Francofonia: Defying categorization, Alexander Sokurov’s hypnotically watchable Francofonia (Music Box, $24.19 Blu-ray, $20.69 DVD) is an essay and a collage, a historical fiction that is also documentary about its own creation, a place where past and present can collide during a single circular pan. Its subject is the Louvre, particularly the museum’s uncertain future during the German occupation of the Second World War. Though it would seem to be a matching bookend to Sukorov’s other museum film Russian Ark — his single-take docudramatic voyage through the Hermitage — Francofonia is closer in spirit to Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City: a mélange of curated history and memory filtered through the director’s own on-screen narration.
“Might it be that this museum is worth more than all of France?” Sukorov muses early on, over a virtuosic aerial shot of the Louvre. The time he spent in the museum, filming sculptures and paintings by Old Masters after hours, is expectedly stunning: You can feel the textures of the form and the context of the content in every proud portrait. But this is only a fraction of Francofonia’s 87-minute running time. The rest is divided between archival photographs and videos and re-created historical scenes; sometimes, quite deliberately, we can’t discern the difference between the real and the conjured.
The reenactments concern the forced collaboration between Louvre representative and French civil servant Jacques Jaujard (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and German count Franz Wolff-Metternich (Benjamin Utzerath) to preserve the Louvre’s collection during the Nazi occupation of Paris, each man inspired by different motivations. Filming their conversations clandestinely, from the end of marbled hallways or through doorways of adjacent rooms, Sukorov eavesdrops on an imagined history that looks, feels and sounds unearthed from WWII rubble: The faux found footage is splotchy, sepia-tinted and poorly lit by a bulb that fades in and out like a dying pulse. The images are as cracked and brittle as the antiquities that fill the Louvre’s galleries.
This isn’t the only way the film foregrounds its artifice: Split-screens, animation, digital maps, picture-on-picture layering and the inclusion of the clapperboard prior to the reenactments are just some of the visual tools Sokurov employs to convey this story of art and war in all its complexity, to say nothing of the intermittent appearances of Napoleon (Vincent Nemeth), in his period digs, wandering the halls of the modern Louvre. Over these flourishes, Sukorov narrates sober facts about the Nazi death machine, philosophical observations about art and culture, riddles and even the occasional self-effacing aside.
It all goes a long way in turning what could have felt like a homework assignment into a living, breathing work of postmodern art and historical criticism. That it’s one of the year’s best films almost goes without saying: More than that, it’s further proof that cinema can be a form of enlightenment.Van Gogh: Maurice Pialat’s penultimate film, from 1991 (Cohen, $28.79 Blu-ray, $23.24 DVD), is an intimately sprawling account of Vincent Van Gogh’s (Jacques Dutronc) final 67 days, which he spent in a spartan room in a provincial inn and in the company of his physician, Paul Gachet (Gerard Sety).
We witness Van Gogh’s descent into alcoholism, depression and madness, and his gradual alienation of everyone close to him, but without the melodrama and sturm und drang associated with larger-than-life biopics. Beyond the title images, there are no close-ups of Van Gogh’s art, no reflections on his influence, no dramatic signposts from the painter’s tumultuous life, no musical score to manipulate our emotions. The film seems to be composed entirely of the sleepy, uneventful roads between those signposts, editing out the sex, the suicide attempts, the dramaturgical fireworks.
The same can be said for the performances. A far cry from Kirk Douglas’ bombastic Van Gogh in Minnelli’s Lust for Life and even Tim Roth’s soul-rotting version, in Altman’s Vincent and Theo, Dutronc’s interpretation of the painter is fully demystified and free of idolatry, a ragged collection of skin and bones wilting before our eyes. And instead of histrionics, platitudes and trailer-ready sound bites, Pialat’s dialogue has an uncanny feel for observed life, allowing for linguistic diversions about women’s liberation, consumerism and alternative medicine.
Van Gogh’s tone is as elusive and multifaceted as life; even somber moments are often studded by shards of surprising humor. Few other directors would pause a philosophical argument between Theo Van Gogh (Bernard Le Coq) and his wife Johanna (Corinne Bourdon) so that the latter could pop her husband’s blackhead, but Van Gogh is populated by such diffident interludes, the embodiment of critic Manny Farber’s preference for “termite art” over “white elephant art.” It’s a one-of-a-kind anti-Art masterpiece, finally available on an extras-packed transfer that is never less than stunning.Muriel: “It’s good to go back to old things,” a character says blithely toward the end of Alain Resnais’ third feature, from 1963 (Criterion, $26.19 Blu-ray, $19.69 DVD). It’s a statement that applies, in a heavier capacity, to the director as much as any character in this oblique tragedy. As in his international breakthroughs Last Year at Marienbad and Hiroshima mon amour, Muriel finds the discursive director still tethered to the past: The protags’ wounding memories and unburied traumas hurtle into the present with the same restless energy as his staccato editing patterns.
Delphine Seyrig plays Helene Aughain, a widowed dealer of antique furniture (an example of those old things, which serve as visual reminders of forgotten lives) in Boulogne. Triggered by memories of happier times, she has invited Alphonse (Jean-Pierre Kerien), a former lover from decades past, to stay at her house-cum-business. He’s brought along his niece, Francoise (Nita Klein), an aspiring actress with porcelain features, who soon takes a liking to Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thierree), Helene’s brooding, passive-aggressive stepson, who has recently returned from serving in the occupation of Algeria.
Like many great Resnais films, nothing here is as it seems, between the lies characters tell themselves to assuage moral failings from their past to the convenient fictions they concoct to pacify others in the present. Hans Werner Henze’s brilliantly loping modernist score clues us in on some of these secrets early on, providing a tingly sense of mystery that heightens otherwise placid scenes.
Resnais, meanwhile, directs like a jazz musician, leaving some scenarios to play out organically while shooting others in a headlong rush of fragments, leaving us barely able to grasp the content of a frame before shuttling us off to the next revelation-in-progress. Jarringly collapsing both time and space, Resnais’ film syntax is intangible, requiring the viewer’s utmost attention at all times. We’re rewarded with one of the cinema’s most devastating explorations of the depravity of war and its haunting aftershocks.
Criterion’s transfer is immaculate, bringing out every gradient of muted coldness in Resnais’ first color film. A generous selection of extras helps unpack a difficult film, including an excerpt from a 1980 documentary about Resnais and a 1969 interview with Seyrig.Tricked: Trumpeting a revolution in filmmaking, Paul Verhoeven returned to his native Netherlands to shoot what has been called the first crowd-sourced movie (Kino Lorber, $20.47 DVD). Screenwriter Kim Van Kooten penned the first four pages of a script, but for the rest of the 50-minute feature, Verhoeven summoned user-generated content: Chapter by chapter, strangers would submit scripts, and Verhoeven would separate the wheat from the chaff — some 700 or so entries for each five-minute chapter — and combine the best ideas into a coherent narrative.
The DVD opens with a 35-minute documentary on the making of this project, which arose from Verhoeven’s assertion that “sometimes in life, you need to step into the unknown.” The actors, crewmembers and Verhoeven himself wax exhaustively about the drawbacks and especially the benefits of the approach, lauding the infinite creative possibilities inherent in a production of this kind. This backstage chatter is repetitive and runs far too long, building up a mountain of expectation that the dull and predictable final product cannot scale.
A corporate yarn about sex and blackmail, Tricked opens with the 50th birthday celebration of a powerful CEO (Peter Blok), whose business receives calls not from people but from cosmopolitan cities (“Dubai is pulling out,” etc.). He’s married with two children — one of whom is a pervy photographer, the other a wayward alcoholic — and he has a problem keeping his pants on, which manifests in a newly pregnant ex-lover with an agenda as well as his current playmate, a promiscuous tart who is also his daughter’s best friend. Everybody in this arrangement is morally corroded and conniving for money, power, revenge or some combination of the three, and their motivations tiresomely coalesce.
The best that can be said for Tricked is that doesn’t feel like what it is, a patchwork quilt of ideas — Verhoeven ensures that the seams don’t show. It just feels like a plain old bad movie, dragging pointlessly along for what feels like twice the length of its scant running time. If this is what it feels like to be liberated from Hollywood conformity, then please, Paul, make another Showgirls.Gorilla Bathes at Noon: Serbian surrealist Dusan Makavajev’s playful 1992 feature (Facets, $29.95 DVD) follows Victor Borisovitch (Svetozar Cvetković), a Russian Army officer adrift in a newly reunified Berlin. His father fought the Nazis, as Makavajev reveals in romanticized battlefield scenes borrowed from the Russian WWII film The Fall of Berlin.
But with the thaw of the Cold War, this proud Soviet patriot finds himself no longer financially supported by his nation’s military and abandoned by his adulterous wife back home. So he wanders streets of the former East Berlin, with its yellowing propaganda murals and vandalized monuments of Marxists, unable to secure a job, stealing his sustenance from the local zoo, and bunking with a collective of outsiders, prostitutes and anarchists. He also meets a sweet German girl, and he takes her to McDonald’s on their first date.
Makavajev is a director whose most canonized works — A Man is Not a Bird, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie — strictly cater to the most adventurous of cinephiles. But by 1992, he had worked on American studio comedies, and his experimentalism had mellowed. This evolution is clear in the gregarious, light-footed and largely linear Gorilla, while still allowing for self-reflexive absurdity, from the direct-camera addresses to the inspired dream sequences: In one, Victor plunges his fingers into Lenin’s skull and removes a bullet, thus relieving the politician’s pounding headache.
And our nomadic antihero is full of strange aphorisms that, even in Communist Europe, must have sounded offbeat: “Nuts are like women: First you have to break them, and inside they are juicy and spicy.” It’s all at the service of a breezy commentary on the decline of socialism and capitalism’s pitiless replacement, thankfully presented without a propagandist’s didacticism. Makavajev prefers to laugh at everybody.A Perfect Day: Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s deadpan comedy of misunderstandings (MPI, $22.99 Blu-ray, $17.29 DVD) is set “somewhere in the Balkans” circa 1995. Tensions are high, with everybody convincing themselves war is over despite occasional evidence to the contrary. Not that the film’s motley crew of international aid workers led by Benicio Del Toro’s Mambru can do anything about it. Thanks to the backward bureaucracy of their U.N. overlords, they’re prohibited from the one goal presented before them: to remove a hulking dead body from a well so that the water can be detoxified and used again by the desperate locals. This task, made ever more quotidian by a protracted search for suitable rope in a bombed-out country, is the workers’ Sisyphean cross to bear over a 24-hour period of minor advancements and retaliatory setbacks.
Aranoa, who directed the Academy Award-nominated Mondays in the Sun, has delivered a film about a group of unsung heroes in an unsung conflict. Their sense of displacement is evident throughout, the fear of landmines is still omnipresent and the postwar air is thick with institutional corruption. But in Aranoa’s story, in which surprisingly little happens over 105 minutes, we’re left with setups that peter toward insufficient payoffs. When the movie should be reaching its emotional climax, Aranoa’s narrative turns schematic and dull, dissecting a former love affair between Mambru and a Russian colleague (Olga Kurylenko) to which we never cared about to begin with.
Tim Robbins, as Mambru’s veteran partner who prefers the nomadic aid worker’s life to domestic routine, has some ripe opportunities for comedy that he sells well, but mostly, this is a frustrating movie about a frustrating profession in a frustrating time. Enjoy the rockin’ soundtrack though: The title is a Lou Reed reference, and we hear from him, his old band, Marilyn Manson and the Ramones.Marguerite & Julien: The title characters in Valerie Donzelli’s stylized historical drama (IFC, $16.81 DVD) are siblings-turned-lovers played by Anaïs Demoustier and Jeremie Elkaim. Born into an aristocratic 17th century family, Marguerite and Julien de Ravalet were inseparable as children — sleeping side by side, staging plays to their parents’ amusement, each inspiring the others’ creativity. But while many young siblings engage in games of benign sexual exploration, these two are different: Pre-pubescent anatomical adventures grow into full-bodied lust and love, until the characters become symbiotically one person.
Elkaim is a picture of the brooding 20-something male, but Demoustier is even better, suggesting with every furtive, intoxicated glance that she needs her brother like oxygen. The film is strongest in its opening stanzas, when Donzelli builds uncomfortable, unbearable sexual tension, the sort that inexorably actualizes, forcing the siblings to become lovers-on-the-run against a state that is as hypocritical as it is puritanical.
Donzelli based her screenplay on a work originally written by Jean Gruault for Francois Truffaut. She teases this collaboration through some of her formal and narrative choices, including judicious iris shots and an onrushing sense of camera movement. But it wears out its welcome in ways few Truffaut features ever did. Donzelli awkwardly frames her tale as a fairytale spoken by a modern-day teacher, and she overplays the storybook whimsy, reveling in the grand castles, chateaus and stilted midnight rescues at the expense of character development. She takes narrative shortcuts, skipping over the banal but sometimes necessary connective tissue that brings us into her protagonists’ world. As a result, when we’re supposed to ache for the fatalistic lovers’ last moments, we don’t feel much of anything.