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Capone's Art-House Round Up with THE HEDGEHOG and CIRCUMSTANCE!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

Despite its title, this beautifully realized French production is not about a middle-aged building concierge/janitor, who lives on the ground floor of a building filled with rich tenants who barely look at her when they knock on her door at all hours needing her service. Although Josiance Balasko's beautiful performance as the perpetually grumpy Reneé is certainly a big part of THE HEDGEHOG (based on the novel "The Elegance of The Hedgehog") of the movie, this is actually the story of the slow mental disintegration of Paloma (Garance Le Guillermic), a young girl determined to end her life on her 12th birthday. But before she does that, she films those around her (her family, the building's other tenants) in an effort to document hypocrisy and the not-so-discreet charm of the bourgeoisie.

With her first feature as a director, Mona Achache captures some wonderful details about both being young and growing old. Reneé keeps to herself, reading in a secret room in her apartment, with her cats and her dark chocolate to keep her company. Around the time she and Paloma become friendly, and the girl proceeds to interview Reneé about her sad life, Reneé also begins being courted by a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu (played by the renowned Japanese actor Togo Igawa), a refined older gentleman with similar tastes in fine literature and film. The two begin to spend time together, and the experience actually begins to have an effect on Reneé's long-buried self esteem.

In many ways, the film is torn between its two stories. There were times when Paloma's words struck me quite deep; other times, she comes across as a snotty pre-teen who gets her kicks off making others uncomfortable. But later in the film, she opens up somewhat, and we get a better sense of why she finds the world so troublesome. Ultimately, THE HEDGEHOG reveals itself to be a film about both long-buried and as-yet-undiscovered passions, and when it focuses on those theme, it truly thrives and becomes something unexpected and more sophisticated than it might seem on the surface. There's also a great deal of humor in this work that works nicely as a counter to a charming mean streak that runs down the center of the movie. I think the film works best when Reneé is our focal point, but the entire piece is something perfectly human.

Winner of the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, first-time feature director Maryam Keshavarz's CIRCUMSTANCE is an uneven story of two Iranian teen girls, who live a life that I wasn't even aware existed in this still restrictive culture. Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) comes from a family of means; her best friend Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) comes from a broken home and ends up spending most of the time in Atafeh's home, much to the delight of Atafeh's brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), who has an creepy obsession with the strikingly beautiful Shireen. The two girls are dedicated students by day, turned party animals at night, slamming down drinks, popping pills, and engaging is sexually adventurous encounters on an almost nightly basis.

But this world isn't just dangerous for them because of their age. The "morality police" is a constant threat, and a ruined reputation could mean the difference between getting married or earning the label of "whore." The talk is explicit and the behavior is pure rebellion, but when the two girls are alone, they dream out loud about running away to Dubai and living together as lovers. After living much of his youth as a junkie, Mehran cleans up his act and becomes something of a conservative religious man, who not only berates his sister for her activities but has a lesser opinion about women in general.

While CIRCUMSTANCE doesn't pull any punches in terms of the depravity these kids get into (and it doesn't hurt that the two actresses are easy on the eyes) or the obstacles and restrictions women confront every day in Iran, the film also feels like its covering ground I've seen in similar works, perhaps done with a bit more subtlety and style. Having said that, being a bit more explicit does certainly drive home the points the director is trying to make about the hidden culture of modern-day Iran and how many of its citizens are living double lives.

I think CIRCUMSTANCE might have been a better experience without the overtly sinister tone added by the brother character, but he's not quite enough to tank this movie entirely. Certainly a story worth telling, this film shines when it focuses on the relationship between the two girls, and that tips the scales in favor of recommending it.

-- Capone
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