Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue May 25, 2021 4:28 pm 
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JEAN SOREL AND LOLITA CHAMMAH IN STRANGE BIRDS

Hiding out in the middle of Paris, joined by a provincial literary aspirant

Strange Birds has an elaborate festival blurb, which tells too much (for a blurb), but I'll quote it anyway, because I usually do that myself: "Mavie (Lolita Chammah) is 27 years old and has just moved to the French capital from the provinces. She dreams of a future as a writer but is plagued by doubt and uncertainty. 76-year-old misanthrope Georges (Jean Sorel) runs a bookshop in Paris – or has he merely been forced to take refuge there to escape his past? These are two peculiar creatures indeed. Georges is cynical and no longer expects much from life, while Mavie is still brimming with expectation. Yet something magical happens between them, until Georges’ dark secret suddenly catches up with him – and Mavie is caught up in something very different."

Overlooked in this description are the titular "strange birds" - seagulls who occasionally come crashing down onto the sidewalk, and the movie-magic way Mavie and Georges are set up. He puts up a notice in the neighborhood cafe she frequents, offering a studio apartment in exchange for some work. He owns the bookstore, which he wants her to help arrange, and an apartment in the same building. She comes to live there sooner than expected because her childhood friend already established in Paris, Félicia (Virginie Ledoyen of Ozon's 8 Women), on whose couch she's sleeping, is having constant noisy sex with a certain Miguel that drives her nuts, and then out.

The spoiler that blurb averts but I will not is that the mysterious Georges, so uninterested in the bookstore he owns, which has no customers and if any come he drives them out, is a fugitive from involvement in radical Italian politics.

This dark secret, once revealed to Mavie, stands for the magnitude of the long years that, to their mutual regret, separate her and Georges. Where does his money come from? We don't know. This is a mood piece, and the important thing is that Mavie comes from nowhere (Tours) and Georges is a mystery, and in their odd, indirect way they immediately like each other, as shown by her fascinated speculations in her daily journal read in voiceover and his instantly adopting the familiar "tu" form with her. Meanwhile the film is also a homage to Paris, whose gray glamour many shots celebrate too.

A favorable reviewer of the film (perhaps better called "Funny Birds" in English), Le Monde's film critic Jacques Mandelbaum, who rates it "worth seeing," also provides some background. He explains that the filmmaker, Élise Girard, is a rep of the legendary Action Cinemas (the Christine, the Grand Action and the Desperado) of the Latin Quarter, home of the (dwindling) tiny cinephile cinemas of the world's first and best movie town. Her first films were docs about these arcane ciné palaces. Her first feature was related to them. For this second one she has not strayed far afield: Georges' bookstore also is in the Quartier Latin, and this is a comedy drama with romance and adventure of a cinematic kind. Notre Dame is in sight.

Accordingly, Jean Sorel is a legendary actor, mainly in Italian films, born in 1934. Like an old style Hollywood god, at an advanced age he is still of fine bearing and handsome looks. In his days of lush youthfiul handsomeness he could be seen in Visconti's languid, sickly, gorgeously black and white Vaghe stelle dell'Orsa (known as Sandra now); later he was in Belle de Jour and The Day of the Jackal.

Likewise, the iris fade-ins and fade-outs, once down to Mavie's eye, another to her nose, are a self-consciously cinematic touch. Almost from another film is the moment when Mamie comes to the shop and finds Georges-Giorgio standing over a corpse, or someone nearly dead. How do they get rid of him? Georges is, typically, dismissive.

In its desultory way, the film drops one plot and starts another. After Georges really must disappear ("It's not so easy to hide anymore"), when a showing of Satyajit Ray's Charulata leaves Mavie weeping and she's supplied with a handkerchief by the fella sitting next to her in the empty red theater, she thereby meets a more age-appropriate not quite so much older man, Roman (Pascal Cervo), who's also an antinuclear activist, a cause she's drawn to, and adorable. But when we leave her she's thinking she may go back to Tours.

Those who take pleasure in this will 'o the wisp of a film, as do Le Monde's Mandelbaum and critics from some other major French publications, like the "gentle Parisian fantasy" - the views, the light, the near-empty streets of a magical Paris - with which dp Renato Berta surrounds the actors. The'll see why the Figaro critic calls it a "sensitive and refined romance" that makes Paris "that ville lumière again" (Télérama), with "a light and playful direction" (Le Nouvel Observateur. But it's as delicate as the Parisian spider Roman takes pains not to crush. If you get rough with it, it will vanish. "Droll" though it is, its characters and situations felt vaguely familiar to me. Its birds can't rival Hitchcock's, or the strange avian transformations of Pascale Ferran's Bird People; its dropping seagulls can't match the sheer chutzpah of the rain of frogs in Paul Thomas Anderson's great Magnolia. This is a more delicate talent than those.

Cowritten by Girard with Anne-Louise Trividic, who has collaborated with Patrice Chéreau (notably) and with Dominik Moll.

Strange Birds/Drôles d'oiseaux. 90 mins., debuted at the Berlinale Feb. 2017; Wrocław (Poland) Aug. 2017; Mill Valley Oct. 2017; TV release, Germany, Sept. 2020. Rated 3.5 (70%) by the critics according to AlloCiné; but the site's citizen raring was a mere 2.3 (46%). Screened online in coordination with its current (May 2021) exclusive availability on the streaming subscription service Film Movement Plus.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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