Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

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Submarine

Director Richard Ayoade  Stars Craig Roberts, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins, Noah Taylor    UK 2010 Language English 1hr 37mins Colour

A coming of age in South Wales through a nouvelle vague filter

 

Youth In Revolt

Director Miguel Arteta Stars Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Ray Liotta    USA 2009 Language English/French 1hr 30mins Colour

A would-be adolescent cult falls someway short

 

When I was 15 years old, Paris topped one of the many lists I kept in my mind. It shared with Houston and Cambridge the No1 spot of places I never wanted to visit again. To me, it was cold, wind-swept and rain-drenched, unfriendly, snobbish, deluded, food mostly terrible. The pavements were strewn with dogshit, the shop windows packed with bloody carcasses. To make it worse, after years of unhappy study, I could barely speak of a word of the language. Paris was a hell whose cinemas, I was sure, showed terrible films in which people wouldn’t shut up, pictures I had no intention of ever seeing.

This was a little inconvenient, because my parents had lived there in the 1960s and loved the place. We even had French relatives. So, on our way between great cities – London and Rome, London and Barcelona, we would stop off in the French capital, and I would manage to be even more titanically grumpy than I normally was in those days.

But my parents weren’t the only people who loved France. On the contrary, many, if not most, bookish middle and upper-middle class kids in Britain seemed to look across the Channel with envy. Camus! Gauloises! Runny cheese, which everyone knows is just so much more sophisticated than solid cheese! The dream of a tiny, endearingly squalid flat on the Left Bank, and endless erudite chat in cafés! Underlying all this was a conviction that over there lay an unashamed love of thinking and books and films and musicians unappreciated in the lands of their birth, not to mention both a greater instinct for the romantic and a refreshingly pragmatic approach to sex. Over here, so the claim went, the native population is clumsy and dull and uptight, while there they are chic and suave and have élan.

There were a few things from France I liked a lot – the books of Alexandre Dumas. And Asterix (of course).  A little later on, Françoise Hardy. And I liked Paris in American books and movies. But that wasn’t enough to moderate my fear of a country that apparently believed philosophy is fun, and yet whose kids – as encountered during holidays – seemed as ignorant and gawky and clueless as any other countries.

[Early 1990s, a road on the outskirts of Leeds. The car owned by my flatmate Jon has been stopped by the police. The officer wanted to know where we were coming from. The multiplex cinema, we explained. What had we been to see? With reckless honesty, somebody announced, ‘Cyrano de Bergerac.’ The policeman, who may or may not have had a deadpan sense of irony, said, ‘Cyrano de Bergerac? Was he some kind of poof?’]

Later on, when I was doing my MA, I hated the cultural cringe exhibited by British film critics of the 1960s, who sneered at films like A Taste Of Honey  as inferior copies of the nouvelle vague, while their academic counterparts were adopting a cravenly unquestioning approach to the deluge of theory that poured out of France from 1960s onwards, swathes of which seemed to me utter toss. By that time, I had seen some films that confirmed my worst suspicions about Gallic film-making. Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray and André Techiné’s J’embrasse Pas, for instance, are not only terrible, but terrible in a way only the French can manage.

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On the other hand, by then I had also discovered there are also endless terrific French movies*, just as there was a lot of other great 1960s and ’70s music beyond Hardy. Some of which is on the soundtrack to the American teen movie Youth In Revolt, including Jacques Dutronc’s awesome stomper Les Cactus. The hero of Youth In Revolt, Nick Twisp (Michael Cera) isn’t that keen on French things either until he meets Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday), who has pictures of Jean-Paul Belmondo all over her room. In his attempt to find a way to be in the same zipcode as Sheeni, Nick surrenders his decision-making to his alter ego François Dillinger, who has a pencil moustache, a white belt that is barely wider and the recklessness of Belmondo in A Bout De Souffle and Pierrot Le Fou. Playing both Twisp and Dillinger is a chance for Michael Cera to show off his comedy skills, but like a much of this film, it never quite hits the target. Certainly Cera never gets near the greatness of his George-Michael Bluth in Arrested Development, and while the film has occasional smart moments, it’s nowhere near smart enough.

In Submarine, set in (unexpectedly cinematic) Swansea, it is Belmondo’s great rival and sometime co-star Alain Delon who stares down from the walls in a poster for his finest hour, Le Samourai. The film borrows the trademark typography and urgent blues, reds and yellows of Jean-Luc Godard’s early colour films, with a generous helping of both the mood and certain shots from François Truffaut’s first flicks, although those retro leanings also bring to mind the movies of Wes Anderson.

Once again, a precocious boy is stirred into action by a girl with trouble-making instincts. Yasmin Paige, who plays the pyromanical Jordana, is one of the two terrific things about this film, along with the cinematography, which makes South Wales look beautiful and mysterious.

The adults are well-cast, too, with Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor as Oliver’s unhappy parents and Paddy Considine as the new age charlatan threatening to pull the family apart (not exactly his finest hour, for reasons I can’t quite pin down).

But, although it is an admirable and technically impressive debut from Richard Ayoade**, it never really got under my skin. I didn’t care at all about the central character, Oliver. Maybe the problem is that Ayoade has learned too well from his heroes – Submarine has a little too much of the sullenness that lurks in Truffaut’s films. For teen Francophilia in the movies, I think you’re better off with Carey Mulligan in An Education or Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Better yet, for once skip the movies entirely and read Julian Barnes’ excellent Metroland. 

These days, I’ve mostly made my peace with the French. I even have fond memories of my last couple of visits to Paris, even though it’s still not really my kind of town, and I’m pretty sure the food*** and the language will always be beyond me. I don’t think that worries the Parisians greatly, somehow.

*Written about extensively elsewhere in this blog.

**Aka, ‘You know, the bloke from The IT Crowd, big hair, not the Irish one.’

***Although I assume you can get decent falafel there these days.

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