Tag Archives: Joann Sfar

CAPSULE: THE LADY IN THE CAR WITH GLASSES AND A GUN (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Freya Mavor, Benjamin Biolay, Elio Germano,

PLOT: When he’s away on business, a Parisian secretary who has never seen the ocean takes her boss’s Thunderbird on a road trip, but everywhere she goes people swear they’ve seen her before—is she going crazy?

Still from The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For a while, the Lady seems to be driving her borrowed car into French territory, but she ultimately crashes it into mere implausibility.

COMMENTS: Forget the car, glasses and gun: the Lady, portrayed by Freya Mavor, is something to see. Freya was the Norse goddess of love and sex, and with her red hair, willowy build and tempting freckles, Mavor could pass for Scandinavian love goddess (she’s actually Scottish). It’s the Lady (not the plot) that is Lady‘s chief asset, and the way he shoots Mavor, I think director Johann Sfar knows it. He begins the film with her dancing madly at the sea shore, flaming hair flying around her head and bare feet pattering on the sea-soaked concrete of the pier, then cuts to an earlier scene where the model/actress is shot in unflattering light to actually make her look kind of ugly (a remarkable feat of cinematography). But as her confidence increases throughout the story, her hemline rises. Mavor’s girlish looks and waifish figure lend her an air of forbidden innocence that makes her future behavior seem all the more shocking.

As the pseudo-doppelanger plot synopsis might suggest, mirrors will provide key imagery here, and an early scene where the Lady’s reflection disobeys her provides one of the first hints of an ever-increasing subjectivity that leads us to suspect that she’s headed for madness. The plot kicks into gear after the Lady has borrowed the car, and keeps running into people who insist they’ve seen her recently; for example, eating breakfast that morning in a country café when she was actually in Paris at the time. On her road trip, she’s also assaulted at random, and starts making poor decisions re: picking up sleazy drifters at roadside motels. Our attention is diverted by Sfar’s style (cool music, cool cars, sexy chicks, impossible occurrences); and the Lady seems to be turning schizophrenic, until fifteen minutes of closing exposition explain what’s really been going on all along. Many people criticized the climax as a clunky dénouement device, but I was more disappointed in the solution to the mystery, which relies too much on crazy coincidence for my satisfaction.

Johann Sfar has been hanging around on the fringes of weird films for a while now, starting with the mildly hallucinatory biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, and continuing with The Rabbi’s Cat, his arcane adaptation of his own graphic novel about a snarky, sacrilegious pet. In Lady‘s second act the thick, nearly surrealistic atmosphere makes this remake of the seldom-seen 1970 shocker of the same title seem like it’s going to be Sfar’s weirdest film; ultimately, however, it ends up as his most conventional. Sfar remains an unpredictable force with the potential to unleash something fantastically weird in the future, although each near-miss diminishes our enthusiasm for his work just a little.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sfar creates the eerie impression of being trapped in someone else’s dream. Relying on hallucinatory tricks in which time seems to roll back on itself, or else lurch forward to some possible future, the helmer makes everything feel surreal enough that we hardly stop to consider the only logical explanation, delivered in stultifying detail over a tedious, low-tension climax.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE PROPHET (2014)

AKA Kahlil Gibran’s the Prophet

DIRECTED BY: Roger Allers (supervising); Paul Brizzi, Gaetan Brizzi, Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, , , , , Michal Socha (segments).

FEATURING: Voices of , , , Alfred Molina, , , John Rhys-Davies, John Kassir

PLOT: Based on the book of poems of the same name by Kahlil Gibran. A foreign poet, Mustafa, has been held under house arrest for several years. With the arrival of a ship, he is set free to return to his home country. Escorted to the ship by a couple of soldiers, he converses with them and with the townspeople; but circumstances change along the way.

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet (2014)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While some of the segments illustrating Mustafa’s sayings/writings are appropriately abstract, taken as a whole together with the framing story, The Prophet is extremely ambitious, but not weird.

COMMENTS: The Prophet has long been a passion project of Salma Hayek-Pinault; thankfully, she had enough experience and intelligence to realize that animation was the best medium to adapt Gibran’s book, a prose poem in long form that would be a challenge to fashion into a conventional narrative.

Enlisting Roger Allers, the director of The Lion King, was a good decision, since both tales are essentially illustrated journeys of messianic figures. Allers takes the basic framing device of the title character heading to a ship that’s taking him home and expands upon it, adding new characters Kamila (Hayek), Mustafa’s housekeeper, and her daughter Almitra (Wallis), who has become a mute troublemaker since her father’s death. These two are the characters for the audience to identify and sympathize with. The film adds a political dimension—Mustafa has been under house arrest for several years, and the journey to the ship may not be quite as innocent as presented—and the ending is different than in the book, although it is spiritually consistent.

Another smart decision was the idea to have different animators bring to life the various sermons by Mustafa, eight of which have been chosen: “On Freedom” (Socha), “On Children” (Paley), “On Marriage” (Sfar), “On Work” (Gratz), “On Eating & Drinking” (Plympton), “On Love” (Moore), “On Good and Evil” (Harib) and “On Death” (the Brizzi’s). Along with giving each story its own personality, the method also retains the metaphorical qualities of the sermons—if it were done in live-action, most of the visualization would’ve probably been literalized and not worked as well.

It’s a refreshing change to have animation appropriate for both adults and children that doesn’t involve talking animals or pop culture one-liners, and is an adaptation of an acclaimed literary work, to boot. G-Kids acquired the movie for theatrical release in the U.S. and home video. The DVD and Blu-ray include two featurettes about the movie, one with interviews of Hayek and Allers, the second concentrating more on the technical aspects (although none of the segment animators are featured). There’s also an animatic used in the making of the film.

PROPHETTHE-KAMILA

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Half-baked animated fantasy Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is a kids film for anyone who mistakenly thinks that the one thing that would improve animated masterpiece Fantasia is an overwhelming number of pretentious aphorisms.”–Simon Abrams, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE RABBI’S CAT (2011)

Le Chat du Rabbin

DIRECTED BY: , Antoine Delesvaux

FEATURING: Voices of François Morel, Maurice Bénichou, ,

PLOT: The adventures of a talking cat owned by an Algerian rabbi, who innocently blasphemes, wants to be bar mitzvahed, and tags along on a quest to find the black Jews of Africa.

Still from The Rabbi's Cat (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Eccentrically conceived, The Rabbi’s Cat is an oddity of animated Judaica, but it’s not quite special enough to crack the List.

COMMENTS: Almost as strange as an Old Testament story, The Rabbi’s Cat begins in earnest when the titular feline swallows a rival pet—a parrot—and thereby gains the power of speech. The cat’s owners, a rabbi and his daughter, are surprised by this unusual development, but not quite as shocked as one might expect; the rabbi is more upset by the fact that the cat’s very first words are a lie (“I didn’t eat the parrot”) then he is by the fact that the conversation itself violates God’s laws of nature. That odd tone persists throughout this episodic film, which never finds a surefooted approach to its bizarre conceits but nonetheless remains witty and fascinating most of the time. The cat is conceived outside of human Jewish traditions, so he finds Bible stories ridiculous (“even a kitten wouldn’t fall for that!,” he complains about Genesis’ creation narrative), and when he blasphemes it seems innocent. But he also desires to be a Jew like his master and beloved mistress, and becomes obsessed with being bar mitzvahed, despite the fact that he shows no allegiance (and in fact a good bit of skeptical hostility) towards the teachings of the Talmud. The story is set in the 1930s in an Algeria populated by uneasily coexisting Jews, Arab Muslims and French Christians, but the multi-ethnic paradise of Algiers is eroding: antisemitism is on the rise, and Nazism lurks around the corner. Perhaps the turmoil of this pre-WWII world explains why the story is so jumbled up; or, perhaps the confusion comes from the fact that the film is adapted from a five-volume graphic novel series, and strains to fit in too many incidents, characters and storylines into its running time. In the course of the tale, the cat gains the power of speech, then loses it after uttering a forbidden name of God (although for unknown reasons he can still speak to other animals and to Russians); just as arbitrarily, he starts talking again after being treated for a scorpion sting. A cousin with a pet lion, a Russian Jew smuggled in a crate of books, a bloody duel between an alcoholic Tsarist and a scimitar-wielding Bedouin, and the cat’s semi-erotic obsession with his master’s curvy daughter also jostle for our attention. The animation style wanders almost as much as the narrative. Although most of the film is drawn in a style only a little more elaborate than Hergé’s “Tintin” scribblings, there’s a surrealistic dream sequence, done in an even simpler and more childlike style, in which the rabbi literally cries an ocean of tears then lounges in his own salty discharge (smoking a waterproof hookah and nibbling on passing fish). And for unexplained reasons, when the cat and his companions actually discover the ancient hidden city of the Ethiopian Jews, the style changes again, so that the characters now appear as bizarre Hanna-Barbera caricatures of themselves, complete with huge round eyes. Mildly surrealistic touches like this, along with the script’s disinterest into sticking to any one plot or style for very long, make this a weirder (and richer) experience than it had to be.

Sfar wrote five volumes of “The Rabbi’s Cat” comics between 2002 and 2006. In 2009 he paused his cartooning career and turned to film directing with the fantastical biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which incorporated a puppet to represent musician Serge Gainsbourg’s libido.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A horny talking feline who wants a bar mitzvah is just the start of the weirdness in the loopy yet unfunny animated feature ‘The Rabbi’s Cat.'”–Kyle Smith, The New York Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE (2010)

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Joann Sfar

FEATURING: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Anna Mouglalis,

PLOT: Recounts the life of French singer Serge Gainsbourg, from his formative days as a

Still from Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010)

young Jewish boy in occupied France through his relationships with Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Birkin—and also his relationship with his spindly, scary puppet alter-ego.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A brave biopic that’s true to Serge Gainsbourg’s rebel spirit, but in terms of weirdness, it only goes about halfway.

COMMENTS: Growing up as a precocious Jewish boy in Nazi occupied France, young Lucien Ginsburg (later to reinvent himself as Serge Gainsbourg) amuses himself by drawing a flipbook fable.  A pianist (like the boy’s father) is constantly rejected because of his “ugly mug.”  The despised musician perversely embraces his detractors’ insults and wills his head to swell larger and larger until it finally bursts and the suavely deformed “Professor Flipus” emerges.  The Flipus character (also referred to as “my mug”) shows up later in life as Gainsbourg’s artistic daemon, a spirit materialized as a puppet with glowing eyes and grotesque, oversized features (the sharp-nosed homunculus looks like a debonair version of the Brainiac).  Flipus’ parents would seem to be Gainsbourg’s Jewish identity—his puppet ancestor is a six-legged, moon-faced anti-Semitic propaganda poster who comes down off a wall to dance with Lucien in the alleyways of Paris—and his insecurity about his own “ugly mug.”  Flipus spurs the budding composer to switch from painting to songwriting by “accidentally” burning up Lucien’s canvases, prods him to seduce various glamorous actresses, and grows jealous and vengeful at the appearance of a healthier muse.  Surreal moments are scattered randomly throughout the movie (an inexplicable cat butler, four costumed men who trade breakfast for a song, and visual puns referencing Serge’s albums “Melody Nelson” and ” Tête de Chou”), but it’s Flipus who provides most of Gainsbourg‘s underlying weird texture, and lifts the proceedings above the ordinary.  As an introduction for those uninitiated in Gainsbourg’s discography and biography, the movie isn’t wholly successful.  If you don’t already know who Boris Vian, Django Reinhardt and France Gall are, you may become confused when they suddenly show up or are referenced.  Gainsbourg’s scandalous music, which begins as witty, ribald chanson and develops through the 1960s into lounge-rock psychedelia, is sampled in fast-moving snippets that make it hard to see the lines of development.  The movie also suffers from the usual drawback of biographical movies: real life produces great characters, but not necessarily great stories (which is why fiction supplanted biography, after all).  Life stories tend to turn into a series of vignettes; fortunately for us, Gainsbourg’s vignettes involve him bedding Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Birkin.  A trio of actresses—Anna Mouglalis, Laetitia Casta, and Lucy Gordon—simmer as Gainsbourg’s succession of sexy muses.  Gordon’s role is most important, but slinky Casta leaves the biggest impression as a spot-on Bardot, first seen walking a dog in thigh-high black leather boots and a leopardskin miniskirt, and later memorably dancing with a sheer bedsheet tantalizingly wrapped around her voluptuous frame.  Constantly shrouded in his own personal nicotine cloud (since the MPAA has started handing out “R” ratings for tobacco use, the chain-smoking Gainsbourg should probably earn a XXX rating), Eric Elmosnino holds his own against his eye-candy co-stars, conveying awkwardness and suavity at the same time.  Unfortunately, historical accuracy requires him to metamorphose from a charming rake into a drunken lout, so our sympathies for the protagonist sag at the end: not the take-home note you really want in a “heroic” portrait.  Still, given the limitations imposed by real life, Gainsbourg is as a successfully hallucinatory hagiography that will please fans, and make newcomers at least curious to sample Serge’s suave discography.

Director Joann Sfar adapted this, his first film, from his own graphic novel.  To his dismay, producers insisted that early versions of the trailer contain no shots of Professor Flipus (though variations have been released since that do show the creation, without hinting at his prominence).  One source reports that Serge’s daughter, weird favorite Charlotte Gainsbourg, was at one time considered for the role of her father.  On a sad note, model/actress Lucy Gordon, who played a convincing Jane Birkin, committed suicide in 2009 before the film’s release.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s a bold splash of the surreal in this inspired portrait of a man whose life really is too big for one film.”–Annette Basile, Film Ink (contemporaneous)