Ok, back to the movies. I’m a little behind with the AFI coverage so I’ll just start throwing out reviews as I get them done in no particular order.
Austria 2008. US Premiere
Austria’s official entry for the Foreign Language Oscar follows the inexorably intersecting lives of a small time criminal, a Ukrainian prostitute, a rural policeman and his lonely wife. The first hour is a lusty, simmering crime drama that sets up the revenge of the title while the second hour is an altogether more contemplative affair as the revenge itself is played out. In between is a shifting of gears abrupt enough that the two halves feel like different films. It’s a similar bait and switch to that pulled by Olivier Assayas in his recent under-appreciated Boarding Gate. Attentive viewers may spot the transformation coming early on, but I admit I enjoyed the upending of expectations almost as much as I did with the Assayas film.
Less concerned with the ins and outs of plot, Revanche is a kind of character study at heart that uses the collision of these disparate characters to look at the differences between generations, classes and environments and to probe the nature of guilt, loss and finally of course revenge.
Like the Assayas film, it’s graphically carnal, but it’s also elevated from more lurid examples of its type by creating fully realized characters who feel as though they have complete lives that begin before and continue after the cameras roll.
Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winner is a documentary-like look at a year in the life of a class of multi-racial Parisian high school students and their teacher. The remarkable thing about it is the sense of realism and immediacy achieved by plopping a camera into the middle of the chaos and letting the story threads unfold. The performances by the teens don’t feel like performances at all. They either do a terrific job of improvisation, or an even better job of simply making it feel that way. François Bégaudeau was also excellent as the hard working and well-meaning teacher who tries to rise above an indifferent student body and an uncaring system.
There have been dozens of movies about teachers inspiring students against all odds, but The Class doesn’t fall into the obvious patterns or rely on easy melodrama. The thinly sketched, episodic plot is more concerned with small daily victories set against a backdrop of larger looming failures. It focuses on the characters and finds meaning in their shifting relationships rather than in turns of story.
At the same time, there’s an overall tension that builds slowly over the course of the film and reaches a climax near the end. Like the easily distracted teens it focuses on, the camera has a restless energy as it moves in and out of conversations and from situation to situation giving the film an urgency and a currency lacking in a more staged drama.