Friday, August 31, 2012

It Only Takes A Moment

It's a good thing that certain concepts only flash through my mind when I'm asleep. Sometimes an overload of strange news stories and powerful photographs combine with exceptionally bad timing. My dreams create plenty of images that could easily shock and awe.

Let me give you an example. You may have read that Rosie O'Donnell and Michelle Rounds were married in New York on June 9. You may also have heard the bizarre story of Solly, a three-ton, four-year-old South African hippopotamus who, after being chased away from his herd by some dominant males, wandered into the Monate Conservation Lodge and went for a dip in its swimming pool.


Normally, Solly's tragic death might be the end of the story. But, in the early morning hours, I started dreaming about Rosie O'Donnell wearing a black swimsuit and doing balancing tricks by the side of a swimming pool. The only problem was that, with her body transformed into that of a baby hippo, O'Donnell couldn't understand why the producers didn't want her to continue taping the show.

Thankfully, this image will never make its way to broadcast television (if all goes well, I'll have plenty of other dreams to push it from my memory). But many a story has been built on how someone's life was drastically changed in the blink of an eye. In the Act I finale of The Mikado, Katisha sings:
"The hour of gladness
Is dead and gone;
In silent sadness
I live alone!
The hope I cherished
All lifeless lies,
And all has perished,
All has perished
Save love, which never dies.
Which never dies!"
* * * * * * * * *
The concept of a broken school system is nothing new. Nor is watching a young teacher’s idealism get crushed by an uncaring bureaucracy. However, when a student’s artistic potential is shattered while his classmates run roughshod over a caring new teacher, you get a film like Broken, set in the low-income Parisian suburb of Certigny (which is heavily populated by families who immigrated from northern and western Africa).


It's the first day of school for Anna Kagan (Anaïs Demoustier), a young, white, Jewish teacher whose professional training did not prepare her to deal with a room full of restless, cynical teenagers who have grown weary of condescending teachers. As Anna tries to assert herself in the classroom while teaching history and geography, she proves to be no match for the overaged, oversized class bully named Moussa (Barnabé Magou), whose prime targets are the small, blond Kevin (Paul Bartel) and his French-Palestinian friend, Lakdar Abdane (Samy Seghir).


A talented young artist, the 15-year-old Lakdar's home life is a shambles.
  • His father (Djemel Barek) is poor, strict, and sees no value in his son's artistic potential. 
  • Lakdar's older brother, Slimane (Azdine Keloua), has just returned from prison, where his mind was filled with Islamic teachings and hatred for people of French origin.
  • One of Lakdar's hands was recently crippled after an overworked emergency room physician applied a plaster cast too tightly, resulting in paralysis of Lakdar's most valued hand: the hand he used for drawing.
Recently screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Alain Tasma’s poignant film (which was made for French television) captures the steady evaporation of hope as teachers quit their jobs, surgeons admit their mistakes, and two teenage boys embark on a poorly-conceived plan of revenge which brings tragedy to all. When Lakdar sees the doctor (whose mistake ruined his hand) buying groceries, he and Kevin follow the man home. After Kevin's online research reveals that David Haddad is Jewish, Lakdar formulates a plan to kidnap the doctor's kid brother, Sydney (Théo Fernandez).

Kevin (Paul Bartel) and Lakdar (Samy Seghir) ride through
the streets of Certigny on Kevin's scooter in Broken

Once Lakdar and Kevin have taken Sydney to their hideout and bound and gagged him, they send the doctor a photo of the boy holding a sign that says: "I am a Jew, I will pay for Palestinian children." When Sydney's health takes a precarious turn for the worse and Lakdar starts to lose his grip on reality, Kevin rats his friend out to the police.

Meanwhile, things have only gotten worse for Anna Kagan and the rest of the teachers, who are facing severe cutbacks at school. Kagan's attempt to find Lakdar (who has stopped attending classes) and reach out to him fails to save the young boy from his self-destructive impulses. By the end of the film, Kagan has quit her job, Kevin is under police custody, and Lakdar's body lies on the sidewalk below his apartment balcony.

Sensitively directed by Tasma, there are times when Broken's dual story lines may seem to have forgotten each other. The performances by Samy Seghir and Paul Bartel, however, will tear at your heart.

Poster art for Broken (Fracture)

* * * * * * * * *
Many a drama has been built around a gathering of the clan (family and/or extended family). From The Last of Sheila to August: Osage County, from The Big Chill to Steel Magnolias, the cast of characters have been friends and/or frenemies for many years and know most of each other's intimate secrets. If one of their group has not died at the outset of the story, you can bet someone will be dead by the time the final credits start to roll.

All of these works extol the camaraderie shared by a small circle of characters. All were written for an ensemble of skilled actors. All rest on the type of relationships celebrated in songs like:
In the following video clip from the 2011 Tony Awards, Neil Patrick Harris and the cast from the New York Philharmonic's concert performance of  Sondheim's 1970 musical, Company, perform "Side By Side."


The latest entry in this particular genre is Little White Lies, a two and a half hour film written and directed by Gillaume Canet which begins with Ludovic (Jean Dujardin), a middle-aged party boy, finishing off a night of drinking, dancing, snorting coke and carousing with friends before heading home on his scooter as dawn breaks over Paris. An unfortunate collision with a large truck sends Ludovic into emergency surgery and, as his life hangs in limbo, his friends come to visit him in the hospital. They include:
  • Marie (Marion Cotillard), Ludovic's free-spirited, former girlfriend.
  • Max Cantara (François Cluzet), a severely uptight hotel and restaurant owner who, in addition to being the oldest and wealthiest man in his circle of friends, is a pathetically insecure and insufferable control freak.
  • Véronique (Valérie Bonneton), Max's long-suffering wife.
  • Eric (Gilles Lellouche), a small-time television actor who is about to get dumped by his girlfriend, Léa (an opera singer). Whenever Eric's romantic life takes a hit, he selfishly turns to Marie in search of sexual favors with absolutely no understanding that her only interest in him is as a friend.
Marion Cotillard as Marie in Little White Lies

Also present at the hospital are:
  • Vincent Ribaud (Benoît Magimel), Max's chiropractor and the devoted father of two children.
  • Isabelle (Pascale Arbillot), Vincent's confused and sexually frustrated wife.
  • Antoine (Laurent Lafitte), a hopelessly lovesick man who, until very recently, was in an 11-year relationship and persists in boring his friends to tears with the pathetic details of his attempts to reunite with Juliette (Anne Marivin).

Rather than Ludovic's precarious medical condition, the big question on everyone's mind is whether they should stay in Paris or postpone their annual vacation at Max's beach house in Cap Ferrat. Opting for the seashore, they all pack up and head south.

Vincent (Benoit Magimel) can't seem to shake his man crush on Max

Unfortunately, a great deal of tension and repressed emotion keeps undermining their vacation.
  • Prior to leaving Paris, Vincent finally got up the courage to tell Max that he'd been wrestling with an uncontrollable man crush on his best friend (who is also his son's godfather). Although both men are firmly convinced of their heterosexuality, Max did not react well to Vincent's confession.
  • Upon arriving at Cap Ferrat, Max learns that his old enemies (a group of noisy squirrels) have once again found their way into the walls of his summer home. Their chirping noises, combined with Vincent's "bromantic" stares, drive the petulant Max to ridiculously homophobic temper tantrums and destructive behavior.
  • Claiming that they want to go into Bordeaux for a while, Antoine and Eric borrow Max's car and drive back to Paris, where they each try to reconcile with their old girlfriends. Eric even stops by the hospital, where he pays an awkward visit to Ludo, selfishly asking his battered friend for relationship advice.
  • The group is notably shaken when one of Marie's recent flames, a sexy, handsome musician named Franck (Maxim Nucci), calls to tell Marie that he is in the neighborhood and invites himself over to spend the night with her. Although the married men make jokes about Franck, they are clearly threatened by his overt sexuality and free-wheeling lifestyle.
Maxim Nucci plays Franck, Marie's sexy, dope-smoking musician

As tempers flare, Vincent packs his family into the car and drives back to Paris, where he learns that Ludo died alone in his hospital room while his friends were all indulging themselves (and their egos) down at the seashore.

Jean-Louis (Joel Dupuch), the oyster farmer who has known the group since they first started vacationing at Cap Ferrat, is not impressed by Max's wealth or the little while lies his friends tell themselves in order to avoid taking responsibility for their selfish actions. As Ludovic's friends gather for his funeral, Jean-Louis drives up from Cap Ferrat with a bag full of beach sand to dump on top of Ludo's coffin after it is lowered into his grave.

Beautifully acted, Little White Lies is of particular interest for the way Max and Vincent try to deal with their conflicting emotions about each other. The musical score (which largely consists of popular American songs interjected at largely inappropriate moments) is annoying beyond belief. Canet's cast, however, is a group of top-notch actors who entertain, amuse, and will no doubt irritate some viewers with the characters they have been asked to portray. Here's the trailer:

No comments: