July the 4th is of course a very patriotic day for one nation in particular. Us Brits like to moan about the Yanks now and again because perhaps old rivalries never quite die no matter how close the friendship. We have an even fonder tendency to exchange banter with our French friends across the channel. On Independence Day the story of one of their most fascinating monarchs arrives on DVD.
Henry of Navarre (aka Henri 4) has all the ingredients of an epic historical romp. Its visceral battle scenes, complete with frenetic handheld camerawork as well as sweeping shots, have been likened to Ridley Scott’s iconic set pieces by Variety. Its period details are meticulous and vivid, from costume to setting. Its themes of religious freedom, love and power are at once more inspiring than modern day concerns and still relevant. And of course, as addictive TV dramas such as The Tudors and Rome have proved, no story of royalty and betrayal is complete these days without plenty of nudity and animalistic sex.
Henri, played by Julien Boisselier, is a charmer from childhood. The film begins with the prince of Navarre, a small region of France, paying the girls as a mere boy for a glimpse up their skirts. He goes on to seduce, overpower and caress several other women throughout the course of the film. The first set of bedroom scenes, with a Catholic he is told to marry to secure peace, verge on the violent, fuelled by religious resentment and suspicion. They scratch and bite like tigers just released from a zoo. Henry of Navarre is not a film short on beautiful women or erotic encounters.
But Henri is still likeable despite his cavorting, which prompts his second wife to describe him as a “horny old goat”. Boisselier plays him as a man disillusioned by the role and world he was born into but determined to change things pragmatically. The film begins with Henri leading the Protestant Huguenots against the greater part of France controlled by the Catholic Medici family. Henri is encouraged into a peacemaking marriage in Paris and during this part of the film within the city walls and the Louvre palace, overwhelming tension and intrigue builds, with relationships in the court difficult to decipher. Henri is well meaning but naive and the betrayal eventually comes with the tragedy of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre.
At this point it’s hard to understand why Henri doesn’t flee but eventually he wins the trust of the traitors and escapes successfully. He returns to his roots in Navarre and builds up the strength of his home. By the end of the film Henri is King of all of France, with the price being his religious belief and identity. But despite his growing wisdom, Henri’s childhood innocence and kindness is also preserved by Boisselier’s performance. This is a very modern film because Henri puts aside labels of religion and ancestry to cherish things that really matter in life and leadership; loyalty, friendship, love and freedom.
Henry of Navarre has its faults. It could do with being half an hour shorter but the two and a half hour runtime is more than filled with the substance of Henri’s fascinating life. Not all of the acting is assured, with Ulrich Noethen’s performance as Charles IX too over the top and caricatured regardless of the troubled nature of the monarch. The battle scenes, despite their initial impact, become repetitive. You are carried through it all though by the compelling complexity and emotion of Henri’s story and the appeal of his character. This would appear to be a diverse film faithful to history that both entertains and educates.
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Sometimes you really wish you could forget someone. Not because you want to but because you feel like you have to. People are forever telling you to “move on” from them, as if they were a shifty beggar in the street wasting your time. They have condemned you to the rubbish dump of their lives, so you should do the same. Whatever you manage to salvage from the wreckage of them will only remind you of the way things were before the crash, in a time you cannot travel back to. It’s time for a new stage of your life, minus them.
There are days when it feels like you might be able to do it. There are loads of things to live for, more pluses than minuses dotting the horizon of the future. But the thing is life has a knack of throwing reminders your way that jolt you back to her, to him, to them, to there. Oh look, memory sneers in a stage whisper from the shadows, it’s the bar you spent all night talking in, the river bank where you first kissed or the station she used to get off at. Even when you’ve succeeded in blanking them out from familiar places, their memories surprise you in other ways.
“This was our song” is a phrase you often hear from the devastated dumpee, just before their face melts in a cascade of noisy tears, possibly years after the breakup itself. Then there’s the novel that becomes ostracised on the book shelf because of a strange connection you are suddenly seeing these days within its pages. Even their favourite paper or magazine can give you a slap in the newsagents occasionally.
Some of the worst offenders are films. There will be the trashy romantic comedy given inexplicable significance because it happened to be your first date. There will be films that divided you and films you wished them to see. And there will be some favourites of theirs you never found the time to watch.
This was the case for me as I finally watched Amelie in its entirety. I had seen bits of it but never the whole thing. I knew that the music was fantastically whimsical and enchanting. I had watched an uplifting scene via YouTube in which Amelie spirits a blind man along a street, vividly describing everything in a whirlwind of sensuous movement. I knew it was French and starred Audrey Tautou. And I knew it was one of the favourite films of someone I wish I could forget.
In a way I was desperate to hate Amelie. I knew what it would be like because I knew the people that liked it. I was hoping that it would try too hard, alienate me with its quirkyness and annoy me with its arty farty simplifications. There were times I felt a little like that. But mostly I loved it.
Why did I hope that I wouldn’t? It was hard at points to be enjoying it so much because they enjoy it. How much easier it would have been to be repulsed and to have found another tiny reason to take another minute step forward and away from the past!
Amelie is about being alive, feeling alive and dreaming. It’s about the smaller things, so particular and peculiar that they must be real, containing a touch of magic that makes life worthwhile. It is extremely funny and eccentric, fresh and unique.
It’s the eccentricity that I thought might annoy me. I thought that Amelie might have been quirky for its own sake, as so many films of its ilk are. But Amelie’s comedy is crucial to its success. It is almost self mocking at times with the ridiculous and random nature of its details.
In the opening twenty minutes I fell in love with the narration. Normally voiceover is catastrophic and awful. Perhaps Amelie’s is so charming and intoxicating because it is French. Or perhaps it is that at once meaningful and light hearted tone, which doesn’t take itself too seriously. Amelie feels like a novel throughout its enjoyable beginning which explains her tragic yet amusing childhood. Characters are brought to life instantly because of their odd habits and Amelie herself has baffling, childlike musings about the world which add to her appeal.
I was disappointed when the narration became less frequent throughout the film, which is extraordinary given my usual distaste for voiceover. I loved the musicality of the voice, the specific details it would come out with and the telling but mysterious insights we’d instantly learn about characters. Most of all I loved the way it seemed to mock any work of art trying much too hard to stand out.
But the retreat of the narrator brings Amelie herself to the foreground. The wonderful lines from the narrator are replaced by some witty and surprising scenes of dialogue. The visuals and sounds of the film grow and grow until modern day Paris seems like a wondrous place, with deserving and interesting souls to be saved on every corner.
I expected Amelie to be preachy, perhaps patronising or too desperate to be different. I wanted to dislike it for my own good. But in the end I am glad to have seen it. I liked it because it’s good, not because of any associations it has with anyone. I thought it was unique and it made me feel alive and full of possibility, regardless of what others think. It’s a beautiful and beguiling film that reminds us how life can be so too, with dreams coming true, big or small, out of nowhere.
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Last year Peter Weir made his directorial return with The Way Back, a star studded and old fashioned tale about the possibly true and possibly grossly exaggerated escape of a group of Polish prisoners of war from a Siberian gulag. Its critical reception was mixed, with some praising the film’s ambition and visuals, whilst others bemoaned its fatal lack of emotional engagement. However a German film, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, beat Weir’s epic to the broad concept by nine years.
Released in 2001 As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, now available on DVD, follows a German officer fleeing from imprisonment on Siberia’s easternmost shore. And for this reason its ethical foundations are considerably flimsier and more controversial than The Way Back’s.
This is saying something because The Way Back was based on a bestseller by Slavomir Rawicz, which since publication, has been disputed and branded a fake from a number of sources. And yet Weir’s film is unlikely to be attacked for historical bias of any kind. The story of Poles and Jews getting one over on their persecutors, be they German or Russian, is a common and acceptable one. Make your hero a German who has fought for a Nazi controlled state and buying into the character becomes far more complex.
Some might say that the way in which As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is told twists and distorts historical fact. We see Bernhard Betterman’s Clemens Forell hug his wife and young daughter goodbye on the platform in 1944 Germany. Then we cut swiftly to Forell being sentenced to 25 years forced labour in Siberia. He is charged with war crimes but the implication is that Forell is being unfairly condemned by corrupt and vengeful Communists. Then there is a long and grim train journey across the cold expanse of Russia, with glimpses of the grim hardships to come. Finally, exhausted from malnutrition and a hike through the snow, they are thrust into life at a camp.
Throughout all of this we discover nothing about Forell’s war record and his potential sins and little too about his political sympathies. He is shown to be a compassionate and brave man though; in other words a typical hero. He treasures the picture of his family and uses it for galvanising motivation that replaces the sustenance of food and drink. It is never explicitly mentioned during the camp scenes and moments of inhumane, cruel punishment but the shadow hanging over the story the whole time is that of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. You can’t help but feel uneasy as your sympathies inevitably gather around Forell in his struggle.
Of course the debate about the moralities of the Second World War and the balance of its sins can hardly be squeezed into a film review. Indeed the sensible view is probably to admit that it’s an unsolvable problem; evil was committed on both sides on an unimaginable scale. Stalin’s Russia was carrying out atrocities throughout the 1930s, long before the worst of Hitler’s cruelties were inflicted and on a larger scale than the Holocaust. It’s impossible to reason with or categorize such statistics of death and horrific eyewitness anecdotes. But this is a film that unavoidably makes the viewer think about such issues and not necessarily in the best of ways.
I don’t object to a story from a German soldier’s perspective. In fact I find it refreshing and necessary to witness an often overlooked point of view. But As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me glosses over too much at times, so that it becomes ethically dubious, compromising and limiting your investment in the narrative. The filmmakers will probably argue they are simply telling the story from Forell’s viewpoint alone. I think this argument falls down because of the film’s other weaknesses in plausibility though.
As Forell slowly makes his way back, first through Siberian snow, then Siberian summers and on through other outposts of the USSR, in a muddled route elongated by the help and hindrance of kind (and not so kind) strangers, we are continually shown glimpses of his waiting family in Germany. These scenes are so unconvincing that they spark the questions about the rest of the film.
The lives of his family are completely unaffected by the war, with only two exceptions; one is his ever present absence and the other a throwaway remark by the son Forell has never met, which his mother labels “Yankee talk”. Presumably they have therefore encountered American occupiers in some way. Forell’s daughter is only ever shown getting upset or dreaming about her lost father. I’m not being callous but the girl was young when her father left and her reaction is so simplistic that it punctures the believability of the entire story. I’m not saying she wouldn’t be absolutely devastated by her father’s absence but she would perhaps have moved on in some way. The possibility of Forell’s wife finding another man is never raised and they never give him up for dead.
All of this, coupled with the chief of security from the Siberian camp pursuing Forell across Russia like an ultimate nemesis, transforms As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me into am unrealistic fairytale. Forell is helped by a Jew at one point but the issue is merely touched upon. The period elements of this film are so secondary that they become redundant, but then the film does not claim to be “inspired by true events”.
It’s possible to enjoy this film if you look at it as simply one man’s impossible journey back to his impossibly perfect family. At way over two hours long, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is hopelessly brutal at times but somehow snappy too. It’s an engaging enough example of traditional storytelling, despite my doubts, but the only truths to be found are symbolic and stereotypical.
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