La Fille du Rer: film of connections that doesn’t quite connect

Andre Techine, “La fille du RER (The Girl on the Train)”, Strand Releasing (2009)

Not a bad drama but I couldn’t quite see the point of making a film based on a real-life incident in 2004 in which a young woman falsely claimed to have been attacked by a group of Muslim youths who’d mistaken her for a Jew, without exploring the incident and some of its aspects in some detail. You’d expect the director and scriptwriter to look at the woman’s motives and psychological background, see if there’s anything unusual or “out of the ordinary” like a history of mental illness or childhood sexual abuse that would indicate a need for attention, a cry for help, an attempt to connect with others. Instead Techine delivers a combination of a soap opera and a coming-of-age story about two families who have a past secret connection. The theme underlying the plot is connection: how people make their way in life through connecting to others through love, travel, media and even incidents that throw particular people together. The acting ranges from competent to good but some fine actors have little more than walk-on parts that don’t require their particular presence or talents.

The movie divides roughly in two parts. In the first part, Jeanne Fabre (Emilie Dequenne) lives a carefree life at home with mum Louise (Catherine Deneuve), rollerblading along the streets and trying to apply for secretarial jobs: one such job is at the law firm of Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a former friend of Louise’s husband and possibly her secret lover. Jeanne flubs her interview and application for that job so she goes home; on her way back, she meets a young man, Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who gets her email address. Over time a relationship develops between them and she eventually moves in with him into an apartment over a shop he looks after. One day an incident at the shop lands Franck in hospital and Jeanne in trouble with the police who tell her that the shop was a front for a drug-running operation. Jeanne is cleared of wrong-doing but when she sees Franck in hospital, he tells her he knew she lied to him about having a job when she didn’t and rejects her. Dejected and upset, Jeanne goes home, mutilates herself and then goes out into the night.

The second part of the movie focusses more on Samuel Bleistein’s quarrelling son (Mathieu Demy) and daughter-in-law (Ronit Elkabetz) as they prepare for their son Nathan’s upcoming bar mitzvah. In the meantime, Jeanne reports her faked anti-Jewish attack to the police and the supposed incident makes news headlines. Louise hears of the attack on the news and confronts her daughter who reacts with apathy. Louise contacts Samuel for advice and he invites her and Jeanne to stay with his family at their weekend home. Here Jeanne meets Nathan who convinces her to tell the truth while both are sheltering in a little shack during a night-time storm. Jeanne owns up to Bleistein who directs her to write an apology. When Jeanne and Louise return home, Jeanne turns herself in to police and spends 48 hours in a jail cell. Later she is required to attend psychiatric therapy and when we last see her, she is rollerblading in the countryside and thinking about a recent letter from Nathan, who has just celebrated his bar mitzvah with both his parents, grandfather Bleistein and relatives and friends. In the letter, Nathan professes a growing affection for Jeanne and wishes to see her again when they are older.

Fair enough, the “actual” faked attack is a very minor part of the movie so there’s no need to actually see Jeanne report it to police – it’s explained in voice-over. The film doesn’t go into much detail on the consequences of the faked attack and the effect it has on Louise and Samuel Bleistein and whether they will see each other again after the events covered in the movie are over. We learn nothing of what Nathan’s parents think of Jeanne and how their opinion affects Nathan’s burgeoning feelings for Jeanne. Why he feels the way he does towards her is rather strange: he sees through her lies so he seems a good judge of character for one so young, yet he’s falling in love with her? The film’s treatment of Jews’ place in French society and the tensions between and among different groups within a multicultural, multireligious society still governed by traditional French social and political hierarchical structures (and what these say about broader social connections), is superficial to the point of non-existent. I start to wonder what the film is really trying to say.

The acting is fine: Dequenne has a difficult role to play, a shallow immature young woman who has little appreciation of the impact her lies have on people and who probably learns nothing from the experience, but she’s credible in the part and that’s all that can be expected; and Blanc and Deneuve are good in their supporting roles. Deneuve’s acting can be subtle, particularly in a scene where she nervously waits for Blanc’s character and then decides not to meet him directly, and it seems a shame Techine doesn’t focus more on their characters’ secret history and relationship and where that might go. But this isn’t their movie after all. Demy and Elkabetz’s characters provide some light relief as an estranged warring couple who reconcile, temporarily anyway, for their son’s sake but I feel that any particular set of actors whether good or bad could have played their roles. My impression of Elkabetz from seeing her in the Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” is that she is a very good lead actress and could have played a bigger part here other than just being a mother, wife and law firm employee.

For those viewers wondering if there’ll be a sequel where Louise and Samuel Bleistein meet again and decide to make their relationship less secret or more permanent, real life has provided a postscript to prod Techine if he runs out of ideas for films: in Marseilles in April 2007, nearly three years after the hoax incident that inspired the movie, a young woman really was set upon by two men of Middle Eastern appearance who noticed her Jewish chai necklace and cut her hair, slashed her T-shirt and drew swastikas on her bare chest, in a way similar to the hoax incident. Life keeps on imitating art deliberately, it seems.

Let Me In: Reeves “lets the right one in” to smother his version’s potential

Matt Reeves, “Let Me In”, Hammer Films / Overture Films (2010)

Once upon a time about 25 years ago in a small town somewhere in Reagan-era America, there was a lonely 12 year old boy called Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) living in an apartment block with his mom. Mom had just broken up with Owen’s Dad and was trying to cope with the trials of being a single parent in that particular historical period by imbibing equal and large amounts of alcohol and religion. Owen had problems too: his parents were too wrapped up in their issues and inability to cope, shouting at each other over the phone; everyone else in the block kept to themselves; and at school, there were these teenage bullies, Kenny (Dylan Minnette) and his friends, all older than Owen, who bothered the other kids some but reserved their bile for Owen, on one occasion nearly raping him, and most of the time mocking him about being a little girl.

Little girl? One night Owen sees new neighbours – a girl his age and her Dad – moving into the apartment next door to his. Over the next several days – or nights, rather – Owen gets acquainted with this girl, Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz), and though at first they don’t want to be friends – Abby actually warns him off, and he thinks she smells bad – they each discover they have lots in common: they’re lonely outsiders and they need an ally to cope with modern life. So Owen helps Abby adjust to her new life in town and Abby advises owen on how to deal with Kenny and his pals.

Meanwhile the town – Los Alamos, by the way – is hit by a series of gruesome murders in which victims get strung up on trees and poles and drained of their blood by a serial killer so the local police detective (Elias Koteas) investigates and links the murders to Abby’s “Dad” (Richard Jenkins) who winds up in hospital with injuries sustained in a car crash and his face disfigured by acid. The police officer tries to interview the patient but gets called away to the phone by the ward sister; while the fellow’s gone, Abby visits “Dad” through the window, he offers his neck as apology for his recent failures, she drinks his blood and he falls to his death ten storeys down.

Yes, by now you’ve guessed: “Let Me In” is the American version of the Swedish movie “Let the Right One In” and in parts is a remake of the latter movie. Not surprising really, seeing that it’s based on both the novel and the Swedish screenplay, both written by John Ajvide Lindquist. You’d think the US movie would benefit from the best of both worlds, the direct and the indirect approaches, along with some original American touches and details. The result though is a movie that is both weaker and more powerful than its Swedish predecessor: the weakest parts are where it copies the Swedish movie scene for scene, shot for shot, or waters it or the novel down; the strongest parts are the original ideas that are absent from the Swedish film and novel.

There are two themes present that could have lifted “Let Me In” to greatness beyond the Swedish film: to take the first, the relationship between Owen and Abby is more heartfelt and emotional than what Oskar and Eli had; and Abby, at once more girly and more obviously feral than Eli, appears a more complex character than Eli which adds poignancy to Owen’s dilemma when he realises too late that she’s a vampire. Early scenes between Abby and her “Dad” suggest she’s a bully too and a photograph of them that Owen sees suggests she’s been using her “Dad” since he was a young boy. Unfortunately Reeves doesn’t pursue the suggestion of Abby as both sweetheart and cruel mistress hard to the very end so the film’s coda, which could have been the film’s real climax, powerful and ambiguous yet “true” to the novel and the film – Owen only needs to fish out that photo of Abby and “Dad” after tapping out Morse code on the box where Abby’s hiding and start crying – remains an enervated imitation of the Swedish film’s feel-good fairy-tale ending.

The second theme not present in “Let the Right One In” (novel and film) is the notion of escape: Los Alamos seems an uninteresting, generic American small-town where locals apparently care little about its history as a centre of nuclear energy and weapons research and development, and Owen tells Abby that he plans on leaving the place forever one day. If Reeves only realised what a goldmine this is, he would have made Abby the one chance Owen has of escaping to a richer, more fulfilling world, and so Owen’s dilemma of whether to stay with a dangerous friend or not becomes more multi-layered. We would also have seen the attraction Abby held for her “Dad”, holding out a similar promise of freedom. The train trip Owen and Abby take at the film’s end would become a flight to freedom. The escape theme is a distinctively American culture motif and it is hard to understand why Reeves doesn’t make anything much out of it.

Child actors Smit-McPhee and Moretz are excellent in their roles – Smit-McPhee in particular reveals considerable emotional depth in what must be his first lead role. Moretz balances the light and dark aspects of her role well but rather than just being resigned to a monotonous salty liquid diet, she could have been directed to feel conflicted about what she has to do to stay alive, maybe even dislike the taste of blood. The adult characters are under-developed but three should have stood out, even as one-dimensional stock figures: Koteas’s prying police officer should have been a framing device for the whole film right to the very end – the novel itself has such a character – and perhaps he would have provided an objective viewpoint on everything that happens and some comment on the nature of US small-town society and how it deals with violence, crime and social problems. The other two potential stand-out characters are Owen’s apartment block neighbours Virginia and Larry: a couple of early unspoken scenes with them, perhaps detailing their fighting and making up while Owen spies on them with his telescope, could have established them as a counterpoint to Owen’s battling parents. Larry could have provided fodder for Abby as his Swedish twin Lacke did for Eli, freeing the police officer (spoiler alert) to investigate the strange incidents at the swimming pool centre and deal with a missing child report, as in the novel.

Ah yeah, the climactic swimming pool showdown: Reeves relies heavily on the Swedish film for inspiration, using Owen’s viewpoint underwater, and this is a big mistake. For thugs such as Kenny and Co, the way that Reeves deals with them is unsatisfactory, given that this is a Hammer film where subtlety is a foreign concept and we’ve already seen Abby get stuck into several previous victims. I’m of the view that the audience should see Abby rip into the boys with suitable amounts of relish, gore and violence without Reeves’s jumpy cuts and quick edits: this would have been a cathartic moment, good for the audience if too good for the bullies themselves.

Ultimately in trying to make a film that meets the cool Europeam sensibility of “Let the Right One In” and at the same time fulfil commercial expectations and values, Reeves loses the chance to make a great film with a distinctive style, informed by layers of myths and history of midwestern Americana, and melding horror and violence with loss of childhood innocence and the minutiae of everyday life. In its own way “Let Me In” could have been a comment on American social conditions of the 1980’s, some of which still exist today.

Let the Right One In: first, the Swedish version is allowed in

Tomas Alfredsson, “Let the Right One In” (2008)

Often when a novel is translated to the screen, the result is a superficial imitation of the printed word: the novel has an extra aspect or sub-plot that can’t be translated successfully to screen. In the case of the vampire novel “Let the Right One In”, about 30% of the book didn’t make it to film and I’m happy that it didn’t because most of what John Ajvide Lindquist left out – he wrote the screenplay based on his novel – is a trashy, gory sub-plot in which a minor character becomes a rampaging zombie. Stripped of this sub-plot and with another sub-plot considerably trimmed down, the movie becomes a concentrated and subtle investigation of pre-adolescent angst and alienation within the vampire horror sub-genre.

The plot revolves around a young boy, Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), bullied at school by his class-mates and unwilling to fight back yet seething with inner rage at his tormenters: in the evenings when he’s home from school, he reads up on serial killers and broods over his knife collection. He and his mother live in a dreary set of flats in a generic suburb of Stockholm. One night, two new people move in next door to their unit. These mysterious new neighbours keep to themselves: they don’t even change the window blinds every morning and every evening, let alone meet and greet the other tenants.

Until one evening when Oskar is loitering in the playground: one of the two new people, Eli (Linda Leandersson), a girl about his age, joins him on the playground equipment. Strangely, though snow is all around them and the temperature must be below zero Centigrade, Eli is very lightly dressed. Although she advises Oskar that they can’t be friends, over several similar evening meetings they bond and form a friendship of sorts. In the meantime, Eli’s companion Hakan (Per Ragnar) tries to obtain blood for Eli -yep, she’s a bloodsucker – he manages to kill someone but is interrupted while trying to milk the corpse for blood and he is forced to flee. Eli later has to kill a man Jocke (Mikael Rohm) for blood and this sets up a sub-plot about Jocke’s friends who meet regularly at a pub.

As the movie progresses, Oskar and Eli become closer and eventually Eli starts offering advice to Oskar on how to deal with the bullies. Oskar starts working out at the local sports centre and takes up swimming lessons, eventually becoming confident enough to fight back when the bullies start abusing him again. He also discovers Eli’s true nature in scenes that can be very shocking, one of which provides the title to both the movie and the novel. The bullies aren’t happy with Oskar sticking up for himself so they lift their taunting to a more dangerous level by recruiting an older boy and plotting to lure Oskar into a trap at the swimming centre where he trains.

Meanwhile the pathetically tragicomic Hakan continues searching for more victims but ends up having to mutilate himself to avoid identification; he ends up in hospital where Eli later finds him and he ends up falling to his death. At this point the movie and the novel diverge with the novel diving into the zombie sub-plot and criss-crossing from that to Oskar and Eli’s relationship and the other sub-plot about Jocke’s friends.

Filmed mostly in a town in northern Sweden, the movie features beautiful and sometimes bright snowy landscapes which contrast sharply with the bleak lives of many characters in the movie: the minimal furnishings and buildings beloved of Ikea brochures and magazine articles on Scandinavian design and architecture look dull and banal in many scenes, and Jocke’s friends are revealed as struggling working-class people who’ve had more than their fair share of setbacks, desperation, hard times and plain bad luck. The acting comes over as minimal or matter-of-fact so that when gory or shocking events occur, they seem so much more extreme, particularly in the climactic swimming-pool scene which for many viewers will sum up everything about the movie’s style: at once sparing and restrained on the surface yet on further reflection, layered with meaning and open to many interpretations. The scene itself is set up to look beautiful, even poetic, so the sudden violence that enters is a real eye-opening shock. The camera then pans around the swimming pool in silence to reveal a boy sobbing quietly among various dismembered and bloodied remains. The equally dialogue-free denouement which follows – Oskar is travelling alone on a country train with no attendants – looks like a fantasy scene and I can well agree with one interpretation of this scene that Oskar may have actually died and is on his way to Heaven with Eli being his one faithful link back on Earth.

I can’t find much to fault about the film: the main criticism I have is that the sub-plot revolving around Jocke’s friends treats them as diversions from the main plot and could have made more of the anguish one friend feels when she discovers she has become a vampire and must decide whether to live or die. Otherwise there’s much to commend this film to the general audience and film students alike. The camerawork, using a track-mounted dolly and a fixed camera with no reliance on handheld cameras, is steady and calm and enables the use of wide tracking shots that reinforce a particular mood or emphasise an important moment or event in the plot. Such shots add to the mystery and apparent complexity of the film’s plot and themes. Hedebrant and Leanderssen work well together as Oskar and Eli and are convincing in the way they gradually build up their friendship and look out for each other despite the danger Eli must pose to Oskar. The use of voice-over and special effects for Eli’s character to demonstrate that the character is otherworldly is very subtle and believable in a world that’s otherwise bleak and mundane.

Above all, the use of the vampire horror movie sub-genre to explore subject matter that otherwise might not attract audience attention – bullying, family breakdown, pedophilia, surviving in a world that grinds you down and where your choice of friends might literally be a matter of life or death – is an original idea that has potential to reinvigorate the sub-genre itself with new life. Oskar, if he is in Heaven, would be pretty happy at that news.

The Runaways: Cherie Bomb turns out to be a fizzler

This homage to the 1970s all-female hard rock band The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways, Apparition / Sony Pictures Entertainment 2010) had a lot of advance publicity due in part to the casting of US child stars Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart as two of the band’s members, lead singer Cherie Currie and rhythm guitarist Joan Jett respectively. Internet and print reviews of the movie ranged from high praise to extreme dismissiveness so I was curious to see what the fuss was about. My interest isn’t entirely academic as I had heard of The Runaways in my childhood way back when thirty years ago and later on was glad to hear that Joan Jett and another former member, lead guitarist Lita Ford, had carved out their own successful solo careers in different music genres.

Anyway as it turns out, some of the praise and some of the criticism are justified: the acting from the two female leads Fanning and Stewart and from Michael Shannon who plays the sleazebucket manager Kim Fowley is good with Stewart all but disappearing in Jett with Jett’s swagger, mannerisms and way of speaking; but the narrative and concept of the movie are very confused and don’t seem to be well thought or worked out at all. Liberties must have been taken with the movie’s narrative as though to force it into the Hollywood rock’n’roll plot stereotype of an innocent stumbling into becoming a rock star and being seduced by the rock’n’roll lifestyle, suffering its consequences, crashing out and finding rebirth and redemption in something very different. (The plot of the movie Rockstar which starred Mark Wahlberg as a fictional pretender who becomes the lead singer of the heavy metal band he idolises is of this type.) I can understand the film’s focus on Currie and Jett to the extent that the other band members become mere walking wallpaper as it is mostly based on Currie’s autobiography Neon Angels: A Memoir of a Runaway and the film-makers didn’t get full permission from other former Runaways members to include their accounts – the bass player in the movie is a fictional construct of several bassists who played for the band – but I’d have thought that The Runaways’ history, short as it was, would have had enough drama and tragedy for a movie that could have said something significant about the period when music moved from glam rock to punk and new wave, and about how the music industry and the media at the time exploited bands and musicians for celebrity and scandal, sometimes damaging the artists along the way, and whether much has changed in the commercial music industry since that time.

If you know nothing about The Runaways’ history, you’d do better reading Currie’s autobiography or seeing Edgeplay: A Film about The Runaways, the documentary by Victory Tischler-Blue who was one of many bassists the band chewed through during its existence, than to rely on the movie: it’s a little slow on getting Jett and drummer Sandy West together, then the history lesson picks up whiz-bang speed after Currie joins and all of a sudden the band is touring Japan. Somewhere in between Currie’s audition and the girls’ adventures in Japan, they had to squeeze in a tour of the United States, a tour of the UK and recording two albums and all this must have flashed by me in the time my eyes blinked. After Currie quits the band during recording sessions for the third album, all further mention of The Runaways disappears and it’s now just Currie and Jett without her band going their separate ways. Jett cleans up her life and finds her niche in music while Currie ends up a bored shop assistant waiting for an acting break. Some redemption.

Perhaps if the movie had focussed more on Jett as the primary character than on Currie, we might have had a stronger and more complete story of The Runaways’ rise and fall. As it is, the movie tells us nothing about Jett’s  background and her motivations and reasons for forming an all-girl band; we only know from Stewart’s portrayal that she hungers for acceptance but on her own terms and that she is driven by forces she may not understand. The role could easily have been one-dimensional with Jett nothing more than a tough-talking wannabe rocker so it’s to Stewart’s credit that she makes Jett at least look as if she has thoughts and feelings she has trouble expressing. As Jett in real life stayed with The Runaways to the end, having Jett as its main focus would push the movie through the band’s dumping of manager Fowley and the disputes over musical direction that eventually led to The Runaways’ break-up; but I guess all these incidents wouldn’t have made for “compelling” viewing. At least though we would have had a “happy” ending with Jett getting the acceptance she craves in the way she wants and can control. Fanning as Currie emphasises the singer’s fragility but not much of the sassy sex-kitten insolence Currie must have had to wear the corset and suspenders that became her trademark stage costume long before Madonna and her ilk had the idea of wearing their underwear as overwear.

Mention should be made of the minor actors Scout Taylor Compton who does a competent job as Lita Ford in her few scenes – what she does hardly flatters Ford but she makes her presence felt as a guitarist and a forceful personality – and first-time actress Riley Keough who as Cherie Currie’s sister must cope with their parents’ break-up and divorce, their father’s alcoholic depression and the tedium of working in a fast-food joint while envying Cherie’s seemingly good fortune. Keough underplays her role and holds up well in scenes that are heavy in sibling jealousy and emotional tension and turmoil; she has good
potential as an actress if she chooses her roles wisely and I wish her better luck in this regard than what her grandfather Elvis Presley had as an actor.

As for the music, there’s not much of The Runaways’ original material featured here with only ‘Cherry Bomb’ performed in full by the actors during the Japanese episode and snippets of ‘Queens of Noise’ and ‘I Wanna Be Where The Boys Are’ appearing elsewhere. Other musicians of the period (Suzy Quatro, Gary Glitter, Iggy Pop among others) can be heard which strikes me as a little strange: why do so many biopics about bands feature everybody else’s music but not much music of the band that is the subject of the biopic?

The Runaways might not have been a very good band or as influential on later generations of female musicians and performers as the hype surrounding the movie makes them out to be but they deserve a better movie treatment than what director and screenplay writer Floria Sigismondi has given them here. Admittedly this is Sigismondi’s first effort as a movie director and writer after having directed music videos so I presume she’s learning a lot in leaps and bounds the hard way: making mistakes, overlooking things and being told so endlessly by critics. The visual aspect is good with the choice of a grainy film that makes bright colours slightly acid and dark colours murky and through these effects you get some idea of the surreal world Fowley plunges the girls into. These days it seems that there are so many people moving from making music videos into directing movies that such a career move is becoming the standard way of getting into the movie-making business. Unfortunately a lot of the filming techniques and methods that work in music videos don’t always work quite so well in movies, especially in movies made for mass  entertainment: these still need a strong narrative and memorable characters.