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Thursday, December 8, 2022

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Arts + CultureScreen Grabs: A conceptually bizarre life of Celine Dion

Screen Grabs: A conceptually bizarre life of Celine Dion

'Aline' will go on. Plus: gorgeous 'Rose Maker,' calming 'Cow,' and a caustic gay Romanian dilemma in 'Poppy Field'

With this weekend’s mainstream new arrivals led by Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and action-bombast king Michael Bay’s Ambulance, not to mention the holdover of last week’s Morbius—possibly the worst-reviewed Marvel movie ever—you might well be looking for some alternatives. Fortunately, there’s a number of smaller films arriving in theaters and on streaming that will prove less damaging to your braincells.

Aline
Probably the most conceptually bizarre of the lot is this new France-Canada coproduction by actress turned writer-director Valerie Lemercier. An opening text informs us that it is “a work of fiction…inspired by the life of Celine Dion.” But apart from superficial name-changes and some of the usual corner-cutting dramatic liberties, it’s transparently about the superstar Quebecois singer. Indeed, it might seem a rather on-the-nose, routinely flattering showbiz biopic in the mode of Respect or Bohemian Rhapsody if not for one very peculiar creative decision. Which is to have the pushing-60 Lemercier play this version of Dion (who in real life is now 54) from childhood onward, with only slight attempts to make her look even remotely age-appropriate.

That curious approach lends the film an undeniable camp air even as much else about it is wholly earnest—including the star performance. The result is a weird mix of pop-culture worship and ridicule reminiscent of Todd Haynes’ infamous 1987 Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, in which the characters were “played” by Barbie dolls. Only Aline uses real actors, expensive full-scale sets, and at 128 minutes is about three times as long.

The film charts the titular belter’s career path from early days stealing the show as the youngest of 14 children in a family band, to becoming a regional teenage sensation, then remolding herself to conquer the international pop charts as an adult. En route, she falls in love with her much-older manager (Sylvain Marcel), struggles to start a new family of her own, has a lengthy Las Vegas casino-showroom residency, records that song from Titanic, etc.

I’ve never had much use for Celine Dion, and the criticisms generally aimed at her—that she’s an over-dramatic, over-produced vehicle for generic, bland pop—go unaddressed here. Why does “Aline” choose the songs she does? Does she even choose them? Does she have any personal aesthetic at all? These are blank areas in common with the real woman, who by all accounts has always been an ambitious hard worker disinclined towards any divisive opinions or tastes. Maybe there is no hidden complexity to probe under the big voice, and beyond the celebrity surface.

So rather than offer any particular insight or angle onto a global phenomenon, Aline is starstruck homage—and at the same time a kind of outre quasi-drag impersonation. The result is at once a bit “WTF?!” and quite thoroughly, even conventionally entertaining. It opens in theaters nationwide Fri/8.

The Rose Maker
Contrastingly orthodox in aim and execution is another French-language film that’s opening Friday at SF’s Vogue Theatre and Marin’s Smith Rafael Film Center. At an age when most might be considering retirement, Eve Vernet (Catherine Frot) is straining to keep afloat the rose-growing concern she took over from her late father. It’s a “small family business,” yet sizable enough that she and long-suffering assistant Vera (Olivia Cote) can hardly manage it alone.

Unfortunately, creditors are closing in, and they can no longer afford to hire even seasonal help for the fields and greenhouses. With much larger, deep-pocketed corporate rivals breathing down Roses Vernet’s old-school, artisanal neck, the end may be near. Then Vera has the brainstorm of utilizing virtually-free workers from a job rehab program for ex-cons on probation, even though the three available (Manel Foulgoc, Fatsah Bouyahmed, Marie Petiot) have zero relevant experience or training.

You know where this is headed: The shotgun marriage of fussy upscale boss and scruffy new hires triggers much comedy, a few semi-serious clashes, some playful intrigue, discovery of hidden talents, a crisis or two, inspirational notes, and ultimate underdog triumph. Pierre Pinaud’s film is indeed a formulaic contrivance in outline. But it is engaging, even a bit touching in execution.

And as sheer eye candy, it is first-class. Not only does the camera dwell on richly hued flowers at length, but Eve’s farm is situated in a stunning country landscape, and even her home’s cluttered interior is a riot of color in Philippe Chiffre’s production design. The Rose Maker may not go anywhere original in story terms, but where it goes physically might have you changing any upcoming vacation plans.

Cow
A different side of country life is probed in this first documentary feature by British director Andrea Arnold, of the dramas Fish Tank, Red Road and American Honey. She trains her camera—apparently for so long that the subject has ceased to take any notice of it—on a dairy cow whom human keepers call Luma. We first meet her in the act of giving birth (not for the last time), the calf soon taken to separate housing. Luma is complacent, or at least has learned to bear her burdens, in a rather straitened existence that seems to involve an awful lot of invasive procedures, whether it’s automated milkings, injections, or being tipped sideways by a machine so her hooves can be trimmed. (She even gets a sonogram when pregnant again.)

Cow offers no explanatory text, narration, interviews, not even much in the way of overheard conversation among two-legged workers here. Its attempt at a “pure,” non-anthropomorphised cinematic representation of livestock’s lot is reminiscent of Viktor Kosakovskiy’s similar, recent Gunda, though with an even narrower focus: On just one species rather than a barnyard assortment. By the standards of some “factory” farms elsewhere (particularly in the US), Luma doesn’t seem to have it so bad. Still, her life is sufficiently cramped and cheerless that when cows are let loose to roam a field later on here, the sudden al fresco freedom is as intoxicating to us as well as to them.

Whether you find all this merely interesting or a goddam tragedy will probably depend on your preexisting feelings towards animals, captivity, and food ethics in general. Regardless, when Luma finally meets her ultimate fate, it’s “humane” as such things go… yet one can’t help thinking she deserves better for all her patient service. IFC Films releases Cow on Fri/8 to theaters including the Opera Plaza and Shattuck, as well as to On Demand platforms.

Poppy Field
A gritty riposte to all these uplifting or at least bucolic movies is Eugen Jebeleanu’s directorial debut feature, which played SFFilm last year, and is very much in tune with the caustic, quasi-documentary realism of so much 21st-century Romanian cinema. Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer) is a Bucharest military policeman who’s currently enjoying a visit from French amour Hadi (Raouvan Leflahi), though the latter is somewhat disappointed that Cristi lives so deep in the closet—he barely wants the two of them to be seen together, let alone for Hadi to meet his nosy sister.

But the extent of Cristi’s internalized homophobia is only revealed to us when we see him on the job the next day. Then, circumstances bring him and other officers to a public screening of gay-themed movie that has been interrupted by flag-waving protestors chanting “Gays out of this country!” This situation is made even more uncomfortable when Cristi realizes a past trick of his is in the interrupted film’s audience. Like much Romanian cinema, Poppy Field takes a very close look at basically a single incident, its narrow focus and minimalist feel leading to a sense of strong, even devastating character (and societal) insight. Film Movement releases the feature to virtual cinemas, VOD and Digital platforms on Fri/8.

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