The Grand Highway

January 9, 2020

grandhighwayThe new French film, The Grand Highway, naturally finds itself lumped together with other recent autobiographical films about childhood, such as My Life as a Dog, Hope and Glory, and Au revoir, les enfants.

It’s a memory movie, too. But, as nice as The Grand Highway is, it proves the point that not all autobiographical remembrances (in this case, those of writer-director Jean­-Loup Hubert) are created equal.

It’s about a crucial summer in the life of a 9-year-old boy, Louis (Antoine Hubert, the director’s son), who is dropped off by his pregnant mother to stay with friends in the country while she has her baby. Louis, a city boy, has his eyes opened considerably during his month in the country.

There are many bucolic diversions. One of the most prominent is the tomboy who makes Louis her playmate. Despite the fact that she enjoys throwing slugs at the nuns and dares to shove a fistful of eels down the front of Louis’ pants, he can’t help but like this lively little companion. Other fascinations include the cemetery, the garden, the church with its invitingly tall steeple. But Louis is most interested in, and most anxious about, the couple he is staying with. The husband (Richard Bohringer, the zen-master in Diva) is rough and teasing, sometimes drunk and mean. The wife (Anémone) is frail and stiff, and obviously disappointed by the central tragedy of their lives together, a tragedy that is revealed to Louis and helps him understand human behavior.

In this movie, it isn’t just the kid who has his life changed by the summery experience, it’s also the adults; the well-acted bickering marrieds are drawn together by their time with the little boy. All of which is somewhat pat, which exemplifies the limitations of The Grand Highway. Movies about childhood can often be informed with the detail of memory, and this movie has some nice examples of that, but Hubert’s film can’t find a novel way to make some very familiar growing-up points.

My Life as a Dog and Hope and Glory may have covered similar turf, but they invented fresh ways of seeing it (the former through a retreat into unreality, the latter through wartime comedy). The Grand Highway takes the standard approach, and is a standard movie.

First published in the Herald, 1988

Original title: Le Grand Chemin. It was released by Miramax, just before the moment Miramax turned into what it was going to be for the next 20 years. Probably a perfectly nice movie, but as I said, it paled in comparison to some of its contemporaries. I publish it here as a reminder that Europe had its humdrum 80s movies too, and we saw more of them during this era than we see today (in stateside theatrical release, anyway). Bohringer and Anémone won César awards for this film.


The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover

January 28, 2013

cookthethiefPeter Greenaway, the exceedingly provocative English director of The Draughtsman’s Contract and A Zed and Two Naughts, has said of his new film that “I wanted to engage in some of the excitements of unrestricted license.”

Mm-hmm. That is an elegant way of saying that Greenaway has tipped over a number of taboos in his new movie, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. It’s a film that happily seeks to offend and outrage.

And, oh, it succeeds. But Greenaway is such a witty and imaginative filmmaker that he makes his outrageousness watchable. At the very least, this film is visually stunning, even when it is at its most grotesque, which might be any of a number of moments.

The title provides the basic situation. A gangster (Michael Gambon) comes every night to the lavish restaurant he owns. He has no taste whatsoever, for food or anything else, but he likes to parade around with his entourage. His wife (Helen Mirren) is at his side, apparently for the sole purpose of giving him someone to abuse.

Across the restaurant sits a lone diner (Alan Howard), who spots the unhappy wife and sneaks off for the first of a series of trysts with her, in the hidden corners of the restaurant. The head chef (Richard Bohringer) watches all this with a steady, unflappable gaze.

The film is about the wife and her lover’s attempts to come together, while the gangster tries to figure out what is afoot (Gambon, the brilliant British actor who starred in the BBC’s “Singing Detective,” must have 85 percent of the film’s dialogue, and he thunders magnificently).

But the plot does not describe Greenaway’s gallery of effects. His films are not meant to be realistic; they are theatrical, melodramatic. Costume and set design and music are main characters, and they tend to dominate the puny human concerns.

As far as the taboos are concerned, the film pays disgusting detail to torture, scatological excesses, regurgitative functions, and finally cannibalism, in a climactic scene that will probably send people either screaming or chuckling from the theater. Like him or loathe him, Greenaway completely creates his own world, and it’s like nothing else in the movies.

Incidentally, this film grossed out the MPAA ratings board to such an extent that it received an X rating. Unfortunately, the X has come to be associated with hardcore porn (which this film is not, although it contains much nudity), and some newspapers and TV stations won’t accept ads for X-rated films, regardless of content. In Seattle, the movie is being released without a rating. These sorts of problems suggest that it’s time to rethink the current ratings system.

First published in the Herald, April 8, 1990

Caused some excitement at the time, that’s for sure, and Greenaway was really on a roll at that moment. I wonder whether I’d like it as much now.