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London Film Festival 2014 Day 1: 'French Riviera' and 'Dukhtar'

Our coverage of the 2014 London Film Festival begins with reviews of two mother/daughter-focused dramas: veteran André Téchiné’s French Riviera and Afia Nathaniel’s debut film Dukhtar.

Elements of crime drama, unrequited love story and mother/daughter melodrama add up to an oddity in French Riviera (L’Homme Que L’On Aimait Trop), the latest work from André Téchiné, which reunites the veteran director with one of his actrices fétiches, Catherine Deneuve. Silver-haired here and as subtly compelling as ever, Deneuve plays Renée Le Roux, a casino-owner in '70s Nice who’s fending off business propositions from seemingly unscrupulous rivals.

The plot pivots upon the return of Renée’s daughter Agnès (Adèle Haenel) to the fold following a period of absence. Arriving in town, Agnès is collected by one Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet), who seems to serve as a mixture of legal counsel and chauffeur for Renee. “Your mother’s wishes are my command,” Maurice tells Agnès when they first meet. But the dynamic between employer and employee turns out to be a whole lot more complicated than this simple formulation suggests. Its complexity becomes especially clear when Agnès falls in love with Maurice, and the pair start an affair that ends up embroiling mother, daughter and lover in betrayals both personal and professional.

Derived from real events, including the still-unexplained disappearance of a casino-owner’s daughter, French Riviera is a curiosity. Rather Chabrolian in tone, full of intriguing strands and elements, the movie never really reaches a boil. Scene by scene the picture is quite absorbing, but it emerges in the last analysis as frustratingly unfocused. As in other Téchiné works, the emphases are often just plain odd here: the film spends a lot of time on aspects that don’t seem central while letting the plot go hang, a decision which impacts detrimentally upon the movie’s final third.

There are striking sequences throughout: Agnès demonstrating an African dance for Maurice; a steely post-coital scene; a touching in-car singalong to an Italian version of “Stand by Me” (the latter scene is a companion piece to a very similar moment in the Dardennes’ recent Two Days, One Night. But most of the moments you take away from the movie seem fairly tangential to its main concerns.

While Deneuve’s Renée ultimately emerges as the film’s most sympathetic figure, it’s hard to know how to feel about the protagonists for much of the film’s running time, or to know how Téchiné feels about them, either. Constructing characters of ambiguous motivation is probably the only thing that Téchiné could do with good conscious, given the unresolved outcome of the real-life case on which the film is based. But this approach doesn’t justify the movie’s shaky story-telling or recourse to clichéd devices (newspaper headline montages fill us in on plot details at various points) while a late swerve into courtroom drama mode, complete with jarring time leap, leads to a fumbled finalé.

French Riviera (the English title is pitiful, or was a nod to Téchiné’s 1975 French Provincial intended?) strikes interesting, ambivalent notes throughout, and the movie’s elegant sheen and attractive performances hold you. Still, an air of uncertainty hangs over the enterprise, as if Téchiné hadn't fully worked out the story that he really wanted to tell.

Dukhtar (Daughter) (2014)

Altogether more assured and focused in its intentions is Dukhtar (Daughter), the debut feature by Afia Nathaniel, in which a Pakistani mother, Allah Rakhi (Samiya Mumtaz), upon learning that her 12-year-old daughter Zainab (Saleha Aref) is to be married off as a way of settling a disagreement between rival clans, flees with the child on the day of the wedding. The women are aided in their escape by a sympathetic truck driver (Mohib Mirza), but it’s not long before armed men are heading down the mountain with orders to capture the fugitives.

Nathaniel’s compelling film takes its place amongst the recent examples of world cinema that are incisively exploring women’s lot in harshly oppressive patriarchies, works including Jeremy Teicher’s Tall as the Baobab Tree (2012), Haifaa Al-Mansour’s Wadjda (2012) and Chika Anadu’s B for Boy (2013). And while Dukhtar ultimately indulges in more Hollywood and Bollywood-influenced histrionics than its lower-keyed forebears (especially in its final stretch), it’s a worthy addition to that company as it similarly uses an intimate story to mount a wider social critique.

There’s a good, gripping thriller drive to the women’s risk-filled flight, and especially distinctive is the expressive way that Nathaniel uses landscape and place to tell the story. Shot in bold, saturated colours, the film moves from the claustrophobic mountain village of its opening to the expansive landscapes of its lovely, tranquil mid-section and, finally, to the bustling city of Lahore, where Nathaniel melodramatically, but nonetheless movingly, wraps up this charged and heartfelt tale of mother love.

Splash image: Catherine Deneuve in French Riviera (L’Homme Que L’On Aimait Trop) (2014)

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