I saw another French film last night. I mean made in France; and, it has that je ne sais quoi to identify it particularly French and no other. No other culture can even imitate it. I'm recalling a French film I saw a month or more ago that did not have je ne sais quoi about it. I thought it odd. It didn't feel right. The film was La Truite,1982. It had Isabelle Huppert, Jeanne Moreau, and a very respectable French cast. I looked to see who directed it. Joseph Losey. English. Of course it did not have je ne sais quoi. What a strange complexity, a French film made by an English mind. It would have worked had not the number one ingredient been missing. He made a good enough film in France, but it wasn't French. I've found that special something that cannot be named in French films I've seen over the years. It is so subtle that I tend only to think about it while watching a French film. It draws my attention a short time into a film. To see a French film without je ne sais quoi was mildly startling. It didn't compute. It was like a Japanese-made film of the life of Genghis Khan done in medieval Japanese dress and customs. It was done in full-dress kimonos and swords, on sleek stable-kept horses, talking in Japanese. It made a good film, but it was a hard one to take seriously. It was something like doing Shakespeare in suits and ties, speaking Russian. The film I saw last night that was French and no other, I've Loved You So Long, 2008. It is an odd-seeming title until you've seen the film. Then it's just right. Director was Philippe Claudel. I would guess that among French film lovers he is regarded with appreciation as a director. This film was brilliantly made, the story brilliantly written. I gave it five stars without hesitation. This was the only film netflix had available by Claudel.
Kristin Scott Thomas portrayed her character, Juliette, getting out of prison after 20 years. She was in for murdering her 6 year old boy. We know there is a story behind it, that she was either falsely charged or something. One of the clues was early in the story when she told her sister that her husband testified against her. Later a social worker looked at the court transcripts and asked why she did not say anything in her own defense. She had to leave the room. The mystery of what happened is a thread running through the story. It is also a look at someone just out of 20 years in prison, and I doubt if French is better than American prison; a good place to be from, a long ways from. The story gave me a peephole view into the life of someone reentering a world hostile to her in particular, a criminal. It involved relationships in family, other people, employers, social workers. I can't help but feel it is criminal of our society to go on punishing people who have served their time. I thought the deal was, do your time and your record is clear. Not. Do your time, then live at the homeless bottom with a hateful attitude toward a society that only cares about you in a negative way, cares about seeing you suffer for being a criminal, an outsider. Juliette is beset with others uncomfortable in her presence. A time her sister referred to her time behind bars, "while you were away," she exploded that she was in prison. She was not away. She was in prison. She told sister to go ahead and say prison. That's what it was. Sister taught literature at a university. She had been struggling within to understand Juliette, whose spirit was so distant. In class one day, a student was talking about Dostoevsky on murder. She made the case that only someone who has murdered knows how it feels. She worked herself up into an emotional rant saying Dostoevsky did not know anything about it; he had never murdered anyone. She jumped and flew from the class, leaving the class bewildered, went to her office for the comfort of solitude and emotionally collapsed.
I've seen quite a large number of films over the last eight years with netflix seeing three to four films a week, films from everywhere in the world. I dismiss Hollywood films, finding my appreciation in American films the independents. We have so many of them, who needs Hollywood? French is my preference of countries in the world of film making. I've seen really good films from everywhere, Poland, Hungary, Russia, Denmark, China, Japan, Mexico, Italy, and all the way around the globe. I've had a great film education by way of netflix. I've had peeps into other cultures, chances to see how people in different parts of the world think and do. I keep a big world atlas close to the movie watching chair. Wherever I am in the world with the movie, I look it up and get a sense of landscape on particular parts of the maps. I've seen films of people's lives in China, the country that was a mystery most of my life, enough films by now to have a slight familiarity with Chinese culture. I've read contemporary Chinese fiction and go to websites in Shanghai of galleries showing what artists in China are doing. Documentaries of Ai Weiwei. All the time watching these films I am looking at people in the backgrounds, people passing by, seeing how they dress, how they walk, how they talk. I think I've become a culture junkie. I see a documentary in Mongolia and my eyes scan the landscape the whole time, imagine it all the way around. Seeing a friend just back from a couple weeks in Shanghai, my first question, "How did it smell?" He said, "Like China." I knew what he meant. It's the scent in a Chinese grocery store that is particularly China. It is the smells I miss in a film. The visuals and the audio are there, but the smells are never there, only reacted to when strong, like the truck of rotten meat in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. I smelled it by association with how the actors were reacting.
Danish director, Ole Bornedal's film, I Am Dina, took me deep into life in the fjords of Norway. Mix what I saw there with documentaries about the Vikings, I get a sense for why the Vikings were so formidable. They spent their lives rowing boats. Beats weight lifting; the effort gets you someplace. Instead of ten chin-ups, you do ten thousand. I feel tremendous empathy for France occupied by the boche, the war, the reconstruction. However, France had its time of conquering Europe. I forget that France has a dynamic history, forget because I don't know most of it. I am familiar with French landscape from mountains to the beach by film and by map. I don't like to watch French films one after the other. I like to sprinkle them among everything else. They have such a light freshness about them, like French cuisine, it's like an aesthetic oasis to visit La France by way of story telling. It's the only access I have. Paul Eluard, Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Claudel, Rimbaud, all have that je ne sais quoi in poetry. French poets I like the best from Europe, as I like Chinese poetry the best from Asia, that I'm aware of. I've had one experience of French cuisine in France. It was a French town near the border with Switzerland close to Geneva. Can't recall the name of the town or the restaurant. I was at a table of English-French speakers equally, the non-French speaking American. At one point, I said to the waitress, "Merci beau cul." The waitress cracked up, everybody at the table cracked up. I didn't get it. Turns out I said coup with a Southern accent, told the waitress she had a nice ass. I couldn't take it back. To take it back would have been to deny it, which could not be done. I let it stand. I learned how a cat feels when a human scares it, it jumps straight up and all the humans around break out laughing at the cat. I wanted to do like a cat, go to another room and curl up on a pillow. But it was good fun. This was la France, not America. The meal in the restaurant was so simple, so ideal, and provided my first experience of je ne sais quoi in French cuisine.
henri matisse himself