Saints, Sinners, Soldiers, and Slackers

What to watch this week: "Saint Omer," "All Quiet on the Western Front," and "The Art of Not Giving a F*ck."

Saints, Sinners, Soldiers, and Slackers

One happy result of the (relative) increase in women directors over the last few years – or, to be precise, in more women-directed films being greenlit, produced, and released – is a groundswell of stories about daughters and mothers. Some are light (“Lady Bird”), some are dark (“The Lost Daughter”), some are elegiac and otherworldly (“The Eternal Daughter,” “Petite Maman”), and almost all are spectacularly nuanced about the emotional terrain of motherhood and daughterhood – the traumas and comforts, the deep connections and maddening anxieties that come with no other relationships. (Not that I know about it firsthand, but I have been a close observer over the decades, and, anyway, this is what Roger Ebert meant when he called the cinema “an empathy machine” – a device that graciously allows us to see through the eyes of others.)

Alice Diop’s “Saint Omer” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, in theaters) is one of the most profound movies yet on the subject, and the miracle is that, on the surface, it’s a straightforward, at times drily prosaic courtroom drama – an attempt by a French jury and judge to understand why a woman left her 15-month-old daughter to drown on a beach. The accomplishment is even more remarkable: Diop – a French documentarian of Senegalese heritage making her first fictional feature – interweaves issues of race, nationality, class, and gender into a gripping and seamless dramatic whole. The accused, a young woman named Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda, above), is a Senegalese immigrant student who became involved with an older white man (Luc Domontet) and sank into a post-partum depression. The judge (Valérie Dréville) and the defense barrister (Aurélia Petit) are sympathetic, curious, and white; the prosecution (Robert Cantarella) is theatrically outraged and white. Among the few Black faces in the courtroom are the accused’s uncomprehending mother (Salimata Kamate) – and Rama (Kayije Kagame), a literature professor and writer who, like Laurence, is West African and French-educated, who also has a white partner (a sweet-hearted bear played by Thomas de Pourquery) and a fraught relationship with her own mother. Who herself is newly pregnant and terrified at the prospect. Rama is in the court as an onlooker, but we can see the questions and fears jangling around in her head. What if she ends up just like her mother? What if she ends up like Laurence?

“Saint Omer” works on both an emotional and an intellectual level, the here and now and the mythic – not for nothing does Rama find herself watching Pasolini’s 1969 “Medea,” with Maria Callas in the lead, on her laptop. And while Diop never lets us forget that this is a case of infanticide (and one based on a real case, with a real victim), she slowly widens the film’s scope of inquiry and its measure of sorrow from the personal through the racial and into a nearly existential contemplation of womanhood. There’s a moment – silent, but it’s the movie’s climax – where two pairs of eyes meet in that courtroom, and your hair may stand on end as you witness a stare that’s both an accusation and a consolation, a warning and an embrace of sisterhood. A stunning movie and  belated addition to my Best of 2022 list, “Saint Omer” is playing in limited theatrical release, but I’ll let you know when it comes to VOD.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, streaming on Netflix) is a hard, epic, honest (re)filming of the classic Erich Maria Remarque novel of World War I – a cry of despair at the idiocy of men and governments and therefore never out of date. A German production, directed and co-written by Edward Berger, it’s obviously more realistic in matters of wartime carnage than the 1930 Lewis Milestone version (and the 1979 TV movie with Richard Thomas as young Paul Bäumer and Ernest Borgnine as his grizzled trench mentor “Kat” Katczinsky). Felix Kammerer is a believably shell-shocked Paul in the new production, and there’s a new subplot about an exhausted German official (Daniel Brühl of “Rush”) presenting an armistice proposal to a scornful Marshall Foch (Thibault de Montalembert) – I’m not sure why it’s there other than that the filmmakers must have figured we needed a break from the constant barrage of cannonfire and exploding bodies. As always, the centerpiece is the quiet, terrible scene in No Man’s Land as Paul stabs a French soldier (Radik Brodil) and then sits by him in a bomb crater for the long hours of the man’s death – a tableau out of Beckett at his grimmest. Remarque wrote his novel hoping it would be the last word on war; for anyone who has never seen a war movie, maybe this should be their first.

On a radically different subject, I took a look at “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” (⭐ ⭐, available for VOD rental at Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, and elsewhere), an upbeat documentary based on Mark Manson’s best-selling self-help book because – well, because the title caught my eye as it probably caught yours, and I’m always curious about the slim genre of self-help movie adaptations. How are you going to turn an exhortation directed at a single reader into an entertainment for a general audience? Turn it into a comedy, like Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex”? Turn it into a romcom à la “He’s Just Not That Into You”? Play it goopy and straight? (Ladies and gentlemen, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”)

Director Nathan Price’s approach is to sit author Mason down in what looks like a darkened afternoon bar and essentially talk his book at us, abetted by a lot of dramatic reenactments and spiffy animation. No experts, no talking heads, no statistics. Just Mark Manson and his genial brand of Bro Buddhism – I’m not sure if he knows it’s Buddhism, but it is – in which the governing assumption is that life sucks because we always want more and the best way out of that box is to realize there’s nothing all that special about you (or me) (or your mom) (all right, maybe not your mom) and that the f*cks you should not be giving is for all those illusions of status and security and stuff and maybe the f*cks you should be giving are for the experiences and people that truly mean something to you. Which is really just the Buddhist “Five Remembrances” – You’re going to die someday, get over it, all that matters are your actions in this world – in a Hawaiian shirt.

Coincidentally (or is it?), a new book has just come out, called “The Good Life,” which analyzes the data from the longest longitudinal health study ever undertaken, starting with 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938 and greatly expanding over the years. The book concludes that the secret to longevity and good health is … relationships. Lots of them. Intimate and casual; with your nearest and dearest and with your mailman, too. One of the book’s co-authors and a director of the Harvard study is Dr. Bob Waldinger, who coincidentally (or is it?) moonlights as an ordained Zen priest and helps run my local meditation group, the Henry David Thoreau Sangha, a.k.a. “Hank.” Roshi Bob’s been hitting the promotional hustings since the book came out – here he is last week surfing the congenial vapidity of “The Today Show” – and watching “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” it occurred to me that Mason’s movie was selling the same message as the book, just at a sonic pitch that Millennials and their younger siblings would be able to hear. I guess if they need their Zen with a shot on the side, fine – whatever it takes.

Some quick recommendations:Fire of Love (***1/2), the jaw-dropping 2022 documentary about a married pair of volcanologists who loved lava as much as they loved each other, is now streaming (as it were) on Hulu and Disney+. Watch it with your current flame. On Turner Classics Saturday (1/15) is a nifty almost-double bill of Movies With a Color in Their Title About People Who Take Things Too Far: Powell and Pressburger’s Technicolor masterpiece The Red Shoes (1948) at noon – it’s one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies, and he wouldn’t steer you wrong – and Raoul Walsh’s amazingly Freudian gangster epic “White Heat” (1949) at 4:15 p.m., the movie in which Jimmy Cagney finally, literally explodes.

And, oh look, over on the Criterion Channel is a fantastic festival of early Mike Leigh movies, the satiric domestic comedies and tragedies the director made for the BBC before resurfacing in movie theaters in 1988 with “High Hopes.” Eight titles in all, and while I’ve heard good things about “Nuts in May” (1976) and “Abigail’s Party” (1977), the only one I’ve seen so far is “Grown-Ups” (1980), with a ridiculously young Lesley Manville (“Phantom Thread,” “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”) bedecked in tutti-frutti period eye makeup. I’m looking forward to spelunking through this catalogue, and so should you.  (The trailer below is for an earlier Criterion festival collecting some of Leigh’s later movies, but it’ll give you an idea of what to expect.)

One last thing: For all the high-minded folderol of the above, what have I been watching with my wife in the sacred space between dinner and bedtime? The just-dropped Season 3 of “All Creatures Great and Small” on PBS — irresistible Brit-porn comfort food for animal lovers and anyone who wants to flee the daily traumas of 2023 for a pre-war Yorkshire just this side of Teletubbyland.

Thoughts? Don’t hesitate to weigh in.

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