2017 CBU Tournees Film Festival
One early morning in August 1944, as the Allies march toward Paris, Wehrmacht commander Dietrich von Choltitz prepares farewell notes and gifts for his wife and family and sends his closest aide to deliver them, suggesting that he does not expect to survive his next mission: to destroy Paris before the allies get there by bombing its landmarks and bridges and damming the Seine to flood the remains. Lavin, the chief engineer, arrives with maps and diagrams to explain in chilling detail where explosives have been planted in the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, and city bridges and how much time the Germans have before escape is impossible. After Lavin departs, Swedish ambassador Raoul Nordling appears in von Choltitz’ drawing room unannounced and explains that Napoleon III had a passage built for purposes of secreting a mistress into the very chamber the commander now occupies. Nordling persuades Choltitz to hear him out, and makes an eloquent case for sparing Paris for the benefit of generations yet unborn.
Choltitz is resolute but eventually admits that his own future also hangs in the balance, as a law known as Sippenhaft has just been passed, holding officers’ families responsible for their actions, meaning that any deviation from orders will result in their imprisonment and death. When this reality sinks in, Nordling comes up with a plan whereby Chanticler, an underground resistance movement, will be instructed to spirit Choltitz’ family out of Germany. When Choltitz demands to know how Nordling became aware of such an organization, the ambassador reveals that he used their services to rescue his wife, who is Jewish. Now Choltitz has to decide not only whether to entrust is family to an enemy, but whether he can prevent the exhaustively planned demolitions from going forward. He decides to take the risk, and announces that the operation has been canceled. Hegger, the Nazi lieutenant in charge of the operation, refuses to accept Choltitz’ remand and carries on. Just as his hands seize a dynamite plunger, he is felled by a single bullet to the forehead. The shooter is Lavin, the French engineer. Closing titles reveal that Choltitz was taken prisoner by the Allies but released in 1947, that his family was saved, and that in 1955, he and Nordling met again in Paris, where Nordling gave him the medal he had been awarded after the war.
Monsieur Lazhar (2011, Canada)
BUSB 104 / March 8, 6:30 PM / Free Admission
The film begins in a snowy schoolyard as students arrive for class. It's Simon's day to deliver milk to his classroom before the bell. Finding the door locked, he peers through the narrow window and sees the figure of his teacher Martine hanging from a ceiling pipe. He drops the milk and runs as the morning bell rings. Moments later, arriving children are whisked back to the playground by frantic teachers. Simon’s friend Alice is the only other student to catch a glimpse of Martine.
Next we see the principal brightly explaining to a skeptical assembly of parents that a psychologist has been hired and every effort will be made to address student needs. But she admits to her staff that she’s having trouble finding a replacement. Bashir arrives sans appointment and tells her he’s taught in Algeria for 19 years. She hires him and next day he’s in front of the class in the room Martine hanged herself, which has been repainted. He requests a move but the principal says there aren’t any rooms available. Instead he rearranges the clustered desks into straight rows. He reads Balzac for dictation, addresses Simon sharply for snapping a photo without permission, and swipes another boy on the head for speaking out of turn. Bashir’s colleagues are bemused by his old-school ways, but he works hard to win his students, and they are glad to have him. The principal mildly rebukes him in the staff lounge, shaking her head “no” to Balzac and explaining that teachers are not to touch students, which leads another teacher to confide that Martine had been under investigation for having inappropriately hugged milk-deliverer Simon, who had reported her.
Meanwhile Simon’s behavior takes a turn for the worse. He has grown sullen and withdrawn, a fact observed by Bashir, who also notices a rift between Simon and Alice. When Simon gives Alice a picture of Martine taken with his camera—a gift from Martine, it turns out– she chastises him for causing Martine’s suicide. Bashir is warned not to discuss the suicide but he does when the topic arises. He tries to comfort his class by explaining that her death has no meaning and that they shouldn’t blame themselves. After school one evening Bashir visits his lawyer with a package from Algeria, which turns out to be the belongings of his wife and two children, who perished in an apartment fire of suspicious origin on their last day in Algeria before they were to join him in Montréal. We learn that Bashir is a refugee seeking asylum, that his application for residency is pending investigation, and that his teaching job increases his chances of winning. The lawyer advises him on an upcoming hearing at which a final decision will be announced.
Bashir has dinner with a colleague, Claire, in her apartment. Others were invited, but they couldn’t come, she tells him, though the table is set for two, and it’s clear she has affection for him. She encourages Bashir to open up about his personal story, but she doesn’t know the details, and Bashir doesn’t tell her. Meanwhile parents are increasingly dissatisfied. One bluntly warns Bashir in a parent conference not to try to raise their daughter. After a dramatic year-end classroom confrontation wherein Alice openly accuses Simon of having provoked Martine’s suicide, the principal summons Bashir to tell him that a parent has investigated and she wants the truth. Bashir admits that he ran a restaurant in Algeria. The principal tells him she’s being replaced, and that she’s found a replacement for Bashir, who is to leave the school immediately without speaking to his class. Bashir apologizes but insists on finishing the day: “Martine left without saying goodbye.” And so we next see him ruminating at his desk while students complete an assignment, and then he reads a story he promised about a chrysalis about to turn into butterfly until a forest fire burns her cocoon. Students collect their things and leave, and in a final moment, Alice returns to give a tearful hug.
The film opens with a column of Nazis marching toward the camera on the Champs Elysees before the Arc de Triomphe. Then we see fictional Resistance leader Philippe Gerbier being transported in a van through the French countryside by amiable guards. Gerbier has been betrayed and sent to a Vichy prison camp for persons of influence. An attempted escape fails, but when he is brought to Paris for questioning a daring second attempt succeeds. Gerbier sets about reestablishing his Marseilles contacts and identifying his betrayer, who turns out to be Paul Dounat, younger brother of a Resistance member. Gerbier and three of his men are present when Le Bison strangles Dounat with his bare hands in a Marseilles basement, as a bullet might attract attention. With the help of a housewife named Mathilde, played by Simone Signoret, Gerbier stages a daring prison break to rescue her Resistance leader husband, but the effort comes too late, and her husband commits suicide by cyanide pill after being horribly beaten by his captors. Gerbier had run from the Gestapo, a shameful memory he rehearses over and over in his head.
Later, while breakfasting with Gerbier in a Marsailles restaurant, Mathilde calmly tells him that he should leave the country for a while, as the police have identified a photo of him. Gerbier demurs, stating that no one could replace him, and Mathilde replies that if he’s captured, someone will have to replace him anyway. Gerbier briefly interrupts his meal to watch her leave the restaurant without a backward glance. A few minutes later Gestapo arrive and Gerbier is captured, but he manages to escape with the help of contacts in London, where he is given a medal by Charles de Gaulle. He returns to a safe house in France where he remains incognito for several months. When next we see Mathilde, she is in the crosshairs of the four leaders, including Gerbier, who have learned in the interval that she had been captured and released after giving out some minor intelligence in order to protect her daughter. The four discuss the case, and Le Bison objects to killing her, but Luc Jardie argues that she expects them to, as she’s incapable of suicide. Mathilde is deemed a threat to the Resistance, and in the final scene, Jardie, Gerbier, Le Bison, and Le Masque pile into a black sedan to hunt down Mathilde, whom they spot striding down a Paris street. They make eye contact, and Mathilde sees the gun, which Le Bison fires twice. She falls across the sidewalk. Closing titles tell us that all four killers died within a year of the war’s end.
The film begins as Michel Bras ruefully removes photos from a bulletin board in the office of La Maison Bras, a high-end restaurant he built on a hill in the Laguiole region of central France providing sweeping views of the Aubrac district which produces the 60+ fresh ingredients of his signature dish, an ingenious salad called “le gargouillou de jeunes légumes,” or stew of fresh vegetables (shown below). Bras is reluctantly handing kitchen duties to his 30-something son Sébastien, who has worked there from childhood and is eager to take the reins. The narrative is divided into five sections, a prologue and four seasons. In the prologue, we see Michel removing his photos, then a gargouillou is created, then Michel and Séba buy vegetables at pre-dawn market and discuss menu ideas (“translucent jelly?”). Michel is pleasant but habitually corrects Séba who can’t say “look at the sunrise” without dad pointing out that it’s still an hour away.
Likewise, when Séba instructs staff at the restaurant, Michel pipes in to tell them not to talk too much. In part 1, “l’Été” (Summer), Séba takes his family fishing, and bossy Michel comes along. In an interview, Séba’s wife Véro tells us Séba had always intended to take over the family business. His grandmother recalls making him a chef’s outfit when he was six. Now their young son Alban wears the same outfit, and Michel has given him and his sister jobs in the kitchen, which makes Véro, the restaurant’s hostess, proud. Michel’s parents recall how Michel also worked in the restaurant, then called Lou Mezac, before moving it from the town to its dramatic current perch. A clipping shows Michel winning a culinary prize in Paris.
In part 2, “l’Automne” (Autumn), we see Michel and Séba bickering mildly as they collect herbs in a greenhouse garden. Later, in the kitchen, Michel badgers Sébastien with suggestions as he tries to cook, at one point drawing a sketch. In the next scene Michel and his wife discuss his inability to retire. Then to a “Gaillac Grape Harvest Festival,” where Michel and Séba carouse (no alcohol is in evidence) and neighbors reflect on the transition: one says, “I think Sébastien will be really great when Michel finally retires.”
Part 3, “l’Hiver” (Winter), takes place at Restaurant Bras in Toyo, Japan, a nearly identical twin also nestled atop a mountain. Michel and Sébastien supervise the Japanese staff. In a climactic moment, Séba gives Michel a taste of a dessert he’s been working on throughout the film, a painstaking concoction of boiled milk skin, tofu, rice paste and blueberries. Michel is skeptical and picks at the dessert before finally tucking in, and though his skepticism remains (“You need to work on the rice crust. I’d like more seasoning”), he admits that it’s tasty. In part 4, “Printemps” (Spring), Michel reflects on the difficulty of letting go: “I feel two worlds are colliding.” In closing scenes, Sebá prepares three new dishes, an entrée, a main course, and his dessert, which he calls a “pathway,” before an attentive audience. Michel is not in evidence. In the final shot, Séba gazes pensively out a huge restaurant window as his son Alban plays with non-chef toys.
The narrative follows Panh’s experience of the Kampuchean Revolution from the fall of Phom Penh in 1975 (9:33) to the demise of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, beginning with his memories of Phnom Penh life before the deportation, represented by cheerful family gatherings (4:17), to their reeducation in the jungle: “Our clothes are dyed in black, our first names changed” (10:18), then their eventual deaths in the famine that swept Cambodia after the deportations: first his father, who refuses his meager rations; then a sixteen-year old sister, then his mother, in a hospital where Panh arrives with a stolen fish two days late. He recalls a shaggy-haired brother who played guitar and disappeared in Phnom Penh: “His guitar must not have pleased the Khmer Rouge” (46:50). Panh’s final assignment is to bury the dead in a field beside the hospital, later turned into a lake that no one will go near: “But the lake is so salty and so oddly green that nobody dares to use or drink it” (1:29). In the final words of the film, Pahn reflects on his responsibility as a survivor to tell the story of those who perished: “There are many things a man should not see or know . . . But if one of us sees these things or knows them, then he must live to tell about them” (1:31:38).
In addition to the theme of survivor’s guilt, Panh touches on the dangers of nationalism and the peril of being captivated by Utopian ideas that sound appealing in the abstract but have no tolerance for individual lives: “The Khmer Rouge were inspired by Marx and Rousseau” (40:03).
Phantom Boy (2015)
BUSB 252 / March 29, 6:30 PM / Free Admission
Leo, a shorn but stoic eleven-year old confined to a New York hospital bed by an aggressive treatment for an unspecified disease, discovers that he has a “phantom” that can leave his body and pass through floors to welcome other patients’ phantoms. One such belongs to Lt. Tanguy, a police detective sidelined while accidentally discovering the lair of a facially disfigured villain who has just released a cyber-attack plunging NYC into darkness in a plot to extort the mayor into delivering a billion dollars in 24 hours. Lt. Tanguy’s Lois-Lane-like girlfriend, Mary Delauney, also has a secret, namely an assignation with the scar-faced villain about whom she has written a scathing front-page story for the morning paper. Mary meets Leo while visiting Tanguy, and when she leaves the hospital for her rendezvous, Tanguy sends Leo’s phantom to follow her. Mary is ambushed in a parking garage by the “man with the broken face” and two henchmen, while Leo’s invisible phantom reports to Tanguy, who calls Mary’s cell phone to tell her the garage is surrounded by police, a subterfuge allowing her to escape, but not before accidentally dropping her phone. She returns to the hospital to thank Tanguy for saving her life, but insists on arranging another rendezvous with her subject.