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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Truths, Mostly

In Norway, a fragile happiness; the life of a dictator; a prosperous stockbroker and his maid.

It takes a lot of courage to call a film Happy, Happy, and the young Norwegian director Anne Sewitsky manages to justify it. Her first feature film fixes on the very idea of happiness: what it is or is thought to be, and what happens to it. Other directors of her generation have been likewise concerned, but with Ragnhild Tronvoll’s supple screenplay, Sewitsky puts a story before us that is both recognizable and sufficiently probing.

Kaja and Eirik are a young couple who live in the countryside with their son. (She is a high school teacher.) A house near theirs is rented to a Danish couple, Elisabeth and Sigve, who have adopted an African boy. (Elisabeth is a lawyer. We never learn why it was convenient for a Danish lawyer to live in the Norwegian countryside. Nor do we learn about the work of the two husbands.) The moment we see the second couple arrive, we can forecast the tenor of the film. Why would the second pair have been brought here except to help dramatize the film’s theme?

Step by inevitable step the film moves into sexual relationships of different sorts between the new neighbors, ranging from a kiss to a fistfight, from Kaja’s moves on Sigve to her marital reunion with Eirik. At one point in an ecstasy along the way, Sigve and Kaja even revel outdoors nude in the snow. Nothing surprises, nothing is unwelcome. It is rather like watching an orchestra play a familiar symphony. Ah, yes, the cellos now get ready. Right, bassoonist, time to come in.

The relationship between the two boys is treated as a miniature of racial history. They are pals enough most of the time, yet they, reading books, provide a simulacrum of race relations. At one point the white boy actually pretends to flog the black one—in their playful examination of the past.

With the adults, however, Sewitsky is scrutinizing the idea of happiness—this concept that dominates our lives as goal, though it is so frangible. Its meaning can change for each of us from year to year, or much less, yet we remain aspirants. We certainly know when we are unhappy without any standard to guide us. But this film’s people—and they are not alone—almost seem to need a standard of happiness itself, for which they keep reaching although it keeps changing.

Joachim Rafaelsen and Henrik Rafaelsen as Eirik and Sigve have all the needed lights and shadows. Maibritt Saerens, as Elisabeth, manages to convey a touch of superiority to her new Norwegian friend without patronization, because of her more sophisticated experience. Agnes Kittelsen fills the key role as Kaja, hungry for affection, determinedly proud, witty enough, stronger than she thinks.

Sewitsky is a bit too fond of the handheld camera, but she is immediate, close. Her first picture, daring title and all, takes an empathic look at a permanent puzzle. 

THE ROMANIAN FILM-MAKER Andrei Ujica presents The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, a three-hour documentary that in a weird way fulfills its title. Ujica made the film that the dictator would have liked to make about himself. It was carved out of about a thousand hours of archival footage, and, apostrophe though it is, it manages to achieve a kind of informality. Home movies are glimpsed and occasional clumsiness in public is retained—even moments when the hero is overshadowed (by Nixon of all people)—but it remains a celebratory account of this dictator’s life.

It opens with a clip of that ghastly scene in 1989 when Ceauşescu and his wife were cornered in some cheap joint by rebels, where he is questioned and refuses to answer, just before they are sentenced to death by an impromptu court and are executed. We then expect an account of events that led to this downfall. Instead we get a saga of triumphs. He emerged from the communist ranks in the 1960s and quickly rose to eminence with his devotion and hard work. He became president and then a world figure because he refused to join the Warsaw Pact countries that were invading Czechoslovakia. In general he refused to copy the Stalinist model, but what was overlooked by some was that he fashioned his own version of it.

This is the aspect that Ujica’s film simply omits. We see the dictator moving from one bright moment to another at home and abroad—a welcoming show by thousands of dancers in North Korea, the queen’s hospitality in Britain, De Gaulle’s and Nixon’s visits to Bucharest-but what we never glimpse is the inebriation by power that made Ceauşescu a tyrant. We don’t see—to name a very few instances—that he transplanted whole communities to their great disadvantage; that he strained the economy with his mad schemes; that he caused the starvation of thousands with his errors; that he issued an order against contraceptive devices so as to increase the population, which resulted in disgustingly crowded orphanages and murderous abortions. Arithmetically, he comes nowhere near Stalin in cruelty; but ethically he is close.

As we watch, we wonder how this rhapsody about the man is going to lead back to that opening clip. Very clumsily, in fact. After those hours of hosannas, someone reports that in another city some hooligans have started protests. Those hooligans were actually Romanian patriots, protesting their country’s wreckage. No mention is made of the five thousand people who reportedly were killed in the revolt against Ceauşescu. Just some hooligans, the film says, suddenly brought about the overthrow of this savior.

We are left wondering what Ujica wanted to accomplish. If he wanted to revise history’s view of the dictator by showing his successes, he needed to explain satisfactorily, even bitterly, how the man was unappreciated and assassinated. Instead, he simply presents a distorted view of the facts.

The film has been making its way from festival to festival, through Lincoln Center, and so on. We can get one wry verity from it: the show-biz aspects of political life in any country. Beyond that, it leaves us almost gasping with its impudence.

A FRENCH COMEDY turns out to be a minor historical note. The Women on the 6th Floor is set in Paris during the time when Franco was straddling Spain. That sixth floor of a luxe apartment house is where the maids live—women who work for the tenants below—and all these women are Spanish. Of differing ages, they are there, presumably, because of job conditions in Franco’s Spain (although none of them animadverts against Franco). The film, written and directed by Philippe Le Guay, is apparently meant to remind viewers that such a historical wrinkle once existed—Spanish maids all over Paris because of Franco—and to exploit it for comedy-romance.

An early shot strikes this note: Paris rooftops. It announces that this picture means to join the line of Paris romances. We soon see the arrival from Spain of María. She is the niece of a sixth-floor maid who has found a job for her in the house. Now we have only to wait for María’s encounter with a man.

The man, it turns out, is middle-aged—María’s new employer, Jean-Louis, a prosperous stockbroker who lives with his elegant wife and two young sons in one of the apartments. There is later a whisper of attention to María from a young man, but this film concentrates on the older man’s interest. Jean-Louis’s wife, Suzanne, is that expensively dressed, self-centered woman we have met often before in French women of this class, but if she were more highly individualized, she would draw attention from her husband and his story.

Through daily encounters of the most mundane kind, Jean-Louis becomes fond of the maid, who neither repels nor encourages him. It seems cosmically natural that one of the things he likes about her is that she boils his breakfast egg precisely as he wants it—three and a half minutes. Her understanding of this quirk confirms her worth.

Le Guay moves his picture along in sprightly form, holding us chiefly because we like the two principals. In time Jean-Louis becomes the broker of a rich, much-married woman, and complications follow, which we understand because of his wife’s character and María’s decent behavior. The maid comprehends him but does nothing more. At last Jean-Louis missteps with the rich woman, and his wife is insulted and throws him out of the house. Where does he go to live but in one of the vacant maids’ rooms above, in an atmosphere he finds more congenial.

But María leaves, returning to Spain to avoid a situation like one—as we have learned—she was in some years before. Three and a half years then fly pass, during which Suzanne divorces Jean-Louis and he comes to an accounting of values in himself. At last he drives to Spain to find María. Ultimately he does. We are grateful that, in this moment of warmth, some large questions about their future are left unasked. 

If the Norwegian film above is like a familiar concert, this one is like a stop in a good patisserie. Chief among the pleasures is the performance of the everwelcome Fabrice Luchini as Jean-Louis, who does straightforward non-acting, simply presenting a man whom we more or less know falling into situations we can feel. Natalia Verbeke as María is just what we want her to be. All in all—if all is meant moderately—the story leaves an agreeable aftertaste, which lingers longer than we expected.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the November 17, 2011, issue of the magazine.