Review: ‘Maestra’ (2024), starring Mélisse Brunet, Tamara Dworetz, Anna Sułkowska-Migoń, Zoe Zeniodi and Ustina Dubitsky

June 18, 2023

by Carla Hay

Zoe Zeniodi in “Maestra” (Photo courtesy of Foleo Films)

“Maestra” (2024)

Directed by Maggie Contreras

Some language in French, Greek and Polish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2022, in France, Greece, the United States, and Poland, the documentary “Maestra” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few black people and Asians) who are connected in some way to the international classical music industry.

Culture Clash: Five women go to Paris to compete in the 2022 La Maestra competition, the only all-female contest for classical music orchestra conductors. 

Culture Audience: “Maestra” will appeal primarily to classical music fans and people who are interested in watching an engaging documentary about women in a male-dominated profession.

Mélisse Brunet in “Maestra” (Photo by Isabelle Razavet)

“Maestra” offers a riveting look at the challenges and triumphs experienced by five contestants competing in the all-female La Maestra competition for classical orchestra conductors. In total, there were 14 contestants chosen for the 2022 La Maestra competition in Paris, where most of this documentary was filmed. The musicianship is excellent, but the human stories have more impact. “Maestra” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Maggie Contreras, “Maestra” doesn’t do anything innovative or groundbreaking in filmmaking, but this documentary does excel in choosing interesting contestants and in how the film editing skillfully weaves their stories together. All five of the contestants who are the focus of this movie have personalities and backgrounds that are very different from each other. Unless a viewer is not paying attention, it’s very easy to tell these contestants apart.

These are the five contestants who get the spotlight in the documentary:

  • Mélisse Brunet is a bachelorette originally from France but currently lives in the United States. At the time this documentary was filmed, Brunet was working as a classical music teacher in Iowa City, Iowa. Brunet is a self-admitted neurotic who expresses many times during the film that she’s nervous about going back to her hometown of Paris, because it will bring back traumatic memories for her.
  • Tamara Dworetz is an American living with her husband Stephen Delman in Atlanta. Dworetz has an optimistic and upbeat personality. She and her husband, who been married since 2018, are trying to start a family. Dworetz worries about when the right time would be for her to become a mother and how it parenthood might affect her career.
  • Anna Sułkowska-Migoń is Polish and living with her husband Maciej Migoń in Warsaw, Poland. Sułkowska-Migoń is the youngest and least-experienced of the five contestants featured in the documentary. At the time this documentary was filmed, Sułkowska-Migoń was in her last year of college and had only started being a conductor in the previous year.
  • Zoe Zeniodi (based in her native Athens, Greece) is an outspoken single mother to twins (a son and a daughter), who were about 4 to 6 years old when this documentary was filmed. Zeniodi is a freelance conductor, so she has to do a lot of traveling to wherever her work takes her. Zeniodi says she has constant challenges with balancing her career with parenting very young children.
  • Ustina Dubitsky, who is from Ukraine, is introduced much later in the documentary than the other four subjects. She’s not shown in her home because by the time Dubitsky is seen in Paris for the competition, the Ukraine had been invaded by Russia and engaged ina brutal war. Understandably, this turmoil weighs heavily on quiet and introverted Dubitsky during the Maestra competition.

Although all of these contestants have compelling stories, it’s fairly obvious that the “Maestra” filmmakers thought that Brunet is the most fascinating one out of the five, because she gets the most screen time. The movie also opens with a scene of Brunet teaching a class in Iowa City. Brunet is the one who seems the most intense about winning the competition because she’s a mid-career contestant who needs the exposure of La Maestra so that she can get a professional job with an orchestra instead of only being a teacher.

Brunet also keeps talking about experiencing trauma that happened to her in Paris and being afraid of going back to Paris because of this trauma. Brunet says that this trauma left her so emotionally affected, she is living with anxiety and depression. Clearly, the filmmakers of “Maestra” were expecting Brunet to eventually reveals details of this trauma. And sure enough, Burnet does tell more information. Her trauma is exactly what you probably think it is.

Dworetz is the happy-go-lucky cheerleader in the group. She is the one who’s most likely to give pep talks and praise to other contestants. If she is feeling any fear or sadness, she likes to keep it private. Dworetz is seen briefly at home with her husband, who is completely supportive of her conductor ambitions.

Sułkowska-Migoń is also seen having a happy home life with her husband. In the documentary, Sułkowska-Migoń (who is eager and slightly insecure) gives a lot of credit to her mentor: her father Piotr Sułkowski, a classical musical conductor who has worked with the Warmia-Masuria Philharmonic Orchestra in Poland. Sułkowska-Migoń comments: “My father, he is the best conductor of my life.” Sułkowski is shown briefly in the documentary in a video conference call with her.

If Brunet is the one in the group who is the most emotionally fragile, then Zeniodi is the one who is the emotionally resielient and most tough-talking. However, she also shows a compassionate side, such as a moment of solidarity when she gives Dworetz some advice on being a parent juggling a career as an orchestra conductor. Zeniodi tells Dworetz that there never really is a perfect time in a female conductor’s career to have children but that working mothers in these siutations can learn as they go along.

Zeniodi has experienced significant ups and downs in her career, as a freelance conductor and as the oldest member of the five contestants. She mentions that she was fired from a conductor job in Athens because she was pregnant. Zeniodi does not elaborate on what she did about this discrimination, but it’s implied that she did nothing about it, out of fear of being blacklisted from the industry.

Because of her quiet personality, Dubitsky isn’t shown doing much talking in the documentary. When she does talk, she’s mainly preoccupied with what’s going on in her home country of Ukraine, because most of her family members and friends are at risk of being killed or injured during the war. Many people in the La Maestra competition express sympathy and empathy to Dubitsky for what she and her fellow Ukrainians are going through in her lives.

Aside from showing the five contestants’ interactions with each other, “Maestra” has a great deal of footage of the contestants rehearsing and performing. Music performed in the documentary includes pieces from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Louise Farrenc and Maurice Ravel. Of the five contestants, Zeniodi moves around the most on stage while conducting. Dworetz has the quirkiest facial expressions while conducting; she has a tendency to lick her lips and quickly touch her nose. She might want to work on some of those quirks because they make her look really nervous or look like she’s under the influence of a stimulant.

Brunet comments in a “Maestra” documentary interview: “The only place where I’m really happy is when I open the score,” she says of the first step of a conductor’s performance. Dworetz says she likes to practice her conductor moves alone. She shares her philosophy on her conducting style: “You just have to conduct the music the way you want to go. It’s not really about the timing. It’s about the shape, the color, the character.”

Other people interviewed in “Maestra” are several La Maestra competition officials and other classical music experts. Interviwees include conductor Paul David, who is on the La Maestra selection committee; conductor Kwamé Ryan, who is a La Maestra judge; and conductor Kenneth Kiesler. Anaïs Smart and Aline Sam-Giao, who are both on the La Maestra selection committee, both say that the chemistry between a conductor and an orchestra can make or break a performance. An excellent conductor in the competition might have the bad luck of being paired an orchestra, resulting in little or no chemistry in the performance and the conductor contestant most likely to be eliminated from the competition.

Many of the interviewees also talk about how the conductor expresses emotions during the performance is a major factor in the judging process. An intangible “authenticity” is also frequently mentioned as a quality that sets apart the conductors who are considered to be very good and those who are considered to be outstanding. Passion is important during a performance, but a conductor can’t be too passionate to the point where it’s a distraction during the performance.

Deborah Borda, La Maestra chair and New York Philharmonic president/CEO, comments in the documentary: “One of the things we look for as a conductor is our authentic self. That’s what we all strive for. We can’t fake it.” Kenneth Kiesler, a conductor, mentions that the one thing that all La Maestra winners have in common is that they all look like they belong there.

“Maestra” does a capable job of exploring the reasons why La Maestra exists in the first place. It’s no secret that being an orchestra conductor is a very male-dominated profession. La Maestra was a created as a way to showcase female conductors in ways that they might not otherwise be showcased and to give them a level playing field, in terms gender. Marin Alsop, a conductor and a La Maestra judge, says of this feminist approach to creating opportunities for female conductors: “We have a responsibility to make the path easier for future generations.”

Observant viewers will notice that “Maestra shows,” rather than tells, some of the subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination that plays out during the La Maestra competition. It would be very easy (and frankly, quite boring) to have talking heads drone on and on in interviews about sexism in the industry. But even when only women are contestants, the sexism and ageism find ways to seep into the competition.

This review won’t give away who ends up winning this particular competition. However, it can be noted that the older female contestants get a lot more criticism than the younger contestants for “showing too much energy.” The contestants who get this criticism wonder aloud to themselves and other contestants if a man who did the exact same performance would have gotten the same criticism. It’s valid speculation.

And although it’s not said out loud, the women are also judged by the way they are dressed during a performance. One of the five contestants keeps it casual by wearing a white button-down shirt and slightly messy hair. Other contestants dress a little more formally.

There’s much thought that goes into whether a contestant will decide to wear bright colors or neutral colors. Do men have to put this much thought into their wardrobes for a conductor contest? Probably not, because women tend to be judged more harshly than men, when it comes to clothing and outward physical appearances.

As contestants are eliminated and other contestants advance to the next round, “Maestra” gets a little more suspenseful. For obvious reasons, the judges are not interviewed in the documentary while the contest is taking place. But viewers get snippets of what the judges might be thinking when the eliminated contestants reveal in the documentary what the judges gave them as feedback.

There’s an old saying that the true measure of someone’s character isn’t just by how someone achieves victories or accomplishments but also by how someone handles failures and defeats. “Maestra” is an example of how a high-profile competition such as La Maestra, while certainly important in the classical music world, should not fully define someone’s career. It should be a “win” to even be part of this highly selective competition. And how the contestants handle the results of this competition are largely indicators of how they handle challenges in life.

UPDATE: Worldwide Pants Incorporated will release “Maestra” in New York City on May 24, 2024, and in Los Angeles in June 7, 2024.

Review: ‘Athena’ (2022), starring Dali Benssalah and Sami Slimane

September 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sami Slimane (center) in “Athena” (Photo by Kourtrajmeuf Kourtrajme/Netflix)

“Athena” (2022)

Directed by Romain Gavras

French and Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “Athena” features a cast of Middle Eastern and white characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Civil unrest erupts within hours after a video goes viral of 13-year-old Middle Eastern boy from Paris’ low-income Athena neighborhood appearing to be murdered by white police officers, and the boy’s three older brothers get caught up in the turmoil. 

Culture Audience: “Athena” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a suspenseful, well-acted and visually striking movie that address topics of racism, loyalty and police brutality.

Dali Benssalah in “Athena” (Photo by Kourtrajmeuf Kourtrajme/Netflix)

Visually stunning and emotionally harrowing, “Athena” keeps viewers on edge from beginning to end. This hard-hitting action film takes a brutal look at the effects of race-related violence and the damage it does to everyone. “Athena” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Venice International Film Festival in Venice, Italy) also shows in heartbreaking ways how family members can be pitted against each other and loyalties can be tested over important social issues. The movie raises provocative questions about people’s varying definitions of activism and anarchy.

Directed by Romain Gavras, the French film “Athena” might get some comparisons to the 2019 award-winning French film “Les Misérables,” directed and co-written by Ladj Ly. That’s because Ly (along with Gavras and Elias Belkeddar) co-wrote the screenplay for “Athena,” and both movies are about the tensions in Paris between police officers (who are mostly white) and the city’s low-income area residents, who are mostly people of color. These tensions ultimately erupt into violence.

“Les Misérables,” which is much more of a “slow” burn movie than “Athena,” is told from the perspective of a white cop who is new to the low-income district that he has to patrol. The story in “Athena” is told from the perspective of a French military soldier of Middle Eastern heritage. His loyalty is torn between law enforcement and his angry family members, after unidentified white cops are suspected of murdering his unarmed 13-year-old brother in Paris’ disenfranchised Athena neighborhood, where his family lives.

“Athena” begins with this solider—whose name is Abdel (played by Dali Benssalah)—being called away from his regular duties to go to Athena, where civil unrest is brewing over this murder. Abdel (who is in his late 20s or early 30s) is at an outdoor press conference that’s open to the public. At this press conference, a law enforcement offcial is making statements about the investigation into the death of Abdel’s 13-year-old brother Idir.

Just hours earlier, a viral video (filmed by an anonymous person) showed Idir being beaten to death by white men in police uniforms, with the time of death estimated at 12:30 a.m. The murderers have not been identified because their backs are to the camera, and they apparently did not speak during the part of the murder that was caught on video. At this time, the police say that they have no suspects or persons of interest, but numerous members of the public believe that the police aren’t doing enough to investigate officers in their own ranks.

The video of this murder causes outrage, especially since it’s the third case of police brutality in the area in two months. Protests and civil unrest have been growing among the Athena residents. Most of the protestors who take the streets are people of color in their 20s. This background information doesn’t need to be shown as flashbacks, because this civil unrest takes up the entire movie, as the violence escalates.

Abdel has been assigned to be security personnel at the press conference. On the surface, Abdel seems stoic. But inside, he is reeling with grief over Idir’s death. He’s also probably still in shock. Abdel has no idea that his life and the lives of his family members will be devastated some more after this press conference.

Someone who’s at this press conference is Abdel’s younger brother Karim (played by Sami Slimane), who is in his mid-20s. Karim happens to be the leader of the young protesters who commit extreme acts of violence to make statements and further their causes. At the press conference, Karim throws a Molotov cocktail at the police officer who’s talking. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

The rest of “Athena” is about what happens to Abdel and Karim during the subsequent street riots and other violence that happens. The civil unrest spreads to other cities in France, but the movie focuses specifically on Paris’ Athena housing projects/council flats estate as the flashpoint for the chaos. Abdel and Karim have an older brother named Moktar (played by Ouassini Embarek), who is involved in criminal activities, and who doesn’t appear until the last third of the movie.

During the melee, a white police officer in his 20s named Jérôme (played by Anthony Bajon), who is one of the riot-gear cops on the scene, is kidnapped and held hostage by Karim’s group. And during all of this mayhem, Abdel and Karim go to a memorial service for Idir. At this service, the two brothers have the first of multiple confrontations because they fundamentally disagree on how reactions to Idir’s murder should be handled.

“Athena” shows how Abdel and Karim have very different perceptions of themselves and each other. Abdel thinks of himself as the responsible brother who is doing the right thing by following the law. Karim thinks of Abdel as a sellout who is betraying the memory of Idir. Abdel thinks Karim is a ruthless thug who needs to be stopped. Karim thinks of himself as a justified fighter in a war against police brutality and government corruption.

As an example of Karim’s contradictory nature, at one point, he gives a speech to his followers by saying that if anyone tries to fight or kill them, they should do the same to the attackers. However, the movie clearly show that Karim and his group do not act mostly in self-defense. They are the ones who cause the violence, mostly with guns, fireworks and Molotov cocktails.

One of the best technical aspects of “Athena” is the outstanding cinematography by Matias Boucard. The movie gives the impression that many of the scenes are just one tracking shot, and viewers will feel like they’re right in the thick of everything. The pulse-pounding score from Surkin (also known as Gener8ion) ramps up the tension in powerful ways.

In “Athena,” Gavras has a skillful way of creating captivating images that are violent but very artistic. For example, there’s a scene where a group of police officers are in riot gear and form a protective circle for each other, with their shields up for protection, as they are being bombed with fireworks. The way these shields form in a circle look almost like how a group of armadillos would look if they stood in a protective cicle. “Athena” doesn’t exploit the subject matter for the sake of looking “artsy,” but shows in unflinching ways how quickly these matters can get out of control and how people resort to primal instincts to survive.

“Athena” is an ironically titled movie, because Athena is the Greek goddess of battle strategy, and wisdom, but the “Athena” movie is a very male-dominated film that doesn’t give much screen time to any women affected by this turmoil. The mother and sister of the feuding brothers are seen briefly at Idir’s memorial service. The sister is on Karim’s side and fully supports what Karim is doing. And there’s just one woman shown in Karim’s group of insurgents.

The heart of the movie is the volatile and complicated relationship between Abdel and Karim. Benssalah and Slimane give authentic-looking performances that rise to the challenge. Bessalah has the more difficult role, because his Abdel character faces ethical and moral dilemmas that tear him apart emotionally, in ways that single-minded and stubborn Karim does not experience. Karim is unawavering in his beliefs, whereas Abdel has to make hard decisions on where he will place most of his loyalties.

Amid the murders and pandemonium that happen, there’s also a mystery: Who really killed Idir? Stories are swirling in the Athena community and among law enforcement that the murderers of Idir were really white right-wing extremists who impersonated police officers and want to start a race war. Abdel keeps hearing from his law-enforcement colleagues that police officers were not responsible for Idir’s murder. Abdel is not sure what to believe.

Karim doesn’t have any doubts. Karim firmly thinks that cops killed Idir, and Karim blames the Paris police department and all French government officials for Idir’s death. Karim believes in “an eye for an eye” revenge, even if it means that Karim has to make the decision to kill Abdel if Abdel stays loyal to the French government. “Athena” has twists and turns that are more unpredictable than a few of the movie’s other plot developments. Although “Athena” has some minor flaws in these plot developments, the overall movie is very effective in showing how perceptions and attitudes can change, based on the information people have and what they choose to believe.

Netflix released “Athena” in select U.S. cinemas on September 9, 2022. The movie is set to premiere on Netflix on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,’ starring Lesley Manville, Isabelle Huppert, Lambert Wilson, Alba Baptista, Lucas Bravo, Ellen Thomas and Jason Isaacs

July 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front: Lambert Wilson, Lesley Manville, Guilaine Londez, Dorottya Ilosvai and Alba Baptista in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (Photo by Dávid Lukács/Focus Features)

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”

Directed by Anthony Fabian

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1957, in London and Paris, the comedy/drama film “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A widowed housekeeper in London goes to Paris, where she wants to fulfill her dream of buying a haute couture Dior gown, but she experiences obstacles and bigotry from snobs who think she isn’t worthy because of her working-class background.

Culture Audience: “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of star Lesley Manville and the book on which the movie is based, as well as to people who are interested in 1950s high fashion history and stories about working-class people navigating in upper-class society.

Isabelle Huppert and Roxane Duran in “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” (Photo by Dávid Lukács/Focus Features)

Despite a tendency to be cloying and cliché, the comedy/drama “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” has exuberant charm that’s hard to resist. Lesley Manville shines in this fairytale-like story about a woman who believes it’s never too late to chase a dream. On the surface, her dream is to buy a haute couture Dior gown, but the gown represents something much bigger to her: an ability to go outside her comfort zone to get what she wants in the pursuit of happiness.

Directed by Anthony Fabian, “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is based on Paul Gallico’s 1958 novel “Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris.” The novel was also made into a 1992 TV-movie of the same name, starring Angela Lansbury in the title role. In the “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” movie directed by Fabian, the title character is played by Manville. Fabian co-wrote the movie’s adapted screenplay with Carroll Cartwright, Olivia Hetreed and Keith Thompson.

“In Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris,” it’s 1957, and Mrs. Harris is Ada Harris, a widowed housekeeper who’s in her 50s and who lives in London. (“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” was filmed in London and Paris—the two cities where the story takes place—but the movie was also filmed in Budapest to simulate Paris in the 1950s.) Ada dreams of having a more glamorous life. Ada’s often cheerful demeanor often hides her sadness over not knowing what happened to her husband Eddie, a military man who went missing in action during World War II in 1944.

Because Eddie hasn’t contacted her for all of these years, he’s presumed dead, but Ada can’t bring herself to face this probability. Ada, who lives alone and has no children, has not had a special man in her life since Eddie disappeared. She has long since given up on finding love because she thinks because of her age, occupation and physical appearance, she’s not very desirable.

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” spends a little too much time in the first third of the movie showing Ada stuck in her drab routine life in London. There are repetitive scenes of her going to a bridge at night, where she talks out loud to her long-lost husband Eddie. Viewers of “Mrs. Harris Go to Paris” will have to have some patience before the movie gets to what the movie’s title is all about.

Ada’s best friend is Vi Butterfield (played by Ellen Thomas), a Caribbean immigrant who is around the same age as Ada. Vi (who also lives alone and has no children) is as confident as Ada is insecure. When Ada and Vi go out together at social clubs, Vi often has to give Ada pep talks to help boost Ada’s self-esteem. When they go out to these clubs, Ada is more likely to play cards at a table than to mingle and dance.

It’s at this nightclub, when Ada and Vi are sitting together at a table, where Ada gets the courage to open a package from the U.K. military that she has been dreading to open in front of Vi. Inside the package are a telegram and some of her husband Eddie’s personal possessions, including what appears to be a university ring.

Ada reads the telegram out loud to Vi. The telegram confirms that Eddie is dead. He was killed in action near Warsaw, Poland, on March 2, 1944. Ada is saddened but not too surprised. After getting this news, she goes to the bridge again and stares mournfully at Eddie’s ring, as if she’s trying get closure over the reality that Eddie won’t be coming back.

Someone whom Ada and Vi see often is their mutual friend Archie (played by Jason Isaacs), a middle-aged local bookie whose social manners are a little rough around the edges. Archie is a bachelor who thinks of himself as a seductive ladies’ man. Whenever, Ada and Vi see Archie at a nightclub, he always seems to have a different woman as his date.

During one scene in the movie, Archie has brought his two dogs Spring and Summer to the nightclub where Ada and Vi frequently go. Archie asks Ada and Vi to look after the two dogs while he goes on the dance floor with his date. Ada sighs and says to Vi about how the men at this club don’t see them as attractive enough: “We’re invisible women.” Vi’s sassy response is: “Speak for yourself! They see me coming!”

Two of the women who are Ada’s regular clients are very different from each other. Pamela Penrose (played by Rose Williams) is a 23-year-old aspiring actress who looks like a cross between Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe. Pamela is constantly worried about auditions and whether or not she will ever make it big as a movie actress, which is her life goal. Even though Pamela rents an apartment that she can barely afford, she pays Ada on time and appreciates Ada’s cheerful kindness.

The same can’t be said for Lady Dant (played by Anna Chancellor), a middle-aged socialite who spends lavishly but who has come up with many excuses not to pay Ada for the past several weeks. The latest excuse is that Lady Dant has to pay for her daughter’s wedding, which Lady Dant claims is financially draining. When Ada tactfully and politely asks Lady Dant when she can be paid the money that’s owed to Ada, Lady Dant is haughtily dismissive and scolds Ada to be more patient and understanding. Lady Dant also tells Ada that her work hours will be reduced, effective immediately.

Christian McKay is under-used in a small role as Giles Newcombe, one of Ada’s housecleaning clients. A running gag in the movie is that Ada often passes by Mr. Newcombe on a flight of stairs as Ada is arriving and he is leaving the building with a woman who looks young enough to be his daughter, whom he always introduces as his “niece.” The implication is that Mr. Newcombe is married, these young women are really his mistresses, and they have their trysts at the apartment he has in this building.

Ada and Mr. Newcome always greet each other in a friendly manner, with Ada seeming to know that Mr. Newcombe isn’t the “uncle” of these women. Ada is discreet and plays along with the charade though, because Mr. Newcombe is always kind to her. Ada doesn’t judge whatever Mr. Newcombe’s extramarital activities might be because she doesn’t know all the details of his marriage. It’s also this movie’s way of showing that Ada isn’t a nosy gossip.

One day, Ada is doing some housecleaning in Lady Dant’s home, when she sees a stunning floral print sequined dress displayed on a bed. Ada is enchanted by this dress and can’t resist picking up the dress and holding it up to herself while she looks in a mirror. Lady Dant catches Ada admiring the dress, but Lady Dant doesn’t seem to mind.

Lady Dant brags to Ada that the gown is haute couture Dior and that she paid £500 for the dress during a recent trip to Paris. Lady Dant orders Ada not to tell Lady Dant’s husband about this purchase because he will think that she overpaid. As soon as Ada hears about how and where Lady Dant got the dress, it sparks an a near-obsession for Ada to do the same thing.

Ada begins saving her money for a trip to Paris. She also starts a small business on the side called Invisible Mending, where she does seamstress work and other sewing jobs. However, Ada gets a temporary setback when she places a losing £100 bet at a dog-racing track where Archie works.

But then, in an “only in a movie” sequence of events, three things happen literally within minutes of each other that change her fortunes: (1) Ada gets a visit from a military official telling her that the military owes her back payments for being a war widow; (2) Ada gets reward money for returning a lost diamond pin; and (3) Archie shows up at her home to tell her that he actually placed her bet on the racing dog that won, not the losing dog she wanted to bet money on for the race.

And so, with enough money to travel and buy her dream Dior haute couture gown, Mrs. Harris goes to Paris. At the train station in Paris, she meets three homeless winos, and one of them is kind enough to show here where the House of Dior is. Ada notices that there’s a lot of garbage on the streets of Paris, so the homeless man tells her that it’s because garbage collectors are currently on strike. This worker strike is used as a few plot developments later in the movie.

Outside the House of Dior, a model who’s running late for a fashion show, stumbles out of car and trips in front of the entrance. Her name is Natasha (played by Alba Baptista), and she accidentally drops her purse without noticing. Ada picks up the purse and goes inside the building to return it to Natasha, who is grateful.

But those pleasantries are about to end when the pompous House of Dior director Claudine Colbert (played by Isabelle Huppert) notices that Ada is treating the House of Dior like a regular retail store, where people can just walk right in and buy what they want if they have the money for it. Madame Colbert snootily tells Ada that Dior’s haute couture customers have invitation-only access.

Ada most definitely does not have an invitation. Ada gets upset and hastily explains to Madame Colbert that she’s a housekeeper from London who saved up all of her money for this trip and she won’t leave without buying a Dior haute couture gown. When Ada takes out the wads of cash that she has with her, Madame Colbert is even more disgusted by what she sees as crassness from Ada.

However, a society gentleman named Marquis de Chassagne (played by Lambert Wilson), who has been invited to Dior’s upcoming haute couture collection show, notices Ada’s plight and generously tells Ada that she can be his guest at the show. Madame Colbert is miffed, but there’s nothing she can do about it. Unbeknownst to the general public, Dior has secretly been having financial problems, so Madame Colbert tells Dior accountant André Fauvel (played by Lucas Bravo), who has been observing Madame Colbert’s attempted shunning of Ada, that at least they might get a sale out of Ada being there.

Another person who’s annoyed that a “common” housekeeper is attending the show is a spiteful socialite named Madame Avallon (played by Guilaine Londez), who is attending the show with her pouty young adult daughter Mathilde Avallon (played by Dorottya Ilosvai). Madame Avallon gets even more irritated when she sees that Ada will be sitting next to her at the show. And guess who wants the same gown as Ada?

Ada is dazzled by the runway show, but two gowns in particular get her the most excited. Her first choice is a red stunner called Temptation. Ada also literally gasps when she sees an emerald green gown called Eden. Madame Colbert makes sure that Madame Avallon gets the Temptation gown. Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan did top-notch, award-worthy costume for “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris.”

As a consolation for not getting the Temptation gown, Ada is told that she can be fitted for the Eden gown. However, these fittings would require Ada to be in Paris for several more days. Ada can’t afford to stay in Paris for longer than she had planned, As a show of generous support, André invites Ada to stay for free at the house of his sister, who is away on a trip. Ada eagerly accepts this offer.

A meticulous Dior atelier employee named Monsieur Carré (played by Bertrand Poncet) oversees the fittings for Ada. Predictably, he is sometimes irritated by Ada’s ignorance of haute couture traditions and customs. Fashion icon Christian Dior (played by Philippe Bertin) makes a few brief appearances, as this movie depicts the last year of Dior’s life. (On October 24, 1957, Dior died of a heart attack at the age of 52.) As expected, Ada is star-struck to be in the presence of Dior.

House of Dior’s seamstresses, including seamstress director Marguerite (played by Roxane Duran), are charmed by Ada’s working-class pluckiness in the face of upper-class elitism, so they are rooting for her behind the scenes. While Ada is starting to befriend Isabel and André, she notices that André has romantic feelings for Isabel. And you know what that means: Ada is going to try to play matchmaker for André and Isabel. Meanwhile, Marquis de Chassagne has taken a liking to Ada and asks her out on a date. Could this be the beginning of a romance for him and Ada?

“Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” often goes down a very formulaic route, but it’s always watchable, due in large part to the talented cast members, led by Manville. Huppert plays her “villain” role to the hilt, but Madame Colbert shows some vulnerability and warmth later in the movie. Not everything in the movie is predictable, but there’s enough familiarity in how this story is told that “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” is like having comfort food with a longtime friend.

Focus Features will release “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris” in U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2022.

Review: ‘Eiffel,’ starring Romain Duris and Emma Mackey

June 9, 2022

by Carla Hay

Romain Duris (pictured at right) in “Eiffel” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)


Directed by Martin Bourboulon

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, from 1887 to 1889 (with some flashbacks to the 1860s), the dramatic film “Eiffel” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Architech/engineer Gustave Eiffel encounters conflicts in his personal and professional lives when he masterminds the construction of the Eiffel Tower. 

Culture Audience: “Eiffel” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching movies about the making of the Eiffel Tower, but the bland “Eiffel” fails to make an impact as a historical drama.

Emma Mackey and Romain Duris in “Eiffel” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Eiffel” tries to weave together dramatic conflicts that Eiffel Tower creator Gustave Eiffel had in his work and in his love life, but the results are clumsy, dull and superficial. This movie is just a back-and-forth slog that alternates between showing the construction of the Eiffel Tower and showing archiect/engineer Eiffel pining over an on-again/off-again lover who’s a heartbreaker. The cast members give adequate performances, but they are hemmed in by a movie that makes all of the characters as stereotypes instead of people with fully formed personalities.

Directed by Martin Bourboulon and written by Caroline Bongrand, “Eiffel” takes place primarily in Paris during 1887 and 1889 (the years the Eiffel Tower was under construction), although there are several flashbacks to the 1860s. The movie opens with title character Gustave Eiffel (played by Romain Duris) as a widower in his 50s and the father of five children. Inexplicably, the movie only gives adequate screen time to only one of his children: eldest child Claire Eiffel (played by Armande Boulanger), who is in her mid-20s when this story takes place. The rest of Gustave’s children are seen briefly, early in the movie, and are then never seen again.

In real life, Claire was a secretary and close advisor to Gustave, who relied on her for several matters pertaining to his career. But you wouldn’t know it from watching this movie. The only conversations that Claire has with Gustave are about their respective love lives. Near the beginning of the film, Claire announces that she’s engaged to a man named Adolphe Salles (played by Andranic Manet), and she asks Gustave for his blessing, which he gives. Later in the movie, Gustave confides in Claire that he has met a special someone whom he wants Claire to meet.

That “special someone” is Adrienne Bourgès (played by Emma Mackey), a socialite who is married to a mild-mannered journalist named Antoine de Restac (played by Pierre Deladonchamps), who loves and respects Adrienne. Adrienne and Antoine have no children together. The problem is that Adrienne is really in love with Gustave. Antoine has no idea that Adrienne has a past with Gustave.

As the movie shows in flashbacks, Adrienne and Gustave were lovers in the 1860s. They even talked about getting married. However, their love affair was interrupted because Adrienne was abruptly sent away by her wealthy parents (played by Bruno Raffaelli and Sophie Fougère), who disapproved of her marrying Gustave. Her parents thought Gustave’s lower social class made him “not good enough” to marry Adrienne. Adrienne’s father told Gustave that it was Adrienne’s choice to move away and end the romance without saying goodbye to Gustave.

There was another reason why Adrienne moved away (it’s the most obvious reason possible), but no one told Gustave at the time. A heartbroken Gustave moved on with his life, married a woman named Marguerite, and started a family with her. Gustave’s deceased wife Marguerite (who died in 1877, at the age of 30) is barely mentioned in this movie, which is another reason why “Eiffel” fails to have much depth. The movie never really addresses who’s taking care of Gustave’s underage kids (presumably it’s a nanny) who live in his household, because he is never seen spending any quality time with them or even talking about them at length.

By the time Gustave sees Adrienne again about 20 years after their breakup, he’s become a successful and world-renowned architect. His structures include the Statue of Liberty, which was unveiled in 1886, and became an instant world-famous landmark. And now, France wants Gustave to build an extraordinary masterpiece for France.

Gustave’s idea for this masterpiece is to build a 300-meter tower made of metal. He has a clear, uncompromising vision for what he wants, which later leads to conflicts with some of the government officials who have other suggestions on how to build the tower. Before the tower is built, Gustave insists that this tower should not be something that can only be enjoyed and accessed by elite members of society: “Everyone must be able to see it. No class divisions.”

In between Gustave’s battles over getting financing for the Eiffel Tower, overseeing the tower’s construction, and getting some unflattering media coverage for the costs involved, he goes to many parties attended by upper-class citizens of Paris. It’s at one of these soirees that he sees Adrienne for the first time in about 20 years. When they have some alone time together, she tries to hold his hand, but he pulls away. He also won’t look her directly in her eyes. Gustave tells Adrienne curtly: “I hoped I’d never see you again.”

However, it’s easy to predict that Gustave and Adrienne will see each other again. At an outdoor party, Gustave and Adrienne end up in a group playing musical chairs. During this game, Gustave and Adrienne get flirty with each other. It’s obvious to Gustave and Adrienne that they still have romantic feelings for each other.

And it isn’t long before Gustave and Adrienne resume their affair, but this time in a very secretive way. The movie spends a lot of time showing Gustave being emotionally tortured because he wants to go public with Adrienne, but his reputation is at risk if he becomes known as a homewrecker. Gustave is also friendly with Adrienne’s husband Antoine, who is an influential member of society.

Because “Eiffel” essentially erases Gustave’s family life, it makes him look like all he cared about during 1887 and 1889 were his romance with Adrienne and the construction of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a very over-simplified way of telling his story that ultimately does not do justice to the real Gustave Eiffel and his family. And after a while, Adrienne’s ambivalence about the love triangle gets very tiresome.

One of the things that “Eiffel” handles badly is the aging process for Adrienne. Even though she has scenes that take place over the course of 20 years, she doesn’t look like she’s aged at all. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t want the lead actress in the movie to have gray hair and wrinkles. Meanwhile, there is considerable effort to make Gustave look like he’s aged over the years. “Eiffel” is also a very “male gaze” movie, because in the sex scenes with Adrienne and Gustave, she’s is the only one to have any nudity.

“Eiffel” is not a completely terrible film. The movie (whose cinematography is very gauzy) does have some very good production design and costume design. It’s a watchable movie but it’s also forgettable. The ending of “Eiffel” is as hokey as it can be and not very believable. It’s why “Eiffel” looks like a very watered-down and hollow version of this period of Gustave Eiffel’s fascinating life.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Eiffel” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022. The movie was released in France and other countries in 2021.

Review: ‘Paris, 13th District,’ starring Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba, Noémie Merlant and Jehnny Beth

May 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Lucie Zhang, Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba in “Paris, 13th District” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Paris, 13th District”

Directed by Jacques Audiard 

French and Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “Paris, 13th District” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four people, who are in their 30s and live in Paris, have lives that intersect as friends and as lovers.

Culture Audience: “Paris, 13th District” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about adults navigating complicated relationships.

Noémie Merlant in “Paris, 13th District” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The erotic-infused romantic drama “Paris, 13th District” uses a familiar formula of showing casual sex turning into love. The movie’s compelling performances and a few plot twists enliven a story that wants to be edgy yet sentimental. It’s yet another “singles who date” movie about two people in a “friends with benefits” relationship; one of them falls in love first with the other one; and both of them try to figure out what to do about it.

Adding to the complications in “Paris, 13th District” are the sexual and romantic entanglements of two other people whose lives are interconnected in some way to the would-be couple. The movie becomes like maze within a love quadrangle. And it’s a maze where some people might get lost and drift apart, while others find a way to each other. The “Paris, 13th District” director Jacques Audiard, Léa Mysius and Céline Sciamma co-wrote the movie’s adapted screenplay from short stories by Adrian Tomine.

“Paris, 13th District” (which is named for the location where most of the movie takes place) is a film in black and white, which instantly gives it a classic and somewhat artsy look. “Paris, 13th District” is not “color blind” when it comes to its casting and storylines, because racial issues are definitely not ignored in this movie, where most of the sex partners are interracial couples. Immigrant identities are also not erased for characters who come from immigrant families.

With that being said, even though “Paris, 13th District” tries to look like it’s completely progressive and modern, the movie still falls into some stereotypical and old-fashioned formulas in movies about casual sex turning into love. One of the biggest stereotypes is the emotionally unattainable ladies’ man, who tells his sexual conquests up front that he doesn’t want to be in a monogamous and committed relationship, but one of his sex partners tries to change his mind anyway. Some people might like think that “Paris, 13th District” (especially the ending) plays it too safe, while other people might think the movie is too vulgar.

The four people who are part of the movie’s “love quadrangle” are all in their 30s, and they are feeling discontent about various aspects of their lives.

  • Émilie Wong (played by Lucie Zhang) is a talkative free spirit, who comes from a Chinese immigrant family, where she is considered an underachiever. Émilie has a science degree but works as a telemarketer selling cell phone services. Émilie works in a call center, where she sometimes breaks the rules when she thinks she can get away with it. Émilie (who identifies as bisexual or queer) lives rent-free in an apartment owned by her grandmother. In contrast to Émilie’s aimless life, Émilie’s older sister is a successful medical doctor named Karin (played by Geneviève Doang), who often scolds Émilie for being immature and self-centered.
  • Camille Germain (played by Makita Samba), the movie’s Lothario, is a high school teacher who quits that job to pursue getting his Ph.D. in modern literature. At one point in the story, Camille starts working at a real estate agency to earn more money. Camille has a fairly good relationship with his immediate family: Camille’s widower father (played by Pol White) and Camille’s 16-year-old sister (played by Camille Léon-Fucien), who wants to be a stand-up comedian. However, Camille doesn’t visit them as much as they would like because he seems to want to avoid being reminded that his beloved mother is no longer with them.
  • Nora Ligier (played by Noémie Merlant) is a loner with a vague background. She’s originally from Bordeaux, France. In the beginning of the movie, Nora has enrolled in a criminal law class because her dream is to eventually become a lawyer. However, Nora ends up working as an agent for a real estate company, which is how she meets Camille. Nora also goes through some harrowing experiences because she’s often mistaken for a porn actress who uses the alias Amber Sweet.
  • Amber Sweet (played by Jehnny Beth), who wears a blonde wig styled in a shoulder-length bob, looks so similar to Nora, they could pass for fraternal twins. Amber is the most mysterious person of these four characters. However, she eventually opens up and becomes close to someone in this group of four people. It’s not really surprising who ends up befriending Amber, but some things that led up to that relationship are not as predictable.

In the beginning of “Paris, 13th District,” Émilie meets Camille for the first time, because he has answered an ad that she placed to look for a roommate. When he shows up at her door, she’s surprised that Camille is a man, because she assumed from his name that Camille was a woman. Even though Émilie lives rent-free in her apartment, she has a secret scam going on where she gets a roommate to give her the roommate’s share of the rent, and she keeps the money. The movie shows whether or not Camille finds out about this con game.

In their first conversation, Émilie and Camille (who seem to be instantly attracted to each other) don’t waste time getting personal and talking about sex after some small talk about what they do for a living. Émilie asks Camille to describe his love life. He replies, “My parents aren’t laughing.” Then, he adds, “I channel professional frustration into intense sexual activity. Nothing noisy or invasive for a roommate.”

When Camille asks Émilie about her love life, she sums it up this way: “Fuck first. See later.” Émilie also shows that she’s insecure about her physical appearance. Even though Émilie is already thin, she mentions that she likes to put Saran wrap around her body to “get thin.”

For Émilie, it’s an easy decision for Camille to move in with her. And they soon start having casual sex with each other. After just a week of these sexual hookups, Émilie grows very emotionally attached to Camille and shows signs that she’s falling in love with him. It makes him uncomfortable, so he tells Émilie that he doesn’t want to have sex with her on a regular basis anymore. “We have fun, but we’re not a couple,” Camille tells Émilie.

Émilie feels hurt and offended, but she tries to hide it by becoming standoffish to him. She tells Camille: “We need new rules. We share cleaning and food. And stop walking around naked.” As much as Émilie wants to pretend that she can handle these new boundaries, she becomes increasingly crabby and difficult. Camille starts casually dating a woman he works with named Stéphanie (played by Oceane Cairaty), who spends the night sometimes at the apartment. Predictably, Émilie gets jealous.

Émilie’s moodiness becomes too much for Camille, who eventually moves out of the apartment. But that doesn’t mean that he’s completely out of Émilie’s life. Camille and Nora end up working together. And because Camille is a ladies’ man, it’s not surprising what happens between him and Nora. Émilie (who eventually meets Nora) tries to move on from Camille by dating other people, but her mind is never far from thinking about Camille.

Meanwhile, Nora’s life collides with Amber’s when Nora goes to a nightclub wearing the same type of blonde wig that Amber wears in Amber’s porn videos. At the nightclub, several men start approaching Nora and treating her like a celebrity, by asking to take photos with her and being extra flirtatious with her. Nora is confused but flattered by this attention.

Nora later finds out why all these strangers acted as if she’s famous: Nora looks a lot like Amber Sweet when she wears the blonde wig. Nora has never heard of Amber Sweet until discovering that she’s an Amber Sweet look-alike, but she finds out the hard way that being mistaken for a porn star definitely has its down sides. Over time, Nora gets unwelcome and abusive attention when people think that she is Amber Sweet. It’s also eventually revealed that Nora and Amber both identify as queer or bisexual women.

One of the best things about “Paris, 13th District” is that the movie authentically shows how flaky, confused and desperate people can get when it comes to finding love and sex. The four central people in this story have a certain restless defiance that can come from people in their 30s who are still figuring out what they want to do with their lives, while other people in their age group are settling down with marriages, kids and careers. Émilie, Camille, Nora and Amber are not pressuring themselves to conform to society’s expectations, but they are putting certain pressures on themselves to find happiness wherever and whenever they can.

Émilie could have easily been written as a perfectly lovable ingenue to make it easier for audiences to root for her. But she’s often irritable, narcissistic and impatient, in addition to being someone who is capable of giving and receiving real love. She likes to think she’s independent, but she has the emotional maturity of a childlike woman who is very dependent on her family for financial support and approval. Émilie is a flawed but very believable character.

Zhang performs well in this role, while Samba’s performance as commitment-phobic Camille is also realistic. The roles of Émilie and Camille have better character development than the roles of Nora and Amber. Nora and Amber both have an intertwined storyline that seems a little too convenient and rushed into the plot toward the last third of the movie. Viewers never get to see any of Nora’s and Amber’s family members (it’s implied that Nora and Amber are estranged from their families), whereas Émilie’s and Camille’s family members are in the movie as integral to understanding Émilie’s and Camille’s personalities.

“Paris, 13th District” has some sex scenes that some viewers might think are a little risqué, but the movie doesn’t take many risks when it comes to a tired, over-used stereotype in movies about single people who are dating: A woman is always trying to get a man to commit to her. “Paris, 13th District” sacrifices aspects of Émilie’s free-spirited personality to make her sometimes look like a clingy shrew.

However, “Paris, 13th District” also makes a point of showing that many people are often full of contradictions. It’s a movie about people who appreciate and pursue the pleasures of sex, but they also use sex as a way to cover up a lot of emotional pain. And no matter what people’s attitudes are about sex, “Paris, 13th District” is essentially a movie that acknowledges that everyone wants to be loved in some way or another.

IFC Films released “Paris, 13th District” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 15, 2022. The movie was released in France in 2021.

Review: ‘Titane,’ starring Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon

September 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Agathe Rousselle in “Titane” (Photo by Carole Bethuel/Neon)


Directed by Julia Ducournau

French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the horror film “Titane” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After getting into a car accident as a child and undergoing a mysterious surgical operation, a woman becomes a serial killer who has a sexual obsession with automobiles.

Culture Audience: “Titane” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching offbeat, artsy horror movies.

Vincent Lindon in “Titane” (Photo by Carole Bethuel/Neon)

Disturbing, compelling and occasionally comedic, the deliberately perplexing “Titane” wraps an unorthodox love story in the cloak of a grisly horror movie. “Titane” leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it’s never boring. The emotionally damaged performances by “Titane” co-stars Agathe Rousselle and Vincent Lindon make the film worth watching for people who are open to unconventional horror movies. Everyone else will probably be turned off by “Titane” because it has a plethora of content that’s intended to make people nauseous or queasy.

“Titane” is the second feature film from French writer/director Julia Ducournau, who clearly wants to be in the same league as well-known film provocateurs who are celebrated for making artsy movies that revel in the gruesome. Her feature-film debut was 2017’s “Raw,” a horror movie about young female cannibals who not only crave human flesh but are sexually aroused by this craving. “Titane” also interwines death and sex with an unusual obsession: the female protagonist, who is a serial killer, gets sexually aroused by automobiles.

Viewer expectations might be high for “Titane,” since the movie won the 2021 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’or, the festival’s highest prize. Ducournau is only the second female director to win this award since the festival launched in 1946. Jane Campion was the first female director to win the Palme d’Or, for her 1993 film “The Piano,” which went on to win three Oscars (including Best Original Screenplay for Campion) out of its eight Oscar nominations.

“The Piano” is the type of movie that is traditional Oscar bait. “Titane” is too much of an avant-garde film to get the type of Academy Award accolades that “The Piano” received. For all of its artsy characteristics, “Titane” is essentially a horror movie, so it’ll probably be too much of a turnoff to film snobs who hate horror movies. Even people who like horror movies might feel a little alienated by how baffling and frustrating “Titane” can be in making characters too mysterious for viewers to feel some kind of emotional connection.

“Titane” opens with a 7-year-old girl named Alexia (played by Adèle Guigue), who’s seated in the back of a car that’s being driven by her unnamed father (played by Bertrand Bonello) while cruising on a highway. Alexia is making a loud humming sound that’s similar to the sound of a revving engine. The noise is irritating to her father, who turns up the volume on the car radio. Alexia just hums louder in response.

Alexia’s father tell Alexia to stop making this noise, but she ignores him. As she gets up while the car is in motion, he reaches behind him to scold her for not wearing a seat belt. He loses control of the car, which crashes on a highway divider.

The next scene shows Alexia in a medical exam room, after she’s had a mysterious surgical operation, which is not shown in the movie. What is shown is that she now has something metallic implanted in her skull. The implant scar on the right side of the head is prominently featured in the movie as a constant reminder.

Alexia is also wearing a metal plate headset, whose purpose remains a mystery, but when she wears the headset it’s nearly impossible to move her head. The doctor in the exam room tells Alexia’s father: “Watch for any neurological signs. Motor function, coordination, diction.”

When Alexia and her father leave the hospital, she’s no longer wearing the metal plate headset. As they go outside, Alexia sees her father’s car, which is the same car that was in the accident. And she does something strange: She runs up to the car and hugs it.

The movie then fast-forwards to when Alexia is 32 years old (played by Agathe Rousselle) and working as an exotic dancer. She’s not a stripper, but she’s hired to do things like dancing sexually at parties and events while she wears revealing clothing. It’s at one of these events (an auto show inside a warehouse) that viewers first see the adult Alexia, who is tall, lanky and bristling with a “don’t mess with me” energy. She’s slightly androgynous and wears her hair up in a disheveled bun that’s held by a long black hair pin that’s about the size of a chopstick.

Alexia is one of several female dancers at this event, which has the warehouse look more like a makeshift nightclub, with cars set up as props so that the dancers can gyrate on the hoods and roofs of the cars. A security guy is shown pulling a rowdy male partygoer off a dancer in the partygoer’s attempt to grope the dancer. The security guy gruffly reminds the partygoer that the party has a “look but don’t touch” policy for how party guests can interact with the dancers.

Alexia is apparently well-known among the many of the male partygoers, who gather around as she does a sensual dance on the hood of a car. After her dance, several of her admirers surround her and ask for her autograph. Alexia is accommodating but she seems emotionally detached from getting this attention.

After the party, Alexia and the other dancers are taking a group shower in the warehouse. A pretty young woman standing next to Alexia introduces herself as Justine (Garance Marillier), who seems to want to start a friendly conversation with Alexia. However, Alexia is standoffish and doesn’t seem interested in talking to anyone.

An awkward moment comes when Alexia leans down and her hair accidentally gets caught in Justine’s nipple ring. After some uncomfortable moments when Alexia gently tries to untangle her hair from the ring, she loses patience and just yanks her hair out, which obviously causes some pain to Justine, who expresses irritation with Alexia for being so insensitive. Alexia just walks away.

Alexia clearly wants to be left alone. However, one of her male admirers has followed Alexia to her car, which is the only car that’s left in the dark parking lot. As she’s about to start the engine, he stops her and asks for her autograph, and she reluctantly obliges. This stalker, who is a total stranger to Alexia, then tells Alexia that he thinks he’s in love with her.

He asks Alexia to kiss him, and she gives him two friendly kisses on the cheek. But then, things get ugly when he forces her to kiss him on the mouth. At first she resists, but then she starts kissing him back, as she reaches for that long black hair pin. You can guess what happens next, because Alexia has a secret: She’s a serial killer.

Here’s a pattern that a lot of people won’t like about “Titane”: The movie tends to abruptly jump to a scene that will make viewers think that parts of the story are missing. After showing Justine and Alexia meeting for the first time under awkward circumstances, the next time Alexia and Justine are seen together is when they’re on a date, and they’re making out with each other like lovers. It’s an explicit scene with partial nudity. The movie never shows or tells what happened to cause Justine and Alexia to go on a date after Alexia made such a bad first impression on Justine.

The same thing happens again, when a scene abruptly shifts to Alexia in an amorous lip lock with Justine at someone else’s house. What are they doing there? How has their relationship progressed to this point? It turns out that this house is supposed to be the site of a sex party. There’s no orgy scene in the movie, but things get out of control very quickly when it comes to Alexia’s murderous impulses.

Alexia has been leading a double life where she lives at home with her parents, who don’t really ask about or meddle into whatever Alexia does in her own free time. Alexia’s father seems a little suspicious of Alexia’s secretive activities when she’s not in the house, but Alexia’s mother (played by Céline Carrère) is blissfully unaware. Alexia’s parents don’t get much screen time in the movie (less than 10 minutes), and they don’t say much (less than two minutes of dialogue), but it’s eventually revealed that Alexia has some disturbing control over them.

Through a series of circumstances that won’t be revealed in this review, Alexia disguises herself as a man for the majority of the story. She impulsively comes up with this idea while she made a hasty trip to an airport, where she goes in the bathroom to cut her hair and use medical bandages to bind her breasts. She also deliberately breaks her nose on the bathroom sink to change the appearance of her nose. Alexia’s trip to the airport was so last-minute that she only brought her backpack with her and no other luggage.

Observant viewers might ask, “Where did she find the time to get the medical bandages?” It’s a minor plot hole in the movie that could be explained by speculating that Alexia bought the bandages at the airport, although most airports don’t sell wrap-around bandages of the size that Alexia uses. Viewers of “Titane” will have to get used to scenes that have sudden shifts, with things taking place that have no previous context. For example, viewers never find out what Alexia’s life was like in the years between her car accident at 7 years old and her life at 32 years old.

Alexia’s disguise as a man involves her stealing the identity of someone named Adrien Legrand. When she’s disguised as Adrien, Alexia pretends to be mute. This identity theft ends up fooling a family member of Adrien. The victim of this scam is named Vincent (played by Vincent Lindon), a middle-aged firefighter captain. Vincent is divorced, he lives alone, and he’s another lost and damaged soul.

Vincent abuses steroids and is haunted by a personal tragedy from his past. Disguised as Adrien, Alexia ends up living with Vincent. Their relationship is very rocky at first, with Alexia/Adrien being very hostile to Vincent from the beginning, but they end up getting to know each other better. “Titane” has scenes that are meant to show homoerotic and incestuous undertones of Vincent’s intimate touching of “Adrien,” with Victor being confused by his possible sexual attraction to a man whom he thinks is a close relative.

Alexia’s murderous rampage, sexual fascination with automobiles, and theft of someone else’s identity aren’t her only secrets. She has another big secret which results in scenes that will make viewers squirm the most. This secret is why people can describe “Titane” as being a “body horror” movie. Ducournau has an interesting directing style of blending scenes that are hypnotic and dreamlike with scenes that are stark and jolting in their realism.

At the fire station, Vincent has a young protégé named Rayane (played by Laïs Salameh), who has the nickname Conscience. Shortly after “Adrien” starts living with Vincent, “Adrien” is given a job at the same firefighter station where Vincent is the captain. “Adrien” then goes through training as a firefighter and paramedic, but “Adrien” encounters some obstacles that have to do with Rayane.

Rayane becomes jealous and insecure that “Adrien” might replace him as Vincent’s favorite employee. Rayane notices that “Adrien” looks androgynous, and he has doubts about the identity of “Adrien,” so he targets “Adrien” for some bullying. Rayane also wonders if “Adrien” could be Vincent’s secret gay lover, but when Rayane mentions this speculation to co-workers, Rayane’s thoughts are immediately ridiculed.

In addition to the horror aspects of the film, “Titane” brings up a lot of incisive observations of gender roles in society, particularly what it means to be “masculine” and to be taken seriously as a man. These issues obviously come up with Alexia in disguise as Adrien, as she adjusts to working in an all-male environment. And viewers can see the obvious differences between how she is treated in life as a woman compared to how she is treated when she’s living her life as a man.

But gender issues are very much evident with Vincent, who abuses steroids (which he injects in his rear end, to hide the needle marks and bruises) because he confesses to someone that he’s afraid of looking old and weak. The drug abuse is also a manifestation of his emotional pain. Vincent is very much caught up in projecting a “macho” image to most people, so he hides his emotional pain behind this image. Over time, Alexia (as Adrien) and Vincent begin to understand that they have a lot more in common than they thought, because of their neuroses and emotional issues.

Because most of “Titane” is about the relationship between Alexia/”Adrien” and Vincent, there’s a great deal of the movie where Rousselle does not speak and has to use her facial expressions and body language to convey her character’s emotions. It’s a fascinating performance. Even in Alexia’s life under her true identity, Alexia wasn’t much of a talker.

Lindon is equally absorbing as an emotionally wounded man who has to pretend to the world that he’s strong and stable. There’s a well-acted scene soon after he meets “Adrien” where Vincent begins crying because he sees that “Adrien” can’t or won’t talk. It’s in this moment that Vincent, who is lonely and starving for human affection, begins to understand that the person who will be living with him probably won’t be talking to him at all.

It’s why “Titane” is more than a gory horror movie. Despite some flaws of abrupt shifts in the plot and not providing enough backstory for the protagonist, “Titane” is really a story about human connections and how people deal with their inner pain. With “Titane,” Ducournau has delivered a memorable film that can not only show humanity at its cruelest, but also how compassion can be found amongst the cruelty. “Titane” is also a movie where people’s reactions to it say more about the viewers than about the characters in the movie.

Neon will release “Titane” in select U.S. cinemas on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘Mama Weed,’ starring Isabelle Huppert

July 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kamel Guenfoud, Isabelle Huppert and Youssef Sahraoui in “Mama Weed” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films)

“Mama Weed”

Directed by Jean-Paul Salomé

French and Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Paris, the comedy/drama “Mama Weed” features a cast of white, Middle Eastern and Chinese characters representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged widow, who’s a language translator for a police department’s narcotics unit, steals a large supply of hashish from drug dealers and creates a persona as a savvy drug lord to sell the drug stash back to the unsuspecting drug dealers.

Culture Audience: “Mama Weed” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Isabelle Huppert and who are interested in dark comedies about drug trafficking, even if the story has some deliberately far-fetched elements.

Isabelle Huppert in “Mama Weed” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films)

There have been several movies about narcotics law enforcement agents who profit from selling drugs that they steal from drug dealers, but there’s none quite like “Mama Weed.” It’s a movie that has playful fun with the concept that a middle-aged widow who works as a translator for a Paris police department’s narcotics unit can “go rogue” and come up with a scheme to commit this crime. The movie’s dark comedic spin and Isabelle Huppert’s captivating performance make the hard-to-believe and absurdist elements of the plot easier to enjoy.

Directed by Jean-Paul Salomé, “Mama Weed” is based on Hannelore Cayre’s 2019 novel “The Godmother.” Salomé and Cayre co-wrote the “Mama Weed” screenplay. It’s a story that requires a certain suspension of disbelief that the protagonist gets away with as much as she does when she doesn’t do much to disguise her face and there are surveillance cameras in public areas where she does her deals. However, because she works in the same police narcotics unit that could potentially bust her for her misdeeds, she has access to information and resources that help her hide her criminal activities from her colleagues.

In “Mama Weed,” Huppert portrays Patience Portefeux, a translator for the Paris Police Department’s narcotics unit. She speaks Arabic, which is the first language of many the drug dealers who are arrested by the department. Patience is not a typical employee of a police department’s narcotics unit, because she has a Ph. D. in Arabic studies. What is she doing in a low-paying job at a police department? It’s never really explained, but it’s implied that because Patience is near the age range when most people retire, she hasn’t been able to find work anywhere else where she can use the type of education that she has.

Patience (who likes to wear black leather jackets and black jeans when she’s on the job) is not a frumpy, uptight woman who can’t handle the rough and dangerous work that she has to do as part of her job. Her work includes accompanying narcotics cops on their drug raids. She’s a fairly even-tempered police employee who doesn’t get easily rattled.

In the film’s opening scene, Patience is with her cop colleagues on a drug bust that involves Arabic-speaking drug dealers from a crime family whose last name is Abelaziz. The drug dealers have been arrested for possession of seven kilograms of hashish. Back at police headquarters, two of the suspects are being interrogated, with Patience acting as the translator.

One of the suspects won’t reveal any information and shouts at the interrogating cop, “Fuck you! I want a lawyer!” Another cop in the room starts to get rough with the suspect, by kicking him and hitting him. The suspect then spits on Patience, while the interrogating cop freezes in shock. Patience is horrified, but she takes this spitting assault in stride and doesn’t get emotional. Meanwhile, the violent cop angrily hauls off the suspect for what will probably be more police brutality.

After this tension-filled interrogation, Patience walks into her supervisor’s office to tell him what happened in the interrogation room and that the suspects probably won’t say anything incriminating while in custody. Patience’s boss Philippe (played by Hippolyte Girardot), who’s about the same age as she is, has recently been promoted to police chief. An upcoming drug bust will be the first under his command as chief of the department.

Philippe is concerned but not surprised that the suspect spit on Patience. He can’t get too disturbed by it though because it’s part of law enforcement’s job to expect suspects to attack anyone who works in law enforcement. Philippe also isn’t too concerned that the suspect isn’t giving up information while in custody, because the police department already has enough incriminating evidence in the form of secret audio recordings that they made of these drug dealers.

A lot of what Patience does in the office is translate this type of surveillance, which she sometmes has to do live, as these conversations are being recorded. It’s this part of the job that causes a turning point in her life and serves as the catalyst for what happens when Patience ends up “going rogue.” And there’s an extra complication that makes Patience’s criminal activities even riskier: Patience and Philippe (who’s an available bachelor) have been secretly sleeping with each other.

The word “romance” isn’t really the best description for this relationship, because although Patience is very fond of Philippe, she’s not in love with him. However, Philippe seems to be in love with Patience and drops hints that he wants them to live together. It’s a suggestion that she tactfully brushes off, because she seems to like her independence and wants to keep living alone in her condo apartment.

Patience has been a widow since 1994, when her husband Martin suddenly died of a stroke when he was 34 years old. Patience and her late husband have two adult daughters—Hortense (played by Iris Bry) and Gabrielle (played by Rebecca Marder)—who are both in their 20s. Based on conversations that Patience has with her daughters, Patience hasn’t had much of a dating life since her husband died. Getting intimately involved with Philippe seems like something that happened because she spends so much time at work and they’re both available.

Patience’s husband Martin died while they were on vacation in Oman. It was an annual trip that the family used to take and always looked forward to every year. But after Martin died, Patience didn’t want to go back to Oman because it brought back painful memories of his death. She still talks about Oman with a lot of affection though, as if she still has good memories of where she and her family used to go in Oman.

There are some other more immediate problems in Patience’s life because she’s been struggling financially. For years, she’s been paying off debts that her late husband owed. In addition, her ailing mother (played by Liliane Rovère), who doesn’t have a first name in the movie, is in an assisted living facility. Patience is a few months’ behind on paying the facility fees.

It’s later revealed in the movie that Patience’s mother is a Holocaust survivor. Patience’s father was an Algerian immigrant who met Patience’s mother in 1962. Patience’s Algerian heritage on her father’s side provides context for why she loves speaking Arabic and why she got her university education in Arabic studies.

At the assisted living facility, a kind, middle-aged Moroccan woman named Kadidja (played by Farida Ouchani) is the main caretaker for Patience’s mother. Patience and Kadidja have a friendly rapport with each other where they trust and respect each other. Kadidja knows what Patience does for a living. Kadidja is also very good at handling Patience’s mother, who can be cranky and stubborn. Patience and her mother seem to have a fairly good relationship that has been occasionally marred by typical mother-daughter squabbles.

One day on her job, Patience is listening in on live surveillance by narcotics cops, who have been tracking a suspected drug courier in his early 20s. This suspect is driving a truck carrying a large shipment of hashish, and the truck is headed for Paris. (The cops have a GPS tracking device on the truck.) Patience overhears someone mention the suspect’s name, and she’s immediately alarmed. His name is Afid (played by Yasin Houicha), and based on his description and where the cops have been tracking him, he sounds exactly Kadidja’s son.

Patience uses her personal cell phone to breach protocol by secretly calling Kadidja to warn her that Afid is under surveillance by police and is about to be busted for this hash haul. Patience frantically advises Kadidja to call Afid and tell him about this impending drug arrest and to make an unplanned detour so he can find a way to hide or get rid of the drug stash before the cops can catch up to him. Patience also tells Kadidja to be careful of how she talks to Afid on his phone because the conversation will be recorded by the cops.

Afid does what his mother tells him to do, so that by the time the narcotics police catch up to him, Afid is arrested but there are no drugs in the truck. The cops think they have enough evidence on Afid to keep him in custody anyway, because of previous surveillance recordings where he incriminated himself as working with ths drug cartel. However, the narcs are frustrated because Afid won’t tell anyone where he hid the large supply of hash. They hope that Afid can give up information on his drug connections so they can bust the dealers who are higher-ranked in this drug cartel, but Afid isn’t likely to snitch.

The drug dealers who were expecting this large shipment are predictably furious. They are from the Cherkaouis crime family, led by two menacing brothers (played by Kamel Guenfoud and Youssef Sahraoui), who don’t have first names in the movie. These two brothers are hauled in for questioning by police, since the brothers were heard on audio surveillance. However, there’s not not enough evidence to put the brothers in jail, so they are let go.

In a private conversation between Philippe and Patience at the police station, he admits that he’s very embarrassed that this drug bust was bungled under his supervision. Patience tries to comfort him. The subject comes up about the narcotics unit using canines to detect drugs. Philippe mentions that after the dogs are retired from police work, they get sent to a local shelter. If the dogs don’t get adopted by a certain period of time, then they’re euthanized.

Philippe goes to an animal shelter website on his phone to show Patience some of the former polce dogs who are up for adoption there. Patience semi-jokes that he should help her adopt a dog. She sees a male German Shepherd on the wesbite that immediately catches her eye. And it plants an idea in her head: What if she got a former police dog to find that large supply of missing hash?

The next thing you know, Patience now owns the German Shepherd that she saw on the shelter website. She’s given the dog the name DNA. Patience tests his drug-sniffing skills when she lets him loose on some local drug dealers she sees on the streets. When she sees that the dog’s drug-sniffing skills are still very strong, she gets to work to find that drug stash.

Patience drives around with her dog DNA in places where she thinks someone would be able to hide the drug supply that went missing from the truck that Afid was driving. One of these places is a remote-looking field that has a locked shed. The dog goes crazy when she drives by and immediately runs up the shed, which is locked.

Patience breaks into the shed and—voilà—she finds the missing supply of hash. It’s not spoiler information to say that Patience found this drug stash, because people seeing this movie should already know that the main part of the story is that she’s selling stolen drugs by pretending to be a drug lord. The spoiler information is whether or not she gets caught.

The hash supply is so large that Patience has to rent a truck and go back to the shed more than once to retrieve it all. She hides all the hash (which is wrapped tightly in plastic brick-sized packages) in her apartment building’s storage room that she knows isn’t being used. And she thinks of small but important details, such as putting hanging air refresheners in the storage space to try to mininize the smell of hashish.

Patience plans to sell all the hash to the same drug dealers who were going to buy the stash before Afid got arrested. To entice the these drug dealers, she offers them a “discount.” She wants to use the money to pay off all her bills, give some money to Kadidja to help with Afid’s legal problems, and use the rest of the money to live off of comfortably in retirement.

It’s a very risky plan that yields some comical results. One of the problems that Patience encounters is her nosy neighbor Colette Fo (played by Nadja Nguyen), a Chinese immigrant who’s suspicious of Patience’s sudden interest in the building’s unused storage space. Patience has bought a lock for the storage space so only Patience can access the space for the time being. (The movie conveniently never shows a superintendent in the building.)

Patience then creates a false persona as an out-of-town drug lord named Mrs. Ben Barka. Because she speaks fluent Arabic, she disguises her ethnic identity by pretending to be Middle Eastern. Some people might be offended that all of the movie’s drug dealers are of Middle Eastern heritage, because in reality there are plenty of white drug dealers who exist in France.

The Cherkaouis brothers have never heard of Mrs. Ben Barka, so they send two bumbling henchmen named Scotch (played by Rachid Guellaz) and Chocapic (played by Mourad Boudaoud) to check out Mrs. Barka to see if she’s legitimate and not an undercover cop. She’s able to easly fool them because she’s picked up enough drug-dealing lingo from her job to sound convincing. Patience finds out later that the drug dealers have privately given Mrs. Barka the nickname Mama Weed.

But here’s the part of the movie where viewers have to suspend disbelief: While Patience is interacting with these dealers as Mrs. Barka/Mama Weed, she is able to avoid being identified by her cop colleagues who have the Cherkaouis drug cartel under audio and video surveillance. Some of it can be explained away, because at the police station, she has access to evidence that she could steal, delete or destroy if necessary.

Patience only wears a hijab and sunglasses for her disguise. That doesn’t sound like it would be enough to disguise her identity if she’s caught on surveillance video, but she’s careful to try to stay out of camera range as much as possible. Even more inexplicably, she often doesn’t bother to wear sunglasses in places where there’s sure to be video surveillance that’s not controlled by the police. Luckily for her, the quality of this surviellance video is so low that her image shows up as quite blurry.

As for possibly being recorded by the police’s audio surveillance, viewers of this movie will have to assume that the officers won’t recognize Patience’s voice on the recordings when she speaks Arabic, or that Patience got to the audio surveillance evidence first and was able to get rid of it. There are several scenes in the movie that imply that the French-speaking cops in the narcotics unit completely trust Patience in her job when she’s given access to surveillance recordings where people speak Arabic. They leave her to do the translating and transcribing with little to no supervision or independent verification.

There is one person in the police department who notices that Patience bears a striking resemblance to the Mrs. Barka/Mama Weed who’s suddenly being seen with members of the drug cartel that the police want to arrest. (It’s very easy to predict who’s the first to notice.) However, Patience laughs it off when it’s mentioned to her. The person who sees the physical resemblance doesn’t want to believe that Patience is capable of being the experienced drug lord that Mrs. Barka/Mama Weed appears to be, so it doesn’t take much for this person to dismiss these suspicions.

As far-fetched as Patience’s plan might seem to be, it’s actually fairly shrewd because she would be one of the last people ever suspected of concocting this plan. Hiding in plain sight, indeed. This movie’s concept wouldn’t work if Patience weren’t an insider in the police department’s narcotics unit, with access to evidence and information about how the narcotics investigations were being handled.

What would motivate someone like Patience to commit these very hazardous crimes? The movie points out in subtle and nuanced ways that Patience has a history of being closer to criminals than she would like to publicly admit. Near the beginning of the film, Hortense bitterly mentions that her late father Martin was a “crook” who left behind “20 years of debt” that Patience was stuck with having to pay. Patience chastises Hortense and tells her not to talk about her dead father in that way.

Throughout the movie, Patience sometimes makes offhand remarks to her cop colleagues that she has some sympathy for the drug dealers because she seems to think that drug-related punishments don’t fit the crimes. Her comments get mildly surprised reactions but not enough to arouse suspicion. However, it explains why she was eager to help Kadidja, even though Kadidja is not a close friend.

And there’s probably some unspoken anger and bitterness behind Patience wanting to steal the drug stash and sell it. Patience most likely thinks that at her age and with her education, she should be doing better in her life. Instead, she’s stuck in a low-paying job and barely able to pay her bills and debts. It’s easy to see how someone like Patience might think that she got a raw deal in life and wants to take it out on the justice system—or at least take it out on the police department that’s underpaying her.

As for the drug dealers being so gullible, there are many real-life true crime cases where criminals do the dumbest things and make the most illogical decisions out of pure greed. It’s not implausible to think that these drug dealers wouldn’t really care about where Mama Weed got her drug supply, as long as they know they’re getting a huge discount. In their minds, they might think Mama Weed is the stupid one for selling the hash for below the market value.

And that’s one of the messages of this movie: Don’t be surprised by what people will do because of greed. Patience is one of the people who’s not immune to greed becoming a blind spot that clouds her judgment. One of the best things about “Mama Weed” is that it doesn’t make Patience a criminal mastermind. She makes some mistakes that cause some very close calls for her.

However treacherous things might get for Patience and other people, the movie keeps a sly comedic tone, with plenty of wisecracking (especially between Patience and Colette), to remind viewers not to take it all too seriously. A slapstick shootout scene toward the end of the movie is filmed a little awkwardly and almost brings “Mama Weed” into cartoonish territory. But because of Huppert’s immense talent in balancing comedy and drama, her performance is worth watching in this unconventional crime caper.

Brainstorm Media and Music Box Films released “Mama Weed” in select U.S. cinemas on July 16, 2021, and on digital and VOD on July 23, 2021. The movie was previously released in various countries (including France and Canada) in 2020.

Review: ‘A Perfect Enemy,’ starring Tomasz Kot, Marta Nieto and Athena Strates

July 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tomasz Kot and Athena Strates in “A Perfect Enemy” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

“A Perfect Enemy”

Directed by Kike Maíllo

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Paris, the dramatic film “A Perfect Enemy” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: While on a business trip in Paris, a famous Polish architect becomes acquainted with a mysterious young woman, who ends up stalking him and telling him disturbing things while they’re waiting for a plane flight at an airport.

Culture Audience: “A Perfect Enemy” will appeal primarily to people who like psychological thrillers and are willing to overlook some bad acting and overly talkative screenplays with a lot of scenes that don’t really go anywhere.

Marta Nieto in “A Perfect Enemy” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

“A Perfect Enemy” keeps a certain level of suspense, but too much of this psychological thriller is undone by subpar acting, dialogue that rambles and a sluggish pace during the middle of the movie. The movie’s ending is a big disappointment. Viewers will be kept guessing over the real identity of a young female provocateur who latches on to a famous male architect, who’s more than twice her age, and she refuses to leave him alone. The two of them spend most of the movie waiting for a flight at an airport. Yawn.

In other words, don’t expect there to be a lot of action in this movie, since much of the film consists of conversations in the airport. Any expectations of “A Perfect Enemy” being a heart-pounding, mind-bending “cat and mouse” chase will come to a screeching halt when viewers have to sit through numerous scenes of the young stalker telling her prey some disturbing but mostly boring flashback stories.

Directed by Kike Maíllo, “A Perfect Enemy” might turn off some viewers from the beginning, because of the movie’s opening scene, which has some very wooden acting from Tomasz Kot. He portrays “A Perfect Enemy” protagonist Jeremiasz Angust, a famous architect in his 40s, who’s originally from Warsaw, Poland. In this scene, Jeremiasz is doing a speaking appearance at an unnamed conference in Paris. Watching this scene is almost painful, because Kot’s speech patterns are so stilted and awkward.

In the speech, Jeremiasz says that early on his career, he was obsessed with designing beautiful buildings. But about 20 years ago, Jeremiasz says that he went through a “crisis” that made him re-think the meaning of his work. “The uncomfortable truth is,” Jeremiasz adds, “what we call architecture, it’s really the business of designing for the wealthiest 1% of the population. It’s not only wrong, in terms of social justice, it’s also a clumsy business strategy.”

Jeremiasz continues by saying that when he had this socially conscious epiphany, he changed his priorities in architecture. Instead of serving the wealthiest “one percenters,” he decided to serve the underprivileged. For example, he traveled to Rwanda to build hospitals. Jeremiasz comments, “I truly believe that great architecture can heal, as long as it’s focused on what’s truly essential and forgets everything else.”

Jeremiasz’s speech is well-received; he gets enthusiastic applause from the audience. Outside in the lobby area, as he’s about to leave, he has fans waiting for him, and they ask for his autograph and request photos with him. He willingly obliges and seems to appreciate the admiration. But Jeremiasz can’t stay and mingle with his fans for long because he’s got a plane to catch out of Paris, and his service car with a driver is waiting for him.

On the way to the airport, it’s pouring rain and there’s a traffic jam. While stuck in traffic, a woman in her early 20s who’s on a nearby sidewalk gets Jeremiasz’s attention and asks him if he’s going to the airport because she’d like to share his ride. She explains that she’s very close to missing her plane flight. She desperately needs a ride because she’s been trying in vain for several minutes to find an available taxi.

Jeremiasz says he’s going to the airport too, but he hesitates to let this stranger in the car. When she turns away in a defeated manner and says, “Forget it,” Jeremiasz feels sorry for her and tells her that she can share the ride with him to the airport. Her demeanor changes from dejected to grateful, and she thanks him profusely.

Who is this woman? She has an unusual name: Texel Textor (played by Athena Strates), and she says she’s Dutch. In fact, every time she talks to someone new, she introduces herself using the exact same words and always mentions that she’s Dutch. It’s almost like she’s programmed to introduce herself in this way, but (this isn’t spoiler information) Texel is not a robot.

Texel and Jeremiasz make small talk in the back of the car. She’s very chatty, and she seems to be an upbeat free spirit. Texel is also very observant, because she immediately notices Jeremiasz’s name and address on his luggage. He tells her that he’s an architect and that he’s in Paris on business. Texel shows the first sign that she’s going to ruin Jeremiasz’s trip when, a few minutes after getting into the car, she says that she left a piece of her luggage out on the sidewalk where she had been trying to hail a taxi.

Going back to retrieve the luggage, especially in this traffic jam, means that Jeremiasz will definitely miss his flight. Jeremiasz asks her if she can find another ride to go back for her luggage. Texel gets a little snippy by saying that she already spent too much time trying to hail a taxi before, and she doesn’t think the lack of available taxis will change now. And so, Jeremiasz tells his driver to turn around so Texel can get her luggage. Luckily, the luggage is still right where she left it.

By the time they get to the airport, Jeremiasz is slightly irritated that he missed his flight, but he seems to be relieved to not have to see Texel again, as they say goodbye and go their separate ways. After he rebooks to be on the next available flight, which will take off in about two hours, Jeremiasz settles into the VIP lounge to relax and listen to whatever he’s listening to on his headphones.

It should come as no surprise that Texel shows up in the lounge and makes her way to Jeremiasz, who is surprised to see her there. And what do you know, she’s waiting for the exact same flight. Is this a weird coincidence or something else? There would be no “A Perfect Enemy” if it were just a weird coincidence.

Texel strikes up another conversation with Jeremiasz, but she can’t take the hint that he doesn’t want her to bother him. When he tells her that he just wants to spend some time by himself, she acts insulted. Texel won’t go away, and her attitude changes from friendly to bizarre and menacing.

For example, at one point, Texel says to Jeremiasz, “Have you ever killed anyone? I killed someone when I was little.” And in another part of the conversation, she says she knows about an “inner enemy” who’s “a thousand times more powerful than a wimp like God.” Jeremiasz tells her that he’s an atheist.

In case it isn’t clear by now, Texel’s “damsel in distress” persona was all an act. And, for a reason that’s revealed in the last third of the movie, she wants to have Jeremiasz’s full attention. And so, for the majority of the movie, it’s about Texel saying things that will annoy or shock Jeremiasz. But they’re sitting in an airport lounge while she does much of the talking, so there’s very little “terror” that can happen in this setting.

Jeremiasz is growing increasingly uncomfortable being in the presence of Texel. But she says something that intrigues him and makes him curious enough to continue listening to her unhinged ramblings. Texel says she’s going to tell Jeremiasz a three-part story. According to Texel’s description of the story, the first part is “disgusting,” the second part is “scary,” and the third part is “filled with love.” The storytelling is told in flashbacks.

In the first part of the story, Texel talks about her childhood and growing up in a household with an abusive stepfather (played by Götz Vogel von Vogelstein) and an uncaring mother. Texel goes into detail about the nauseating food slop that her mother and stepfather made her prepare for the animals on their farm. And you know what that means: There’s going to be a scene of Texel eating that slop too.

The airport where Jeremiasz and Texel are just happens to be an airport that Jeremiasz co-designed in 2002 with two other architects. There are model replicas of the airport in the airport’s main entrance and in the VIP lounge. When Jeremiasz tells Texel that he co-designed this airport, she seems impressed, but she’s much more impressed with what she has to tell Jeremiasz.

There are clues that something is very wrong in this airport, because every time Jeremiasz looks at this model replica, he sees red stains that look like blood on the outside entrance of the model replica. The stains grow larger as the movie continues. One of the more effectively eerie aspects of “A Perfect Enemy” is how this model replica has miniature human figurines that look like Jeremiasz and Texel and posed to re-enact a scene that was just shown in the movie. The mini-figurines are also dressed exactly like how Jeremiasz and Texel are dressed.

“A Perfect Enemy” wants to keep viewers wondering what Texel really wants from Jeremiasz and if her stories are really true. However, by making Texel and Jeremiasz “stuck” together in the same limited space in an airport for most of the movie, it actually makes “A Perfect Enemy” duller than it should be. The movie’s screenplay, which is based on Amélie Nothomb’s 2001 novel of the same name, was adapted by “A Perfect Enemy” director Maíllo, Cristina Clemente and Fernando Navarrro. Judging by the way this movie’s mystery was mishandled in the screenplay, viewers can see too early that something is “off-kilter” when an architect who designed the airport doesn’t go somewhere in the airport to hide from this stalker, who seems to have come out of nowhere.

Strates sometimes goes too over-the-top and too campy in playing this obviously demented person. It makes for an awkward match with Kot’s almost-robotic acting style. In other words, better actors would have made this movie more enjoyable. One cast member whose acting isn’t a detriment to the movie is Marta Nieto, who convincingly portrays a troubled woman named Isabelle, who has at least one big secret. Isabelle’s story is a major plot development that won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s eventually revealed in the movie. Unfortunately, Nieto doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as Kot and Strates, who both drag the movie down with their sometimes amateurish acting.

Strates demonstrates better acting skills than Kot does. He doesn’t have the actor charisma that’s necessary for viewers to emotionally connect with this film’s main character, in order for the ending to have more of an impact than it does. In the last 15 minutes of the film, Jeremiasz has some big, dramatic moments. But by then, viewers won’t care about Jeremiasz because he didn’t show much personality for most of the movie. And that’s ultimately a flaw that’s too big for “A Perfect Enemy” to overcome. A movie’s protagonist should keep viewers interested, not be so dull that viewers will want to stop watching the movie before it’s over.

Brainstorm Media released “A Perfect Enemy” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 11, 2021.

Review: ‘Uncorked,’ starring Mamoudou Athie, Courtney B. Vance and Niecy Nash

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)


Directed by Prentice Penny

Culture Representation: Taking place in Memphis and Paris, the comedy-inflected drama “Uncorked” has a diverse cast of African Americans and white characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An African American man in his 20s is torn between wanting to become a master sommelier and his father’s wishes for him to take over the family’s barbecue restaurant business.

Culture Audience: “Uncorked” will appeal mostly to people who want to see a relatable drama about family relationships, as well as what it’s like to try to break into the competitive and elite world of master sommeliers.

Mamoudou Athie and Courtney B. Vance in “Uncorked” (Photo by Nina Robinson/Netflix)

“Uncorked” takes an authentic and sometimes humorous look at the journey a young man goes through in pursuing his dream to become a master sommelier, even though it conflicts with family obligations. In telling this unique story for the screen, writer/director Prentice Penny just happened to make the protagonist an African American. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t take the cliché route of making the movie about racism or about an underprivileged person of color who gets help from a “white savior.” Instead, the movie touches on universal themes of family tensions and self-doubt through the lens of African American middle-class culture.

The two conflicting worlds of central character Elijah (played by Mamoudou Athie) are made abundantly clear in the opening credits, which alternate between montages of people making barbecue and people making wine. Elijah, who appears to be in his mid-to-late-20s, is holding down two jobs in his hometown of Memphis: He’s a sales clerk at a wine shop and a cook in his father’s casual barbecue restaurant. He’s a lot more passionate about his wine job, and he only works at his father’s place because he feels obligated to do it.

Elijah’s father Louis (played by Courtney B. Vance) inherited the barbecue place from his own father, and Louis expects to Elijah (his only son) to take over the restaurant someday. It’s truly a family business because Elijah’s mother Sylvia (played by Niecy Nash) also works there, as a waitress. Louis also has plans to open a second, more upscale barbecue restaurant in a “gentrified” neighborhood. Elijah’s close-knit family includes Elijah’s cousins, Elijah’s older sister Brenda (played by Kelly Jenrette), Brenda’s husband and their three kids,

However, Elijah’s passion is really for the wine business. It’s evident in how he lights up when talking about wine and recommending selections to customers at the wine shop. One customer in particular sparks more than just an interest in recommending wine. He meets a young woman named Tanya (played by Sasha Compère) when she comes into the store with a friend to get a bottle of wine for a party.

Tanya doesn’t know much about wine, but Elijah puts her at ease by asking her if she likes hip-hop. She says yes. In helping her make her choice, he explains that chardonnay is like the Jay-Z of wine, pino grigio is like the Kanye West of wine and riesling is like the Drake of wine. (She ends up getting riesling wine.)

It’s no surprise that Tanya comes back to the store on another day and takes Elijah’s suggestion to join the store’s wine club, which is how she gives Elijah her contact information. They begin dating each other soon afterward. (Their first date is at a roller-skating rink.)

Tanya encourages Elijah to pursue his dream to become a master sommelier—a title that, as of this writing, only 269 people in the world have ever held, according to the Court of Master Sommeliers. Elijah’s boss at the wine store, Raylan Jackson (played by Matthew Glave), also encourages Elijah and says he will put in a recommendation for Elijah if he ever wants to go to sommelier school. Raylan is a master sommelier, and Elijah looks wistfully at the sommelier diploma that Raylan has.

Meanwhile, there’s increasing tension between Elijah and his father Louis. When Louis tries to get Elijah to do things that will prepare Elijah to take over the barbecue business, Elijah makes excuses by saying he has other plans, usually related to his wine job. Over a large family dinner, Elijah mentions that he’s thinking about going to sommelier school. Louis then makes a snide comment to Elijah by expressing doubt that Elijah will follow through on that goal. He reminds Elijah that he’s had other career goals (including being a DJ) that Elijah eventually abandoned.

Elijah’s mother Sylvia, who’s completely supportive of Elijah, later scolds Louis in private for embarrassing Elijah in front of the family. The back-and-forth banter and conversations between Louis and Sylvia are some of the funniest parts of the movie. Their dialogue rings true for a longtime married couple.

What also rings true is the way that the movie shows that when it comes to pursuing a dream, sometimes people can get in their own way, through self-doubt and making excuses. Tanya essentially tells Elijah that’s what he’ll be doing if he doesn’t take a chance and apply to sommelier school. It’s the extra encouragement he needs to take the entrance exam. And he gets into the school—but not without a major sacrifice. The only way he can pay for the tuition is to use all of his savings.

Even though Elijah tells Louis he can still work at the barbecue restaurant while he attends school, both father and son know that Elijah is now on a path that will change their relationship forever. Elijah is a talented student and a quick learner. But it’s one thing to graduate from sommelier school. It’s quite another thing to pass the extremely difficult test to become a master sommelier. (Based on the small percentage of master sommeliers in the world, most people who take the test don’t pass.)

While attending sommelier school, Elijah meets the three other people who end up in his study group: neurotic and obnoxious Richie (played by Gil Ozeri); cocky and intelligent Eric (played by Matt McGorry), who’s nicknamed Harvard because he went to Harvard University; and sensible and sarcastic Leann (played by Meera Rohit Kumbhani). Another challenge comes when Elijah’s sommelier class goes on a trip to Paris that he can’t really afford. 

Will Elijah get to go to Paris? Will he pass the master sommelier test? And how is his relationship with his father affected by these sommelier ambitions? Those questions are answered in the movie, which has a few twists and turns along the way.

“Uncorked” is the first feature film by writer/director Penny, who’s a former writer/director for the HBO comedy series “Insecure,” starring Issa Rae. The movie is an admirable debut that shows Penny has a knack for entertaining writing and making the right choices in editing and casting. (All the actors adeptly handle the movies comedic elements as well as the overall drama.)

To its great credit, “Uncorked” doesn’t get bogged down in stereotypical tropes of an African American trying to break into a predominantly white industry. There are no racist villains in the story, nor does Elijah have a negative attitude about the extremely small percentage of African Americans who end up being sommeliers. However, “Uncorked” doesn’t water down the African American culture that’s shown in the movie. (The soundtrack is hip-hop and there’s plenty of realistic dialogue in the film.)

As the central character Elijah, Athie carries the movie with a significant deal of charm and empathy. He makes great use of facial expressions to convincingly portray the inner conflicts of someone who wants to please his father and yet be his own man. The father-son relationship is complicated, but there’s also enough respect between the two of them that they don’t deal with conflicts by having obscenity-filled shouting matches, which are over-used negative stereotypes in movies about African American families. “Uncorked” is ultimately about more than just pursuing a dream. It’s also about understanding that in order to stay true to yourself, you have to know you really are in the first place.

Netflix premiered “Uncorked” on March 27, 2020.

Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris unveils new Le Spa

July 9, 2018

(Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris)

The following is a press release from Four Seasons:

Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris officially unveils its new Le Spa this 9 July, offering a sanctuary of haute couture tailor-made, results-driven treatments in the bustling heart of the city.

The brand new Spa, spread over 720m², includes a 17-metre (55-foot) swimming pool, vitality pool with hydro-massage water experience circuit heated to 34°C, a 90 m² cutting-edge fitness room, and a stylish hair salon. In addition to the five single treatment rooms, two luxury hammams for men and women and a Spa Suite for couple treatments.

“We are delighted to introduce Le Spa, a contemporary space of style and serenity in the heart of the city. A place where Parisian elegance meets caring Four Seasons service, delivered by our team of passionate therapists who are dedicated to making you look and feel your best”, says Jean-Claude Wietzel, General Manager of Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris.

Renowned Parisian interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon has created a space that is at once bright, modern and elegant drawing on ancient spa traditions, with a colour palette of light grey and silver tones. Inspiration from Greek, Roman and Turkish mosaic patterns lies alongside carefully curated pieces of modern art and spectacular floral compositions designed by Jeff Leatham. “We meticulously selected materials, furniture and pieces of art that embody the spirit codes and harmony of the hotel, both classic and resolutely contemporary” comments Rochon.

Key features of Le Spa include:

Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris
(Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris)

Swimming Pool
The 17-metre (55-foot) mosaic-lined swimming pool is the perfect spot for poolside relaxation, complemented by a 34°C vitality pool experience.

(Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris)

Fitness Centre
The 90 m² fitness centre offers a selection of the latest cutting edge cardiovascular equipment specially designed by Technogym for Le Spa, with chrome-plated equipment, including treadmills, bikes, ascent trainers, elliptical, and a rowing machine. A 7-metre long screen transports guests to the great outdoors with an interactive movie about nature bringing the four seasons into the very heart of the Hotel.

(Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris)

Hair salon
With two hair dressing stations, the hair salon offers complete high-end hair treatments for women and men leaving guests guaranteed to turn heads as soon as they step outside.

(Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris)

A tailor-made, results-driven approach 
In the city of haute couture, what could be more fitting then a menu of treatments tailor-made to provide the best results from the most reputable French and international brands? Le Spa will offer personalized experiences addressing the needs of all skin types, using a hand-picked collection of products and techniques developed in conjunction with globally recognized Spa and beauty experts.

A selection of brand new Signature Experiences has been developed to harness the core spirit of the Spa, providing bespoke sensory journeys that deliver tangible results. Highlights include a Kobido traditional Japanese facelift, an Alaena organic certified bio anti-ageing treatment, and a Dr Burgener escape designed especially for the Spa.

Kobido: a rare, traditional Japanese facelift created by Dr. Shogo Mochizuki
In Japanese, Kobido means “the ancient way of beauty”, and is the oldest facial tradition in Japan, following a lineage that dates back to 1472. Tradition states that this therapy was reserved exclusively for imperials and nobility for centuries. Le Spa is proud to bring this tradition to modern-day Paris, with Dr. Shogo Mochizuki having come personally to Le Spa to share his expertise with the team of therapists.

(Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris)

Breath of Life by Alaena: an organic treatment signed by Dr Sylvie Peres from France
This body and face treatment is inspired by Tui Na, a therapeutic art of Chinese Medicine, using patented active ingredients to boost cells rejuvenation and impart an anti-ageing effect.

George V Escape by Dr. Pauline Burgener, Switzerland
Created exclusively for Le Spa, this luxurious customised antioxidant treatment combines a Chardonnay body scrub, a massage with Champagne oil, and a facial harnessing the antioxidant power of gold, Chardonnay and green caviar. A sweet treat of a Four Seasons Hotel George V macaron and a glass of Champagne complete this uniquely Parisian experience.

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