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November 17, 2008

My SDFF - I see Tokyo! I see France

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The Class/Entre les Murs
Laurent Cantet - 2008
Sony Pictures Classics 35mm film

Yes, The Class is as good as you've probably read by now, and will read more of, when Laurent Cantet's film gets its theatrical release in January. Fran├žois Begaudeau should probably get much of the credit as well as the film is based on his autobiographical novel, he gets screenplay credit, and he plays himself as the teacher Francois Marin. The students are real Junior High age students, between 13 and 15. The school is in Paris, and while the teachers are almost all white, the students comprise a multi-cultural mix of African, Arab, Caribbean and Asian. Francois teaches French to a group of students for whom the language, in proper written and verbal form, is a foreign language, or one that is not used in their daily life.

Perhaps because it is the teachers and students re-enacting their lives, or something similar, that The Class is more involving than Cantet's previous films. The entire film takes place within the school, mostly in Marin's classroom, between the walls as the original French title would have it. The film tries to address the big issues of class, race, culture and identity. I cannot imagine an inner city school in the U.S. that would be dissimilar in many of the problems as well as how they might be handled. The one small classroom serves as a stand-in for the western countries grappling with shifts away from a homogenous history in a way that respects the older culture and the newer forms.

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Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho - 2008
Libertation Entertainment 35mm film

Tokyo! is three different filmmakers with individual stories set in Tokyo. Michel Gondry's is the most city-specific being about a young couple that stay in a friend's cramped studio apartment while looking for their own place to live. They get discouraged with the high prices for small, dirty spaces. Their car get towed, but the girl is plucky enough to rescue her boyfriend's equipment so he can show his experimental film in a porno theater. The film begins with mention of the population mutating, and thought seemingly forgotten until the girl turns into a wooden chair. The girl doesn't always remain as a chair and his briefly seen running naked in the streets, seeming to turn into a chair at will. I'm not sure if Gondry is familiar with a short story by Edogawa Rampo, one of his few in English, about a man who is turned into a chair. Being Gondry, this is more whimsical than Rampo,

Leos Carax has perversely set himself up for criticism by titling his piece, Merde. Frequent collaborator Denis Levant portrays what looks like a tall, disfigured leprechaun, dressed in a green suit, emerging from a sewer to create havoc among Tokyo pedestrians. Levant's character is named Merde and he speaks a gibberish combined with guttural sounds and gestures. Carax may have been attempting to critique certain aspects of Japanese culture. Carax's segment didn't work for me and even worse, with his filming of a hanging, reminded me that Nagisa Oshima covered the same themes more effectively forty years ago.

Bong Joon-ho's film is about a man who has stayed inside his house for ten years. The character describes himself as a hikikomori with a life based on routines, with minimal contact with the world at large. The pattern is disrupted when he gazes into the eyes of a pizza delivery girl. An earthquake causes the girl to faint in the man's house. He revives her by pressing a tattooed button that says, "coma". The man ventures out in search of the pizza girl. On a more intimate scale than The Host or Memories of Murder, Bong is interested in stories about people who come together almost as a result of a catastrophe that they cannot control. Unlike Park's I'm a Cyborg, Bong doesn't dwell on whether the pizza girl thinks she is a mechanical being, or may actually be one. In spirit, this is kind of like the Bugs Bunny cartoon where the rabbit concludes, "So what if she's a robot?"

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 17, 2008 12:41 AM


I thoroughly enjoyed both films but must admit that Tokyo! left me a little confused - only in talking to a friend who had lived in Tokyo for a few years did the connections start to make sense. And even though I didn't understand it to begin with, it was still fun to watch.

Posted by: Marina at November 18, 2008 07:12 PM

I was supposed to see The Class when it showed in my town a while back, heard it was good. Tokyo!, on the other hand, I just got on DVD off of Amazon (http://bit.ly/TokyoAz). That was an interesting point you made about Bong's portion being about bringing people together.
You could also say that, like the directors who made them, are gaijin - foreigners - in the titular city by one definition or another; as an inhabitant of a similarly large metropolis, the feeling can be universal and palatable. Each directors' fantastical work creates an over arching theme of alienation that made it one of the more powerful films I've seen in a while.

Posted by: Mike Dolsky at July 7, 2009 07:47 PM