Episode #79 of The Swampflix Podcast: New Orleans French & PATOIS Film Fests 2019

Welcome to Episode #79 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our seventy-ninth episode, James & Brandon take care of some film festival-related Spring cleaning with a diverse line-up of foreign-language cinema. They discuss selections from this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest and PATOIS: The New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival.  Also, James makes Brandon watch the absurdist French drama La Moustache (2005) for the first time. Enjoy!

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–James Cohn & Brandon Ledet

New Orleans French Film Fest 2019, Ranked & Reviewed

Of the two local film festivals operated by the New Orleans Film Society, New Orleans Film Fest is both the longest-running and the most substantial. The 29th Annual NOFF, for instance, screened hundreds of films all over downtown New Orleans last October, of which we were able to cover 10 features (and a few shorts). We’re only seeing an insignificant fraction of the films screening NOFF every year, making a festival-wide recap something of a Sisyphean task as amateur bloggers.

NOFS’s annual New Orleans French Film Fest is a different matter entirely. The entirety of French Film Fest is located at a single, beautiful venue: The Prytania, Louisiana’s oldest operating single-screen cinema. In past years, we’ve been able to see an average of a dozen features at each French Film Fest, which is a fairly substantial percentage of the 15-20 pictures that screen there. All films are at least partially French productions, most are shown in subtitled French language, and the large majority of them never see domestic big screen distribution outside of the festival. I see some of my favorite releases of the year at French Film Fest too; last year’s Double Lover ranked near the top of my favorite films of 2018. There are also typically at least two screenings a year that I’d comfortably call all-time favorites after just one viewing, especially in retrospective screenings from auteurs like Agnès Varda & Jacques Demy. New Orleans French Film Fest is the smaller, more intimate festival on the NOFS calendar, but its manageability is more of a charm than a hindrance and I’m starting to look forward to it more every year.

That’s why it’s a little disappointing that we had to scale way back at this year’s festival. This year, French Film Fest arrived at the boiling point of Mardi Gras season. It had to compete with a surge of drag shows, parades, and all other sorts of Mardi Gras mayhem that flooded New Orleans’s social calendar in its one-week run. As a result, we were only able to schedule four screenings during the festival, only a third of our usual attendance. Still, I was very pleased with our four selections, and I look forward to catching up with a few titles we missed as they pop up on VOD throughout the year.

James and I will be doing a more exhaustive recap of our experience at the festival in early April (along with this week’s PATOIS Film Fest), but for now here’s a ranking of the few films we’ve seen that screened at the 2019 New Orleans French Film Festival. Each title includes a blurb and a link to a corresponding review. Enjoy!

La Belle et la Bête (1946) – “I cannot deny the visual splendor & fairy tale magic of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête; it’s every bit of a masterpiece as it has been hyped to be, just a gorgeous sensory immersion that defines the highest possible achievements of its medium. What I didn’t know to expect, however, what its reputation as the defining Beauty and the Beast adaptation had not prepared me for, was that it would be so deliriously horny. La Belle et la Bête is more than just a masterpiece; it’s a Kink Masterpiece, which is a much rarer breed.”

Yellow is Forbidden (2019) – “The ambition of Guo Pei’s work and the importance of her outsider status in the fashion industry are enough to trigger an emotional response on their own merits, but what makes Yellow is Forbidden a great film is the way it attempts to match that significance in its own mood & artistry. It feels less like an academic document of a culturally significant artist than it does like a swooning, dizzying trip to a fine art museum where the designer’s work is on magnificent display.”

The Nun (1966) “This is a grim prison sentence of a motion picture, a harsh reminder of the punishment that awaits anyone born a woman under the ‘wrong’ circumstances. Although it’s never as overtly, sexually blasphemous as later arthouse nunsploitation pieces like the Ken Russell classic The Devils or the recent sex comedy The Little Hours, it’s not difficult to see why the Catholic Church pushed to have The Nun banned upon its initial release. Any brief flashes of joy, light, color, or relief detectable in the film are quickly stamped out by exploitation, guilt, and misogyny, all in the name of serving God and the Church.”

The Image Book (2019) – “What Godard is trying to say with this assemblage is anyone’s guess. He makes a somewhat clear-eyed distinction between the decadent wealth of the West and the war-torn poverty of the Middle East, but the narration itself is too loosely philosophical to put too fine a point on what he’s saying. Mostly, what comes through is the sadness & anger of an old man who’s getting weary of watching the world burn with no sign of substantial change to come, a frustration he’s eager to pass on to his (mostly Western) audience as punishment. It’s a bleak political treatise that supposes its audience is unworthy of any cinematic pleasure, even the comfort of a clear thesis or narrative.”

-Brandon Ledet

The Nun (1966)

Usually when an older film resurfaces in digital restoration, it means brighter colors, shaper lines, a renewed vibrancy. Such joys are sparse, if at all existent, in the new digital scan of the 1966 French New Wave political screed La Religieuse (The Nun). That’s not to say the restoration itself is lacking in any technical achievement or attention to detail; The Nun is given a new, bellowing potency in its restored form – both in the refreshed patina of its imagery and in the thunderous effect of its sound design. The lack of vibrant color and lush imagery in the restoration is more a result of the material it’s servicing. This is a grim prison sentence of a motion picture, a harsh reminder of the punishment that awaits anyone born a woman under the “wrong” circumstances. Although it’s never as overtly, sexually blasphemous as later arthouse nunsploitation pieces like the Ken Russell classic The Devils or the recent sex comedy The Little Hours, it’s not difficult to see why the Catholic Church pushed to have The Nun banned upon its initial release. Any brief flashes of joy, light, color, or relief detectable in the film are quickly stamped out by exploitation, guilt, and misogyny, all in the name of serving God and the Church. I watched the new restoration of The Nun in a crowded theater at this year’s New Orleans French Film Fest, but it felt as if I were locked in solitary confinement for all 140 grueling minutes of it, which may as well have lasted 140 years.

Director Jacques Rivette is generally understood to be one of the more cerebral, surreal artists of The French New Wave, but that reputation doesn’t come into play too frequently in this instance. His most experimental, challenging impulses surface in The Nun as a dissociative approach to sound design. Story-wise, Rivette remains relatively faithful to Denis Diderot’s 18th Century novel of the same name. Roaring winds, deafening church bells, disorienting thwaps of arrhythmic jazz: the soundtrack of The Nun is pure auditory madness. It places the audience in the overwhelmed, dissociative mind of its protagonist in the exact same way modern auteurs like Josephine Decker still establish first-person POV in the 2010s. As the titular nun is starved, isolated, forced to kneel in repentance for vaguely-defined “sins,” and sold by her parents into a life of perpetual boredom, the audience is miserably in sync with her. Sometimes, a harsh edit will mimic her disoriented sense of time as she loses track of the clock & calendar while also losing sense of her autonomy & self. Mostly, we’re left to rot within the grim, grey walls of her cell as a Kafkaesque battle for her freedom unfolds in locked rooms far offscreen, away from her control and our observation. As overwhelming & figurative as the sound design can be, Rivette holds back substantially in the potential mental escapes offered by verbal or narrative experimentation. It’s an artistic restraint that emphasizes the constraint in freedom suffered by its protagonist – locking us all away to die alone in misery right along with her.

French cinema legend Ana Karina stars as the titular, tragic nun. Her story is meant to be reflective of many unmarried, unwanted young women of her era: locked away in a convent for her family’s convenience. Born out of wedlock to parents with at best moderate wealth, she’s treated as a burden that weighs her family down; she can’t make a life on her own without a husband, and the circumstances of her birth render her unmarriable in “decent” society. Her trips to the altar to take vows as God’s bride, under protest, read as funeral marches. She pleas to her parents not to sacrifice her to God from behind prison bars, causing great public scandal. Her birth mother coldly requests, “Do not poison my life any further” and gradually breaks down her resistance to taking vows as a nun, an act she cannot remember once it is done. From her birth mother’s cold indifference to her mothers superior’s varying modes of tyranny, she’s never allowed an inner life or independence. Across two convents and countless authority figures’ rule, she’s tortured, coddled, groomed for rape, consoled, pitied, shamed, and silenced – all while prisoner to a religious cause she was forced to assume under duress. And everyone around her has a nerve to contextualize her path as God’s sacred plan.

For all the shame, confinement, physical abuse, and sexual grooming that awaits Ana Karina’s reluctant nun, the greatest tragedy of the film is the way The Church extinguishes her inner life before it gets to fully develop. She’s allowed no feeling, no emotion, no dreams, no desire. When asked how she’s getting along in the convents, she replies only “I obey my fate” and “Time passes.” There’s a soul-crushing emptiness to her perpetual boredom that weighs heavily on the tone of the picture. Any brief promises of relief from a seemingly kind priest, lawyer, or mother superior who might break her free from her vows or allow her to explore her own inner life are quickly stamped out as those authority figures reveal their true selfish, lustful desires for her – purposes that offer no personal ambition or autonomy. In The Nun, being born a woman under the “wrong” circumstances is a life-long prison sentence – a mandatory sacrifice of self to others’ piety, lust, and vanity. It may not be an especially pleasant sit and it’s understandable why The Church might bristle at its political implications, but it’s a true account of a very gendered, widespread form of human misery experienced by countless women across history – one the film replicates almost too vividly.

-Brandon Ledet

The Nun (2018)

The modern mainstream horror is a lot like a haunted house attraction at an amusement park. The carnival barker outside promises more thrills than could ever possibly be delivered. The story told inside is never nearly as important as the craftsmanship of individual images and the establishment of a spooky atmosphere. The most you can really ask for is to be startled a few times by a well-executed act of misdirection; the communal experience of getting spooked in public before returning to your normal life, unaffected but amused, is entirely the point. By those metrics, The Nun is a perfectly average modern horror flick, delivering no more & no less than necessary to skate by as a passable novelty entertainment. Its phenomenal jump-scare trailer beckons passerby to wander to the ticket booth for the soul-shaking freak-out of a lifetime, only for the film to deliver the bare-minimum genre goods instead. Its narrative is a flimsy excuse to string together a series of cheap-thrill spooky images & startling noises. The communal experience of jumping out your seat with a hundred fellow novelty-seeking strangers in the film’s opening weeks is the best it can offer, a cheap thrill that’s quickly forgotten as you wander off to the next attraction.

The Nun’s mediocrity is announced as soon as its exposition, where the film is framed as an out-of-sequence spinoff from The Conjuring franchise with a “Previously on . . . “ flashback befitting a TV series. What follows is a prequel that over-explains the origins of a creepy cameo character from the original Conjuring movies, adopting the same approach as the Annabelle spinoffs. The Annabelle movies mire their origin story mythology in story, however, whereas The Nun does very little to pretend that it is anything but a haunted house attraction. In this case the haunted “house” is a ghostly convent, where The Gates of Hell were once opened to allow a demon to crossover & possess the unsuspecting nuns who live there. We join the action in the 1950s, where a young nun-to-be, a priestly “miracle hunter,” and their French-Canadian scamp of a tour guide investigate the mysterious phenomena of the haunted convent, only to be startled from all directions by the horrors they find inside. Big budget nunsploitation set dressing & familiar Gothic horror atmosphere are only mood-setting novelties meant to flavor the standard demonic jump scares & spooky Catholic iconography The Nun delivers. The characters are practically ushered down an assembly line conveyor belt for their own turn to be startled by the attractions inside, swiftly moving along to the next crop of willing victims can have their fun.

If The Nun were going to be anything more than a perfectly mediocre mainstream horror, its best chance would have been to lean into its value as a cheap novelty. Part of the reason that the film’s trailer is such a delight is that it wastes no time with narrative concerns and instead isolates a single scene of jump-scare misdirection, delivered without context. The film itself unwisely dilutes those types of thrills with an abundance of context that could only be described as a waste of time, especially when deployed to nest the film within The Conjuring’s overarching mythology. The machine-like efficiency of last year’s IT adaptation, where tension was built & released with regular-interval jump scares like a rhythmically reset rotary dial, is an excellent example of how that formula can be executed at a higher, more memorable level. As is, the pacing is a little too languid for the film to fully satisfy as anything more than a loose collection of cheap thrills & spooky nunsploitation-themed images. Any intense praise or condemnation of The Nun can only be hyperbolic, as the film is the exact medium of what big-budget horror looks like the 2010s. The Nun deserves neither ecstatic championing nor intense negativity – only mild, temporary amusement. It’s fine.

-Brandon Ledet