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FilmWatch Weekly: From the cradle to the grave with ‘Petite Maman’ and ‘Vortex’

Two beautifully performed films – one with child actors, one about old age – defy the ordinary in welcome ways. Plus, streaming picks.

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Joséphine Sanz and Gabrielle Sanz in “Petite Maman.”

From the cradle to the grave, or nearly so: two new films this week center on characters from eight to eighty, shedding light on stages of life that don’t often get such thoughtful and sensitive treatment.

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PETITE MAMAN is French writer-director Celine Sciamma’s follow-up to the award-winning Portrait of a Woman on Fire, and it contains one of the most affecting performances by a child actor in recent memory. Two of them, in fact.

One is by Joséphine Sanz as eight-year-old Nelly, who has come with her parents to clean out the house where her recently departed maternal grandmother had lived. Not long into the process Nelly’s mother, Marion, leaves without explanation. As Nelly’s father continues the task, Nelly spends her time wandering in the nearby woods, where one day she meets another eight-year old girl named, curiously, Marion.

The younger Marion is played Joséphine’s identical twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz, each of them possessed of preternatural presence and precision. They become friends, and Nelly visits Marion’s house on a regular basis when she’s not assisting in the construction of a cone-shaped fort made out of branches. It’s possible, I suppose, that two child actors could communicate an on-screen bond that’s as unforced as this one without being identical twins, but being twins certainly helps.

Sciamma’s unfussy, observant camera work and her screenplay’s spare use of dialogue contribute to the sensation that you’re seeing this story through the eyes of a quiet, watchful, intelligent child. And as that story gradually, almost teasingly segues into something almost mystical, it does so without relying on childlike wonder but from a mindset that sees no real distinction between literal reality and the sort that defies easy explanation.

At a blissful 72 minutes, Petite Maman is a welcome antidote to the current fad for cinematic endurance tests. Like a well-crafted novella, there’s as much power in what it doesn’t say as in what it does, and its impact lingers well after the end credits. (Opens Friday, May 6, at Living Room Theaters and the Salem Cinema)

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AT THE OTHER END of the spectrum lies the latest from Argentine-born provocateur Gaspar Noe, Vortex. Noe achieved a level of infamy for in-your-face, over-the-top efforts that include Irreversible, Into the Void, and the sexually graphic, 3-D Love. At 58, Noe is no longer an enfant terrible, but his vision is as uncompromising as ever. With Vortex, however, he forgoes visual pyrotechnics to create a somber, sensitive, but unblinking look at growing old.

Dario Argento, Alex Lutz, and Françoise Lebrun in “Vortex.”

In the first major acting role of his fifty-year career, iconic Italian director Dario Argento is utterly authentic as one half of an elderly couple living in a book-stuffed, labyrinthine apartment. His wife, played with the same lack of vanity or pretense by Françoise Lebrun, suffers from worsening dementia, but they are both resistant to pleas of their son (Alex Lutz) that they need to move into a nursing home.

On that rather generic narrative, Noe hangs a two-and-a-half hour, often wordless portrait of lives in decline. This is perhaps the last filmmaker who would ever resort to sentimentality or pity, and yet there’s never a sense that, as one might expect from his oeuvre, he’s rubbing our noses in the indignity of age or the inevitability of death.

I said Noe avoids visual pyrotechnics, but he does resort to one unusual technique that adds a fascinating layer. After the film’s first scene, it shifts to split-screen format, with each half following a separate character (usually, but not always, Argento and Lebrun). It’s a brilliant way to emphasize the isolation each of them feels as communication and connection become more difficult, and it adds a level of visual interest during some of the drawn-out meanderings they engage in. The way it forces your eyes and brain to function, like using a rarely worked muscle, keeps you riveted to the screen. The effect would be far less pronounced on a television or computer, so despite the fact that Vortex is (as should be obvious) a bummer, it’s best experienced on the big screen.

The final seconds of Irreversible confront the viewer with the words “Time Destroys All Things.” That’s as close to a mission statement as we’re likely to get from Noe. Although he’s been accused (not without cause) of cheap nihilism in the past, Vortex is the first time he seems to have made a measure of piece with that eternal truth. (Opens Friday, May 6, at Cinema 21)

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STREAMING PICKS: May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and the Criterion Channel is honoring that occasion with a fascinating lineup in its new series My Sight Is Lined with Visions: 1990s Asian American Film and Video. The ten features and seven shorts included demonstrate the range and vitality of work produced during that decade, from the centering of female Vietnamese voices in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam to the radical queer cinema breakthrough of Greg Araki’s The Living End. The channel is also featuring four recent features from the Japanese director Naomi Kawase, who has moved from the documentaries of her early career into a focus on intimate family stories, including her latest, 2020’s True Mothers. Paired with an earlier series, Asian American Filmmaking 2000-2009, these programs provide a deep and rewarding dive into work that deals with issues of identity and culture, but rarely at the expense of engaging stories.

May also, of course, begins with International Workers’ Day, and the streaming channel OVID honors that occasion by offering the four-part documentary series The History of the European Working Class, produced in France in 2020. Each hour-long episode focuses on a different stage in the development of industrial capitalism and its effect on the laborers it uproots and exploits. This is the sort of history you don’t usually find in schools.

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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