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We watched two films on Day 1 of the 15th edition of the Mumbai International Film festival: the Danish film Kvinden i buret whose English title is The Keeper of Lost Causes and the French film Jeune & Jolie (Young and Beautiful).

The Keeper of Lost Causes (Kvinden i buret)

In the world of Scandinavian crime fiction, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s detective Carl Mørck is up there with Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren and Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. He’s younger but just as disgruntled and prone to being suspended at the drop of a hat.

When we first meet him, Mørck and his two colleagues are at a crime scene, waiting for backup on a rescue mission. The mission goes horribly wrong leaving one officer dead, another shot in the head and the third – Mørck – mildly injured physically but deeply wounded mentally.

Three months after the incident he returns to the police force only to be shunted to the basement, as the head of the newly created Department Q, whose role is to go over cold cases from the past 20 years, ensure things are in order and close 3 files per week. The department consists of Mørck and one assistant – the significantly more cheery Assad.

The odd pair get over their differences and set about looking into a case picked at random – the supposed death of a pretty young woman called Merete Lynggaard, deemed to be a suicide when first investigated 5 years ago. Mørck and Assad soon realize that all is not as it seems and as they dig deeper we see what really happened 5 years ago. The case is tough – all they have is old eye-witness testimony and access to Merete’s ill brother whose brain damage has gotten worse since his sister’s disappearance.

Even for what is a fairly straightforward mystery the film manages a coiled, tense pace and a few surprises along the way. The biggest contribution Scandinavian thrillers have made to cinema, in my opinion, is their absolute mastery of atmosphere. The cold, the darkness, the silence, the rain, all seem palpable.

Someone complained after the screening that this seemed too much like a Hollywood movie. If a tense pace, tidy storytelling and a satisfactory ending is considered too mainstream, then so be it, but as a viewer who is regularly forced to sit through shoddy storytelling, abstraction for the sake of abstraction and hamming-as-acting, I’m not complaining. Do we need another gruff detective with no tolerance for bullshit and a dogged determination to uncover the truth? Yes, especially the way he is played by the very capable actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas. Fares Fares provides the perfect foil as the calm and approachable Assad. I don’t want to give away spoilers really but the original Danish title – Kvinden i buret – translates to Woman In A Cage. The villain is chilling and the hunt for him is a very satisfactory slow burn. The movie was exactly what I was expecting from a Scandinavian crime thriller and it was an excellent way to start the festival.
 

   

Jeune & Jolie

Jeune & Jolie is the gorgeously photographed story of a 17-year-old woman (there is no other word to describe a person such as she) named Isabelle (Marine Vacth). When we first encounter Isabelle she is sunbathing topless in the South of France, on vacation with her family and some family friends.

While on that vacation Isabelle indulges in her first sexual encounter with an attractive German boy whom she has zero affection for, and minimal chemistry with. And within moments of the consummation of the act she is done with him – choosing to ignore him for the rest of the vacation.

When they return to Paris, Isabelle begins living a double life: on the one hand she is a high school student with a small circle of friends and a large collection of admirers; and on the other hand she is a prostitute named Lea who meets clients in anonymous hotel rooms and charges three hundred Euros per visit. Each of these visits is purely sexual in nature and we are seldom spared the details.

This is the shape of Isabelle’s life until the moment when Georges (Johan Leysen), one of her frequent clients, dies during intercourse.

Jeune & Jolie is essentially a series of vignettes that grant us glimpses into the life of this beautiful young woman. And that is it. We never really get a peek inside her mind, we are never allowed to understand what drove this well-off, seemingly well-adjusted individual to seek the joyless company of strangers in a city not averse to gravely abusing its female residents.

What was surprising to me was the degree to which this movie was an engaging experience.

Of course there is the rich sensuousness inherent in the settings of the South of France, and then Paris (one of my favourite places in the world) as the seasons change. The setting is coupled with the casual sophistication that is worn like a comfortable cloak by most of the characters in this movie. And of course Ms Vacth is incredibly easy on the eyes.

After careful consideration I have arrived at the conclusion that director François Ozon has a gift for turning his leading ladies into irresistible sirens (he worked similar magic with Ludivine Sagnier in Swimming Pool). There is something about the way cinematographer Pascal Marti has captured the images, Ms. Vacth has modulated her performance, and Mr. Ozon has choreographed the entire enterprise that has made this film more than just a cold chronicle of a beguiling, and ultimately bewildering woman.