By the Sea (2015)

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I have major typewriter envy. Why do I say this? A few weeks ago I missed out on a vintage red Italian one in an online auction, much  to my dismay. It’s very like one that Brad Pitt has in this film, a work of fetish objects, looking, voyeurism, sex and surfaces. We could be crass and strike through the star texts and just say, Brangelina made a Seventies French art house porno:  go figure.  But no matter how meta you want to make it, as a confrontational post-honeymoon disaster flick, it’s not Boom! A more elegant discussion hinges on the individual sequences: the first seventy minutes when their marriage is dissected in fragments:  the arrival at the seaside hotel of this couple married for 14 years;  Roland’s a writer,  Vanessa used to be a dancer; her reliance on pills and the hole in the wall through which she observes a newly married couple having sex in the room next door;  his daily trips to the bar and his conversations with widowed proprietor Nils Arestrup (in French), looking for a subject, drowning his sorrows while he remains blocked – in all senses. It’s opaque and inexact and a gloss on a marriage gone stale enduring its own particular troubles which are only suggested by Vanessa’s refusal to have sex with him. Then she appears to be pushing him to have sex with the newlywed woman next door. Then the twenty-minute sequence when he joins in with her voyeurism and they get the young couple, Melvil Poupaud and Melanie Laurent, liquored up and he concludes they’re miserable too as they observe them together again, through that hole in the wall. Now it’s more than sexual stimulation: Roland is trying to control the images too, in an effort to redirect his marital narrative. It’s very well directed and much better written than anything else Jolie has made so far:   every shot is framed with great care and her own skeletal shape frequently dictates how we look at the story, ironically it’s her own performance that’s perhaps not as impressive as you might expect. Then, the last twenty minutes. What happens when Vanessa enters the drama being staged next door and Roland finds himself looking at her, being disrobed, is what triggers revelations and a change in storytelling. Roland was looking for a subject, Vanessa couldn’t endure seeing a successful young marriage. We learn what happened three years ago. Roland writes again. The cinematography by Christian Berger is beautiful, bathing each image in gorgeous natural light. The soundtrack is to die for, with Jane Birkin crooning Jane B in a broad song selection dominated by her own other half, Serge Gainsbourg, that agent provocateur par excellence, with other choice Seventies chansons dimpling the pictures at opportune moments. What am I going to do now? Watch it all over again. It’s that fascinating. Then I’ve got to find my Lina Wertmuller collection. And a new-old typewriter.

 

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A Bigger Splash (2015)

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Four of the most beautiful people on the planet spend a few days together at a villa and one morning one of them is found floating on the surface of the swimming pool. Alain Page (writing as Jean-Emmanuel Conil) wrote the story La Piscine and Jacques Deray filmed it in 1969. It starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin. All these years later Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino decided to remake it in a different setting (using David Hockney’s famous title), a volcanic Italian island where rock singer Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is recuperating from throat surgery with her documentary maker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenarts).  She isn’t speaking to protect her voice, he’s not drinking because, as we learn, he was in rehab following a suicide attempt. Old friend, Marianne’s producer ex Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrives with a young American girl Penelope (Dakota Johnson) who’s apparently the daughter he discovered he had just last year. Tensions unfurl among the foursome and the complexities of Harry and Marianne’s previous relationship unravel as the heat pulses, Harry’s larger than life personality unsettles everyone and we wonder just what is going on: is jailbait Penelope really Harry’s daughter? Just look at Swinton’s reaction when Harry says to Penelope ‘You’re the best thing that ever happened to me!’ It’s something to behold. Not to mention that it happens at a karaoke party he’s orchestrated at the local bar. She doesn’t talk, he never stops. Marianne seems to be a female Bowie, a latterday Siouxsie Sioux perhaps, and Penelope likens her life to an album of twelve tracks – one side for Harry, one for Paul, six years each, with one good song on each side ‘to make people turn over’.  This is a tough film of relationships, fame, creativity or lack of it (how daring to have a singer unable to vocalise), the choices people make to withdraw and have different kinds of lives than the crazy ones they used to  lead. There’s a clever, ironic screenplay by David Kajganich and the volcanic landscape is a useful and unforgiving correlative for tensions that are going to boil over… Fiennes and Swinton are wonderful.

The Prodigal Daughter (1981)

Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin

Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin

 

Thirtysomething child-woman Jane Birkin leaves her marriage and returns to her parents, the wonderful Michel Piccoli and Natasha Parry. They treat her as the child she needs to be again in order to recover from her crippling depression. Her mother reveals that Papa is having an affair and she leaves the family home to take care of Birkin’s sister, who is about to give birth. When the mistress, Eva Renzi, arrives, Birkin resorts to making her father jealous. There are some truly disturbing scenes here, as composed by writer/director Jacques Doillon, Birkin’s then companion. You are compelled to ask at times, Is this really plausible? But Doillon is such a careful writer and the actors so good, that you go with it.  Emotions run high and the prognosis for the family is not good.  Birkin and Piccoli would of course be reunited in La Belle Noiseuse, a decade later, while she would play a different kind of prodigal daughter for Tavernier in Daddy Nostalgie.