Review: ‘Black Box’ (2021), starring Pierre Niney, Lou de Laâge and André Dussollier

April 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pierre Niney in “Black Box” (Photo by Thibault Grabherr/Film Distrib US)

“Black Box” (2022)

Directed by Yann Gozlan

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Paris in 2020, the dramatic film “Black Box” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few people of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An employee for the BEA (the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety) does not agree that a plane crash that killed 300 people was caused by a terrorist, so he goes rogue with his own investigation. 

Culture Audience: “Black Box” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted thrillers about the aviation industry.

Pierre Niney and Lou de Laâge in “Black Box” (Photo by Thibault Grabherr/Film Distrib US/IcarusFilms)

“Black Box” is a taut and stylish thriller about the investigation into a plane crash that killed 300 people. The end of the movie has some improbable dramatics, but the movie’s acting and suspense make this story worth watching. “Black Box” also has excellent sound design, which is crucial to how people can be immersed in this particular film. Even though some of the plot’s twists and turns look like they could only be in a movie, “Black Box” does have an overall realistic narrative about about what can go on behind the scenes in finding out what happened in a such a tragic plane crash.

Directed by Yann Gozlan, “Black Box” takes place in Paris in 2020. Gozlan co-wrote the screenplay with Nicolas Bouvet-Levrard and Simon Moutairou. This fictional movie shows what happened before and after the plane crash of an Atrian 800 European 24 plane traveling from Dubai to Paris on October 8, 2020. The plane, which weighed 251 tons, was considered one of the top commercial aircrafts in the world, with no previous history of malfunctioning. The BEA (the French Bureau of Enquiry and Analysis for Civil Aviation Safety) is in charge of finding out what caused this plane crash.

BEA employee Mathieu Vasseur (played by Pierre Niney) is an audio analyst specialist, who often has to do analyses of cockpit voice recorders (CVRs), which are usually the best evidence of what the pilots experienced and said in the moments before the crash. A CVR has the nickname “black box,” because it was originally manufactured as a black box. Nowadays, a CVR is almost always orange, but the nickname “black box” continues to be used to describe it.

Mathieu, who is in his 30s, is very meticulous and has the reputation of being an audio nerd. His immediate supervisor is named Victor Pollack (played by Olivier Rabourdin), who knows Mathieu has nitpicky tendencies, which often get on Victor’s nerves. An early scene in the movie shows Mathieu and Victor doing an analysis of a helicopter crash, which was caught on video. The helicopter did not have a black box, but Victor determines that the cause of the crash was the helicopter had a faulty tail rotor.

Mathieu disagrees, and he tells Victor that they should do more investigating to be absolutely sure. However, Victor shuts down Mathieu questioning Victor’s decision. Victor asking Mathieu if he wants Balsan to take over the assignment. Viewers can easily figure out, even before Balsan (played by Guillaume Marquet) appears in the movie, that Balsan is a rival co-worker of Mathieu. Victor knows it, and he is using this rivalry to make Mathieu feel insecure.

And sure enough, when the news arrives about the Atrian 800 European 24 plane crash, Victor chooses Balsan, not Mathieu, to be a part of the investigation team. There’s not much Mathieu can do about it except complain to his understanding wife Noémie Vasseur (played by Lou de Laâge) in a phone conversation that he has with her in the BEA parking lot. While in the parking lot, Mathieu is walking and talking on the phone, when his hard plastic briefcase accidentally scratches the side of a parked car and causes minor but noticeable damage to the car.

Mathieu looks in the car and sees from the photo parking ID that it belongs to Victor. He also notices that the car has a surveillance camera next to the interior mirror. And the camera recorded Mathieu looking into the car. Mathieu doesn’t have time to worry about if his boss Victor will figure out that Mathieu was the one who scratched his car. However, this car surveillance camera becomes a crucial part of the story later.

Noémie is also in the aviation industry. She currently works at the Aeronautic and Space Safety Agency (ASSA), where she is on a committee that decides if France-based airplanes and other aircraft pass inspection and safety regulations. However, Noémie has already given ASSA notice that she is leaving ASSA to start a high-ranking executive job in the following month with Atrian, the airline company that owned the plane that crashed. Atrian’s CEO Claude Varins (played by Aurélien Recoing) personally recruited Noémie for the job.

Meanwhile, BEA launches its investigation into the plane crash. Victor, Balsan and other members of the investigation team have taken the CVR for initial analysis. Only a day or two into the investigation, Victor suddenly disappears. BEA chief Philippe Rénier (played by André Dussollier) isn’t too concerned at first, because he says it’s not unusual for Victor to go missing for a few days and then come back.

And so, with Victor gone and with Balsan busy with other things in the investigation, Philippe gives Mathieu the responsibility to lead the audio analysis of the CVR. It’s a major responsibility that Mathieu takes with the utmost of seriousness. During the analysis of the moments before the crash, he hears a man yell in Arabic: “Allahu Akbar!,” which essentially translates to “God is great!” in English.

Through more analysis, Mathieu comes to the conclusion that a male passenger, probably a terrorist, entered the cockpit while a flight attendant left the cockpit door open to deliver a meal to the two pilots. It’s soon reported on the TV news that a 26-year-old Egyptian named Moqtada Sualazi was a passenger on the plane. The TV news anchor says that “reliable sources” claim that this passenger was a radical Islamist.

The investigation is closed, with the crash blamed on a passenger who is suspected of being a terrorist who acted alone. Mathieu is praised as the hero of the investigation. However, when Mathieu goes back and listens to the CVR again, he notices that certain sound levels and frequencies are very mismatched in the recording. Mathieu asks BEA colleague named Samir Jellab (played by Mehdi Djaadi), who’s an expert on Atrian planes, for some information to help in the investigation. Mathieu starts to wonder if the CVR could have been tampered with and if his first conclusion was wrong.

Even though Mathieu knows it could hurt his credibility to put doubt on his own initial conclusion, he takes his concerns to Philippe, who dismisses Mathieu’s doubts. Philippe is also thinking of the BEA’s reputation, which he doesn’t want to be compromised with an embarrassing admission of an investigation mistake for this deadly plane crash. The BEA would also have to answer to the French government and the loved ones of the plane crash victims if the BEA made this huge error in the investigation.

With all of these things at stake, Mathieu takes a big risk to secretly launch his own investigation. His boss Victor has disappeared for enough days that Victor is declared a missing person. Why did Victor goes missing during this extremely important BEA investigation? Was his disappearance a coincidence?

The rest of “Black Box” shows what happens in Mathieu’s investigation, which ends up putting a strain on his happy marriage to Noémie. His investigation includes some illegal acts and a possible target on his back because he’s showing all the signs of being a whistleblower. One of the people whom Mathieu inevitably encounters is aeronautics executive Xavier Renaud (played by Sébastien Pouderoux), a recently appointed CEO of Pegase Security, a company that does civil aviation security for Atrian.

“Black Box” has several aspects that are commentaries on what airplane security officials are willing to cover up in order avoid scandals and keep their jobs. It’s not far-fetched at all, considering what’s been revealed about safety issues in Boeing plane crashes. The movie generally has good acting from the cast members, led by Niney as Mathieu. Niney gives a convincing performance as an earnest employee who is willing to do what it takes to get to the truth—even if it costs him his career, reputation or more.

The movie falters a bit when it comes to showing Mathieu as a one-man investigative juggernaut with some “too good to be true” coincidences and scenarios that help him in his cause. For example, there’s a scene where he dives into a large body of water and looks for something that he ends up finding, as if he’s suddenly a James Bond “superspy” type of character. There’s also something that happens with leaked confidential information. It would be too easy to figure out that only two people had access to the computer where this leaked information was sent. But in the movie, only one person gets the blame for it.

Despite these minor flaws in the screenplay, “Black Box” offers plenty of intrigue for people who like mysteries. Some of the plot twists are very easy to predict, while others are not as obvious. The movie wraps up in a very contrived way that seems a little too rushed. But by then, most viewers will feel invested enough in the characters and in a certain outcome. And that’s why the movie’s ending should satisfy people with those expectations.

Distrib Films US and Icarus Films released “Black Box” in New York City on April 29, 2022. The movie is set for release in the Los Angeles area on May 6, 2022, with more U.S. cities to follow. “Black Box” was released in Europe in 2021.

Review: ‘Benedetta,’ starring Virginie Efira, Charlotte Rampling, Daphne Patakia, Lambert Wilson and Olivier Rabourdin

February 5, 2022

by Carla Hay

Daphne Patakia and Virginie Efira in “Benedetta” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Benedetta”

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Culture Representation: Taking place in 17th century Italy, the dramatic film “Benedetta” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy who are connected in some way to the Roman Catholic Church.

Culture Clash: A nun, who claims to have visions of Jesus Christ visiting her, gets involved in a taboo sexual relationship with another woman living in the convent.

Culture Audience: “Benedetta” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies that have provocative but ultimately not very groundbreaking depictions of how religion and sex are handled by the Catholic Church.

Charlotte Rampling (pictured in front, at far left) in “Benedetta” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Benedetta” is not as subversive as perhaps the filmmakers want it to be, because this dramatic depiction of a true story is often campy and predictable. The intrigue is in the cast members’ performances, which are never boring. In its observations about religious hypocrisy and misogyny, “Benedetta” also strives to have more meaning than just being known as a “lesbian nun” movie. “Benedetta” (which also has the title of “Blessed Virgin,” depending on where the movie is released) had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and its North American premiere at the 2021 New York Film Festival.

Paul Verhoeven directed “Benedetta” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with David Birke. The movie, which takes place in 17th century Italy, is based on Judith C. Brown’s non-fiction book “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy.” That “lesbian nun” is Benedetta Carlini (played by Virginie Efira), who is eventually labeled as “insane” by church officials because of her adamant claims that Jesus Christ appears to her in visions. Benedetta also claims to have stigmata wounds, as proof that she communicates with Jesus. About the same time Benedetta has been branded as mentally ill, Benedetta is revealed to be having a sexual relationship with a nun-in-training who’s living in the same convent: Bartomolea (played by Daphne Patakia), who was the one who initiated the affair, according to how this movie depicts it.

“Benedetta” essentially leaves it open to interpretation if Benedetta would have been treated as harshly if there was no sexual activity in her scandal. Would she have been viewed as just a harmless oddball with an active imagination of communicating with Jesus Christ? The movie could also make people think about the implications of gender inequality: When a (male) Catholic priest is caught breaking the vows of celibacy, is the Catholic Church (and society in general) more likely to overlook it or be quicker to forgive a priest, compared to a (female) Catholic nun who does the same thing?

One point the movie definitely makes is that women can be just as misogynistic as men can be when it comes to judging other women. “Benedetta” predictably has a “battle-axe” villain nun named Sister Felicita, the Abbess (played by Charlotte Rampling), who is all too eager to get involved in the downfall of Benedetta, because Benedetta dared to question Sister Felicita’s authority. There are also obvious signs that Sister Felicita felt threatened that the younger and more physically attractive Benedetta would become more popular with the male clergy in charge of making decisions in the convent’s power structure.

Another antagonist to Benedetta is a nun named Sister Christina (played by Louise Chevillotte), who is the first person in the convent to find out about the secret affair between Bendetta and Bartomolea. And it happens around the time that Benedetta’s visions of Christ have made her a rising star at the convent. It all leads to a predictable showdown of back-and-forth accusations and female cattiness, presided over by an all-male group of Catholic Church officials who will decide who’s telling the truth and what will happen to Benedetta.

Two of the officials who will decide Benedetta’s fate are Alfonso Cecchi (played by Olivier Rabourdin) and the Nuncio (played by Lambert Wilson), who doesn’t have a first name in the movie. Alfonso, who has ambitions to become a bishop, is more inclined to believe Benedetta’s claims. The Nuncio, who acts as a government messenger/ambassador for the Pope, gives a lot of weight to the opinions of Sister Felicita, who wants to be his political ally. Even though the Nuncio has taken the vow of celibacy, there are hints that he has violated of that vow, such as having sex with prostitutes and getting his maid pregnant.

“Benedetta” takes perhaps a little too much time in the beginning of the movie to over-explain Benedetta’s restrictive childhood. The movie shows that Benedetta was a very devout Catholic who adhered to the tenets of the Catholic religion, but she was already claiming to have special communication with deities. One of the more interesting aspects of “Benedetta” is how it keeps viewers guessing over whether or not Benedetta was really a non-conformist “psychic,” a mentally ill eccentric, or a very skilled con artist.

At 12 or 13 years old, Benedetta (played by Elena Plonka) travels with her father Giuliano (played by David Clavel) and her mother Midea (played by Clotilde Courau) to the city of Pescia so that she can get her confirmation veil. On the way there, the family is stopped by some soldiers, who steal a necklace from the family. Benedetta scolds the soldiers that they will be punished by the Virgin Mary for this theft. And just like that, bird excrement lands on the face of the soldier who has the necklace, and he gives it back. It’s one of many campy moments in the movie.

Viewers soon find out that Benedetta’s parents have essentially sold her to a convent. Because a nun is considered a non-sexual “bride” of Jesus Christ, Giuliano wants to be a hardball negotiator with Sister Felicita for how much of a “dowry” he can get from the Catholic Church. Giuliano asks Sister Felicita: “Is the bride of Christ worth less than 100 [in currency]?”

Another campy moment arrives when an adolescent Benedetta (who is now living at the convent) begins praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary, which is wearing a veil that extends down to the Virgin Mary’s chest. Suddenly, the statue falls on Benedetta, and the statue’s veil comes off to expose the Virgin Mary’s naked breasts. Benedetta than starts sucking on the breasts. This movie is not subtle at all in telegraphing what will happen later in the story.

The movie then fast-forwards 18 years later. Benedetta is now a headstrong nun who often clashes with Sister Felicita. One day, a woman in her early 20s bursts into the convent because she is being chased by her abusive father (played by Frédéric Sauzay), who calls her a “harlot.” The frightened woman is Bartomolea, who will eventually become Benedetta’s lover.

Bartomolea begs to be taken into the convent, but an unsympathetic Sister Felicita says that Bartomolea can only stay if her father pays a dowry. Her father (who doesn’t have a name in the movie) reluctantly obliges. Bartomelea than begins to live in the convent as a novitiate. Bartomolea and Benedetta share the same bedroom space, where their beds are separated by a thin curtain.

At first, Benedetta treats the younger Bartomolea as somewhat of a friend/protégée. Bartomolea confides in Bendetta, by telling her that after Bartomolea’s mother died in an unnamed plague, Bartomolea’s father made Bartomolea become his “wife.” In other words, Bartomolea was the victim of incest rape. Having a domineering and controlling father who abandoned them in a convent is something that both Bartomolea and Benedetta have in common, so it seems to strengthen their bond that the two women start to develop with each other.

Bartomolea has not taken the vows of celibacy as a nun, so she’s not as invested as Benedetta is in abstaining from sex. Bartomolea also isn’t as timid as she first seemed when she arrived at the convent. It isn’t long before Bartomolea makes it known to Benedetta that she’s sexually attracted to Benedetta. Benedetta thinks it’s sinful for a nun to act on any sexual urges, so she resists Bartomolea’s sexual advances. Benedetta also tells Bartomolea that she has visions of Jesus Christ saying that it’s a mortal sin to break her vows.

Over time though, Benedetta’s visions change. In Benedetta’s new visions, Jesus Christ begins to tell her that the previous Jesus that Benedetta was seeing is a false prophet. And soon afterward, Benedetta and Bartomolea are having secret sexual trysts in their bedroom. One of the more talked-about aspects of “Benedetta” is how a figurine of the Virgin Mary is used as a sex toy. The movie’s sex scenes leave no mystery about what goes on in these sexual encounters.

Regardless of how audiences might react to the movie’s explicit sexual content, one of the best things about “Benedetta” is that it shows how sex and religion are both used as ways to have power and control over people. Efira’s opaque performance as the rebellious Benedetta and Charlotte Rampling’s assured performance as the imperious Sister Felicita are fascinating to watch for these reasons. For all the attention that this movie is getting about the sex scenes, it’s worth noting that no matter what happens between Benedetta and Bartolomea, the power struggle between Benedetta and Sister Felicita will have a more lasting impact on all of their lives.

Benedetta’s visions of Jesus Christ aren’t all sweetness and light. She has a recurring nightmare that she’s being hunted down by men who try to rape her, and Jesus comes to her rescue. Of course, anyone can interpret these scenes as the would-be rapists being symbolic of patriarchy trying to take power away from Benedetta and any woman. At first, Benedetta sees the Catholic Church as her savior (with Jesus coming to her rescue in these visions), but eventually she’s conflicted and disillusioned over how much she should believe in the Catholic Church.

These attempted rape scenes are part of a pattern of filmmaker Verhoeven’s fixation on showing the rape or attempted rape of women in almost all of his movies. He’s gotten a lot of criticism over the years for his very “male gaze” films, where women’s naked bodies are used for explicit, full-frontal sex scenes and/or violence, but the men in Verhoeven’s movies almost never have full-frontal nudity. It’s a double standard that Verhoeven doesn’t seem interested in acknowledging or ending in his movies.

As much as Verhoeven points out in “Benedetta” how the patriarchy of the Catholic Church is responsible for a lot of sexual hypocrisy that shames women and absolves men, Verhoeven has made an entire career of doing films about some type of female exploitation. If not for the quality of talent that Verhoeven works with in casts and crews, many of Verhoeven’s so-called “artsy” movies would be B-movie schlock. That’s why “Benedetta,” although it has very good acting, is by no means a cinematic masterpiece.

IFC Films released “Benedetta” in select U.S. cinemas on December 3, 2021. The movie was released on digital and VOD on December 21, 2021.

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