Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Potiche (Trophy Wife), Francois Ozon, France 2010

François Ozon can always be relied on to deliver first-rate entertainment. This also applies to his new film, Potiche.

In Potiche, Catherine Deneuve plays Suzanne Pujol, the bored trophy wife to Fabrice Lucchini's Robert Pujol, a chauvinist, small-minded, factory manager. A heart attack forces Robert Pujol to temporarily retire, prompting his wife to take over. Lo and behold, at the factory things are suddenly going smoothly again as Suzanne breathes new life into the factory which was founded by her father in the first place. Perhaps, it is no accident that the factory produces umbrellas, a reminiscence I'd suggest, to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, one of Deneuve's greatest triumphs - a triumph, it should be added, she repeats in her role as Suzanne Pujol.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this sounds all like a grave - and dated? - lesson in feminism. But don't worry. François Ozon set his film in the 1970s with all the usual ingredients, including bell bottoms and some hefty disco beats by Baccara. Moreover, Potiche is above all a comedy - a hilarious one at times - although behind its comic façade there are nevertheless a lesson or two Ozon wants us to pick up on.

For how many women can you name that are running a factory, bearing in mind that this is 2011 and not 1978 ... ...?

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932 - 2011

Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA 1959)

Some 20 years ago I came across John Parker's book, Five for Hollywood, in which Parker compares the lives and careers of five Hollywood stars who dominated Hollywood during the 1950s: Natalie Wood, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Montgomery Clift - and Elizabeth Taylor. The chapter on Taylor concludes Parker's book. It is entitled 'The Last Survivor'.

Today, the last survivor died in Los Angeles at the age of 79.

Considering what Elizabeth Taylor had gone through over the course of her life - e.g. over 30 major surgeries, including a brain tumour removal 14 years ago - I was confident that she would live up to 90. At least. She seemed invincible indeed. Like the proverbial rock in the surf.

The use of any kind of pathos at this stage would be cheap, nor would it do her justice. Hence, I deliberately refrain from saying that Taylor's death equals the death of an era for that era, Hollywood's Golden Age, already died a long time ago. But there surely can't be any doubt that she was the last true, bonafide, Hollywood star, with everything that term entails and connotes. And yet, I admired Taylor not so much for her films, although she does have a small handful of masterpieces to her credit, neither more nor less than do most other so-called Hollywood stars, but for Taylor's persona, her personality. For someone of her stature, she had the admirable - and possibly rare - trait of not taking herself too seriously. She had the ability to laugh at herself. Her wit was unmatched. My favourite Taylorism goes: "If people say they don't have any vices you can be sure they have some pretty annoying virtues", or something to that effect.

And it fits Taylor's unique personality to have stood up for the likes of Rock Hudson, when he was stricken with AIDS, when very few others were prepared to do so. It came naturally to Taylor. After all, she had done the same some thirty years earlier for her friend Montgomery Clift when she fought on his behalf when producers were already reluctant to cast him on account of his alcoholism.

The fabulous Elizabeth Taylor, such as she was in the early 1970s

It didn't matter that she hadn't made any films in at least 15 years, anything Taylor did or said was still considered newsworthy. In fact, if there's one reproach I have on her, it is that she wasted her considerable talent and didn't make more (good) films. Taylor's active career in films more or less ended when she was only in her forties. I wondered sometimes, if it was for a lack of parts or if she simply didn't want to. She certainly didn't need to, for she was one of the wealthiest actresses ever to come out of Hollywood. And not just because of the diamonds Richard Burton so lavishly bestowed on her. She was the first actress - or actor, for that matter - to command the princely salary of $1,000,000. It was unheard of at the time, and the story goes that Taylor asked for it just by sheer audacity, simply to annoy the producers and, in fact, never expected to actually get it. But she did!

For all of the above I confess that Taylor's death touched me more than a death by an actor or actress whom I never even met usually does.

Elizabeth Taylor was more than just a movie star. Much more. She was the icon of an era, who, in her prime, lived life to the full. Her name is synonymous with glamour, beauty and excess. But reducing her to that would be unfair. For Elizabeth Taylor also stands for unbridled passion. Besides, Taylor wouldn't be the same without her wit, her sharp mind, which many weren't aware of since the glitter of her diamonds often threatened to outshine her intelligence.

Elizabeth Taylor truly was in a league of her own.

Her departure leaves an irreplaceable gap in more sense than just one. She'll be greatly missed.

Elizabeth Taylor after her brain tumour removal in 1997, in a photo taken by the late Herb Ritts

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Wer wenn nicht wir (If Not Us, Who), Andres Veiel, Germany 2011

Expectations had been high for Veiel's much anticipated Red Army Faction drama. Veiel's aim was, to tell the "previously untold story of what went on before Gudrun Ensslin took to violence" as a last resort against the state in which she seemed to detect more than just a few remnants of fascism. Yet, from the first I was struck by Veiel's claim of Ensslin's story having never been told. In fact, in what surely was one of the few high points of post-war German cinema, in Die bleierne Zeit (English title: Marianne and Juliane), Margarethe von Trotta does exactly that. Granted, she changed the names of her two female protagonists to Marianne and Juliane - hence the English title - and she may have taken some liberties here and there regarding Ensslin's biography, but in her film she told the exact same story, at least, as far as the basics are concerned. More than that, unlike Veiel's film, von Trotta's transcends the borders of a mere biopic, allowing for some glimpses, not only into Ensslin's psyche, but into the German psyche as a whole. The scene even, in which in Veiel's film Lauzemis is seen attending a screening of a French film, struck me as a direct reference to Marianne and Juliane. Only that in the latter von Trotta has the two sisters watching Alain Resnais' Nuit et Brouillards, which was one of the first documentaries about the Holocaust. Similarly to Veiel, von Trotta already linked the founding of the RAF to the crimes of the Nazis. Even if the crime consisted merely in turning a blind eye, as was the case with Ensslin's father rather than active collaboration.

While this may seem unduly harsh on Veiel, his film does have its merits, if not surprises. But they have more to do with Ensslin's boyfriend, Bernward Vesper, rather than Ensslin herself. I'd even go so far as to call Veiel's film more a film about Vesper than about Ensslin. But that may be because ever since her death she's dominated the German media by varying degrees whilst Vesper virtually disappeared into oblivion, which is why Veiel's film amounts to a rediscovery of Vesper and his work, notably Die Reise (The Journey). He certainly was a fascinating character. Fascinating, because he defies easy labelling. Unlike Ensslin's, Vesper's father, Will, was an admirer of Hitler, a heritage which Bernward Vesper struggled with for the remainder of his short life. While watching Veiel's film, I couldn't quite shed the impression that Veiel himself seems to have become increasingly engrossed by this torn and tormented figure, which may explain why - to me at least - the focus in If Not Us, Who seems to shift from Ensslin to Vesper as the story unfolds. Certainly, his is the more intriguing story, but not only because Vesper has almost completely disappeared from the radar screen of German history. More interesting, however, is the fact that due to his family background, Vesper's biography isn't as straight forward as Ensslin's. Although needless to say, he condemned the crimes of Hitler and Nazi Germany just like Ensslin, passing judgement on his father and his generation didn't come as easy to Vesper as it did to Ensslin. Nor did he he believe in violence as a means to fight society.

It is this, this grey zone in which Vesper moved which makes him a remarkable, fascinating, figure and uncovering it is the true achievement of Veiel's film.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Almanya, Yasemin & Nesrin Samdereli, Germany 2011

"Islam is part of Germany, and I am the President of all Germans, Muslims included", thus spoke German President Christian Wulff in his speech to commemorate the 20th anniversary of German reunification last October. Though long overdue, Wulff's words were greeted by a collective sigh of relief by the country's well-nigh 5 million Muslims. However, in a climate where much of Europe is gripped by Islamophobia, Wulff's speech was not equally welcomed by all parts of German society. To underline his point of view, Wulff made it a point to attend the world premiere of Almanya along with his wife Bettina. Not exactly known to be a cineaste, his appearance was therefore rightly read as a (political) statement, and again, one that didn't come a minute too soon.

The team of Almanya at the film's world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival three weeks ago. On the right is German President Christian Wulff and his wife Bettina.

Not dissimilar to Wulff, Almanya, too, can be seen as political statement, or rather, an outstretched hand by Germany's Turkish community whose relationship with its host country - which has long become home to many - has been a choppy one, to put it mildly. Almanya is worth seeing for a whole number of reasons. Not only does it offer those Germans whose contact with their Turkish neighbours have been, shall we say, infrequent, a rare glimpse into the world of Germany's primary immigrant community. By so doing, the film makes clear that the lives of the Turkish family next door isn't that different from their own. Almanya shows how - usually - unfounded prejudices on both sides have characterised, if not marred, the relationship between Germans and Turks from the first. What's more, more Turks have made ample efforts to assimilate, including partaking in annual Christmas celebrations and so forth, than one is led to believe by reading the daily press.

What else is new?, you might understandably ask, but bearing in mind that misconceptions about Islam have reached fever pitch, never mind that most of it is based on ignorance, Almanya is a crucial contribution regarding the understanding between both, Germans and Turks. I realise as I'm writing this that this sounds like a text written by a human rights activist some 50 years ago. And yet, such is the debate and the anti-Muslim sentiment here in Europe that a film such as Almanya comes as much needed comic relief, not to mention that its educational role cannot be overestimated as it shows, for instance, that religion plays as little a role in the average Turkish family as it does in its German counterpart. But for all its merit and good intentions, Almanya's messages are easy to digest since they come with a twinkle in the eye rather than wrapped in bitterness or with a wagging finger.

Given its very positive reception at the Berlin Film Festival, the film's nominations for the German Film Awards, not to mention the considerable editorial coverage Almanya has received in the German media, I sincerely hope that the film will be seen by a multitude of people as it's not only interesting and often hilariously funny, but also beautiful to look at and highly entertaining.

Yasemin and Nesrin Samdereli, the writer-directors of Almanya

Friday, 4 March 2011

Unknown, Jaume Collet-Serra, Germany/ France/ UK 2011

As a Berlin resident, I awaited the opening of Collet-Serra's film with high anticipation. Tickets for its world premiere during the Berlin Film Festival two weeks were sold out within minutes. Finally, yesterday Unknown opened nation-wide across Germany, one week after its US release, whose more than respectable box-office figures exceeded all expectations while it sent my own soaring. But to come straight to the point, these were in no way met. In fact, Unknown disappointed on almost every level. Notably the screenplay and the dialogues were completely lacking in logic and imagination as every opportunity to add some much needed suspense was wasted. For the basic plot-line of Unknown is not without promise. Quite the opposite. A skilled screenwriter may have turned this story of a scientist whose identity gets stolen into a tightly woven psycho-thriller a la Hitchcock, full of suspense and nerve-racking story-twists. As it is, the nerve-racking parts were entirely left to the special effects department which, along with the cinematographer, injected the film with some much needed drama. Though these skilfully staged car races through Berlin are of limited consequence for the film's narrative and come across disjointed as their sole function seems to be to fill the voids in between.

The biggest disappointment to me, though, is how little the screenwriter and the director made of the location, the city of Berlin, whose many mysterious, eerie and iconic places, areas and buildings are pregnant with possibilities and would have lent themselves perfectly for this kind of film. Instead, they opted for locations which did little to further the plot and which bear nor surprises for the viewer. Worse yet, in the - it seems mandatory club scene (the film is, after all, set in Berlin!) - instead of using, for instance, the fabulous BergHain club as a set, the scene takes place in an interchangeable location which, for all we know, could be anywhere in the world.

Which brings me to the next point. Berlin is full of DJ's from all over the world who work in the city's many clubs. And if there's one thing today's Berlin is most famous for - besides its art scene - it's the music. So why didn't it occur to Collet-Serra to use a more inspired, less overused, tune than Blue Monday? The result being that the club scene, too, offered plenty of opportunities to lift his film above the ordinary, but Collet-Serra wasted it yet again.

On the bottom-line, the only reason that kept me from leaving the cinema were Sebastian Koch, Bruno Ganz and especially Diane Kruger, who gets better with every film. Playing an illegal immigrant, Diane Kruger excels at assuming a Bosnian accent and she has a presence which a few years ago I would have never thought was in her.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Pina, Wim Wenders, Germany/ France 2011

Wim Wenders' homage to the late German choreographer Pina Bausch is nothing short of a masterpiece. Calling it a documentary is not quite doing it justice. It really is an homage to her life, her work, her vision. Focussing on a small number of her choreographies - Cafe Mueller, Kontakthof, Sacre du Printemps and Vollmond among them - Wenders takes Pina's creations out of the theatre and into and around the city Pina was born in and which she loved - Wuppertal. The dance sequences alternate with statements from some of her dancers who come from all around the world. In short comments and observations they talk about their collaboration with Pina Bausch, her influence on them, and Pina's own particular way of inspiring them.

In several interviews Wenders gave in the last few weeks, he has stated that he'd long pondered over how to tackle the difficult task of adequately capturing dance on film - until it came to him that the new developments in 3D technology would be able to do justice to Pina's work and legacy. And having seen his film twice, I couldn't agree more with Wenders. Never before has dance on film looked so beautiful, so mesmerising, and so evocative. Pina is highly recommended and highly addictive viewing!

Pina's world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival was attended by the German chancellor Angela Merkel as well as by the German president, Christian Wulff. Neither of them are film aficionados in any way. However, this goes to show to what extent Pina Bausch and her creations have become an integral and crucial part of German culture and identity.

See a trailer of Pina here: