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Savant Pal Region 2 Guest Reviews:


Separate releases reviewed by Lee Broughton

The theme of families-in-crisis gets the World Cinema treatment courtesy of England's C'Est La Vie this month. Rain is a stylish and uncompromising feature from New Zealand which details both marital strife and a young girl's coming of age at the turn of the 1970s. Okay is a kind of comedy-drama from Denmark. Dogme 95 regular Paprika Steen plays a put-upon working mum who just can't stop herself from taking responsibility for everyone around her. Both films feature emotionally charged and upsetting scenarios.

C'Est La Vie
2001 / Colour and B&W /
1.85:1 flat letterbox / 88 m.

Starring Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki, Sarah Peirse, Alistair Browning, Aaron Murphy, Marton Csokas, David Taylor, Chris Sherwood, Claire Dougan, Alison Routledge, Pino Scopas
Cinematography John Toon
Art Director Kirsty Clayton
Editor Paul Maxwell
Original Music Neil Finn, Edmund McWilliams
Written by Christine Jeffs from the novel by Kirsty Gunn
Produced by Philippa Campbell
Directed by Christine Jeffs


New Zealand, the early 1970s. A stay at their beach-side holiday home and a seemingly endless succession of boozy beach parties can't hide the fact that Ed (Alistair Browning) and Kate's (Sarah Peirse) marriage is in trouble. Their kids, thirteen year-old Janey (Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki) and her much younger brother Jim (Aaron Murphy) are pretty much left to look after themselves. Kate is so distracted that she doesn't notice that Janey has observed her embarking on an affair with a family friend, Cady (Marton Csokas). The trouble is, a rapidly maturing Janey has decided that she wants Cady for herself.

While Ed and Kate's lifestyle choice revolves around alcohol abuse, there's no suggestion that drinking has caused their marital problems or that their marital problems have driven them to drink. They, like most of their neighbours and friends, simply enjoy drinking to excess whenever they can. This means that their kids suffer from a degree of parental neglect, with resourceful Janey having to mother young Jim to some extent. Because the family is middle class, the impression that permissive or progressive parents are giving their kids their own space to act responsibly and maturely is offered but it still amounts to neglect: the scene where a hungry Jim tries to rustle up some breakfast from an empty (post-party) refrigerator while his parents sleep off their hangovers tells its own story.

But there's no suggestion that Ed and Kate don't love their children. There are some nicely observed scenes where Ed in particular interacts with them: taking them fishing, bringing them an ice-cream on the beach, etc. Kate also tries to please Janey when she can: she allows her daughter to commandeer a favourite dress from her own wardrobe and subsequently spends time at a sewing machine carrying out the necessary size reductions and alterations dictated by Janey. But by this time Janey has become surly and petulant, viewing her mother as a love rival. She knowingly drops malicious hints about Kate's affair to both Ed and Kate in the hope that the hints will bring about actions that will free Cady to be with her. It seems that nothing can divert Janey's attention away from Cady - a local youth, Sam (David Taylor), tries to impress her with talk about a Jimi Hendrix album but he hasn't got a chance - and Cady seems to be just the type of player who would think nothing of taking advantage of a young girl's crush.

This is a leisurely paced, economically scripted and quietly observed piece of work that uses a variety of well edited shooting styles and shots to present a cohesive whole. The New Zealand coastline and its surrounding countryside look fantastic and they're lovingly shot: boat trips and the like have an almost travelogue-esque feel about them. The night-time parties really do capture the boozy atmosphere that surrounds those who like to drink too much. Director Jeff's experience of shooting music videos is well used during these party scenes, with half-remembered pop classics taking centre stage on the soundtrack to telegraph certain characters' thoughts: Howzat by Sherbert ("Howzat!? You messed about, I caught you out, howzat!?"), Spooky by Dusty Springfield ("I get confused, I never know where I stand, and then you smile and hold my hand"), etc. This approach seems a little too obvious at first but it ultimately works quite well. Some extended shots of the kids at play or the adults passing time drinking, or doing mundane activities like washing up or mowing the lawn, take on an almost surreal or dreamlike quality due to the use of slow-motion effects, jump cuts and off-kilter camera angles.

The best Antipodean dramas are peculiarly frank and unflinching in the way that they present their subject matter and Rain follows this tradition. But while the film's technical elements combine to present a good exercise in filmmaking its narrative content does ultimately make for fairly depressing viewing. There are no couples-in-crisis histrionics or explosive stand-offs or arguments in this show, just a noticeably bleak atmosphere that acts as a backdrop to the quiet and seemingly inevitable disintegration of a marriage for no better reason than the increasingly detached Kate's desire for a sense of freedom and the increasingly forlorn Ed's inability to effectively stop her from reaching out for it. The film's final chapter is particularly distressing and upsetting and the whole thing ends with a very downbeat, after-the-fact voice-over from Janey. The understated and fairly naturalistic acting on display here is very good, as is cinematographer John Toon's camera work, and the show's emotional content is enhanced and amplified by some beautiful if melancholic songs and instrumental pieces provided by Neil Finn (the songwriting talent behind New Zealand's Crowded House) and Edmund McWilliams.

Rain is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio but the disc's picture is not anamorphically enhanced. Picture quality is still pretty good, though. There's very little in the way of print damage and the picture is colourful and sharp. Christine Jeff's filmic palette includes the odd intentionally grainy or softly focused shot and a few brief flips into the world of black and white cinematography. The sound is also very good but some strong accents mean that a couple of lines of dialogue need to be repeated until they are fully deciphered and understood.

C'Est La Vie
2002 / Colour / 1.85:1 anamorphic 16:9 / 94 m.
Starring Paprika Steen, Ole Ernst, Troels Lyby, Nicolaj Kopernikus, Molly Blixt Egelind, Laura Drasbaek, Trine Dyrholm, Lotte Merete Anderson
Cinematography Erik Zappon
Production Designer Peter De Neergaard
Editor Morten Giese
Original Music Jesper Winge Leisner, Halfdan E, Nikolaj Steen
Written by Kim Fupz Aakeson
Produced by Peter Bech
Directed by Jesper W. Nielsen


Agnethe (Paprika Steen) is an over-taxed mum who is stressed at work and under-appreciated at home. When her elderly father Johannes (Ole Ernst) is taken ill and only given a few weeks in which to put his affairs in order, Agnethe insists that he moves in with her. Her subsequent attempts to reunite Johannes with his estranged gay son Martin (Nicolaj Kopernicus) go badly and the old man's fixed habits and routines soon start upsetting Agnethe's household: her teenage daughter Katrine (Molly Blixt Egelind) becomes even more rebellious while her husband Kristian (Troels Lyby) embarks on an affair with a beautiful student, Tanja (Laura Drasbaek).

This film plays like a meditation on responsibility: some people are prone to taking on too much while others successfully avoid taking on any. Agnethe is already effectively responsible for looking after several members of her family when we first meet her. She only volunteers to take on the additional responsibility of looking after the elderly but stubborn and cantankerous Johannes when she finds out that he is seriously ill, which tells us something about the state of their relationship. Debts are mounting at home but the selfish and unsympathetic Kristian only works a fourteen hour week because he's living the dream of becoming a writer. He does do the cooking for Agnethe but he loves cooking so much that this doesn't count as a real chore or responsibility. Their fourteen year old daughter does want to be responsible for her own decisions but she is deemed to be too young: predictably, Kristian ensures that the responsibility for making and enforcing parental decisions is left solely to Agnethe. And Agnethe allows her gay brother to saddle her with his relationship problems, including the worry that he's going to artificially inseminate a lesbian friend: he figures he will just be doing a mate a favour and will have no real responsibility for the child but Agnethe is fully aware of the legal implications of such an arrangement. To cap it all, she thanklessly does her best for the obstructive and offensive clients that she deals with at the welfare centre but her only reward is criticism from her boss.

Things start spiralling out of control for Agnethe when Johannes begins feeling better and appears to make something of a recovery: he's already given up the lease on his own place and so he has to stay on at his daughter's cramped home. When Johannes starts contesting house rules on Katrine's behalf, Agnethe voices her resentment that he never showed as much interest in her when she was that age. He in turn accuses her of being a control freak like her mother and he lets it slip that Kristian is seeing another woman. Their confrontation is a pivotal moment in the film: Agnethe takes her foot off the accelerator pedal and starts reassessing her life, resulting in her dependants getting to feel the pressure of some responsibility for a change. Johannes takes the only action he can to ease his daughter's burdens: as he checks himself into the hospital he tells his doctor, "Agnethe is a damn good daughter but she can't fix the whole world."

Okay seems to be a little undecided as to just what kind of film it really wants to be. It stars the one-time "queen of Dogme", Paprika Steen, and it puts its characters through a whole range of extremely emotional situations but it's nothing like a Dogme 95 entry. The film's ad art, zippy opening titles and several bursts of inoffensive but largely unexciting pop music on the soundtrack seem determined to posit the show as a modern day feel-good comedy of sorts: that convenient but lazy classification could indeed be applied to some parts of the film but it ultimately sells the film short. There are some overtly light moments present, along with some knowingly humorous dialogue and some bitter-sweet and heart-warming observations, but the film never loses sight of the seriousness of its central themes. And, despite the presence of some odd moments of telling irony, any temptation to indulge in black comedy is largely resisted. I guess the film could be described as a "comedy drama" at a pinch but the emphasis is definitely on the drama which is played straight.

The characters here have real depth and their personal circumstances do possess the power to move the viewer. The film is essentially an ensemble piece and it features some very good performances but Paprika Steen still manages to steal the show: it's hard to imagine a film that would offer the actress as much of a showcase as Okay does. As Agnethe she gets to convincingly emote exasperation, exhaustion, anger, hurt, nervousness, confusion, strength, dejection, assertiveness, disbelief, happiness, sadness, vulnerability, sarcasm, heartbreak, joy, shock, disappointment, etc, etc. It's a wonderfully natural and intuitive performance that won Steen a clutch of European acting awards.

Jesper W. Nielsen's direction is unflashy but it gets the job done: parts of the film move at a fairly brisk pace and jump-cuts and the like are used to telegraph Agnethe's hectic and stressful lifestyle, etc. By contrast, during the reflective and introspective dialogue driven scenes Nielsen is happy for his cameras to leisurely focus on each of his actors before taking it in turns to slowly track towards them. Some sequences feature cutaways shot by roving cameras that seek out seemingly peripheral objects or present unusual close-ups. I'm not sure who's responsible for what in terms of the film's soundtrack but the fairly ambient incidental music plays much better than the (specially composed?) pop songs that are present.

Okay is an anamorphic presentation and the disc's picture quality is just short of excellent. There's no print damage as such but some shots have an ever-so-slightly soft and grainy look. The disc's sound, which features the film's original Danish soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles, is excellent.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Rain rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good ++
Sound: Excellent -
Supplements: Trailer, photo gallery, booklet and biographies for Christine Jeffs, Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki, Marton Csokas & Sarah Peirse
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 12, 2004

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Okay rates:
Movie: Good ++
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, photo gallery, booklet and biographies for Jesper W. Nielsen & Paprika Steen
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 12, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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