Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 14, 2012 10:19 pm 
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Funny boys

In The Giants/Les géants, an alternately hilarious and dark little French language tour de force from Belgium, two brothers, Seth (Martin Nissen), 15, and Zak (Zacharie Chasseriaud), 13¾, are abandoned for the summer by their mother in the home of their deceased grandfather. They run out of money and have to live by their wits. They team up with Danny (Paul Bartel), another 15-year-old, for a mixed bag of adventures, including renting the house to a drug dealer and various rides in stolen vehicles, fun, drollery, and some hard knocks. These are filmed sometimes with astonishing realism, sometimes arch caricature. There is a lighthearted sense of fun, but also sad, lost moments, discomfort, and black humor. Lanners' direction of the boys is brilliant and they seem remarkably authentic, though never far from a laugh. Martin Nissen, as Seth, has a deadpan manner that works particularly well. The few adults who enter the scene tend to be a bit more broadly drawn. Boeuf (Didier Toupy), the drug dealer, is rather louche, with rolling eyes and a twitchy face, and Danny's violent brother, Angel (Karim Leklou), who beats him, has one foot in a horror movie. Lanners likes rolling landscapes with feathery grass, which add a pictorial quality, as if this concrete naughtiness was too good to be true and was all happening in a fantasy dreamland. This is a celebration of every boy's dream to be on his own, to go on a fun escape with his best pals. It's Stand by Me meets Mark Twain with a dash of Ken Loach. Or maybe it's just about the mood of early adolescence.

Mark Twain is in the ascendant for sure at one late late point. The trio have all bleached their hair and gotten sick after a drunken night in a posh summer house. Their granddad's house has been emptied out and taken over by the drug dealer Boeuf in exchange for a pittance. And low and behold, they head down river in a rowboat and take up residence in a Huck Finn cabin on the water. That leads to disaster and retreat and later a return to the water. It's not an easy journey. When last seen the trio are in a boat again, lighting out for the territory. A defiant gesture on Zak's part suggests he and his brother and their new friend have decided to be permanently on their own. Lanners typically keeps reminding us that the world is often a sad place where people will cheat you and beat you up, especially if you are just a kid. This is standard, but still strong, coming of age stuff. But how the hard times could be permanent for these middle-class boys accustomed to well stocked kitchens and frozen pizza is a little hard to see.

Some of the scenes, like the ones early on with Seth driving a stolen car through a field, ending in a cool shot/reverse shot sequence spotlighting Danny's evil brother, are very nicely filmed and edited. There is real pro work here. However structurally the film is loosely episodic, not to say aimless, reflecting how lost the boys are in the larger world and how vague their aims are. Not only is there no established goal on the boys' part than to stay amused and escape getting caught. Seth and Zak's awareness (and ours) of the why and their how and the what of their being abandoned by their mother is never undefined. Is it just Zak's paranoid fantasy? We have nothing to go on but a broken-off cell phone conversation early on in which we don't hear mom's side, and later a call he refuses to answer.

If you relax and go with the flow there are some moments of chemistry and hilarity that are delightful, and maybe that's enough. The boys are great, their naturalness and interactions lovely. Despite the dark humor, Lanners' fantasy doesn't cut down all the way to the sadness, lostness, and desolation around the corner for these boys if they're really as abandoned and goofy as they seem. The lack of a distinctive story line means there's no real emotional hook. This might have some links with Stand by Me, but it hasn't the solemn theme or writing and acting of the same caliber. The Beligian's approach is more wispy and light. I thought of Shane Meadows, but Lanners lacks Meadows' sweetness and intensity. He is better at capturing shifting moods -- and at visuals, especially landscapes -- than at telling a story. The rotund, bearded director is primarily an artist and an actor with 56 credits. This is his fifth film and third feature.

The Giants debuted at Cannes and was at the BFI London festival and various smaller ones. It opened commercially in Belgium, France and the Netherlands late last year. France it got a fair critical reception (Allociné 3.1). Screened as part of the San Francisco Internatinoal Film Festival, where it will be shown at these times and locations in April 2012:

Fri, Apr 20 6:15 pm
Sat, Apr 21 4:45 pm

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