Not-So-Mellow Melodramas. Films Reviewed: Une Chambre en Ville, Byzantium
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Melodrama has a bad rep: corny, overacted, fake-y, too emotional… People think of swooning and fainting women batting their eyelashes. These stories are not hip enough, and cynical viewers feel obliged to roll their eyes in disgust. But they’re wrong. A good melodrama, done right, can be moving, exciting and memorable. So this week I’m looking at two women-centred melodramatic movies. One’s a classic look back to love and loss in postwar France in the 1950’s; the other’s a contemporary look at some women holed up in a ramshackle hotel who may have been alive in the 18th century.
Dir: Jacques Demy
It’s 1955, in the French industrial city of Nantes. Francois (Richard Berry) is a tool-and-die maker who rents a room – the chamber en ville mentioned in the title. It’s in the home of a stuck-up, but faded, bourgeois widow (Danielle Darieux). Francois calls her the Baroness. Her husband, a Colonel, died in Indochina – France’s Vietnam war — so she needs a tenant to help pay her bills.
Meanwhile, the Baroness’s daughter Edith (Dominique Sanda) is married to a much older man Edmond (Michel Picolli). He’s pulling in the francs, hand over fist, selling these new things called TV sets to eager buyers. She likes the mink coats he buys her but he’s a dud in bed. Edith’s a sexual animal who turns for sex outside their marriage. Edmond is intensely jealous and prone to threatening her with a straight razor.
Well, somehow, Edith and Francois meet and sparks fly. They end up sleeping together, anonymously, with neither knowing their connection: that he actually lives with her mother in Edith’s old room! But what are the consequences of their newfiound connection?
But wait — there’s more! I should mention that, while it’s not exactly a musical, the entire movie is sung… sort of like the libretto in an opera. Listen. (on MP3: Francois and Violette having an argument)
This is all set against a background of a city strike, with the strikers and protesters standing on one side of the main street, and the riot police facing them, shouting orders just outside Francois’s window. In scenes that look uncannily like a Delacroix painting (or anything from Les Miserables) you have strikers waving red flags as they march by the barricades for the ultimate confrontation.
This is a really good movie, with shocking plot turns, secrets and retribution. It’s seldom seen – it’s been a few decades since last shown in Toronto – and this is a new colour print. Jacques Demy (he was married to director Agnes Varda, and died in 1990) is a director who deserves to be seen by more people. Although he’s better known for his song-and-dance musicals in the 60s, in films like Les demoiselles de Rochefort, Une Chambre en Ville shows a lesser-known side of his work.
Dir: Neil Jordan
Eleanor and Clara (Saorise Ronan and Gemma Arterton) are two young women who share a council flat. Porcelain-featured Eleanor is an innocent-seeming teenaged schoolgirl. She likes sitting in a garret dropping her scribbled writing out the window. Clara wears scarlet lipstick and is tough as nails, and works as a prostitute to support them. It’s the classic dual stereotypes of women: the virgin and the whore. They’re forced to flee the city, leaving dead bodies in their wake, when they’re discovered by some mysterious detectives. They end up in a remote coastal town, bunking down in a seedy, rundown hotel called the Byzantium. (More flocked wallpaper and fringed lampshades than you can shake a stick at.) Clara smells cash to be made and immediately sets up a brothel while Eleanor wistfully plays the piano. But all is not what it appears to be.
Eleanor is convinced she’s immortal, over 200 years old. She’ll tell you her story if you want to listen. And she’ll suck your blood afterwards — consensually, of course, and only if you’re ready to die. She has no fangs, just a sharp fingernail, but she’s still pretty vampiric.
Then Eleanor meets an anaemic, ginger-haired boy named Frank (played by the leonine Caleb Landry Jones). He loves her music and wants to hear her life story. Through a series of flashbacks she tells her story: her time in an orphanage, her rescue, a horrific incident that changed her life… and the part Clara played in all of this. Will Frank believe her stories? Will the two women outrun their dark stalkers? And what is the real story of Clara and Eleanor’s relationship?
Byzantium is a beautifully-shot, dark gothic drama. It alternates between historical drama, roiling romance, and contemporary sexual noir. It looks like that, too, with scenes of Spartan orphanages and horses on the beach sharing screentime with heavy industrial hallways and endless tunnels to nowhere. I was expecting a sequel to Neil Jordan’s painfully awful Interview with a Vampire (starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise) from a few years ago, but this one is much, much better.
Byzantium opens today, and Une Chambre en Ville is playing on July 15th at 6:30 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, as part of Bitter/Sweet, the amazing Jacques Demy retrospective. Also opening today is the absolutely fantastic Danish drama The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg. It’s about a divorced small town teacher (Mads Mikkelson) who wants to take his son for his ritual coming-of-age hunting trip, but finds himself the object of a different kind of hunt when he is accused of an unspeakable crime. I reviewed this during TIFF last fall, and it’s finally being released – fantastic movie!
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com