Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 15, 2017 3:51 pm 
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Wonderful music, teamwork, blah plot

In 1943 the great gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt left Paris and, after months of waiting in Thonon-les-Bains, fled to Switzerland to escape the German massacres of his people who, along with Jews, homosexuals, and communists, were targeted for extermination by the Nazis. This is the moment French director Étienne Comar chooses to focus on in this atmospheric, beautiful, but unfortunately rather flat film, which comes out 25 Apr. 2017 in France. It debuted at the Berlinale 9 February and opens Lincoln Center and UniFrance's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 1 March. This film nicely showcases Django's music, including a lost suite for orchestra, organ, and chorus composed while in flight and a Paris theater concert of Django and the Jazz Hot Quintet recreated by the Rosenberg Trio, Warren Ellis. The filmmakers deserve much credit for letting the music breathe in a few extended sessions rather than the usual tiny cli[ps. The movie also is valuable for the information it conveys about the persecution of the Roma people. And it's an unusual lead role for the inconspicuous French-Arab actor Reda Kateb, who's played in excellent films like Zero Dark Thirty and (most notably) Audiard's great A Prophet, but is rarely noticed, especially outside of France.

There is much here to show what exceptional chops Reda Ketem has. He not only looks and acts the part but gives an effortlessly convincing impression of Django's lightening fingers on the guitar and speaks the Roma language. But despite a vivid mise-en-scène (complete with period Roma encampments) and a good cast - including Cécile de France as an ambiguous femme fatale, a Django fan and a bit more (her hair big and wavy as in her "The Young Pope" HBO TV series performance for Paolo Sorrentino), we seem to spend too much of the movie just waiting for something to happen. And when it finally does, it lacks drama because it's masked by an unmemorable decadent-Nazis partying sequence. And then, in this oddly paced scenario, we're immediately zipped forward to 1945, when Django's safely back in Paris, the War over, conducting his suite (or a recreation of it). We're left with the memory of those toe-tapping, head-bobbing Jazz Hot sessions.

Maybe writer-producer Étienne Comar, who scripted for this directing debut, is better at static situations, which is where he excelled in writing the screenplay for Xavier Beauvois' Cannes Grand Prix-winning 2010 film Of Gods and Men/Des hommes et des dieux about a group of monks menaced by terrorists trying to decide what to do. Django also begins with a kind of stagnation. Django is an enormously admired musician in Paris and around the world, when we meet him, who's been joined by Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins; you name it. So the fact he's from a group classified as "degenerate" by the Occupation seems not to matter - till it's gradually clear that the culturally sophisticated Nazis aren't ultimately the ones in control, but the racists and exterminators.

Perhaps the film's highpoint is its recreation of the Quintette du Hot Club de France theatrical performance, with the group cooking non-stop on stage and the audience smoking, jiving, finally standing up and dancing in the theater. Details of the group's makeup aren't much detailed. Instead we see how boorish and domineering the German officers are when they tell Django how he must play at an upcoming tour of Germany, for which he's to be highly paid. Django, whose proclivity for drink and fishing have been roughed in when he's first seen prior to the concert, is contemptuous, and simply says he won't go or ever play for the Krauts. But Louise de Klerk (Cécile de France) and others warn him that he can neither go - he'd never come back - nor simply refuse to go: the moment has come to go into hiding. And so reluctantly he does sneak off to Thonon, with his pregnant wife Naguine (Beata Palya) and colorful mother Négros (Bimbam Merstein), for what will be a boring and drawn-out period of waiting, shifting residences, and performing incognito to pay expenses.

Here, despite initially arousing hope with its musicality and its fluent sense of period, the film founders, and we realize that, outside of the toe-tapping concert sessions, it never did really have a sense of rhythm. There are several more of those, all good, and Django connects with his local Roma comrades. And there's a complicated and cooked-up Hitchcockian-cum-Inglourious Basterds plot that neither gels nor convinces. All the fun little details just ultimately seem like only an excuse to glue together the musical sessions, and we can't help wishing for more of those and less ho-hum plotting. Kateb always quietly shines, as he might better have done in a movie with more charisma. Props to dp Christophe Beaucarne for the film's handsome gloss and to production designer Olivier Radot for its quietly authentic settings. I love it when the old cars in a period movie don't look like they just came out of a museum or collector's garage but have some rickety patina, as here. The purely musical parts of this film deserve to be anthologized and re-watched.

Django, 117 mins., debuted at Berlin 9 Feb. 2017 as the opening film. Screened for this review as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema where it is the Opening Night film 1 March. French theatrical release 25 April 2017.

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