Tag Archives: C+

FAT GIRL (A MA SOEUR!)

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C+

It’s impossible not to admire the level of craftsmanship that Catherine Breillat exhibits in her new film. “Fat Girl,” as it’s unfortunately called in English (the original French title, “A ma soeur,” simply means “To my sister”), deftly depicts, with just a few strokes and in a spare, unadorned style, the curious mixture of affection and animosity that exists between two siblings– svelte, lovely fifteen-year old Elena (Roxane Mesquida) and chubby, dour twelve-year old Anais (Anais Reboux). It characterizes the girls beautifully–the older flirtatious yet nervous about sex, and the younger obsessed with thoughts of her own worthlessness and the prospect of death; and the director draws almost painfully real performances from both of her stars. The long, delicate, almost excruciatingly detailed sequences of Elena’s seduction by an older boy, an Italian law student named Fernando (Libero de Rienzo), are unquestionably powerful, if voyeuristic, and– given the girl’s age–deeply unsettling. And in its final reel, the picture builds a mood of dark foreboding through the simplest of means before plunging us into a denouement cannily calculated to shock our socks off–and succeeding. (It would be unfair to the filmmaker to be too specific about the turn the plot takes; suffice it to say that it’s more horrible than anything you might expect.)

Yet in spite of the fact that it’s almost impossible to take your eyes from “Fat Girl,” the film ultimately proves disturbingly obvious. The wealth of careful observation, incisive writing, expertly-gauged cinematography and sharp editing is put at the service of a extraordinarily simplistic message that effectively equates sex with violence, suggesting in effect that the one is the equivalent of the other–or that the first inevitably involves the second. (The picture is thus a logical complement to Breillat’s incredibly explicit, ironically titled “Romance” of 1999, which detailed a young woman’s desultory experimentation in the most extreme forms of sexual mortification.) As such, though it’s dressed in impressive cinematic garb, at heart the film isn’t appreciably deeper than slasher flicks like “Friday the 13th,” which implied that a loss of virginity would inevitably have dire results.

That’s a comparison, of course, that cheapens what the writer-director is attempting, or at least is too dismissive of the sincerity of her brutally feminist point of view. Yet it’s not entirely unfair. Since “Fat Girl” is notable for its uncompromising fidelity to its maker’s vision, one has to take into account what that vision entails. The picture is beautifully acted by its three young leads (unfortunately, the performances by the older members of the cast–Arsinee Khanjian and Ronain Goupil as the girls’ parents and Laura Betti as Fernando’s mother–are indifferent at best), and utterly compelling as a purely cinematic effort. But it’s also, in the final analysis, a rather crude didactic exercise; and while its abrupt ending unflinchingly fulfills its maker’s intent (and can’t help but shake the viewer up), in retrospect it seems crassly manipulative. If you choose to see “Fat Girl,” be prepared to be impressed, shocked, entranced and, in the end, stunned. But also expect to leave unsatisfied.

FOCUS

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C+

Neal Slavin’s adaptation of Arthur Miller’s early novel–it was written in 1945, several years before “Death of a Salesman”–certainly has an impressive, and unusual, look. Though made on a relatively modest budget, it recreates the period details of 1944 New York (I’m estimating the date from the stray newspaper headlines we glimpse along the way) very nicely; and the pictorial approach, emphasizing sharp clarity, brilliant colors and odd camera angles, is an interesting–if somewhat fussy–visual alternative to a purely naturalistic treatment (sort of Coen Brothers Lite). One of the producers was Michael Bloomberg, and one can only hope that he’ll be able to put the limited resources of the city he now governs to equally good use.

The narrative, moreover, deals with an important, perpetually topical issue, that of discrimination. The mode in which it does so, however, now seems peculiarly dated, embracing an old-fashioned “literary” approach that prevailed in “serious” American works written by earnest liberals like Budd Schulberg, Rod Serling and Reginald Rose in the fifties. (Miller, it seems, foreshadowed the trend.) A quiet, passive ordinary fellow called Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy), who lives with his disabled mother, is a personnel director in a downtown firm with a “restricted” policy against hiring Jews. He follows directions in turning down an attractive but suspect applicant named Gertrude Hart (Laura Dern). But soon afterward, he gets a pair of dark-rimmed glasses which make him look Semitic in other people’s eyes. Soon he finds himself unemployed, eventually finding a job at a Jewish firm where Gertrude works; the two ultimately marry. But things prove unhappy at home. Larry’s next-door neighbor Fred (Meat Loaf Aday) has become a leader of a crypto-fascist group targeting local grocer Finkelstein (David Paymer); and now Larry, a mousy sort who’s declined an invitation to join the vigilantes and who, along with his new wife, looks suspiciously Semitic, becomes their target, too. The central question is whether Larry–decidedly a nebbish, whether Jewish or not– can be transformed into a true “New Man” by standing with Finkelstein against their neanderthal tormentors. (There’s also the little matter of a Puerto Rican woman who’d been raped and brutalized by one of those neighbors–an episode that Larry witnessed from his window but had timidly failed to report.)

The contrivances here are obvious and heavy-handed. The reality of discrimination comes into focus for Newman through the device of his new glasses–a particularly ham-fisted metaphor. (The role-reversal linchpin of the plot, moreover, is now oddly reminiscent of John Howard Griffin’s 1961 “Black Like Me, itself filmed in 1964, and of several of Serling’s “Twilight Zone” teleplays. Once again, Miller was the forerunner, but the fact that his take on the subject is appearing after theirs gives it a slightly antique quality.) When Finkelstein shows Larry his weapon of choice against his tormentors–a Louisville slugger–it’s supposed to carry the implication of true Americanism. And the whole “New Man” artifice is awfully heavy-handed. All these elements are typical of the “serious” Broadway and Hollywood product of the fifties–call it the “Gentleman’s Agreement” syndrome, if you like. Within the context of an authentic fifties play or film, such rather blatant devices can still be powerfully effective–revisiting a picture like “Twelve Angry Men” or “A Face in the Crowd” will make that clear. In “Focus,” however, they come across as outdated and artificial.

There are other sorts of problems, too. The wartime New York neighborhood depicted here is a curiously unpatriotic place; the attitudes exhibited would actually seem to reflect those that were strong in the pre-war era more than those one would have been likely to find in 1943 or 1944. (The showcasing of a rabble-rousing priest called Father Creighton–obviously modeled on the radio priest Father Coughlin–is telling: Coughlin had faded into obscurity well before the forties.) And the lack of subtlety with which the neighbors are depicted is unfortunate: they’re portrayed as the sort of goons that might have been featured in a contemporary anti-McCarthy diatribe, and seem terribly overdrawn today.

Happily, Macy is on hand to raise the material to a higher level; his performance gives the piece weight and texture that it otherwise lacks. The repressed hysteria he conveys is perfect, and he even manages to inject a welcome vein of surrealistic humor the picture could have used more of. (One imagines that a more Kafkaesque spin, such as his performance suggests, would have strengthened the material.) Dern isn’t nearly as fine, showing an unhappy tendency to exaggeration, as also does Aday, who pretty much reprises the bigoted redneck he played in 1999’s “Crazy in Alabama.” (As a side note, if he wants to have a real chance of acceptance as a serious actor, he should probably drop his old musical moniker.) Paymer does what amounts to a sad-sack martyr’s routine; it’s a one-note turn that might be described as “Perpetually Stricken.” Hawtrey, on the other hand, is startlingly fine in her few scenes as Newman’s mother.

One has to admire “Focus” for its noble intentions, as well as its production design and camerawork, which may call too much attention to themselves bu are nonetheless intriguing. For the rest, Macy is the only remarkable element here. “Focus” seems as reflective of the fifties in narrative perspective as it is of the forties in setting; and while that’s great in a film actually made in the fifties, it comes across as an affectation in one released today, however well-intentioned it might be.