MSPIFF 2015 Reviews: Belle et Sébastien + The Keeping Room

MSPIFF15reviewsBelle et Sebastien

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Despite being sometimes sappy and overly safe, Belle et Sébastien still mostly succeeds, primarily because Sebastian (Felix Bossuet) and Belle (a dog) are captivatingly adorable. It helps that their bond of friendship is keenly developed, as well.

The film opens with a group of mountain men, including Cesar (Tcheky Karyo), Sebastian’s primary caretaker, hunting a beast they believe has been killing their farm animals. The beast turns out to be a now feral, recently abused dog, whom Sebastian quickly dubs Belle. The two take their time forming an affectionate bond but soon become inseparable. Meanwhile, a friend of Sebastian’s adopted family, Doctor Guillaume (Dimitri Storoge), is sheparding fugitive Jews through wintry mountains, taking them to safety in Switzerland, all while the local Nazis wreak havoc on the village.

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Eventually, of course, the two stories merge, which is good, because initially they are so tonally different that they feel mismatched. One is mostly lighthearted fair fit for younger audiences while the other is dark, obviously intended for older audiences. But writer/director Nicolas Vanier and his co-writers never immerse in the second narrative, instead opting to let it exist on the film’s fringes. As such, the World War II specific subplot is shorted, and the characters specific to it are underdeveloped (this is especially true of Angelina, played by Margaux Chatelier).

Still, despite these narrative flaws, Belle et Sébastien avoids failure, if only because the child lead and his canine friend remain captivating. So too does the relationship between Sebastian and Cesar, and later that between Cesar and Belle.  Moreover, the picture’s imagery is positively stunning. Vanier captilizes on his mountain setting in ways that always impress.

All of which is to say that Belle et Sébastien is imperfect, maybe even forgettable, but it still accomplishes what it sets out to do: tell a sweet story about a boy and his dog.

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The Keeping Room

“War is cruelty . . . The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” ~William T. Sherman

This quote opens The Keeping Room, a part home invasion, part relationship drama, part female empowerment, part anti-war film, and the picture’s plot, about which I will purposefully say little, sets out to prove it, from the opening to the conclusion. So it is we know the sort of movie we’re watching.

Tone is not director Daniel Barber and writer Julia Hart’s only success. So too is their stunning imagery.

And their investigation of people’s potential for cruelty. Moses (Sam Worthington, utterly terrific) does evil things, but he never feels evil. He feels like a person trapped in a system, doing things even he knows he shouldn’t. When he says, “I don’t know how to stop,” we believe him because Barber and Hart have so masterfully shown it to us.

TheKeepingRoom_stillsThe writer and director adeptly characterize Augusta (Brit Marling, every bit Worthington’s equal) and Mad (Muna Otaru, very good), as well. These are two complex women, both of whom we like even though we sometimes question them.

Barber and Hart capture Henry (Kyle Soller) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld), less well, however. The former is an archetype, a terrible person who does terrible things because he’s terrible. Henry’s behavior is probably no more or less twisted than Moses’, but the filmmakers fail to nuance the former as well as they do the latter. Louise, too, is borderline archetypal, at least until the end of the picture. (Note: despite this flaw in characterization, when Steinfeld and Soller share the screen, they produce The Keeping Room’s most catching scene.)

The movie’s other notable flaw: pacing. The opening is overdrawn and the finale a little rushed, especially insofar as Louise comes alive in the end, transcending the ‘spoiled teenager’ archetype on which we spend so much time at the The Keeping Room’s onset.

Still, here the merits well outweigh the flaws. This film is worth viewing.

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Have you seen any of these films? Well, what do you think?

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14 thoughts on “MSPIFF 2015 Reviews: Belle et Sébastien + The Keeping Room

  1. Tom

    Hey Josh! Great to read some new stuff from ya. You may have been quietly posting stuff beforehand here that I may have missed but it’s nice to catch up here.

    Truth be told I have not heard of either movie you talk about here but I’m more intrigued by ‘Belle et Sébastien’ for sure. It reminds me of a Homeward Bound with a more human element to it.

    1. Hey, Tom. I’ve helped Ruth cover each of the last two local film fests. For this one I think I’ve reviewed six or seven movies. They also happen to be the only flicks I’ve seen since early February when I caught Nightcrawler.

      As to Belle et Sebastian, apparently the novel on which it’s based is quite popular in France. And, I think, maybe, that the book doesn’t include the Nazi subplot. If true, I think it interesting that the film added it – I’m not sure what conclusions to draw on that point. It’s just interesting.

      Obviously, I enjoyed The Keeping Room more, but both films definitely have their merits.

      1. Tom

        Oh okay, that’s awesome man. I figured this wasn’t one of your first posts in awhile. I’ll go back and look for some more then. 😀

    1. Thanks, Cindy.

      The setting in Belle et Sebastian is mesmorizing. And the photography maximizes its visual appeal at every turn. Really, the imagery is almost worth it all on its own.

      If you do see The Keeping Room, know two things: 1. It is really worth your time. 2. It is heavy.

      And, honestly, I didn’t choose either of these (really I didn’t choose any of the movies I am seeing for the fest). Ruth has been asking to see particular films, and I’ve been seeing them. 😉

  2. Hey Josh, I’m quite surprised to hear Sam Worthington is good in The Keeping Room. I often find him to be such a wooden actor, though I have to admit he’s got screen presence. How violent is that movie, I’m curious to check it out. Belle & Sebastian sounds great too!

    1. Hey, Ruth.

      I don’t know Worthington from very much, but here he’s one of the primary reasons his evil character has layers. It’s a very impressive and subtle performance.

      Violence? Most of it, at its worst, occurs off screen. But, in some ways, that makes it even more effecting. So. It’s not all that violent, really, but, as I told Cindy, it is heavy.

      1. You haven’t seen Avatar? He’s the main guy in it. He’s also in Terminator Salvation and Clash of the Titan remake. Well, that’s good that he’s capable of being subtle, seems that he’s been starring in a lot of indies lately, so more power to him.

  3. Pingback: MAY Viewing Recap, Top 3 MSPIFF 2015 + Movie of the Month |

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