Wednesday 26 February 2020

The Lost Prince (Michel Hazanavicius, 2020)

OSS 117 director Michel Hazanavicius won an Oscar in 2012 for The Artist, his charming (if slight) silent movie which netted four other Academy Awards, including one for OSS star Jean Dujardin.  Hazanavicius faltered with his next film, a poorly-received remake of Fred Zinneman's The Search, but bounced back in 2017 with the excellent Jean-Luc Godard biopic Redoubtable.  Happily, his latest film provides further proof that The Search was little more than a blip.  As with the majority of his work, The Lost Prince stars Hazanavicius' wife Bérénice Bejo, who is here joined by Omar Sy, an actor who in recent years has landed a string of roles in entries in long-running Hollywood franchises such as Jurassic Park, X-Men and Transformers.  There's also a sizeable part for Belgian star François Damiens, who brings his fine sense of comic timing to what can perhaps be best described as a fairy tale with a rather unique twist.

Djibi (Sy) is a single dad who is completely devoted to his young daughter Sofia (Sarah Gaye).  Every night, Djibi settles down with Sofia and reads her a bedtime story, and it is during these tales that the father enters a Day-Glo fantasy world in which his words really do come to life.  In this realm, Djibi is a prince, one who always comes to Sofia's rescue when the wicked Pritprout (Damiens) has executed some dastardly plan or other.  But although Djibi's prince always saves the day, it does seem that he is aware this is just a role: once a story's finished, the main characters are revealed to be played by actors, and we witness the crew and all the backstage efforts that go into mounting these elaborate scenarios.  All of this is in sharp contrast to the modest reality occupied by Sofia and Djibi, who live in a small but cosy flat where they soon gain a new neighbour in the form of the chatty, likeable Clotilde (Bejo), who will soon appear in both worlds.  

While Djibi seems quite happy with the status quo, he fails to catch on to the fact that Sofia is growing up fast, and once she gets to high school she discovers other things in her life, meaning she would like her evenings to consist of a bit more than Djibi's stories.  Among these other interests is Max (Néotis Ronzon), a friendly classmate who is one of the first to befriend the 12-year-old at her new school.  As Djibi continues to make forays into the fantasy world, he soon discovers that he's no longer the star of the show, having been usurped by a much younger prince.  Joining the dots between the events of the two worlds isn't exactly difficult, and Djibi - who's now been relegated to little more than a bit player - plots to restore things to how they were.  In the fictional universe, Djibi is aided in his quest by an unlikely ally in the shape of former nemesis Pritprout, while in the real world it is down to Clotilde to provide some much-needed perspective.

The Lost Prince proves to be a more satisfying film than the somewhat overrated The Artist, and it's a warm if rather predictable tale which features typically winning performances from Sy, Bejo and Damiens.  The scenes set in the fantasy world look incredible, with Hazanavicius' regular cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman turning in some sterling work here.  The film features a nice nod to Schiffman's mother Suzanne in the form of a glimpse of a bus stop which bears her name; Schiffman Sr. worked closely with Truffaut, Godard and Rivette, among other greats, and it's often overlooked that she was the co-director (with Rivette) of the 13-hour Out 1The Lost Prince was certainly not a cheap film to make, so it's something of a pity that it appears to be set for middling box-office returns; it's a well-crafted slice of family entertainment, one which shows a bit more ambition than most films of its ilk.  While his two OSS 117 films remain this director's best work (a third instalment has just finished filming - without Hazanavicius - and is set for release next year), The Lost Prince is certainly a worthy addition to his CV.

Darren Arnold

Images: 01 Distribution

Monday 3 February 2020

Atlantics (Mati Diop, 2019)

Last year, Atlantics' director Mati Diop made history as the first black female director to compete for Cannes' Palme d'Or; her debut feature went on to win the the festival's Grand Prix, only being pipped to the top prize by Bong Joon-ho's much-lauded Parasite.  Diop actually made her first short film way back in 2004, but in the years between that effort and last year's Cannes triumph she had become better known for her work in front of the camera, starring in the likes of Simon Killer and Claire Denis' excellent 35 Shots of Rum.  2019 came to a close with Atlantics ending up on both Netflix and the shortlist for the Oscars, and en route to these events it had also picked up the Sutherland Award for First Feature at the London Film Festival.  Not a bad year's work.

While Atlantics didn't make the final cut for the Oscars when the shortlist was chopped in half last month, its presence on Netflix will ensure the film receives way more exposure than it would have had in the times before streaming services.  The days of such a film being relegated to a limited release on the art-house circuit - before eventually turning up on a boutique home video label - seem to be fading; at the very least, such a fate is no longer a certainty.  While it will get a Blu-ray release - via the prestigious Criterion Collection, no less - later on this year, the lengthy wait which would once have been in place between the film's theatrical release and its appearance on disc is seamlessly bridged by the streaming giant.  The Netflix vs. cinema row has been raging for some time but, in the case of Atlantics, streaming's role is hard to argue against; a film which, had it appeared 10 or 15 years ago, would have been treated as a niche title can now share a home screen with the likes of Uncut Gems, Marriage Story and The Irishman.

Anyway, on to the film: Ada (Mame Bineta Sane),a young woman living in Dakar, is due to marry the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla).  Unfortunately, Ada's heart belongs to construction worker Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who has been working on a huge, futuristic tower in the city.  Souleiman and his fellow builders are continually stiffed for wages by the developer (Diankou Sembene), which leads to them looking elsewhere for paying work, and they decide to attempt the perilous journey across the sea to Spain.  It's perhaps not much of  a spoiler to say that Souleiman and the others sadly don't make it to Europe; meanwhile, back in Dakar, Ada marries Omar, but their wedding night doesn't happen due to a mysterious fire occurring in the bridal suite.  To say what happens next would be to spoil, but suffice it to say that the film takes a sharp left turn, one for the better; it's really only once you reach the halfway stage that the film really starts to crackle and fizz, as Diop adds an extra layer to proceedings.

Much has been made of Atlantics' switch from realism to something altogether different, and it's a trick which has certainly been handled very deftly by Diop.  The film is wonderfully atmospheric, combining some beguiling cinematography with a driving, unnerving score.  Whether in the bustling streets of Dakar or by the side of the sea which plays a key part in the story, Diop shows a fine eye for light and colour.  It's a haunting, ambitious work, yet not without its flaws: there's an unevenness to proceedings which proves slightly frustrating, and the film really does take some time to get going.  But, all said, Atlantics is a fine debut feature, one which greatly impresses as it continually pushes into new territory - even if such moves don't always come off; Diop doesn't play it safe here, and there's much to like about that approach.  We'll be hearing from her for some time yet.

Darren Arnold