Posts Tagged ‘Woody Allen’

The Names of Love (2010)


For some strange reason, the American title of this film was weirdly translated from the more apt Les Noms des gens or People’s Names.  And people’s names are what identify people as “French” and favored or as Jewish or Arab or outsiders and “not French.”  Although the subject matter is very serious, this Mary Poppins of a movie serves the discussion of nationality with a spoonful of sugar and a heaping helping of female nudity to make the message/medicine go down.  Given the tension in France today regarding the wave of immigrants “coming home” to the mother country, a light-hearted response was probably a wise one.  Obviously the production was impactful for the screenplay by Michel Leclerc and Baya Kasmi won a César as did the leading actress, Sara Forestier.  The way a society copes with change in the twenty first century is through popular culture.

Like Great Britain, France has been coping with the blowback of Empire and with the consequences of colonialism for at least fifty years.  The last of the French colonies,  Algeria finally won its independence in 1962 after decades of shameful repression. Perhaps the best-known film depicting this grotesque struggle of a colonial power to hold on to an empire is The Battle of Algiers, an even-handed film made by the Algerian government in 1966.  More recently American audiences have seen Of Gods and Men, (2010), another painful account of atrocities on both sides.  Les Noms des Gens makes the very good point that the modern nation of France must come to terms with its own past.  The movie proposes that individuals move beyond their “names” and fixed identities and to merge separate entities labeled “Jewish” or “Arab” or “French” into new, perhaps nameless, people for a new era in the name of love.

Baya Benmahmoud is a later day hippie, a free spirit who makes love not war on right wing “fascists” and bigots who are male.  She leaves the female fascists alone and directs her efforts to the male of the species who are “converted” into left-wing liberalism through having sex with her.  She is a Lysistrata in reverse who sees fascism everywhere even in a veterinarian (Jacques Gamblin), who specializes in dead birds.  While Baya celebrates her identity as an assimilated Frenchwoman with an Algerian father and a French mother, her newest target, Albert Martin, is hiding a half-Jewish identity.  Between the two of them, this unlikely couple embodies two sensitive points on the French body politic—what the French did to the Jews during the Nazi occupation and what the French did to the Algerians during the post-war period.

Critics have complained, rightly, that the movie is a superficial treatment of a serious topic, but it is perhaps all the more effective for that.  The great Louis Malle produced a masterpiece of anguish, Au Revoir les Enfants in 1987, which unflinchingly examines the scar of the Holocaust on the French conscience. The intention of Les Noms des Gens is simpler than that of films, such as Malle’s, which take a historical approach, but with a light touch, it makes its point. Arthur’s parents are still haunted by the feeling of being hunted by the Nazis and his mother’s lost Jewish identity eventually comes back to her and drives her to suicide.

There is an interesting scene where Arthur and Baya visit the “Deportation Memorial” on the Île de Cité to find the names of his Cohen relatives.  Because there were so many “Cohens,” listed in alphabetical order, their search is futile.  Dedicated by Charles de Gaulle, this memorial was designed by the architect Georges-Henri Pingusson for the purpose of honoring the French “martyrs” of deportation to Nazi camps. What the film does not say is that this memorial is not an official “Holocaust” memorial and it lumps the Jewish victims in with other political enemies of the Nazis, whitewashing (the memorial is white) French culpability in the death of 200, 000 French citizens, 76,000 people including 11,000 children who just happened to be Jewish.

In fact Les Noms des Gens passes over the ugly past in Algeria lightly and approaches the recent debate over whether or not French Muslim women can legally be veiled or not a bit more directly.  Without getting into the controversy, the film follows Baya to her latest conquest, a traditional Muslim man, who, unlike her father, veils his women.  The shock of seeing this beautiful free wheeling woman shrouded by black garments says it all. The question of whether the veil is a suppression of the humanity of women or is an assertion of Muslim identity is asked and answered in a few minutes. Baya, whose mother is French,  asserts that in the veil she is seen as a Muslim woman for the first time.

Of course, when her work is done, Baya leaves her Muslim fascist, jettisons the veil, and marries Arthur, two halves making a new whole and creating a child who is beyond “names” or the labels that tear societies apart.  Les Noms des Gens predicts that names will not matter in the new society that is in the process of re-identifying and redefining what is “French” in the twenty first century.  The message, amusingly and deftly delivered is a hopeful one of global peace through love and marriage and children.  We can only hope.

Oh and by the way, we Americans are not as ignorant as the French seem to think: we don’t need to have “Bernard Henri-Lévy” translated into “Woody Allen” on the subtitles.  We know who Bernard-Henri Lévy is, thank you very much.

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger



Midnight in Paris (2011)


Not to read too much into Woody Allen’s latest amuse bouche, but the movie does look like a witty mise-en-abyme, an endless regression back in time.  Midnight in Paris proposes a witching hour when one can step into a Peugeot and drive into one man’s lost Golden Age and then climb into a carriage and enter a woman’s idea of what the perfect time would be.  Gil, Woody Allen’s alter ego (younger and better looking) is a successful Hollywood writer who thinks that he could write the great American novel if only it were the 1920s.  Stranded in the wrong time, Gil (Owen Wilson) is marooned in the right place—Paris—with his fiancée’s rich Republican parents.  Inez and her obnoxious mother and father, defend the Tea Party (the current one) and like Gil’s money and his Hollywood success but not him.  The absurd unsuitability of Inez (Rachel McAdams) for Gil, the incurable romantic, is our clue that the film is an allegory.

Allen draws the audience into the philosophical fantasy by forcing us to assume the role of the most obnoxious character in the film.  Paul (Michael Sheen), an old friend of Inez, is a typical pedantic academic—the kind that is compelled to lecture to all within earshot about matters clearly not in his realm of expertise.  Any art lover with even a bare minimum of knowledge knows that the sculptor, Auguste Rodin, was never married to the sculptor, Camille Claudel, but Paul gets in an argument with the guide at the Rodin Museum.  And it is here, at this unfortunate juncture, that we become Paul the Pedantic, for those of us in the know immediately spot Carla Bruni, who makes the American Inez look lumpy and badly dressed.

The fun for the effete truly begins when the magic Peugeot comes around a dark curve of a quiet Parisian back street as the midnight hour chimes.  Who should pop out of the Peugeot and beckon Gil to join to get in but Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald?

The glamorous pair whisk the bemused American in Paris away to an elegant soirée held by Jean Cocteau, where he meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard) the current mistress of Picasso.  We all know that Picasso was entangled with a wife he couldn’t divorce, Olga, and was enthralled with Marie Thérèse, so Adriana is another clue that we are in fantasyland.  And then Scott and Zelda take Gil away to another party and we are so pleased that we know where they are going: Bricktop’s and we know who Bricktop was. And when we get there, we immediately see Josephine Baker, clothed, dancing the Charleston in her off time.  We, in our erudition, also wonder why Cole Porter was at the first party instead of playing the piano for Bricktop, which was more to his habit.  And then at the end of the evening, we finish off our entrée with a large helping of Ernest Hemingway.

Corey Stoll (Law and Order, L.A.) does a great job of playing Hemingway who is self-important and pompous, obsessed with manhood, and spouts his own spare and lean “masculine” prose, learned from Gertrude Stein. Hemingway tells Gil that he has published only one novel, presumably The Sun Also Rises, meaning that, in time, we are in 1926.  It cannot be any later than that year because after 1926, the Fitzgeralds left Paris. Francis Scott Fitzgerald had already published This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, and, of course, Hemmingway was passive aggressive and jealous of the more successful writer.  Having deduced with year we are in, the next night we get to meet Gertrude Stein (Kathy Baker)  herself, holding court under the portrait Picasso did of her in 1906 (and yes, that is Alice B. Toklas who opens the door for Gil).

Naturally, Picasso is in Gertrude’s salon with a painting that is anachronistically out of place for a decade during which he was in his classical conservative period.  The faux painting looks a bit like Large Nude in a Red Armchair (1929), which signals a change to his flirtation with Surrealism.

Speaking of Surrealism, the film is full of Surrealist artists, also a bit out of time. Surrealism proper does not begin until 1924 when André Breton issued his Manifesto and the movement was a movement of poets, not artists.  The main artists associated with Surrealism were those who were once Dadaists.  Having just painted Harlequin’s Carnival, only Joan Miro, who was careful to keep his distance from the French group, was the most fully developed surrealist painter in the twenties.

But here is Salvador Dali (Adrian Brody) having a drink with Gil three years before he became a Surrealist.  And later, the pair is joined by Man Ray (much taller than he was in real life) and Luis Bunuel, with whom Dali would make Un chien andalou in 1928.  We miss seeing Lee Miller who could have been either at the Cocteau party or with Man Ray—after all, she was the muse for both men.  But for Gil, his muse is Adriana who takes him on a trip to the Belle Epoch where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge.  No sooner do they start chatting with the Count, then they are joined by Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin, who must have been in town between his journeys to the South Pacific.  For Adriana, this is her Golden Age, not the Twenties of the Lost Generation.  She could be right; these are the last years before a century of war and loss and disillusionment.  Gil, however, needs the inspiration the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Stein in order to come into his own and to “find himself” as a writer and he leaves the woman he loves behind in the 1890s.

Before Gil rejoins the land of the present and the unsatisfactory, he delivers a bit of advice to Bunuel, to create a scene of a dinner party that no one can leave.  The New York Times informs us that the film in question would be The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The film ends with Gil finally ridding himself of Inez who has been dallying with the insufferable Paul, our own muse and inspiration in our personal history test.  Of course, the ideal lady is already waiting, selling Cole Porter records in the flea market (Les Puces) of Porte de Clignancourt.  We see immediately that she is perfect for Gil and an appropriate end to the fantasy of a middle aged man having a mid life crisis.  Of course she is half his age: what better way to start a new life with a sweet young thing who doesn’t wear make up and likes to walk in the rain?  Meanwhile the private detective who has been following Gil takes a wrong turn and winds up running for his live down the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

But one more thing, as Columbo would have said: the last snobbish satisfaction we feel before the end of Midnight in Paris is when we see Gil walk out of Shakespeare and Company. We are smugly pleased that we know the entire story of this establishment and are sorry we did not visit in the 1920s and run into James Joyce…in the afternoon.  Oh, we are so smart.  Woody Allen is so laughing at us. And by the way, Francis Scott Fitzgerald was named after Francis Scott Key.  Had to get that in.

Dr.  Jeanne S. M. Willette

The Arts Blogger