Film review of Belle and Sebastian

July 6, 2014

(This review of the film “Belle and Sebastian” appeared in Australian Jewish News on 3 July 2014.)

The iconic French children’s story “Belle and Sebastian” has added a fascinating sub-theme of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis into Switzerland during the Second World War in its new film version. Originally entitled Belle et Sébastien in French, it first started life in 1965 as a children’s novel by French film actress and author Cecile Aubry. The book was first adapted into a French TV series in the late 1960s and proved so popular that it was dubbed into English and shown on the BBC in the UK. It even provided the inspiration for the Scottish “indie” band “Belle and Sebastian”.

The new film version resets the action to 1943.  Set in the French Alps near the French-Swiss border, it tells the story of the friendship between a young French boy and a wild dog, who local villagers suspect of killing their local sheep. As a parallel story, local Nazi soldiers are trying to close down an escape route of Jewish refugees going over the mountains to Switzerland.  The film is beautifully shot in the French mountain high country, with excellent acting by Felix Boussuet as the young Sebastian, the experienced Tcheky Karyo as Sebastian’s adopted grandfather and some astonishing Pyrenean Mountain Dogs playing Belle.

It’s a warm-hearted story aimed at family viewing (opening here in Australia in time for the winter school holidays), and the adaptation’s addition of the Jewish refugee sub-plot fits neatly into the heroic story of Belle and Sebastian.  It’s also a dog-lover’s delight, complete with lots of interesting secondary village characters. “Belle and Sebastian” was the second highest-grossing film in France last year, and premiered in Australia at the French Film Festival in March.


French Film Festival in Australia

February 27, 2014

(Note:  this article on the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival in Australia originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 27 February 2014.)

The Jewish experience in France is a complicated one:  after centuries of persecution, Jews were emancipated during the French Revolution, and Napoleon spread this freedom to Jews in other parts of Europe as he expanded the French empire.  Yet it was in France that the Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused of treason, and French collaboration with Nazis in persecuting Jews was widespread.  Today, with more than half a million Jews living in France, the Jewish contribution to French life and culture continues to be significant.  Each year, the French Film Festival provides a window into the latest intersections of Jewish history and French culture.

This year two Festival films contain Jewish themes:  one on Russian-Jewish refuseniks and one on Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis into Switzerland.  The Festival also features “Grand Central”, a new film by French-Jewish director Rebecca Zlotowski (“Belle Epine”) and a small retrospective of films by Francois Truffaut, who is a significant figure in French Jewish film.  Truffaut (1932-84) is not identified as Jewish in the popular mind, but private research in the late 1960s identified his previously unknown father as Jewish.  While Truffaut’s mother denied the allegation, Truffaut reportedly embraced it, believing that it explained much of his character and his interest in society’s outcasts and martyrs.  But Truffaut’s experience of Jewish life went further:  his first wife, Madeleine Morgenstern, was Jewish, as were his two daughters with her – Laura and Eva.  More than that, we remember Truffaut for his two classic Jewish films: “Au Revoir Les Enfants” (Goodbye, Children) and “The Last Metro”.  While neither of these films are included in the retrospective, the Festival does feature “Finally, Sunday”, “Jules and Jim” and his autobiographical “The 400 Blows”.

Despite its inherent human drama during a heightened time of Cold War tension, there are remarkably few filmic portrayals of the experience of Soviet Jews during the Brezhnev “refusenik” period, when many Jewish attempted, usually without success, to leave Soviet Russia.  The Festival features one film that deals with this time – “Friends From France” (“Les Interdits”), directed by Anne Weil and Philippe Kotlarski.  Set in 1979, two French Jewish cousins (played by the singer Soko and Jeremie Lippmann) travel to Odessa pretending to be an engaged couple on a holiday.  But they are really there to make contact with Soviet-Jewish dissidents.  It’s a time of danger and secret police raids.  Complications ensue when the cousins become attracted to each other, and the personal and the political become intertwined.

The “Belle and Sebastian” story started life in 1965 as a children’s novel by French film actress and author Cecile Aubry.  Set in the French Alps, it tells the story of the friendship between a young French boy and a wild dog, who local villagers suspect of killing their local sheep.  The book was adapted into a French TV series and then a Japanese animated series.  This new film version has been re-set in 1943 and moved to the French-Swiss border, with an additional theme of local Nazi soldiers who are trying to close down an escape route of Jewish refugees going over the mountains to Switzerland.  It is beautifully filmed in the French mountain high country, with excellent acting by Felix Boussuet as the young Sebastian, the experienced Tcheky Karyo as Sebastian’s adopted grandfather and some astonishing Pyrenean Mountain Dogs playing Belle.

It’s a warm-hearted story aimed at family viewing, and the adaptation’s addition of the Jewish refugee sub-plot fits neatly into the heroic story of Belle and Sebastian.  It’s also a dog-lover’s delight, complete with lots of interesting secondary village characters.  The French Film Festival’s screenings of “Belle and Sebastian” are the first ones in an English language country, one of many opportunities to see un-released French films.

The Festival runs in Sydney from 4 through 23 March and Melbourne from 5 through 23 March.  Click here for details on Canberra, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay.


The Concert film review

May 6, 2010

(This film review appeared in the May 6, 2010 edition of the Australian Jewish News.  Also note the link to my video review of “The Concert” below).

Directed and written by Radu Mihaileanu

Starring Aleksei Guskov, Melanie Laurent, Dimitri Nazarov, Valeri Barinov and Miou Miou 

Romanian-French Jewish film director Radu Mihaileanu specialises in fable-like stories with major Jewish themes.  His 1998 film Train de Vie (Train of Life) portrayed a Jewish village in Poland that organised to escape the Nazis by taking over a train and shipping themselves (with the best German speakers playing German soldiers) to Palestine.  Although Life is Beautiful gained the awards and international recognition, it was Mihaileanu who first used fantasy as escape from the Holocaust.  His last film, Live and Become, was about an Ethiopian Christian boy who pretends he is Jewish in order to immigrate to Israel during “Operation Moses” in 1984.

Mihaileanu’s current film The Concert uses the same theme of pretence and identity switch, this time set in the present day.  The film opens on a Russian symphonic conductor, Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov), blissfully conducting a rehearsal in a major concert hall.  But all is not as it seems, as the camera pulls back and we realise that Filipov is only pretending to conduct from the balcony seats, and is in fact a cleaner, a disgraced former conductor of the “Bolshoi Orchestra” who lost his job three decades earlier during the Brezhnev era for refusing to fire Jewish musicians.

When Filipov intercepts a fax inviting the orchestra to give a concert at the famed Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, he rashly decides to bring his old group of musicians together and do it himself.  But this is no simple task:  he needs to find, convince and organise his widely spread group of misfits – mostly Jews with a few gypsies thrown in for good measure – to make their way to Paris.  Against the vehement protestations of his Jewish cellist Sacha Grossman (Dimitri Nazarov), he enlists a die-hard former Communist Party official, Ivan Gavrilov (Valeri Barinov) as the tour’s negotiator and manager.

Part of Filipov’s plan is to play Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D, and to enlist young French violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent, from Inglorious Basterds) – who he secretly adores from afar – as the soloist.  But the difficult Jacquet is shielded by her manager and guardian (played by classic French actress and the wonderfully named Miou-Miou), and clearly there is more to the Jacquet-Filipov story than is first apparent.

This delicate and highly entertaining film makes clever and often hilarious points about modern entrepreneurial Russia (the Russian musicians all immediately race out to try to make money when they arrive in Paris), French artistic pretensions, and the clash of cultures between new and old Russia (the ex-Communist leader Gavrilov still holds illusions as to how the French masses will unite behind him) and Russia and the West.  The Russians all speak a delightfully fractured French, which apparently charmed the French audiences when it opened there late last year (a passing knowledge of French definitely helps to understand the humour).  The Concert opened at number one in France, and achieved almost two million admissions, making it one of the most popular French films of 2009 – and where it was also nominated for best film, director, script and editing in the French “Cesar” awards (and won for best music and sound).

The Concert is about making music and finding your dream.  But it is also about the modern Jewish condition, because the background theme to the whole film is the anti-Jewish actions of Communist Soviet Union from the 1960s and 1970s.  The film has Mihaileanu’s characteristic combination of broad comedy and touching personal identity search, this time blended with Gallic philosophising and amusing Russian consumerism.  I found the mixture to be both moving and delightful.

Watch the video review here: