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A film, like a book, has in some way succeeded if it gets you worked up about the fate and the actions of the characters - even (or especially) if you suspect that director and author have sympathies contrary to your own. For my money, with 'Jules et Jim' Francois Truffaut and Henri-Pierre Roché did both.

In Roché's 1953 novel Jim and Jules' friendship is a delight. A celebration of male companionship, at one point separated by war but meant always to be in some way together. We don't see many portrayals of such relationships now. Truffaut's 1961 film is true to this, their togetherness charming and real. This is a doomed idyll.

In neither version is Catherine a femme fatale or ogress. No lazy caricature or misogynist's cipher. Thoroughly human, but more difficult to reach than either of the men. Their love for her, prompted by her likeness to a certain Greek sculpture, is inexplicable and sometimes you have to take the author's word. Her indulgences and unhappiness, the acting out, the infantile revenges - yes, it's freedom, and oh how they lived, but look at the cost: Jules and Jim forever parted and two lives cut short, decades of experience and enjoyment that will never take place.

But, and I think Truffaut manages this better in his film than Roché in his book, there's no blame to be attributed and grudgingly I'd agree: the actions of the characters couldn't be reined in without constricting their vitality, and no-one can be called to account for living.

Perhaps it's a French thing, this impetuous emotion-to-action, the respect for passion. Possibly also you have to be able to relate to Catherine, and some people can. But I'd be wary of getting into a car with them.

'Jules et Jim', in a restored (if dark) print, is on at the NFT all the way through June, and given the weather there are no excuses for not seeing it.

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London, the present. Poppy (Sally Hawkins) is an exuberant thirty-year old primary school teacher sharing a rented flat with a friend. She enjoys trampolining, flamenco and cycling, until her bicycle is stolen. This event leads her to driving lessons and a series of encounters with an unstable driving instructor (Eddie Marsan)that eventually reveal Poppy to be more clear-headed than she purports to be. Along the way, Poppy's life is compared with that of her two sisters, and the expectations of contemporary society.

Often film-makers lose their character over time. Woody Allen for instance, once a strong flavour, now makes highly competent yet dissappointingly bland films. Sometimes they clearly don't: Kevin Lynch, say. Mike Leigh falls into the latter category.

In 'Vera Drake' and 'Secrets and Lies' Leigh reigned himself in, or at least compartmentalised his weakness for caricature. You could still spot his traits in there but they didn't grate so much as to interfere. After all, I only saw the resemblance between Imelda Staunton's Vera and Beatrix Potter's Mrs Tiggywinkle when it was pointed out to me.

In 'Happy-go-Lucky' he has let himself go, the first hour being the film equivalent of a self-indulgent guitar solo. The Mike Leigh cliches come fast and thick, all piling up in the perception: the female characters are his dolls, dressed as loons, speaking nasally through pursed lips. All that Camden Market schmutter and pastiches of Katrin Cartlidge ('Naked', 1993) gets pretty wearing. With the quirkiness dial turned all the way clockwise, it's a profoundly irritating advert for positivity. As a cartoon, fine, but with real people on the screen it resembles clumsy and over-saturated satire.

But there are some good scenes. So good they pay back the price of the ticket (£12 at my local Curzon ffs), but then induce despair at the rest of the film by comparison.

The flamenco teacher, another cliche but an engaging one, a performance rather than a collection of tics.

The social worker, and the scene in which he first appears, seem to have arrived from the set next door. Perhaps it's a swap and there's a complete buffoon somewhere in the next Ken Loach flick. Such a genuine, human, likeable fellow, surrounded by clowns.

The scenes with the driving instructor (in Vera Drake Marsan was a cowering shuffling introvert) had some depth - somewhere in there was a convincing portrayal of an everyday racist, the angry yelling motorist, the creepy stalker, the paranoid conspiracy theorist. In response to his worst onslaught Poppy suddenly becomes an adult, a credible human being, with the depth of character to properly engage with him.

The underlying premise of the film is appealing: a person genuinely happy in her own life and true to herself. Proof that one can live outside the mortgage-marriage-babies consensus, without needing to reside in a teepee. There's a film to be made about this, to show the reality of all those people happy as they are, regardless of the Sunday supplement template. Or a book to be written, several songs to be sung. And 'Happy-go-Lucky' sort of did it. If only there hadn't been all that primary coloured eyeshadow, bangles, and yelping.
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Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), dandy and editor of 'Elle' magazine, suffers a stroke and is almost entirely paralysed as a result, his doctor using the English term: 'locked-in syndrome' to describe the condition. We first, and often thereafter, see the world from the patient's perspective, blurred and confusing. One of his eyelids is sewn shut and we see that too. It's a long time before we properly see his twisted face.

Jean-Do's only available means of expression is by blinking his left eye. But we also hear his internal monologue, with a dry wit that's a relief to the viewer. Occasionally his over-avuncular doctor appears to diagnose his condition, but for the most part he is in the hands of women: Henriette (Marie-Josée Croze) who teaches him to communicate, Marie (Olatz Lopez Garmendia) his physiotherapist, Céline (Emmanuelle Seigner) his former partner and mother of his children, and Claude (Anne Consigny) to whom he dictates his account of the experience.

Using a list of letters and eye blinks, Henriette teaches Jean-Do to 'speak', it isn't an easy task and to begin with he isn't an easy pupil. Even when both parties are adept, it's a slow process, more tortuous than composing a text message if that's possible.

Throughout there's a real sense of his incapacity: the television in his room left on overnight emitting the monotone high-pitched tone that accompanies the test card and prevents sleep, the fly on his nose that causes him to move his head for the first time. In his helplessness, Jean-Do is at the mercy of women, and occasionally there's a hint of his fear - yet they are generally very good to him, including Céline, who may have some cause to be vengeful. The worst he experiences at their hands is a visit to church conducted by the devout Marie - Jean-Do recalls a visit to Lourdes with a girlfriend who installed a performance-thwarting illuminated Madonna in their hotel room.

As well as his paralysis there is the awkwardness others feel, but they quickly adjust: his children recognise him as their father, his friend Laurent (Isaach De Bankolé) reads to him from The Count of Monte Cristo. People find ways to connect.

The scenes of conversation with characters who are elsewhere, via telephone and an interpreter, are the most painful. Jean-Do found it difficult enough to communicate with his elderly father (Max von Sydow) before, but now it's near impossible, frustrating them both. The scene in which Céline has to translate for a call from Jean-Do's mistress, is agonising.

It's a film about communication, and about what people can do to people and what people can do for people.

'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' (Le Scaphandre et le papillon) Dir: Julien Schnabel (2007)
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Romania, 1987. Two young women living in a student hostel are arranging for one of them to have an abortion. Over the course of a day, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) takes the lead on behalf of her terrified and abject friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), while at the same time reaching a point of crisis with her boyfriend. When Bebe the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) arrives Otilia finds that more will be expected of her and her friend than money.

Marinca's resourceful Otilia, rather than her unfortunate friend, is the focus of this film, negotiating through the shortage, corruption, and individual bloodymindedness of Romania before the fall of Ceausescu, taking great personal risk in a country where all terminations are illegal and the penalties severe. The settings are evocative - the crowded student hostel where the residents barter black market cigarettes and soap, the hotels with malignant wallpaper and vindictive receptionists, the rutted streets, the stunted Dacia cars, and the queues outside the shuttered alimentară.

On the face of it, Otilia runs a series of errands, but they are variously awful, from her tours through the ill-lit suburbs and residential blocks to an uncomfortable attendance at her boyfriend's mother's birthday party. She displays a resilience pushed close to breaking point, giving a great deal for her friend without any pantomime of saintliness. Bebe, who may or may not be a trained doctor, is shown to have some depth as he shepherds his mother indoors from outside her flat, but is nevertheless a credibly repulsive character, a very ordinary nightmare of a man. It's Gabita who is least prominent, for the most part turned in on herself, a hapless passenger to her own plight, yet for all that this impacts on others it doesn't feel like culpability. There are moments, when she is trying to decide whether to bring her revision notes to the hotel, or her hair dryer, and forgetting the plastic table cloth to be spread on the bed, that are absolutely heartbreaking, and you just want to look away.

This isn't an angry film, nor is it didactic, but in showing the sordid danger of informal terminations it tackles the issue explicitly. The director, Christian Mungiu, is of the 'Little Decree' generation, the Romanian equivalent of the baby boom, following Ceausescu's late sixties ban on contraception and abortion. In interview he has said:

"4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days is essentially a story of personal choices. It is also about the subtle and often invisible consequences of indoctrination. It is about friendship, responsibility and love. But it is mainly about abortion, at that time regarded as an act of freedom and protest against the communist mode which prohibited it in order to increase the disciplined labour. I remember it very clearly, I was twenty years old: the abortion was not a moral problem - the main concern was being able to arrange one. Though women often died during the operation we thought of this as unlikely. We were so young."
[translation from French via the internet and my cleaning up, so may not be all that)

Personal responsibility also features: In a scene late in the film Otilia's careless boyfriend, though entirely unconnected with Gabita's plight, is clearly as much part of the problem as Romania's statist-mediaeval abortion laws. It's odd that there has been so little coverage in the English-speaking media of this film - such rights under legislation as have been secured in the West are hardly invulnerable. Since the movie won the 2007 Palme d'Or, therefore hardly an underground flick, this almost equates to silence.

Released here on 11 January, though no-one told the Curzon group, as they've had it from yesterday. 25 January in the US.

'Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days' (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile) Dir: Christian Mungiu (2007).

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The Andalucian coast, and Paris in the 1820s. Based on Balzac's novella, published first as 'Ne touchez pas la hache' later 'La Duchesse de Langeais', 'Don't Touch the Axe' was previously filmed by other directors in 1942 and 1995. Guillaume Depardieu is Armand de Montriveau a withdrawn French General, a war hero with a gammy leg, honored in society despite his taciturn manner. Jeanne Balibar plays Antoinette, the Duchess of Langeais, amusing herself through the balls and receptions of Parisian society in the absence of the Duke. Through her lorgnettes she observes Montriveau and determines to take him aside and have him tell her tales of his suffering in the desert and toy with him in the process. The general for his part falls in love with her and embarks upon a lengthy campaign of seduction that veers between propriety and near-violence.

The pair interact in a choreography of visiting cards accepted or sent away, letters read or unread, meetings punctuated by the ring of bells for servants. Always there is the threat, for Antoinette, of scandal, and the sense above it all of a complicated game in which the rules are malleable by reference to a person's gender, status, rank. For all that the duchess and the general conceive a passion for each other, in their own ways, never do they appear to achieve that happiness and contentment glimpsed momentarily between the butler and the maid, below stairs, between bells.

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Both leads deliver deliberately remote performances, Depardieu Jnr inscrutable beneath his brooding brow, Balibar (best known outside France for another Rivette film, 'Va savoir') working from a limited palette of pouts and side-to-side eye swivellings. But given the social context, who knows if such characters might not naturally occur, their expressions considered realistic?

'Don't Touch the Axe' ('Ne touchez pas la hache') ['The Duchess of Langeais' in some anglophone distributions] Dir: Jacques Rivette (2007).

Balzac's original is fairly typical of his output, enthusiastic description and digressions on society to the fore. An English translation of this novella can be found at Project Gutenberg:
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Waiting for the 472 to Beit Hatikva

"Do you like Chet Baker?"

The Alexandrian Police ceremonial band finds itself stranded until morning in a small Israeli town which suffers remoteness and council estate architecture, without a connection onwards to their concert booking. Circumstances compel the band members to remain as guests and 'The Band's Visit' shows the encounter the band and some of the people in the town experience over the night of their stay. Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) is an ageing authoritarian and the band's conductor, Khaled (Saleh Bakri) a young Casanova type who plays violin but prefers the trumpet, and Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) is the dry-witted proprietress of the cafe who forms a kind of friendship with Tewfiq.

Khaled is taken to the best available entertainment for young people in the town, a roller disco where in a bladder-threateningly funny scene the visitor teaches his host how to approach girls, and they both conspicuously fail to roller skate. Dina takes Tewfiq to the equivalent for older people, a restaurant and supermarket, and later the park, much of the amenity of which is imaginary. Other members of the band have dinner with a local family and bond tentatively over jazz. There are visual jokes that resemble fragments of Tati, and plenty of humour in the dialogue, which mostly uses English as a lingua franca, with occasional discursions into Hebrew and Arabic to let hosts and guests communicate directly, aside from each other.

'The Band's Visit' never quite mentions the situation, the context - it's assumed that the viewer will know enough about this to hear all the resonances, feel some of the awkwardnesses for the characters. One of the band discreetly places his cap over the picture of a 1967 era tank hanging above his table in the cafe; Dina recalls a time when the streets in Israeli towns would clear as the population would watch the Friday afternoon Arab movie on television, though without elaborating on why this scheduling fell from popularity. Yet if we thought the two nations were thoroughly amicable neighbours the body of this film would be much the same, discords among hosts and band respectively, affinities and shared hopes and experiences discovered by the two groups together. There's something perfectly rueful and tender about Tewfiq and Dina's conversations. It's a film about small-town life, music, people who are different and the same.
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The Band's Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret), Dir: Eran Kolirin (2007)


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