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Le professionnel

action / thriller movie with an unusually sharp message
A French secret agent called Beaumont is sent to an African country with the mission to assassinate its president. However, foreign policy is a fickle thing and the secret services decide to call off the attempt and betray Beaumont instead. The man is promptly arrested, sentenced and imprisoned. In between beatings and torture sessions, he has ample time in which to reflect on his former friends and colleagues...

"Le professionnel" is pretty much dominated by its lead actor, the great Jean-Paul Belmondo, who creates one of French cinema's more memorable anti-heroes. While no longer a teenager, Belmondo is still in excellent physical shape and pulls off jumps and stunts which would send most ordinary mortals to the emergency service.

The movie is also notable for its fine music - the Ennio Morricone score is magnificent - and for its unusually sharp attack on French neo-colonial policies, especially when these policies involve an unholy alliance between corrupt first world elites and equally corrupt third world elites. (Note the various scenes during which the tyrannical and richly unpleasant president of an African country is hidden either in a luxury hotel or in a superb château. Authorities trip over their own feet in their rush to provide him with oysters, caviar, prostitutes.) The French secret services too are in for a panning ; they're depicted mainly as a bunch of morally challenged weaklings, lackeys, sadists or assassins. Here the stench of betrayal hangs heavily in the air : these are people who scr*w each other over as a matter of routine, either on a professional or on a personal level.

It all combines in a steaming, stinking mess of greed, opportunism and cowardice. Any ressemblance with the defence of a healthy, just and transparent democracy is purely coincidental...

Flight of Black Angel

decent thriller / action movie
Captain Eddie Gordon is a member of the US Air Force. As a bold and brilliant pilot of fighter planes, he earns much of his pay impersonating "the enemy" during training exercises. However, his superiors and colleagues worry about his cold, reclusive demeanor. Meanwhile even his closest relatives do not succeed in touching his emotional core. It seems as though there's something nasty brewing behind Gordon's all-American good looks...

"Flight of Black Angel" is a decent thriller / action movie with a particularly chilling premise, to wit one of the more competent pilots of the US Air Force turning on his fellows and going rogue while in possession of enough advanced weaponry to flatten a small country. As befits the theme, there are a number of spectacular stunts and aerial dogfights to be enjoyed. Moreover, actor William O'Leary is quite creepy as a man who looks normal enough, but whose mind has become overrun with toads and snakes.

On the other hand there are a number of missed opportunities. For instance, the movie insists that Gordon is some kind of maniac, presumably of a religious nature, but it tells us little about the growth and nature of his delusion(s). Moreover it's mainly a case of telling instead of showing. Why not show us, say, Gordon getting into a screaming quarrel with some random preacher he thinks is too soft on sinners ? Or why not show us Gordon "interacting" with Saint Lucy, the archangel Michael, Martin Luther, pope Pius X or whoever else is supposed to give him his orders ? And let's face it, choosing Las Vegas as a place of depravity to be destroyed through cleansing fire is rather a cliché. (Indeed, I would not be surprised if the Las Vegas tourist office milked this "sin city" image for all it's worth.) Imagine how much more interesting the movie would have become, if our rogue pilot had wanted to destroy some semi-forgotten town known mainly for its production of cheap after-shave and for its annual Goat Cheese Festival...

Still, a good way to pass the time during a rainy afternoon.

Play for Today: Robin Redbreast
Episode 9, Season 1

memorable black-and-white horror from the BBC
After a break-up with her long-time lover, a female script editor in her thirties departs to a quiet cottage in the countryside in order to take stock of her life. Gradually she grows accustomed to her new existence, busying herself with activities such as chatting with the hired help, pottering around in the garden or doing a bit of light reading. Having discovered a mice problem, she goes looking for the local gamekeeper, who is said to be an expert on pest control. The gamekeeper turns out to be a young lad who is as thick as a telephone book, but very dishy...

"Robin Redbreast" is an excellent horror in the great British tradition : quiet, slow-moving and understated, but packing a ferocious punch. There's an impressive mix of the sinister and the innocent, the mundane and the uncanny, which results in a suffocating feeling of dread and paranoia. The last few images, when the script editor finally "sees" the essential truth about her new neighbours, are deeply shocking.

There are also elements of social satire to be discovered. Our female protagonist is a brittle, cultured, well-educated urban creature ; she's intelligent and she knows it. She also has a tendency to look down upon her new neighbours : no dialect-speaking country bumpkin is going to outsmart HER. As a result she pretty much divides the villagers in two categories, to wit the simple and picturesque or the eccentric and picturesque. Eventually she will discover that she has been played like a fiddle by experts from the day she arrived in the village. But by then it's far too late...

Richard III

This is not an adaptation of the play for television or cinema ; this is a broadcast of a theatrical performance. And a very good performance too - in fact, one of the best "Richard III" 's I've seen in ages. Shakespeare's masterpiece has been translated in German prose and it works very well, the text keeps most of its beauty, versatility and meaning.

The acting is outstanding. Lars Eidinger, in particular, gives a powerhouse performance as Richard III. Playing a badly deformed man with a badly deformed soul, he moves around in a fashion reminiscent of a maimed but still dangerous spider. Eidinger is capable of comedy - his character is often genuinely witty and funny - but also of projecting extreme danger or instability : this Richard can cause someone's teeth to fall out just by glancing at them casually from across a room.

The play contains many a successful mix of tragedy and comedy or even tragedy and farce, such as the murder of the unlucky Clarence. One of the funniest moments, for me, came along in the famous episode where Richard plays the reluctant virgin and acts all shy and coy when people come to offer him the crown. He appears, clutching a prayer book, between two monks. One of his accomplices calls out his name ("Richard !") and he looks up heavenward, as if wondering whether an angel is trying to contact him. (You'll notice that politicians and strongmen all over the world still like to clutch sacred books, in the time-honoured fashion. It's difficult, here, not to think of president Trump discovering a sudden longing for church and posing for a photo-op, while clutching a Bible with all the hilarious unease of a long-time spinster holding bawling twin babies.)

The set design is resolutely modern, as is the music. The costumes too clearly belong in the 21st century. This gives this "Richard III" a considerable immediacy, strengthening the implied warning : the viewer isn't watching the rise of a specific medieval tyrant charming, scheming and killing his way to the top, he's watching the rise of pretty much every tyrant all through the ages and all over the world.

Do watch this.

Un ticket pour l'espace

Mankind about to walk on the surface of the sun
France, in the near future. The taxpayers aren't happy about the large amounts of money thrown at space exploration. In order to avoid protests, a country-wide contest is organized. The two winners, both of them ordinary citizens, will be allowed to participate in a space mission. In due time two very different individuals show up. One of them seems very much like the right stuff : healthy, articulate, intelligent and keen. However, there is no such thing as perfection...

"Un ticket pour l'espace" is a likeable comedy which pokes fun at the French and European ambitions with regard to space exploration. As a result the movie is proof positive that the French are indeed capable of mocking themselves. "Un ticket" also spoofs a number of other movies, such as "Apollo 13". The whole could use more focus, cohesion and rhythm, but there are a lot of deliciously absurd jokes and pieces of dialogue to savour. How to resist a movie which contains a film crew shooting "Charlemagne vs the Ninjas" ? Or a serial killer, recently liberated from prison, who gets flattened by a flaming catapult ball ? The viewer is also treated to a number of tongue-twisting tongue-twisters guaranteed to drive the unwary to the edge of madness.

The dire love poem citing the planets of our solar system is enough to justify the price of admission.

The sets and effects are unusually accomplished and would grace many a "straight" science fiction movie.

Haunts of the Very Rich

Well worth a watch
A group of wealthy people travel to a mystery destination. Upon arrival, they discover a splendid luxury hotel and an army of helpful servants. It all looks like the ideal environment for a few weeks of fun, relaxation and discovery. However, after a severe tropical storm things go south at an alarming rate...

"Haunts" is a television movie ; consequently it needs to be (re)viewed and appreciated according to television movie standards. It tells a striking horror story about the kind of "hotel" where arriving is easy and leaving is very, very difficult. (A very apt title, by the way.) The ending is memorable and there are several occasions when the movie successfully evokes a mood of sadness and dread.

The movie contains various themes, one of which is a condemnation of the callously utilitarian way in which the rich treat the non-rich. For instance, there's a chilling little episode, post-tropical storm, where one of the female servants suddenly keels over dead, presumably as a result of having eaten tainted food. Some of the hotel guests carry the corpse to an isolated room and that's it - there's no attempt at organizing a religious ceremony, no attempt at preparing a funeral or wake, no attempt at saying a few kind words. Nobody bothers to make, say, a little posy of flowers or a funeral crown of leaves, in the same way that nobody bothers to arrange the body in a suitable pose ; the corpse simply gets stored until further disposal, the way one would store a torn wind screen or a faded curtain.

When it comes to the callous indifference of the rich, things certainly haven't improved since the early 1970's...

The Cleopatras

an unusual historical series
"Unusual" may be an understatement, since there can't be too much English series like it. For good and for evil, "The Cleopatras" stands out like a loud, garish neon sign...

The series is devoted to violence and intrigue at the courts of the Ptolemaic pharaos, who ruled over Egypt until the defeat of the last (and most famous) Cleopatra. Consequently the series also treats the fall of a once great empire : the mighty Egyptian empire loses ever more isles and colonies, dwindles to a Roman vassal state and, finally, to a Roman province. As the episodes progress, it becomes clear that the omnipresent gold has turned into a liability instead of an asset, since it has attracted the undivided attention of a more successful and more lucky rival from across the sea.

The Ptolemaic dynasty produced not only kings but also queens, many of whom were at least as powerful, ambitious and/or nasty as their male relatives - hence the title. Now the Ptolemaic dynasty was infamous for the remarkable facility with which it committed all kinds of -cide : people killed off their parents, siblings, spouses, children and so on as if murder were going out of business. On top of that, the dynasty, originally descended from a Greek general, had adopted the Egyptian custom of marriage between close relatives, in order to safeguard the purity of the "divine" blood. As a result one could bump off one's wife, sister and mother-in-law in one fell stroke. This made for an extremely bloody and extremely unnatural environment.

"The Cleopatras", which tackles this theme with great gusto, paints a picture of a world in which nearly all family ties have been perverted and in which nearly all moral norms have been discarded. The result is violent, sleazy, weird, disquieting and darkly comical, like the comedy of manners from hell. Brace yourself for buckets of blood and gallons of poison... (While you're at it, also brace yourself for countless scenes of semi-naked dancers and slaves shaking parts of their anatomy in front of heavily-drinking guests.)

It's an enjoyable series, but mainly in a "guilty pleasure" kind of way. Very uneven, it seems to stand somewhere at the dubious crossroads where "so good that it's good" meets "so bad that it's good". For instance, there's a variety of mind-boggling effects used in order to frame flashbacks and tales. The whole is given an additional layer of surrealism by the inclusion of a musical score which seems to have been meant for some other kind of entertainment - perhaps a children's programme about horse riding, a sports show about the Winter Olympics or a documentary series about the charms of Oriental cooking ?

Anyway, you have been warned.

La marquise des ombres

the life and times of a French Ancien Régime poisoner
A married noblewoman conspires with her lover in order to murder her estranged father. Pretending a return to filial affection and playing the dutiful nurse, she laces her father's food with liberal amounts of poison. The man does indeed die, after a long and painful agony. Pursued by debtors, addicted to gambling and angry at most of her relatives, the noblewoman is not about to stop...

The movie is based on a book (which, sadly, I've never read) about the real-life crimes of Marie-Madeleine Dreux d'Aubray, marquise de Brinvilliers. It's a carefully made movie with good performances ; as far as I can tell, it seems to stick closely to historical reality. The costumes and sets are well-done and evocative. The viewer also gets an interesting lead character, who, in the course of a single week, can move from hideous crime to true Christian piety, to religious hysteria and/or to cunning hypocrisy. "Complicated" is the word...

Yet somehow or other the movie did not fully please me ; it felt somewhat too sober and distant for its subject. Perhaps it also felt too sane...

I've got to say that I was more impressed with another work inspired by the same noblewoman's crimes, to wit "Les condiments irréguliers". You might want to take a look at "Les condiments", I found it quite good. (Wrote a small review there too.)


Road rage - the Dutch edition
A man is taking his family on a long car drive in order to visit his aged parents. He's in a foul mood and his temper does not improve upon discovering that traffic is busy and that the other car drivers do not consider him their living god. Over-confident, angry and frustrated, he gets into a quarrel with a tall stranger who's a pest exterminator. Turns out the pest exterminator really, really does not like other people showing him disrespect...

"Bumperkleef" is a Dutch mix of dark comedy and horror. It's basically a movie about a cocksure and unpleasant man defying an even more dangerous man who has raised revenge to the level of an Olympic discipline. Much of the viewer's pleasure comes from the juxtaposition between the wild and crazy (car) pursuits and the pleasantly mundane surroundings. The insane happenings on the screen seem to belong not in a quiet and leafy suburb or in a charming little park, but in one of the most lawless corners of the Wild West.

"Bumperkleef" will also resonate with the many inoffensive car drivers who have found themselves threatened or insulted by some speeding megalomaniac convinced that he's Moses and that traffic should part miraculously whenever he appears.

The movie is sure to get compared, a lot, to Steven Spielberg's "Duel". "Duel" is clearly the better movie - it's a jewel of dark tension and suspense - but this does not mean that "Bumperkleef" is wholly without interest or fun. Anyway, I watched it with considerable enjoyment.

Taste of Fear

a masterclass in deception
A crippled girl makes a long journey in order to visit her estranged father. Upon arrival she is greeted warmly by her step-mother, who tells her that her father is away on a business trip. Cordially invited to feel herself at home, the girl runs into some VERY strange encounters...

"Taste of fear" is quite a good thriller, well-directed, well-acted and well-plotted. At first sight it may seem like a common "poor little rich girl in distress" thriller, but the story twists and turns like a snake clenched in a human fist. The movie successfully mixes the mystery genre with horror accents, resulting in some genuinely scary scenes. (Don't scream too loudly, or the neighbours will call the police.) It all works up towards a supremely satisfying ending plus a generous dose of poetic justice.

Do watch the movie, it's a must for thriller lovers.

Les bonnes causes

outstanding thriller
A rich woman murders her unfaithful husband, while shifting the suspicion unto his mistress. Meanwhile she's having an affair with a fearsomely efficient barrister who slips her useful tips on how to play the system. Will the wrong woman be accused and convicted, or will justice prevail ?

As you can tell from the first paragraph, this is a hugely enjoyable thriller with a clever plot. It features not one but two memorable villains : the first one is a deeply amoral femme fatale, the second is an equally cynical barrister who knows the criminal law like the back of his hand. Do watch the scenes where the barrister provides his client/lover with a suitable outfit - the aim, here, is to breathe a quiet and respectable elegance - and coaches her on how to behave and what to say before the "juge d'instruction". They're at once over-the-top cynical and deeply, uncomfortably plausible...

Many people know and appreciate Bourvil primarily as a comic, but in fact he was equally capable of tackling serious or even tragic roles. Here he's quite good as a fair-minded "juge d'instruction" who realizes someone's trying to play him like a fiddle. A superbly beautiful Marina Vlady is a femme fatale to die for, while Pierre Brasseur exudes exactly the right mix of self-confidence, brutality and cunning.


Blue Thunder

eerily predictive
"Blue Thunder" is a good, vivid action thriller with a nicely disquieting plot. The movie contains a number of impressive stunts and pursuits, especially with regard to helicopter flying. However, it is most notable - at least to me - for being eerily predictive. Made in the beginning of the 1980's, it pretty much predicted the rise in police militarization, which, anno Domini 2020, has turned into a major societal problem. Moreover, "Blue Thunder" tackled the subject of the exponential growth of ever more intrusive surveillance techniques.

The movie also contains a crucial warning : beware of those who peddle advanced weapons, for they will be glad to provide a suitable war...

Tout contre elle

psychological thriller
While her husband embarks on a political campaign, a rich bourgeoise from Lyon has an adulterous fling with a young lover. The lover, who has a habit of drug-taking, dies in her arms. Fleeing in shock, the woman does not yet realize that this affair will come back to haunt her in a most unexpected way...

"Tout contre elle" is a modest psychological thriller, notable mainly for the presence of an ambiguous and disquieting blackmailer. The rich bourgeoise is being hounded by a blackmailer who asks not for money, but for trust, affection, attention - now here's a creepy idea... There are also elements of social satire. You'll notice how the politician who wants to improve the lot of his fellow citizens lives in a giant modern house that screams money. Liberty, equality, fraternity... The politician also proposes to resolve anyone's problems, while being unable to comprehend what's happening right under his nose.

The movie is not bad - it's too competently made for that - but neither is it particularly outstanding. One cannot help but wonder what would have happened if the same intrigue had been treated by a Hitchcock, a Polanski, a Chabrol... A rating of six stars seems about right, here.

Evil Under the Sun

excellent Agatha Christie adaptation
In "Evil under the Sun", Belgian detective Poirot embarks on what seems like the perfect combination of work and leisure. His investigation into a modest insurance-related problem moves into an unexpected direction and soon he's giving his little grey cells a serious work-out in order to discover who murdered a stunning actress of dubious morals...

"Evil" is a lavish, star-studded adaptation notable for its high production values, its sense of sly wit and its respectful admiration for Agatha Christie's source novel. The great Peter Ustinov gives a memorable performance as Poirot, in a well-measured serio-comical turn.

I won't spoil the movie for you, which would be a crime against mystery-loving humanity. However I'll give you a little tip : watch the various costumes and hats closely. They're not just present in order to evoke a specific decade and in order to provide great big dollops of style and glamour, they serve a useful purpose within the intrigue and the criminal plan.


Les compères

funny comedy
A disgruntled teenage boy runs away from home, in the company of a louche girlfriend. Angry at the passivity shown by her husband, the boy's mother contacts an old boyfriend and tells him HE is the real father. In order to make doubly sure, she contacts yet another old boyfriend and tells him the same thing. Now two men try to find the boy. One of them is an agressive, hard-boiled investigative reporter, the other one is a mild-mannered teacher much given to crying, dreaming and moping...

"Les compères" is a pretty funny comedy about two very different men trying to find and protect the same adolescent boy. There's also a subplot about an investigation into an unholy alliance between gangsters, businessmen and politicians. Both Pierre Richard and Gérard Depardieu do very well and their respective looks and styles complement each other nicely. (Some fine casting here.)

"Les compères" boasts a number of quotable lines, such as "It's true, I swear it on the heads of my three fathers !"

In its own way the movie is an ode to the transformative power of love, especially parental love. In the beginning of the movie, the reporter and the teacher are pretty much set in their ways. Upon learning that they might be someone's father, they both begin to change and evolve ; ironically, they begin to ressemble each other, since the reporter discovers an unexpected well of tenderness within himself while the teacher gains in guts and enterprise. Near the end, both men are making plans for the future that would have seemed ridiculous or unthinkable only a few weeks earlier.

It's a bit of a pity that the teenage boy in question is such an obnoxious character. Spoiled, weak, surly and ungrateful, he's pretty much the last individual any halfway sane person would want to claim as a relative. Viewers who like that kind of thing, may want to devise an alternative screenplay in which both the reporter and the teacher walk away delirious with happiness upon concluding that they bear no blood relationship to the little punk...

Avec la peau des autres

workmanlike spy movie
The Cold War is raging and Vienna has turned into a nest of spies, although many of the spies would describe themselves simply as people buying and selling little scraps of information. The French, who run their own Viennese network(s), fear that someone somewhere has either been betrayed or turned traitor of his own volition. A French secret agent known for his problem solving skills is supposed to investigate...

Watching "Avec la peau des autres" is like participating in a tourist tour through a major city, arranged by a respectable and competent travel agency. As a member of the group, you'll be sure to visit a number of celebrated monuments or places of historic interest ; you'll also be sure to catch a nice concert and to get a liberal dose of "couleur locale". Moreover, you'll be sure to eat an excellent chicken dish in a restaurant reputed for its excellent chicken dishes, and to eat an excellent pastry in a café known for its excellent pastries. On the other hand this won't be the best way in which to discover something original, something unique or something unexpected.

"Avec la peau" is probably best described as workmanlike : it is capable, it makes sense and it gets the job done. And yes, there is a great deal of couleur locale... However, it is not a great movie. It lacks something - perhaps an extra layer of threat, suspense, irony, ambiguity ? Or perhaps some Agatha Christie-like legerdemain with clues and red herrings would have helped.

The great Lino Ventura, an actor of considerable charisma and talent, tries his best but is let down by the average quality of the material. Still, he's one of the main arguments in favour of watching the movie.

Ascenseur pour l'échafaud

a perfect plan going wrong
In "Ascenceur", a man murders the rich and ageing husband of his lover. Having been an officer in an elite army unit, the killer has thought long and hard about the murder plot, which combines intelligence and daring. Still, the plan goes wrong, with ever new ramifications and complications appearing. (Keep a close and watchful eye on the killer's posh car.)

"Ascenceur" provides a considerable amount of clever twists and turns. In the process it turns into a meditation on the impredictability of fate and the nature of coincidence. The movie drips with style and cool, featuring a jazz score so famous that it has earned its own army of devotees.

However, I found it somewhat wanting on the psychological and emotional front - I liked it well enough for its clever twists, but less for its human impact. Still, it's certainly a very watchable movie, although possibly somewhat inferior to its cult status. Viewers interested in the post-World War II history of France may want to watch the movie carefully for its subtext (the crumbling of a colonial empire, the various independence wars, the profits to be made from war profiteering and war mongering, and so on).

Gek van Geluk

Dutch rom-com
A fading singer called Valerie realises she's losing her grip on the public. What she needs is a great big hit, preferably with lyrics penned by her long-time collaborator Lena, who is also a personal friend. Sadly single mom Lena isn't producing much in the way of lyrics, mainly because her private life feels dull and passionless. Valerie hires an unsuccessful male actor and tells him to go and seduce Lena...

"Gek van Geluk" contains a number of nice performances, most notably by actress Plien van Bennekom as Lena. It also contains a number of pleasant jokes, mainly about the acting profession. The scenery is beautiful, and so Dutch that it could be reproduced on a wide variety of posters and postcards. However, the movie sticks closely to the familiar formula of the rom-com. As a viewer, you can easily predict a) that the struggling actor is going to develop genuine feelings for Lena, b) that Lena will feel humiliated and betrayed upon discovering he approached her under false pretenses and c) that eventually the couple will reconcile. This determination to provide happy endings galore even includes a reconciliation between Lena and Valerie : Valerie realises she went too far, and Lena magnanimously forgives her.

It is pretty clear that in real life, the kind of cynical betrayal foisted on the unsuspecting Lena would cause not comedy but tragedy, both on the love and on the friendship front. But the movie ends happily ever after, because : rom-com !

Finally it needs to be noted that the lyrics heard in the movie are remarkably bland and trite. (For instance, there's an image of someone erecting a brick wall and starting to build from the bottom. How else should one build a brick wall - starting with the top layer ?) As a result it's unclear just why the Lena character is supposed to grab pen and paper and pour out yet another delightful work of genius.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

based on a real-life forgery scandal
In "Can you ever forgive me ?" an ageing writer, known for her biographies, discovers she's fallen out of favour with editors, critics and public. In despair, she begins stealing, embellishing or forging letters from dead celebrities such as Noel Coward or Dorothy Parker. After a while she's typing and selling letters at an industrial speed. A male accomplice helps her rake in the money...

"Can you ever forgive me ?" is a pleasant mix of drama and tragicomedy, notable mainly for the excellent performances by its two protagonists. There's also an outstanding evocation of a specific environment which will be alien to quite a lot of viewers.

The movie, which is based on a real-life case, raises a lot of moral and intellectual discussion points about the dangers of forgery : are we talking about a jolly jape and/or a (mostly) victimless crime ? Or are we talking about something far darker ? Me, I tend to take a very dim view of forgers. To me, they're enemies of truth and reality undermining our collective human memory. And I have not yet encountered a forger who didn't consider himself a shining demi-god among the sheeple...

From this perspective, the movie would make a good double bill with "Der gefälschte Mond von Galileo Galilei", an ARTE documentary. (I'm not entirely sure the documentary exists in an English translation, but it's a reasonable assumption.) "Mond" tells the real-life story of a forger having a go at Galilei's great discoveries - and believe me, it's a truly shocking story about people destroying national treasures, ransacking centuries-old libraries or thumbing their noses at superb scientific accomplishments.

Symphonie pour un massacre

Superior black-and-white "polar"
A group of criminals get involved in an unusually ambitious project which will require a great deal of money. One of the members recognizes the financial opportunity of a lifetime. He is determined to lay his hands on the fortune, even if it means resorting to deceit, betrayal and murder...

"Symphonie" is notable for at least three things. The first is the excellent plot, which evolves with clockwork precision. The plot is a thing of beauty, as cunning and intricate as one of those balls-within-other-balls carved in ivory. The second is the fine acting, with a special mention to Jean Rochefort, in one of his first major roles. Rochefort is excellent as the cool, calculating traitor. Here you've got a highly intelligent man who is fond of meticulous planning, but does not shy away from sudden fights or blood-drenched improvisations... The third is a memorable musical score, which fits the movie's mood(s) like a glove.

The whole works very well and qualifies as a superior "polar".

Part of the action is situated in Brussels, what with the said traitor staying in the Hotel Amigo. Viewers can catch tantalizing glimpes of the historic heart of the city. If you, dear reader, ever find yourself in the same neighbourhood, be sure to visit the central market place, an architectural ensemble of singular beauty and interest.

Du jour au lendemain

unsuccessful (tragi)comedy
An unremarkable office worker has to cope with the indifference or even the hostility of his colleagues. His private life is a disaster zone too, since his wife, who has grown tired of his timidity and anxiety, wants a divorce. Even inanimate objects such as coffee machines seem to have it in for him. Suddenly, however, things change for the better. Fate begins to shower the man with one blessing after another...

"Du jour au lendemain" tells the story of an unlucky man who begins to receive one boon or one success after another. He should be happy - well, he IS happy - but after a while he begins to wonder about the how, why and when of this wondrous reversal. He also gets anxious and restless : perhaps because he thinks he is not worthy of such bliss, perhaps because he fears that fickle fate will snatch everything away again, perhaps because he finds it stressful to grow and explore new opportunities. So "Du jour au lendemain" tackles quite an interesting problem : what if happiness were to prove as challenging and stressful as unhappiness ?

Sadly the execution of this fine premise leaves much to be desired. The screenplay wanders and meanders ; eventually it collapses before reaching the finish, like an exhausted runner. The ending feels particularly lazy and uninspired. As a result the movie doesn't have much to say.

Moreover, some of the storylines or details don't make much sense. For instance, in the beginning our protagonist feels disappointed because the pizza he orders as a matter of routine doesn't live up to his expectations : the pizza tends to contain eggs, which he doesn't like. The man has a regular income, owns a telephone and lives in a modern city. So why doesn't he just order pizza from another restaurant ?

I'm still giving the movie some stars because it boasts a few good jokes and a few interesting characters, such as a security guard so obsessed with the Napoleonic era that he is fully capable of insulting random clients. ("How do you dare to show your face in public ? Don't you realise that your ancestor, general X, let the Emperor down when he needed him most ?") Moreover, Benoît Poelvoorde gives a good lead performance.

La bête humaine

one of THE great French classics
A man works for the railroads, driving a locomotive. At first sight he seems normal enough, but in reality he suffers from violent impulses which appear mostly during moments of high emotion or arousal. He does not know himself what causes these murderous impulses ; possibly they're a result of a blasted heredity involving pathological alcohol abuse. Perhaps wisely, he shuns human company and busies himself with driving his beloved locomotive. Sadly for all concerned, he crosses paths with a married couple with a very very dark secret...

The movie is based on a book, which is part of a whole cycle written by Emile Zola. Although the movie is one of the great classics, I saw it for the first time only recently. I was surprised to discover that this movie adaptation made for a good noir or proto-noir, complete with a fascinating femme fatale. It's not the most obvious genre I would have chosen, but it works very well. Go figure... Jean Gabin, as the tortured protagonist, gives a great performance, but he's not the only one delivering sterling work.

It's quite a sombre movie, which treats themes like murder, guilt, addiction and mental instability. However, in terms of darkness, pessimism and misery the movie is but a modest field of cabbage compared to the black and savage wood that is the book. Well, as one of my old teachers put it : "One does not read Zola in order to become happy"...

There's a superb, though disquieting evocation of the world of trains and train transport. As a user of public transport - well, as a user of whatever kind of transport - one always hopes and supposes that the driver / pilot is both competent and sane. But what if one had entrusted oneself to a disturbed, conflicted individual capable of manslaughter or suicide ?


update / reboot of the adventures of a classic villain
Fantômas, as a literary creation, had already reached a venerable age when the 1960's came along and provided him with a new incarnation. Many an approach would have been possible : the surreal, the dark, the poetic, the realistic, and so on. Here the makers went for a big-budget mix of comedy (including homage, satire and pastiche) and adventure, aimed mainly at the young. By way of educated guess I would suppose the movie was aimed mainly at boys between, say, the ages of 11 and 15. There are adults, however, who like the movie well enough, mainly as a guilty pleasure.

It's the first, and best, in a series of Fantômas movies. The prestigious cast boasts stars such as Louis de Funès and Jean Marais. The latter plays two roles : he plays both an enterprising, intrepid reporter and a supervillain much given to snatching fashionable jewellery and hatching inhuman plots in the company of obedient minions. This dual role allows for scenes where A impersonates B who's impersonating A, and so on. (Watch out for the basic Fantômas mask, which is rather cool.)

Early on in the movie, the reporter gets noticed by the supervillain because he wrote a fake newspaper scoop which the supervillain found offensive to his sensibilities. Much of the supervillain nonsense written by the reporter seems to fit the Fantômas character well enough ; as a result it's not entirely clear why the man's complaining... Probably didn't receive enough attention as a toddler, or something like that.

Jean Marais, as our reporter hero, is given a much younger fiancée, in the person of blonde and beauteous Mylène Démongeot. While the role does not tax her abilities, it is worth remembering that the said actress did very well in the "noir" genre.

"Fantômas" is a colourful movie with excellent locations, a cheery musical score and a number of impressive stunts. It is not wise, however, to examine it too deeply, as the various plot holes could make for a bumpy ride... Visually and aesthetically, it bears a similarity to the "Diabolik" movie. However, I can't in good conscience recommend "Diabolik" to you. (If I remember it well, I wrote a rather nasty review ending with "Well, the movie may be dire, but at least it's not dire in a boring way".)

Rien à déclarer

Trouble on the French-Belgian border
Now that European unification is approaching, the border controls between Belgium and France are about to fade into insignificance. This spells bad news for the various people (customs men, smugglers, owners of tourist attractions and so on) who make a living based on the very existence of that border. In Belgium, a French-hating customs man with a hair-trigger temper feels particularly aggrieved. In his mind's eye, his beloved country is about to be overrun by hordes of snooty Frenchmen who eat stinking cheese and make condescending jokes. But he does not yet know the worst, to wit that his only sister has been seeing a member of the despicable Enemy Nation...

"Rien à déclarer" is a Franco-Belgian comedy made with enviable production values. (The scenery and sets are outstanding, but beware the product placement...) "Rien à déclarer" made me laugh, but not often and not loud enough. It could have used more brevity, variety and imagination. It also could have used better comedic timing.

I've got to say that the character of the French-hating customs man looked and sounded like a complete psycho : to me, he seemed more disquieting than funny or eccentric. It is hard to think of any reasonable customs service that would hire AND arm a man like that. Christ, in real life such an irascible fanatic could amass a body count worthy of a mass murderer...

The various actors were likeable enough, but they deserved better material.

You'll notice that the French-hating Belgian protagonist has called his son Léopold, in honour of the first king of the Belgians. Now this first Leopold was a very interesting man who lived in very interesting times. In case you, dear reader, are interested in learning more about him you can do worse than watch "Léopold, roi des Belges", a recent Walloon animation movie. The animation movie, which has a nicely handmade feel, provides an imaginative and witty overview of Belgian history somewhere between, say, 1810 and 1870.

Tomorrow at Ten

Excellent little thriller in the British tradition
In "Tomorrow at ten" a callous criminal abducts a child from a rich household. For the police, it's the beginning of a desperate race against time...

The movie is proof positive of the fact that movies don't need lavish production values, dazzling effects or household name Hollywood stars in order to succeed. Here you've got a modest little thriller that succeeds, indeed succeeds magna cum laude, thanks to the things that really matter : an intelligent and suspenseful intrigue, a good screenplay, interesting characters and fine acting. The ending/resolution is, or should become, a classic...

The movie also boasts a seriously scary villain. As the plot progresses, one begins to realize that this monster was the product of a capricious and dysfunctional upbringing : as a child, he was neglected to the point where the one real present he received, a gollywog doll, was to remain with him always. Watch out for the scene where the police gets to meet his ageing parents - it is, in its own way, deeply unsettling...

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