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Mid-December Movies

Synonyms (France/Israel/Germany 2019
This very strange film from Israeli writer-director Nadav Lapid, supposedly semi-autobiographical (and dedicated to his mother as editor), was awarded the best film “golden bear” at the Berlin film festival but will probably only appeal to a hardcore arthouse crowd.  The central character is a young Israeli man Yoav (Tom Mercier) who flees to a wintry Paris as if to erase his previous identity. With belongings stolen and left naked in an empty freezing apartment, he is rescued and befriended by a young couple Emile (Quentin Dolmaire) and Caroline (Louise Chevilotte).  Yoav refuses to speak Hebrew and carries a French dictionary, obsessively talking to himself in synonyms (hence the title).  He survives on an ultra-cheap subsistence diet.  (Yet somehow Yoav stays in physical shape. There’s a fair amount of male nudity and a pornographic “modeling” scene with a photographer.)  A security job at the Israeli embassy ends badly.  As Yoav struggles to become French there are suggestions of rejection of his upbringing and of post-traumatic stress disorder from his Israeli military service. Yoav seems to be in the throes of some primal existential crisis or psychic breakdown punctuated by manic outbursts. After Caroline seduces him there is even talk of marriage so that he can become a French citizen.  But that also provokes more aggression. It’s another bizarre twist among many disorienting elements as Yoav searches to find his place.  It comes as no surprise that he never does.  The last (metaphorical?) image is of Yoav furiously banging on a closed door.   Be prepared for a transgressive viewing experience if you open the door to it.  C+
Belle Epoque (France 2019)
This frothy drama by writer-director Nicolas Bedos which premiered at the Cannes festival benefits from the performances of veteran actors, notably Daniel Auteuil as Victor, a cranky aging technophobe no longer employed as a newspaper cartoonist.  There’s also Fanny Ardant as Marianne, his psychologist wife of many years who’s not only cheating on him with his old boss but kicks him out of the matrimonial home.  Victor’s son sets him up with a “Time Travelers” fantasy video operation run by Antoine (noted actor/director Guillaume Canet) for wealthy clients.  Antoine and his team stage elaborate escapist re-enactments going back in time.  Victor’s indulgent nostalgic splurge is to recreate a scene in Lyon 1974 at a café/bar “La Belle Epoque” where he met Marianne and their story began.  Enjoying reliving his younger self, Victor becomes entranced by Margot (Doria Tillier), the actress playing Marianne. That leads to complications since Margot is in a fraught lovers’ relationship with Antoine who, although he walks with a limp using a crutch as support, is apparently a tiger in bed.  The film veers between a comedy of manners between the sexes and fanciful layers of artifice that verge on the absurd.  Replaying the past as comforting illusion adds up to a modestly amusing farce.  B
Atlantics (France/Senegal/Belgium 2019)
Now streaming on Netflix, this is another drama inhabiting strange territory that received a major award—the “grand prix” (effectively second prize) in the Cannes film festival competition. The debut feature from French Senegalese director Mati Diop is set in Senegal’s capital city of Dakar where outraged workers on a modernist highrise tower are demanding months of unpaid wages.  One of them is Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) who is loved by a young woman Ada (Mame Sane).  However Ada’s Muslim family has arranged for her to be married to Omar, a rich businessman who spends much of his time abroad. Ada feels nothing for the life of luxury he offers. Worse, Souleiman leaves without a farewell as he and frustrated fellow workers take to the sea in a rickety boat (“pirogue”) on the dangerous attempt to reach Spain like so many African migrants before them. A presumption that they have been lost at sea leaves Ada emotionally at sea.  Then incidents of arson at Omar’s mansion and other occurrences suggest the possibility of Souleiman’s return.  Or it could be the spirits of the dead who are back for justice—some of these lost souls appearing through a group of young women who act like a Greek chorus of lamentation and reproof.  The Atlantic on which Dakar lies beckons with the perilous possibilities of escape.  From the injustice of the young lovers’ Souleiman and Ada’s social situation the story’s turn toward the surreal and supernatural suggests a persistent dream to break from those confines and to find a better life beyond.  B
Drawing on a 2016 New York Times exposé by Nathaniel Rich, Todd Hynes directs this earnest account of aggrieved citizens taking on a giant multinational corporation, in this case DuPont which knowingly created new synthetic chemical compounds that proved to have toxic effects. It started decades ago when an angry farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) from Parkersburg, West Virginia suspected that his cows were being poisoned by runoff from a DuPont waste dump near a creek on his farm.  A family connection led him to seek the help of lawyer Rob Billot (environmental activist Mark Ruffalo, also a producer). Billot seemed an unlikely choice as he was a partner in a Cincinnati firm that usually defended corporate clients in such cases.  But after being convinced, Billot was determined to pursue the facts.  The new chemical (“PFOA” or “C8”) was used to make Teflon among other applications, and DuPont’s own studies showed it was unsafe despite the company’s public reassurances to the community in which it was a major employer. 
Although Billot’s dogged pursuit, verging on obsession, created frictions, as the evidence of corporate malfeasance mounted (also the subject of a 2018 documentary The Devil We Know) he was supported by his boss (played by Tim Robbins).  A huge 7-year long scientific study of the Parkersburg population provided proof of the serious health effects from contamination.  Although DuPont then refused to settle a class action suit, Billot had success seeking settlements for individual clients. Synthetic substances like that used in Teflon are called “forever” chemicals because they do not break down naturally (and can now be found in the blood of almost all living creatures).        This may not be the most thrilling dramatic treatment but gets full marks for effort in bringing an important story to wider attention. B+       
Assholes: A Theory (Canada 2019
I went to see this on the recommendation of my brother and was an audience of one at the discount theatre chain where it played in Ottawa.  A National Film Board and Documentary Channel coproduction directed and narrated by John Walker, it’s more than just an amusing riff on the common vulgar putdown.  The source material is the eponymous 2012 book by University of California philosopher Aaron James who is among the serious academics interviewed.  Another commentator is the comic actor John Cleese of Monty Python fame.  There are varieties of “assholery” but all have in common an inconsiderate attitude of entitled egotism. It’s debatable whether this has become epidemic but it’s not hard to find examples, especially among narcissistic powerful men.  The prime political example cited is Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. (There’s only passing reference to the current occupant of the White House, a clear notorious case, though a subsequent 2016 book by James makes explicit this application of his theory).  Our social media and public discourse would no doubt benefit from fewer examples (see, for example, this cautionary advice to Canada’s political class:   The film should be coming to television broadcast and is worth catching if/when it does.  B+
One Child Nation  (US 2019
Since winning a grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival this excellent documentary exploring Communist China’s one-child policy has received numerous other awards. It’s co-directed by Nanfu Wang who moved to the U.S. in her 20s.  In assessing Chinese attitudes and social impacts she adds a personal lens by returning to her own native Jiangxi province, speaking to members of affected generations including within her own family. She feels fortunate to have a younger brother as a result of an exception in the policy.  Intended to curb overpopulation, in effect from 1979 to 2015, the one-child limit was heavily propagandized and strictly enforced through a Party hierarchy of control down to the village level. Punishments for failure to comply could include homes being destroyed. Women were subjected to forced abortions and sterilization. Unwanted newborns, especially girls, were abandoned and  many didn’t survive.  Some were sold to orphanages for the international adoption trade.  These are just some of the disturbing consequences observed. Given China’s aging population, the policy has been relaxed to fit current circumstances to increase the birth rate. At the same time the film makes a powerful statement about what happens when population policy is determined by a totalitarian state that eliminates individual rights.  Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.  A


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