Foreign Film February: Welcome to the Sticks (2008)

welcome to the sticks

I’ve been a bit slack in my foreign language movie-watching over the last week, but I wanted to end the month with something fun. Welcome to the Sticks was written, directed and stars Danny Boon, but he’s not the lead.

That role goes to Kad Merad who plays a postal worker who is desperate to get transferred somewhere on the southern coast of France. Instead, he is transferred to a small town in the far north of the country.

The north of France is to the French like the deep south is to many Americans. He fears that it will be incredibly cold, that the people will speak with terrible accents and everyone will be rude and backward and rather stupid.

It turns out that the climate is pleasant and the people are quite nice. The trouble is he left his wife and young son back in the south. When he visits them on the weekend she is so ready for him to be miserable up there he doesn’t know how to tell her he likes it. This causes a lot of sitcom or romantic comedy-style shenanigans.

There is also some business over Danny Boon’s characters’ love life and a lot of other very silly stuff. It is very breezy and very goofy and it makes me laugh. A lot. I’ve seen it before, we own it on DVD actually. I’ll no doubt see it again.

It probably won’t work for everyone and there is a lot that gets lost in translation. A lot of the gags have to do with the difference in language. In the north, they speak a dialect of French and there are a lot of jokes about the Southerner not understanding anyone or misunderstanding certain words.

I speak a little French but not enough to watch a French film without subtitles. Jokes about how two completely different words sound a lot alike are difficult to translate so I expect a lot of the humor here doesn’t work that well for non-French speakers. I was helped out by the fact that my wife is a French speaker and she helped get the jokes across. Also, her laugh is infectious.

But there are also loads of other jokes that don’t need translating. I’m surprised an American studio hasn’t adapted it for the USA. It would work well with someone from the coast of some New England state moving to Alabama.

Eyes Without a Face (1960)

eyes without a face

I think I’ve mentioned before that my wife is a Francophile. That means we watch a lot of French movies together. I watch a lot of French movies without her too. I watch a lot of movies. Some of them are French. Some of them are with my wife. I think we watched this one together. It is a classic. It is also a freaky horror movie.

You can read my review here.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Titane (2021)

titane poster

I watch a lot of movies and it is very rare that a movie genuinely surprises me. When you watch movies like I do you get used to the way most films work, the way they hit certain beats and behave in certain ways. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, sometimes it is comforting. But when a movie does come along and does something completely different it makes it all that more rewarding.

Titane completely knocked me out. It is completely and utterly surprising. I genuinely had no idea where it was going to go next. I’m not sure I loved where it always went. I’m not sure I didn’t, either. It is a film I’ll be thinking about for a few days to figure out what exactly I thought of it. But I loved not knowing what was coming next.

It is a film worth coming into not knowing anything about, so I won’t say much. It involves a girl who gets into an accident as a child and has a metal plate inserted into her skull. As an adult, she works as a dancer and after a rough night she goes on a long journey that takes her places you cannot believe.

It has been compared to a David Cronenberg film and that’s apt, but it is also very much its own thing. I watched Cronenberg’s recent Crimes of the Future directly before watching Titane and let me tell you they make for one freaky double feature.

Agathe Rousselle gives an absolutely astonishing, brave, bravura performance in the lead and Vincent Lindon is quite spectacular as well. He plays, well I’d get into spoiler territory if I said who he plays, but he’s really good.

It is a film that is exciting and repulsive – sometimes I couldn’t turn and other times I had to close my eyes. This is something I don’t want every film to do to me, but it sure is exciting when they do.

Foreign Film February: Micmacs (2009)

micmacs

While working at a video store, Bazil (Danny Boon) is hit in the head by a stray bullet. The surgeons decide to leave it inside his skull for removing it might cause brain damage. Leaving it in may eventually cause it to lodge deeper into his brain, killing him, but it is worth the risk. As a boy, Bazil’s father was killed by a land mine.

Once released from the hospital, Danny finds that the video store has replaced him. Homeless, he wanders the streets of Paris until, one day, he is greeted by Slammer (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who takes him to his clubhouse located in the bowels of a junkyard. There he introduces him to a group of misfits who scavenge the city for their livelihoods.

One day Bazil realizes that the company that made the bullet that is still lodged in his head sits across the street from the company that made the land mines that killed his father. A plan is hatched to have his revenge on the owners of both companies.

Micmacs was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and it has all of his hallmarks as a filmmaker – it blends fantastic elements into an otherwise normal story, its characters are full of odd-ball quirks, it is adventurous, funny, and romantic. His visual style is all over it as well.

Like a lot of non-French speakers, I suppose, I first came to Jeanuet’s films through Amelie, his beautiful and charming 2001 film starring Audrey Tautou and Mathieu Kassovitz. I immediately fell in love. I then went back and watched his earlier, darker films Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. Loved them and became a big fan. But because he is French and the films he’s made since Amelie have not been as popular his films have become increasingly difficult to find and watch over here. They’ve also not been as good.

Micmacs is a good example of what I mean. It has most of the ingredients that usually make for a good Jeanuet film. It is filled with quirky characters and humorous incidents, there is a little action and a little romance, but it never quite gels. The biggest problem comes from how the characters feel like their quirks and not actual people. They are even named after their quirks – Elastic Girl, Calculator, Buster, and so on. They are all interesting and performed well but we don’t get to know them. Jeanuet films are always filled with these types of characters and quirks and after a while, that cuteness wears a little thing.

There is a lot to like about the film. Bazil’s attempts to get revenge are ridiculous in their complexity and wonderfully fun in the way the film pulls them off. The characters might not be fully realized but they are enjoyable to watch. Etc.

If you’ve never seen a Jeunet film then I’d start with Amelie (or Delicatessen if you are not romantic at heart). Then I’d move to the films surrounding Amelie and once those are exhausted, and if you decide you are a fan, I’d move to Micmacs and his later works.

Band of Outsiders (1964)

band of outsiders criterion

Jean Luc Godard was one of the pioneers of the French New Wave. His films have been hailed as some of the greatest movies of all time, but he also has a reputation for being difficult, for making challenging, even obtuse films. So, I’m always surprised when I watch one of his movies and find them to be utterly delightful. Band of Outsiders is one of my favorites of his films (at least from what I’ve seen) and Criterion released an excellent Blu-ray of it awhile back. I wrote a review and you can read it here.

With a Friend Like Harry… (2000)

with a friend like harry

My wife is a francophile. She speaks French fluently. Studied it in college. Has a masters in French linguistics. Lived in Montreal for a while, and we spent some time in Strasbourg. She reads French books and we sometimes watch French movies.

We watched this one in the theater when it first came out. We had no idea what it was about. It is a good one. I bought it on DVD. It is a freaky thriller with lots of good twists. You can read my full review here.

31 Days of Horror: Fascination (1979)

fascination movie poster

French director Jean Rollin is somebody whose name I’ve known for years, but whose films I had never sat down and watched until today. He made a lot of movies in his career but is probably best known for a series of erotic vampire films he made in the 1970s. Fascination is probably his best-known movie.

It is about a man who flees from his fellow villainous compatriots with a bag full of stolen gold. He winds up in a creaky, old, castle where he plans to hide out until the cover of darkness. There he meets two beautiful women clad in flowing white gowns.

Though he has a gun and speaks as if he’s willing to use it the women do not seem afraid. They taunt him and speak elliptically about further friends coming that evening and something sinister happening at midnight. The man doesn’t understand but is attracted to them and so he stays.

More women in flowing gowns arrive and they too play games with the man. I’ve already noted that Rollin is known for his erotic vampire films so you can probably guess where this film is going, though it may actually surprise you.

The film uses the castle, and those flowing gowns, to great effects. This is more a mood piece than a particularly violent horror film. It takes its time getting to where it’s going but it is mesmerizing just the same. Well worth a watch if you enjoy gothic horror and beautiful vampires.

Anatomy of Hell (2004)

anatomy of hell dvd art

Originally written on September 20, 2006.

Nudity in the United States is an odd thing. We tend to love our nudity, yet are mostly ashamed of our love and try to hide it. Well we try to hide what we determine is actual nudity while plastering near nudity everywhere we can.

From TV to magazines to print ads, on beaches, sidewalks, and shopping malls, flesh reigns king. Skimpy bikinis, short skirts, and tight shirts are all acceptable, admired, and loved. Yet again, flash a nipple or pubic hair and there is an outcry from the same public that so adored the near nudity.

As a lad, I could often get my mother to allow me to watch the newest Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick filled with bloody battles, but as soon as a movie showed a bit of nudity and it was off to play Monopoly.

The nudity didn’t even have to be sexual. A girl walking out of a shower was reason enough to turn it off. Strangely we could often get away with a film full of innuendo or engaging in physical nuances that hid the nudity.

I don’t want to knock my mother too hard here, certainly, the culture she was raised in had a great deal to do with how she parented us. She tried her best to do the difficult job of guarding our television and movie viewing habits. A difficult job with no official rules to what is acceptable

It also must be said that we often baited her and pressured her constantly to allow us to watch the newest action flick while staying mostly mum about the nudity. As a kid, I didn’t mind complaining that it was just fake violence and wouldn’t affect me, but there was no way I was going to beg for boobies, no matter how much I secretly longed for them.

Funny how some 12 years after I’ve left home I’m still worried about what my mother will say having watched and reviewed a picture such as Anatomy of Hell.

The film starts with a warning which looks like the typical FBI copyright warning but which reminds the viewer that film is not real, but an illusion and informs us that the most intimate moments do not belong to the main actress, but a stand-in.

It then moves into two men involved in a little back alley oral action.

No kids, this isn’t going to be your typical night at the cinema.

The plot involves a woman (Amira Casar) on the verge – she is first seen in a nightclub where she promptly slits her wrists in the bathroom – and a young gay man (Rocco Siffredi) who rescues her from suicide.

The woman invites the man to her secluded home for four nights to “watch her where she is unwatchable.”

The film then concentrates on four nights of sexual exploration and philosophy.

It is not a film for the prudish, or squeamish, or for those looking to get their jollies off.

It is full of explicit nudity and sex, but also of graphic imagery that exposes both man and woman for everything that they are physically – from urinating to coitus to pulling out bloody tampons. It is anything but sexually stimulating.

It tries to do the same emotionally but is all too often obtuse with its imagery and symbolism.

In one scene the woman talks of her pubic hair and vulva as a newborn bird lying in its nest. The film cuts from a close-up of the woman’s nether regions to such a bird. The bird is then plucked from its nest by a young boy who sticks it in his pocket. Moments later blood on the shirt reveals the bird is dead and the boy then throws it to the ground and stomps the bird with his boot.

Not exactly subtle. But not exactly poignant either.

The dialogue is similarly robust. The man discusses disgustedly at the horridness of the female body while the woman remarks that all men despise women and if they could would murder them all.

There are lots of long, languid shots where the camera rests upon the couple laying in bed, or pouring a drink without music, sound, or dialogue. As if the image brings some meaning to its story.

If you look closely, beyond some of the more pompous turns of phrase, there is a deeper meaning to be found. Despite the hamfistedness, the director does have something to say.

There is a scene towards the end of the film after the couple parted ways where the man sits in a bar, angry at the previous night’s actions. Like many a man, he displays that anger by playing the braggart making like he devoured the poor woman and split her apart with his maleness, while it is he that has been torn down by those events.

No, Anatomy of Hell is not a film for everyone. Nor does it reach the lofty heights it aims for by breaking so many boundaries. Yet, for those willing to try, there is some truth to be gleaned, some treasure buried beneath its repulsiveness and pomp.

Murderous Maids (2000)

murderous maids movie poster

Two sisters, chambermaids for a wealthy French family, brutally murdered their employer, Mrs. Ancelin, and her daughter Geneviève, one February evening in 1933, in the small French town of Le Mans. This incident rocked French society for weeks.

Well, I say it rocked French society, but really, I have no idea if it had any effect whatsoever. It would be some 40 years after the murder that I would be born, and I’ve seen no information about its effect on France other than the publicity material associated with the film based upon the events, The Murderous Maids, and other reviews of said movie.

If it is true that this incident did rock French society at the time, and I’ll accept them as such, it is ponderous that it is so. Though certainly brutal, and laced with the peculiarity of having been committed by insane and incestuous sisters, it still seems strange that such an event would be anything more than curious to a culture whose history is laced with violence and brutality.

I wonder similar things when I watch the national news in America. Certain events, for whatever reason, capture the news and become so saturated that they permeate our whole culture. Millions of people have had to make the decision to “pull the plug” on a loved one, so why did Terry Schiavo’s case get national attention?

Countless murders are committed in this country every year, yet for months in 2004, the only one that mattered was that of Laci Peterson, at least if the news had anything to say about it.

It is an amazingly strange and unanswerable thing to me why some stories capture the attention of the media, and thus my nation, while so many others slip away into obscurity.

In the case of the murderous maids, Christine and Léa Papin, the media hype seems to surround the horror (Oh, the horror!) of two lower-class maids striking out against their upper-class masters. As if it might start another revolution.

The film is a slow-burning affair. It tries to get into the heads of these sisters and give us a glimpse into why two seemingly meek and mild maids could explode and commit such atrocities.

Honestly, I spent the first 20 minutes of the film, confused as to who was what, and what exactly was happening. The opening scene involves the sisters at a young age. Christine wants to become a nun, like her older sister but is forced into servitude by her mother. We fast forward several years without warning and see the older sister only once more, and that briefly. Maybe I was a bit sleepy, or maybe I was too busy trying to remember my rusty French to compare it to the subtitles but with the changes in time and the disappearance of characters I spent a good bit of the first half utterly confused.

Once the film settles into the lives of the two sisters it begins introducing moments that ultimately contribute to their murderous madness. Their mother is shown as greedy and selfish, taking Léa’s money and manipulating her through emotional blackmail. The masters of the homes are cruel and unforgiving.

The only kindness and semblance of love the two can find is from themselves. This love turns incestuous and further turns their situation into an “us” versus “them” scenario. Christine is clearly the leader of the two, while Léa is shy, quiet, and easily lead.

After numerous jobs, they finally land one where the two of them can serve. They seem happy at first, finding some praise from their strict master while at the same time, she puts on white gloves for perpetual inspection of their cleanliness.

It is when Léa burns out a fuse for the second time that things go haywire. Fearing severe scolding from their masters, they instead beat them to a bloody pulp.

In jail, Christine begins receiving visions, goes into holy fits, writes crosses on the walls with her tongue, and continuously wails out for her sister. Despite this, the incestuous relationship, the troubled family life, and the extreme violence of the crime fitted with lack of a clear motive, the French court decides to allow none of this in as evidence and their psychiatrists find both mentally stable.

Though its English title and even plot description reads as a B-movie exploitation flick, the film unravels in a slow, methodical method. The sex and violence are both graphically photographed, but in between such titillating moments, the scenes are tediously paced. It is all artfully made, professional to a tee, and really rather dull.

It makes no decisions as to why the sisters did what they did. There is no judgment placed upon the mother, upper-class society, or even the sisters. It is told in a documentary style, allowing events to unfold as they are without extemporaneous commentary. In fact, there is not one note of music played throughout the entire film. The viewer is left to decide how to feel, and what to think.

Murderous Maids is a character study of two historical women who have captured the consciousness of French society. It is a fascinating story about how two seemingly downtrodden and simple women can be turned murderous. It’s too bad the film couldn’t have been more interesting itself