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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Paris, 13th District,’ ‘Aline,’ ‘Great Freedom,’ and ‘Cow’

This week at the movies: From the busy bedrooms of Paris to a pasture near London, with a pop star and a startling prison tale between.

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Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba in “Paris, 13th District.”

While there aren’t any masterpieces rolling into independent theaters this week, there are a number of niche items of note: a French love triangle, a truly bizarre musical biopic, a queer German prison romance, and a wordless exploration of bovine life.

Paris, 13th District: Director Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, Dheepan) conjures a New Wave vibe in this black-and-white tale about love and lust among young Parisians. It begins as a disaffected teacher named Camille (Makita Samba) answers a roommate-wanted ad placed by Emilie (Lucie Zhang). They immediately get to talking, and before long they get to … other things. Before too long, however, it becomes clear that while Camille is fine with the roomies-with-benefits arrangement, Emilie has developed deeper feelings.

The third leg of the triangle eventually arrives in the form of Natalie (Noémie Merlant, Portrait of a Girl on Fire), a law student who finds herself ostracized due to her strong resemblance to an Internet camgirl. She ends up (virtually) meeting her online doppelganger, who goes by Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth) and developing an unlikely friendship with her. She also meets Camille, and develops something more than a friendship with him.

If this feels like multiple stories melded into one, that’s because it is. Audiard was inspired by American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, and nimbly adapted three of his shorter works to a Parisian setting, collaborating on the screenplay with the talented Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Girl on Fire and the upcoming Petite Maman). The result is a surprisingly authentic (at least, coming from a 70-year-old director) take on Millennial meanderings that’s by turns tender, caustic, and funny. It’s also an example of how to use sex scenes—some fairly explicit—to advance character and illustrate relationships, something that American films have mostly forgotten how to do. (Opens Friday, April 15, at Cinema 21)

***

Valérie Lemercier in “Aline.”

Aline: The word unique gets thrown around too recklessly, but it applies to this truly bizarre panegyric to the glory that is Celine Dion. French actor-director Valérie Lemercier plays Aline Dieu, so named to allow for freer artistic exploration (and perhaps to avoid any legal complications), the youngest of fourteen children in a middle-class Quebecois family. And when I say she plays Aline, I mean she plays her from the age of five (complete with oversized furniture props and foreshortening) all the way through the age of fifty.

It’s an almost incomprehensible choice, but without this conceit, the movie would be a barely memorable recitation of the key events in Dion’s—sorry, Dieu’s—rise to superstardom. The most problematic such event, in both the real and reel versions, is the singer’s relationship with the manager, 26 years her senior, who promoted her career from an early age. Lemercier doesn’t interrogate the controversial nature of their romance, other than a brief acknowledgement of Dieu’s mother’s initial hesitancy, which is quickly overcome by the singer’s impassioned vows of her true love for him.

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That approach is consistent throughout the film, which is clearly aimed squarely at audiences who share its worshipful attitude toward Dion’s fortitude and glamour—not to mention that admittedly impressive voice. (Opens Friday, April 15, at Regal Fox Tower)

***

Great Freedom: When the Nazi concentration camps were liberated at the end of World War II, it marked the end of confinement for most prisoners, but not all. As was chronicled in an excellent 2000 documentary, Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which made homosexuality a crime, remained in effect until, shockingly, 1994. So when Hans (Franz Rogowski, in an excellent performance) is freed from one horrific situation, he almost immediately finds himself in another, his conviction for sodomy and the number tattooed on his arm marking him as doubly an outsider.

Great Freedom follows Hans’s relationship with his cellmate, a recidivist drug addict who evolves from a homophobic brute to a confidante and bedmate. That evolution feels oddly paced, and chronologically confusing, until you realize that director Sebastian Meise is intentionally jumping around in time. Then it just feels like a narrative ploy that’s too clever for its own good. Despite that misstep, Rogowski’s performance and the authenticity of the milieu keep things compelling, until a marvelous, darkly funny final scene wraps things up. (Opens Friday, April 15, at Cinema 21; streaming on May 6 at mubi.com)

***

Luma the cow in “Cow.”

Cow: Scottish filmmaker Andrea Arnold takes a sharp left turn in following up her remarkable 2016 road movie American Honey. Her first feature documentary is a 90-minute, narration-free look at the life of a dairy cow and her calf on a farm outside London. Arnold’s camera captures, with hypnotic intimacy, the daily routines of the animals. Mother and child are separated at birth, of course, and each is guided, explored, controlled, and made use of by the human farmers, most of whom remain only peripherally seen. This may make Cow sound like a PETA-friendly expose of cruel agribusiness, but it never stoops to didactism or sensationalism. It feels more like an effort to try to capture the soul of an animal, one generally dismissed as an automaton, on film. This one didn’t get an Oregon booking, which is a shame, because it’s the sort of immersive work that’s best experienced away from phones and doorbells. (Available on demand from various streaming providers.)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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 manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and 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, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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