District 13: Ultimatum
District 13: Ultimatum is at its best and silliest in the opening reels, which place French supercop Damien Tomaso (the lanky, bald Cyril Raffaelli, who’s also the film’s stunt coordinator) in a chaotic undercover assignment — he’s in the back room of a nightclub, decked out in a dress with a peekaboo ass and masquerading as a kind of courtesan to a Chinese drug kingpin. When his backup arrives, all hell breaks loose. The sequence is staged with tongue tucked firmly in cheek — the contrast between Raffaelli’s muscular, manly frame and that of his obvious female body-double is faintly hilarious — but it more or less brings the goods, staging an extended martial-arts fight that plays as an affectionate tribute to Jackie Chan in his prime. In other words, props matter, from the stepladder that brings the pain when villains are slammed into it to the priceless Van Gogh painting that Tomaso employs as a delicate weapon at his disposal. You’ll laugh, you’ll wince. It’s a good time.
Summer Hours is what’s generally referred to as a “small” film, but for Olivier Assayas, it represents a comfortable return to form after several self-conscious attempts at rethinking and reinventing the boundaries of his work. Demonlover was a sort-of thriller about the international sex trade; Clean was a combination Anglo/Francophone recovery drama; and Boarding Gate was aggressively marketed as a globetrotting thriller about a girl (Asia Argento) with a gun and a paucity of clothing. I haven’t seen Boarding Gate (yet), but Demonlover and Clean both felt like somewhat contrived exercises in arthouse empire-building.
I’ve Loved You So Long
Angélique and the Sultan
The last installment of the Angélique saga is one of the better ones — good news for anyone diving into the entire five-film series. Set mainly in Morocco, where the abducted Angélique (Michèle Mercier) seems doomed to live as an unwilling member of the Sultan’s harem, the film once again relegates once-proud Angélique to the status of damsel-in-distress, but at least there are interesting goings-on elsewhere, as her husband Joffrey de Peyrac (Robert Hossein) — better known these days as the dread pirate Rescatore — leaves a trail of blood behind him as he struggles to discover her whereabouts. There’s some solid pirate action, a daring prison break, and a nighttime escape from the Sultan’s castle, and if Angélique’s has been somewhat subdued, at least she’s still spirited. Much is made of religious conflict, with Angélique refusing to renounce her faith to satisfy her captors, and earning the allegiance of a strapping blond Christian that the Sultan never quite decides to execute. The standout character this time around is Osman Ferradji (Jean-Claude Pascal), the Moroccan king’s right-hand man who is tasked, finally and unsuccessfully, with the taming of Angélique. Unsatisfying as the end of an epic, but a decent enough adventure yarn in its own right.
An Angélique pirate movie sounds like great, trashy fun, but Untamable Angélique is nowhere near as imaginative as Angélique and the King, and given Angelique’s status in earlier films as a beautiful, strong-willed female it’s dispiriting to see her thrown to the wolves in this fourth installment of the five-film series. The title is translated from the French Indomptable Angélique, partly because “indomitable” is roughly as unfamiliar to U.S. audiences as, well, “Synecdoche,” but also because “untamable” suggests an altogether more torrid affair. Indeed, this is arguably the raciest film in the series — not only does star Michèle Mercier offer more peek-a-boo nudity, but this film’s events are almost completely outside the control of poor Angélique, who is captured and raped by pirates, tortured by a pack of angry strays, stripped naked for sale at a slave auction, and eventually abducted again. Not only is Angélique a frustratingly passive character, but the film ends on an abrupt cliffhanger that promises more misery to come. By far the shortest Angélique film, Untamable Angélique is sufficiently energetic and compulsively watchable — the sea-faring scenes, including some ship-to-ship combat, are intriguing enough — but it’s odd to see how abruptly this popular series exhausted its emotional capital.
Angélique and the King
Angélique (Michèle Mercier) roars back to life in this lively third installment in the five-film series, which sees her becoming a crucial instrument in the affairs of Louis XIV, and thus the subject of much palace intrigue. When Angelique accepts a diplomatic assignment to the Persian ambassador Bachtiary-Bey (Sami Frey), she’s rewarded with Peyrac’s estate — now she has two manors — but ends up as a kind of political prisoner, the captive of Bachtiary-Bey, who intends to rape and perhaps murder her. Rescued in the nick of time (by a Hungarian prince!), she returns to the king’s court, where she’s regarded with dismay by the king’s wife and actively scorned by the king’s current mistress, who senses impending obsolescence. The second half of the film is the most brashly inventive part of the series so far, including one recurring character’s death, another’s return from the grave, multiple attempts on Angélique’s life, and even a black mass.
This is a real comedown after the first film in the series, which ended with Angelique de Peyrac enduring an abrupt fall from grace and apparently aligning herself with the Parisian underworld, bent on vengeance. Wonderful Angélique, however, turns out to be a much more straightforward romantic melodrama, showing Angelique as a status-driven career woman and serial monogamist who pulls herself out of poverty as an entrepreneurial restaurateur and hitches herself to royalty by marrying her cousin, Philippe de Plessis-Bellieres (Claude Giraud). She starts the film in thrall to her old sweetheart Nicolas (Giuliano Gemma), eventually falls for the anti-authoritatarian provocateur known as the “dirty poet” (Jean-Louis Trintignant) — the kind of charming rogue who introduces himself by groping your breasts while you sleep — and finally settles for Philippe. There’s a callback to the assassination plot from the first film, but the storyline feels much more middle-of-the-road-historical-romance this time around and the sense of rollicking, slightly bawdy fun has been diminished. Angélique’s wardrobe is still an enticingly fabulous manifestation of costume drama and the whole thing is lovely to look at but somehow the woman herself seems to have lost a stake in the story as appealingly fierce edge of Michéle Mercier’s performance has been dulled. A disappointment.