December 24, 2010

Whilst I am not at all a member of the “target audience” for so-called contemporary “rom-coms” or “chick flicks”, I do have something of a soft spot for slightly strange French comedies and it is very much with that in mind that I wholeheartedly embraced Pascal Chaumeil’s Heartbreaker (L’arnacoeur, 2010).

The premise adheres to a standard rom-com paradigm whereby a beautiful, rich, young woman, Juliette Van Der Becq (Vanessa Paradis) is about to marry “the wrong man”; an equally rich and charming young man named Jonathan Alcott (played by This Life‘s Andrew Lincoln). Juliette’s father then hires our “heartbreaker” in question, Alex Lippi (Romain Duris) to put a stop to their impending nuptials. As you would expect, Lippi, who breaks up unseemly couples for a scant living with the aid of his sister and her husband, falls for sweet Juliette and a great, comic romance ensues. This all sounds decidedly standard, so why exactly did I take to this film when I so dislike other films of this ilk?

Well, that would be down to the “Frenchness” of it all. Firstly, our “wrong man” character is English and, as someone who can sort of lay claim to Englishness, I found the French dislike of this seemingly perfect, yet far too upper class, Oxbridge-humanitarian-toff-like man immensely amusing. Furthermore, Lippi’s “job” as a heartbreaker is so loaded with excessive cliché that it actually reaches the realms of self-reflexivity from time to time (an early scene involving white doves illustrates this beautifully). It is also the specific absurdities of the film that caught me pleasantly by surprise; the idea of eating Roquefort for breakfast and the incomprehensibly unkind yet still silly slapstick treatment of Juliette’s slutty best friend.

Finally, what’s best about this film is Romain Duris’ quality comic timing. Far better suited to intense, gritty roles in films such as Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De Battre Mon Coeur S’est Arrêté, 2005), Duris’ goofy smile is so wildly out-of-place here that it is almost impossible not to stifle at least a wee giggle if not a galant gaffaw every time he flashes his pearly whites.

Certainly not a film with too much intelligent subtext, Heartbreaker is a refreshingly funny rom-com that provides the kind of foolish entertainment any half-way decent comedy ought.

Heartbreaker is released in Australian cinemas on Boxing Day, Sunday December 26, through Hopscotch Films.

Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.


If you ever wondered what your toy figurines might be like on crack, then wonder no more. Panique au Village (A Town Called Panic, 2009) is a high energy, dynamic little gem of a film about the dwellers of small rural village – Panique – and their interaction as a community which relies wholly upon causal events motivated entirely by farce.

Originally a series of five-minute episodes shown in blocks of fifteen to thirty minutes on television, the Belgium stop-motion claymation animation distributed by Aardman certainly makes a decent spinoff that successfully sustains its seventy-five minute feature-length run time.

The protagonists of the picture are Coboy (Cowboy), Indien (Indian) and Cheval (Horse), the three of whom live together with a dynamic something like The Odd Couple (1968), only with Mr Ed (1961-1966) thrown into the mix. Introducing its characters one by one, the film opens with individual house visits from the postman; the character who distributes and links the townsfolk to the outside world; a world shown clearly in the title sequence to be distinctly separate and apart from Panique, its form of animation one-dimensional and hand drawn; Panique a myriad of mad stop-motion claymation figurines, tangible and malleable in the first instance. After the characters have been introduced, the “story” begins.

Coboy and Indien have forgotten Cheval’s birthday and, as they panicking (though with purpose and apparent method) go about ordering 50 bricks to make him a BBQ, things begin to go awry. Their order, accidentally for 50 million bricks, arrives in time but its unnecessary and awkward excess soon ensconce their home and sets in motion a ludicrous set of causal problems beginning with the sinking of their house. What follows is a highly imaginative and amusing – almost anecdotal – account of the rebuilding of their home and, through that, the reinforcement of both the all important sense of community that the film is predicated upon as well as the entertainingly ironic central thread that panic and instinctual reaction which come from that community-first ethos set in motion the poorly thought out issues that ensue.

With everything you could possibly want from an animated feature; a giant penguin-mobile that throws massive snowballs at unsuspecting targets just for shits and giggles, operated by lazy, juvenile scientists (whose churlish sensibility juxtaposed against exceptional skill no doubt stands in for creators Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar); a central love story founded upon a shared passion for beautiful music; and unabashed though untranslated comical expletives that appear in what is supposedly a children’s film. Ultimately, it all comes down to one question: is there anything funnier than a stupidly high-pitched voice standing in for a claymation cowboy with ridiculously red lips screaming to excess, “Où est Cheval? Où est Cheval? Oh, merde!” My answer: I don’t think so. Any opportunity you get to see this spectacular animation, make sure you do it because it’s a real rare, raw pleasure.

Despite its clear homage to slapstick silent film and the likes of Jacques Tati, Rumba (2008) is most strikingly an exercise in colour theory. Careful and detailed art direction focussing on wardrobe, framing and set design are used to heighten the contrast between the film’s alternate tonal directions: fortune and misfortune.

The plot is at once simple and convoluted; perfect for its simplicity, not in spite of it. Fiona and Dom are school teachers whose lives are somewhat banal and ordinary by day, but whose vibrancy and verve emerges en force when they rumba by night. Having entered and won a dance competition, the couple are temporarily on top of the world, but a case of wrong place, wrong time instantly and irreversibly changes the course of their lives.

Despite their newest ailments – Fiona is missing a leg and Dom his memory – the pair muddle on as best they can, determined to make the good a bad situation. In true slapstick style, even the smallest of mishaps sets in motion a sequence of cause and effect lunacy paralleled only by the likes of Buster Keaton and his contemporaries. The hint of pantomime is well matched to the quirky sensibility specific to French farce, which is naturally and seamlessly brought into the mix.

Immediately after the incident there is a turn in the film’s visual style marked by a stand out sequence whereby Fiona’s beautiful, bold red rumba dress literally unravels, revealing a stark, drained colour palette of neutral tones; white underwear and sallow skin. From this moment on what ensues is a series of images drained and faded from the saturated reds, blues, yellows and greens that came before.

Gradually, as events resolve themselves, the pair rediscover and rekindle their love in accordance with a slow and strong re-saturation of colours onscreen. No sooner have the pair reunited, the plot resolved itself, and another dance sequence ensues; prime colours coming together in a kaleidoscopic rainbow of promise and joy.

The wit is very dry and occasionally errs on the side of acerbic to great comedic effect. Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon are unfalteringly straight-faced throughout the most absurd happenings which is a credit to their abilities not just as actors, but as writer/directors in equal measure. Well observed and well measured in every way Rumba is careful not to lose its audience and the film runs at a short but sweet seventy-seven minutes.

Not a film that will change your life, Rumba is like a perfect pudding or a holiday fling; the sensation of indulging in a guilty pleasure left to linger at the level of flirtation. Light hearted and removed from any sense of false sentimentality, Rumba is a vibrant interlude of visual entertainment.

Rumba is available on DVD from March 22nd through Network Releasing. Special features include deleted scenes, bloopers, trailer, Rumba: step by step and a Q&A with Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon at the ICA.

Slapdash 2010

February 24, 2010

It’s been a couple of weeks now (which is probably a good thing because sometimes a little distance can be a blessing) since the Desert Island Slapstick evening at Jesters (though recently renamed Metropolis the festival still listed the venue as Jesters). The Desert Island evening brought a timely end to the blink and you might miss it mini-festival that was Slapstick 2010.  Another local festival for the cultured middle classes who reside in Clifton, Redland, Cotham and even so far away as Bishopston, Slapstick 2010 was Bristol’s sixth silent comedy festival.

Advertised in the likes of Venue Magazine, The Evening Post and apparently over some local Bristol radio station, I was surprised to hear about the festival only through a chance discovery that my place of casual employment was one of its official sponsors. In lieu of our supposed support for the festival I thought it a good idea to go ahead and attend at least one of its events.

Consisting of a ‘panel’ (though I use the term lightly) of three British comedy heros, each of whom selected a silent film that they would in theory take with them to a desert island, the evening – slowly – revealed itself to be really rather more slapdash than slapstick. Though it had been advertised and printed materials crafted, the three Radio 4 ‘celebrities’, Graeme Garden, Time Brooke-Taylor and Barry Cryer all seemed to be suffering a bout of Alzheimer’s as they fuddled rather than talked their way through the films they had selected, Garden openly admitting that he’d chosen a film he’d never actually seen before. Pleasantly accompanied by live sound (albeit a keyboard rather than a piano) the venue itself was a fine choice, having originally (96 years ago) been Bristol’s first silent cinema.

Coney Island

The films themselves were for the most part very enjoyable, the selection including; Boobs in the Wood (1925) starring a less commonly known Harry Langdon, Coney Island (1917) with an overwhelmingly camp Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Neighbors (1920) exhibiting the charms of Buster Keaton on a simpering Virginia Fox. The content of these three films was, again, for the most part, very enjoyable: all except for one particularly squeamish sequence in Neighbors where Buster “blacks up”. Audacious and offensive as this act is there is always a possibility that an audience might make allowances for such content if the context of the film is accurately and carefully outlined prior to its unveiling. Beyond disturbing therefore is the way in which Brooke-Taylor contextualised the sequence in question, stating, “It’s fine. It was fine at the time and I think it’s fine now.” His latent racism, received without protest from a mirror audience is just one of the many unbearably obvious signs that the festival is in crisis and needs to make some drastic changes if it wishes to have any kind of longevity, let alone creditability or accolade.

Sadly I was amongst a minority in the audience (perhaps only a handful of us at an age before menopause) as I gasped with disdain at such remarks, the lady behind me chortling till her sides split at the sight of a ‘blacked up’ Buster. Clearly the organisers of Slapstick have a great challenge before them as they attempt to keep running a festival whose life span, if its audience is anything to go by, is all too near its use-by date. Perhaps if they were to market the festival through the guise of ‘silent film’ rather than ‘slapstick’ more youths would understand its content, though saying this, the success of its marketing is only so useful as the outlets through which it is advertised. Given that Bristol’s ‘arts hub’ consists of a small circle of individuals no larger than most people’s telephone directory (a circle I like to think I know of even if I sit judgementally outside of it) it is peculiar to me that they managed to get it so laughably wrong. But then again, slapstick or slapdash, as least something about it made me laugh.