Two enjoyable indie films: My Old Lady and The Grand Seduction

This weekend, the two indie films I decided to watch had an unexpected French connection. My Old Lady is a drama set in Paris, directed by veteran playwright Israel Horovitz, adapted from his own stage play. The Grand Seduction is an English language adaptation of 2003 Québécois Canadian comedy, this time set in a fictional village in Newfoundland.

In My Old Lady, a failed and penniless American author Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) arrives in Paris to take possession of a large apartment he has inherited from his estranged father. Intending to sell it for much needed funds, he discovers that it is occupied by a 92-year-old French woman Mathilde (Maggie Smith) and her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas). He is further shocked when he is told by Mathilde that she has the right to live there for life and to collect rent from the owner (yes, you read that right) under the French viager system. The rest of the film has Mathias trying to get around this unexpected obstacle, while the 3 characters clash and uncover unexpected family connections and dark secrets.

The director gets away with casting two wonderful British actresses as French women; their impeccable English is conveniently explained away by the fact that Maggie Smith’s character was born in England and both mother and daughter make their living as English teachers. Kristin Scott Thomas of course, does speak French fluently from her years working and living in Paris, so she is very convincing as she switches between French and English.

The apartment itself is a character in the film, simultaneously rambling and claustrophobic, filled with knick-knacks and dark spaces that seem to mirror the souls of its occupants. Kudos to the production designer Pierre-François Limbosch, who received a Cesar nomination for a similar dress-up job on the wonderful 2010 comedy-drama The Women on the 6th Floor.

Character actor Dominique Pinon – whom I think of as a favourite uncle, from the many weird characters he has played in Jean-Pierre Jeunet films – has a small ‘normal’ role as a real estate agent.

I loved the authentic, traditional Parisian soundtrack composed by Mark Orton, particularly the wistful opening and closing companion pieces The Return and The Repatriated Gable. Definitely going to pick those up from iTunes. For something similarly poignant from Orton, listen to Their Pie from the soundtrack to the film Nebraska or his recordings as a member of the Tin Hat Trio.

Overall, this was an enjoyable film, driven by 3 top class actors wading through tons of existential angst, but topped off with a satisfying ending.

Moving on to The Grand Seduction, this film’s main plot mechanic is something we’ve seen before in the 1995 Hugh Grant comedy The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain – a group of villagers use their charm and ingenuity to keep a visiting professional ‘trapped’ in the village in order to achieve some larger gain for their community.

The premise is rather thin – the fishing harbor of Tickle Head is in decline, with a diminishing population and chronic unemployment. The community leaders are negotiating with a company to set up a factory there, but one of the criteria is that the town should have a doctor, which they haven’t had for several years. Meanwhile, a plastic surgeon Dr. Lewis (Canadian heartthrob Taylor Kitsch) who is in transit through the nearby town of St. John’s is caught for possession of cocaine at the airport, with the flight security agent being the former mayor of Tickle Head, who still looking out for the best interests of the village. As a result, Dr. Lewis’ punishment is to serve for one month as the resident doctor at Tickle Head, during which time the residents have to ‘seduce’ the good doctor to make him want to settle permanently there by the time the factory chiefs come by for their inspection tour.

All of this is set up in the first 20 minutes and the rest of the film is spent showing the lengths to which the residents will go in order to win Dr. Lewis’ heart and mind. There are several fun set pieces involving the residents pretending to love and play the doctor’s favourite game of cricket, tapping his calls to his fiancée, helping him to catch a fish and unsuccessfully trying to get their pretty postmistress to flirt with him.

All these stories of well-meaning deception always end predictably – the deceived party falls for the tricks, then angrily discovers the truth and prepares to walk away before discovering that he has indeed fallen in love with the place and its people, and willingly returns to fulfill his destiny.

Such films provide on-screen opportunities for little known character actors. The Grand Seduction is no exception, with a number of Canadian film, TV and theatre actors providing laughs and entertainment. Irish acting powerhouse Brendan Gleeson is the only non-Canadian, who plays the mayor of Tickle Head, the brains behind the various plots and schemes.

The entire film can be appreciated only if taken with a large dose of sea salt, but certainly worth watching, if you’re looking for some light-hearted entertainment.


Fortitude picks up from where True Detective left off

In the past few years, Scandinavian or Nordic Noir has given new meaning to the word ‘bleak’. The Bridge, The Killing and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy have found fans all over the world with their dark, morally complex but minimalist storytelling. Last year, HBO dropped some of that bleak into the swamps of Louisiana to create the memorable True Detective. The somber and eerie opening sequence, powered by the song Far From Any Road (by the alternative country act The Handsome Family) sets the tone for the show. Series creator Nic Pizzolatto’s layered non-linear script is marbled with some seriously mind-bending dialogue; little wonder that twin leads Harrelson and McConaughey were both nominated for their acting at the Golden Globes, the Emmies and the SAG awards.

I typically don’t watch crime dramas, so I’m not in the best position to comment if True Detective is influencing the look and feel of other American and British crime dramas. But one show that very obviously seems to borrow from it is Fortitude, the new murder mystery airing on Sky Atlantic and available on Amazon Instant Video.

The title sequence, like that of True Detective, features stark visuals set to an eerie theme song performed by husband-and-wife Swedish duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums. Even the all-cap title fonts appear similar! In both shows, nature itself is a significant character in the story – the deadly Louisiana swamps being replaced by a polar bear infested Arctic landscape. But once again, it’s the humans who prove to be deadlier than nature, especially those wielding political and administrative power.

In the show, the township of Fortitude is home to an international community of professionals, mainly researchers but also the people required to maintaing the supporting infrastructure of a school, convenience store, hospital, police station, transportation, etc. It’s this amalgam of muti-national and multi-ethnic characters which forms the real landscape of Fortitude. Into this landscape steps Detective Chief Inspector Morton, sent from London to investigate the suspicious death of a British citizen.

Just as Woody Harrelson and Matt McConaughey lit up True Detective with some big screen acting chops, it’s Stanley Tucci who does the honors as DCI Morton in Fortitude. Sharing the screen space with him is the reigning queen of Nordic Noir, Sofie Gråbøl, star of the original Danish version of The Killing. Other familiar faces include Michael Gambon (professor Dumbledore from the Harry Potter films) and former Doctor Who star, Christopher Ecclestone. The other actors come from the small screen or stage and as with most British produced dramas, it is refreshing to see ordinary faces, not the square jawed, surgically enhanced features of actors cast in most American shows; in fact True Detective (and most HBO signature shows) is a welcome exception to this trend and that is what added to its appeal.

Having watched the first 3 episodes of Fortitude, I cannot say that it matches up to the quality of Nic Pizzolatto’s writing, but it has made for compelling viewing so far. However, with 13 episodes in the season (and no guarantee that it will complete its story in one season), there is certainly a risk that the viewer may lose his fortitude before the story is over and done with.