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Feb 22/10

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The date above is the date on which the page was started. More recent reviews, as added, will appear towards the top of the page, while the less recent ones will move further down.

Reviewed here: J’ai Tu Ma Mere (Movie); From Paris With Love (Movie); Suite Franaise (Novel); Departures (DVD); Kyle Merrithew: Baritone  (DVD)

J’ai Tu Ma Mre (I Killed My Mother) (Movie) written and directed by Xavier Dolan; starring Xavier Dolan, Anne Dorval, Franois Arnaud, Suzanne Clment, Patricia Tulasne, Niels Schneider, Monique Spaziani, Pierre Chagnon

If a French Canadian who turns twenty-one this month has put together a film that wins 18 prizes on the festival circuit, three of them at Cannes, then I’m definitely seeing that movie. Call it a combination of patriotism and curiosity that’s motivating me.

The first surprise is that J’ai Tu Ma Mre isn’t as outrageous or experimental as the previews would suggest. Apart from some flashy touches, it tells, in a kitchen-sink-realism way, the story of sixteen-year-old Hubert (played by Monsieur Dolan himself), who lives (in Montreal, I think) with his single mom (Anne Dorval). His dad took off years ago. To say that the relationship between mom and son is fraught would be like saying the Second World War was a bit unruly. These two are constantly at each other, the son usually providing the initial spark for the conflagrations. In between outbursts of hostilities, mind you, he professes undying love for dear maman.

In many ways, this film is an astounding accomplishment for such a young auteur. It looks professional, polished and savvy in almost every respect. The acting hits a high mark consistently. On that score, one aspect of the film that strikes me as a particularly Qubcois trait is the appearance of several middle-aged woman in lively and colourful character roles. The dialogue, as far as I can tell with heavy reliance on subtitles, rings perfectly true.

The photography is especially effective. While vividly surrealistic sequences enact Hubert’s fantasies, black and white clips show him secretly voicing his thoughts to a video camera. One stylistic trait that looks distinctive to me is the setup for some of the dialogues. The camera focuses on one person at a time, pictured towards the edge of the frame, but looking off, out of the frame, instead of looking towards the middle of the frame, as you would expect in the usual composition of a shot. The odd arrangement here seems to say something about the difficulty people have connecting with each other.

In spite of its notable virtues, though, the movie doesn’t work for me overall. It’s too long by about half an hour, during which time plot complications that are piled on don’t add anything: it feels like the conflict’s going to go on and on and nothing will ever be resolved. What makes that especially tedious is the fact that the conflict seems overblown. The mom appears to be a nice, inoffensive person. Sure, the way she gets cream cheese on her lips when eating a bagel can be annoying. And there’s her unsafe practice of putting on makeup while driving the car. Her fashion sense may seem a bit dowdy to a contemporary teen. But she’s pretty much ok in most other respects. She tries to serve food that Hubert likes; she often drives him to school. The one fault I might find with her is her choice of decor, at least in so far as conveyed in the movie. The scenes in her house are shot in a way that emphasizes a brownish-orange light, as if we were back in some cheap movie from the 1970s. Having to live in that ambiance might be enough to make a guy restive but surely not enough to bring on Hubert’s rages.

One revelation about Hubert’s private life comes as a shock to his mother, although one suspects that any moderately intelligent person would have twigged much earlier. And this issue could, admittedly, be a source of tension between parent and son. In his private comments to the video camera, however, Hubert talks about the fact that that everybody’s relationship with their mother is complicated. Granted. But not so tangled as to cause the horrendous sturm und drang we get here. So Hubert’s claim that his problems with his mom somehow speak to all our maternal issues doesn’t convince me.

After a while, I began to wonder if the whole thing would seem more plausible if Hubert really gave the impression of an insecure, confused sixteen-year-old. Playing the role himself, the young author/director could probably pass for a sixteen-year-old in terms of looks. He’s a fine actor, but there’s something about him that speaks of a worldly-wise person. He doesn’t show the vulnerability that would bring on my sympathy. He seems far too knowing about the "scene". (I tried not to let my judgement on his performance be prejudiced by the actor’s repulsive hair: a couple of pounds of black locks falling into his face, as if a chinchilla has taken up residence on his forehead.)

The only conclusion you can come to about Hubert’s problem with his mom is that it’s one of those inexplicable teen things. All the more reason, then, to have somebody in the role who looks more like the typical teen. They just have to work these things out. Maybe that’s what Monsieur Dolan’s doing via this production. As we used to say at his age, he’s "letting it all hang out." Here’s hoping it did him some good. It may have: the credits of the movie include big thanks to his mom and dad.

Rating: D (for "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)

 

From Paris With Love (Movie) written by Adi Hasak (screenplay) and Luc Besson (story); directed by Pierre Morel; starring John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers; with Kasia Smutniak, Richard Durden, Yin Bing, Amber Rose Revah, Eric Gordon

There comes a time you’re too damned tired and disgruntled for anything but a movie that promises some thrills and laughs. This looked like the one. Jonathan Rhys Meyers, playing a special assistant to the American ambassador in Paris, has some skulduggery happening on the side. He keeps getting mysterious orders from an anonymous voice on his cell phone. To prove himself worthy to be taken on as a secret agent, the Meyers character must go to the airport, pick up the "Number One" agent, and act as his driver. On arrival at the airport, what do we find but a shaven-headed, beefy John Travolta creating a ruckus about his cans of pop that the customs agents won’t allow into France.

As you might suspect, the cans of pop aren’t what they seem. Neither is anything else, apparently, as this duo cuts a swath of death and destruction through Paris. (In the first half hour, the Travolta character kills roughly fifty people, single-handed.) You can see why John Travolta would want this role. He swaggers through it showing lots of the charisma makes for a true movie star. This involves doing the badass thing in a major way – foul-mouthed, wiscracking cynicism – all the while hinting that there’s a knight in shining armour under all that flesh. By comparison, slim and sleek Jonathan Rhys Meyers, constantly fussing about his girlfriend back home, looks like a preppy who’s wandered onto the set by accident.

The dynamic contrast between the two makes for great teamwork, in the tradition of so many adventure movies. It looked as though the script might be in the process of developing some intriguing ideas as the plot got more and more convoluted, but I had to bail after about forty-five minutes because of the violence and noise. At that point, roughly fifty percent of screen time had been taken up with the horrendous racket of shoot-outs, accompanied by the relentless pounding of hyped up music. It felt like being caught in the midst of the action at a demolition derby. Is this the kind of testosterone-charged video game of a movie that’s supposed to draw in young males these days? If only it did! I might not have found the noise so overwhelming if there had been a few more bodies (i.e. more than the five of us) in the theatre to absorb the vibrations.

Rating: N/A for me, since I didn’t stay for the duration; but maybe C- for somebody with a higher degree of noise/violence tolerance.

 

Suite Franaise (Novel) by Irne Nmirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith, 2006

The back story for this one created an even bigger splash than in the case of Stieg Larsson’s books. (See review of his second book below.) In the early 1940s, Irne Nmirovsky, a Russian Jew, had been living in France for decades and had become a very successful and popular novelist. But then she was deported to Auschwitz, where she died shortly thereafter. In the months before her death, she had been writing in leather bound volumes which her daughters thought were diaries. Decades later, they found the volumes among her papers and discovered that they contained the first part of what was meant to be an ambitious series of novels about the war. Published as Suite Franaise, the work falls into two distinct sections. The first tells of the flight of many Parisians to the countryside as the Germans advanced on the city. In the second section, the author describes life in a small town in the French countryside under the German occupation.

With such a tragic circumstances behind it, you almost wonder whether any objective criticism could be levelled at a book. One might simply stand back in awe at the author’s astounding accomplishment in the face of such horror. Indeed, from the press response (as I remember it) when the book first appeared, most commentators took just such an attitude.

As you know, however, that’s not the way things work here at Dilettante’s Diary. We try to get a handle on a work’s merits or demerits quite apart from the context of its creation. In that respect, then, I would have to say that Suite Franaise strikes me as a remarkable combination of brilliant, original insight and somewhat iffy skill in the business of crafting a novel.

On the plus side, the evacuation from Paris is described in wonderful detail. The focus on a number of individuals and groups creates the effect of an epic on a vast canvas depicting the whole population. The subsequent section on life in the occupied countryside opened a whole new world to me. There must be other novels that have taken on this theme but I can’t think of any. It was fascinating to find out how ordinary it all began to seem after a while.

A moment that captures that mood perfectly occurs at the very beginning of the occupation, when the residents in a particular village are hiding for fear of the invaders expected any moment. One German soldier arrives on his motorcycle, stands in the square, takes out a cigarette and looks around. An old Frenchman, a veteran of the First World War, comes forward and gives him a light. It all happens in a completely natural way. After that, village life resumes pretty much as usual – as long as nobody offers any outright resistance to the Germans. Pretty soon, some women are flirting with the good looking Germans; some go beyond flirting. Of course, some embittered holdouts do not warm towards their conquerors. (One wonders how the author, if she had lived, would have dealt with the subject of the reprisals towards those who had befriended the Germans.)

Extraordinary insights into social relations and the oddities of human nature – many of them proffered in a satiric if not sardonic spirit – crop up frequently. When the Parisians are fleeing, people along the way express great concern about the catastrophe in the capital. To all appearances, compassion motivates these inquiries, but the author notes that the people asking the questions are really indulging their morbid curiosity. Elsewhere, the author observes, about the human style of commiserating, that we can quite guilelessly say to someone dying of tuberculosis, "I do feel for you, I do understand, I’ve had a cold I can’t shake off for three weeks now."

Several other instances of human quirks come to light. In one case, a woman has been trying desperately to convince her husband of something and, when he finally agrees with her, she changes her mind. Someone else comments that things like table manners -- not laws and languages -- constitute the really important differences among nations. At one point, an aristocratic French woman spews a line of invective at a couple of German soldiers and fixes them with an evil eye. Not understanding a word of French, and mistaking her tirade for a tribute to their soldierly bearing, they respond with shy smiles. In the case of the same lady, a whole page is taken to analyze in exquisite detail the many ramifications of the curt politeness she exhibits on crossing paths with the German officer billeted in her house. Because she cannot possibly imagine anyone’s loving a German, this lady fails to notice the love affair that her daughter-in-law is carrying on with that officer. Another grande dame reflects that maybe the Germans aren’t so bad after all, since they might prevent the nation’s sliding towards Communism.

Some of the most striking observations deal with the over-arching theme of conflict among nations. Near the end of the book, someone realizes that occupation is actually much worse than war. In war, the enemy is kept at a distance, which enables you to keep them fixed in your mind as the hated opponent. In occupation, however, you get used to each other. The danger is that you begin to think, "They’re just like us, after all." And when the Germans begin to leave the village in order to head to the Russian front, the author hits us with a startlingly poignant scenario. The Germans find themselves wondering what the French think about the Germans’ departure.

Did anyone feel sorry for them? Would they miss them? Of course they wouldn’t be missed as Germans, as conquerors (they weren’t nave enough to think that), but would the French miss these Pauls, Siegfrieds, Oswalds who had lived under their roofs for three months, showed them pictures of their wives and mothers, shared more than one bottle of wine with them?

And it’s not only human nature that Ms. Nmirovsky observes with great acumen. This comment on a cat’s behaviour astounded me with its sly, knowing wit:

He eyed the distance from the drainpipe to the ground. It was an easy jump, but he appeared to want to flatter himself by exaggerating the difficulty of the leap. He balanced his hindquarters, looking fierce and confident, swept his long black tail across the drainpipe and, ears pulled back, leapt forward, landing on the fresh tilled earth.

But, of course, it’s the human characters that Ms. Nmirovsky lavishes most of her attention on, with some quite memorable results. We see an upper class woman’s self-satisfied sense of her charitable impulses, as well as her revisionist attitude to the history of her own actions. A teenage boy’s patriotic zeal to march off to war burns like a Shakespearean character’s. A priest’s supercilious attitude to some underprivileged boys he’s escorting out of Paris looks reprehensible until the man experiences a profound conversion that prompts an impulse of genuine grace towards his charges. Further evidence of human goodness that might seem implausible in the hands of a less gifted author comes in the person of a modest bank employee who manages to maintain his serenity in spite of all the difficulties: "He had a unique way of thinking: he didn’t consider himself that important; in his own eyes, he was not that rare and irreplaceable creature most people imagine when they think about themselves." And I couldn’t help loving the humorous indulgence the author shows towards a somewhat foppish man who, depressed by the austerity of the Paris scene, cheers up at the sight of a woman in a caf defiantly sporting a stylish hat.

About that man, though, I encountered certain problems. He was too much like another character in the book. The two characters kept overlapping and merging in my mind. They both seemed effete, snobbish and out of touch with reality. (Perhaps the author would have merged them into one character if she had lived to do further work on the novel?) And there were some problems with other characters: the hypocrisy of the upper class women, for example. The author lays on the cynicism too thick at times, as when, for instance, she shows them jumping the queue for rations while the ordinary folk wait humbly.

In a similar tendency to use overly broad strokes, she makes what strike me as some strategic errors in the structuring of the novel. For instance, a too melodramatic note on occasion, as in the instance of a man who gets killed while crossing the road at the very moment that the cleaning lady back at his apartment breaks one of his precious figurines. Another narrative device that strikes a false note is the author's frequent "telling" rather than creating realistic scenes. This happens most often with regard to chronology. It can be somewhat disconcerting the way she jumps over months with a simple temporal phrase or a reference to a date. Among what I would consider other injudicious choices is the attempt to convey the onset of a love affair from the point of view of a child watching the proceedings. The child’s voice simply doesn’t ring true. Another long scene depicting an overture to that love affair feels simply like marking time. We know where the scene’s going and we wish the author would get us there more expeditiously. Not that we would mind the waiting if it involved some suspense, but it doesn’t.

These deficits in the writing, as I see them, make me wonder about Mme Nmirovsky’s reported popularity as a novelist. Perhaps her readers had somewhat lower expectations than I when it comes to what is supposed to be great literature. Or, could it be that some aspects of the work are less pleasing today simply because of the changing of tastes in the years since the book was written?

Moving on to some of the book's stylistic blemishes, the "Flushing and Flashing" syndrome is much in evidence. (For an explanation of that term, see my review of North of Montana on the page dated Oct 6/09.) All the trembling of lips and hands, and shuddering and quivering of bodies, makes you feel like you’re immersed in a neurology ward. Doesn’t an intelligent author ever sit back and ask herself: how often does that sort of autonomic response occur in people who are not medically afflicted? Nowhere near as often as this author depicts it. Which creates the impression that she is relying on stock phrases rather than observations of life. When we finally get a reference to aspen leaves trembling it comes as a great relief that the author is at last reporting something factual about the real world.

And then there are the clichs, wherein someone is wounded to the core, someone feels alone and abandoned and tottering on the edge of an abyss, someone has eyes in the back of her head. It’s hard to say whether these are faults in the translation. Possibly, the phrases in the original had a fresher sound. But there certainly are many instances where the translation gives the book a dated feel. Someone is described as a "poor bloke", someone else as a "shameless hussy". Phrases like "Well, really!" and "Off you go!" don't convey a sense of real conversation. A bickering session between two young farm women fails to come to life.

For all its flaws, though, Suite Franaise offers stunning testimony to the prowess of a superb commentator on human nature. While she was just one of millions cruelly killed, an appreciation of her great gifts somehow highlights the heinous nature of the crime committed against all Holocaust victims.

 

Departures (DVD) written by Kundo Koyama; directed by Yjir Takita; starring Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Takashi Sasano, Tetta Sugimoto

A friend from out of town used to say that whenever he came to Toronto, he could always find a movie worth seeing at the Carlton Cineplex. Now, alas, the Carlton is history. Before it closed, though, this movie ran there for months and months. My impression was that the initial reviews hadn’t been very favourable, but surely that long run at the Carlton indicated some merit?

The movie tells the story of a young cellist (Masahiro Motoki) in a Tokyo orchestra. Not a very successful orchestra, apparently, because the owner dissolves the organization, throwing our young hero out of work. He decides to return to his home town where his deceased mother has left him a house in which he and his wife (Ryoko Hirosue) can start a new life. Answering an ad for a job relating to "Departures", he finds out that there was a misprint in the ad. It was supposed to refer to "The Departed". The job consists of preparing corpses for viewing before consigning them to cremation. This preparatory process, called "casketing," involves elaborate rituals of washing, dressing and applying cosmetics to the body, the bereaved family members watching all the while.

The job pays well and it’s the only job he can find, so the guy takes it, even though he’s horrified on learning its true nature. And here’s where my problems with the movie started. The guy expresses his distaste for the assignment with some of the worst overacting ever seen on screen. Such mugging and grimacing that you’d think he’d studied in the Jerry Lewis school of acting. On the other hand, could this be what Japanese viewers want? At any rate, to this viewer, it seems a much exaggerated reaction to a not particularly odious job.

But then it becomes apparent that everybody in his world expresses such a reaction. A friend is so revolted that he refuses to let our hero talk to his (the friend’s) wife and kid. It seems to go without saying that our man has to hide the true nature of his job from his sweet, innocent wife. Nothing but cringing and recoiling on all sides regarding this business of preparing human bodies for final farewells. I found it impossible to assess whether this was truly a reflection of Japanese culture or whether it was simply a clumsy attempt at comedy.

Still, the movie does cast a certain spell. Regarding the young hero’s job, things work out in a way that seems humanistic and not too surprising from a Westerner’s point of view, although, given the attitude of many of the characters in the movie, the denouement may be more of a revelation for Japanese viewers. A subplot regarding the young man’s father, who had abandoned the family early on, also comes to a satisfying resolution. And various aspects of life in Japan offer lots of interest: the living quarters, the bars, the bath houses, the scenery, the wildlife and, of course, the "casketing".

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly worth seeing")

 

Kyle Merrithew (DVD)

At the Toronto Kiwanis Music Festival a few years ago, I discovered the gifted young baritone Kyle Merrithew. (See review, Dilettante’s Diary, Feb 26/08.) Then, last spring, I heard about a concert he was giving in Sharon, north of Toronto. Having been unable to attend, I was very happy subsequently to learn about this DVD of the event.

Even more so than my brief sampling his art at the music festival, this DVD impresses upon me the prodigious capacity of Mr. Merrithew’s voice. So prodigious, in fact, that it’s hard to think of the right word to sum it up: omnipotent? limitless? flawless? inexhaustible? It almost seems that there’s nothing he can’t do. His high notes are bright and ringing, his low notes have depth, the middle register has warmth – all of it beautifully and seamlessly blended from one register to another. On top of which, the singer’s articulation of the texts is near perfect – the proof being that I, while unfamiliar with some of the songs, was able to make out nearly every word.

It would be tempting to say that, at this early stage of his career, Mr. Merrithew obviously feels most comfortable in the in the semi-classical and Broadway genres. He puts over those popular tunes with irresistible panache. And yet his performance of two Mozart arias – "Non piu Andrai" from The Marriage of Figaro and the catalogue aria from Don Giovanni – sparkle with professional elan. It's only in the somewhat heavier classical material that some imperfections come to light. The coloratura passages in the selection from a Handel oratorio, for instance, sound not absolutely secure. And the singer tosses off Schumann’s "Ich Grolle Nicht" with an insouciance that somewhat lacks – perhaps understandably – the existential angst called for. In general, Mr. Merrithew’s young voice doesn’t quite pack the weight necessary to sustain the long phrases in the lower register of the lieder selections.

Nevertheless, he showed himself a real trooper on this occasion. He not only knocked back a very demanding range of repertoire, but also acted as host, carrying on with light patter by way of continuity, while simultaneously managing minor costume changes. So far, much of his accomplishment can be credited to his local teacher, Irene Ilic. At the end of the concert, however, he announced his attention to take up further studies with the renowned Canadian baritone Ingemar Korjus, at the University of Ottawa’s School of Music. Inevitably, more training and more maturity will have splendid results on Mr. Merrithew’s voice.

My concerns about the singer’s future relate not so much to singing technique as to presentation. It’s to be hoped that the university program pays lots of attention to acting. Not that Mr. Merrithew doesn’t put his songs across with loads of personality. He does so almost to excess. One senses too great a need to please his listeners. As a result, many of the pieces come across with much the same mood and the various characters tend to blur into a general impression of buoyant eagerness. If the singer evinced more manly reserve at times, the differentiation among the characters might work better and we would be all the more grateful for the charm when it does come.

 

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