Underrated Dramas: France

Introduction

Recently I decided to partake in another great theme going on at Rupert Pupkin Speaks. The last list I did there was for the Underrated Comedies series. As I anticipated, there was far more competition among movies I like to make the dramas list than the comedies list. So much so that I decided to post ancillary lists here before the big list debuts there. I wasn’t able to get all the contenders onto these lists but I was able to feature the most competitive regions (foreign films were one of my main foci). This is my first list.

Underrated Dramas: France

One criteria that I tried to hold steadfastly to when creating the list submitted to Rupert Pupkin Speaks was that I wanted to avoid including “big directors.” Essentially, I wanted to try and find as obscured a film as possible that doesn’t deserve that fate. Hence, if a director is known the world over by his last name alone long after he has passed such title was usually omitted. One such director (François Truffaut) finds his way onto this list because of how staggeringly great I find one of his titles to be, how simultaneously like and unlike the rest of his works it is. Aside from that the rest of the list I think adheres fairly close to what I set out to do. There is one title that dabbles in myriad genre I feel and I’ll discuss it below.

La gloire de mon père/Le château de ma mère (My Father’s Glory/My Mother’s Castle) (1990)

My Mother's Castle (1990, Gaumont)

The way I figure it if you’re going to fudge selections, or it can be claimed that you are, you may as well start at the top. When I had these films listed I knew it’d be impossible to break them up. While you can watch one without the other, they are truly companion pieces. Here Yves Robert lovingly adapts the novels by Marcel Pagnol of simple childhood idyll in Provence roundabout the turn of the century. It’s not a wonder the series of novels is entitled “memories of childhood,” there is that reflective, glorified tinge to the most commonplace occurrence that makes the films radiate with warmth. With each title focusing more on one parent it really is impossible to pick one over the other for a list though I am inclined to say I like the former more. However, they ought to be viewed in the order listed above.

8 Femmes (8 Women) (2002)

8 Women (2002, Canal +)

Here’s another case where I can be said to be shoehorning a selection. Ultimately, these are some of the reasons these titles didn’t make the final list, but they are worthy of their attention here. It can be said that 8 Women plays in a number of genres: it’s unquestionably a musical, it’s also quite comedic, but there is a murder mystery aspect to much of it that brings skeletons out of everyone’s closet making it play out like a chamber drama in its straight moments. One way in which it qualifies as underrated is that while it certainly racked up many honors like 12 César nominations, it had no wins there; and while I lost my nomination records from 2003, I know it was much nominated there and only won one award (Best Song). It’s fairly different in some regards from Ozon’s other films, but in others quite similar, and definitely worth checking out.

Le Grand Chemin (The Grand Highway) (1987)

Le Grand Chemin (1987, Miramax)

As I have a tendency to do, some films will be references multiple times on this site. This is one of them. Having already written extensively, albeit in-depth, about this film in a series of posts (starting here); I’ll only add here, in very non-spoiler ways, that this film portrays three people in flux (a couple and a child), treats them with respect, as equal persons going through similar things at different stages of their life. This film also had the misfortune of being the subject of a watered-down American remake, which means the original deserves to have attention drawn to it.

La chambre verte (The Green Room) (1978)

The Green Room (1978, Les Films du Carrosse)

Here’s Truffaut’s selection on this list. I griped in the past about how this should be on DVD and was glad when it was, but I don’t necessarily think its profile has been elevated to where it should be. I’m rounding out my Truffaut filmography, but if you watch a few of his movies you very quickly get a sense for his milieu and his wheelhouse. That’s why it’s so brilliant to see him take an essentially Bergmanesque character who is preoccupied with death, portray him himself and also put his warm, humanist spin on it. For further thoughts you van visit the link above.

Mauvaises Frequentations (Bad Company )(1999)

Bad Company (1999, Pyramide)

If you become a fan of a particular foreign-bron actor, as I am of Robinson Stévenin, you may find their filmography sporadically available in the US. Every once in a while I’ve played catch up on his works. However, this film is much more than a personal showcase. It’s a disturbing and gritty tale of obsession, lust and greed that was one of the best films I saw in 2001, when it made its way here.

Make Your Own Film Festival: Pick an Actor

Much in the way computers, be them Apple or PC, can liberate you from zone restrictions for a country-specific film festival the same can be true if you’re building a festival around an actor and they happen to be a foreign performer.

The focus of this film festival, which will serve as an example, is Robinson Stévenin. Acting, it would seem, has always been in Robinson’s blood. He is the son of the well-known French actor Jean-François Stévenin, who is perhaps best known for playing the role of François Truffaut’s Assistant Director in the film about filmmaking Day for Night.

His breakout role was in the film Bad Company (Mauvaises frequentations) where he played a young man who so enraptured his girlfriend she agreed to start an ad hoc prostitution ring with him. It’s a truly effective and great film that a one-line synopsis does not do justice to. For this role Robinson was nominated for a César Award (France’s Equivalent to the Oscar) as Most Promising Actor. He would go on to capture that award two years later for his role in Transfixed (Mauvais genres), which featured in this festival.

The Children’s Revolt

His first recognition came for his role in The Children’s Revolt a film about a rebellion in a children’s penal colony in the 19th century. Although he is by no means the lead in this film his performance, as the so-called Lil’ Shaver (Rase-Motte), he is such a standout as a precocious, funny, eloquent kid that he not only receives a favorable quote on the DVD cover but also captured Best Actor at the Paris Film Festival in 1992. What’s more impressive is that he seems to be playing a lot younger than he is in this part, and his scene with the Countess is most definitely one of the highlights of the film.

La Petit Lili

This is quite an interesting film and a great role for him. The film co-stars Ludivine Sagnier, known from Swimming Pool and Peter Pan, as his girlfriend and muse who stars in a short film he makes. He screens it for friends and family and it does not go as swimmingly as he hoped and in essence it starts snowballing in a way that will affect everyone. The characters retire to their separate quarters and start re-examining their lives. In this part he manages to portray the dichotomy of sensitive, brooding artist and also the malcontent who flies off the handle when hearing something he does not like. Yet his anger is justified at times and he handles intellectual dialogue with tremendous effect. He manages to turn the bitter petulant teenager into a character who is not reviled but can be an identifiable protagonist.

Transfixed 


As mentioned above this is the role that won Robinson the César as Most Promising Actor. It is inordinately rare to see an actor completely and totally change his persona and not just his appearance. In this film Robinson plays a transsexual prostitute embroiled in the middle of a whodunit it in Brussels. He is completely and utterly transformed and plays the part to a tee. You are never truly left watching a performance but a character. For whatever is lacking in the plot the performance more than makes up for it.

Mon Colonel

Yet another face of Stévenin – here he plays a soldier serving under a totalitarian Colonel in Algeria. Through his diary he reveals the details of his tour of duty and these pages are slowly delivered to the military assisting the police in the investigation of the Colonel’s murder many years later. Here Stévenin can be seen as a duty-bound man with a conscience who is still a bit of an idealist, but slowly loses some faith but struggles to do what is right and not always just follow orders. It is a tremendous piece of work, and the fact that it is shot in black and white shows the timelessness of his star-quality.