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Thread: PARIS MOVIE JOURNAL (Oct.-Nov. 2016)

  1. #16
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    PARK CHAN-WOOK: HANDMAIDEN/MADEMOISELLE (2016)


    KIM MIN-HEE AND KIM TAE-RI IN HANDMAIDEN

    Park Chan-wook's elaborate soft-core lesbian romance

    Park Chan-wook's new film, Handmaiden (presented in France as Mademoiselle), is a startling change of pace for the director of Oldboy and Lady Vengeance, though as over-the-top as ever. A free adaptation of the Welsh writer Sarah Water's period crime novel Fingersmith, it's a baroque, erotic, elaborate period piece set in Thirties Korea under Japanese occupation, that's also a treasure trove of narrative twists and turns.

    The original story concerns a Victorian girl pickpocket brought up among thieves in Southwark under the bridge, who is sent by a scam artist known as "Gentleman" to deceive an heiress who stands to inherit a fortune from the old uncle in whose dark mansion she lives. Gentleman has already gained the heiress' confidence but wants the girl to help him move in on her, marry her, and dump her in an insane asylum, pocketing the fortune for himself, giving the girl a percentage.

    The reviewer in the Gardian, while reveling in Waters' book's divertingly lurid melodrama worthy of Wilkie Collins, acknowledges it could "perhaps have been edited a little." The same is true of Handmaiden, which seems to contain many of the accoutrements of Fingersmith - the lesbian romance that develops between girl and mistress, the gloves and rustling fabric, the plotting and betrayals - with a lot more overt sex and some sadistic violence tossed in at the end, as well as a somewhat excessive series of revisits to the early action to show us what really happened, much of which is unnecessary and condescending and helps explain the film's considerable length (2 1/2 hours).

    The action is claustrophobic and repetitive to a point that is wearisome, but the film beautiful and erotic - if not as much as it could be of either. The mise-en-scène is ornate (the heavy, posh period interiors, the women's dresses), but the images don't have quite the gloss and high color one expected. The lesbian love scenes are juicy but abrupt, rather than slow-burns.

    Nonetheless some things are undeniable fun. The two attractive young actresses do throw themselves into things. The pale and differently lovely servant-crook Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) and her new mistress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) are teasing eye-candy, and it's intriguing to see them gradually come together and exchange characteristics - and body fluids.

    Park has said his pleasure in transferring the action to Thirties Korea was to comment on the Japanese occupation, and even linguistically handicapped westerners can appreciate the constant switches back and forth between Korean and Japanese because they are indicated by white subtitles for the former and yellow ones for the latter. Korean is the occupiers' language and also the language of the poseur. The scam artist who brings in the orphan pickpocket Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) calls himself Count Fujiwara, but is really Korean (Ha Jung-woo). The heiress, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hi) is living with her Korean uncle-by-marriage, Kozuki (Cho Jin-woong), a creep who collects erotic books and fetishizes Japanese culture. Lady Hideko turns out to know Korean too, and of course "Count Fujiwara" is constantly switching back and forth. We can see political resentments and class tensions blending with personal insecurity and neuroticism: Lady Hideko is partly crazy, or so it seems. Meanwhile, following the book, the film is in three parts, with identify and point of view shifts with each part to undercut what we thought was happening.

    Despite shrewd observations on class and gender, it's hard not to see Park as ramping up shock value as he always has, made to seem smarmy and less crass simple fun due the the genteel element of costume romance. But it's been argued by some critics, with some reason, that any claims that this is retro and sexist stuff are offset by the fact that the triumphant lovers are women, and the various men are all useless and annoying. In the end it's a tossup whether this is a cinematic masterpiece of a load of bull crap. As always Park is a gifted filmmaker, though he may be running out of native ideas a bit, and finally Handmaiden will fit in at the lower end of his distinctive cult films and is certainly not one of his flops.

    Handmaiden/Mademoiselle/아가씨, debuted at Cannes in Competition May 2016; two dozen other international festivals. Limited US release 21 Oct., official release in France 1 Nov. 2016. Screened for this review at MK2 Odéon, Paris 1 Nov. Metacritic rating 84%; AlloCiné press rating 4.0 from 20 reviews.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-01-2016 at 03:58 PM.

  2. #17
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    Chris, thanks for the reviews from Paris. Not a bad deal, traveling and enjoying the best movies, and sharing your adventures here. I watched The Handmaiden and enjoyed the spectacular style as much as his other equally shallow films, more or less. Looking forward to new films by Ozon and especially the Dardennes. Recently I liked Techine's Being 17 a lot. The traveling shot that opens the film and accompanies the credits is breathtaking; performances were superb. Well, keep those reviews coming.

  3. #18
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    Thank you, Oscar, for the feedback. I'd agree on Being 17. Another one to look for besides those you mention is Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann. And how about the new Jodorowsky? Aquarius, have you seen that? And Moonlight, which I saw in New York before coming to Paris.

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  5. #20
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    ALBERT SERRA: LA MORT DE LOUIS XIV/THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV (2016)


    JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD IN LA MORT DE LOUIS XIV

    Léaud dies for us, with authoritative inertia

    Serra is working in a similar style to his Casanova film (too much so!) but this time has something concentrated and at times grand - and he has Jean-Pierre Léaud, who if not the "only" person to play the dying king as he's claimed, is a hard choice to better. Being, if not quite near death, still rather worn down myself from lengthy visits to the Centre Pompidou Renée Magritte show, "The Color Line" at the Musée Branly, and the breathtaking but exhausting and mobbed Icônes de l'art moderne show of the Shchukin Collection at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Frank Gehry's airy bubble palace, I'll refer my readers to the Critics Roundup for Serra's film for a mosaic of salient comments and just add a few of my own.

    There, you will see excerpts from Jonathan Rosenbaum, who only hints at why he finds this "gripping" and calls Léaud's performance "exquisite" and "minimalist." "Hell man," Errol Flynn's last words are said to have been, "dyin's easy." And indeed it does not require much motion to die. The quintessentially cinematic Léaud knows to underplay it.

    Josh Timmermann of Vancouver is also right: the film is largely about "wrong-headed doctors" and "syncophantic courtiers" - and, I might add, we have seen noble death sequences that emphasized these aspects in historical movies before. This is among other things a reminder of how far medicine has come since 1715. Maybe Leo Goldsmith is right, that Serra was disingenuous in denying the significance of casting Léaud: that his own physical decline is a part of what's moving. Cinephiles know him as the boy in The 400 Blows and the frisky Antoine Doinel. Here he is fat and degenerate-looking. Showing up is 80 percent of life, and Léaud is showing up as Léaud as well as donning the apparel of a dying king, arguably the greatest in history.

    Note the comment of Daniel Fairfax in Senses of Cinema: "Very few actors are capable of holding our attention for 100 minutes of screen time while essentially remaining supine throughout the film. Léaud, one of the most captivating figures in the history of film, achieves this feat with ease. His very being is cinematic." Léaud indeed was always completely at home in front of a camera: he knows how just to "be." And dying's "easy" (in Flynn's dying words) because it's passive. This is what makes the experience of the film both grand and tragicomic. The king's accoutrements are noble - the cloths, the gilt, the big fuzzy wig, Léaud's now imposing schnazz, the team of doctors, courtiers, and servants; but his passivity and his predicament are sometimes humiliating, or even comic.

    Technically, and economically, Serra makes the film intensely claustrophobic. Though he shows us the plotting, conniving entourage, he builds a series of relentless closeups and immobile shots echoing the king's own inability for most of the film to get out of bed.

    Several writers refer to Roberto Rossellini's historical neorealist film for French TV The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, that bright and energetic, this dark and gloomy (and, like the Casanova film, seems embalmed in molasses, which makes this, despite what some critics say, not a film of mainstream as well as festival/cinephile appeal). But they have a kinship too, because Serra's approach verges on neorealism, a cinematic approach to history deep into physicality and uninterested in narrative or making "points." The accoutrements are nice, but the history you'll have to read up on for yourself. He also spares us many disgusting details, however, that a more conventional modern film might have included.

    Whatever adjectives we apply to Serra's film, grand, strange, melancholy, elegant, it is a dark, moody, highly crafted yet experimental memento mori, a reminder that death is the great leveler. It is also, as the eternally hard-to-please Cahiers du Cinéma observes, "vaguely beautiful, but above all very boring"! Le Figaro calls Léaud's performance "fascinating and monotonous." It's a waxworks tour de force: for very long takes, in the final dying phase he just barely moves, then does not move at all. Watching kings die is thought-provoking, but it's also, at times, like the proverbial watching paint dry.

    La mort de Louis XIV, 115 mins., debuted at Cannes. It won the Prix Jean Vigo 2016 (feature film) and at Cannes Jean-Pierre Léaud was given a Palme d'or d'honneur, a fitting recognition of the legendary actor whose performance here signals twilight years (he seems older than his actual 72); 14 other international festivals including Toronto, New York, Vancouver and London. French theatrical release 2 Nov. 2016 to extremely favorable reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.9/5 based on 22 reviews), but note the negative comments I've cited. Screened for this review at MK2 Hautefeuille AKA Côté St-Michel, Paris, 3 Nov. 2016.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-08-2016 at 10:41 AM.

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