Frantz : A Film Review

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Dir: François Ozon; Starring: Paula Beer, Pierre Niney, Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber, Anton von Lucke, Cyrielle Clair. 12A cert, 114 mins.

Setting of Post World War 1

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The opening passage of François Ozon’s elegant interwar romance invites us to second-guess the story that links Parisian musician Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) to Anna’s late love, Frantz. Frantz is Anton von Lucke.

A melancholic period drama, Frantz, is an elegant reimagining of the story behind Ernst Lubitsch’s undersung 1932 drama Broken Lullaby.  It is Post World War One in a central German hillside town called Quedlinburg which is a UNESCO protected location.  It is the backdrop to the family home of the Hoffmeisters whose son Frantz was killed in action on French soil.  The elderly parents remain,  Doctor Hans and Mrs Magda Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber) are in the middle of the town and still Hans practices as a Doctor.  They have provided a roof over the head of Franzt’s intended bride whose daily visit to the grave erected in the hilltop cemetery is her place of comfort and the families only memorial.
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Complex emotive story

This is a deeply sad and complex war story told exquisitely by the twin hands of the principles, Anna (Paula Beer) and Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) alongside a strong supporting cast.  The town Quedlinburg is a lost empty place without the middle aged and young men it has given to the war.  In one scene in the Hotel, Tavern, which is the centre of town life in some respects, it is notable when Doctor Hoffmeister goes along to a meeting of the menfolk, how with only one year having passed and pain, grief an anguish are all palpable and hurt is within the very bodies of the survivors.  Those with whom some responsibility lies in sending their young offspring to war.  This hurt regret, remorse, redress, reflection, is not a redemptive theme explored by the very masterful direction of François Ozon but one of conscious.  Retaining your sense of self and direction is troubling for everyone. Ozon’s past films are absorbing emotional spirited in theme as were, the sensuous Swimming Pool and Jeune & Jolie, with soon to be unveiled, Double Lover marking a return to those emotive personal tales after this more constrained and brilliantly balanced story of the melt within Europe over borders you cannot see in the Isra she shoots across the view from Quedlinburg.  At a height of thought also, he takes this story markedly into a melting pot of ideas and that it took place almost 100 years ago it’s a vision and offering for our own times.

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Anna and Adrien.

Centrally Anna and Adrien are brought together in this aftermath.  This is a summary position of dealing which their individual pasts.  The footsteps are first taken as we see Anna, after an opening shot of a hot simmering country wide view in one frame in colour, then into black and white of Anna buying flowers at he market stalls of Quedlinburg.  The streets rise to the cemetery through ancient narrow cobbles, up a steep set of steps to the open plain of the graveyard.  It is drenched in bright sunshine and François Ozon begins painting frames as an artist does with the drooping darkness of heavy topped trees branches shading parts of the graveyard and it’s random pattern of stones laid in rough rows seem to lend a peace and sense of ease as the order is lost and not heightened as was the third Reich.  This has a poignancy exacting of the sense of place, its genus loci being this infringement between the living and the dead in memories.

The compelling question from the outset is – Why is Adrien leaving flowers on the grave of a German soldier, Frantz?  With a sweep of a leafbrush the graveyard attendant imparts his identity as that f aFrenchman who is staying in the aforesaid Hotel.  The connections have to be pursued and it is the object of both to reach a point where they can talk.
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Skip comparative reviews.

There is a school of thought which I deplore, in some reviewers making connections – as they have done with this in respect of Vertigo, –  the displaced person in a love triangle, – of the other, a Hitchcock rumination akin to Rebecca – which in this film are totally useless. That viewpoint actually labours the point to actually attune it more to this misread being the theme of the film in scores.  The film is enfused with hidden truths, conceits, contrivances made to ease the pain and harm of things past. It is even seen by one as being like the work of another director preposterously so. Being unlike Ozon is very Ozon. It is in fact gloriously rendered which makes any pathetic correlation a nonsense.  The film stands alone as an art piece and while the artist, director have long connections through their own process of becoming directors themselves it is not a place to put those connections to the fore as ‘influences’, that is a tedious comparison.  This artwork speaks for itself.  …. One review has discovered it is nothing whatsoever led by the fore said but still posits …    (although his influence on the final film is undeniable).  As if this should or would have any relevance to a viewer allowing the piece to tell its own story.  Superbly.
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Anna’s horrible dilemma.

The perils of Anna whose life is in limbo, a short time after the war, is polemic.  Her past life and proposed future is totally conflicted by the grief she shares with Doctor and Mrs Hoffmeister.  The performance of Paula Beer is a colossal depiction of grief internally residual.  She holds her grief intact and in so doing is asking questions of herself, throughout the first, second and third acts as she deals with new developments and disclosures.  She, in so doing, makes herself vulnerable and inconsolable at times, internally so.  When she meets with Adrien after observing him from a distance at the cemetery, she is both shaken by his perceived closeness to her lost fiancé.  In seeking answers she also is caught in a despairing, unrelenting story of loss with no parties able to reach out to the truth.  Adrien is adroit at making things appear plausible and acceptable.  He is handsome, has an angular tautness, is eloquent, thoughtful, possibly well educated man.  Perhaps too thoughtful and naive in the possibilities that might arise from his actions.  He is brought into the family home and with that deepens his lachrymose impediment, his imbedded grief, disabling him to points of disclosure, as the hurt would be unbearable.  Seeing them is a barrier to telling what he knows in full, with their openness and hospitality having been satiated by Anna in advance making this dramatic encounter when it eventually is arranged profoundly heartfelt.  What lies beneath this surface is not known nor will it be shared for sometime if at all.  This is the magnificence of the story telling, unfolding in aching timbre emoted visually touching through the actors prearadness softly set out in slow framed consciousness.  The cinematography has a slight taint to it in that it uses cascade at times out of synch with the unfolding piece.  For instance the changes from black and white to colour, the cascade, are intended to visualise the positive and warmth in relations iincrementally developing.  Yet it sometimes remains in black and white while that positivity is surging.  There are flashbacks to scenes described between Anna and Adrien of Frantz in the prior period.  That advances War scenes in colour and disharmony on the part of the rhetoric.  It could have been the intention to depict falsehoods in colour but that is neither the case.

Station to station

The belle indifférence with the previous pre-war world is seen in the French sequences of Paris seen as a repairing regrenerating counterpoint to Germany with strolling through the Louvre.  Looking at Manets The Bathers with beneath it, Le Suicide.  The Parisienne fortunes appear secure until late we visit the city and see its invalided body shattered and barely functional.  Losses are in the second half now relater back to the French mirror image with raw torn hearts spilling with their own grief.  The lack of manpower to rebuild also is evident.  The Cafe Belle Époque of the prewar years have vanished as if they never existed.  These times in France are frequently visited as in Therese Discomany, the Francóis Maurice love story or romance and in England it spurred Hillaire Belloc to read into the French and German dilemma such things as were prescient as his boook simply called The Jews reflects.   The era is a classic place of adjustment on the continent.  The borders of the Versailles Treaty escaping the paper constructs of power brokerage and envisioning some relenting peace are to determine so many revisions and the place of starting over.  Such memories of that war were psychologically damaged stubbing for the human beings that survived and were born into it.  This is a point well travelled by François Ozon.  The tributes to people lie everywhere you step.  The consoling and consoled.  The embittered and the vengeful.  The hardened and positive, negative deniers.  The words of the script are beautifully sharp and breathing every btreath allowing the characters to deeply affect you.  There are no persons within it who are trivialised by being seen as perpetrators, or being the enemy.  Far from it the sensitivities are enlarger by the resort to poetry as in the Verlaine poem recited at one point and the rendition in a public place of La Marseillaise. Discomforting in its – subtitled English excentuates the folly of some heroic words – presence there, right in the time.  The immovable shape of the form of war.
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Conclusion ####4

The film of the year so far for me.  Frantz is a lesson for modern living.  The exploration of the psychological depths people go to to either convince themselves of a truth or naively embark on consuming someone else’s apparent truth are startlingly effective. It is a sad and remorselessly engaging heroic film.  Anna is a flawed heroine as indeed despite his misreading of the reasoning he puts to things, is also an essentially flawed person with a ruined perspective of life brought on undoubtedly by war.  The thought is inescapable as the war poetry of many follows in this malaise of mind tyranny in order to cope and construct something at terms with the present.  Writers like Michel Houllebecq make the morose sexual eaae methods deployed in and out of war a frequent tap root of sorrow. The novel in its 20th century incarnations after Stoker, Shelley, Balzac, Dickens have given literature many versions of the nation and the use of borders as an identity rising as a continual denier of the universal truth of equality before God.  

John Graham
17 May 2017
Belfast

On from this Friday 19 May until and including Thursday 25 May 2017

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Jawbone : A Film Review


Jawbone

Produced by Michael Elliott, Johnny Harris. Written by Johnny Harris.  Cast. Johnny Harris as Jimmy McCabe, Ray Winstone as William Carney, Ian McShane as Joe Padgett, Michael Smiley as Eddie, Luke J.I. Smith as Damian, Anna Wilson-Hall as Mary. Director : Thomas Q. Napper. Duration: 1 hr 31 mins. Cert. 15. 

Seconds out

There is no place to go for anyone whose hope has gone.  The future is a place of roadkill.  It will swallow you up.  The mind sees things it cannot control and the future is best left alone so horrendous it seems looking forward.  So what is there to do except go backwards.  Unwind the past beyond the turmoil which formed the bridge between then and now.   Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris) has hope but fear also and his upbringing has been in a closed world of boxing.  A neutral corner in his life. A year ago his mother died and he is about to lose through this own disconnection with the world the tower block flat he grew up in.  His family as young boxer were his trainer Eddie (Michael Smiley), promoter Joe (Ian McShane), and club owner Bill (Ray Winstone). He is in control only when he is in the ring as a fighter. As a boxer he became at 22 an ABA (Amateur Boxing Association) champion which is the biggest step on the ladder to becoming a professional. 


Boxing bored of control

In boxing you are either a boxer or a fighter.  Unless you are gifted and are both you will not succeed unless you are so beyond being a fighter you become a warrior or like Evander Holyfield lightening quick and as balanced as a dancer at the height of their powers.  Some boxers are so gifted as to become a capable of outwitting your opponent in every move as it’s seen in advance and a matter of choosing the right time to unleash their demons.  Seldom do boxers come through on the scale needed to sustain a living.  Joe Calzaghe was a Welsh boxer who trained in himself with his father to be hard as nails and in a club without any distractions or manipulative promoters after a quick return and fall guys.  Another was Ricky Hatton who grew a Manchester and bigger following to become a super light middleweight and his craft was speed and accuracy.  A dynamite boxer fearless, fit and fast.  Joe Calzaghe was able to handle his rise through the ranks and another Carl Froch came up with him to be British World Champion boxers. 


Jimmy McCabe is a fictional boxer and this a cut at the boxing life not seen that often in film, never mind a British film.  The boxing clubs that thrive in the working class areas and inner cities from Manilla to Manchester.  This is not at the turbulent Rocky out on your feet kamikaze ruthless blood letting film which has arches of blood swooshing around and miracles off the canvas. Yet it has as a climax a fight choreographed by Barry and Shane McGuigan.  Those two also ‘advise’ ‘train’ the boxers/actors in their ring craft in the club.  Just as well it’s not true, they couldn’t train white mice. So much than you’ll not get a sequence here, how many Rocky’s?  Taking boxing by the throats is what the promoter does.  

Joe (Ian McShane), is a character smart from his Deadwood part, here as the chief fixer and fight maker.  He appears only a few times and is played as a cross between Ronnie O’Sullivan and Barry Hearn.  One a joker maverick skilled player and the other super spiv Svengali deal maker. It doesn’t amount to much here though and it’s only a passing element. He is close to fight arrangements and sets up something for Jimmy.  It is off the usual boxing radar and highly dangerous. His skill is publicity and hype as marketing need appeal to the lower end of the market, promising this is only the beginning.  It’s usually the beginning of the end as a fighters roster needs to contain a win to loss ratio of 10 to zero.  Amateur ranks are full of talent but their ring craft is for three rounds although in tournaments they find themselves boxing every three days sometimes.


The setting

The film has a straight forward arc and is from the very beginning establishing the despair and near collapse in Jimmy’s life where things pile up and haunt him.  He is fighting addiction and is near loosing his bearings which went after his mum died.  He now is in a fixed loop with nowhere to turn and the boxing is the only thing in his mind with any real pleasure or self of self.  He is not able to fix himself without some help so goes back to the Union Street Boxing Club.  In the club the old faces of Bill (Ray Winston) who is the overseer in the under the railway arches of South East London, Lambeth and beyond, is a reconstructed hardman type as age catches up with the character and the actor.  He portrays it as always with supremely brilliant timing and facial tone.  The rough and readiness is not a put on but an everyday projection of life in the lower reaches of boxing.  He is also the deliverer of some very well crafted lines and the delivery is as I say supremely well gauged as usual for Winstone.  Eddie (Michael Smiley) has apart of a dog eyed trainer.  His long bearded face, the hound of the training ring, delivered in nasal bass Belfast notes by a flaccid poor one dimensional character which Smiley occupies as a reciter of the McGuigan training words and gestures.  Then his other acting skill was to use his hands holding Jimmy’s head in place while he delivered a heated bit of encouragement.  One thing I noticed was he barely ‘smiled,’ no pun intended nor moved a great deal.  No animation whatsoever and someone said it was ‘brilliant’ – some mistake! – and we never got to see his impressive new gnashers.  Good boxers have a good set of teeth if they come out the other end and can afford the replacements the gum shield and constant battering have loosened.  Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris) has an impressive set.  Eddie occupies an awful lot of the film as it is shot mainly in the club with a lot of outdoor work and nighttime embankment solid very well filmed and a continuation of the work Jimmy puts in – and it’s far from fake – you get a strong sense of the depths of fitness needed for a fight and it is increased and increased with every frame.  In the club there are the newest recruits to boxing.  A failure of the story was its lack of engagement with any of the junior ranks.  Not one said a word.  Not even conversational asides.  Still this was a minor problem though the same could be said about the plainness of the storylines given.  Not too many sub plots.  So Eddie was ‘boring?’ but not Bill who you got some change from watching his mastery of the part.  Jimmy AKA Johnny Harris has put his heart and soul into this film and it is this ‘tunnel’ perhaps that separate it from being a great British film of the times, Tales of the Long distance Runner, Saturday Night, Sunday Morning genre.  

 

Redemption

Salvaging something out of a life of addiction and getting beyond the harmful effects, which can be lasting and take the edge of everything including pain, is a redemptive cause.  Celebration can come if a success is made of it.  Lately Antony Joshua became a world champion at 26 having been through a few of life’s knockdowns which involved petty crime and misuse of his strength involving also electronic tagging.  His tale is a reality. A very timely one as far as this film is concerned.  There is an unobtrusive soundtrack and it is by Paul Weller showing mixing skills hitherto unheard by myself with it used very smartly (in the way Raw and Jim Williams didn’t – see last review!) with it enhancing the impact of thumping sound mixed punches and scene crowd hysteria with an energy which has you move you chin out of the way of the latest punch.  It is a good cal to have it scored so well and with a light touch. 

Conclusion ###3

For a film to get you gripped by the main character it requires a bit of screenwriter craft to draw you into the essence of the person.  I never got that until it was too late with this.  It was actually in the last third with very little drama involving pathos or sympathy in the arc and I suppose it is because the character Jimmy is an enigma.  He was less enigma towards the end.  As a boxer it is a lonely place to be.  Every boxer is on the way to proving his worth and is out to give up little of his emotional underlying self.  Ricky Hatton, even Muhammad Ali were underneath a construct of multiple persons.  The violent man was suppressed most of the time while they were bodily mentally tuned to be destroyers and to reach the top they had to be just that.  Hence the incomparable Ali performing as a spokesman contender for the whole of the sportsmen of his and any era.  The affable side we also know and love. A master.  This is where the minutiae of live comes into crystal clear focus.  If we were able to see inside a bit more and discover the obvious and real demons – in the minds of al kinds Oscar sportsmen then this would have been a flyer.  That’s not to say it’s a dud.  Far from it.  It’s just that it got the canvas too many times.

John Graham

10 May 2017

Belfast
On at Queens Film Theatre from this Friday 12 May through to and including Thursday 18 May.  For Boxing fans a must.