Sarah’s Key and the Privilege of Choice

What choice did little Sarah have in a world gone mad?

 
It’s tempting to look at old pictures and imagine the history and stories of the people in them.  It’s a way to reach into the past.  It’s a way to invoke nostalgia.  It’s a way to uncover secrets.  It’s become a growing trend amongst Holocaust scholars to move away from the almost unfathomable statistics and instead focus on the faces…the pictures…the singular stories…the individuals.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Manhattan’s equally magnificent and somber Museum of Jewish Heritage, where an entire wing is dedicated to the display of thousands of family photographs that give the horrors of war a back story and a face. 
 
At a crucial moment in the new French film, Sarah’s Key, our privileged protagonist comes across the photographs of two small children during the course of an investigation.  Up until that point, she was merely crafting a story – but now there were faces to that story.  It was real.  One can’t help but think this notion weighed heavily on the mind of novelist Tatiana De Rosnay as she penned her shrewd Holocaust tale.  Sarah’s Key is part of the complimentary literary/film movement to this Holocaust scholarship where faces replace stats.  Like Sophie’s Choice, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Reader, Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s film is an adaptation of a novel thick with moral complexities where the audience is asked not “Why did this happen?” but instead “What would you have done?”  In these elaborate historical fictions inspired by decades of staring at old photographs, we are asked to step into the shoes of those who did anything to survive and those whose lives were threatened leading to complicit acts that made them explicit accomplices or blindly apathetic to the crimes against humanity. Continue reading
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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

The unstoppable forward momentum of man’s imagination, art and progress.

In 1994, three French explorers uncovered a cave that had been closed off for millennia as the result of an ancient rock slide.  As if the beautiful natural wonders of calcite formations and perfectly preserved animals bones of long extinct creatures weren’t enough…this particular cavern in the limestone, Chauvet Cave, was also home to the oldest prehistoric cave paintings ever discovered.  Scientists estimate some of the paintings date back over 30,000 years to a time when most of France was covered by an ice sheet and man roamed the harsh terrain along with Neanderthals, wooly mammoths and rhinos, horses, cave bears and lions.  As unforgiving and calamitous as their environment may have been, these early humans still found time to dream and create art that would survive 30,000 years of unstoppable forward momentum.

This is the focus of Werner Herzog’s gloriously transfixing and typically odd little film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

If you are a fan of Herzog, his particularly lucid and sometimes loony narration will be an absolute delight.  Herzog has always been drawn to the misfit and extremist dreamer – people so dedicated to their vision or project that their madness can just as easily bring about their demise as it can a resounding success.  Continue reading

You Might Be a Basterd If

If shes a Basterd...sign me up!

If she's a Basterd...sign me up!

A Review of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS:

I walked into Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds expecting non-stop Basterd-style Nazi killing, over the top violence and borderline kitsch.  Sure, there’s some of that, and an anachronistic use of a David Bowie song among other minor albeit forgivable annoyances, but what struck me most was that this was not just a story of Basterd scalping maniacs.  This was also a story of a young Jewish woman named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) hiding out in Paris under the guise of a cinema operator and her elaborate revenge plot against the bastard SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) who murdered her family.  This is a story of a ballsy double agent parading as a German movie star (Diane Kruger) who risks everything for an operation to assassinate Hitler.  And most memorably, and cyclically, this is the story of that ruthless SS Colonel Hans Landa and his inevitable comeuppance after he arrogantly and erroneously plays everyone as if he were the smartest man in the room.  In fact, the whole movie hangs on his story arc.  From the moment at the end of the opening prologue where Shosanna barely escapes from his overreaching grasp, we wait…ever so patiently…to see…in that final scene…Hanz receive his comeuppance.  And Tarantino, in his signature chapter-stop style weaves in all of these stories and others and uses the Basterds (essentially as a McGuffin) as the comic relief.

By all measures, this is Tarantino’s best-looking film.  Continue reading

A Review of Pierre Morel’s “Taken”

Don’t Be Taken for a Fool, 3 February 2009
4/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

And now producer/writer Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel present the comedy event of the year!

Here’s the pitch: Two spoiled obnoxious teenage girls from California go to France and get kidnapped by a group of Albanians trafficking dumb tourists into sex slavery to the highest bidders–and you guessed it, one of those high bidders is a Middle Eastern sheik. But oh yeah, did I mention one of those girl’s fathers just happens to be a retired Jack Bauer-style super-spy who’s about reign down a sh*t-storm on the streets of Paris in order to rescue his idiot daughter? And guess what–it’s Liam Neeson!

Yes, there is a bit of a novelty factor in watching the guy who played Oskar Schindler go against type and get crazy on these moronic dirt-bags. And gosh darn it, Liam does his best with the role. I can’t remember the last time a film was sold to the American public entirely on the sound of one man’s voice reading dialog. He alone makes the otherwise unbearable film watchable. However, let’s be honest. As much fun as it is to watch Liam Neeson outrun a speeding car or electrocute some guy or kill a dude with a broken bottle, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino was a far better and more refined example of grizzled old guy “badassery”, and it was a hell of a lot funnier, and fancy that, had a moral.

What we have here in Taken is tone deaf French filmmakers sticking their nose up at Americans and spreading xenophobia abroad. I’m pretty sure they thought there were making a slick black comedy that no American would see through. Had they manifested this with a harder edge or more overtly satirical tone, they might’ve been on to something. Instead we get a second-rate episode of “24” watered down by a PG-13 rating that takes away any possibility of entertainment on even an exploitative level.

Bottom line: Don’t be fooled by Liam Neeson’s voice. He commanded our attention in the teaser trailers, but this should be film not taken.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database.

A Review of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Fire in the Blood”

Fire in the Blood

 

 

A Flicker of Talent

By  David H. Schleicher  – See all my reviews

“Fire in the Blood” is the second work to be published posthumously from Irene Nemirovsky, whose masterpiece “Suite Francaise” became a well deserved international sensation in 2006 and 2007. Once again Sandra Smith composes the English translation from the original French and does a splendid job of capturing the spirit of Nemirovsky’s prose, though this work lacks some of the cunningly evocative wordplay that had some sections of “Suite Francaise” seem so poetic and fluidly verbose.

Focusing on the romantic follies and unintentionally murderous affairs of the residents of a small village in the French countryside, “Fire in the Blood” is an entertaining slice-of-life style soap opera told uniquely from the point of view of travel-worn aging bachelor who has returned reluctantly to his quiet hometown. Focusing more of the memories of love and youth than on the actual encounters, Nemirovsky avoids the typical trappings of the run-of-the-mill romance novel. There’s an often cold, bitter, outsider’s sense of detachment to the follies of the characters in the book that give it a sharp observer’s edge and turns it into more of anthropological study than a melodrama. Many nuances of rural life and the social mores of the pre-WWII French are delivered spot-on by the Ukrainian born writer. Nemirovsky seduces the reader in the end, as secrets are revealed, and we get a brief flicker of the passion and the fire that had been elusive in the rest of the novel (hidden in gossip and observations after the fact) in the closing pages and haunting final lines. For Nemirovsky, true love dances across the whitewashed walls of our memories like shadows before the flame is snuffed out and we go to sleep for the rest of our lives in utter darkness.

One can only assume that this brief work would’ve been fleshed out and revised a few more times had Nemirovsky been given the chance. It lacks the epic scope and immediacy of her other lost masterpiece. While superficially it may seem like a frivolous afterthought in the wake of “Suite Francaise”, Nemirovsky makes it clear with “Fire in the Blood” that even at their basest levels matters of the heart are no small affair.

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See below for my review of Suite Francaise:

https://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/05/07/a-review-of-irene-nemirovskys-suite-francaise/

A Review of Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise”

Suite Française

  A Mirror of a Nation at its Darkest Hour

Reviewer: David H. Schleicher –  See all my reviews

In her depiction of a society unraveling at a time of war, Irene Nemirovsky, in ways both lyrical and cynical, shows the human condition made up not only of great suffering, but also moments of lucid and concise joy. Her Suite Francaise, showcasing the early days of the German invasion and occupation of France during WWII, is one of the greatest novels I have ever had the pleasure to read.

In the first half, “Storm in June,” her depiction of Parisian refugees forging their way through bombed-out hamlets, abandoned villages, and small towns bulging at the seems with the broken-hearted, wounded, and lost, her vivid descriptions of the French countryside…the sites, the smells, the sounds, the plants and animals…are intoxicating, meditative, and transcendent. There’s planes flying overhead, blood splattered on cobble-stone walkways, children orphaned, women widowed, and death all around…yet there’s moments of striking beauty in small intimate interludes (like the section told from the point-of-view of a refugee cat from a wealthy family sneaking out for the night before a morning air-raid) where Nemirovsky haunts us with her prose and imagery.

The second half, “Dolce,” doesn’t have the immediacy of “Storm”, but still works shockingly well on many levels. Here she depicts the inhabitants of one small rural French village and how they react to their German occupiers. Nemirovsky displays an acute sense to detail and social interaction by giving us a harrowing view of the different class structures at work and how they react differently to each other and to their oppressors and how a fatalistic sentimental sense of national pride often leads to rash decisions and unlikely unifications. She again reaches some transcendence in her soft yet never sappy look at the burgeoning relationship between a lonely young wife of a missing POW and the charming German officer quartering in her mother-in-law’s house.

Knowing the back-story to Nemirovsky’s tragic life certainly adds some emotional heft to the reading but isn’t necessary to recognize the genius or enjoy this beautiful English translation from the original French. Waxing poetically about what could’ve been had she lived to turn this into the epic five-part novel she originally planned boggles the mind. The presentation of notes, outlines, and personal letters servicing that fact make for a heartbreaking bookend. Let there be no doubt, however, the two parts that remain are nothing short of a literary masterpiece, and the legacy they will leave in the canon of classic novels about WWII boldly display Nemirovsky’s triumph over death through the power of her words. Nemirovsky proves to be a master of shifting points-of-view and intertwining stories in episodic fashion while wickedly mixing comedy and tragedy, and the lofty ideals of war and peace with the banality and small joys and pains of everyday life. As two parts of a larger unfinished whole, Suite Francaise will leave you breathless.

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See below for my review of Fire in the Blood:

https://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/10/02/a-review-of-irene-nemirovskys-fire-in-the-blood/

A Review of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”

Every year there’s that one film that is unfairly maligned by critics either for its troubling subject matter (like 2004’s underrated Nicole Kidman reincarnation melodrama Birth) or for its unique style that turns off a lot of people…like the film reviewed below.  Sofia Coppola is quickly becoming an auteur you either love or hate.  Her Marie Antoinette (adapted from the book by Antonia Frazer) was recently released on DVD after an undeservedly brief run in theaters this past October.

More than a Trifle…, 27 February 2007
8/10
Author:
David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

From its beguiling star Kirsten Dunst to the maddeningly beautiful locales to the visual sumptuousness and “taste” (you almost feel as if you could eat some of the scenery and clothes) of the costumes and art design, Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” is an entrancing and lavish period piece of the highest order.

Many of the early scenes of the Austrian and French woodlands and the palatial splendor of Versailles are cloaked in an almost “otherworldly” austerity, evoking the spirit of Stanley Kubrick’s ultimate costume-drama, “Barry Lyndon.” Later, when our heroine finds some inner piece at the countryside estate she is given as a gift after the birth of her first child, Coppola immerses the viewer in the transcendent splendor of natural sounds and beautiful images that channels the fluid mise-en-scene composition of the best work of Terrence Malick. All of this is tied together by Coppola’s now signature dreamily listless camera play that makes her unlike any other director working today.

In the lead role, Kristen Dunst is mesmerizing. She’s always been a better actress than she’s been given credit for. She’s only previously been allowed to really stretch her acting muscle when she took on the role of Marion Davies in the excellent “Cat’s Meow” and as the emotionally unstable teen in the misguided “Crazy/Beautiful.” Here, without much dialouge, and present in just about every scene, she speaks volumes with her eyes and body language. Coppola only briefly channeled into Dunst’s innate talents in “The Virgin Suicides” and wonderfully fulfills the promise of a fruitful director/actor collaboration that those with a keen eye could divine from their first experiment together.

Of course, those who measure a biopic by its historical accuracies will cry blasphemy at some of the treatment here, most notably the use of new-wave pop music in equal measure with a classical score. Also, the drama of the French Revolution is glossed over spare for the final ten minutes, almost as it it were a side-note in history. The vapidness and decadence of the French Court is Coppola’s focus, as is the alienation of a people from their government, family members from each other, and most importantly a young woman from herself. Though this classic theme of alienation (which permeates many of the great films from Coppola’s father’s contemporaries) seems to be treated here with a softer touch that on the surface paints it as a trifle…the haunting closing scenes of Dunst leaving Versailles behind forever are not without their emotional resonance.

If Coppola delivers us a big hit with her next project, or not too far thereafter…then I suspect in about ten or fifteen years, “Marie Antoinette” will be looked upon far more fondly than it has been thus far. Rightfully its costume design took home an Oscar. If the movie gods smile down upon us, Coppola will have a long fruitful career, and this film will surely be more than just a foot note of her early days.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database

http://imdb.com/title/tt0422720/usercomments-384