Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Thérèse (2012)

WHO: Starring Audrey Tautou, this was the last film directed by Claude Miller before his death last year, and it features cinematography by Gérard de Battista.

WHAT: Here's a case in which another critic has written such a thorough review of a film, contextualizing it within French cinema history and insightfully identifying its strengths and limitations, that to do much more than link would seem extraneous. Without further ado, please read Julian Allen, or at least this excerpt:
Miller, aware of the audience’s expectations, opts for a more robust, risky, and modern view of Thérèse’s personality. The implication is that even if you don’t agree with or even like Thérèse, her oppression is symbolically unconscionable. In this respect at least, the film wins its bet. The final sequence, like the novel, shows Bernard battling to understand her still, but she gives us no easy reasons because she does not have them herself—she is left alone, free from the social constraints of her past life, but still in hock to her own impulsive and rebellious nature.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens multiple showtimes daily today through Thursday at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

WHY: Thérèse is the kind of film that once populated Frisco Bay cinema screens en masse but now has become rare enough almost to become a major event: a foreign film with a literary pedigree, a familiar (if not exactly box office gold) star, and a lack of "hip" or "high art" pretensions of any sort. It's the kind of film whose existence on American screens owes a debt of thanks to the film festival circuit, where publicity and word-of-mouth have a better chance to build than if the film simply opened cold for a week-long run. When I attended there weren't so many fellow theatregoers, but it at least posted solid enough numbers its first week at the Opera Plaza to be held over for a second. A third appears unlikely, as a brand new calendar (pdf) is coming onto Landmark's San Francisco screens (essentially the Opera Plaza, as the Clay usually books higher-profile titles and the Embarcadero is expected to remain closed for remodeling until November).

Of the nine titles on this week-by-week calendar, three (Populaire, Museum Hours and Let the Fire Burn) arrive, like Thérèse, after successful showing at the 2013 San Francisco International Film Festival. A fourth, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, was one of the most widely-appreciated titles at the SF Jewish Film Festival. And a fifth, Zaytoun, (quite possibly the most currently topical of the bunch, as it's a Middle-Eastern war-set drama directed by Eran Riklis, who made the terrific The Syrian Bride) arrives October 18th after two screenings on the final two days of the upcoming Mill Valley Film Festival, which runs October 3-13 in cinemas all throughout Marin County.

You may have noted that my sidebar has exploded with links to upcoming film festivals beginning this weekend after a relatively slow late summer. The most established and most widely anticipated of them is the Mill Valley Film Festival, which announced its full program at a press conference this morning (that thankfully didn't include any poorly-presented preview clips- perhaps someone read my comment on that last year?). Now in its 36th year, MVFF has become best-known as the Northern California launch pad for Oscar-seeking Fall and Winter releases hot from their continental debuts in Colorado and Ontario. This year is no exception; if you haven't heard the "buzz" yet on titles like Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Color or Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave let this be your first warning: you'll be hearing about these films a lot unless you hide under a rock in the next few months. Both are slated to play MVFF this year along with other films whose distributors have a budget to try to push them into the various year-end "Best of 2013" conversations. The Marin festival doesn't shy away from playing up its possible role in these conversations; press materials note that four of the last five Best Picture Oscar winners (all but The Hurt Lockerhad their Frisco Bay debuts in front MVFF audiences.

But with over a hundred features and shorts in the festival line-up, most of the titles in the program have little or no chance at joining Argo, The Artist, The King's Speech and Slumdog Millionaire in future almanacs the world over. There's plenty of moviegoing available for fest-goers interested in avoiding "Oscarbaition" (to re-use a term I applied last year), whether they're interested in fiercely independent voices like MVFF regular Rob Nilsson (here with his new Collapse, while his first feature Northern Lights screens at the PFA November 7th) or aesthetically innovative documentarians like Rithy Panh (whose Khmer Rouge miniature piece The Missing Picture should be a festival highlight), or rediscoveries and retrospective titles like Roger Christian's long-lost Star Wars-related short film Black Angel, or Raoul Peck's 2000 biopic Lumumba.

A list of world-renowned elder statesmen directors with new features in this year's MVFF might start with Hayao Miyazaki (who says The Wind Rises will be his final film) and continue with Andrzej Wajda (Walesa, Man of Hope completes a political trilogy begun with Man of Marble in 1975), Jan Troell (who will be on hand for screenings of The Last Sentence), Yoji Yamada (who began his career working under Yasujiro Ozu and now updates that master's most famous masterpiece into Tokyo Family, which I'm told will be one of the few 35mm screenings of the festival), and Costa-Gavras (here with his latest Capital). I could go on, but let me instead turn to a younger generation of well-established filmmakers like Connie Field (her new doc is Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine) and Hirokazu Kore-eda (represented with Like Father, Like Son). And then there are brand-new directors like Françoise Charpiat; her Cheba was shot by veteran French cinematographer Gérard de Battista, who also shot 1995 MVFF hit French Twist, 1997 Chris Marker documentary Level Five, and four Claude Miller features including Thérèse.

All of the above MVFF titles may sound like they have strong pedigrees, but it will take audiences to decide whether they're actually as good as they promise to be. I haven't had a chance to see any of them myself yet. But I did see Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton in a packed Castro Theatre at Frameline, and have been eagerly awaiting a chance to send Frisco Bay friends and readers who missed it this past June to an enthralling, accessible, and un-hagiographic documentary on one of Frisco Bay's most independent spirits among filmmakers. Broughton was born November 7, 2013, so the October 6 & 9 Mill Valley and San Rafael screenings are just in time to get ready for his centennial. Whether you're totally unfamiliar with the poetic, personal films he made in San Francisco, Mill Valley and all over the world, or have memorized every last one of them, you won't want to miss out on this complicated portrait of a fascinatingly complicated man.

HOW: Thérèse screens in 35mm at the Opera Plaza and via DCP at the Rafael.


  1. Brian: I agree Julian Allen's assessment is quite thorough. You and he could have mentioned the work was shot digitally (though getting to catch it in 35mm at Opera Plaza was a nice upgrade)I was stimulated enough to resee the Franju (which a surprising number of critics such as the NY Times neglected to mention)and contributed a brief writeup on that for IMDB.

  2. I didn't know you did imdb reviews. I looked them up. Especially glad to see your report on Sacrificed Youth which I had to miss last week.

  3. I'm trying to get into the habit of doing these, as I've discovered the format is congenial, while the movies I've just seen are fresh in my mind and I have access to a few handy notes. Especially when it's a work that few (sometimes none) have commented on.