Rob Edelman: Foreign Titles in 2013

Dec 16, 2013

These days, we are long-past the time in which cineastes would excitedly queue up to check out the latest work of art from a filmmaker who is not American: an Ingmar Bergman, say, or a Federico Fellini, an Akira Kurosawa, a Francois Truffaut. Today, with pitifully few exceptions, films with subtitles simply are not widely seen in the U.S. And with few exceptions-- two that come to mind are Michael Haneke and Pedro Almodovar-- there are no foreign filmmakers whose careers match the length and depth of Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Truffaut, and so many others.

But foreign-language films of all stripes still are being made, and some are as profound and as memorable as a top film from decades past. One such title, which did earn a 2013 release in the U.S., is WAR WITCH. Its director-screenwriter is Kim Nguyen, a Canadian filmmaker whose father is Vietnamese and mother is French-Canadian. WAR WITCH is a jarring, gut-wrenching character study which opens with a 14-year-old girl who is speaking to her unborn child and explaining how she was kidnapped from her African village. The perpetrators were a rebel faction which forcibly made her a part of their brutal world and converted her into a child-soldier. WAR WITCH paints a striking picture of what one-- even a person who is young-- must face in order to survive in a merciless world where death often comes quickly and cruelly. It is no exaggeration to observe that the film’s opening sequences are positively haunting.

Of course, not all contemporary foreign films are as dramatically potent as WAR WITCH. Nor are they profound or artistic in a way that distinguishes grade-A Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, or Truffaut. Some merely are entertaining, in a delightfully French sort of way. Two such films came to theaters in 2013.

The first is HAUTE CUISINE, and it is based on the true story of French President Francois Mitterand’s personal chef. Here, she is called Hortense Laborie, and she is a middle-aged woman from the provinces who has won a reputation for good, simple home cooking. On the recommendation of an acquaintance, she is called to Paris because a “senior government official” requires a master chef to run his private kitchen. She quickly learns that the official is her country’s president.

HAUTE CUISINE is not a deep or profound film. For the most part, it merely is light and fun. Primarily, this is a film about the love of food and the exacting nature of food preparation, but it also touches on other issues. In her new position, Laborie must put up with office politics and blatant male chauvinism. There is a point here, one that is worth pondering: Laborie is more genuinely appreciated in her post-palace job, in which she cooks for dozens of young men on an Antarctic island, than she is cooking for her country’s head of state.

The second film is POPULAIRE. The setting is the late 1950s and the central character is an ambitious but inexperienced young woman who yearns to escape her oppressive small town and her domineering father. She hires on as a secretary in a big-city insurance company where her general ineptitude quickly becomes apparent, but she has one outstanding skill. She has the uncanny ability to type with speed and accuracy, and so her new boss persuades her to enter, of all things, a local speed-typing contest. Here, the question becomes: How soon will romance, not to mention romantic complications, enter the picture?

All of this may be predictable, but POPULAIRE still is an appealing romantic comedy that also explores the anxieties that come with competition of any sort. Plus, there is first-rate period atmosphere. POPULAIRE easily might be a reworking of a breezily enjoyable late 1950s/early-1960s Doris Day-Rock Hudson or Doris Day-James Garner romance... but with an R-rating.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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