This Week in Geek (24-30/09/23)


At home: Sex Education's fourth season has the cast moving on from the discredited "Sex School", most ending up in a humorously absurd progressive school where Otis has to contend with a rival for his sex therapy service. Lively new characters are introduced, though the older cast remains front and center. After all, what is Sex Education without the central (and quite beautiful) friendship between Eric and Otis? I think we care more about this relationship than Otis' with Maeve. Eric's particular subplot explores something we seldom see - the particular heartache of gay Christians - and has an enigmatic strangeness to it. Big comedy guest stars are also brought into the ancillary cast, like Dan Levy, Hannah Gadsby and Elizabeth Berrington as the world's worst funeral celebrant. Though the show doesn't always contain its saccharine instincts, I think we do want to see these characters get their uplifting endings, and it definitely delivers on that with a poignant final season. Goodbye Moordale...

There's a strong revenge thriller set-up to Wilderness, as Jenna Coleman (Liv) discovers her perfect marriage is a sham and her perfect husband a serial cheater. The trip of a lifetime across the American southwest becomes the setting for either murder and tragic misunderstandings. Normally, such a narrative would make its protagonist righteous, but also cold and calculating. That IS part of Liv's DNA, but the underlying emotions are much more complex here. The love that was already there confuses the issue and sends us on paths not usually followed. Liv is a mess. Her marriage is a mess. And therefore her revenge is a mess. The 6-parter does start to lose steam for me in the last third, and I do not entirely buy the last few scenes (things are said that put the rest in question and there's a sudden Promising Young Woman speech). Wilderness kind of stumbles at the finish line, but it doesn't fall on its face. It's got too strong a performance from Coleman for that, and too rich a cast of characters. It likely should have been longer by an episode.

Featuring a very cute performance from Lesley Manville, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, in a cute story about a cute housekeeper in the 1950s whose dream is to get a Dior dress, where she meets cute French people who she helps get together, while being treated very cutely as a working class hero at the fashion house. This is so cute as to be cloying, and elements like her guardian angel and Paris in bloom give it an old-fashioned atmosphere. If this had been made IN the 1950s, it would feel right and home and have a lot of charm. In this day and age, it feels manipulative, corny and well, like an extended commercial for Dior (this trend of making movies about products, possibly financed by those companies, is surely the bane of my movie-watching existence) in which Mrs. Harris somehow originates the prêt à porter revolution. Some - perhaps many! - will enjoy it as a fairy tale in the style of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but its obsession with happy endings means that every reversal is obviously going to be undone, and the films gets progressively more predictable. Even the snobbish villain played by a wasted Isabelle Huppert isn't much of one. Too nice!

The first 15 minutes of Hiroshima Mon Amour are almost unbearable. Marguerite Duras' philosophical poetics meet Alain Resnais' cold modernism is a montage of words and disturbing images of Hiroshima's victims, and you fear the whole film will be like that. The sensual images of two lovers - those who own the voices - break us out of this spell, but only partly. Their pleasure is part of what's disturbing, and seems callous. But the overall theme is that of forgetting. A French actress is in Hiroshima for a film, and has an affair with a Japanese man, which brings memories - through the common filter of World War II trauma - of her first, forbidden love, a German soldier. Love and trauma combined, time acting on both to erase their memories, a threat as much as a promise, something to be feared before it can be desired. And the way she tells her story, projecting her dead lover onto this man, feels like a kind of possession, a temporary transformation. Certainly, there's something alchemical going on between past and present, between pain and pleasure. Emmanuelle Riva is beautiful and powerful in this. Eiji Okada is handsome and intense. Resnais is... Resnais. Which is to say, I'm impressed by the film making, but intellectually, rather than emotionally.

Take those first 15 minutes of Hiroshima Mon Amour, with the disembodied voices speaking in a poetic dialog, stretch it to two hours, and you've got India Song. Like, I get that Marguerite Duras is purposefully created a languid portrait of colonial indolence and apathy, with pretty people posing and dancing, as if in breathing paintings, inside large opulent houses on stolen land while terrible squalor is happening out of doors (though isn't the colonial critique hampered by these people being diplomats?). Just... did it have to be so boring? In particular, it feels like a crime against nature to have such an impeccable actress as Delphine Seyrig and give her so little to play. "Timeless" voices chatter on about what's happening, as if we're ghosts at some unseen cocktail party, and it takes 40 minutes for an actual onscreen actor to speak (and only in voice-over anyway), and a good hour before we hear Seyrig's voice. This is like being TOLD a film, and therefore feels like anti-cinema. I appreciate the experiment and that content fits the theme, but found it all very tedious and pretentious beyond measure.

Why the heck was "Coup de foudre" re-titled "Entre nous" for English speakers? 1) It's still a French phrase, and 2) the expression means "love at first sight", which is much more relevant to the story of two women who, in the post-WWII era, meet randomly and become fast (and best) friends. Diane Kurys is telling the story of her actual parents, so the biographical element pushes for mid-war "origins" I don't care about so much, but once Isabelle Huppert and Miou-Miou meet, I welled up or smiled or both on a pretty consistent basis. What a lovely relationship, even absent the fact that in a later life, these two would have been overtly gay. Their husbands are surplus to requirements (in their lives, not in the film) and we're treated to unromanticized family units where the bond between the two friends is stronger than between husband and wife (neither married for love, after all) or between mother and child. A beautiful film about finding "your person", whether purely expressed as friendship or leading to something more.

No, really, what is wrong with French films' English titles? Chabrol's Story of Women doesn't come close to the meaning behind "Une affaire de femmes", which really means "A Woman Thing", as in, men wouldn't understand. Isabelle Huppert plays a woman who gave women abortions during World War II, made friends with prostitutes, and had a dark fate (several times foreshadowed). It's a biopic, but doesn't feel like one until the third act where creative imagination takes a backseat to plot mechanics. I don't know how Chabrol can justify throwing in a few wild lines from a surprise narrator during that section too, but I resent it. But while it plays as a well-observed character drama about a woman who deals with women's realities in a time of misery, showing disdain for both husband and son, while embracing her daughter and other women with no judgment, it's excellent. It many ways, it's a parallel reality to Coup de foudre/Entre nous made 5 years earlier (Huppert typecast as the "bad" mom/wife?), but it's much less romantic.

Sandrine Bonnaire becomes a rich family's maid in Claude Chabrol's La cérémonie, and she has a secret that could get her fired. She makes friends with an anarchic town post office clerk played by Isabelle Huppert, and that sets both on an "eat the rich"-type path, and potential tragedy. These are two very different women - one almost robotic in apathy (a defense strategy that has become sociopathic), the other passionate and destructive (but like her new friend, trauma that has evolved into sociopathy). They feed each other, and there's that sense of peer goading that just happens naturally when one wants to feel like they belong, even to this pod of two. And if course it's about class. The film is well-observed in its delineation between  the working class girls and the bourgeoisie always speaking from a place of privilege even when the characters "mean well". There's a strange editing choice just before the climax that impugns the reality of the ending, but doesn't track, so it's... a marker to trigger the rather opaque title? (It's a quote from a Jean Jenet play about similar events, but that's pretty literate for the normal cinema goer.) I'm never too sure about Chabrol in the final leg of a race, but this one lives and breathes thanks to some excellent performances from its two stars.

Claire Denis returns to Cameroon in White Material, a film that's a lot more blunt than Chocolat in exposing colonial obliviousness, as Isabelle Huppert refuses to leave her coffee plantation even as the civil war in [unspecified country] starts to close in on it. At first, it's a familiar sort of denial ("there's always been trouble, people are panicking for nothing"), but it becomes more and more delusional as time goes on. Huppert and her family speak from a place of privilege and safety, but also as people who have lived in Africa for most or all of their lives. It's their land, isn't it? They're not bad people. They contribute to the economy, they have a lot of local friends, and so on. But the land remembers. And its righteous rejection of them may be hard to take, but nonetheless is. Of course, Denis isn't all that kind to the African side of things either - child soldiers, genocide... - her eye is as impassive whether looking at the conflict as it is when showing how coffee is harvested. Impassive, or perhaps better to say empathetic in equal measure.

Books: You might have had, in your life, a teacher/mentor who still looms large in your psyche, who irrevocably changed how you think either by imprinting their thought process on you, or better yet, made you discover your own process. The eponymous Elizabeth Finch is that kind of teacher to the protagonist in Julian Barnes' 2022 novel, and "Neil" means to honor her by writing about her. Though this has always lurked in Barnes' fiction, his later works are very interested in mortality, and therefore legacy, and the book questions the feasibility of biography. Elizabeth Finch is, by necessity, a person only partially known - mysterious, but like everyone, a mystery (there's a distinction). Her interest in the 4th-Century figure Julian the Apostate brings Neil to discuss HIS life in much the same terms (and giving Barnes the opportunity to use his considerable skills as essayist and historical chronicler) - a man mythologized to the point where who really knows who he was, what he thought, and what really happened. Finch's life is much closer to Neil's - she was a teacher and long-time friend - but is no less impossible to know. Different people's perspectives act as personal historiography, revealing contradictory or paradoxical information about a subject too large to be contained in ANY book. And so it is with each of our lives. Barnes is my favorite writer for a reason, folks. His prose flows through my mind easily, and like the mentor of the book, changes how I think.