Live from the Dubai International Film Festival: Wednesday, Dec. 11

December 12, 2013


Another strong day at the Dubai International Film Festival kicked off for me with a morning press screening of a film I tried to see at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this past summer – but was denied because of a breakdown in the subtitle technology.

Ritesh Batra’s “The Lunchbox” has toured the film festival circuit since then and will open in February 2014 in the U.S. It’s a soulful, thought-provoking tale featuring two central performances that can’t help but stir you.

Nimrat Kaur plays Ila, a Mumbai housewife who dutifully cooks her husband a lavish, multicourse lunch, which she packs in a metal tiffin box. Then a courier picks it up and delivers it by train to the office where her husband works.

(The film’s opening is a brief but fascinating short-course in an incredibly complex lunch-delivery system in Mumbai that somehow seems to work, despite what seems like a dependence on old technology and systems.)

But on this day, her careful preparation of curry, rice and more goes astray – and lands on the desk of a soon-to-retire insurance-claims examiner, Saajan, played by the amazing Irrfan Khan (best known to American audiences for his work in “The Namesake,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Life of Pi”). He’d contracted with a diner near his apartment for lunch for years – but this food was significantly better. So he eats it all.

Which surprises Ila because, apparently, her husband never sends the used lunchbox back looking as though it’s been licked clean, the way Saajan did. She puts a note in with the chapatti bread the next day – and Saajan responds. Before long, they’ve struck up a correspondence, which deepens into an epistolary relationship, though they’ve never met.

The film is a marvel of understatement and intelligence, exploring the loneliness and regret two people are able to express to each other, perhaps because they are strangers. The correspondence changes their outlook, makes them a little more aware of their regrets – and of what they can do to get rid of those regrets and make a fresh start. As one character notes, “Sometimes the wrong train takes you to the right station.” These character studies make “The Lunchbox” a movie to be keenly anticipated by American audiences.

Louise Archambault’s “Gabrielle” had the potential to be something cloying and awful, given its focus on a mentally challenged couple, their romance and the objections of the young man’s mother. Archambault cast Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, a young woman with Williams’ syndrome, in the title role – and she delivers a real performance (as does actor Alexandre Landry, as Martin, the young man she’s in love with).

Set in Montreal, the plot, such as it is, follows two threads: One is Gabrielle’s yearning to be independent, triggered by the imminent departure of her older, protective sister to be with her fiancé in India. She lives in a group home, but wants her own apartment. The other is the fallout when Martin’s mother gets wind that Martin and Gaby seem to be on the verge of having sex (they’re both in their early 20s).

Archambault threads these plotlines through a story involving a choir in which Gaby and Martin participate. They’ll be performing behind Quebecois music star Robert Charlebois at a big festival, which closes the film. But getting there is an emotionally engaging journey because Marion-Rivard is such a natural in front of the camera, working well with both Landry and Melissa Desormeaux-Polin, as her loving and long-suffering sister.


The other two films I saw featured two female icons of French cinema: Catherine Deneuve (unbelievably, she’s 70) and Isabelle Huppert (who, just as remarkably, is 60). Both have had long and adventurous careers, of which these two films are strong examples.

I liked “On My Way,” a film by Emmanuelle Bercot that stars Deneuve, who is still gorgeous – and a game actress, to boot. Here she plays a widow who goes on an unexpected road trip that upends an already out-of-control life.

Her name is Bettie and she lives in the same small town in Bretagne where she grew up and where, 40-plus years earlier, she was Miss Brittany, on track to become Miss France until an accident put her out of the running. Now she’s a widow, running a failing restaurant with her aging mother.

Then she gets one of those good news/bad news bulletins. The good news is that her long-time lover has left his wife; the bad news is that he’s left her for a much younger woman, which means he’s also dumped Bettie without even telling her. So Bettie jumps in her car and just drives – until she runs out of cigarettes.

She undergoes a series of adventures and misadventures, including a couple of unexpected hook-ups, eventually getting a call from her estranged daughter, who needs Bettie to transport the grandson she barely knows. The daughter has a job interview in Brussels and her boy’s father is “getting stoned on Ibiza”; the boy needs to be taken to his paternal grandfather’s house and the daughter needs Bettie to drive him.

It’s a tour de force for Deneuve, one of the coolest and classiest of French actresses. Here, she lets herself go with a vengeance; by the end, her character has been on the road for several days without so much as a toothbrush, let alone a change of clothes. And her hair? Quelle horreur. You’ve got to hand it to Deneuve; most actresses (and actors) would be too vain to spend so much of a movie in so much disarray.

Deneuve reveals a gift for reaction comedy, playing a woman who keeps stumbling into other people’s drama, even while sorting out her own. She gets some entertaining support from Nemo Schiffman as the grandson and Paul Hamy as a roadhouse owner who stalks Bettie under the assumption that she’s a wild cougar. It’s more character study than story, but Deneuve gives us a great character to examine.

My least favorite film of the day was Catherine Breillat’s “Abuse of Weakness,” which played both Toronto and New York film festivals in the fall. It features Huppert as a strong-willed filmmaker who suffers a stroke and must recover from it to make her next film.

One night, she’s watching TV and stumbles upon a talk show featuring a famous con man, Vilko (Kool Shen), promoting a memoir after being released from prison. She is taken with his primitive charisma and sets up a meeting, telling him she wants to cast him in her next film.

Though she claims never to spend time with her actors before shooting begins, she suddenly seems to be constantly in his presence. And, despite knowing who he is and what he does, she begins writing him checks to keep him afloat until her film can start.

It’s a perverse and opaque tale, interesting mostly for the performances of the always luminous and mysterious Huppert and the flinty tough-guy Shen. Huppert is particularly convincing as a self-sufficient woman forced to rely on others after the stroke cripples one side of her body. She does so grudgingly and without thanks, but that acerbic give-and-take with Shen rings hollow very quickly.

Thursday is another four-movie day; time for bed.

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