One of the things I like best about the Academy Awards has nothing to do with discovering which blockbuster will win Best Picture. I find the actual award ceremony, where glamorous celebrities parade to center stage to deliver their well-rehearsed speeches, only mildly entertaining. Rather, the thing I appreciate most is checking out the nominated shorts, international films, and documentaries in the weeks leading up to the main event.
This year’s Academy Awards airs on Sunday, April 25. Below, you’ll find my take on 5 streamable films that have ties to a francophone country. These productions demonstrate the breadth and strength of the global filmmaking industry. My personal favorite is from Tunisia, The Man Who Sold His Skin.
This post provides links to each trailer as well as the complete film. You still have time to watch before the winners are announced!
Documentary Short Film
Colette tells the story of 90-year-old Colette Marin-Catherine, one of the last surviving members of the French Resistance. Colette’s older brother, Jean-Pierre, was captured by the Germans and died in a Nazi concentration camp. After the war, Colette wanted to put the past behind her and she vowed never to travel to Germany. In the film, that attitude changes after a young history student, Lucie, asks Colette if she will accompany her on a visit to the camp where Jean-Pierre’s life came to an end.
The documentary follows their trip to a forced labor camp near Nordhausen, Germany. Their trajectory opens deep wounds but Colette’s fondness for Lucie propels her onward until they reach the very site where Jean-Pierre probably took his last breath. It’s an incredibly touching film. Lucie’s sweetness lies in stark contrast to Colette’s bristling exterior. Yet, their inexplicable connection gives them both the strength to complete what proves to be a cathartic journey.
You can stream the 25-minute film for free on YouTube.
Two of Us
France’s Official Oscar Entry for Best International Feature Film
Two of Us is a romantic drama about an older lesbian couple, Mado and Nina, that have secretly been in love with each other for decades. Now, wishing to live out their senior years together in Rome, Mado must reveal their relationship to her grown children. Their plans are turned upside down, however, after Mado suffers a stroke. The distraught Nina is pushed aside by Mado’s children and a cranky caregiver who rush to Mado’s side to help her regain her health.
There were parts of this film that drew me in, but overall, I found many aspects of the storyline to be cliché and less than believable. For starters, Mado’s children have met Nina but they know her only as their mother’s neighbor who lives in an apartment across the hall. Over the years, Mado, who is now in her late 60s, hasn’t managed to tell her kids that Nina is more than a casual acquaintance. Now, she’s expected to announce that they’re moving to Rome to live together as lovers? It seems like a stretch that Mado hasn’t even let her children know about this close and important friendship.
I also thought the director implanted too many well-worn scenes into the action. More than once, Nina snuck into the ailing Mado’s apartment only to be nearly discovered by her adversaries. Each time, she hovers nervously in the foreground of the camera shot, as first Mado’s children and later the caregiver wander in the background and come precariously close to discovering her.
On the positive side. The acting is excellent and I’m all for films that star atypical protagonists. Certain elements of the story are unique. However, overall Two of Us just didn’t quite cut it for me.
You can currently stream this 99-minute film on Amazon.
Shortlist for Best Animated Short Film
I usually make a point of watching all of the nominated animated short films. I’m in awe of the innovativeness and design skills of many of the artists that work on such productions. Genius Loci, by French director, Adrien Mérigeau, is a beautiful study of art in motion.
After watching the Genius Loci, I had my own theory regarding what the film was about. Then I watched an interview with Mérigeau and learned that the entire premise was completely lost on me. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
You can stream the 16-minute film for free on Vimeo.
Shortlist for Best Live Action Short Film
Stories about immigrants are popular right now and one might argue that they’re important. I imagine this is why The Van, starring French actor Phénix Brossard, made it onto the shortlist for Best Live Action Short Film. However, this is exactly the kind of film that I was complaining about to fellow blogger, Infidel753, earlier this week. Rather than enlightening the viewer, it seems hell-bent on delivering an upsetting story that plumbs the depths of man’s basest instincts.
The Van tells the story of a young man desperate to leave Albania and settle in the United Kingdom. His father has no interest in abandoning his current life but the young man insists that they both leave the country with the aid of human smugglers. The only way to gain enough money for the voyage, however, involves entering into hand-to-hand fights that take place in the back of a delivery van. The van drives through city streets while the two combatants beat each other to a pulp. The vehicle will only stop to declare and pay off a winner after one of the fighters is no longer conscious.
Do stories like this take place? Perhaps, but only on the far fringes of human experience. I’m all for knowing about unpleasant happenings in the world but I found nothing in The Van worth recommending. That said, if you’re intrigued, you can stream the 15-minute film on Amazon.
The Man Who Sold His Skin
Best International Feature Film
Unlike The Van, The Man Who Sold His Skin is an immigration story worthy of acclaim. Tunisian director, Kaouther Ben Hania, brings us a dark and satirical look at what it means to be “born on the wrong side of the world.” The movie is loosely based on an actual event when Belgian artist, Wim Delvoye, tattooed a man’s back and then sold it as art. In The Man Who Sold His Skin, however, the living canvas belongs to a Syrian refugee named, Sam Ali, who is desperately trying to get to Belgium.
Sam’s former fiancé, Abeer has been married off to a diplomat who is stationed in Brussels and Sam hopes that he and Abeer can somehow be reunited. A chance encounter with a wildly successful Belgian-American artist, named Jeffery, presents Sam with a unique opportunity. If he agrees to let the artist tattoo his back, he can accompany Jeffery to Belgium where he will be placed on display for the world to ogle.
The way is paved for numerous scenes of exploitation and objectification. Is Sam being used when he himself feels he’s shrewdly taking advantage of a lucrative opportunity? This movie is never dull and the soundtrack is brilliant. The twists and turns that accumulate at the end are pure gold. As you can probably tell, I’m a big fan. Of all the films I’ve reviewed, I’ve saved the best for last.
You can currently stream The Man Who Sold His Skin on Amazon.
Truth to tell, reading some of these actually brought your comment on my earlier link round-up to mind even before you mentioned it. There is too much of a tendency these days to associate gloom and nastiness with profundity (and it’s not limited to movies).
Colette might be a difficult one for me. My grandfather died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp — that was before my time, of course, but my mother talked about it a lot, and I’m the only member of the family who has ever visited his grave in Yokohama. So this kind of story hits close to home, and the movie is obviously very emotional in places. I imagine there are still a fair number of people alive who lost someone to the horrors of fascism during World War II.
Two of Us put me in mind of Carol, one of the few romance films I’ve liked — but unlike Carol, it seems to embrace the film cliché that gay stories always have to end tragically. And I’m a little surprised that such a long-established couple wouldn’t have formed some kind of legal relationship to ensure that each partner would have access and a say in the other’s care in case of a medical emergency, as gay people these days commonly do. Or is the movie set in an earlier time? I noticed in the trailer seeing one of those phones which is fixed to the wall and has a spiral cord connecting the hearing-and-talking part, something which hasn’t been common for decades.
The Man Who Sold His Skin certainly does look like the best of the group. It’s a curious twist that the “exploitation and objectification” happen to a man; such stories more commonly involve a woman in that kind of position. I wonder if it will be shown theatrically here — if we even have safe theaters again in the foreseeable future, that is.
You’re right to predict that Colette might be somewhat overwhelming. Your experience in Japan sounds like it might have been quite similar. In general, I don’t cry but this documentary brought tears–not simply due to sadness but due to the tender rapport that developed between Lucie and Colette. I don’t put this film in the same category of those that I complained to you about. This film has meaning, even if sad. It’s not revealing man’s evil side in an effort to shock. Instead, the film is about survival and healing.
Two of Us does not have an unhappy ending. Mado and Nina are eventually reunited and I guess we’re supposed to believe that all is well thereafter. There is an old-fashioned phone mounted in Mado’s apartment but the story takes place now. I just thought the notion that two intelligent women would not have the sense to ease Mado’s family into a growing awareness of the importance of their friendship was hard to swallow.
I think there’s little chance of The Man Who Sold His Skin appearing in theaters. I’ve been waiting for this film to be streamable for about a month. The licensing seems to be fairly restrictive. Finally, a few days ago, it became available and I only just watched it on Wednesday.
I hope I conveyed how much I liked the film which I think is one of the best I’ve seen in the last year. I want to keep an eye on the director. She definitely knows how to make a movie that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Not what most Americans expect from a Tunisian woman.
There have actually been prominent women in the Arab world’s entertainment industry for decades, especially singers. A lot of Americans get their impressions of the whole region from Saudi Arabia, which is actually a freakish Handmaid’s-Tale-like anomaly and far from typical of Arabic-speaking societies. And in some ways Tunisia is the most modern Arab country. I looked up ben Hania after reading your review and she had an earlier film in contention at the Academy Awards a couple of years ago, which dealt with an even more grueling subject (a woman trying to get justice after being raped by police officers). Definitely someone to watch.
Collette definitely looks interesting!
I’m happy that Colette is nominated for an Oscar. It is definitely worthy. I’m glad that I watched it. Same for The Man Who Sold His Skin.
I’m pleased that you provided information and trailers of these films— and delighted to know about a Tunisian woman director.
I invariably watch the Oscars and regret having done so, but I’m always intrigued by the documentaries. Yet it’s sometimes difficult to locate them—even when there wasn’t a pandemic.
I’m not sure I agree that it’s surprising Mado never “came out” to her family. We tend to think this decision has become easier, but that’s not always the case. That may be especially true if, as Infidel suggests on the basis of his eagle-eyed observation, the film is set some time ago.
Perhaps I should have watched the trailers before commenting, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with all the blogs I enjoy following, and I didn’t want another of yours to become buried in my unruly email inbox
Thanks for dropping by Annie. Two of Us does take place in current day. I can fully accept that Mado wouldn’t have necessarily come out to her kids. I simply find it implausible that she wouldn’t have even let them know that Nina was a close personal friend.
I have female friends that I go to the movies with, or have over for dinner, or walk in the park with, and even travel with. If I were in Mado’s shoes, I would at least let my kids know that my relationship with my neighbor went beyond a brief hello when we’re taking out the trash. It just seems like doing so would simplify life enormously.
Given their ages, and the fact that they are both single, it seems they would also know that health issues, even minor ones, were in their near future. I’d be thinking, if I ever get sick or break a bone, I want my partner to be able to come help out without anyone batting an eye. In Mado and Nina’s case, the family pretty much kept Nina away because they would have found the sudden devotion of a neighbor to be weird.
I’m have trouble managing my blog reading as well so no worries.