Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Necessities of Life (Canada's Submission for Oscar)

James Hansen here from Out 1 continuing my reports/reviews of some of the films on the Best Foreign Language Film shortlist.

Canadian filmmakers not named Denys Arcand have never done well at the Academy Awards. Since the Foreign Film Oscar has been awarded, Canada has been nominated four times; three of the four films have been directed by Arcand. Canada won the award for Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions in 2003, were nominated in 2006 for Deepa Mehta's Water, and Oscar finally snubbed Arcand last year for Days of Darkness. We should all hope this trend of "snubs" continues with Canada’s submission this year, recently picked up by IFC Films, Benoit Pilon’s The Necessities of Life – a classically egregious piece of Oscar bait. Much to my chagrin and dismay, Canada is on the cusp of a nomination for the film, which only further entrenches the proof inadequacy of the Foreign Language Film committee.

With about two seconds of character development and random shots of the Far North landscape, The Necessities of Life bounds from dramatic cliche to dramatic cliche throughout the course of its narrative. Taking the 1950s tuberculosis epidemic in the Far North as its starting point, the film follows Tivii, an Inuit who is forced to leave his family when doctors discover he has the disease. Tivii is shipped to a sanatorium in Quebec City where (stop me if you’ve heard this one) he is isolated from his family and unable to communicate with anyone in the predominantly French speaking region. Wind the crank of this formula and out comes the entire checklist of Serious Things To Cover When Reflecting On Death, Life, Communication and Family. Run away. Refuse to eat. Be force fed by nurses. Spit food out. Lead your own march to death.

Funny thing is, all of this is just the first half of the movie. Unconvincing as all of that is, the film does a 180 when Tivii’s nurse brings in an sick orphan, Kaki, who speaks Tivii’s language. Immediately, Tivii’s perspective on life brightens and voila! No more TB. What to do then? Fight the authorities in an attempt to adopt orphan, just as orphan gets progressively weaker. Done, and done.

Besides being extremely familiar material, which inherently makes it a little weaker (or, at least, puts it in a difficult position), Pilon’s direction does nothing to give the story any sense of urgency or importance. Tivii loves his family and wants to return to the plains, but the film only shows the family briefly and the land in random cut aways. Nothing in here establishes any mild reason for us to care, so why should we?

From the ground up – script, acting, direction – The Necessities of Life is wholly unconvincing, utterly insipid, and blazingly reductive. If the film seemed slightly heart-felt (which it doesn’t) I’d give it a little more of a pass, but (and I’m not just trying to be mean here) I honestly cannot believe anyone would fall for this. Let’s just hope a nomination is not in store. Otherwise, it’s a very bad sign for some of the sharp, edgy, and modern foreign films that were finally included on the shortlist this year.

(If you saw this film and really loved it, I would really like to here what worked for you in the comments. I really am interested to here some different responses.)



Anonymous said...

I'm rooting for this film if only to mock the Foreign Language Films nominating committee. Seriously.

I'm also Canadian.

Anonymous said...

Any thoughts about "C.R.A.Z.Y." (Canada's submission from a few years ago)? I saw it recently and found it hilarious, and atypical of an Oscar movie.

Dominique said...

C.R.A.Z.Y. is one of the best Canadian films ever, period.

Dunno about this one. Can't even say I've heard anything about it either. (And I am also Canadian.)

James Hansen said...

Well, I love Canada (although I tend to enjoy their English speaking directors more than French and others). I actually haven't seen CRAZY. Is it worth checking out?

Dominique said...

James, that is a bizarre opinion for a Canadian to read since French Canadian films fare so much better at the box-office than English Canadian films and are generally more successful come awards time. There is no comparison actually.

James Hansen said...

Interesting to hear that. I have enjoyed the Arcand films I have seen, but really I don't know all that much else. But between Cronenberg and Maddin, Canada has a couple of the greatest artists working right now. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting, but who are the big French Canadian directors I should know about? I try and keep up on things, but my main academic interests end up with European cinema so that's where I end up putting the bulk of my energy. I'd love to have some more Canadian names to check out...

Anonymous said...

Yay Canadian cinema. David Cronenberg is waaaay overdue!!!

Dominique said...

James: The director of C.R.A.Z.Y. in fact is directing Young Victoria, so definitely someone to look out for.

Denis Villeneuve is also a solid director. He directed the always awesome Marie José Croze (Tell No One, Munich, Cannes Winner for Barbarian Invasions) in the acclaimed Maelstrom a few years back. He also had his short film "Next Floor" at Cannes last year, where it won an award.

Charles Binamé also does pretty well for himself. He directed the Maurice Richard biopic, The Rocket.

Also, I think Léa Pool counts.

These are contemporary directors, so older directors are a whole other topic...

Anonymous said...

I love too C.R.A.Z.Y. The film DESERVED an Oscar Nomination for this AWFUl foreign Lineup:

*Paradise Now: The Only film who deserves the Oscar prize.
*Joyeux Noël: A big production, an interesting story, boring ending...
*Sophie Scholl: Generally, Germany has excellent taste for choose films here, but beside Julia Jentsch's performance, is almost a TV Miniserie. Unleast is not a bad film like "Don't Tell".
*Tsotie: The Overrated film of the group. I think "Yesterday" is more worthy...
*Don't Tell: Smells like: "Sorry Italy for the last snubs", The film is almost a soup opera.

My Lineup:

*Palestine: Paradise Now
*Canada: C.R.A.Z.Y.
*Finland: Mother of Mine
*Russia: The Italian
*Belgium: L'Enfant
Alt: Greece: Brides (If there's not disqualification) and France Joyeux Noël

I think "THe Necessities of Life has a good luck, Deptha Meeta brokes the Arcand's monopoly in 2007, so maybe Denis Villeneuve is new blood.

I hope for The Young Victoria... Especially for Jean-Marc Vallée and Emily Blunt

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I make a mistake. The director is Benoit Pilon... ;)

John P. said...

Robert Lepage and Claude Jutra are both relatively important Quebecois directors.

James Hansen said...

Dom and Jon P- Thanks for the recs. I will definitely look for some more stuff. I totally forgot about Robert LePage who I love. I'd be happy to see him win at some point, although he is pretty un-Oscar, at least the stuff I've seen.

As far as the chances of this film...ugh. I just really hope not (sorry Canada!) I liked WATER and the Arcand is all good. This is just not good. At all. Some of the others may be "riskier" choices, but I'll take that any day.

John P. said...

I should add Francois Girard, even though I think he only has two films in release and they're both primarily in English.

David Giancarlo said...

The Barbarian Invasions was not the most recent nominated Canadian film: Deepa Mehta's Water was nominated in 2006.

Gilidor said...

Francois Girard has 3 films in release, actually.

Otherwise, some of the best current French Canadian filmmakers are Robert Morin (Requiem pour un beau sans-coeur), Philippe Falardeau (Congorama), Yves Christian Fournier (Tout est parfait), Jean-Marc Vallée (CRAZY), Yves Pelletier (Les Aimants), Denis Côté (Elle veut le chaos), Rafael Ouellet (Le Cèdre penché), Sébastien Rose (Le Banquet), Robin Aubert, (Saint-Martyr-des-Damnés), Maxime Giroux (Demain), Simon Lavoie (Le Déserteur)...

And I'm probably forgetting some!

James Hansen said...

David- Thanks for the correction. I have even mentioned water in the comments here and wasn't realizing I flubbed that in the review. I'll go correct it. Thank goodness for being able to edit old posts!

Anonymous said...

Interesting review and interesting that you have seen little of French Canadian cinema which I prefer about 10-1 to English Canadian cinema, although recently that trend is reversing.

I have read almost nothing about this film... and I've been looking... a lot. There was a fairly positive Variety review and Ken Rudolph (a member of the Academy's FLF committee) posted a mini-review on his website which included: "remarkably well played film which has the ring of historical accuracy and packs an emotional wallop. Special note must be made for the wonderfully restrained performances of the Inuit man, Natar Ungalaaq and the teenage actor Paul André Brasseur who plays a young, bilingual, Inuit orphan boy, also ill, who befriends the man and helps him communicate. I loved this quietly powerful film."

That might explain how it got to the shortlist of nine films.

I agree with the other posters who recommended Falardeau, Vallée and Lepage.

Some older titles:
Les Feluettes (Lilies)
J.A. Martin Photographe
Les Bons Débarras
Mon Oncle Antoine

James Hansen said...

Anon- I think the French Canadian films get a lot less play in the USA. That's probably the reason I am so far behind in regard to them. I have seen LILIES and MON ONCLE ANTOINE and enjoyed both.

I had also looked up some other reviews of this film to try and find some people who really liked it and why. It has a solid rating on IMDB plus Variety and the FLF review (thanks for that, I hadn't seen that one) so I know there are plenty of people who like/love it.
I thought the lead performances were ok, but the material, style, and direction did it no favors.

My negative reaction (as I think my review makes clear) falls at the feet of screenplay and direction. Its really flat, shoddily pieced together (in terms of story, editing, and rhythm), and really gives the performers no chance to rise above the familiarity of the material and take it to another level (as, say, Rourke and Tomei were able to do with the cliches that fill THE WRESTLER). Instead, it is totally content to remain familiar and redundant, and doesn't recognize that we have all seen this before. Lame, lame, lame.

Anonymous said...

I watched this movie and - ok, I had some fun. It was moving, sad, nice movie for calm evening, when you have to cultivate your melancholic mood.
Of course, I don't think THIS deserves Oscar. But whatever, who believes in Oscars anymore? It's showbusiness...
Take care