Talking Movies

February 27, 2015

Paper Souls

Belgian director Vincent Lannoo displays a more whimsical side to his usual blackly comic preoccupations in this absurdist Parisian rom-com.

Paper Souls

Paul (Stephane Guillon) is a depressed novelist, still mourning the death of his wife 5 years previous. But that’s not why the start of the movie finds him in a cemetery. He’s there to observe Madame Thomassin (Marie-Jeanne Maldague) deliver an acerbic graveside eulogy for her late husband; said eulogy being the handiwork of Paul. Afflicted with writer’s block he has not written anything except eulogies since his wife died. Thomassin’s niece Emma (Julie Gayet) approaches him to write about her late husband Nathan (Jonathan Zaccai), a photojournalist killed in Mauritania a year before, as an 8th birthday present for her son Adam (Jules Rotenberg), who is in denial that Nathan is dead. Paul accepts the job, despite pressure from his neighbour Victor (Pierre Richard) to hop in bed with the attractive widow. And then Nathan appears at his door…

From the first strains of a clarinet-heavy jazz score there’s a definite Woody Allen vibe off of this French/Belgian co-production, but not in the sense of Sophie Lellouche’s Paris-Manhattan. Whereas Lellouche successfully set up Allen scenarios, only to channel the vibe without the one-liners, TV writer Francois Uzan’s screenplay is at times riotously funny. Claudine Baschet’s Hortense, who keeps her stuffed dead cat on display, and listens to Paul’s eulogies about her on her iPod is a delightful supporting character. But it is Pierre Richard who steals the show as Paul’s elderly Jewish neighbour Victor, whose research into the Warsaw Ghetto is continually derailed by his need to meddle in Paul’s love life with endless ‘helpful’ nagging. Victor’s trip to the shops with Paul is a minor masterpiece. And that’s before addressing the return of amnesiac Nathan from the dead.

Paper Souls plays the return of Nathan, rudely interrupting the romance of Paul and Emma, totally deadpan. The question of how Nathan could have been mistakenly buried alive sees such daft reactions as local guide Diarra (Alain Azerot) musing that sometimes in Mauritania people come back, if they have a door to close. The treatment of totally nonsensical moments as perfectly normal at times emulates Allen’s similar treatments of the fantastical in Purple Rose of Cairo and Deconstructing Harry. And, to boot, Lannoo stages some wonderful slapstick as Paul attempts to sneak Nathan around Paris, without Emma or Adam seeing him, in an attempt to jog Nathan’s memory. Paper Souls then does something rather unusual. It leaves comedy behind and embraces full-blown magic realism. It’s a bold move, and is quite a gear change, but it achieves an affecting ending.

Paper Souls showcases a fine supporting turn from Pierre Richard (in what would be the Alan Arkin/Donald Sutherland role in a remake) and manages to combine rather good comedy with unexpected and affecting drama.

3.5/5

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August 31, 2013

On Ben Affleck Being the Batman

I’ve been musing with John Fahey about Ben Affleck returning to blockbuster leading man roles by playing Batman, and I feel Affleck’ll probably nail it.

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I was, of course, initially disappointed by the casting announcement. But not for the same reason that most people who vented their spleen early on seemed to be disappointed/outraged. It seems harsh on the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt to have spent an entire bloody film being taught how to be the Batman by Christian Bale only to be shafted immediately by Warner Bros at his first chance to be the Batman. The hysteria surrounding Affleck’s casting struck me as very odd; like many people were still stuck in 2003 and reeling from the awfulness of Gigli and Paycheck. Announcing Affleck as the lead in Batman Begins back then, well, yes – outrage entirely justified. But this is 2013, the second act of Affleck’s cinematic life. Have people forgotten Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo only months after everyone loved him for accepting the Academy’s snub to his directing with dignity?

Ben Affleck has much in common with the equally maligned Mark Wahlberg. They are not the greatest actors in the world, but they’re certainly not bad actors. Yes, they can be acted off-screen by most any actor willing to stop yawning on set and make the effort. But that willingness to be out-acted is important, they provide an invaluable still centre. John C Reilly appeared at Trinity College a few years back and recounted bullying a theatre director into finally giving him the lead in a Restoration comedy, only to be bored silly on realising Congreve gave the best lines to supporting characters. Reilly’s function was to hold the chaos of the comedy together by being the still centre; and he immediately returned to his comfort zone of playing one of the supporting characters upstaging the romantic lead. Wahlberg and Affleck have given memorable supporting turns (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees, Good Will Hunting, Hollywoodland), but as leading men they don’t mesmerise; but that’s not necessarily always bad. Argo couldn’t support Goodman, Arkin & Cranston’s scenery-chewing profane quipping without Affleck quieting it, and The Fighter’s Bale, Adams & Leo OTT-competition would’ve gone into low-earth orbit without Wahlberg’s stoicism grounding it.

And Batman is, to a large degree, cinematically a still centre. The complaint oft made of Bat-movies – that the villains always walk off with the film – is exactly the complaint you’d expect to recur if a character is a still centre enabling craziness around him. (Affleck suddenly sounds like a very good fit…) Batman’s strength derives in part from his silence. Ninjas aren’t chatty. He lurks in shadows, and pounces on people when they least expect it. Batman doesn’t say much; he just appears and beats people up, that’s what makes him intimidating – he’s almost a pure physical presence to criminals, even those who never encounter him but whose imaginations he vividly inhabits. And in the comics even in the privacy of his own thought bubbles he usually thinks like Hemingway clipped some of the floweriness off of Raymond Chandler prose. And if you’ve read Jeph Loeb’s Hush and Superman/Batman you’ll note that a lot of Batman’s dialogue is sarcastic commentary on Superman’s problem-solving abilities. That sounds a lot like Affleck’s main function in Argo.

But whither Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne? He can’t very well play a billionaire playboy as a still centre, can he? Well, Christian Bale has hammered home the difference between private and public Bruce Wayne so this shouldn’t actually be that major a problem. It would, after all, feel like a waste of everyone’s time to have Robert Downey Jr play public Bruce Wayne the way he plays Tony Stark and then morph into terse earnestness for the other two parts of the Bat-persona. Affleck’s performance in The Town is probably a good model for his private Bruce, and if Argo cohort Bryan Cranston really is playing Lex Luthor then life as public Bruce Wayne gets a lot easier for Affleck as he can bounce quips off a fellow billionaire with whom he has existing good comic chemistry. Even if Cranston’s not Lex, Affleck has absurdly essayed an appropriately insouciant charm. Imagine a combination of Affleck’s Click ad for Lynx, his role in Argo, and the end narration of Daredevil and you have his Batman.

And that’s not bad. With the juvenile Zack Snyder directing it’s the Batman we deserve, but not the one we need right now probably the best we could hope for.

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