Ze foreign films, and ze people who zee them

So, Judy talked me into going to ALL FIVE foreign films that are up for an Oscar this year and I was happy to go. They were shown through a 3-day package deal at the National Geographic building — $45, including a reception each day.

What a wonderful slog that was — we started on Friday night with “Incendies,” and then, on Saturday, took in a double-feature of “In a Better World” and “Biutiful.” Sunday, we were joined by Mickey and Andrew for “Dogtooth,” and then Judy and I finished the marathon with “Hors-la-Loi” (“Outside the Law”).

By the time we saw all five, I think we resembled two chamois cloths that had just been through the pep club’s annual car-wash fundraiser. Friends, we were wrung out. Emotionally drained. Forever scarred. Four of these movies are each a blow to head and the heart, and one is just dried-out Mediterranean flatbread. At one point, I leaned over to Judy and asked, “Has a foreign rom-com ever been up for an award?” (Do they make stoner comedies in other countries?) But nevermind — we loved the whole grueling experience, we admit it.

You have to be a masochist to do this event anyhow. I dunno where the National Geographic digs up the crowd who turns out for this, but they are old and mean and tweedy as all hell. They are a free tote-bag nightmare. They will cut you if you get in their way. And you should have seen the “reception” hors d’oeuvres table between films. Holy crap!  When the world starts turning zombie, these people will be early adopters. Judy and I managed to get some wine, but never had any hope of getting much more than crumbs to eat. We just watched the carnage. It was a little like this — ff’wd to :35, if you dare!

Anyway, the cinema. “Biutiful,” directed by Mexico’s Alejandro Iñarritu, will win the award, I think. Javier Bardem is really good and really sad as an ex-junkie/shady entrepreneur, trying to make life okay for his kids before he dies of cancer. Yes, it’s all that.

Of the five movies, “Biutiful” gave me the most heavy sighs and feeling of utter grime and filth — exactly the director’s intention, it seems. Only in the last 20 minutes did it become truly amazing. We liked it, but we staggered away.

Our favorite film (I think we agree, right Judy?) was “Incendies,” a Canadian film about … Lebanon, we think? (This seems to be unresolved in online discussions, though it seems obvious to us.) A brother and sister, twins who live in Montreal, must fulfill their mother’s dying wish and return to her homeland in search of their father and their lost brother. Also very hard to watch in parts, but gripping.

The second it was over, a loud, nasty woman behind us announced she could see the plot twist coming all along. I didn’t.

We liked “In a Better World,” which told parallel stories about a doctor who works in Africa and the travails of his picked-on adolescent son back home in Denmark. The son befriends a no-good rich kid who’s new to the school. We had questions. The movie didn’t have answers. This one really ramped up my fear of heights, when the boys keep climbing to the top of a grain silo and walking along its edges. That’s because of foreign film rule no. 7: IF BAD SHIT CAN HAPPEN TO PEOPLE, IT WILL.

Skipping ahead to the last movie, “Hors-La-Loi,” an Algerian biopic (I never even cared to look up whether it is based in fact or not) about three brothers who were central to the fight for that country’s independence after World War II, and the terrorism in France that led to it. Judy and I were mostly just bored out of our minds. The acting was bad and the script was very Wiki in plot and pacing. This was a movie about thugs. I think Judy summed it up for both of us: “I have never cared less about an independence movement.”

Okay, finally — “Dogtooth,” a Greek film.

Now, while I do think “Incendies” is more deserving of the Oscar, let me say this: Four years hence, when Judy says, remember that time we went to all the foreign film nominees in one weekend?, I will have only vague memories of the films we saw, except “Dogtooth,” which I will be able to recall frame for freakin’ frame.

The Nat Geo folks brought in this woman from L.A. who is on the Academy jury that nominates the best foreign films, to give a little spiel before each film. (Her name is Marjorie Somethin’-Somethin’; they kept introducing her as the casting director of “Avatar,” which became a running gag for those of us in the all-five-films crowd; she reminded me of someone who would be a character in Christopher Guest’s “For Your Consideration.”) Anyway, Marjorie gave us all a stern warning before the lights went down for “Dogtooth”: It is very disturbing. It has full-frontal. It has graphic sex (in “dogma” cinema style). It is brutal, it has abuse, it will ROCK YOUR WORLD whether you want it to or not. It is extremely controversial. Lady, just bring it!

Trailer – Dogtooth from Tour de Force on Vimeo.

It did rock our worlds. In short, “Dogtooth” is about a man and his wife and their three children. The couple have deliberately kept their son and two daughters on a lovely little compound way out in the country. Only dad leaves the compound, to go to his job managing a factory. The children have been raised in total isolation from the rest of the world. Everything they know, they learned from mom and dad — including vocabulary, to the point where they’ve been taught to call objects by other names. (An easy chair is called “the sea,” etc.)

Dad brings home a female security guard once a week, where she is paid to have sex with the son.

I could talk and talk about this movie. The ending is a major mindblower (and/or deeply unsatisfying.) I think it’s GREAT. (Can you tell that this was actually my favorite movie of the weekend and I’m just too weirded out to admit it?) The lights went up and Marjorie Somethin’-Somethin’ took the mike and said “I told you.” She asked the crowd what they thought.

By now, most of us had sat through four movies. A woman in the back stood up and shouted about how terrible it was. In fact, she added, all the movies had been terrible. “No!” the crowd shouted. “No, no, no!”

Marjorie asked the audience: What did we think “Dogtooth” was really about?

“Fascism!” someone shouted. (YES.)

“Abusive families!” said another. (YES.)

I would also add (since I’m not a theater shouter): Families that keep awful secrets; dictatorships; media; people who don’t let their children watch television; homeschooling gone horribly, horribly wrong; the oppressively insular, cocooning effect seen in a lot of families — especially the ones where dad is a quiet tyrant (you surely have seen this before).

Also, “Dogtooth” is beautifully imagined and terribly cruel. It is a unique piece of satire, too. Here is my favorite scene. On their parents’ anniversary, this is how the girls dance while the son plays guitar, because they’ve never seen actual dancing. (Except, as it becomes clear, the eldest daughter has secretly, recently seen “Flashdance.”) I wonder how many people I know could stomach “Dogtooth,” but if you can, then you’re a friend of mine.


  1. Judy Coode on February 23, 2011 at 1:04 am

    Yes, we agree: Incendies was best. Biutiful was saddest. Dogtooth: Most bizarre movie ever, very surreal, Bunuel/Dali “Un Chien Andalou”-ish but, errmm, worse.

    And yeah, you’ve never seen so many NPR donors scavenging for food as if THEY WILL NEVER EAT AGAIN. Wow.

    It’s too bad for Algeria, having the last film. Just couldn’t give a crap. It doesn’t help that the characters are mostly, sort of, jerks.

  2. Richard on February 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Marjorie Somethin’-Somethin’ is Margery Simkin. Close, though.

  3. DZ on February 23, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Saw Biutiful in Telluride and was not a fan. I was like, “Die already.” (I think I was overloaded on cinéma misérable at the time.)

  4. coozledad on February 23, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    I wasn’t raised in complete isolation, but that’s sort of how I dance. The leaping split or “downward dog hump” is where I part company with those girls.
    The only problem with parables about authority run amok is they’re pretty much lost on people it’s fully run amok on. I like the Bunuel stuff, but in my case, it’s just like going to a family dinner and listening to my aunt recite some poems she’s written for the occasion. The difference is after a Bunuel film, my wife never says “There’s no way in hell you’d ever be able to work full time. Not with that background.”

  5. Vera on March 23, 2011 at 10:51 am

    You made me very curious about “Dogtooth”. I think I’ll watch it tonight, it seems be to interesting. A film about fascism and abusive families sounds exactly like my type. Thanks for the suggestion 😉

  6. Kate on April 12, 2011 at 10:29 am

    The reason that foreign films are not world wide famous is because of the translation you can’t really translate good a film a french film , a romanian film, and a lot gets lost in the translations..

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