Reviews

Almost Peaceful

Ryan Scott

Almost Peaceful shares the breadth of the novel it was based upon, but it is constrained in its exploration of the characters.


Almost Peaceful

Director: Michel Deville
Cast: Simon Abkarian, Zabou, Vincent Elbaz, Lubna Azabal, Denis Podalydès
Length: 94
Studio: First Run
Distributor: Empire Pictures
MPAA rating: N/A
US DVD Release Date: 2007-08-21

Life in the aftermath of the liberation of France was a difficult affair for many. The ideas of fascism, which had found a receptive audience among significant numbers of French, didn’t disappear when the Allies forced back the Wehrmacht and SS. France may have regained control of its destiny, but for the Jews of France, prejudice burrowed into the new civil service. French Jews returning to their homes still encountered anti-Semitic gangs and government officials who would deport them no matter how fluently they spoke French.

Such a complex and painful time should’ve been documented in film a long time ago. Cinema has preoccupied itself with the build up of Nazism and the realization of its terrible visions. Rarely has it explored the aftermath. For this reason Michel Deville’s Almost Peaceful (Un Monde Presque Paisible) would be a welcome addition to Holocaust cinema, if he had executed it more cautiously.

The film is an adaptation of Robert Bober’s novel Quoi de Neufsur la Guerre. The film shares the novel’s breadth, but is constrained in its exploration of the characters. Instead of a central narrative, the film unfolds in a series of vignettes, concerned with the every day life of the tailor Albert (Simon Abkarian), his wife Lea (Zabou Breitman), their family and the people in their employ. The film does not need a grand climax or stunning revelation to be effective. They would only belittle these sorrowful events. However, Deville could have worked harder to convince the audience of the various story threads he unravels. He would have done greater credit to these times if he had allowed the characters to develop more.

Telling stories is one of the main past-times of Albert’s employees. Most are stories about their experiences during the war. Despite the gravity of the subject matter, they still manage to laugh. These memories are what bind the people in the workshop together. As painful as they are, they instill memory, and the dignity of their survival.

One story is related when two young Jews, Maurice (Stanislas Merhar) and Joseph (Malik Zidi) apply for the position of sewing machine operators. The young men are an audience for the stories which the others never tire of telling. The first concerns the passwords that were used while Albert hid during the occupation of France. His clothes presser, the lantern-jawed Leon (Vincent Elbaz), tells Maurice and Joseph that the passwords derived from tailoring terms. Leon demonstrates that when Albert would hear someone coming, he’d grab his tailor’s scissors and stand poised at the door waiting for the password. Unfortunately Leon chooses the moment when Madame Sarah (Sylvie Milhaud), an elderly purveyor of soap, art and eligible bachelors, arrives at the workshop and sends her fleeing from the shop.

Not everyone is happy to hear these stories, however. Lea asks Albert why he can’t change his tune. She seems weary with his stories and by implication, with the story teller, too. Their supposedly loveless marriage is one of the many threads in this story. Lea’s dissatisfaction with Albert is first hinted at when she encourages Albert to go on a dinner with their young finisher Andree (Julie Gayet). Andree’s motives for agreeing are clear. She wants a job for her sister. Albert’s reasons aren’t so clear. If it were to enjoy the company of a young attractive woman nothing happens before or after to suggest his desire for her. They have this one date, which includes him reciting the romantic lyrics of a Yiddish song, and never again meet. Not even a furtive glance is shared between them. This isn’t surprising, because I am not convinced that Albert has feelings for anyone other than his wife.

Lea’s admits to her frustration when she approaches one of the older machine operators, Charles (Denis Podalydes). She claims that Albert is too busy building a business and supporting his family to have time for her. This scene makes Lea come across as quite unsympathetic because Albert is never shown as being indifferent to Lea. He doesn’t ignore her advances and takes an interest in their children. This might not make him a passionate lover, but nor is he a remote and unloving husband. That Albert’s character is the cause of Lea’s feelings is increasingly doubtful given Charles’ nature. Charles is the most taciturn of this loquacious group. When Lea approaches him he tells her that he is waiting for his wife and daughter to return. It can only be assumed that some deeper emotion is twisting Lea’s perception of the world around her.

She hints at these feelings when she tells Charles “I am afraid of growing old, of no longer wanting to fight to be happy.” This is ordinarily not a strange sentiment, but given what she’s lived through, you would think fighting for happiness would be worthwhile. Whether this portrayal is true to original novel is not the point. That Lea’s view of her husband and her colleague is so contrary to reality deserves further exploration.

Unfortunately, this thread like so many in the film, is left hanging to focus on Maurice and Joseph who until now were spectators in the workshop. Maurice starts a relationship with Simone (Clotilde Courau), a prostitute. At first it is strictly business, then for reasons never made clear it becomes personal. Visiting Simone characterizes Maurice as someone afraid of intimacy. What is it about Simone that makes him change? Is it her forthrightness or just her angelic smile? And of all her clients, why does she allow herself to grow closer to Maurice? Her role is simply to awaken Maurice to his feelings, a nice irony given she’s a prostitute, but because she's surrounded by more vividly drawn characters, hers remains flat.

Simone is also the only audience Maurice has for his single cherished memory. It concerns seeing the underwear of his first boss’s wife and masturbating to the thought afterwards. On one occasion he lost his thimble, so his boss gave him a new silver one. Maurice lost this one too, on the train when he was being deported. That memories of sexual awakening are no respite from the horror of the Holocaust is clearly poignant, but these characters need to be more than mouth pieces of sorrow. There should be a concrete sense of the people who survived. Yet Maurice, like many of the other characters, is restrained by Deville’s too subtle sensibility.

The episode of the boss’s wife and the thimble is interesting in the context of the film because it is the only use of flashback. As Maurice recounts the memory to Simone, there are shots of his old workshop, the bathroom, and the woman who has tantalized Maurice for so long. This is a radical shift from the rest of film which has not made much use of studio production and is much more powerful for it. For most of the film, the characters tell each other what happened without additional footage. Consequently, their stories have great impact because as in reality, the characters rely on language to preserve and transmit their memories. There is no visual assistance to depict their tales.

The effectiveness of relating the past only in the dialogue is seen when Joseph applies for French citizenship. Like many Jews who were deported from France, Joseph lost his French citizenship. The inspector responsible for reassigning citizenship is one of the officers who took Joseph and his parents to the train station from which they would be sent to the death camps. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Joseph defies the inspector who has said he will not get what he wants. Joseph tells him that at the moment he was taken he ran and his parents never looked back so as not to alert the gendarmes. As he says, this is real courage, and he vows to write about it one day.

Alas, this powerful moment is diluted by the broad scope of the film. To further distract the audience, Deville has included still shots of the cast and locations throughout the film. At first this method seems to divide the film into different threads. The images draw our attention because a photo can pick up details missed by the moving camera. Ultimately, their inconsistent use makes them more a novelty than a tool for enhancing our understanding of either the characters or the setting.

When the film draws to an end, the various threads are not so much resolved as bundled together. Lea again tells Charles she loves him and he says he’s going to leave. Maurice and Simone are together but there’s nothing to suggest that the relationship is any more than convenient. Joseph, rather than becoming a writer, applies to work at a children’s fete. Leon and his wife Jacqueline have a son and so fulfill their roles of providing hope to people who have resigned to hopeless lives.

The story of Albert and Lea ends sweetly. Simone points out that a young man is watching Lea and instructs Lea on how to seduce him. As she does this, Lea leans over and draws Albert’s attention to his wife so that Lea in effect has seduced her husband. Again, Deville illustrates his sensitivity for ironies both in life as in art. Memories of suffering can bring joy, a prostitute can teach people to love, and the things we desire most are those we need least.

Yet for these lofty themes, the film never fully realizes itself. The problem is simply the structure. When dealing with human suffering on the scale of the Holocaust it is important for filmmakers to remember the people involved. Deville should have taken some cues from Monsieur Albert and shown greater care in how he stitched these tales together.

The DVD release of this film includes photos from the film and a short bio on Deville. They seem to have been included with a reviewer in mind because the general audience would have little use for them.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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