Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Film Fest III

Uncompleted Song
I wouldn't have attended this French slacker hip-hop film except that I had volunteered to be an usher and was assigned to it, but in the end I enjoyed it quite a bit. The two costars, Orelsan and Gringe, evidently have a large following in Europe, and Orelsan has even been compared stylistically to Eminem, but as far as I know, they aren't well-known on this side of the Atlantic. In any case, the film is a loose collection of episodes chronicling (guest what!) a few days in the lives of two hip-hop artists who are on the verge of being dumped by their producers because they haven't finished a song in five years.

Orelsan is a middle-class youth, thirty years old, who holds a job as the night manager of a local hotel. Gringe doesn't seem to do anything much except a) visit the hookers who turn their tricks in vans in an abandoned parking lot down by the river and b) compose multi-page text messages to young women he's never met. The duo performs hip-hop regularly on a live radio station, but otherwise they mostly just hang out together, get drunk, or go to the mall.

When the two artists are given an ultimatum by their producers—finish a song by tomorrow or you're out—it keys up their aimlessness slightly, and forces them, as they wander the city trying to come up with some good lyrics, to question whether they're really on the right path. But the existential dimension of the situation is hardly new to them.

What makes the film not only palatable but often very funny is that although the lyrics to the songs are often obscene, Orelsan comes across as a sweet, generally sincere and clueless kid who's determined, above all else, not to slide into the comfortable but numbing bourgeois lifestyle that his parents and his girlfriend envision for him. Both he and Gringe, despite their ridiculous stage names, seem artlessly "real" in a way that has more in common stylistically with Jim Jarmusch's low octane Stranger Than Paradise than with the more manic productions of Judd Apatow.

The film also benefits from a bouncy hip-hop soundtrack, and a few zany montage sequences ala A Hard Day's Night.

Orelson himself was present at the screening, and afterward he fielded questions about translating hip-hop jokes into English and directing a film where most of the "actors" weren't actors at all but personal friends. I ran into him in the hall later and asked him how he liked Minneapolis. "It's cool," he said. "It's nice to get away from New York and see the country. Tomorrow I think I'll just wander around downtown."

Always the booster, I said, "You ought to go down Hennepin and check out the Uptown neighborhood. It's a little more youth-oriented. There's a beautiful chain of lakes. Take a bus..."

"Or a tax-EE," he replied in his French-inflected English.

Strange to say, I ran into Orelsan again the next day as Hilary and I were leaving the theater in the rain following a Holocaust film called Aida's Secrets. He was alone, sans rain gear, heading for the second showing of his new film.

"Are you enjoying the city?" I asked.

"Yes, very much. I went down this morning and  jogged around the lake. Very beautiful."

The Distinguished Citizen

The citizen in question, Daniel Mantovani, has had a successful career in Europe writing novels based in Salas, the small Argentine town where he grew up, but the awards he's won, including eventually the Nobel Prize, seem to have stifled his creativity. He hasn't written a word of fiction in five years, and spends most of his time deflecting honorary degrees and invitations to speak in front of prestigious organizations. But when he receives a note from the mayor of Salas, which he hasn't been back to since he left forty years ago, he decides to accept, almost on the spur of the moment.

The residents of Salas are thrilled to have a Nobel laureate in their midst, and they've arranged for Mantovani to participate in a full slate of events including a local art competition, a fireman's parade, and the unveiling of a statue in the town park. Mantovani naturally runs into several friends from his youth, including his old girl friend, Irene, and his old friend Antonio, who married Irene after Mantovani left town.

There are plenty of opportunities for comedy as Mantovani politely endures the well meant but often tasteless or incipit gestures of hospitality that are thrown his way during the four-day visit. Oscar Martinez won the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for his deft portrayal of the worldly-wise sophisticate ingratiating himself good-humoredly with a succession of public functionaries, shopkeepers, and ranchers, many of whom have special favors to ask. To take a single example, Mantovani is invited to appear on a local TV show, where the host feeds him one or two lackluster questions and then bursts into a lengthy pitch for the locally produced fruit soda.

But Mantovani has always been a fiercely independent soul, and he can't help rubbing some of the citizens of Salas the wrong way. Meanwhile, the hospitality that Antonio offers to his old friend—a lavish dinner, a trip to the bar, and even a wild boar hunt—carries an aggressive tinge, as if he considers Mantovani's presence a threat to the stability of his marriage. 

It's obvious that Ramiro, the hotel clerk, and Julia, the young woman who all but throws herself at the distinguished citizen, are bright, literate individuals who are perhaps just waiting for their chance to flee Salas the way Mantovani did decades ago. 

As for his old flame Irene, it might have been worthwhile getting to know her better. She seems to be the only one who still connects with Mantovani on a personal level. When she describes her life as "pleasant" he chides her good-naturedly for her bad choice of adjective. When he refers to her work with children condescendingly as "service," he's trying to be appreciative but she's offended. Later, when he describes her house as "beautiful," she scoffs at the unimaginative word choice.

 "Return journeys" have been a fertile source of humor and drama from Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood to Fellini's Amarcord and even Charlize Theron's Young Adult.  Here director Gastón Dupra has chosen to paint on a broad canvas while following a relatively narrow arc from comedy to menace without lingering overmuch in the space between. It's a compelling portrait all the same, rich in incidental detail while also offering plenty of food for thought regarding the primal sources of creativity. 

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