated to lead the congregation. Weisz’s dark eyebrows and wildly flowing hair suggest an ethnic succubus while the bewigged McAdams appears calculating and deceitful, but the two Rachels seem miscast as aggressive vs. submissive types. Their caper deserves Brian De Palma’s naughty humor rather than director Sebastián Lelio’s solemn interest in the licentious pleasures of “free will” (literally swapping spit during the showcase sex scene) over being godly. This sexual propaganda is more about message than emotion.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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