OF MICE AND FRENCHMEN: ERNEST & CELESTINE and MAUVAIS SANG


ernest-and-celestine-2012-snoutypig-004In Ernest & Celestine, the Oscar nominated animated film from France, anthropomorphized bears dwell above ground, live like humans (one owns a candy store), and claim that mice fairies will come by in the night and leave money whenever a cub loses a tooth.
Meanwhile, anthropomorphized mice dwell in the sewers and steal bear teeth to use as dentures.

One might think that this is a very symbiotic relationship except that bears (especially those of the female persuasion) are terrified of mice and mice are terrified of bears who are the boogeyman in bedtime stories in which monstrous ursa majors do little but eat millions of itty bitty mices at a time.

About the only thing the two groups really have in common is something intrinsically French: the bears use mousetraps as guillotines to kill the mice they imprison and the mice have gigantic mousetraps of their own for the exact same purpose when it comes to bears (one of the cleverest jokes of the movie).

The basic story is about the orphan mouse Ernestine, a character who just won’t take no for an answer and is so annoying, you love her the more infuriating she becomes.  She gets stranded above ground and becomes almost a meal, then a frenemy and then a friend of Ernest, a bear who is one of those types of poor people who, when they try to busk for some extra coins, not only can’t get anything dropped in their hat, they get fined for performing without a license.

The two work through their essential differences to see the humanity (or anthropomorphized humanity) in each other and become a life lesson to one and all.

The fundamental message of Ernest & Celestine is basically “can’t we all just get along”.  But, please, don’t let that stop you from seeing this delightful film, mainly because there is a bigger theme here than the “we should all be nicer to one another” one.

And that is silliness.

It’s a silly movie.  It’s a silly movie about silly people (or anthropomorphized animals).  It’s a silly movie about silly people (or anthropomorphized animals) doing silly things.

It’s just plain silly.  No, it’s more than that.  It’s pretty wonderfully silly.

And they do all these silly things against beautiful water colored backgrounds and simple animation that is kind of a welcome relief from the more CGI generated American fare (I say, “kind of”, because I love CGI generated American fare, but still, it’s nice to eat out at a different style of restaurant every once in awhile, isn’t it?).

It’s also very clever and a real treat and has such imaginative turns as a rat dentist (well, he’s a dentist, so what else did you think they’d make him).

I saw the dubbed version, in which gruff voiced Forest Whitaker took over from Lambert Wilson as Ernest.  He’s a bear ton of fun.

With perky voiced Mackenzie Foy as Celestine; Lauren Bacall maleficently magnificent as the terrifying head of the orphanage; William H. Macy as the dentist; Paul Giamatti as a rat judge (I smell a leitmotif here); and Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman reprising their real life roles as husband and wife (Offerman, who usually plays a big bear of a character in whatever show he does, gets to play a real one here).

The sweet and very, very, very silly screenplay is by Daniel Pennac (from a book by Gabrielle Vincent).  The triumvirate of directors are Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner (Aubier and Patar gave us A Town Called Panic, which is even sillier than this movie).

mauvais-sang-toplessMauvais Sang (or The Night is Young) is controversial French director Leos Carax’s follow up to his first film Boy Meets Girl.  Released in 1986, it has been re-released in a new print and it’s gorgeous with pop colors abounding and beautiful compositions within beautiful compositions.

I mean, if there is one thing you can’t say against Carax is that his movies aren’t visually stunning.

But I and Carax don’t really get along, I’m afraid.  It happens.  I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault, really, and if it is, I’m quite fully prepared to say it’s not him, it’s me.  But Mauvais Sang, like Boy Meets Girl and Lovers on the Bridge, is little more to me than a bunch of beautiful pictures sans interesting characters, interesting plot and interesting ideas.

Much has been said of his being influenced by Jean Luc Godard and that may be where the rub begins with me.

I love Godard.  I find his movies fascinating.  I can’t explain why, really.  I mean, Godard is such his own person with his own style and his own theory of making films, that I can’t even explain what a movie of his is like, much less why I like them so much.

So when Godard does Godard, I find it exciting and vibrant and unique and riveting.  But when Carax does Godard, I find it, well, to be a copy of Godard and little else.  But who wants a copy of Godard any more than they would want a copy of a Picasso?

The basic story, what there is of it, revolves around Marc who owes money to “the American” because the person who really owes it was pushed or jumped in front of the metro.  And the only way Marc can see to get it is to steal and sell part of a culture of a new disease that is being transmitted around Paris which attacks you mercilessly if you have sex and don’t love the person.

No, I’m not making this up.  Though it doesn’t really matter since the disease and the culture are not really that germane to the story (it’s only really referenced in very brief passing), but are more macguffins with all the capriciousness that implies.  And the heist is barely dramatized.

Marc enlists Alex, the son of the man who offed himself (or was killed), to help out because he has the fastest hands in Paris.  Complications ensue when Alex tries to avoid his ex-girlfriend Lise while falling film noir head over heels with Marc’s girlfriend Anna.

Got that?  Well, it doesn’t really matter, because as I said, the story doesn’t seem to be all that important (story just seems to be something that Carax just really isn’t all that interested in).

What’s important are the images and the direction.  And there’s certainly a lot of that (Carax directs the hell out of the movie, as if his first meeting the next morning is with a guillotine).   And the film has its stunning moments.

But after while, the lack of forward momentum, a strong plot and/or vibrant or interesting characters really drags the movie down until it comes to a screeching halt as the music has a want to suddenly do every arbitrary once in awhile (as it always does in a Godard movie as well).

The film doesn’t really go anywhere that original or interesting and takes an awfully long time not to get there.

Alex is played by Denis Lavant, who is in most Carax films.  The movie almost seems fashioned for his talents as acrobat, contortionist and sleight of hand artist.  His best scene is a tour de force of running, dancing, jumping and cavorting down a street like Kevin Bacon in Footloose.

He’s actually a fascinating screen presence.  He has almond shaped eyes; sharp, almost otherworldly features; and hair that sticks out like wires and it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off him.

Marc is played by the great French actor Michelle Piccolo of La belle noiseuse.  He’s a bull of a actor and he and Alex spend most of the time without their shirts on because Paris is unseasonably hot (make of that what you will; the audience seemed to treat it as a running joke, but I don’t know if that’s what Carax intended).

Lise is played by Julie Delpy and Anna by Juliet Binoche, both terrifyingly young and terrifyingly beautiful.

As I understand it, Carax has had trouble lately finding financing for his films.  This was mainly due to The Lovers on the Bridge, which ran over budget and didn’t get the critical reception and audience support it needed.  I have to be honest and say I found Lovers…, like other Carax films, to, again, be visually stunning, with a magnificent performance by Lavant, but with a plot almost as ridiculous as Mauvais Sang.

But then in 2012 Carax gave us Holy Motors, a stunning study of a man who makes a living doing nothing but becoming other people and playing out fake scenarios for an unseen audience.  It again starred Denis Lavant in what is so far the role and performance of his career.

This time around, the movie was about as un-Godard as one could get, which is perhaps why it worked for me while his others haven’t.

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