JJ+E

Elsa Ohrn and Mustapha Aarab in JJ+E. Courtesy Netflix

MA 15+, 91 minutes

3 Stars

 

 

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

When a film gets remade, it’s intriguing for the quizzical questions it prompts. If the original worked well, why would it need a revision, whether it’s good or indifferent? If it was worth making again does it throw new light on the world we live in, the here and now?

The story of JJ+E, the love story of Swedish teenagers John John and Elisabeth, first appeared on the cinema screen 25 years ago in the film Vintervaken.  John John was a boy of colour then, as he is still in this new version, and Elisabeth is still the same kind of Scandinavian blonde.

This time round, Swedish actor Mustapha Aarab occupies the key role of John John, a boy from the notorious immigrant housing suburbs of Stockholm. Elsa Ohrn plays his Elisabeth, who’s from the Bromma area, one of the most affluent in the city. When they meet as students and get talking, he asks for a photo to go with the mobile number she has provided. Why, she asks, how many Elisabeths do you know? That says so much.

Elisabeth is the uptown girl from somewhere in the vast network of waterways and islands that is Stockholm, the Swedish capital. She likes to laze in the infinity pool alone at the family home which she shares with her little sister, Patricia (Elsa Bergstrom Terent), and father Frank (Magnus Krepper). The girls’ mother died recently, but they receive unwelcome visits from their glamorous but very unpleasant grandma (Marika Lagercrantz).

YA fiction that touches on social issues and is a window on Swedish society

The architect-designed contemporary space that is Elisabeth’s place would feature in lifestyle mags. What a home it is. The kind of mansion that John John and his friends in the hood would never enter. It’s just that they are invited in after John John rescues Patricia while out on a joyride in a stolen runabout with thuggish bestie, Sluggo (Jonay Pineda Skallak).

John John lives a world away from Bromma affluence. The son of a single mum whose current boyfriend, Patrik (Albin Grenholm), is revealed to deal drugs. Sluggo is known to the police for break-and-enter.

The selective drama class where John John and Elisabeth become friends is a place that seems likely common ground. Just how much this opportunity means to each of them isn’t much explored, although there is an interesting scene in which the young pair, now an item and surrounded by John John’s gang of friends, are quizzed about their acting ability. Can JJ really act? Can E really act? Show us then, the group insists.

Cross-cultural teen romance remake hints at disaffection that it doesn’t go through with

The film is strong in the first half but some subsequent moments are dramatically less satisfying. The rave dance party in the pine forest is mesmeric but the techno music seems to infiltrate other scenes where it doesn’t work so well, such as when John John declares his undying love for Elisabeth, and the scenes at drama school. But scenes involving Sluggo and the gang, where the potential for violence sits on a knife edge, are convincing for young adult drama.

When Vintervaken, the book by Mats Wahl that inspired this cross-cultural screen romance, came out in the 1990s it had an impact. The director of JJ+E, Alexis Almstrom, has said it had an impact on him when he was in his teens. In its first adaptation to screen the original film, Vintervaken, had the same title as the book. As it has since become set reading in Swedish schools, its themes and ideas must have had some cultural impact.

Whether the writing by Dunja Vujovic and author Wahl and the direction by Almstrom have done a good job bringing the story forward into the 21st century is up to Swedish audiences to decide. There has been a a lot more immigration into the country this century and it’s no doubt having a knock-on effect on local politics.

Since the mid-20th century, the mention of Swedish cinema has made people think blondes, nudity and a light censor’s touch. Since films like Let The Right One In and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, there have been other impressions.

This YA fiction features none of the above but it touches on social issues and is a window on Swedish society. There is no doubt that Elisabeth is an enigmatic character. Her last scenes had a hint of Patty Hearst.

First published in the Canberra Times on 12 September 2021. Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

Annette

 

MA 15+, 139 minutes

5 Stars

In limited cinema release, and due to stream on Prime

 

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Every ten years or so, Leos Carax delivers a movie that is darn impossible to ignore. Holy Motors in 2012 was weird and obtuse, a homage to cinema under threat from digital technologies. Who can forget the ride in the limo with a shape-shifting Denis Lavant? Or the scene in which the actor stalks a film set in a motion-capture suit?

Pola X with Carax’s late wife, Yekaterina Golubeva, was around a decade earlier. The film that made Carax really famous, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, arrived in 1991 with Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant as a pair of vagrants. Down and out on the streets of Paris, yet it was a world that was unfailingly beautiful.

For a director with a 40-year career, this French auteur has hardly been profligate with his talents.  Six features aren’t much in anyone’s language and yet when his work appears it is striking for its fearless creative exuberance, aching romantic power and unique vision.

This musical romantic drama with Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver as the beautiful, doomed lovers, Ann Desfranoux and Henry McHenry, is all of the above. It won Carax the prize for best director at Cannes this year, and represents his first English language film.

The world of performers, where fame and private lives collide

From the first moments, the film’s key creatives are in frame. There’s Leos Carax at the mixing console while the pop-rock duo, Sparks, begin the opening number. Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks wrote the screenplay with Carax.

So may we start, the director asks. Mais oui is the answer. We hope it goes the way it’s supposed to go, someone murmurs. That’s it. Annette is set in the world of performers where the fame their celebrity attracts and their private lives collide.

Then cameras roll in one of the most fluent and enticing opening scenes I’ve seen, as Sparks’ song ‘So May We Start’ is taken up by the cast and crew, walking out of the studio into a Los Angeles night in a sweeping tracking shot. It so drew me in.

Carax has always expressed a love for cinema in his work, celebrating what the medium has to offer. Yet in Adam Driver as McHenry, he has an actor whose performance almost overwhelms the hyper-reality, the lustrous photography and the artificial sets, dominating the film in an extraordinary physical performance.

Cotillard has less to do as the opera soprano besides die on stage every night. It’s our loss that the actor’s character is so under-written, but the balance is redressed when little Annette eventually emerges to take her place.

Although McHenry is a stand-up comic, he is like a pugnacious boxer onstage, a hulking figure in a green robe. Green is the colour coded as his in the film’s luscious palette.

A shift to an even darker chapter in which Carax takes all sorts of risks with a wooden puppet-girl

As he stalks the stage as if searching for an invisible antagonist, adoring fans hang on every vulgar word. It shows how he can say and do anything and get away with it, which may remind you of current political populism. While there’s a strong element of gothic tragedy to Annette, it isn’t devoid of the occasional contemporary reference, as in Californian wildfires and Me Too.

Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver in Annette. Courtesy Madman and Prime

The romance with Cotillard’s Ann, the embodiment of refinement, is a partnership of opposites. Their love song, ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, performed on a walk in the woods and while they make love, is a sunny climactic moment that is short-lived.

The mood quickly turns dark after the birth of their daughter, Annette, a strange child, a Pinocchio-like marionette with protruding ears like her father. As Ann’s international career ascends, Henry is left at home with their daughter, his career plateauing and audiences turning away.

After McHenry shows he is every bit as evil as a villain of Victorian melodrama, the narrative shifts from Ann’s demise to a new, even darker chapter in which Carax takes all sorts of risks with a wooden puppet-girl. Despite it all, the film still resonates powerfully and becomes strangely compelling.

Annette has the cautionary elements of children’s traditional fables and fairy tales, those that were troubling in their dark ambiguity. Audiences may be swept away, if they are willing to get on board and let it happen.

First published in the Canberra Times on 5 September 2021.  Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

Worth

M, 118 minutes

Netflix

4 Stars

 

 

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

As a plane flies past in the early scenes of this 9/11 drama, it’s barely necessary to show the moment of impact. We know where it is heading and it makes the opening montage all the more chilling. In New York in 2001, two passenger planes plus tall buildings equal September 11. Meaning is inferred with images juxtaposed. It’s all we need. Only since 2001 has such an event seemed possible.

Worth is about what happened afterwards. When the ghostly white dust covering survivors and bystanders on the streets of Lower Manhattan was washed away, and feelings were intensely raw.

As a recognized expert in the field of mediation and dispute resolution, Attorney Kenneth Feinberg (the consistently versatile Michael Keaton) received a call requesting he take charge of disaster victim compensation. He agreed, and would do it pro bono.

A low key drama about high-stakes issues, intelligently written and sensitively directed

In thanking Feinberg for agreeing to take on the role, George W. Bush said the role of Special Master September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was a job he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. When Feinberg took it on, little did he know.

Based on true events, this is a low-key drama about high stakes issues. It is intelligently written by Max Borenstein and sensitively directed by Sarah Colangelo (The Kindergarten Teacher) who knows when to draw back, delivering the drama in a desaturated palette, with imaginative use of interior spaces. While the inevitable harrowing victim interviews are conducted face-to-face, they alternate with conversations overheard at a distance.

Borenstein’s screenplay, entitled ‘What Is Life Worth?’, is based on the book of the same name by Feinberg. It’s intriguing to read that this screenwriter hasn’t confined himself to contemporary historical drama. There are Godzilla screenplays to his name.

Feinberg, who in real life still has his own New York-based legal company, also presented classes to law students on his area of expertise and the issues it raised. ‘What is life worth?’ he would write in chalk on a blackboard. The first hint that he was something of a Luddite, allergic to the digital world.

At the time of 9/11, Feinberg and his wife Diane (an empathetic Talia Balsam) were having a family holiday home built. Scenes at the coast only underline their privilege, and signify how far Feinberg and his legal coterie were at a remove from the realities of the Bronx and Brooklyn. He will need lessons in building client relationships with the average New Yorker.

During a preliminary meeting with the US Attorney General, Feinberg was backgrounded on the government rationale. The potential for lawsuits from 7,000 relatives suing airlines, suing companies, the city fire department, Twin Towers management and more, for compensation. It could crash the economy.

It would be Feinberg’s task to avoid this possibility, encouraging clients impacted by the disaster to settle on a negotiated amount drawn from a generous government compensation fund.

His approach to compensation initially seemed inflexible and clinical, probably why he was deemed the man for the job

The Manhattan attorney had to find a way to compensate victims grappling with incalculable loss. Identified as a Democrat supporter and a former chief-of-staff for Teddy Kennedy, Feinberg was a decent man although his approach to compensation initially seemed inflexible and clinical. It’s probably why he was deemed the man for the job.

The answer to his question, ‘what is life worth?’, is almost shocking. It’s not philosophy, he tells his law class, it’s a number that needs to be worked out. It may not be fair, but when done it’s time to move on.

At the first meeting with the relatives of victims, Feinberg confronts a room full of very angry and aggrieved people. The meeting simply erupts extinguishing any hopes he had for agreement in principle to his proposal. Although he could be blamed for lack of consultation, poor choice of words and perceived insensitivity, it would be a Herculean task to manage so many clients dealing with loss in so many different dimensions.

Stanley Tucci makes a strong impression as Charles Wolf, a 9/11 widower, who finds everything that Feinberg says offensive. It prompts Feinberg and his team to eventually connect with each of the victims and to make sense of their loss within an adjustable framework. Because life is complicated, even messy sometimes, and people don’t fit the rules.

Worth is thoughtful, sensitive drama handled with integrity. It’s a devastating story that doesn’t overwhelm, and Keaton and Tucci in the key roles are terrific.

First published in the Canberra Times on 4 September 2021.   Jane’s reviews are also published at Rotten Tomatoes

First Ladies

PG & M, 6 x 40-minute episodes

5 Stars

Streaming, SBS On Demand

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

A mixed-race guy, brought up in Hawaii, he’s gotta be weird. It’s how Michelle Obama recalls what went through her mind as she met the man who would become her husband and subsequently the 44th American President. When Barack arrived at the Chicago law firm where she worked, Michelle was actually his boss, an associate and mentor, and he a new recruit.

First Ladies, an excellent new television documentary series from CNN, begins with a dynamic profile of the first Black American woman in the role, who is an enduring role model for young women everywhere. The docuseries is written  by Kim Duke, Katharine English and Liz Mermin, who directed two episodes each.

A ‘strange kind of sidecar’ to the President, as Michelle put it

How would you make sense of the role of First Lady? You are a ‘strange kind of sidecar’ to the President, as Michelle puts it, and there’s no rule book. It’s up to you.

Each episode of First Ladies is a beguiling mix of rich material, a surprising and rewarding experience. There are interviews with the subject herself or her children and grandchildren if she is no longer living, and with historians and other experts, and former political advisors. All of these direct-to-camera scenes are brief and to the point and exceptionally well-edited.

Certain key moments are brought to life with re-enactments, typically filmed from behind the actors’ backs so that their faces are never seen. The scenes are a real enhancement to the dramatic moments inherent in the material.

Voice-over is used sparingly. It is delivered by the actor Robin Wright who, unforgettable in her role in the Netflix political drama House of Cards, is a cheeky choice for the role.

The women who feature in this season are First Ladies of the modern age. Nancy Reagan, Jackie Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Lady Bird Johnson.

Others like Barbara and Laura Bush and Rosalynne Carter may be in the pipeline for a second season. Let’s hope so, because the series so far delivers great insight into the individual presidencies and their moment in history. If there are plans to include Melania Trump at a later date, insights into the woman who took little advantage of the opportunity the role afforded will be eagerly awaited.

If it seems of late that glamour has been integral to the role of First Lady, this appears to be more the exception than the rule.  Jackie Kennedy was a style icon, of course, but she is remembered for being part of a particular political moment of hope and optimism too, before the assassin’s bullets of 1963.

Two for the price of one, Bill Clinton once said but First Ladies suggests that began some time ago

And there are surprises in Jackie’s story, too. People remember that she, fluent in French, charmed her hosts during an official visit to Paris with her husband, but who knew about the last letter that she wrote from the White House? It was a personal missive to the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, urging him to continue the gains that he and Kennedy had made together on nuclear disarmament.

Michelle Obama in First Ladies. Courtesy CNN

Her successor, Lady Bird Johnson, Texan to the core, is even more of a revelation. She took on the role of First Lady after Kennedy’s assassination shocked the nation, with Lyndon Johnson hastily inaugurated as the new President on the flight from Dallas back to Washington.

Trauma marked the rest of President Johnson’s single term. It was marked by acute political unrest, such as the assassination of political leaders like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the ongoing Vietnam War.

Lady Bird was a remarkable team player who supported her husband, a President plagued by self-doubt and depression. The presidency, their presidency, achieved much, especially its legacy in social reform such as the passing into law of Kennedy’s stalled civil rights bill.

If it’s a cliché to say that people re-invent their roles, it seems absolutely true of Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D., She made a unique impression with her activism and vision for social justice, and was, all the while, a mother of six.

Eleanor was a journalist before becoming First Lady. In the White House she invited people in need to write to her, and they did. Some began their letters with ‘Dear Mrs President’.

Two for the price of one, Bill Clinton once said. First Ladies suggests that began some time ago.

First published in the Canberra Times on 28 August 2021

La Garçonne

 

M & MA 15+

6 x 50-minute episodes, subtitled

Streaming, SBS On Demand

3 Stars

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Paris in the 1920s might have been home at some point to everyone who would become anyone in 20th century arts, philosophy and culture. Even Ho Chi Minh, the future leader of Communist North Vietnam, was there for a few years working as a pastry chef while he studied and developing his political ideology.

As wishfully imagined in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris, the 1920s was another belle epoque like the naughty 90s, attracting artists, thinkers and writers like Salvador Dali, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Cole Porter and Pablo Picasso. Not forgetting famous locals like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre who hung out together. Allen managed to weave a cameo role for many of them into his lovely film.

La Garçonne, a new six-part series from France, directed by Paolo Barzman, begins in Paris in 1919 at the dawn of this heady decade of artistic foment and social change. It takes its name from the bob hairstyle that became fashionable as women discovered new freedoms in an evolving postwar world. In French, ‘garçonne’ has come to mean tomboy.

Series creator, Dominique Lancelot, has said that the birth of populism and the shifting roles of women in society were the themes that she and her team wished to develop in the story of La Garçonne. Did she have at the back of mind the fact that French women were not inducted into the police force until 1968? That was 50 years after women were inducted into the police in this country.

Like the outstanding German television series, Babylon Berlin, largely set in the following decade but with similar underlying themes, La Garçonne involves a young policeman investigating what lies beneath. The underbelly of crime and corruption beneath the hedonistic and boho life of the capital, implicating establishment figures in its seamy fabric.

In this era of gender fluidity, does Smet need to look entirely convincing as a male? Perhaps not

The central character in La Garçonne is Louise Kerlac (Laura Smet) a young woman who worked as an ambulance driver during the war but can’t find a job since being demobbed. Her twin brother Antoine (Tom Hygreck), is surely one of the postwar ‘lost generation’, but he aspires to be a portrait artist.

Louise joins the police force disguised as her non-identical brother after she witnessed the murder of a family friend. Having left an item of clothing behind at the scene in her rush to escape, she has been framed for the murder and needs to disappear. Antoine agrees to let her assume his name and the take up his job in the police force, something he never wanted anyway. It is of little inconvenience to him to drop his name and live under his artist’s pseudonym instead.

Louise’s disguise fools the police department and she sets to work. Inevitably, it isn’t long before she uncovers vital information about the crime she is investigating, plus a whole lot more. A serial killer on the loose, a pornography network, and corruption in high places.

Laura Smet in La Garçonne

Smet, who is the daughter of rock musician Johnny Hallyday and actress Nathalie Baye, has the finely chiselled features to carry off the part of a young man well enough. The voice is just low enough and the gestures just manly enough, and her androgynous figure with breasts bound is hidden inside baggy trousers and jacket. While her slight figure transforms easily to the character of Giselle, yet another identity, that of flapper and good time girl who frequents bars and cabarets become a part of her forensic investigations.

In this era of gender fluidity, does Smet need to look entirely convincing as a male? Perhaps not, as wondering how long she can maintain the ruse tends to give the drama a bit of an edge. And she needs to be able to slide between the part of a young policeman by day and flapper by night.

Aside from this element of implausibility, La Garçonne is interesting enough and totally watchable. A quality production, made in the best traditions of the period piece in art cinema, with fidelity to time and place. Yet it could have been more playful with its daring artifice, shown more wit and humour. While production values are high, it lacks the fizz and energy of the times it represents.

First published in the Canberra Times on 29 August 2021

Beckett

John David Washington in Beckett. Courtesy Netflix

A stumbling, loosely conceived action thriller that lacks conviction but has atmos, cinematography and music of mood, to recommend it

 

MA15+, 110 minutes

2 Stars

Netflix

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

This latest film with lead actor, John David Washington, is a straightforward actioner without any of the fluctuating time and space of sci-fi in Tenet, where the actor was also the protagonist. It is rooted in the tangible, real world where nowhere is safe for a man on the run, the eponymous Beckett who is an American tourist.

The locations in Greece are definitely enticing, especially in a locked down world. Among the dry and bony hills dotted with olive trees, the pine forests, the stony hillsides and mountain peaks, and the people who live in the villages and farms outside Athens.

As some political demonstrations are due to take place in the city, Beckett and his girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander) have decided to take a trip through the countryside to avoid the possible political unrest, and take in the ancient cultural sites like Delphi. When they take their eyes and hands off each other.

Their idyll ends when Beckett falls asleep at the wheel on a winding mountain road. The couple never reach their next hotel. The car rolls several times and crashes through a barn, an accident that leaves April dead and Beckett injured.

The next day, the odd behaviour of the local police escalates with Beckett shot at when he revisits the site of the crash. He escapes but with more injuries, and is a man on the run for reasons he doesn’t understand.

A flight from nameless antagonists and the search for justice from a faceless, corrupt authority has had a really good workout now and then, in films like The Fugitive with Harrison Ford, based on the classic television series. Action with Liam Neeson continues to work the formula hard.

A solid actioner overlain with political intrigue will always work, even if the first and many of the best hark back to the political thrillers of the 1970s. Beckett draws inspiration from these, and does effectively build an atmosphere of paranoia, but it is weak on a number of key points.

The screenplay is by Kevin A Rice, and it is directed by Ferdinando Cito Filomarino. The director had celebrated talent onside to make a strong contribution to the film’s look and feel, people like film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, winner of multiple international awards. But the unsettling and sinister aspects of his score are handled clumsily, telegraphing a soon-to-become-apparent threat long before it appears.

Other aspects of the production are not well handled. Another director could have ensured that the actors weren’t left high and dry with some ridiculous lines, such as the dialogue between Lena (Vicky Krieps) and the fugitive when she offers to take off his handcuffs ‘if he likes’. The fugitive’s wrists are immobilised with cable wire, as if he would have wanted to keep them on. And then she produces bolt cutters out of nowhere.

It wasn’t the only time there was a laugh-out-loud moment as the script spelt out the obvious. And this from a screenplay which found a way to include the word ‘festoon’.

If you don’t think you’ve heard of the director Filomarino before, you are probably right. This is his first feature, though many aspiring directors clear this hurdle quite comfortably.

If you tire of the drama, there is always the way Beckett looks. Thai cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom has worked on films like Uncle Boomee Who Can Recall His Past Lives directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and with Luca Guadagnino on Suspiria and Call Me by Your Name.  It isn’t just the DOP’s perspective on the rural vistas outside Athens that is compelling, it is the feeling and mood of the city itself, its fractious citizens and the graffiti everywhere.

In Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi blockbuster Tenet, John David Washington had trouble carrying the film as well, even more of a challenge when the audience is struggling to get a handle on fluctuating time and space. This new action thriller doesn’t work so well for the actor either.

Washington is not a natural in the genre like his dad, Denzel, who tends to deliver more with less. Young Washington can look physically ill at east too, surprising in someone who was once a professional sportsman. Yet he was in his element in BlackkKlansman, in a role that was much better suited to his talents.

First published in the Canberra Times on 22 August 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir

PG, 101 minutes

3 Stars

Netflix

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

It’s surprising that the Chinese community that has made America home is under-represented on US cinema screens. There are the very notable novels, and there have been a few, but the big screen event that we saw with Crazy Rich Asians is rare. It is hardly any different in Australia.

So, a documentary like this is welcome and it is overdue. The first book by popular, influential novelist Amy Tan was The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989. It was nominated for many awards, broke New York Times bestseller records and was adapted to film four years later.

Directed by James Redford, this doco traces the life that Tan’s family left behind in China before emigrating to the US, and the highs and lows along the way as they adapted to their very different new home. As Tan says, her backstory is the past that began before her birth.

Anchored by her lively, extrovert personality, it is the final work by the late son of Robert Redford. James was still working on this project when he sadly died last year. This adds a poignant postscript.

After The Joy Luck Club there were five more novels loosely based on the life of her family (with catchy titles like The Bonesetter’s Daughter and Saving Fish from Drowning), short stories, children’s books and non-fiction. Tan’s most recent work of non-fiction, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, could be a companion piece to this film, which will be of special interest to writers and those who aspire to be.

It is in itself interesting that this is a documentary. Tan’s novel writing has presented her life and that of her family in fiction, where she believes we find the deepest representation of truth.

The novelist Tan began her career in business writing, even dabbled in astrology columns

She began her career in business writing, and even dabbled in inventive contributions for an astrology column. Eventually she turned to novels, with writing that came to reveal the relationship that had had the most impact on her, her relationship with her mother, Daisy Li.

Growing up, Amy had felt compelled to succeed. Her mother, a ‘spitfire’ by some accounts, had determined that her middle child would become a doctor during the week, and a concert pianist on the weekend. And there were other pressures on young Amy, like Daisy’s suicidal tendencies and the tragedy that struck the family when Amy’s father, an engineer and Baptist minister, and her elder brother both suddenly died of natural causes in the late 1960s.

Amy Tan. Image courtesy Sundance Film Festival

In subsequent years, Amy learnt that her grandmother was a concubine and had committed suicide, and that Daisy had left her first husband and three daughters behind in China when she escaped to California in 1949. As Tan acknowledges, she felt ‘tethered’ to these family stories, and began writing to herself during her mother’s suicidal years.

A documentary account that is interesting but not searching, and turns a bit repetitive

Tan’s story is told through a variety of media, including interviews with the subject, her mother, her lifelong best friend and her surviving sibling. Tan’s husband of nearly 50 years, Lou DeMattei, has something to say as well. It was one of the couple’s life decisions that they wouldn’t have children.

There is simple animation, black and white photographs of the family in Shanghai and the early years in California, home movies that include footage of the actual ‘joy luck’ investment club that met over mahjong, together with clips from Wayne Wang’s film, The Joy Luck Club (released in 1993) itself.

Fellow author, the Chilean writer Isabel Allende appears in interview, but why don’t we hear from other Chinese-American writers like, say, Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior), a celebrated author also living in California who has also written about the immigrant experience. Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir is rather narrowly based, and tends to be repetitive over its long running time.

Amy’s surviving brother recalls how their parents wanted the children to become perfect Americans. This desire was internalised by a young Amy to the extent that she thought she would die of embarrassment were her mother to show up at school with anything other than cupcakes to share at her birthday morning tea.

We can all perhaps relate to this admission. It seems to be integral to the magic of this slim, stylish woman with a penchant for exciting necklaces, that her work, founded on specific bicultural experience, is so widely relatable.

First published in the Canberra Times on 21 August 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

Miss

M, 107 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Beauty pageants demand so much more of contestants than they used to. Parading around in bikinis and glittering gowns used to be the trick, but now you need to show that you excel in other ways like practising karate, playing violin, being an engineer and helping the world go green. Whether this makes a difference to the outcome is, of course, up for debate.

I had the impression that the beauty business was on the wane, but no. Contestants in our post-feminist world just have to demonstrate that they are just as amazing inside as out.

Miss, a light-hearted French comedy with serious intent, is about a young man who, rejecting cisgender and feeling neither male nor female, decides he wants to enter the Miss France of beauty pageant by posing as a female. Written and directed by French-Portuguese filmmaker, Ruben Alves, it posits a new twist for these blended times.

The concept is a big step away from Alves’ pleasant but unremarkable first feature, The Gilded Cage, about a couple of guest workers who decide to return home to Portugal after many decades in Paris. Miss, a lot trickier to deliver, succeeds but only up to a point. Alves co-wrote the screenplay with Elodie Namer and Cecilia Rouaud.

Lead character, Alex (Alexandre Wetter), suddenly decides to make good a childhood dream he articulated in front of his class at nine years of age. In one of those ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ sessions, he said he wanted to become Miss France.

In the film’s jumbled early stages, the narrative tries to explain how a chance meeting with an old friend who has become a champion boxer, demonstrates to Alex that he can be whatever he wants to be. Always a good message.

A lead actor well-known for modelling fashions for Gaultier, women’s of course

Wetter’s Alex is a young man who has lost his way, but for his adopted family of friends. This happy band of outsiders includes Lola played by Thibault Montalembert from the TV series Call My Agent, almost unrecognisable as an ageing transvestite. His over-the-top performance was a welcome reminder of the evergreen French comedy, La Cage Aux Folles.

Crucially, the androgynous, smooth-skinned Wetter absolutely looks the part as Alex. With the auburn hair looped up, eyelashes attached and make-up applied, there’s even a hint of Claudia Cardinale.

Wetter has become well known in France since he first modelled clothes for Jean Paul Gaultier. Women’s fashions, of course.

Alex’s family of friends gather round and offer their support for his crazy quest. Advice is sought from Marraine (Amanda Lear) on how to feminise for the contest, and the older woman doesn’t mince her words. So, you want to be a woman? It won’t be easy. Alex will need to be by turns pure and sexy, rebellious and submissive. And disguise those male attributes, wear a corset even while in bed, and high heels rather than flats to conceal the size of the feet.

It’s fine for the beauty pageant contestant to be tall, as long as the feet are small 

So, the ideal feminine can be tall, but she must have small feet. Even foot size matters, apparently.

Against the odds, Alex manages to win the title Miss Ile-de-France and become a beauty pageant finalist. Early in the piece, after a male host behaves inappropriately towards him, he looks like he will be an advocate for women’s rights in the beauty business, but this doesn’t develop and Alex remains rather doe-eyed and passive for the duration.

On the other hand, both Lola and the landlady and mother-figure, Yolande (a feisty Isabelle Nanty), make up for this blandness, with some of the best lines about show poodles. Pascale Arbillot is also memorable as Amanda, the tough pageant manager who has to wrangle the Miss France contestants and turn them into television material.

During contestant interviews, the girl with the mostest claims she has an IQ of 170, can speak four languages, and has a blog devoted to humanitarian work. Miss PACA, that is Miss Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur, is played by another well-known face from Call My Agent, Stefi Celma.

Clearly, Alex is out of his depth, but important developments are underway.

Before getting cross about beauty pageants and whether or not they are demeaning, we can see that Miss isn’t just about gender issues and institutionalised sexism towards women. There’s a takeaway message in this well-meaning comedy that works for everyone.

First published in the Canberra Times on 14 August 2021.  Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

Free Guy

Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy. Image courtesy Disney

PG, 115 minutes

3 Stars

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Guy isn’t free, just programmed to look like it. When he gets ready for work each day in Free City, he chooses a powder blue shirt to wear. There’s nothing else to choose from, all his shirts look the same, and he sticks to his usual routine, day in and day out.

Poor Guy (Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds who hit gold with the Marvel Deadpool franchise), is only an algorithm. All his choices are made for him. Ever had that same feeling as you type into Google, or the social media? The tech giants know way too much about us.

Free Guy, directed by prolific director Shawn Levy (titles include the Night at the Museum franchise), and from a screenplay by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, is the latest addition to a growing list of B-movies that are part of an expanding gamer universe.

It looks like unassuming bank teller Guy has everything he needs until the day he lays eyes on his dream girl as she saunters past him on the street, in shades and leathers. She is Molotov Girl, played by Jodie Comer who shot to fame as the charismatic assassin in the TV series Killing Eve.

Guy knows she’s the one, he just knows it. There’s a spring to his step the next day when he orders coffee, making the mistake of exercising free choice by asking for something different, a cappuccino. When a tank suddenly appears in the street outside with its barrel trained straight at him, Guy quickly corrects his mistake, ordering the usual with cream and two sugars.

Guy is getting the hang of things and has begun making a name for himself, the first AI character to show free will

Guy is nothing but collateral, an expendable background character in a video game, an NPC or non-playable/non-player character, but he has just taken a dangerous step beyond his assigned role, ordering what he wants. Next thing, he’s taken sunglasses off the man who routinely robs his bank, and made for the streets. While wearing sunnies, Guy has become a free agent, an open world gamer, a playable character who can do what he wants.

As he begins his quest to track down Molotov Girl, Guy is getting the hang of things and has begun making a name for himself as Blue Shirt Guy. Although he’s the product of programming code, BSG is becoming the first AI character ever created out of noughts and zeros to show free will.

Someone who grew, felt things and developed has emerged, the first confirmed artificially created life form. Out in the real world, his followers are growing fast.

As the gamer empire boss sees it, a good-guy routine is bad for sequels in the franchise business

You would think that a global following would please the publisher of Free City and an empire of other games, but for Antwan (Taika Waititi, hamming it up in this performance) the glitch that created Guy stands in the way of the Free City sequel and must be eliminated. The CEO wants nothing less than total control and he orders a reboot to relegate BSG back to the background character he once was, effectively eliminating him.

Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy. Image courtesy Disney

Besides, as Antwan perceives it, Guy with his good-guy routine is bad for the franchise business. The do-gooder can deflect and overcome the violence which he wants no part of, and he has fallen in love. Guy is assuming the role of hero in his own story.

Guy has after all been a plant, emerging from software developed by Millie (Comer), Molotov’s real-world creator, and Keys (Joe Keery), her programming partner.

To escape his fate, Guy must get beyond the borders of Antwan’s gamer empire. First he has to duke it out with a super hero hulk who has strayed in from another movie franchise, as other movie references appear that are probably good for Disney business too.

Is it really 20 years since the first Tomb Raider, even longer since the first Street Fighter? The studios will keep these B-movies coming, and now there are cinemas that have begun renting their screens to gamers in these revenue-starved times.

A film like Free Guy is a step into the sunshine, away from the Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Warcraft titles that compete for young gamers. It’s fun, the writing is smart, the performances engaging, the action cleverly choreographed, and it is a good addition, for once, to the list of video game movies, live action and animated, that have made it to the big screen.

First published in the Canberra Times on 15 August 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

The Rose Maker

Despite some twee familiarity at the start, this story about a tough, committed businesswoman becomes a story about youth and second chances

 

Olivia Cote, Catherine Frot, Fatsa Bouyahmed, Melan Omerta in The Rose Maker. Image courtesy Madman

M, 95 minutes

4 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Another year, another rose show, and still no recognition for the quality of her blooms. Is it because the rose breeder is a bit of a stick in the mud, a traditionalist who keeps entering a similar type of flower in every show? Or is it that she needs to show a bit more marketing flair, and name her flowers after celebrities like Sophie Marceau or Beyoncé?

Eve Vernet (Catherine Frot) has been managing her late father’s extensive nursery for 15 years but the business is losing its edge. What to do, she wonders, sitting up late puffing on her pipe. As a stubborn perfectionist who resists succumbing to new trends, Eve is steadily losing business and on the way to bankruptcy, and she cannot bear to sell.

It’s a serious question for French farmers who still do things the traditional way. The director, Pierre Pinaud, and his four collaborating screenwriters on The Rose Maker (original title La Fine Fleur) have created a sharp, amusing comedy set in the country’s vast agricultural sector that will resonate everywhere.

Eve’s farm is in danger of being swallowed up by a giant corporate, a major industrial-scale rose breeding business in the nearby area. The owner, Lamarzelle (Vincent Dedienne), the suitably unctuous villain of the piece, is trying hard to buy Eve out. Every chance he gets, he tells her she should sell the family rose farm and work with him. She would definitely rather not sell her business and its valuable reputation to an opportunist only interested in making money.

New help with a long criminal record and unspecified other crimes the authorities have yet to catch up with

One day, the local social worker deposits a trio of unlikely helpers at Eve’s door. There’s young Fred (Manel Foulgoc), with a lion and rose sleeve tattoo and a long criminal record that includes robbery with violence and unspecified other crimes that the authorities have yet to catch up with.

Amiable, 50-year-old Samir (Fatsa Bouyahmed) looks like he’s had a hard time of it, and Nadege (Marie Petiot) is a nervy girl who says little and no one wishes to upset. They are each in training for a return-to-work program, and their labour will be free.

With help from untrained helpers such as these and a well-meaning but inept office manager, Vera (Olivia Cote), you might think that the demise of Eve’s business was sealed. Yet, Eve is in luck. Her new workforce has hidden talents. Samir remembers some of his high-school genetics, Fred has extensive experience picking locks plus other hidden talents, and all three show willing.

Suddenly inspired, Eve has plans to hybridise a new creation, but she will need access to a rare plant. It’s Lamarzelle, wouldn’t you know it, who has one of this rare breed and keeps it locked away, refusing to allow others in the business to take cuttings. Eve, in a surprising display, decides to rob fortress Lamarzelle of this prized plant. With Fred’s remarkable know-how, a bit of sangfroid and a lot of luck, team Vernet manages to carry it off.

The ruthless side to Eve’s sweet and eccentric exterior appears again when she threatens to report her trio of helpers if they dob her in, but they all move on from the stand-off. It’s an interesting moment.

Melan Omerta and Catherine Frot in The Rose Maker. Image courtesy Madman

The Rose Maker begins as Eve’s story but segues into the rehabilitation of Fred, a troubled city boy. He is played by Melan Omerta (screen name of Manel Foulgoc) who is actually a well-known rapper from Toulouse with a band.

This performance background may explain the confidence and charisma that Foulgoc shows on screen, in an engaging, understated and nuanced performance. The confidence sits well with his role and with his character’s backstory as a street kid who was rejected by his parents and consequently turned to petty crime.

French cinema often seems to acknowledge the importance of the country’s rural traditions and the pressures on traditional farming. In some respects, the film’s themes are in similar territory to those covered by the recent, powerful Guillaume Canet film, In the Name of the Land.

At the start of The Rose Maker, we may feel a trifle underwhelmed by a certain twee familiarity. However, while Catherine Frot’s character remains intriguing throughout, she steps back to allow Foulgoc’s story to take over, that of the angry, damaged city boy on a journey of self-discovery.

First published in the Canberra Times on 8 August 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

The Souvenir

MA15+, 119 minutes

Netflix

4 Stars

 

 

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

This highly accomplished feature is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, unformed and unsure, as she starts out in life.

It’s a finely crafted miniature of a film that takes its title from the late 18th century painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard that hangs in the Wallace Collection, London. Like its namesake, it bears a closer look.

The Souvenir is written and directed by Joanna Hogg, now a veteran of the British screen industry. She has worked in television in the main and made four distinguished features for the big screen, including Unrelated and Archipelago.

The project is dear to the filmmaker’s heart. Semi-autobiographical, delving into memories of her emerging, uncertain younger self, it is told with the assurance by a commanding screen talent.

Subtle mise-en-scene advances the story and the use of colour hints at the protagonist’s gradual growth in strength and stature

Hogg is on the record as saying that when she’s directed film, she has sought to do everything she couldn’t do while working in television. The results speak for themselves.

The Souvenir takes its time, getting underway slowly while paying attention to the nuances of scene-setting. I was struck by the beautiful, subtle mise-en-scene that advances the story, and the use of colour to hint at the protagonist gradual growth in strength and stature.

Despite these pleasures, you could be forgiven for getting impatient with the two main characters, Julie and Athony. The Souvenir is set among members of the privileged classes in 1980s Britain.

Honor Swinton Byrne, daughter of Tilda, is a natural for the role of Julie, a student of film.  She encounters Anthony (Tom Burke), an evasive, older dude in pinstripes and bowtie, who may or may not be working for the Foreign Office.

Although the unlikely couple become lovers, it is impossible to lose a nagging feeling that Anthony is only using her to maintain and hide his habit. He is a heroin addict.

Their characters are sometimes numbingly passive. It is a weight that can drag this otherwise exquisitely made and genuinely engaging experience down.

I wanted Julie to be more assertive, to put her foot down. This story, so beautifully and delicately told, can require patience.

One for nervously tucking her hair behind her ear, Julie is a Knightsbridge gal. She actually owns the student digs that she shares with other aspiring creative types, but she behaves like a guest.

Nonetheless, she is busy, recording party guests with her still and movie cameras. Inside and outside the scene, until she exits the party altogether for her upstairs room and another round at her editing console.

It’s apparent that Julie badly wants to step away from the privilege that has underscored her background and development. As an aspiring filmmaker, her heart has been set on a project set in Sunderland, far away in Britain’s industrial north.

She is toying with the idea of a young boy, Tony, who is terrified of losing the mother on whom his life depends. This intriguing thread may or may not have a connection with the main narrative.

During her pitch to a panel of impassive faculty staff, she is asked why she wants to tell a story set in industrial deprivation so at variance with her own experience. It’s a point that Julie’s lecturers raise with her a number of times. In a sense, The Souvenir itself, set among the fashionable and privileged classes, is the answer to that very question.

Singular in its rhythms and style, this subtle coming-of-age story will divide audiences

The Souvenir has attracted many nominations and won many awards for writer-director Joanna Hogg and her two lead actors, Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke, and Tilda Swinton has also been praised for her role as Julie’s mother. But it will divide audiences.

It is fascinating to see a marked divergence between the high critics’ score and a low audience score on the review aggregator sites. Where films have maxed the gap possible between the critics and the audience responses, like this one with a 50 percent difference between the two scores, it can make the punters wary.

And yet, when released overseas in 2019, The Souvenir was voted the best film of the year by the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine. Time will tell how it stacks up on Netflix where it is streaming.

The Souvenir is exquisitely well made, singular in its rhythms and style. A subtle take on coming-of-age that is masterfully well directed.

Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

Shiva Baby

Rachel Sennot in Shiva Baby. Image courtesy Kismet

 

M, 99 minutes

3 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Who brings a baby to a shiva?’ Guests at a funeral keep asking each other the question in this coming-of-age film set deep within New York’s Jewish community. It’s a neat play on words in a feature that is often razor sharp, if only mildly funny.

The bawling baby that guests are unhappy with is the daughter of an attractive young couple, Max (Danny Deferrari) and Kim (Dianna Agron), who seem to be the only ones to have brought young children along. For others attending, it’s a gaffe that only someone who is not truly Jewish, converted or not, could commit.

The toddler is not the babe in question. It’s Danielle (Rachel Sennott), a young college student, majoring in gender studies, who is about to graduate. She is at a point in life where she finds herself angry, resentful and confused. No one understands her. And why does she have to attend the shiva (a family event after a Jewish funeral) of her uncle’s second wife’s sister?

Her overbearing mom, Debbie (Polly Draper), has supplied her with a ‘sound bite’, and her well-meaning dad, Joel (Fred Melamed), has jollied her along, but Danielle is still down in the dumps. She chugs down the wine and splurges on the buffet.

Some sharp writing and a convincing  claustrophobic atmosphere, but this comedy in an insular Jewish community is only mildly amusing

The nosey, gossiping matrons, rendered in big close-up, single Dani out for special attention. They thought she was vegetarian, so why is she eating meat? She looks like Gwyneth Paltrow ‘on food stamps’, why has she lost so much weight? What is she doing after graduation? And has she found herself a boyfriend, yet?

Writer-director, Emma Seligman, highlights the insularity and intrusiveness so well. The claustrophobia that Danielle experiences in her encounters with her family and community is particularly well articulated in Shiva Baby, based on the short film that was the director’s graduation piece from NYU.

So, the handsome Max has arrived at the event with his striking blonde wife, variously described by the other woman as a ‘Malibu Barbie and a ‘shiksa princess’. Kim is no bimbo, however, but an accomplished entrepreneur said to be the breadwinner.

These revelations give Dani quite a turn. Earlier in the day, she was having sex with Max. Now he turns up with a wife that she didn’t even know existed.

That said, it is a puzzle that it matters. On the face of it, the relationship between Dani and Max is transactional, as she is receiving money from him that she was supposed to need for her tuition fees. But she is lying too and doesn’t have a place in law school that she can’t yet quite afford.

Isn’t the issue that Dani has a thing for him and tries to make him show that he has the same feelings for her?

In her director’s statement, Seligman explains the sugar relationship that is the backstory to her film. How they exist between older men and the younger women who they help out by paying for their company on dates. The transaction may or may not involve intimacy.

If Danielle is a sugar babe, isn’t Max a bit too young to be the other party? He’s older, of course, but the disparity isn’t that great. The issue is that Dani has a thing for him and she tries to make him show that he has the same feelings for her.

A further complication for Dani is her relationship with former bestie, Maya (Molly Gordon), her old friend who does have a place at law school.

Danie and Maya went to their prom together and there is some unfinished business between them that they take up again. Everything unravels for Dani in the short space of a day.

One of the pleasures of this slice of insular Jewish community life is the intermittent score by Ariel Marx, with plucking strings and synths and percussion from Sam Mazur. The instruments work together beautifully in counterpoint to the difficult, claustrophobic afternoon, ratcheting up the tension.

With its sharp writing and an especially good performance by its lead actor, Shiva Baby is clearly accomplished. Apparently, the shoot in Brooklyn took an efficient 16 days.

It has had a dream run for a first feature, being invited to screen in official selection at prestigious film festivals, like South by SouthWest and the Melbourne International.

Shiva Baby will appeal to audiences who appreciate its brand of humour but the claustrophobic atmosphere and difficult community dynamics may not go down so well with others.

First published in the Canberra Times on 31 July 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

Jungle Cruise

Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt on a Jungle Cruise.

Courtesy Disney

 

M, 127 minutes

3 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

This theme-park inspired Disney feature offers a charming romantic couple front and centre and a sense of fun. If it tends a bit cumbersome at times, the spirited pair headlining the fantasy adventure lift it up and carry it forward.

The lead characters in Jungle Cruise were clearly inspired by The African Queen, the 1950s action-adventure directed by John Huston. It pitched a couple of memorable characters, played by Kate Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart of course, together on a riverboat during World War 1.

Jungle Cruise is also set in WWI, which is handy because it allows feisty Dr Lily Houghton, played by Emily Blunt, to channel aspects of Hepburn who was a missionary in a dress and bonnet in African Queen, but an actress well known for wearing trousers in other scenarios. Captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), skipper of the riverboat, sports a similar cap to the one that Bogey wore.

The movie gets off to a good start when Lily, a biologist from London, arrives at the edge of Amazonia, looking for a contact at a riverside bar who will be brave or foolhardy enough to ferry her into the unknown. The banter that develops between her and Frank let you know they are eventually destined for each other.

Lily has plenty to offer on a trip up the Amazon, being athletic and self-reliant, but she can’t swim

Frank, skipper of a sturdy riverboat, isn’t the contact Lily was seeking and his vessel has seen better days, but she chooses him anyway. He can wrestle jaguars and is just the kind of resourceful, competent male she needs on her dangerous quest for the legendary tree of life. This fabled tree is connected with the artefact, a spearhead, in her possession that she hopes will help lead her to it.  A single petal from the tree will have a huge impact on medical science, and help to save countless lives.

It turns out that the jaguar wrestling that impressed is a ruse to impress, but Lily is not a woman to waver and she sticks with her choice. The jaguar, Frank’s pet in the film, was performed by a man in a jaguar leotard, and the creature was added in later with CGI.

Lily has plenty to offer on a trip up the Amazon. She doesn’t scare easily, she understands and respects the natural world, and she is athletic and self-reliant. She can also pick locks, and this sideline comes in handy but it is a disadvantage that she doesn’t know how to swim.

Her travel companion is her brother, McGregor (Jack Whitehall). A daft caricature,  with his penchant for bow ties and jackets at dinner aboard La Quila he is a very broad joke at the start, but he demonstrates what he is made of and turns out to be good company too.

Out on the river, there’s a crazed German submarine commander (Jesse Plemons) who is also on a mission to find the tree of life. This obsessive Teutonic character is probably a dig at legendary German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, whose strange and haunting Amazon adventures, Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, were notoriously difficult to make on location in the Amazonian wilderness.

Nothing remotely sinsister or serious, just rollicking good fun

As if one nutjob wasn’t trouble enough in Jungle Cruise, there are reanimated Spanish conquistadors who have been languishing for centuries to get their hands back on their plunder. One of them, Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez,) wants to get hold of that spearhead too, but the Indigenous tribe who own it want to have what is rightfully theirs.

The Spanish-born director, Jaume Collet-Serra, does not have a strong filmography but his background in music videos and advertising has served him well enough here. Writers who contributed to the screenplay include Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, Logan).

The tone of Jungle Cruise recalls the kind of action adventures that headlined Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s, with nothing remotely sinister or serious. The more recent first Pirates of the Caribbean, by far the best, was similar before the franchise drifted off course.

At two hours’ running time, Jungle Cruise is certainly long. Yet there are chuckles all along the way, right until the final scenes back in London at the academy of science back that wouldn’t accept Lily’s credentials. Seriously, it’s a return to some rollicking, good old-fashioned fun.

First published in the Canberra Times on 1 August 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

Everything but the Groom. Interview with Iciar Bollain, director Rosa’s Wedding

 

 

By © Jane Freebury

Tempestuous quarrels and family disagreements aside, there is plenty of kissing and hugging in Rosa’s Wedding, a popular new Spanish comedy from Iciar Bollain. The  filmmaker thinks its success at the local box office had something to do with a nostalgia, especially among demonstrative Latin people like her, for a time when the simplest gestures were unproblematic.

Rosa’s Wedding arrived in Spanish theatres during the pandemic but it achieved solid box office, and plentiful Spanish-language film awards and nominations.

Via Zoom from her home in Scotland, Bollain tells me that the film has recently been doing well in the chillier northern European countries like Germany and Austria. “I think we all need a laugh.”

Constantly at the service of others at work and at home, the film’s lead character Rosa (an engaging Candela Pena), on the cusp of 45, has realised that she still hasn’t lived her life. She decides to strike out on her own, to hit ‘the nuclear button’, leave it all behind, return to her seaside hometown and open her own business.

Many women, especially wives, mothers and carers would easily relate to her Rosa. In her daydream in the opening scenes, she is running a marathon that never stops. She keeps running past the finish life, on and on, until she collapses exhausted on an empty block of land. What looks like her ultimate destination, a city of gleaming towers forever out of reach, stands in the distance.

As Rosa’s world opens to us, it’s apparent she is many things to many people. A woman’s work is never done. Looking after the nephews, dealing with elderly parents, watering the plants while a relative is away. Generally filling in the gaps, or picking up the loose ends, as we might say.

Just ask a busy person if you want something done. Is there an equivalent in Spanish for this English expression? “It’s a great saying, but no, I don’t think so. The point is so recognisable. There are so many Rosas. There is always a Rosa around who takes on everything, even at work. There is always someone, usually female.”

Rosa’s daughter, Lidia (Paula Usero), holds the bouquet. Image courtesy Palace Films

So, in Spain expectations are always high that someone will take up the slack, as we say? In the absence of strong social security systems in Spain, that’s the way it is. “It’s a very feminine task, the caring, even in the UK where I live.” Bollain is married to Paul Laverty, the regular screenwriter for English filmmaker Ken Loach. The couple live in Edinburgh with their three children.

She won a Goya award with the Rosa’s Wedding co-writer Alicia Luna, for their screenplay of Take My Eyes in 2003. That film was an exploration of an abusive marriage partnership, showing why it’s so difficult to break the cycle of violence. “It was about the mechanics of the relationship. Obviously, the film was with the victim but the husband wasn’t just a ‘baddie’. I think that was surprising for audiences.”

“I thought it was a great premise. A funny and bonkers idea. Subverting the idea of marrying someone and marrying yourself”

“I wasn’t interested in the psychopath, but in the common man who is frightened of the world and has to have a sense of power. So, he was also a victim, of his own violence. Obviously, he was a very unhappy man. The film made a lot of noise. And it hasn’t dated. It is so unfortunate.”

It’s great seeing how young men are these days, so much more involved in the care of small children.  “It’s funny because I think they are discovering that there’s a lot of beauty in all that,” Bollain responds. “It’s heavy going and it’s unrelenting but there are lots of lovely things about it that they were missing. It’s a matter of justice (that they are involved) but it’s also a matter of sharing something which is very beautiful.”

What prompted writing the screenplay for your latest film, Rosa’s Wedding?

“I saw this article in The Guardian with the headline, ‘Everything but the Groom’. It was all about this kind of trend, about lots of women who marry themselves. They do it privately, they do it publicly, they marry in groups, and it’s all over the world.”

Some celebrities have declared themselves self-partnered as a defiant way of rejecting conventional gender stereotypes

“I thought it was a great premise. A funny and bonkers idea. Subverting the idea of marrying someone and marrying yourself! Having a laugh at the patriarchy.”

Self-connection rituals and solo weddings have been in reported in the media from time to time. Some celebrities have declared themselves self-partnered as a defiant way of rejecting conventional gender stereotypes.

Rosa’s Wedding is about self-esteem,” Bollain continues. “About setting the boundaries, setting the limits with other people, the mechanics within families. And this lack of self-esteem that women seem to have been born with. “We have lots of attitudes that you have to fight against, lots of inertias. Like Rosa. Taking on things that we don’t want to take on but it’s what is expected of us.”

So, like a deconstruction of the idea that you need to have a partner to have significance in society?

“It’s not saying you don’t need a man. It’s says I want to take care of myself before I take care of you…It’s about being able to have a healthy relationship with everybody. In a couple you need to first love yourself.” A kind of self-love, a love of self that is entirely acceptable? “Yes.”

Why is the average Spanish family now smaller than in the past, and with more women opting not to have children?

“Nearly half of Spanish people aged between 20 and 30 are unemployed and they are the last to leave home, because they can’t afford to. Jobs are precarious, housing is out of reach. It’s not because we don’t like children, it’s because there is no government help. I have three and I’m a Martian. That’s very rare, very rare.”

“Fitting in between two cultures is so interesting because you don’t fit in any. You don’t fit in any now. Because I’ve been eight years in the UK, I find people in Spain loud, rough, and rude and when I go home (to Scotland) I find people flat, and boring!”

And in Spain you don’t queue, right?” Yes, and in Spain we don’t listen.” I’d read that Bollain had told her actors, except for Candela, to all talk at once, to talk over each other.

“Rosa doesn’t speak her mind. So to make that believable we had to have very pushy people around her. It’s a little bit of a caricature. A little bit tuned up.” But at least it may make audiences listen.

First published in the Canberra Times on 24 July 2021

A Perfect Fit

Refal Hady and Nadya Arina in A Perfect Fit. Image courtesy Netflix

PG, 112 minutes

3 Stars

Netflix

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

The island of Bali, beautiful in so many ways, forms the backdrop for this sweet romance from the Indonesian film industry. The story is set among the locals and has virtually nothing to do with the foreign visitors that have been descending on the tropical paradise for as long as anyone can remember.

With a rating that allows for young viewers, A Perfect Fit is modest, as we would expect an Indonesian film to be. There is a bit of touching, holding hands and some shy kissing. The going only gets a bit rough in a couple of realistic fight scenes over the love interest, but physical violence is never as scrutinized as sex by the local censors.

The romantic couple meet by chance and are instantly drawn to each other when fashion blogger, Saski (Nadya Arina), goes shopping for shoes. She sees something she likes in the window of a new business that Rio (Refal Hady) is setting up, and she likes the way he can gauge the size she needs without taking measurements. Problem is that Saski is already spoken for. She will soon marry the execrable Deni (Giorgino Abraham), the arrogant, aggressive son of a wealthy family.

Each of their mothers prefer a match with a more obviously upwardly mobile partner

It’s a sign for hope that the prophetic signs for the wedding between Deni and Saski are not propitious. The couple’s birthdays are ill-matched, and they will need interventions prior to the wedding for things to work out. The local Macassan traditions that interrogate the imminent union are an interesting interpellation. Lontar belief systems are as active as Saski’s close friend Andra (Laura Theux) in questioning the marriage.

For light-hearted comedy, there are also several the taxi drivers who do their bit trying to bring the right couple together in the end.

Family circumstances are an obstacle to true love, as Rio and Saski’s mothers prefer a match with a more obviously upwardly mobile partner. A marriage with Deni would assist Saski’s family financially, and open up the possibility for her having her own fashion boutique.

Rio’s mother wants him to marry his childhood friend, Tiara (Anggiki Bolsterli), who has plans to use his design flair in her shoe making factory business. With her Masters degree and her views on Indonesian workers who don’t cut it in her factory, she is formidable.

 A discussion about the extent to which a young person has a right to choose a life partner for themselves

The four central young characters, representing different social positions, open the door for discussion about the extent to which a young person has a right to choose a life partner for themselves. About how much attention they should pay to cultural traditions, and what the roles of men and the role of women are in contemporary marriage.

The screenplay was written by Garin Nugroho, who has been, for some time, one of the pre-eminent of the older generation of Indonesian filmmakers. He is best known internationally for serious films that combine Indonesia’s art and cultural traditions with contemporary social commentary. As I anticipated, social commentary is included here.

Deni is a particularly interesting character, particularly in the showdown between him and Saski that takes place on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. He has no illusions about himself. He’s the guy he has always been, so why does she hesitate?

Refal Hady and Nadya Arina in A Perfect Fit. Image courtesy Netflix

A Perfect Fit would have benefitted from a shorter running time, but there is sweet honesty to it. While several of the support characters deliver overdrawn characters, all the young lead actors, and most especially Arina and Abraham, deliver naturalistic performances.

According to The Jakarta Post, the young female director of A Perfect Fit, Hadrah Daeng Ratu, has form in horror movies.  She can clearly cross genres with ease.

In a scene between gentle Rio and his mother, Ibu Rio (Unique Priscilla) informs him that Charlie Chaplin visited their island home in 1932. News to me, but a documentary about this was released recently.

It would be perverse to ignore the things about Bali, its people and culture that enchanted Chaplin and countless other tourists visiting Bali over the decades. Yet the film does not labour the point, and uses aspects of Balinese life sparingly.

The terraced rice fields, the beauty of the coastline, and the vibrant street processions and the gentle people are all in there, but this is no advert. It is an interesting insight into contemporary Indonesian culture for the curious.

First published in the Canberra Times on 24 July 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

Nine Days

Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz in Nine Days. Image courtesy Sony Pictures

M, 124 minutes

4 Stars

 

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

Building new worlds and creating new rules might just be worth contemplating in these strange times. Edson Oda, a young Japanese-Brazilian writer-director, has gone big and bold in this sci-fi drama, his outstanding first film, entertaining ideas about salvaging what’s good, doing away with what’s bad, and striving for what is better.

Nine Days is about a man, by the name of Will, who interviews souls, who are candidates for life, with ‘what if’ questions that supposedly reveal the direction they would take if they had the opportunity to live. It looks a lot like playing God.

Day in, day out, observing his protégé’s progress at life, Will sits in front of a bank of television monitors in his shabby cottage, encircled by a picket fence, in the middle of a vast desert. The filmmakers selected the stunning desert locations of Utah for their shoot.

an omniscient figure with the right to play god, not an entirely comfortable thought

As an omniscient figure, Will is entitled to ask the questions because he has experienced life. But as to what he did with his life, besides some work in theatre, we are none the wiser. That he can yield such power is not an entirely comfortable thought.

Winston Duke, who has appeared in Marvel superhero films, appears as Will. His tall, imposing, black frame dominates the space whenever he appears, but Will has recently started to doubt himself. The death of one of his favourites, Amanda, has left him irretrievably saddened and puzzled, and he returns to his records obsessively to try to understand why she died. Amanda was a concert violinist of prodigious talent, with her life ahead of her. So why oh why did she suddenly die while driving, in a single car collision?

It’s Will’s job to find her replacement, and he sets about interviewing a fresh round of candidate souls for the role. A decision must be reached within the titular nine days. The central idea is that souls competing for the ‘amazing opportunity’ of life have a chance at being born into a fruitful environment where promise will be fulfilled.

The competing souls have to field questions, from the mundane to the more searching and the diabolically testing. It’s an even more disturbing scenario when one of these cruel hypotheticals involves a choice allowing the unthinkable, the death of a child.

When the interviewees challenge him, Will says that he is not the boss, just a cog in a wheel. He seems to operate like a kind of bureaucrat, on behalf of a higher power that it is nowhere to be seen. No one else can comment on Will’s decisions except the enigmatic Kyo (Benedict Wong), who was once a soul competing for life too, but he never went away. Rather than evaporate like the rest of the rejects, he hung on in.

the intellectual premise connects with its characters at an emotional level too

A blissful end awaits the souls who miss out in the competition for life. There is, at least, a fleeting compensation for candidates like Alex (Tony Hale), Mike (David Rysdahl) and Maria (Arianna Ortiz). It might be a sunny afternoon at the beach, or a cycle through quiet city streets. Something lovely to go out on.

These ‘dying’ moments are by turns beautiful and distressing, and underline the fragility of life’s precious small moments. This is when the film’s intellectual premise connects at an emotional level with its characters, and its audience.

The only one of the candidates to insist on her own choice of final moment, Emma (Zazie Beetz), is rebuffed in her choice. Her vitality, energy and positive outlook is a necessary counterbalance to the film’s tendency to a gloomy interiority. It ultimately takes the challenge to Will and the power invested in him. The film’s conclusion, a touch stagey, lifts the film away from its trajectory and into a new realm altogether.

It is to the credit of everyone involved in Nine Days that the film is able to carry off its strange and singular premise.

The film’s mise-en-scene is brimming with post-industrial bric-a-brac. Old VHS equipment, television monitors that don’t exceed 25 inches, a Polaroid camera and more. The dated familiarity helps anchor the film’s outrageous premise, as do the terrific performances.

Features as bold, original, and beautiful as this don’t come along that often. It is a challenging experience, but there won’t be any others quite like it this year.

First published in the Canberra Times on 12 July 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

Black Widow

M, 134 minutes

4 stars

 

 

 

 

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

Given that Black Widow is the 24th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a movie about this particular female superhero has taken a while. After all, Scarlett Johansson has been showing us her martial smarts as Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, for the last decade.

It’s said the idea was out there early on. MCU had been thinking about a female superhero blockbuster before Iron Man appeared in 2008 at the start of this incredibly successful franchise of interwoven superhero stories.

Had Black Widow been made earlier, who knows how it might have turned out. Perhaps the New Zealand director of Thor movies, the incorrigible Taika Waititi, would have made it a comedy. Perhaps Kenneth Branagh, who has had a go at directing Thor too, would have added a theatrical flourish.

What we have instead is an Marvel female superhero movie with a female director. Not the very first, but Captain Marvel was only very recent.And the timing is excellent, arriving when gender politics stories are all over the media.

It is pretty well known that when the Black Widow project was finally up and running, Scarlett Johansson, also executive producing, asked for director Cate Shortland to helm. Writer-director Shortland won the Australian Film Institute best film award for Somersault in 2004, which screened in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. She was raised in Canberra.

Some of the best moments come when visual effects and SFX teams were on coffee break

Johansson had, however, been particularly impressed by Shortland’s marvellous film Lore, set in Germany in the immediate aftermath of WWII. She supported Shortland’s progress from long to short list, and Shortland was chosen over 60 or so other female directors.

How Shortland made the leap from intimate indie drama to superhero blockbuster would be surely be another great story in itself.

And yet, what the director brings has made for some of the best moments in Black Widow, when the visual effects and SFX teams were on their coffee break.

The opening scenes in suburban Ohio are rivetting. Arcing back to when Natasha was a scrappy kid, before she trained at the infamous Red Room to become a KGB agent, a Black Widow. Before she finally defected to S.H.I.E.L.D.

Florence Pugh and Scarlett Johansson in Black Widow

It had been another unremarkable day. She and her kid sister Yelena were gazing at fireflies drifting through the trees in their garden, then settling down to dinner when their dad announced they were leaving town for good.

Within minutes, the family was on the run, with CIA operatives in hot pursuit. Suddenly, the girls’ dad (David Harbour) was firing an automatic weapon and their mum (Rachel Weisz) was in the pilot seat of a small prop plane flying the family to Cuba.

Comic book action of the crash-bang-wallop variety doesn’t usually deliver this kind of true grit.

At a bizarre family reunion on a pig farm deep in the Russian woods around 20 years later, Natasha and Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) discover the true nature of their connection with their ‘parents’, Alexei Shostakov (Harbour), and Milena Vostokoff (Weisz).

The revelations lead to Natasha hunting down the truth about her training as a KGB assassin, and about the international ramifications of the program of which she was part. It’s an evil plot to remove free will, install mind control and rule the world.

The three women at the heart of the story are a terrific trio at odds with each other

As mastermind Dreykov, Ray Winstone slips into the role of uber-villain with ease. Funnily enough, his counterpart across the Atlantic, William Hurt reprising his role as Thaddeus Ross, the US Secretary of State, looks just as creepy.

There is plenty of spectacular action in stunning locations in Norway, Morocco, and Hungary, and CGI delivers a very satisfying end to the evil patriarchy. But, for my money, it’s the interplay between the characters where the real fun lies.

Harbour is diverting as the buffoonish Alexei, as ineffectual as his counterpart Captain America, but the best thing about Black Widow is the edgy relationship between the three women at the heart of the story. Natasha, Yelena and the mysterious Melina are a terrific trio at odds with each other.

The surprise is that Black Widow isn’t quite the lead character’s film. It tends towards her sister Yelena Belova. Both are powerful female protagonists of complexity and contradictions, but Florence Pugh’s Yelena holds her own against Black Widow, and some. She is someone to go back for, for another round.

First published in the Canberra Times on 10 July 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

This Little Love of Mine

G, 91 minutes

Netflix

2 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

 

The romantic couple in this new Australian feature first clap eyes on each other on their way to a tropical island. No prizes for guessing what eventually happens there, but in romantic comedy it’s the journey that counts, isn’t it.

They couldn’t be more different. Fresh off the plane from San Francisco where she works in corporate law, Laura (Saskia Hampele), still has black stilettos to kick off and maybe a little attitude to lose. While Chip (Liam McIntyre), the boat’s captain and grounded man that he is, is completely comfortable at work in his shorts. And he is barefoot.

Laura has quite a job in front of her. She has been flown to this tropical paradise on business, tasked with persuading Chip to sign a contract making him the new CEO of his grandfather’s company, Finley Developments.

Chip’s grandfather Graham (Martin Portus), a billionaire businessman a few days away from his 85th birthday, wants his grandson to take over from him at head office.

Chip has shown absolutely no interest in taking up the role. He is keen on doing charitable work, like helping people who cannot afford to buy a home. Despite his resistance to the idea, Laura persists. A partnership at the law firm is hers if she is successful.

West Coast US meets laid-back beach bum on the far side of the Pacific

Chip may know his mind, but what he doesn’t know is that there is more to Laura than he has realised.

It takes a game of coconut toss for him to figure out who the glamorous new arrival is.

Laura and Chip knew each other when they were growing up together on the tropical island that he still calls home. As 12-year-olds they were thick as thieves who got into all sorts of scrapes together.

Once this is clear, Chip rises to the situation with a bit of combativeness and baffled attraction for the childhood friend all grown up. Okay, he will take a look at the contract, page by page, in exchange for Laura spending time out with him on some fun activities. Exchanging her law books for snorkelling on the reef, fishing, and hiking through the forest at dawn.

This Little Love of Mine is West Coast US meets laid-back beach bum on the far side of the Pacific. The kind of thing that happens when opposites attract, discovering what is missing in their lives, but it doesn’t have the spirit, wit and subversive energy of a Crocodile Dundee.

The quick cutaway to Chip’s bare feet when Laura stepped aboard his boat was an ah-ha moment, a trace of authentic local culture peeking through the generic veneer. You will be hard pressed to recognise much else that is Australian in this placeless, generic rom-com.

Since when did we become the 51st state?

Liam McIntyre and Saskia Hampele in This Little Love of Mine. Image courtesy Netflix

Even the accents of the Australian cast are American. Martin Portus as Graham Finley, Chip’s billionaire grandfather is a notable exception with a fruity, old-style Australian accent.

The shoot took place in idyllic Palm Cove, Far North Queensland, halfway between Cairns and Port Douglas. It is showcased as a peerless resort destination and wedding setting, but here goes by the name of Sapphire Cove. Laura’s American fiancé Owen, also a corporate workaholic lawyer, cannot even remember its name correctly, which seems to say something.

The film shoot took place in mid-2020 which was a minor miracle during Covid, and something to cheer, I suppose, even if the results are bland and dull.

This Little Love of Mine is directed by Christine Luby, who is formerly from East Coast US and now resides in Brisbane. The screenplay is by Georgia Harrison who mapped similar territory in her writing in Rip Tide in 2017, the story of a New York model who discovers peace and purpose at the Australian coast.

Both key creatives would have a feeling for what chimes with both of the trans-Pacific audiences, but the result looks like this idyllic FNQ island has floated to the other side of the ocean.

Hampele, McIntyre and Lynn Gilmartin, as their vivacious good friend Gem, have all performed in TV’s Neighbours and have strong backgrounds in Australian and US television, which is a tribute to their skills. But this Screen Queensland funded-film treats its Australian locations like tropical wallpaper.

Since when did we become the 51st state?

First published in the Canberra Times on 10 July 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

Herself

 

MA15+, 97 minutes

3 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

It was, at least in part, a career in opera that saw Phillida Lloyd direct one of the most successful screen musicals ever, Mamma Mia!. She had built a terrific reputation for herself as a director of opera when she worked on the ABBA stage musical back in 1999.

When Mamma Mia! was adapted to film, Lloyd remained director for the screen version. One of its many joys was watching Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan ham it up when neither actor was known for their ability to sing or dance, but they did it anyway. It was refreshing and we loved it.

A soundtrack of lovely songs also injects a spirit of release to Lloyd’s latest film, a Dublin story set in the aftermath of domestic violence. Herself, small and personal but with wider significance, is about how a young single parent struggles to rebuild her life and that of her children.

The screenplay was written by Malcolm Campbell, a film editor and screenwriter, and Clare Dunne, who is also the lead actress.

a fine lead performance, but certain support characters tend towards caricature

As a young mother with the weight of the world on her narrow shoulders, Dunne gives a fine performance. A victim who is not a victim.

With the soundtrack and nuanced central performance, Herself is more spirited than its subject matter would have you imagine. But I think some of the gallery of support characters who chip in to help Sandra tend towards caricature, and this is where the film is at its weakest.

A few moments into the film, there is a tough scene where Sandra is assaulted by her husband in their home. The domestic violence has played out before and Sandra is prepared. She has a 911 message for her elder daughter to relay to the police that she is being assaulted by Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), and have them and the authorities intervene.

When they do it’s the end of one battle for Sandra, and the beginning of new ones.

She then has to find a home for herself and the girls, while she holds down casual jobs. Cleaning for a woman who is temporarily disabled and working in a pub provide necessary supplements to her single mother’s allowance. All the while, her fractured hand is a reminder of the episode that keeps running through her brain in flashback.

At the nadir of her social isolation, Sandra, daughters Emma (Ruby Rose O’Hara) and Molly (Molly McCann) appear in a sequence set in the parking lot of an apartment block where flight crew return from work. Through the roof space overhead, Sandra watches planes flying in and out of the city, while all around them airline staff are arriving home, toting their luggage and duty-frees.

We can see the pressure she is under to relent and return to Gary, now living with his parents, and give the marriage another go. Gary is insistent, but Sandra is resolved.

What’s more, she has found a project, building her own home on a plot of land gifted by her client, Peggy (Harriet Walter). She will also loan her money for the build. Improbable but plausible, cranky Peggy with the walker becomes a benefactor and friend.

Sandra has to swear her daughters to secrecy about this good fortune. There won’t be any pix on Instagram, and it won’t be documented for Grand Designs! It is designated ‘Black Widow’, code for something never to be disclosed.

Constructing a house to rebuild and repair, reminded me of Life as a House, a fine film with Kevin Kline about a father and son building a house as they put their relationship together again.

after the shock of opening scenes, it pulls itself together and carries you forward

Herself is however about building anew. The varied group of interesting individuals who gather around Sandra to help with the build eventually become family.

Dunne wrote her screenplay years ago. It was in response to the plight of a friend who rebuilt her shattered life by constructing an affordable, eco house for herself and her three young children.

Despite its grim subtext, Phillida Lloyd has ensured that Herself pulls itself together and carries you forward.

After working with Lloyd on Mamma Mia!, Meryl Streep was  Margaret Thatcher in the director’s other famous film, The Iron Lady.

Lloyd is drawn to strong women. Clare is another one. Herself is an uplifting tale about building, literally and figuratively, a new life.

First published in the Canberra Times on 3 July 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes

*Featured image: Clare Dunne and Molly McCann in Herself. Image courtesy Amazon

Perfumes

An irresistible, odd couple comedy of scents and sensibilities 

 

Emmanuelle Devos in Perfumes. Image courtesy UniFrance

 

M, 100 minutes

4 Stars

 

Review by © Jane Freebury

An odd couple forced to get on, due to circumstances, can make for great comedy of course. The African Queen, from way back in 1951 is still one of the best examples of the formula. It forced an uptight missionary to depend on a dissolute riverboat captain conducting her to safety in a warzone, and it made for irresistible comedy.

Perfumes uses the odd bodies thrown together idea to great advantage too. It’s about a fussy, particular boss, a top master perfumer, and her shambolic chauffeur who come to realise they could do a lot worse than depend upon each other.

It stops short of romance, though you can read that into the resolution if you want to.

It is an exquisite French comedy. The wider world in the background isn’t as dangerous as in African Queen, but it has been in all likelihood an unforgiving and indifferent one for Anne Walberg and Guillaume Favre, beautifully played by Emmanuelle Devos and Gregory Montel respectively.

Devos has done notable work for Jacques Audiard on Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped and other top directors. Montel will be best known as the lovable, hapless Gabriel Sarda in Call My Agent!

The two actors come from such different places, but they work beautifully together. Perfumes moves at a leisurely pace, allowing us to enjoy the personalities and savour the situations all the better.

Perfumes was written and directed by Gregory Magne, whose sole other feature is L’Air de Rien from 2012. I will make a point of looking out for his latest work from now on.

As Guillaume, Montel brings a vulnerability and authenticity to his role as a father desperate for joint custody of his 10-year-old daughter. And he is the perfect foil for Anne, his testy employer, a fussy and tactless but gifted boss.

Anne jokingly refers to herself as ‘le nez’ or the nose. Her olfactory sense saw her employed in the top French perfumeries until her sense of smell suddenly disappeared. It has just as suddenly returned, but how to find a way back into such an industry?

Furthermore, it’s hard not to think that with her arrogance and blunt manners, she has brought some of her problems on herself.

Perfumes opens with a funny, well executed scene with Guillaume and his daughter at the snack dispenser at the local gym. He has just discovered he doesn’t have any spare coin. Lea (Zelie Rixhon) is ravenous after her swim, but has to look the other way as her father pounds the recalcitrant machine as although he has put money in. He hasn’t, but the ruse works.

Poor Guillaume desperately needs steady work and a new apartment with separate bedroom for Lea, so he can apply for joint custody.

He has accumulated a hefty number of demerit points on his licence, so his driving career is shaky. When Anne is curt towards him, tosses his cigarettes out the window, and asks him to do jobs outside prescribed tasks, he has to kowtow. Even help her change the hotel bed sheets that, to her refined olfactory sense, smell awful.

Emmanuelle Devos and Gregory Montel don’t see eye-to-eye in Perfumes. Image courtesy UniFrance

Besides this, Anne instructs Guillaume to help her on her commissions. Like identifying the smells in caves that were once inhabited by prehistoric man. An unsurprisingly earthy smell, with camphor, a bit of moss, oak, and iris root. Anne sniffs them out.

On another occasion, Anne is asked to find a way to offset, rather than mask, an aggressive odour in a collection of designer bags that went through a poor tanning process.

During these sessions, Guillaume shows aptitude. Could it be that he has a good nose too?

Anne’s olfactory pedantry is backed up by the solid research that informs Perfumes. It opened a new world for me.

The famous Swiss perfumer, Christine Nagel, who has been with Hermes since 2016, and Jean Jacques at House of Caron were the specialist advisors on Perfumes.

Unfortunately, there is another film with a similar name that may be confused with this comedy gem. Perfumes: The Story of a Murderer (2006) is also about an olfactory genius, but avoid, avoid and watch this beautifully calibrated comedy instead.

Although mutual attraction is implied, Perfumes opts for new directions and transformations instead. Even the ending is an appealing surprise.

First published in the Canberra Times on 3 July 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes