25 August, 2008

America's Summer European Hits

Benoit Magimel and Ludivine Sagnier in Claude Chabrol's A GIRL CUT IN TWO

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

While it is never simple to release a foreign language film in a market dominated by Hollywood, a few European films have managed to become critical and public hits as America moves into its final days of summer before next weekend’s Labor Day. While such films as The Dark Night, Iron Man and the latest installment of the Indiana Jones series have dominated both domestic and international box office, a certain late summer has emerged among specialty distributors of art films. With most of the summer blockbusters coming out in June and July, the month of August has evolved into a rather positive time for the release of more “serious” films and movies that hail from other countries. Perhaps audiences fed up with a rash of superheroes and special effects-laden cotton candy crave a more demanding kind of cinema once the blockbusters have run their course. This is certainly looking to be the case with a handful of certifiable European summer hits.

The first hit belonged to Germany, a country that has re-emerged as a European powerhouse in the past few years (yet again). One of the best reviewed and most enthusiastically embraced films of the summer has been THE EDGE OF HEAVEN, the intensely moving cross-cultural drama by the German-born Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin. In a kaleidoscopic story of fate and fatalities that won the Best Screenplay Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, a mix of characters become embroiled in each other’s mutual destinies. They include a boorish Turkish widower living in Germany; a prostitute he shelters in exchange for sexual ; his son, a well-educated professor of German; the prostitute’s daughter, a fearless political activist; the young German woman she falls in love with; and her lover’s complicated mother, a former hippie who now preaches the gospel of restraint. As the characters move across geographic and cultural boundaries, Akin portrays them with compassion and understanding, including a quietly magnificent performance by veteran actress Hanna Schygulla as the mother who mourns the loss of her daughter and discovers a new life in a new land. The film, which was released in the U.S. by Strand Releasing, has topped more than $650,000 after playing for 13 weeks, and is only now starting to reach urban centers outside of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The film seems destined to be a frontrunner for next year’s Oscar.

It is not surprising that several of the other European films making a big noise come from France, which routinely has a loyal audience in the States. The standout in terms of critical praise and healthy box office numbers has been TELL NO ONE, the French thriller directed by Guilliame Canet. The film has been hailed as a contemporary version of a classic Hitchcock mystery, with Francois Cluzet starring as a kindhearted pediatrician who finds himself on the run on the streets of Paris. The film, which 4 won Cesar Awards, including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Editing and Best Musical Score, has made more than $3 Million in the United States, considered a major success for a foreign language title.

Another French film that has graced movie screens all summer is THE LAST MISTRESS, the French feminist director Catherine Breillat’s erotic costume drama, adapted from Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly’s novel Une Vieille Maîtresse. Set in 19th century Paris, the hot blooded film examines the consuming 10-year affair of a dandy (Fu’ad Aït Aattou) and a Spanish-Italian courtesan and femme fatale (Asia Argento). The film has been a reputation for its sexual content and the force of willful play between its two sensual protagonists. The film, released in the U.S. by IFC Films, is fast reaching the $1 Million mark in domestic box office receipts, before it even begins its journey to television and the dvd market.

Just opening this past week, but looking like it will have a long run into the Fall is A GIRL CUT IN TWO, the newest film from the French “master of suspense” Claude Chabrol. Loosely inspired by the 1906 murder of the New York architect Stanford White, the film is an icy examination of class divisions, ruthless sexual gamesmanship and crushing social machinery. Ludivine Sagnier plays an attractive television weather girl who finds herself the object of a power struggle between a married, womanizing author (François Berléand) and a spoiled multimillionaire playboy (Benoît Magimel) who wants her as his trophy. The film has been the subject of much media chatter and been consistently widening its reach since its June opening.

As America becomes stalled in an economic malaise that may not lift soon, the Italian film DAYS AND CLOUDS strong>makes it clear that economic distress is not simply an American phenomenon. In this deeply troubling Italian film, directed by Silvio Soldoni, a middle-aged businessman in Genoa is abruptly fired from his high-paying job in the company he helped found 20years earlier and struggles to regain his footing. The film demonstrates how economic hardship is not only a financial consideration, but deeply affects the man’s self-esteem and his network of relationships, including his marriage to an understanding but difficult wife. The film, which is distributed by the specialty company Film Movement, continues to build momentum after its initial release in early July and looks destined to be one of the contenders for this year’s Oscar as well.

While they are not strictly European films, two American films betray their European sensibilities and showcase the work of exceptionally fine European actors. In Woody Allen’s latest film, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, the director has received his finest reviews in years. In a kind of homage to the Francois Truffaut classic JULES AND JIM and set in the beautiful city of Barcelona, the film tells the tale of a summer series of romances between artist Juan Antonio (played with considerable charm by Oscar winner Javier Bardem) and the women in his life, which includes a bohemian spitfire who is also mentally unstable played by Penélope Cruz.

Cruz also toplines with English actor Ben Kingsley in the mournful ELEGY, adapted from a novel by American author Philip Roth. Kingsley plays a sex-crazed novelist and teacher who manipulates the affections of a student he seduces. Critics are already hailing Kingsley’s performance as a 60-something narcissist obsessed with his diminishing virility as one of the performance of the year, to be remembered during awards season. The film, which made its world premiere debut at the Berlin Film Festival, is directed by Spanish auteur Isabel Coixet, who has demonstrated in her earlier films My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words a sensitivity to the expression of dark and divided human emotions.

Whether they are European films proper or supreme European talents working in American cinema, the films mentioned above are all expanding the cinematic profile of the summer of 2008 and, thankfully, finding audiences who appreciate their inherent seriousness and depth of feeling. In summer, blockbusters are not the only films worth paying attention to.


Anonymous said...

I have seen all of the films that you mentioned and I have either liked or loved them. I am so glad that there is an alternative to the superhero and raunchy comedy films that seem to dominate the theaters. I will continute to support these type of films either by seeing them in the theater or, if they disappear too quickly, renting them on DVD. Keep up the good work. I enjoyed reading your positive piece on these wonderful films.

Sandy Mandelberger said...

Thanks for your comments. It is rewarding to see that some serious films are making waves this summer in the wake of all the big budget Hollywood blockbusters. It is important that you tell your friends and colleagues to support these films during their theatrical release, so we can show distributors that there is a hunger for quality, even in the summer season.

E.A. said...

I, for one, will see A Girl Cut in Two. It sounds very Hitchcockian, but with a French twist of course.

I will also check out Elegy, a film that I do not believe will let me down in terms of quality.

Singular but Plural