Tuesday, March 28, 2017

1977 Winner, Madame Rosa

Madame Rosa

Directed by:  Moshé Mizrahi

Distributor:  Warner-Columbia Film

Released:  November 1977

Country:  France

Simone Signoret was the first French person to ever get an Academy Award, winning Best Actress for her role in 1959’s tragic drama Room at the Top, beating out Doris Day, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, and Katherine Hepburn.  I had never heard of her.  Signoret had a penchant for playing prostitutes and mistresses in her younger days, and she and her husband Yves Montand (who has a small but important role in 1969’s Best Foreign Film Z) are considered two of France’s great film stars.

Momo and Rosa
Madame Rosa came almost 20 years after her Oscar, and while she had aged and gained weight, the title role in this film required her do ramp it up a bit with some extra milkshakes and French fries.  It’s method acting at its extreme, most famously done by Robert De Niro for Raging Bull, when he added 60 pounds to play boxer Jake LaMotta.  But Signoret’s commitment to the physical requirements of the role is only indicative of how committed she was to the emotional aspects of playing the part.  She is not an attractive character to watch, either in a physical sense nor as a person, but when all is said and done, Signoret is what makes this a film worth watching.

Simone Signoret in her Oscar role, with Lawrence Harvey
The character Madame Rosa is not really a madam for prostitutes, per se, but she once was in the biz.  She’s retired and now spends her time raising the children of other prostitutes.  Rosa was a Holocaust survivor, having once lived in Auschwitz, and you can tell she is as tough as they come.  She is raising a bunch of kids the mothers can’t take care of themselves, and treats them all as if they were hers. 

The main relationship in the movie is between Rosa and Momo, a 10-year-old Muslim kid, and the oldest of the bunch.  Though Rosa is Jewish, she feels the responsibility to raise Momo in his own faith, though she openly gives her opinions on that faith.  Rosa becomes older and sicker as time goes on, while Momo matures into a fine young man. 

The film is gritty, both visually and emotionally, as Rosa struggles through her life.  She loves the
Thin Raging Bull
kids, but is beginning to lose her ability to function because of her health, both physically and mentally--in fact, she is afraid of being arrested and being sent back to Auschwitz. Because of her frailties and her descent into dementia, roles reverse and it is Momo who gradually becomes the caretaker.  This is a film about transcending cultural differences of religion and ethnicity.  Rosa and Momo love each other in a time their peoples hate each other so much. 

Israeli Director Moshé Mizrahi, who would go on to direct Tom Hanks in one of his earliest films, 1986’s Every Time We Say Goodbye, does a fine job.  The framing of Rosa’s sixth-floor apartment evinces claustrophobia for the viewer and the washed-out look of the film emphasizes the difficulty of the environment for Rosa and for the kids.  But it is Signoret’s acting that shines in this film.  Her every move feels like a burden, most underscored by her having to climb that six flights to her apartment.  Every word she utters seems like a chore and she makes you wish her life could have been easier somehow.  Whatever her acting method, the milkshakes and extra fries paid off.
Fat Raging Bull

You can watch the file on YouTube here.

The Title:  French title was La vie devant soi, which correlates to the 1975 Romain Gary novel on which the film is based, The Life Before Us.

The Culture:  This one examines the long term effects of the Holocaust in post-war Europe, and deals with some heavy themes like Jewish-Arab relations.

Agenda danger:  It’s not heavy-handed, but of course there is a bit of the “can’t we all just get along?” thing going here.

Best Picture that year:  Annie Hall

Rating:  This isn’t for everyone.  But as a character study it’s interesting, and the relationship between Rosa and Momo is moving.  A nice, quiet film worth watching for the relationships and for the acting.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

1978 Winner, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs

Directed by:  Bertrand Blier

Distributor:  Compagnie Commerciale Française

Released:  January 1978

Country:  France

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression.  A 2011 WHO study found that French people are the most likely to have a “major depressive episode” sometime in their lives.  Depression is treated with medications like Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro; psychotherapy and the occasional electro-shock therapy are also standard ways to work through this very pervasive and common disorder.  

In Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, Raoul, played by Gerard Depardieu, introduces us to a new way to handle the problem.  Raoul’s wife, Solange, is so depressed she doesn’t even to seem to care that she is depressed.  We first meet the couple over a salad lunch at a small restaurant.  Raoul expresses to Solange his total love for her and his complete frustration that she will not snap out of her funk.  Raoul sees that across the restaurant, a shaggy looking patron had been checking out his rather attractive wife.  Nothing overt, just a casual glance or two from the man, but now Raoul believes he has a cure for what ails her.  Why not ask this man to have sex with his wife?  That should clear up the cobwebs or whatever is going on in her pretty little head!
Raoul, Stephane, and Solange

The man, Stephane, at first is a little weirded out.  But Solange doesn’t seem to object, and Raoul the husband is the one asking him, and she's kinda hot, so what the hell?  So for the next part of the movie Raoul and his new bestie Stephane take turns (off camera) having sex with Solange to get her to cheer up a little.  Mostly, she sits around the house without a shirt, sometimes knitting to keep busy (though never a top for herself), but still depressed as she ever was.

Besides sharing Solange, Stephane and Raoul share a love of Mozart and talk about what it would be like to meet him.  They also befriend a local grocer and share with him their love of Mozart and their arrangement with Solange.  They try to include her in their discussions and interests, but Solange just isn’t feeling it.  Then Raoul has another bright idea.  Why don’t he and Solange accompany Stephane, a teacher, for a few weeks at the children’s camp he works at?  The three go there and befriend a 13-year-old oddball named Christian.  Christian is much smarter than the rest of the kids and isn’t afraid to show it.  Which generally doesn’t make him popular with the other kids.  Solange, however, takes a shine to him.  And well, without giving too much away, this is where the film devolves from a slightly depraved sitcom of a movie to one that may make you feel like you have to take a shower after viewing.
Christian watching Solange knit in bed

Get Out Your Handkerchiefs is genuinely funny at times, and Depardieu as Raoul and Patrick Dewaere are a good buddy-movie combo (sadly, Dewaere seems to have been the one with real demons, as he took his own life in 1982).  Carole Laure as Solange is cute as a button, even when she isn’t smiling, which is most of the movie (and speaking of buttons, Solange doesn’t have any need for them during much of the movie).  As strange as the, er, threesome are, all of them are likable and fun to watch together.  But I just didn’t buy that even in 1970’s France this kind of stuff would happen.  And because of that, the humor is muted and whatever point being made by director Bertrand Blier is rendered absurd.  However likeable the trio may be, their choices make them nincompoops, however good-intentioned they seem.  I think I came out of this film as depressed as Solange was, except I had my shirt on for the entire movie.

Solange most of the movie.  Call me a prude, but I added the black box.
The Title:  Préparez vos mouchoirs.  They should have called this, “Get Out Your Boobies.”

The Culture:  If France was a swinging, conventions-be-damned kinda place in the 1970’s, then this film reflects it well.  While he wasn’t French, Mozart is discussed at length.

Agenda danger:  I suppose I could be called a prude for seeing the movie as a push to normalize non-standard sexual relationships.  But I was able to buy into the movie’s first half as all-in-good-fun; it was the last act that left me feeling it would have been okay if this film had never been made.

Best Picture that year:  The Deer Hunter

Rating:  I’ll admit liking this movie for most of it for the humor and for the odd friendship between the three main players.  I think at first even Christian and the trio's relation to him was charming.  But when the film was over, I just shook my head over what had just happened and lost any fondness I had for any of them.