DID YOU READ

“Comedy of Power,” “How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman”

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By Michael Atkinson

IFC News

[Photo: “Comedy of Power,” Kino, 2006]

Like it or not, we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the French New Wave — which, we should not be allowed to forget, will always be to film culture roughly what the Age of Enlightenment was to Western thought. Or what movable type was to public literacy. Or what “The Origin of Species” was to biology: a volcanic epiphany, a revolution. This was when the world realized that movies no longer needed to be manufactured by industries but could instead be made by individuals, rebels, idiosyncrats, with more mobile postwar equipment and on-location chutzpah. Chaplin and “Citizen Kane” notwithstanding, this was when, suddenly, movies could be art, made by self-expressive artists (not craftsmen or entertainers) who didn’t require guidance or approval from corporations or governments.

That’s how the story goes, and even if it’s only partially true (most of the New Wavers turned pro dealmakers very quickly), the films are still with us, all prickly and moody and discombobulating, and most of the moviemakers are still hard at play in the fields of cinema. Godard, Rivette, Rohmer, Varda and Resnais are still productive, though none of these gray lions rivals Claude Chabrol for energy and volume of output — he’s made 25 features in the last quarter-century alone, and only about half of them have seen the inside of American movie theaters. Chabrol looms so unpretentiously large that his movies succeed or fail entirely in Chabrolian terms — is it prime Chabrol, or just average Chabrol?

The true French heir to both Hitchcock and Lang, Chabrol has famously been all about crime — its motivations, its fallout, its ripple-effects and ironies. His newest film, 2006’s “Comedy of Power,” is a crime drama of an eccentrically offbeat variety. Fictionalizing the notorious corporate-scandal “Elf Affair” that sent scores of corrupt French CEOs and oil execs to prison in 2003, Chabrol casually stretches in the sun of a legal procedural that typically has less to do with facts than character and social intercourse. Like Enron writ even larger, the case had all to do with mountains of absconded public money, and yet would probably still wilt the interest of any other filmmaker (or screenwriter — in this case, frequent Chabrol collaborator Odile Barski). But as usual, Chabrol views the situation from an unlikely personal perspective: through the prickly, confrontational eyes of Isabelle Huppert as the chief investigating judge, who takes no greater delight in her work than when she can corner a rich man and maker him sputter in horrified rage. Huppert, 53 herself and as vibrant a force as ever, sauces up the movie so indelibly that Comedy of Power evolves into a post-feminist character study — don’t expect suspenseful machinations or unrealistic courtroom shenanigans. It’s all about the people, and Huppert’s workaholic avenging angel, dangerously underfed and self-amused, is fabulously, pathologically invulnerable — even as the murder threats pour in. Therein lies the woman’s charm, and Huppert’s star power. Released as well: Chabrol and Huppert’s first work together, the true-crime teenage-sociopath daydream “Violette” (1978).

From another New Wave planet — specifically, the era of Brazil’s “Cinema Novo” — comes Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ “How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman” (1971), notorious as the first and possibly the only film ever made about cannibals that, insofar as it takes sides, soberly favors the moral system of the flesh-eaters over their colonial victims. Naturally, it’s a comedy. Herzogian in its realism (a year before “Aguirre, the Wrath of God”), Pereira dos Santos’ movie is shot like a tropical documentary, but it’s set in the 1500s, when the French and the Belgians (among other European forces) were vying for dominance in native-rich South America, pitting tribes against one another and scamming them all for plundered natural resources. The story trails after a pallid Frenchman (Arduíno Colasanti) who after being mistaken for a Belgian (the indignity!) is captured by a cannibal tribe and set up for an honorary eight-month life of happy citizenry in their ranks (complete with wife). After his allotted time is up, he will be ritualistically slaughtered and eaten — unless he can figure a way out beforehand. The filmmaker is less interested in dramatics or empathy than in the avalanche of ironies that attend the situation, sprinkling in title-card commentary from European witnesses from the time, and even having the white man’s lovely, all-nude whip of a wife (the astonishing Ana Maria Magalhães, who went on to be a major, award-winning force in Brazilian cinema, both in front of and behind the camera) seduce him at one point with a long, sexy monologue about exactly how he’ll be killed and eaten. Colonialism is the target, and it’s such a monstrous sitting duck that the film barely has to lift a finger to make a mockery of all things old-school European. Taken just on a political level, “How Tasty” is one of sharpest satires of colonial history ever made, especially since it’s sourced out from the exploited culture’s sensibility. The New Yorker disc comes with plenty of sociopolitical exegesis — a lengthy essay by Portugese historian and Indiana University prof Darlene Sadlier, intro by Columbia prof/Lincoln Center programmer Richard Peña, and an interview with contemporary tribal spokesman Ailton Krenak — just in case you think the film itself looks cut-and-dried.

“Comedy of Power” (Koch Lorber) and “How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman” (New Yorker) will be available on DVD on May 8th.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.