French thriller ‘In the House’ opens intimate, mysterious doors

In the House/2012/Mandarin Cinéma, Cohen Media Group/ 105 min.

“In the House,” a new thriller by François Ozon, made me think of this quotation from Alfred Hitchcock: “I’m a writer and, therefore, automatically a suspicious character.”

In Ozon’s story-within-a-story film, there are two writers – a 16-year-old student named Claude (Ernst Umhauer), precocious and a bit of a pretty boy, and jaded, middle-aged Germain (Fabrice Luchini). With one poorly received novel under his belt, Germain now teaches in a French high school and struggles to endure his students’ mediocre essays.

But his passion for teaching is reignited when he reads some of Claude’s writing –personal, thoughtful and fresh – and certainly far more promising than the work his classmates produce. Germain shares his enthusiasm with his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) when he brings the assignments home at the end of the day and discusses them with her.

Claude has picked a provocative topic: a voyeuristic account of a classmate’s everyday home life, cozy and comfy, unlike Claude’s apparently more deprived situation. By tutoring Rapha (Bastien Ughetto), Claude gains up-close access to the family, observing their seeming contentment as well as sensing the underlying frustrations of Rapha’s sexy and mysterious mom (Emmanuelle Seigner) and his easygoing, jocular dad (Denis Ménochet).

Against his better judgment, Germain encourages and evaluates Claude’s literary efforts, even though he knows it is a risky experiment. Germain lectures him on the process of writing, the purpose of literature. As Claude’s creative muscle builds, the line between reality and fantasy is blurred, and the stakes are gradually, dangerously raised for all the players in this riveting domestic drama.

I am always curious about the work of director-writer François Ozon, perhaps most famous for “Potiche,” “Swimming Pool,” and “8 Women.” He has an easy touch with bold subject matter, a knack for humor (whether deadpan, dark or absurd) and a talent for making well paced, well acted thrillers that reflect his inventive, sometime s cheeky, vision while paying subtle homage to old-school suspense masters like Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot and Claude Chabrol.

Where Ozon falters slightly with “In the House” is in the movie’s visuals. Perhaps because it’s based on Juan Mayorga’s play, “The Boy in the Last Row,” Ozon’s version feels a bit too theatrical and stagebound. That said, telling the tales are terrific actors (Luchini, Scott Thomas and Seigner in particular). And, driving the suspense, Claude’s true motivation remains intriguingly elusive throughout.

“In the House” opened Friday in New York and LA at the Landmark.

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Director William Friedkin reveals the father of film noir

Mystery writer Georges Simenon “probably invented film noir,” said Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin on Thursday at a tribute to the famed Belgian author. The panel discussion and cocktail party at the W Hotel in Hollywood was hosted by Georges Simenon Ltd. and the Ile de France Film Commission.

An image from the Simenon tribute invitation

One of the best-selling writers of the 20th century, Simenon (1903-89) was uncommonly prolific – he produced 191 novels and 160 short stories, in addition to other writing.

His spare, minimalist crime stories (particularly his tales of the pipe-smoking café-frequenting Inspector Jules Maigret) clicked with millions of readers and the likes of William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jean Renoir, Claude Chabrol and Akira Kurosawa.

Simenon’s work inspired 70 feature films and 500 hours of TV worldwide.

“I started reading Simenon around the time I made ‘The French Connection,’ ” said Friedkin. “I certainly was influenced by his writing. He’s thought of as a thriller writer but he defies genre. The ‘romans durs’ [tough novels] were the ones that most resonated with me. They’re so simple and yet complex in their portrayal of character.”

Friedkin pointed to “The Man on the Eiffel Tower” (1949, Burgess Meredith) as one of the most exciting Simenon adaptations. Based on the novel “A Battle of Nerves” and starring Charles Laughton as Maigret, Friedkin said the scene in a crowded restaurant as the murderer and detective get into a heated talk amid ever-louder violins is “absolutely magnificent and may be my favorite scene in the movies.”

(More of Friedkin’s cinematic influences and inspirations likely will be revealed in his forthcoming book, “The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir,” which he confirmed at the party is scheduled for publication in March 2013.)

Joining Friedkin on the panel were John Simenon (one of the author’s sons), scriptwriter John Brian King and Olivier-René Veillon of the Ile de France Film Commission.

John Simenon confirmed that his father’s friendships with cops, criminals and doctors (he also read medical journals regularly) lent his work a gritty authenticity. Furthering the inventor-of-film-noir description, Veillon explained that the city of Paris, which was radically rebuilt and modernized in the 1860s according to Baron Haussmann’s vision, served as a gift to artists, especially Simenon.

“All the characters are defined by their location and their relationship with the city,” Veillon said. Just as the reconceived Paris and its denizens provided rich fodder for Simenon’s imagination, his fiction is ripe for new adaptations on screen.

Friedkin also asked John Simenon to recount his relationship with his father. “He was demanding in terms of how to conduct yourself and how to be a man. But he was there and he was very present, much more present than many fathers are today and more present than I can be for my son.”

Georges Simenon, 1963, by Erling Mandelmann.

One of the first questions from the audience came from a sly Brit, who wanted to know the secrets to Simenon’s sex life, referencing the notion that Simenon was one of the great Casanovas of his time and claimed to have slept with 10,000 women.

First noting that he had not inherited this trait, John Simenon said this comment was “totally overblown” and “more of a joke” stemming from a reported conversation with director Federico Fellini. Between his work, his children and his love for food and cooking, that much bed-hopping would have been a mighty scheduling challenge.

His personal life aside, one of the most important women Georges Simenon knew was the French novelist Colette (1873-1954), whom he met early in his career and who advised him to eschew the literary, to cut his stories to the bone.

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Totally exciting, wildly preposterous: French police thriller ‘Point Blank’ knocks us out, then keeps right on going

Point Blank/2010/Magnolia Pictures/90 min.

French police thrillers, especially the classics by Clouzot, Chabrol and Melville, used to be a bit more plausible and psychologically acute than their American counterparts – explosive action shoot-’em-ups that have mostly tried to knock us on our asses. Not so these days. The French cops-and-robbers hit movie “Point Blank” out-Yanks the Yanks by knocking us on our derrieres in the first few minutes – and then keeps it up, racing like hell on wheels for the next 80.

That’s the good news: It’s an exciting movie. The bad news is that, like many of its U.S. counterparts, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. The other good news is that writer/director Fred Cavayé’s movie is so well-gunned and goes by so damned fast, you barely notice the holes as you bounce over them.

Gilles Lellouche as Samuel is caught between the crooks and the cops.

The plot, jam-packed into the movie’s screamingly fast running time, has to do with a hit man named Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem, the somberly magnetic actor of “Days of Glory”) who’s been betrayed and nearly killed. He winds up in the hospital in the custody of the police and the care of a low-key male nurse, Samuel Pierret (the amiable and wonderfully nervous Gilles Lellouche).

Samuel saves Hugo from more would-be assassins and then, to his horror, finds himself trapped between the crooks and the cops – and the crooks who are cops (quite a lot of them, as it turns out). Under the evil command of the Teutonic-looking Commandant Patrick Werner (Gerard Lanvin), who’s actually conducting the investigation of his own crimes, those rogue police start chasing Hugo and Samuel all around Paris.

And, for insurance, they kidnap Samuel‘s beautiful wife Nadia (Elena Anaya), who’s eight months pregnant – threatening her death unless Samuel helps them. Soon Samuel and Hugo have become friends, of a sort, and a large section of Paris has become a bloody battleground.

I told you it didn’t make much sense. And, as I said, it doesn’t really matter. Cavayé, an ex-fashion photographer with a good eye and a blistering sense of pace, also made the big French neo-noir hit “Pour Elle,” which was translated and Americanized into the savagely improbable Russell Crowe thriller “The Next Three Days.” (Hollywood copied it so fast that Cavayé’s French original wasn’t imported and may still pop up here.)

Like Luc Besson and his disciples, Cavayé can do certain high-tech American tricks better than a lot of Americans. How does he get any suspension of disbelief, besides pure speed and kinetic rush? The leads, Zem, Lellouche and Anaya, are all excellent actors (Zem has a great glare) and they bring emotional conviction to a story you can barely believe for a minute.

The title “Point Blank,” by the way, has nothing to do with Cavayé’s original title “A Bout Portant” and nothing to do with the 1967 Lee Marvin-John Boorman noir classic “Point Blank,” which in turn was adapted from the 1962 Richard Stark-Donald Westlake novel “The Hunter,” which has nothing to do with the 1980 Steve McQueen crime thriller of the same name.

But whether you call it “Point Blank” or “A Bout Portant” or “The French Reconnection” or “Paris Goes Kaboom,” this is still one totally exciting if often wildly preposterous movie.

– Michael Wilmington

“Point Blank” opens July 29. (In French with English subtitles.)

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COL•COA Festival offers first-rate lineup, mais oui!

Tickets are going fast for the 15th annual City of Lights, City of Angels (COL•COA) Film Festival that runs today through April 18 in Los Angeles.
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In addition to 26 shorts, the festival will present 34 features, including several premieres. “The relationship between COL•COA and our audiences has evolved into a genuine love story over the last 15 years,” says Director and Programmer François Truffart. “We are thrilled that for this 15th anniversary year, we will bring an equally exclusive and high-profile lineup, keeping the passion for French cinema alive.”
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And Friday, April 15, is the film noir series featuring:
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At 5:45 p.m.: In “The Night Clerk” Vincent Rottiers plays Frédéric, a young man trying to return to society after his release from prison. He finds work in a mountain hotel owned by the bad-tempered Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri). Though Frédéric suspects Jacques may be involved in the mysterious disappearance of a hotel client, he remains silent to protect him. But police inspector Sylvie Poncet (Sylvie Testud) makes it harder and harder for Frédéric to keep quiet. Directed by Raphaël Jacoulot.

Romain Duris and Marina Foïs star in "The Big Picture."

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At 7:45 p.m.: “The Big Picture” stars Romain Duris as a successful lawyer who seems to lead an enviable life. When he learns his wife is having an affair, he accidentally kills her lover. His orderly life now in ruins, he assumes the dead man’s identity and flees to the former Yugoslavia. Supporting actors include Catherine Deneuve, Branka Katic and Niels Arestrup. Based on a novel by Douglas Kennedy; directed by Eric Lartigau.

At 10:15 p.m.: “The Long Falling” tells the story of a battered woman (Yolande Moreau) who kills her husband of 30 years, tries to reunite with her estranged son and ends up on the run. Based on a novel by Keith Ridgway; directed by Martin Provost.
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Other highlights include the following; see the site for details:
*CLASSIC REVIVAL: “Cold Cuts” (Bertrand Blier, 1977) With Gerard Depardieu, Bernard Blier, Jean Carmet. Classic black comedy about three inept murderers. Cast member Bernard Blier, a famous French actor, is director Bertrand Blier’s father.
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*CLASSIC REVIVAL: “Les Bonnes Femmes” (Claude Chabrol, 1960). With Bernadette Lafont, Stephane Audran and Claude Berri. Noir master Chabrol’s classic New Wave tale of four Parisian shopgirls and their lives and dreams.

Catherine Deneuve

*“His Mother’s Eyes,” a drama starring Catherine Deneuve as a celebrity news anchor and Nicolas Duvauchelle as a troubled young author who wants to write her unauthorized biography and seduces her estranged daughter (Géraldine Pailhas) as a means of gathering information. Directed by Thierry Klifa.
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*“The Clink of Ice,” Bertrand Blier’s new film; Blier will appear for discussion.
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*Also be sure to check out: New films by well-known French directors Claude Lelouch, Guillaume Cantet, Catherine Breillat, Cedric Klapisch, Nicole Garcia, Jean Becker and Benoit Jacquot.
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*To celebrate the announcement and recipients of the 2011 COL•COA awards, two of the winning films will be re-screened for free on Monday, April 18 at 7:30 p.m.
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All films are screened at the Directors Guild Theater Complex, 7920 Sunset Blvd., in Los Angeles (half a block west of Fairfax Avenue and two blocks east of Crescent Heights). Free parking is available at the Directors Guild. Enter on Hayworth Avenue.
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“The Big Picture” image from www.indiewire.com; Catherine Deneuve photo by Brigitte Lacombe, from www.altfg.com.
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