Wednesday, May 20, 2020

L'infidélité française: On a Magical Night and Alice '19

I'm wondering if I would have actually put this together as a double feature if I'd realized that Alice was French, but the split probably worked well enough to keep my being more than a little disappointed in On a Magical Night from influencing my opinion of Alice too much. It would have been a lot of entitled schmucks cheating on their spouses for one night.

(My vestigial French was not much help, although I do find myself using "Chambre 212" instead of "On a Magical Night" in part because I didn't love the movie and thus kind of want to use the more neutral title, and liking that "Alice" is pronounced as "ah-lees" in French, especially because a supporting character is named "Lisa" and the names link better that way.)

They're both streaming "locally" - On a Magical Night in The Coolidge's virtual room and Alice in The Somerville's. I hope the latter gets a good boost from this sort of release; as a first feature for the director and apparently Emilie Piponnier's first starring role (though I expect her to have many more), it could easily get buried but is well worth discovering.

The only thing that really bugs me is that I feel like there's a movie I should be referencing when talking about Alice - a French New Wave classic about another young wife who works as a call girl in the afternoon - but its name is just out of reach. I'm going to feel really stupid when someone brings it up.

Chambre 212 (On a Magical Night)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, internet)

It's a rare film that's improvised or shot in sequence, and there's almost no way that On a Magical Night is one of them. Nevertheless, to watch it is to get the impression of someone having an idea, running with it, getting distracted, forgetting how all this works, and just winding up in a place that makes no damn sense whatsoever. And, sure, this isn't a movie one goes into with any sort of expectation of logical consistency, but this movie just completely loses track of what makes it work.

It initially introduces the audience to Maria Mortemart (Chiara Mastroianni), a forty-ish law school professor who beds her students casually enough that it never occurs to her that husband Richard Warrimer (Benjamin Biolay) has never done likewise, so when he gets upset at seeing texts from the amusingly-named Asdrubal Electorat (Arrison Arevalo) on her phone, she storms out in a huff, checking in at the hotel across the street. The room she's given affords her a view into their apartment, but that's not all - she finds herself visited by a younger version of Richard, from when they first met (Vincent Lacoste), Richard's first lover Irène Haffner (Camille Cottin), who was also his piano teacher when he was an awkward teen, Maria's mother (Marie-Christine Adam), and the personification of her will (Stéphane Roger).

On a Magical Night (or "Chambre 212" in the original French) probably works best if one is not inclined to try and figure things out; as that sort of person, I spent a lot of time grumpy over how Maria's apparent hallucinations could know all of these things that come as a surprise to her, or apparently go on to act independently of her. Or, if this means that there is simply magic to this room, why? Does it happen to everyone who stays there, or does some sort of force aim to either fulfill the couple's fantasies (from Maria's point of view) or help them reconcile? Why?

After all, Maria is fairly awful, even if one is willing to give her extra credit for being a counter to the usual double standard where a man's cheating is minimized and a woman's is considered a betrayal. Chiara Mastroianni may manage that sort of aloof self-serving sophistication well enough to be entertaining, but she's got precious little opportunity to show that there's anything to Maria beyond it. It doesn't help any that she spends most of the movie surrounded by fantasies of people singing her praises or implying that she's not the one who hurt Richard the most - and, despite Camille Cottin giving the part far more than it deserves, the level of sympathy this film has for 40-year-old Irène taking a 14-year-old lover and grooming him does not help. And while Benjamin Biolay and Vincent Lacoste do fair work individually, they never once seem like the same person at different ages, and if that's deliberate, one would think that the film would actually do something with how Maria's vision of Richard when they first met is disconnected from the reality.

Every once in a while, the film will seemingly scold the viewer for taking it that seriously, and it's certainly not hard to want to go along with it, from the opening scene where Maria sighingly laments that she is a slave to her "anthroponymic fantasies to the increasingly absurd visitors she receives. The magical snowfall works in part because it seems like they are thoroughly unconvincing soap flakes, as is the delightfully unreal miniature shot of the street with the pair looming over it. There are plenty of moments scattered throughout when filmmaker Christophe Honoré hits on a winning combination of being drily funny, uninhibited, and poetic.

Despite that, it's almost impossible to ignore that the social elements that make that such a potent, enjoyably French sort of humor also allow toxic people like Maria to thrive, and there's an upper limit to the number of bon mots and farcical fantasies one might be willing to endure to spend time inside her head, especially as Honoré seemingly loses track of why he's in there in the first place.

Also on EFilmCritic

Alice (2019)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 May 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Somerville Theatre Virtual Screening Room, Vimeo via Roku)

"Alice" - whether referring to the film's title or its main character - is a lot of different things over the course of the film's running time, and what's really impressive is how well it manages to be all of them. Filmmaker Josephine Mackerras takes an idea that could be the plot of a sex comedy or a scathing critique, does a bit of both, and gets from one to the other in the smart way that acknowledges that all this stuff happens together.

Said stuff involves Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier) being caught flat-footed at her family's bank account being empty, eventually discovering that husband François (Martin Swabey) spent it all on prostitutes and has now basically vanished with their apartment about to be foreclosed upon if she doesn't raise 8,000 euros in two weeks. She shows up at one of the services' recruiting days just to find out how much François paid each time, only to have proprietor Vera (Marie-laure Dougnac) decide she likes Alice's good-girl vibe and offer her work. A young veteran (Chloé Boreham) shows her the ropes, and maybe that will be enough to keep Alice and son Jules (Jules Milo Levy Mackerras) from landing out on the street.

The opening stretch of this movie is genuinely stressful, ramping up from how, in the very first scene the pre-school-age Jules is demanding chocolate and François's arrival does not exactly make things less chaotic, even if they are all smiling. Mackerras uses moments like that to hint at cracks in the façade even as the content of such scenes are meant to scan as pleasant, but it's got the audience just enough on edge that, when the first penny drops, she's got momentum set up to make it much worse as François doesn't come home and the people at the bank are being condescending or patronizing and nobody will give her a straight answer. At a certain point, she seems to know she's laying it on a bit thick as she cuts off any other means of escape, having Alice react in disbelief as her mother suggests it's at least partly her fault, dropping "you did not just say that to me!" practically in unison with the viewer.

Said viewer will probably snort on hearing that a bit, but it shifts things just enough that, when Alice's first appointment becomes slapstick, it's okay to laugh, and actually laugh hard, because a lot of this movie is actually very funny. It's not all or even mostly risqué and physical, but one of Mackerras's great strengths here is keeping the absurd parts of Alice's situation just far enough in the foreground to make things chaotic and unpredictable without actually veering too far into farce that the less-amusing things that are bound to happen are out of place or jarring. That Alice occasionally seems to be in on the joke, making decisions in part because she knows they're ironic, actually helps out a lot at times, giving her a level of self-awareness that she didn't necessarily have at the start without this change draining any life from the movie.

Emilie Piponnier is the one that makes all of that happen on screen, the center of every scene and fantastic at showing both the stress of this strange situation and the curiosity it creates, giving the audience an Alice full of kindness but not foolishly so. She's excellent at showing the mounting stress on Alice in a way that doesn't really hit until Mackerras decides to fully pull back the curtain. She's got good support in Chloé Boreham, who makes Alice's new friend an entertaining foil, individual enough that her being named "Lisa" doesn't entirely define her as Alice's complement (it works a bit better with French pronunciation); while Martin Swabey does really nice work at depicting François as entitled and kind of pathetic without making him a cartoon even as his behavior becomes worse and Alice is able to see it more clearly.

There's a bit of shagginess that perhaps comes from being Mackerras's first feature, but the film is just as often impressively economical in its storytelling, such as how François's return resolves some issues but creates others. She and her crew do a number of little things that make the movie a little better in ways one might not necessarily notice, from the details of the business to the make-up work that on the one hand emphasizes Alice's growing maturity and on the other hand exaggerates and leverages how pale some members of this cast are. Conversations and arguments between Alice and François have bigger and more precise impacts from how one can see their faces flush, most obviously heightened by one client who initially seems aloof.

That bit is one of a number of details that makes this sometimes sparse, small film hold together exceptionally well; Mackerras and Piponnier make Alice's life harrowing and funny in a way that feels real as well as entertaining. The film is a small gem that will hopefully take advantage of the current theatrical shutdown to make it onto the virtual marquees of theaters that might not otherwise have room for it and create opportunities for both its star and director to have bright futures.

Also on EFilmCritic

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