Wednesday, November 28, 2007

German Film Festival

Still from VivereLondon
Through 29 November

dir Angelina Maccarone

Having seen Unveiled, one of her previous films, I was keen to see this latest work from the prolific writer/director Angelina Maccarone and it didn't disappoint. Family relationships, loneliness, Christmas Eve, a road trip to Rotterdam.... From these various strands she has crafted a subtle, complex and delightful film shining a light on the things people often keep hidden from themselves and others.

Francesca and Antonietta are two squabbling siblings stifling in their small town until Antonietta runs away to Rotterdam to join her musician boyfriend on tour. Francesca, a stand-in parent for her since their mother left and their father went to pieces (this character spends much of his screentime mumbling in Italian and German and is truly sorrowful), follows her in her cab and encounters a car-crash victim along the way. This is the mysterious Gerlinde (a resplendent Hannelore Elsner), who is having woman troubles in a big way.

Francesca finds herself attracted to Gerlinde and also responsible for Antonietta and the film takes unexpected turns as these three characters try to sort their lives out. While the film starts from Francesca's point of view, it retraces its steps to show the same scenes from the other two characters, and also fills in the backstory, giving depth to the character's actions. Very impressive.

After the Fall
dirs Frauke Sandig / Eric Black

Less story-driven but brilliantly shot is this documentary, a retrospective piece from 1999 looking at the Berlin Wall ten years after its fall. Sandig and Black focus a lot on images and gradually a story emerges of how people view the wall now, how they viewed it from opposite sides pre-unification and then, most bizarrely, how opportunists are seeking to preserve and make money from it.

This last strand features the most bizarre array of characters, including Bavaria's answer to Del-Boy, a man with a "recycling machine", who is extremely frustrated by the refusal of German museums to buy pieces of the wall from him.

In possibly the funniest scene, he plays his accordion while recounting how he stood in the former Death Strip making a toast to the wall with various officials.

However, this pales in comparison to the appearance of the two homeopaths from Tunbridge Wells who explain how the dark energy emanating from the wall makes a useful but dangerous remedy. Every word out of these people's mouths sent the audience into raptures of merriment. It was not a great advert for alternative medicine.

Anyway, the film looks beautiful, with many dusk and dawn shots of Berlin under (re)construction in the late 90s and some thought-provoking commentary from an historian about the way the east was left behind and had its history consumed by the western part.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

La Vie en Rose

dir Olivier Dahan

Still on show at various art houses is La Vie en Rose, a long overdue bio-pic of French chanteuse Edith Piaf, a born drama queen.

She certainly had a life full of incident: born to bohemian parents who neglected her, left in the care of her grandma who ran a bordello, discovered singing in the streets of Paris and put on the stage, passed from one alpha male to the next, before descending into various addictions and dying young. So much for Amy Winehouse to live up to, n'est-ce pas?

Portraying the singer, actress Marion Cotillard has a difficult task, called upon as she is to spend much of her time in heavy prosthetics/make-up as the film projects forward to Piaf's decline in later years before shooting back to her childhood, where she is played by a younger actress. Cotillard's task is to pick up the thread from the early years and carry it through to the singer's later drugged-out phase. She does get to perform on-stage, but the singing appears to be done by others.

Some of the actress's best moments come in the depiction of two very different but key relationships in Piaf's life: one with her friend Momone, whom we first encounter with her on the streets of Montmartre, Piaf singing and Momone collecting money. The tone is set: Piaf is the talent in the duo, Momone the support act. This later becomes a problem once Piaf becomes famous and doesn't depend so much on her friendand and the two split acrimoniously. A pity, as Momone is an intriguing character and her disappearance two-thirds of the way through robs the film of a point of context for Piaf.

The other relationship is with boxer Marcel Cerdan, married and thus not truly available to Piaf. But this doesn't stop her entering into a passionate affair with him, curtailed by his death in a plane crash. This scene is cleverly turned into a kind of dream sequence, with Piaf not recognising that he has not returned to her as promised, but is dead. She goes into a kind of catatonic state, and is propelled on-stage, the implication being that the stage was her true home, where she could express her innermost emotions.

The figure of St. Therese is a motif, with Piaf praying to her at various dramatic moments, hoping for protection. Religion and sin are thus juxtaposed, exposing a certain amount of hypocrisy in the various circles in which she moves.

Other narrative threads are left hanging. One early trauma of Piaf's life was being spirited away from the bordello by her father, with no warning, leaving behind Titine, a prostitute who had acted as a mother figure to the young girl. I rather expected this character to reappear at some point, so important did she seem. But nothing doing. One senses that the film may have been subject to some insensitive editing to cut down its running time.

The film is well-executed, looks sumptuous and the performances are good, but I was left largely unmoved. What stayed with me were the songs, especially what became Piaf's theme song: "Je ne regrette rien". "Rehab" just can't compare.