I am a bit of a softie when it comes to those movies about diverse groups of people who come together to learn something new like tap dancing (“Stepping Out” with Liza Minnelli) or ballroom dancing (“Shall We Dance” with Richard Gere) or Italian (“Italian for Beginners”). We get to see glimpses of lots of different characters and stories and we get to see the way that they engage with new challenges and are transformed by their sense of accomplishment, new skills, and relationships.
I really enjoyed a quiet little movie in this genre called The Big Bad Swim. A group of people sign up for a swim class at a local rec center. It is a special class for people who are reluctant or scared of the water. The students include a recently divorced calculus teacher, a cop, a casino dealer/stripper, and a couple with a new pool. The movie skillfully interweaves the characters and their relationships with the kind of messy authenticity and respect for the audience that makes independent films so engaging. The performances are exceptionally layered and true, especially Paget Brewster as the teacher, and the little coda after the credits is delightful. This has very mature material, including sexual references and situations, drinking and drug use, and some very bad decisions, but is well worth a look for fans of independent film and good stories.
Mary Anne von Kappelhoff — better known as Doris Day — turns 87 today! She could do it all — comedy, drama, music, romance. She is best known for her light romantic comedies but her signature song comes from a Hitchcock thriller, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Two of my favorite Day movies are:
“Paris 36” is an enchanting story of a small theater in pre-WWII Paris where the workers take over and put on their own show. I spoke to writer-director Christophe Barratier and star Nora Arnezeder, who appears as the beautiful young singer, at the Palette restaurant in Washington, D.C.
NM: Tell me a little bit about the costumes, which really contribute to the sweet, fairy tale feeling of the movie.
CB: When we did the preparation, I wanted it to be a little bit more imaginative. Pigoil is “Mr. Everybody.” We don’t have to notice anything about what he wears but I didn’t want him to look like a loser. I wanted it to be imaginative, with different textures. For Douce [the beautiful young singer played by Arnezeder] I wanted something between the feeling of Jean Gabin and Marlon Brando, a full design, her raincoat and little hat have that silhouette, very classic but also modern, a 30’s style with a contemporary point of view. The clothes for “Mr. Radio” [who has not left his home in 30 years] have to show that they come from a different time.
NA: Nathalie Chesnais [the costume supervisor] wanted me to be comfortable, to feel good in the clothes. She said, “If you feel you could wear it today, I’ll be happy.” The costumes made me feel like a girl from the 1930’s but completely at home.
NM: Was this your first film, Nora?
NA: It was my first important role in a movie. I really wanted to be a singer and an actor as well. I heard about this audition and it felt like it was for me, just right for me. I had many auditions that did not succeed, but this one, I felt if I could not make it, I would have to leave acting.
CB: We met and she was so fantastic at the singing test I immediately knew she was the favorite but you have to be sure and see everybody. The more you see, the more you are sure.
NM: I also loved your earlier film, “The Chorus,” which, like this one, has music playing an important part in the story.
CB: Both ask the question, “How can you restore your dignity and restore the balance of your life with artistic expression?” Music is a way to focus your stress, to resolve without violence. This can apply to anyone who plays an instrument. This film is set in 1936 when the worker was king, and so it is about the way that the workers who watched from the wings got their chance to go on stage and connect to the audience. There are parallels to contemporary issues. I watched newsreels from the era, all those faces filled with hope, all those inspiring ideas, like we have today with Obama.
NM: The film feels a bit like a fairy tale.
CB: I don’t like so much realism, for myself. Everything you see we built; it’s all a set. The buildings could have been there in the 1930’s but the neighborhood we created does not really exist. I worked with an American cinematographer, Tom Stern, who had done “Million Dollar Baby” and “Road to Perdition.” I knew he could create the hyper-real, high contrast, look I wanted but nothing to do with realism. Even Parisians get lost when they try to figure out where it is. I try to create a bigger than life vision of Paris, a poetical fantasy.