Three Unusual Films

Are you an adventurous movie viewer? Do you enjoy offbeat films? Here are three to try, all of which are available for download or online. I wouldn’t declare any of them masterpieces, but each is cut from a hard-to-sell bolt of fabric, which means they’re not what we see all the time.

A Girl Cut in Two (2007)
Directed by Claude Chabrol
Pan Europeene, 114 minutes, Not-rated (adult situations)
In French with subtitles

Claude Chabrol (1930-2010) was one of the last of the French New Wave directors. I doubt he’ll be remembered for La fille coupée en deux/A Girl Cut in Two, as structurally it’s one of the more conventional he ever made, but you will see echoes of the iconoclastic style of the New Wave. In particular, the New Wave wasn’t particularly interested in realism per se; more emphasis was placed on inner conflict and existential crises. This is important to remember, otherwise you might think Chabrol another Harvey Weinstein in his views of the distaff side.

Ludivine Sagnier stars as Gabrielle, the lovely young weather girl for a Lyons TV station. She is equal parts ambitious and naïve, the latter her Achilles heel. She becomes the simultaneous object of desire of Paul (Benoît Magimel), an overbearing son of privilege living off his private income, and Charles Saint-Denis (François Beléand), a famous writer. Paul has toys and money to burn in his pursuit of Gabrielle, he’s actually a shallow little shit. Though he’s much older, the sophisticated Charles is Gabrielle’s preferred sexual, intellectual, and psychological match. Three problems: He is married, has a kinky side, and also a track record of collecting then discarding young lovers–with the full knowledge and cooperation of his wife, Dona (Valeria Cavalli). Gabrielle is like a moth caught in a web with spiders converging on two sides.

This film takes a sanguinary turn evocative of Ragtime and contemporary “affluenza” cases. Some may bristle at Sagnier’s role as a girl trapped in a woman’s body–not to mention that her willingness to be demeaned for the right deal isn’t exactly feminism’s definition of women’s opportunity. Frankly, one wonders if any director would touch a script like this today. But think like a New Wave director. The film isn’t really a battle-of-the-sexes tale. It’s about hubris, with Gabrielle playing the part of Icarus in drag.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)
Directed by Joe Talbot
A24, 120 minutes, R (language, drugs, brief nudity)

This film was the darling of the 2019 Sundance festival and is the semi-autobiographical tale of director Joe Talbot’s friend, actor Jimmie Fails–emphasis on the term “semi.” It’s like a cross between Blindspotting and Downton Abbey and if that doesn’t pique your curiosity, nothing will!

It opens weird and stays there. We meet Jimmie and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors) waiting for a bus in the Hunters Point section of San Francisco that never comes, while a soapbox preacher raves about a conspiracy against black people. Jimmie and “Mont” are both well-spoken young men who mostly ignore the street corner trash talkers, though both are living with Mont’s blind grandfather (Danny Glover) and hope for a break. Jimmie’s dream keeps them both going. Whenever there’s no bus–Hunter’s Point is the area near where Candlestick Park used to be–they tandem ride Jimmie’s skateboard into the Fillmore section of the city where they maintain the exterior of a handsome Victorian home, despite the owners’ desire for them to go away. Jimmie can’t; he claims that his grandfather built it in 1947, but slipped out of black hands and into those of white gentrifiers. His dream is to one day reoccupy the family homestead.

As it happens, he and Mont will get such a chance. Imagine two young black men sitting in smoking jackets amidst Downton-like furnishings and befuddled white neighbors. Let me emphasize, though, that Fails and director Joe Talbot have not made a cheesy black kids-scare-the-white-bourgeois film. Nor are they simply messing with stereotypes by reversing customary black/white roles. The film is more serious and less obvious than that.

Actually, it’s often too layered for its own good. Talbot can’t quite decide if he’s making an idiosyncratic comedy, giving us a look at tragic black street life, engaging in a Spike Lee-like veiled rant, or appropriating white drama motifs. One can do all of these, of course, but it is a delicate balance and Talbot often totters. What this film does best is keep us continually off-guard and guessing about relationships, motivations, and expectations. Even the final scene is ambiguous–an ending, or a new beginning? This unorthodox film is akin to a grab bag filled with things both silly and sublime.   

The Man Without a Past  (2002)
Directed by Aki Kaurismäki
Bavaria Film Productions, 97 minutes, PG-13 (some violence)
In Finnish with English subtitles

I’ve saved the most peculiar film for last. There are a handful of directors–the Coen brothers, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, John Waters, Wes Anderson, Taika Waititi–whose movies are so singularly unconventional that even when they misfire, they intrigue. Add Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki to the list. It speaks volumes that The Man Without a Past is a favorite of Jim Jarmusch, the most outré director of our times. Think of it as a Finnish version of Mystery Train (in spirit, not content).

It’s often unclear in Man Without a Past whether it’s meant to be poignant or totally absurd. Spoiler alert: It’s both. A man arrives at the Helsinki train station at 4 am, makes his way to a park, falls asleep on a bench, and is violently robbed and beaten. He revives, but collapses in a rest room, is taken to a hospital, and is pronounced dead when his monitors flatline. Not quite! He again awakens and staggers away, only to collapse along the harbor in a section of the city so poor that folks are living in castoff cargo containers. He has no idea where he is, who he is, or why he’s in Helsinki.

This film is about outcasts, survivalists, indifferent bureaucrats, those who prey on the poor, and those who pray with them. Speaking of prayer, how about a romance between a hapless amnesiac and Irma (Kati Outinen) a female soldier in the Salvation Army? If that’s too plausible for you, how about Salvies’ musicians remade as a skiffle band? Our unknown principal (Markuu Peltola) adapts well to cargo container life and awkwardly pursues Irma, but he also endures one misadventure after another, each odder than the one before. Because he has no name or recoverable past, he stoically endures whatever comes his way.

Kaurismäki is absolutely Jarmusch-like in his approach. Reactions, conversation, and emotions are as sparse as the tundra and the pacing is deliberate. Stick with it. At first as it seems the film is going nowhere, bit it gets more absurd as it goes on. The humor is droll and dry. Its tone touching and sweet, but not of the sentimental fireworks-in-the-sky variety. By the time it ends, it’s a toss-up whether you’ve been in the presence of masked brilliance or advanced weirdness. But you’ll never again feel the same way about the Salvies.

Rob Weir

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