Amid considerable controversy (at least in US media), the Venice Film Festival included Woody Allen’s latest work as part of its official selection. No festival in North America has followed suit and it is unlikely that the film will be released stateside. The matter has obviously become political, which is a bit of a shame because Coup de Chance, Allen’s 50th feature, is a jazzy little charmer. Doesn’t aim too high, but hit all its intended marks with the effortless dexterity of a master.
Premiering out of competition, the Paris-set film revolves around Fanny (Lou de Laâge), a young woman married to an older, very successful man Jean (Melvil Poupaud). Fanny didn’t come from money and doesn’t always enjoy the company of Jean’s rich friends, but she’s made her peace with the sheltered life of a trophy wife. At least until she bumps into an old schoolmate Alain (Niels Schneider), a dashing writer who confesses his longtime crush on her. A whirlwind affair ensues. A suspicious husband takes action. Then fate intervenes in the form of Fanny’s visiting mother (Valérie Lemercier).
Even in French, you can’t miss the trademarks of an Allen script. Passion and jealousy leading to lies, betrayals and crime, while unexpected turns of events underline the folly of life. The themes are not new by any means, but the efficiency and sharp humor of Allen’s writing still work wonders. He has the ability to transport you to a dramatic situation where you immediately identify with the characters and their (sometimes misguided but always human) motivations. However unwise their actions, you understand where they are coming from. In this case, the reaction of Fanny after her husband has committed the prefect crime is particularly interesting. Driven by guilt and a lack of faith in men, she returns to her old routines without missing a beat. It’s an authentic if anticlimactic characterization that threatens to bring the story to an early end. All the more brilliant, then, for the mother character to come in and re-light the fireworks.
Like a breezy B-side to Match Point, Coup de Chance addresses the absurd nature of chance and coincidence from a comedic angle. It’s less sophisticated than the Jonathan Rhys Meyers/Scarlett Johansson-starrer but Allen moves things along at an equally brisk pace and envisions a third-act surprise that’s just as effective (the only screening I’ve attended so far where people loudly cheered during the film). 3-time Oscar-winning DP legend Vittorio Storaro’s photography is lush and sumptuous throughout. In all regards this is a fun time at the movies.
Back to the competition, I made the mistake of underestimating Evil Does Not Exist through the first 90 minutes of its runtime. This is a handsomely made film but a slight Hamaguchi, I thought. And then the last 15 minutes happened.
Two years after the Oscar-winning Drive My Car, Ryūsuke Hamaguchi sets his highly anticipated follow-up in a rural village that in many ways feels untouched by civilization. Surrounded by ancient forests and snow-capped lakes, it’s a place where men live in peaceful co-existence with animals and nature, where people drink directly from the river. Out of the blue, a company announces its decision to build a glamping site in the village and the plans presented by its two representatives suggest that the local water supply would be affected. After an unsuccessful hearing, the two representatives return to the village in the hopes of engaging handyman Takumi to push the project through, only to realize that their own minds have been changed in the process.
The reason why I was starting to dismiss the film as minor is that, while written in Hamaguchi’s typically pristine prose, the script doesn’t appear to have any real conflict or original idea. The innocent villagers go about their lives respecting the natural order of things. The evil corporation from the city has nothing but profit on its mind. When the villains finally see how the good guys live, they seem all but ready to give up their materialistic ways. That’s certainly nice and hopeful, but where’s the story? Well, I’m still not entirely sure, but the movie gets very strange very fast in its last act. It’s a testament to Hamaguchi’s prowess as a screenwriter how, with one almost violent switch of tone, he can catch you completely off guard and make you question everything you’ve seen. There are more layers to this film than meets the eye.
As for what does meet the eye, it’s pure beauty. Yoshio Kitagawa’s lens captures the splendor of the wild with a crispness that stuns. And the way Hamaguchi frames some of the scenic shots is so soulful they communicate on a level all its own. Which brings me to a brief note on Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, a film that’s also gorgeously shot by DP Philippe Le Sourd. What I find especially impressive about its look is that many scenes are either at night or indoors, and yet the diminished lighting never compromises the aesthetics nor the storytelling. One just wishes that, after a terrific first hour where baby Priscilla’s fateful union with Elvis is so sensitively, empathetically portrayed, there’d be more story to tell.