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With just two weeks before the opening of the always excellent Sacramento French Film Festival (SFFF), francophiles and quality film fans have two opportunities to warm up their love of French language cinema. Plus more pretty crap at the multiplex.
Opening today at the Crest Theatre, “Monsieur Lazhar” (which is co-presented by the SFFF) is a French-Canadian film that was Canada’s entry and nominee in the Best Foreign Language category at this year’s Academy Awards. With a quick glance at the poster, it’s easy to think it’s another one of those “inspiring teacher” movies but it’s actually quite different. The film opens as Martine, a troubled schoolteacher to a class of 11 and 12 year olds, has made the extraordinary decision to hang herself in her classroom. Despite locking the classroom door it seems obvious that the children will see her body and be affected by it, not least guilt-ridden Simon who returns early from recess to deliver cartons of milk and who is the first to discover what has happened.
Left in the lurch and with few people interested in stepping into the ill-fated classroom, the principal is approached suddenly by Monsieur Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who offers to teach the class. What only the audience is allowed to see is that Lazhar has also suffered recent profound losses, along with significant related complications. “Monsieur Lazhar” is a profound study of loss and coping as both young and old deal with mortality, helped by one wise-beyond-her-years little girl.
Meanwhile, across downtown at the Tower Theatre, another awards-season heavy hitter (with nine César Award nominations and one win) “The Intouchables” also opens today. Here we see a wealthy quadriplegic man, Philippe, screening job applicants for the position of his live-in personal care giver. The majority of those showing up are highly qualified but emotionally distant and talk about him as though he’s either not in the room or defined by his disability, or both. The exception is a young man from the projects who has only shown up to help qualify for unemployment benefits (he needs three rejections to prove he’s looking for work).
What unfolds from that point is a remarkable and often very funny story of friendship and trust, and the film is based on a true story (with brief images of the real men being shown during the end credits). At one point, Philippe is defending his choice of employee to an even snootier friend, who describes him as an ex-convict who will show him no pity. Philippe’s response is to point out that that’s why he chose him – precisely because he doesn’t want pity – and the film goes beyond being simply about the relationship itself, saying much about what it means to be so thoroughly dependent and limited after a lifetime of independence and disregard for one’s own health and potential frailty. Omar Sy won the César for his portrayal of Driss, the seemingly unlikely care giver.
In a different class of movie, today also marks the opening of “Snow White and the Hunstman,” the second of two recent re-tellings of the Snow White fable. First of all, it’s only fair to say that this one is far better on almost every level than “Mirror Mirror.” But that’s faint praise given the limbo-low bar.
The single best aspect of the new movie is that it looks beautiful through much of its running length. The cinematography is wonderful and many of the special effects blend in with a seemless, tangible substance. But, having said that, the list of positives is pretty much exhausted.
The story itself is muddled to the point of seeming at times to be a parody of a dozen other films at once. It’s fun to watch many of the individual scenes, but they don’t always flow together very well and, for example, at one point you get the distinct impression that Narnia’s Aslan is being played by Harry Potter’s Patronus against a backdrop from “Avatar.” And putting Kristen Stewart in the lead role and then giving her two hunky male suitors makes it hard not to draw “Twilight” comparisons (Team Huntsman!).
Here, the Huntsman is not sent to kill Snow White in the forest, but rather to find her and return her to the castle where the evil “Black Widow” stepmother (played by Charlize Theron in a performance that really needed a coat made of 101 Dalmation puppies) wants to suck the life out of her, literally. Which is typical of the loose interpretation of the traditional tale. But whether or not one cares about such things, it’s also hard to favor a telling in which both accents and talents are so inconsistent, with Snow White going from vulnerable prisoner (with perfectly plucked eyebrows after a decade in the tower) to armored Joan of Arc after a reluctant, one minute lesson in opportunistic stabbing. It’s like the impersonation went from Anne Hathaway to Milla Jovovich between scenes.
What both recent movies do in a particularly over the top manner, is to overthink their interpretations of the talking mirror. “Mirror Mirror” did this by having it be some kind of Tahitian timeshare portal to an advice-heavy aquatic cabin in another, inherently pointless dimension. “Snow White and the Huntsman” starts promisingly with a fairly simple looking polished shield, but then has it produce some kind of resident spirit that oozes out in liquidy gold drapery to stand in the room like an unformed but spendier model of an upgraded “Terminator.” These are classic ‘less is more’ moments that yielded ‘more is less’ outcomes.
And the little people are played by recognizable and not especially vertically challenged actors, made to look smaller onscreen – but at least they’re not the gymnastic, spring-loaded stilt wearers of “Mirror Mirror.”
So, for pretty but often unnecessarily effects-laden imagery and messy storytelling, go to your nearest multiplex. But for meaningful and well-acted character studies, with much to say about the human condition, go and read a movie at the Crest or the Tower. And mark your calendars for the SFFF, coming in two weeks time.