Starting with his 1998 debut Something Organic, Bertrand Bonello’s films have added a touch of baroque excess to French cinema. While this wasn’t initially apparent from his first major film, 2001’s The Pornographer, it’s quite clear from his two films distributed in the US, House of Pleasures and Saint Laurent. The former is a compassionate examination of life in a 19th-century brothel, the latter follows a hedonistic decade in the life of famed fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. It dodges the usual pitfalls of the biopic by concentrating on such a short period; indeed, its ending seems like a piss-take on that genre’s clichés. One of two films on Saint Laurent made simultaneously, it’s far superior to Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent. Its release follows a Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective of Bonello’s work, which is useful since little of his oeuvre has been released stateside. The film opens tomorrow in NYC; we spoke to Bonello last month.
When did you get the idea to make a film about Yves Saint Laurent?
It’s not my idea. It began with a French producer who wanted for many years to do a film about him. When he saw my previous film, House of Pleasure, he called me and asked if the subject was interesting to me. I very quickly saw an opportunity of cinema. The subject brought something visually. The character was like someone from a novel. I also wanted to make a film about that period, the late 60s and early 70s. So that was my interest.
Directed By Dominik Graf
Opens January 9
A movie about Schiller—the German playwright, philosopher, and poet—and the two sisters who agreed to share him, body and soul, is likely to attract an American audience more interested in the sharing than the poetry. Director Dominik Graf has similar aims, but is less prurient (apologies, Americans) and keeps the first hour of the theatrical release—there’s also a longer, two-part TV version—sort of sedate. A ménage à trois remains a complicated proposition even in the age of Meetup polyamory, but instead of fleshy tones, Graf focuses on the glossy surfaces of 18th-century wine glasses and salons. His actors halt in large, half-empty halls, tremble in tableaux vivants, hang out of the open windows of long country houses, and run through sunlit Nature (and away from husbands who wish Schiller’s ideas of human freedom were less appealing to their wives).
Like those wives, Beloved Sisters throws open the familiar, lavender scented embrace of the period drama. A pretty Wikipedia page, it wants to scrutinize the Personal Life and where necessary sketch a précis of the actual Life’s Work. Therefore, before willowy, angelic Schiller (Florian Stetter) shows up, the von Lengefeld sisters, Charlotte (Henriette Confurius) and Caroline (Hannah Herzspring) often embrace each other. The older, Caroline, has married a rich but apparently repulsive man—who persists in being not really repulsive, here—to help support quiet Charlotte and their widowed mom. Charlotte, who loves Schiller, and loves her sister not a scintilla less, marries him after a summer the three spend frolicking and writing coded notes. She is prepared to be a bridge, she says, between her genius husband and her ambitious sister—a writer whom even Schiller, not fond of lady scribblers, respects. But Caroline doesn’t want Charlotte to be a living sacrifice, and flees. Schiller is sad, but shrugs. His other hopes likewise go sour—the French Revolution, in which he had such faith, gets summed here in a shot of blood flowing over the cobblestones (perhaps appropriately, subtle as a guillotine). The real Caroline wrote a biography of her brother-in-law after his death; no family affairs were mentioned. We may only have Meetup for a model after all.
Directed by Ava DuVernay
In theaters December 25
Does Selma, Ava DuVernay’s new movie about Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s attempt to win federal protection for the voting rights of southern blacks in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, play it safe? No one’s biopic of a world historical figure, especially a legendary non-violent Negro assimilationist whose deification the entire doomed Republic seems to agree upon, will satisfy everyone. I cried while watching Selma, right around the time Keith Stanfield’s Jimmy Lee Johnson is murdered by a police officer while trying to defend his helpless father following a march the cops willfully and brutally ambushed.
Tim Burton’s Big Eyes could be lumped in with the count-em-three other biographical movies opening on Christmas Day, being that it’s Burton’s first true-ish story since Ed Wood twenty years ago. But it’s also a reunion with Wood screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karazewski, which (for some, at least) shifts the focus from the biography of painter Margaret Keane to the narrative of Burton’s career, which, per conventional wisdom, just hasn’t been the same since, well, take your pick: Sleepy Hollow in ’99, Mars Attacks! in ’96 (his critically disliked flop that at some point became part of his good old days) or yes, Ed Wood, the masterpiece some non-fans seem to love at least in part out of hate for every outright fantasy he’s made since.
Big Eyes is not Ed Wood—not as loopy, not as moving, not as perfect a movie about the making of its beautifully questionable art—and as such may provide further fodder for condescending thinkpieces about what happened to Burton (quick answer: since his supposed prime he’s made, let’s see, a family drama with fantastical elements, a dark musical, a nearly unclassifiable horror-soap comedy, and some family films whose worst crimes are the ease with which they fit into his wheelhouse). But it accompanies Wood and Edward Scissorhands as a portrait of Burton’s native California: sunny pop-art sprawl with undercurrents of dysfunction and menace.