BPM (Beats per Minute) [120 Beats per Minute] [120 battements par minute]

(France 2017)

Ah, the early ’90s: I was in college, jeans didn’t fit right, George H.W. Bush was president, MTV was relevant, and AIDS was as deadly as ever. In the United States, the number of new cases peaked around 1993 (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5021a2.htm). During the 1980s, a slew of activist organizations sprung up in response to government indifference and inaction, largely but not exclusively that of the Reagan administration, and Big Pharma shadiness — organizations like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Queer Nation, and perhaps most famous (or infamous) ACT UP.

This is the backdrop of Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute), an imperfect yet captivating and rich period piece that portrays the AIDS crisis with accuracy, drama, a little humor, and the slightest bit of nostalgia — ill-fitting jeans be damned. BPM puts us smack in the middle of the Parisian chapter of ACT UP, which seems constantly on the brink of self-destruction with all the debating, infighting, and struggling for control among its members.

Campillo starts with a broad picture, introducing us to the group through hunky Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who joins ACT UP for reasons that he keeps guarded. Right up front, members of the group confront radical Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), a scrawny firecracker who favors the back of the room. He went off script during a botched protest involving balloons filled with fake blood.

Sean’s motive is soon clear: he’s running out of time and has none to spare for diplomacy. His impatience and prickliness are particularly acute when he’s dealing with the chapter’s leader, Thibault (Antoine Reinartz), and elder comember Sophie (Adèle Haenel), who tends to be the voice of reason.

Those in the group don’t shy away from saying what’s on their mind, and their debates are vigorous to say the least. Interestingly, there’s a lot of flirting and cruising going on. Nathan encounters some attitude, particularly from the poz members — he happens to be HIV negative. He and Sean hit it off, though. Campillo zooms in on them as they get intimate, letting their relationship take center stage. We get their backstories over pillow talk, and it makes for some of the finest moments in this film. They get closer as Sean’s health deteriorates. Campillo brings the group back to the fore by the end, displaying the strong sense of community that has been there all along. It outshines all the bickering and dysfunction.

BPM is an accomplishment on many levels. The historical perspective is solid, giving the whole thing an authentic feel, almost like a documentary. Cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie’s faded color palette and lighting actually look like the ‘90s. Campillo and Philippe Mangeot’s screenplay is smartly written, loaded with sharp dialogue that engages even when the activity level drops. The narrative arc here is terrific. The end could use some minor editing, but otherwise the long scenes and slow pace work because we’re getting a lot of information. While each actor carries his or her own weight, Pérez Biscayart easily emerges as the star.

Politics, ideology, and HIV status all draw lines in this group, but its members are united by a shared mission. Plus, they’ve got lives to lead, however much time they have left. BPM is a gentle — and somehow very French — reminder that life goes on.

With Felix Maritaud, Médhi Touré, Aloïse Sauvage, Simon Bourgade, Catherine Vinatier, Saadia Ben Taieb, Ariel Borenstein, Théophile Ray, Simon Guélat, Jean-François Auguste, Coralie Russier, Samuel Churin, Yves Heck, Emmanuel Ménard, Pauline Guimard, François Rabette

Production: Les Films de Pierre, France 3 Cinéma, Page 114, Memento Films, FD Production

Distribution: Memento Films

143 Minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B+

Chicago International Film Festival

http://bpm.film

La Chinoise

(France 1967)

“Okay, it’s fiction. But it brings me closer to reality.”

— Véronique

Set in the context of the New Left movement in late 1960s France, Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise is not really about the political ideas it raises — many of which seem relevant today. No, at its core is Godard satirizing the idealism of youth.

Structured as a mockumentary in what undoubtedly is an intentionally scrappy art school style, La Chinoise is a series of “interviews” of five middle class college students about their Maoist terrorist organization. Headquartered in a loft apartment in a suburb of Paris, they named their organization “Aden Arabie” after a novel by French communist Paul Nizan.

The apartment, all done up in primary colors like a Piet Mondrian painting, is owned by one of the members’ parents.

Véronique (Anne Wiazemsky, who sadly died exactly a week before the screening I attended) (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/obituaries/anne-wiazemsky-french-film-star-and-novelist-dies-at-70.html) is the bossy leader, a philosophy student from a family of bankers. She’s involved with Guillaume (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a “theatrical actor.” Yvonne (Juliet Berto) grew up on a farm and works as a housekeeper and occasional hooker. She’s involved with Henri (Michel Semeniako), a writer who protests and publishes essays. Serge Kirilov (Lex de Bruijin) is a Russian nihilist who is single and suicidal.

La Chinoise is dense with ramblings about social and economic philosophy, politics, and literature. However, Godard uses all of it to make his point: these are kids who are still naïve and don’t fully grasp what they say they stand for. He shows them running around with toy weapons, playing school, and acting out scenes from books in the apartment, often cutting to pictures of comic book and cartoon characters. The joke is pretty funny when you consider the bourgeois backgrounds of the kids.

A conversation between Véronique and French philosopher Francis Jeanson on a train best illustrates Godard’s point: he asks a series of questions challenging her proposal to blow up the university in an effort to expose the flaws in her plan — and maybe get her to question her motives and the depth of her conviction. It goes over her head. So much for carrying pictures of Chairman Mao.

Side note: Claude Channes’s song “Mao-Mao” features prominently here. It’s a nifty little earworm.

With Omar Blondin Diop

Production: Anouchka Films, Les Productions de la Guéville, Athos Films, Parc Film, Simar Films

Distribution: Athos Films (France), Pennebaker Films (United States), Kino Lorber

96 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+

https://www.kinolorber.com/film/view/id/1111

A Trip to the Moon [Le Voyage dans la lune]

(France 1902)

I’m guessing that a large number of people recognize a particular still from A Trip to the Moon — the one of the “spaceship” lodged into the moon’s “eye” like a bullet. I’m also guessing that a large number of people have never seen the film. I was one of them — until this afternoon.

Written and directed by French film pioneer Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon is a lot cooler than I expected. Imaginative and surprisingly sophisticated, it’s downright cinematic in the way it approaches its subject matter and tells its story. Méliès demonstrates far greater artistic and dramatic flair than his American contemporaries, at least from what I’ve seen.

In a Medieval chamber, a wise old astronomer (Méliès) proposes traveling to the moon, only to be scoffed at by his colleagues (Victor André, Brunnet, Henri Delannoy, Depierre, Farjaut, Kelm). Undeterred, he shows them how it will work. Soon, they’re heading for outer space in a vessel that looks like a big bullet fired with a cannon from the rooftops of Paris.

The astronomers land on the moon and deboard their “space bullet” — no need for space suits, of course. They set up camp. As they sleep, celestial bodies like a comet, the Big Dipper, and Saturn all appear in the night sky. A moon goddess (Bleuette Bernon) makes it snow. They awake and encounter huge mushrooms and insect-like aliens — played by acrobats in tights and a mask — that explode on impact. A mob of aliens captures them and takes them to the leader. The astronomers escape and flee to their capsule, aliens pursuing them. Will they get back to Earth safely?

I found A Trip to the Moon charming. It’s got a nifty surreal Alice in Wonderland meets 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea vibe. It’s theatrical and visually stunning, especially the hand tinted color — yes, color — version. The attention to detail is, in a word, heavenly.

Méliès was a wealthy Paris shoemaker who longed to be an artist. He ultimately sold his share of the family business to his brothers and bought a theater, where he performed magic shows (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Méliès). A demonstration of a cinematograph, a combination camera/projector/printer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinematograph), in 1895 sparked his interest in film. He’s considered a sci-fi groundbreaker.

With Jeanne d’Alcy, François Lallement, Jules-Eugène Legris

Production: Star Film Company

Distribution: Star Film Company (France), American Mutoscope & Biograph (USA), Edison Manufacturing Company (USA), S. Lubin (USA), Kleine Optical Company (USA), Niels Le Tort (Sweden), The Royal Wonder Bio (Slovenia)

13 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) A

24 Hours in the Life of a Clown [Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown]

(France 1946)

But where are the clowns? Send in the clowns. Okay, don’t bother, two of them are in this short by the great French director Jean-Pierre Melville. 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown [Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown] is just that: a day in the life of Beby, a clown who lives in Montmarte. A multitude of fedoras costar.

In between performances at Circus Medrano, Beby walks the streets of Paris, sleeps with his little dog (but not his wife), reads fan mail, drinks at a café, and puts on makeup with his friend and fellow clown Maïss. Interestingly enough, this is not the only short to feature Maïss, who later appeared in Rodolphe Marcilly’s Centaures et pastiche in 1953.

Who knew clowns pray?

24 Hours in the Life of a Clown holds historical and artistic significance as Melville’s first film. It highlights his style, albeit in its infancy, playing with light and dark. His approach is tongue in cheek, and his “narration” (this is not a “talkie”) strongly suggests Melville knew well that his hoary little film is silly.

Still, it’s interesting if only for the scenery, all 1940s drab and threadbare, and the documentary feel of it. Beby’s apartment reminds me of the one in Eraserhead.

Production: Les Films du Panthéon

18 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

Breathless [Á bout de souffle]

(France 1960)

“After all, I’m an asshole.”

—Michel Poiccard

The third time is a charm: after seeing Jean Luc-Godard’s first full length feature film, Breathless, I now understand the love-meh relationship I have with his work.

On one hand, he’s got a remarkable grasp of human behavior and what motivates it. He’s got a snarky sense of humor. He’s stylish. His technique is gutsy for a lot of reasons. His characters are flawed. His subject matter is cool. He knows how to make a film look pretty, and most of them might as well be deemed official historical documents of the places where they were shot. Seeing a Godard film is like traveling back in time, an incidental bonus he probably never considered. I love all of this.

For all his strengths, on the other hand, a Godard film can be so damned…boring. Merde!

Fortunately, that’s not quite the case with Breathless, which I actually enjoyed. Godard and François Truffaut developed the story—I won’t call it a script or a screenplay because they made up much of it as they went along. Plot is always a loose construct with Godard, but there’s enough of one here to follow along fairly easily. Ugly cute guy (or is he a cute ugly guy?) Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a drifter car thief who fancies himself a French Humphrey Bogart, steals a car and drives it through the countryside. He shots and kills a policeman who pursues him.

With nowhere else to go, he heads straight to his American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), an expat student who sells a newspaper, the now defunct New York Herald Tribune, on the Champs-Élysées—that’s kind of weird—and writes articles here and there. She brings Michel to her apartment, where he hides out. He doesn’t mention anything to her about what happened. They get it on, or at least it’s implied that they do. She’s tells him she’s pregnant. One extended scene involves them lying around, talking.

Michel becomes a marked man, which he discovers soon enough after he leaves the apartment with Patricia and sees a newspaper with a headline about him. I won’t ruin the ending, but it doesn’t bode well for him—especially after Godard himself sees Michel.

Breathless is a psuedo noir thriller that’s low on action but loaded with morally vacant characters who lack any redeeming qualities. There’s a nihilistic sexiness to it. The narrative moves along in a jazzy free-form way, and the imagery here is every bit a part of the story as the characters. The ending is not a happy one. If nothing else, Breathless is a visual stunner—black and white cinematic candy. The restored digital version I saw literally glowed.

I can handle more films like this one.

With Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Van Doude, Liliane David, Michel Fabre, Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Mansard, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Balducci, Jacques Rivette

Production: Les Films Impéria, Les Productions Georges de Beauregard, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)

Distribution: Films Georges de Beauregard, Les Films Impéria, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC), Euro International Film (EIA) (Italy), Pallas Filmverleih (West Germany), British Lion Film Corporation (UK), Cinematográfica Azteca (Mexico), Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Wivefilm (Sweden), Films Around the World (USA), Rialto Pictures (USA), Criterion Collection (USA)

90 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) B

http://www.jean-lucgodard.com/films.html

https://www.criterion.com/films/268-breathless

Amélie [Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain]

(France/Germany 2001)

“I like to look for things no one else catches.”

—Amélie Poulain

The Associate Board of Chicago International Film Festival presented a special screening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, a sumptuous, romantic fantasy of a film that looks as good as it feels. I’ve seen it many times. It’s unrealistic, maybe even a bit silly; yet, it always leaves me smiling. I couldn’t pass up the chance to see it again.

Young Amélie Poulain (Flora Guiet) has a lonely childhood: her odd parents are overreactive, overprotective, and emotionally distant, preferring to rearrange the contents of their toolbox and purse than pay much attention to her. It’s so bad that her heart races when her father, Raphaël (Rufus), a physican, touches her during her annual checkup—a narrator (André Dussollier) explains that all she wants is a hug.

Her father misdiagnoses Amélie with a heart condition. As a result, she’s kept inside from the world and homeschooled by her mother, Amandine (Lorella Cravotta), a rather hysterical woman with a nervous tic in her eye. Amélie retreats into her imagination to deal with it all. Her home environment is so stifling, it makes her pet goldfish, Blubber, jump out of its bowl in multiple suicide attempts. A separate suicide at Notre-Dame, this one successful, changes Amélie’s life, leaving her father to raise her alone without any siblings, which her mother apparently wanted for her. C’est la vie.

Fast forward to 1997: grown up Amélie (Audrey Tautou) is a stylish but shy waitress at a café in the 18th Arrondissement of Paris—artsy Montmartre. While home alone (as usual) in her flat one evening—August 31, 1997—a TV news report of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed’s fatal car accident jolts Amélie, causing a chain reaction that leads her directly to a rusty box of a boy’s trinkets from the 1950s hidden in her bathroom wall. She discerns the identity of the family who lived in her flat back then and devises an elaborate scheme to reunite the boy, now an older man (Maurice Bénichot), with his “treasures” while staying completely anonymous and out of view. It works, bringing happiness to him and in the process to Amélie.

Thrilled with her accomplishment, she decides that her life’s work will be making others happy—in her own amusingly roundabout, always off to the side way. Amélie, you see, prefers to be invisible. She describes what she sees to a blind man (Jean Darie), kidnaps her father’s garden gnome to inspire him to travel, mails a bunch of fake love letters to her landlord (Yolande Moreau) whose husband abandoned her decades ago, and fixes up a hypochondriac coworker (Isabelle Nanty) with a volatile café patron (Dominique Pinon) who just got dumped.

Amélie’s covert approach goes swimmingly for others, but not so much for her own happiness—something she discovers once she encounters Nino Quincampoix (Mathieu Kassovitz), a handsome and quirky stranger who works at a porn shop and collects discarded photos from a photo booth at Gare de l’Est. Amélie can’t bring herself to show herself to Nino, let alone speak to him through a door. Can her neighbor, “the Glass Man” (Serge Merlin), talk some sense into her?

Everything about Amélie dazzles. Just like earlier films Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children, Amélie is a treat, showcasing Jeunet’s distinct buoyantly surreal visual and narrative style. He’s more sophisticated here, though. He throws in offbeat narrative sidebars that tell about his characters. With wide shots, unexpected angles, a pallet of vividly dark colors, and a mix of elements from different decades, he concocts an idealized version of Paris that highlights all that makes it romantic and dreamy. It works well with Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography, which has a cool sepiatone air to it. My favorite shot is the one of Amélie literally dissolving into a puddle of water.

Tatou is wonderfully mischievous, emulating both Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Tinkerbell. You can’t help but fall for her as she turns the mundane into magnifique. Kassovitz, who comes off as a weirdo at first, capably metamorphoses Nino into a go-getter who turns out to be a great match for Amélie. Plus, he’s easy on the eyes.

122 minutes
Rated R

(Public Chicago) A

Chicago International Film Festival

http://www.miramax.com/movie/amelie/

A Married Woman [Une femme mariee]

(France 1964)

The original show about nothing, A Married Woman walks us through fragments of a day in the life of Charlotte (Macha Méril), a young wife torn between two lovers: her practical husband (Philippe Leroy) and her passionate, intellectual paramour (Bernard Noël). Apparently not in a hurry to choose one over the other, she’s thrown into a pickle when her doctor informs her she’s pregnant and she realizes that she doesn’t know which one is the father.

Heavy on closeups and dialogue, A Married Woman is thoroughly Modernist: more a treatise than a story, it delves into subjects like relationships, love, sex, morality, and the differences bewteen men and women through conversations that are practically interviews. Jean-Luc Godard stated that this film “attacks a certain mode of life; that of air conditioning, of the prefabricated, of advertising.” His sentiment is evident in all three yuppiesque main characters: they seem detached and adrift, oblivious to the impact their actions have on those around them. A Married Woman is sensual but not sexy, intimate but not warm, critical but not exactly moralistic, and clever but not always interesting.

It’s not all dour, though. Rita Maiden as the couple’s chatty housekeeper adds a priceless air of levity. A scene revealing Charlotte’s thoughts as she eavesdrops on two girls discussing sex at a cafe is hilarious if kinda mean. Gorgeous shots of midcentury Paris play like moving postcards. The little stuff here kept me engaged. I appreciate what Godard was getting at, but I found his execution ultimately underwhelming.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C+

http://en.unifrance.org/movie/5416/a-married-woman

Dior and I

(USA 2014)

Frédéric Tchang’s peek behind closed doors at the preparation of designer Raf Simons’ debut for Dior. Oh yeah, and he only has eight weeks to create his collection. Will he pull it off?

Though Dior and I (thankfully) lacks the craziness of Project Runway, we still get to see the inner workings, stress, and low key drama surrounding Simons as he strives to maintain the integrity of the brand while adding his own individual point of view to it. Tchang juxtaposes archival footage of Mr. Dior himself, effectively serving as an homage without coming off as cheesy. And that flower mansion is fucking awesome!

(AMC River East) B-

http://www.diorandimovie.com

Band of Outsiders [Bande à part]

(France 1964)

Jean-Luc Godard’s adaptation of Fool’s Gold, a 1958 novel by American author Dolores Hitchens. Two bad boys, Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur) convince Odile (Anna Karina), a pretty but simple classmate  in their ESL course, to aid and abet their robbery of her sponsor (Georges Staquet). Beautiful black and white shots of mid-Sixties Paris, old cars and clothes, and an iconic dance scene (not to mention a nine-minute long run-through tour of the Louvre) are big pluses. However, the overall pace was too slow and the plot uninteresting for my post-Modern sensibilities. Godard himself called it his least favorite film of his, so it’s not just me. Whew.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-

https://www.criterion.com/films/291-band-of-outsiders