Tricia Youlden

The Fencer
★★★★★ PG

During World War II, when Estonia was initially occupied by Nazi Germany, young Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi) was forcibly drafted into the German army. This meant that, in the post-war annexation of Estonia by the USSR, Endel was considered a war criminal.

Having left Leningrad, where he has been living under his mother’s surname in order to evade the secret police, he is hired as a physical education teacher in the rural village of Haapsalu. After an abortive attempt to start a ski club, he starts a fencing club for the students. His former fencing partner in Leningrad, Aleksei (Kirill Karo), sends him some second-hand foils and fencing outfits for the kids. He is becoming romantically involved with a fellow teacher, Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp). Life is comparatively good.

The popularity of his venture puts him offside with the principal (Hendrik Toompere), a party apparatchik who is suspicious of his background. He discovers that Endel was, until recently, a renowned fencer in Leningrad, using his mother’s surname. Most importantly, he learns that Endel had been conscripted into the German army. Meanwhile, Endel’s students have read that there is to be a schools' fencing tournament in Leningrad. Although his students are keen to compete, both Aleksei and Kadri advise against it, fearful that he will be arrested if he returns to Leningrad.

Many of the children have lost a father during the war and Endel has become their father figure as much as their teacher. The children have come to mean a lot to him. Little Marta (Liisa Koppel) cares for her two younger sisters while their widowed mother works overnight. Jaan (Joonas Koff) has also lost his father and now his grandfather (Lembit Ulfsak) has just been arrested.

Endel must decide whether he should risk arrest by taking them to Leningrad to compete in the prestigious competition or whether he should continue running from the authorities and disappoint the youngsters.

Anna Heinamaa’s screenplay is based on the true story of the Estonian fencer and coach, Endel Nellis (1925–1993). Klaus Haro’s seamless direction, flawless production values and totally believable performances, it is little wonder that this poignant but ultimately uplifting film has been so widely acclaimed.

Highly recommended.

Rosalie Blum
★★★★ M

Kyan Khojandi as Vincent Machot (right) with his cousin Laurent in Rosalie Blum

Bullied by his domineering mother to bring her a tin of her favourite crabmeat one Sunday evening, meek and mild hairdresser, Vincent Machot (Kyan Khojandi), has to cycle far afield to find a grocery store that is still open.

There, he is served by a seemingly unremarkable woman, Rosalie Blum (Noemie Lvovsky), yet he knows immediately that he has seen her face before. So strong is his sense of deja vu, he begins to follow her. The novice spy is quickly spotted by his prey, who in turn enlists her niece, Aude (Alice Isaaz), to follow her follower.

Meanwhile, Vincent’s mother Simone (Anemone), continues to pull his strings as though he is one of her marionettes. His womanising cousin, Laurent (Nicolas Bridet), tries to run his love life. But Vincent is changing. He is taking charge of his own life. Or so he thinks ...

Writer-director Julien Rappeneau’s screenplay for this gentle comedy is based on the graphic novels by Camille Jourdy. Rather like the technique often employed by English playwright Alan Ayckbourn, Rappeneau tells the story from three points of view: Vincent’s, Aude’s and Rosalie’s. Like Vincent, we gradually piece together the complete story as we see the same characters and events from their different perspectives.

Opening on Boxing Day, Rosalie Blum holds the record for the best attended film in the 27-year history of the French Film Festival. When you see it, you will surely understand why.

Like Crazy (La Pazza Gioia)
★★★★ M

Writer-director Paolo Virzi takes the audience on an emotional roller-coaster ride in this film, in which the main characters are a fantasist and an introverted obsessive depressive. When we first meet statuesque blonde, Beatrice Morandini Valderana (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), she is strolling through the grounds of a rundown Tuscan villa, behaving like the beneficent lady of the estate.

It soon becomes apparent, however, that this is Villa Biondi, a low-security mental institution, and Beatrice is actually an inmate. Here, the emphasis is on rehabilitation, not restraint. Everyone is familiar with Beatrice’s claim that she is an aristocrat who had been married to a government minister. Her refrain is tolerated with good humour by staff and patients alike.

When a new patient arrives, Beatrice just happens to be wearing a white coat and is mistaken for the admitting psychiatrist. Before her role-play is discovered she has diagnosed Donatella Morelli (Micaela Ramazzotti) as “borderline with major depressive disorder”. Thenceforth, Beatrice takes the withdrawn young woman under her wing, for better or for worse. Actually, the patients all look out for one another and, when the opportunity arises, they work as a well-oiled team to pilfer drugs and alcohol to share.

When Beatrice and Donatella volunteer for work in a local nursery a staff member describes them as “one walks, one talks”. Shortly after, Beatrice has talked Donatella into walking out of the nursery and into a search for happiness. For a brief time they borrow a little red sports car, but this brief Thelma and Louise interlude ends with an empty petrol tank.

Beatrice knows that Donatella’s sadness stems from having been separated from her infant son, so she determines to find him. More by luck than strategic planning they encounter first the baby’s father, then Donatella’s parents, and Beatrice is able to piece together the young woman’s bleak history.

Virzi deftly interweaves the tragedy of Donatella’s past with the comedy of their road trip as the two career from one escapade to another, each woman seeking to come to terms with her past. Beatrice’s surprise arrival at her former marital home is a high point in the comedy, while Donatella’s harrowing story achieves a surprisingly gentle resolution.

Meanwhile, their doctors (Valentia Carnelutti and Tommaso Ragno) are in hot pursuit, trying to locate them before the authorities do and hoping against hope that their trust in the women is justified. In many respects, Virzi’s film is an homage to the dedication of the healthcare professionals who run such institutions as Villa Biondi.

Vladan Radovic’s cinematography, Tonino Zera’s design, Katia Dottori’s costumes, Cecilia Zanuso’s editing and Carlo Virzi’s score help make Like Crazy a celebration of the crazy, complex creatures that we humans are. Better than group therapy!

Nocturnal Animals

Writer-director Tom Ford has based his second film, Nocturnal Animals, on the book Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. The film interweaves three narrative strands: the present, the past and the fictional.

In the present, Susan (Amy Adams) is a successful modern art gallery proprietor whose second marriage to Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) appears to be have reached a hiatus. When she unexpectedly receives a manuscript from her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), Susan begins to remember their shared past, when he was an aspiring writer.

As she reads the novel, about an horrific, violent murder set on the plains of West Texas, Susan envisages herself and Edward as the married couple in it. As she reads, she analyses her past decisions.

Although she and Edward had known one another as teenagers in Texas it was only when they met in New York as young adults that their romance bloomed. Despite the disapproval of her conservative mother (a stellar cameo by an immaculately coiffed and coutured Laura Linney) she married Edward. However, his lack of success and the appearance in her life of suave Hutton Morrow ended that marriage.

Now Edward has written the enthralling novel, Nocturnal Animals, and dedicated it to her.

In the novel, Tony (Gyllenhaal) is driving across Texas at night with his wife (Adams) and their teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). They are forced off a deserted road by a car driven by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whose intentions are clearly malevolent. As he and his two bemused sidekicks toy with the terrified family, the tension mounts. This and the following scenes have all the ingredients of a true horror film. The outcome is the gruesome murder of both women.

Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of Tony’s devastation is gut-wrenchingly palpable. Lanky, chain-smoking lawman, Lieutenant Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), vows to bring the perpetrators of the hideous crime to justice, no matter what it takes. While Gyllenhaal gives a consummate performance as both Edward and Tony, Shannon’s powerful performance as the laconic Andes is a standout.

Although her character is less sympathetically written, Adams brings out Susan’s redeeming vulnerability. She gives a seamless performance in all three narrative strands. Should Susan have persevered? Should she have had more faith in Edward’s talent? Or was losing her the necessary catalyst to finally unleashing that talent?

While the writing and performances are engrossing the film also looks stunning thanks to Shane Valentino’s production design, Arianne Phillips’ costumes, Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography and Joan Sobel’s editing. Abel Korzeniowski’s score subtly enhances the tension.

Definitely worth a look.

Tricia Youlden teaches drama at Willoughby Girls High School