February 28, 2008

Pommes Frites, commonly called “Frites”:
What a treat, when they are made the right way.

But lots of doubts still exist about the “French” origin of their American cousins, the so-called “French fries”.

Ah Stéphane... your question a few weeks ago about your difficulty to find good ‘’fries’’ in the Bay Area that would be as good as those ‘’ frites’’ that you eat in French restaurants brought back many fond images and memories into my poor half-frozen (from our Chicago very cold winter) brain.
As a matter of fact it is true that nowadays it is not that easy to find very good ‘’frites”, made the traditional way, in American restaurants. Most of them use frozen fries, which does not mean that they cannot generate decent fries. As a matter of fact, it is also the case in most French restaurants.
About 12 years ago, we were visiting a very amusing flea-market in Montpellier, France where we were on vacation. At one point your brother Théo complained that he was hungry and thirsty. So I went to the concession at the end of the market, a simple trailer, and ordered some ‘’frites’’ and a coke. And of course we could not help but stealing a few fries from him. They were so good that I immediately went back to the food concession to buy some more, and both your mother and me agreed that they were the best fries we had since we arrived in France. So I asked the manager of the concession if they were freshly cut fries. He said: "are you kidding... we do not have the time to cut fries ourselves. We buy them frozen". So I asked him who was his supplier. He took me to the garbage container behind the trailer and said ‘’ Here is the empty carton, read by yourself’’. I read and I could not believe what I saw:
"Made by Mc Cain, Illinois, USA..." Coming to France to eat American frozen fries; That was quite a shock. But perhaps those good fries were produced in France where Mc Cain has some of its largest European plants

Speaking of fries sold by street vendors: When I was about 12 year-old, my mother decided that it was time for me to learn how to defend myself since I was the subject of too frequent attacks by bullies at school who enjoyed kicking and punching my, at the time relatively frail, body for various reasons.
So she sent me to take judo lessons 2 times a week after classes from an older man, who had a ‘’black belt’’ ranking in that sport. He lived in an apartment about 20 minutes walking from our house in Reims. I detested those lessons, but... if I had a few coins in my pocket , I bought myself a nice treat on my way back home. After I left the man’s place I had to cross a bridge over some railroad tracks, Le Pont de Laon. I would run on the bridge knowing that at the end of it was TOTO FRITES’place. It was one of these small trailers, much smaller than their pizza counterparts in French southern villages, where a gruff man, Toto, who was always smoking a cigarette and whose nails were as black as a piece of coal, was cutting, washing, drying and frying potatoes that were very greasy, but incredibly tasty. In fact even Today they still rate in my memory among the best I ever ate in my life. This type of mini-trailer which was in fact stuck for good on jacks and no longer had wheels, was called a ‘’baraque à frites’’, and every town in Northern and North-East France had many of them. Toto’s baraque was poorly lit by a kerosene lamp, whose fumes added to the marvelous odor of the bubbling ‘’friture’’ that you could smell 300 yards away.
Toto served his beauties in a paper cone made from pages from the local newspaper, ‘’l’Union’’, and after I added more salt from the big tin shaker available on the counter, I would eat them as fast as I could before the grease would run through the newsprint. Boy, were they good. Sort of thicker-cut that the average ‘’frites’’ that we ate when we went to the carnival on the nearby ‘’Place du Boulingrin’’, but much tastier.
My mother who once discovered my secret when I came to the dinner table with my mouth still shiny from the grease, yelled at me for eating such bad food, and explained to me that they were probably fried in a mixture of cheap animal fats, like ‘’saindoux’’ (lard), beef fat or suet, and perhaps horse fat. In any case it was not good for me, even though in 1952 the word Cholesterol was nowhere to be found in the Larousse dictionary. My father, who was born in Northern France near the Belgian border from a Belgian father, and who lived part of his adolescence in Antwerp, loved ‘’pommes frites’’ like all Belgians do. He would come to my defense and argued with l my mother that if she would prepare ‘’frites’’ more often I would not have to buy cheap and poor quality ones from dirty street vendors. He also told us that whenever he was in that neighborhood near the Pont de Laon he would himself have a ‘’cornet de frites ’’ chez Toto.
Just thinking about it make me drool and I can hear in my head the marvelous song ‘’ Un cornet de frites’’ that Yves Montand sang so nicely in the early fifties.
Anyways. My mother made some beautiful pan-sautéed potatoes, but the rare times when she accepted to make ‘’frites’’, they were of a very different style: light, crunchy, good but not greasy enough for me . My nutrition-conscious mother would fry them in a traditional black metal fryer in either ‘’Vegetaline’’, the equivalent of Crisco, or ‘’huile d’arachide’’ (peanut oil), like they have been done in most French restaurants and families since 1947. Peanut oil in those days was produced in some French African colonies, and was not as expensive as it is now, especially in the U.S.
Nevertheless, after the actual frying was done, she would let the fat cool down and somewhat solidify at the top if it was Vegetaline, which allowed the ‘’graillons’’, these tiny particles of burnt fat and potatoes, to get up to the surface and to be removed easily. Then she would cover the fryer and it would stay that way in the pantry until the next ‘’friture’’.

Personally I use peanut oil when making ‘’pommes de terre sautées’’ at home. But your mother's delicious "frites" are in fact "fausses frites" since, once she has cut hem with a knife, she put them in a bowl containing and mix them well in a mix of 3 Tb of Greek olive oil and garlic salt. Once they are well impregnated but not soaking wet, she lay them on a baking sheet and bake them in the oven, at 425 degrees , for about 20-25 minutes, turning them over once.

The other great frites of my youth were found at ‘’ Chez Francis’’, a French brasserie that was on the opposite sidewalk of my grand-parents building on the Boulevard James Fazy in Geneva, Switzerland. They were served ‘’à volonté’’ (as much as you could eat), as a vegetable accompaniment to their marvelous ‘’entrecôtes’’ (rib-eye steaks). Between 1950 and 1970, I probably ate thousands of these golden-hued thin ‘’pommes-frites’’ that were never greasy, slightly crispy outside and soft inside as they should be, and always kept hot on their tin plate that was put on a small ‘’meta’’ burning dish-warmer in the middle of the table.

Some years later in Paris, in the mid-sixties, I found the same kind of perfect ‘’frites’’ at L’Entrecôte, Rue de Verneuil in the 7th arrondissement. It was the same formula as Chez Francis in Geneva, with the same ‘’frites à volonté’’ placed on their dish-warmer. I do not think that the original Parisian ‘’Entrecôte’’ still exist in 2007, or it has probably changed ownership many times. But I thought it was reborn in America when some summers ago, your mother and I had a delightful steak with ‘’frites à volonté’’ in San Francisco. The restaurant was called ‘’Café de Paris L’Entrecôte’’, on Union St., and the fries were almost as good as at the original "Entrecote" restaurant in Paris. But I learned that in fact their model was in Geneva, Switzerland, and that they had an exclusive right to use the original recipe for the famous butter sauce of the entrecôte that was created in 1941 at the Cafe de Paris... in Geneva precisely.

During my last year of college, in Paris, the famished and poor student that I was at the time in 1963 used to go to '' Les Palmiers", Rue des Halles at the heart of what was then ‘’Les Halles’’, the huge and lively vegetable, fruit, and meat central market of Paris, just north of la Place du Chatelet. There I would eat enormous "saucisse de Toulouse" (pork sausage) sandwiches with ‘’pommes-frites’’. The frites would be placed above the sausage inside the open piece of fresh baguette. It was greasy but delicious and comforting after an evening spent working on a philosophy essay due the next morning at La Sorbonne. In Northern France, this very popular type of sandwich is called "Un Américain Saucisse''.

In recent years, when I was craving for traditional “pommes frites” I would go to La Biche Au Bois, Avenue Ledru-Rollin, near the Gare de Lyon in the 12th arrondissement. And if I did not have the time to go that far from my regular Paris home-base in the 15th arrondissement, I would be happy with a side order of frites with my ‘’Salade Auvergnate ‘’ (that includes country ham, and Cantal cheese) at my local regular neighborhood café-restaurant ‘’ A la Tour Eiffel’’, Rue du Commerce in the 15th. (see ‘’My French Gourmet Vacation’’ on this blog for details). And I have a pleasant memory of the frites at ‘’ Le Chien qui fume’’ in the old Les Halles district.
I haven't gone there in years , but I understand that the ‘’pommes frites’’ at the good old Bouillon Chartier, an old- style restaurant for employees of the nearby businesses Rue du Faubourg Montmartre in the 9th are still good.
Most old-fashioned "brasseries" and large " traditional bistrots" like Chez Georges and Gallopin in the 2nd arrondissement, Terminus Nord and Brasserie Flo, in the 10th , La Coupole in the 14th, Thoumieux in the 7th, Balzar and La Closerie des Lilas in the 5th, La Rotisserie d'en Face in the 6th, Le Ballon des Ternes and another Chez Georges in the 17th, Le Boeuf Couronné in the 19th, used to have very decent fries. But I cannot garantee that it is still the case in 2008.

In Chicago, when I arrived in January of 1970, my favorite fries were served with a very good hamburger at the long defunct Brief Encounter, a small but very clean and pleasant store-front diner in the 360 North Michigan building. They were thin-cut but always well fried and not soggy. But the best ‘’pommes frites’’ I ever tasted were at Le Bastille restaurant that unfortunately closed its doors forever in the mid-eighties.
You will find here below a list of some restaurants that still offer good ‘’pommes frites’’, made the right way that I will explain later.

Grandson Sebastien enjoying his fries at the brasserie "A la Tour Eiffel" in Paris during our summer vacation last July

So, what exactly are real ‘’ Pommes de Terre Frites’’ and where do they come from?

Real ‘’pommes frites’’ should be called "pommes de terre frites" (fried potatoes)
are pieces of potatoes cut in elongated sticks about 1 cm thick from a relatively large tuber with a high level of solid dry matter like a Bintje in Europe, or a Russet from Idaho or Wisconsin in the U.S. Once they are cut, with a butcher knife or a special fries cutter, in a very consistent length and thickness, the fries are washed in cold water for a few minutes to remove as much starch as possible from their surface. Then they are dried thoroughly in a cloth or paper towels. They are pre-cooked (a little more than blanched) in a bath of frying oil, like peanut oil, at a temperature of around 328 degrees F or 165 degrees C for 6 or 7 minutes. Then they are removed to a strainer. The final frying is done for about 5 minutes once the oil temperature reaches 356 degrees F or 180 degrees C. When they are nicely colored, they should be removed from the fryer and immediately drained and blotted on several layers of paper towels. Then they are salted and served very hot. If they are eaten while they are still hot, they will remain crusty outside and soft inside and will be light, not greasy, and easier to digest, since the moisture will not have the time to come out from inside the potatoes through steam and make them slightly soggy and greasier.
Most food historians agree on the fact that the idea of frying the potatoes in two successive baths of fat, comes originally from Belgium. And most connoisseurs still think that the best Belgian fries are fried in animal fat.

But there is still a big controversy between the French and the Belgians about the real origin of the ‘’pommes frites’’

According to the ‘’Belges’’, in the early part of the 18th century relatively poor people living on the banks of the Meuse River, in cities like Namur, Huy or Dinant, used to fish small fishes in the Meuse River and deep-fry them to complement their meager food supplies. But when the river got frozen, they had the idea of cutting pieces of potatoes imitating the shape of fishes and to fry them. So were born the first pommes frites. And since small fishes were called ‘’fretin’’ in this French speaking part of the Belgian Netherlands, some people even think that the word ‘’frites’’ may in fact be an adulterated version of ‘’fretin’’. It seems a little far-fetched to me.
What we know for a fact is that many French ‘’proscrits’’, citizens who had been banned in France after 1850 and the political coup d’état by Louis Napoleon, who had fled and started a new life in Brussels, as well as political refugees, including several chefs, in 1870, popularized the fries in Belgium. The many ‘’friteries’’, eateries devoted to fried potatoes, that you find in Belgium would be in fact a French import.

The French date the origin of the pommes-frites back to the time of the French Revolution of 1789, just 3 years after Parmentier started to promote the virtues of the potato that most French people were not really interested in eating at that time, when their Spanish neighbors had been consuming them since the end of the 16th Century, and the Belgians since the end of the 17th century. But several years of bad wheat harvests, and periods of real famine, between 1785 and 1788, contributed to put the ‘’pomme de terre’’ on most French dinner tables. In fact the largest part of the potatoes grown in Europe until the 18th century were given as food to farm animals.
In 1789, a man whose name I could not find started to sell fried potatoes under the famous Pont Neuf over the Seine river, located at the west-end of the Ile de la Cité. It became an instant success and those fries became known as ‘’Pommes Pont-Neuf’’. Nowadays, many traditional French restaurants and brasseries still call their ‘’pommes frites’’ ‘‘pommes Pont-Neuf’’.

Several variations of ‘’pommes frites” are found in restaurants, both in France and in the U.S.:

’Pommes pailles” are “shoestring potatoes”. They are cut with a mandoline and fried in a single bath.
Pommes allumettes” are thin-cut fries known as “Matchstick potatoes”. They are cut with a knife and fried in two baths.
Pommes gaufrettes” are shaped like thin, round, mini waffles.. They are cut with a mandoline and fried in one single bath

  • Most French people, especially from the older generations, and that includes me, like to eat their ''frites'' au naturel, meaning as is. Some younger French people love to use ketchup or even mayonaise, like they do in Belgium. In Northern France, and even in some small ''friteries'' in Paris, lots of fries lovers enjoy a splash of vinegar on them.

Now, let's clarify a few points about the origins of the so-called French Fries in the U.S.

When some American political opinion-makers decided to punish the French for condemning the U.S intervention in Iraq in 2003 by renaming French Fries Freedom Fries, I had a good laugh.
Obviously, most of these pundits ignored the fact that the term French does not refer to our country, but to a special way to cut vegetables in sticks, or in a julienne fashion, called ‘’frenching’’. This same culinary term is also used in the U.K to define the trimming the fat from lamb chops when used to form a rack of lamb.
But this origin is disputed by some food historians who claim that in fact the use of ‘’French’’ actually relates to the French origin of these fries.
Some note that Thomas Jefferson discovered them when he was the U.S ambassador in Paris, and that he loved so much these ‘’ Pommes de terre frites à cru en petites tranches’’ , according to his own manuscripts, that he brought the recipe back to Washington.
My favorite explanation is that during World War One, several battalions of American, British, and Canadian soldiers fought in the Belgian region of Yser, in French-speaking western Flanders. This is where they discovered fried potatoes. And since the locals spoke French in that specific area, when the soldiers brought the recipe back home they naturally called them French Fries because they were told in French how to prepare them.

A few restaurants in Chicago where you can eat good “pommes frites” cut by hand and fried in two baths:

Chez Joel: 1119 W. Taylor St. Chicago, IL Tel: 312-226-6479

La Sardine: 111 N. Carpenter St. Chicago, IL Tel : 312-421-2800

Le Petit Paris : 260 E. Chestnut St. Chicago, IL Tel : 312-787-8260

Marché : 833 W. Randolph St. Chicago, IL Tel : 312-226-8399 ( now closed}

D& J Bistro: 466 S. Rand Rd. Lake Zurich, IL Tel: 847-438-8001

Hot Doug’s: 3324 N. California, Chicago, IL Tel: 773-279-9550
I was told that ''Hopleaf'', a Belgian gastropub at 5140 N. Clark Street, Tel: 773-334-9851, that sells more than 100 different Belgian beers, makes very good traditional frites in the "Belgian style". But I have never been there myself.

Other interesting ‘’frites”

At the 4 star EVEREST, one Financial Place Chicago, Tel: 312-663-8920, famous Alsatian-born chef Jean Joho told me that when from time to time he has a "côte de boeuf'' on the menu he serves it with pommes-frites fried in clarified butter ... Must be something extra special.

The new Old Town Brasserie 1209 N. Wells St. Chicago Tel: 312-943-3000 is the only one that lists “ Pommes Pont Neuf” on its menu. Knowing the talent of his chef, Roland Liccioni, I am pretty sure that they are made the traditional way. ( Now Closed)
Kiki’s Bistro, 900 N Franklin St. Chicago, IL Tel: 312-335-5454 serves deliciously crunchy “pommes pailles” with its steak. They are very tiny but fresh cut and fried in two baths.

Le Café des Architectes, in the Sofitel Hotel, 20 E. Chestnut St Chicago, IL , Tel: 312-324-4000 makes good hand-cut “matchsticks” fried in one bath.

February 18, 2008

Good food ingredients in the U.S. ? Yes, they exist but you only will get what you pay for...

Story of a lost “ lapin chasseur”.

As you know, Stéphane, I too frequently complain, when I cook , that the results I obtain here are not as good as those that I get when I cook the same dish in France. The dish rarely reaches the same level of flavor and personality and too often turns bland. And I always add: ‘’It is because the ingredients are not as good as in France’’. Last summer, every time I went to shop for food, I was amazed when I bought various ingredients, like meat, chicken, eggs, cheese, and especially vegetables and herbs, how expensive they were compared to what I pay in Chicago. But when I cooked with them, it really smelled good in the kitchen, and when we ate them it really tasted much better. So, I would say to your mother: ‘’ Au moins, on en a pour son argent’’ (At least, what I got is worth what I paid for ’’). Anyway, as I told you a few weeks ago, since we have a really rough and depressing winter, I feel like preparing old French bistrot-type winter dishes, that are most of the time cooked in a sauce. As we say in France, ‘’ Des plats roboratifs qui tiennent au corps’’ (invigorating and filling dishes). And now that I have a ‘’cocotte-minute’’ (pressure cooker), thanks to you... Er... Santa Claus, it is less a time-consuming event to prepare them, even during the week. So, this week-end I had decided to do a ‘’Lapin Chasseur’’ (Rabbit stewed in ‘’hunter’’ style, meaning with mushrooms and wine). To me rabbit is the ultimate ‘’comfort food’’ and I have been an avid rabbit eater since childhood. To the point that for my Fiftieth birthday, I had asked my friend Yves Roubaud, who was the executive- chef at Shaws at that time, to prepare a provençal lunch for my friends and I, that would include a ‘’lapin à la provençale’’. That was 18 years ago, but I still have the exciting aroma of his rabbit on my taste buds. I have no idea where he had found that rabbit, but it was quite a tasty and meaty animal.
So, since a good fresh rabbit is very difficult to find in Chicago nowadays, and when you find it, like at Fox & Obel, it is so expensive that you give up, I went to this huge Korean super-market in Niles, where you not only find an amazing collection of fresh fish, shellfish, and mollusks, but also tons of frozen rabbit, for a ridiculously low price. Since it was only for your mother and me, I bought a small rabbit, barely 2 Lbs, for only 4.75 dollars, instead of the 18 dollars a fresh one would have cost me at Fox and Obel. . Problem is, it took a whole day to thaw, and like almost any rabbit that you buy in a U.S. supermarket, it had no head, no liver, no heart, and worse: no kidneys. Besides it was way too lean. The kidneys are very important because of the very white pieces of fat attached to them that gives a special taste to the sautéing.
I tried to ask a butcher where their rabbits were coming from, domestic or from some Asian country, but got only a very evasive answer from the giggling man who tried to tell me that they were American. Once my rabbit was defrosted, I had serious doubts that it was an American rabbit, since this poor anemic animal looked like it had been deprived of nourishing herb and carrots, and was probably the product of an industrial production chain. Some years back, I used to buy fresh American rabbits raised in Arkansas or Mississippi, that I found at Treasure Islands, and they were quite meaty and tasty, not as much as a ‘’Lapin du Gâtinais’’, but they were quite edible. Anyway, since the color of the meat was totally adequate, and it was smelling OK, I hoped for the best and decide to proceed with my initial cooking plan, that involved a simplified and quick formula. I cut the rabbit in 7 pieces, browned them briefly in a pan in a mix of butter and olive oil, while I was sautéing 2 chopped onions, 3 shallots and the “lardons” (small pieces of sliced thick-cut bacon) in the cocotte-minute. Then I added the pieces of rabbit, 2 pinches of dried thyme, a bay leaf, 2 cloves of garlic (diced ), 1 sliced carrot, and 1 small can of already cooked white mushrooms (what we call in France ‘’champignons de Paris’’), + one spoonful of tomatoe concentrate diluted in warm water. Then I covered everything with one and a half cup of dry white wine (Sauvignon Blanc), and mixed in one Tb spoon of cornstarch diluted in warm water. After stirring everything , I covered the pressure cooker with the lid , turned the flame a little higher, and once the steam came out with a hissing sound from the safety valve, I cooked the dish for 20 minutes at relatively low heat. But when I opened the pot, I was quite surprised by the very limited amount of aroma that came out of it. I served the sauce, that looked like it should be, over farfalle pasta. The meat was very tender but totally bland and could not hold the comparison with my fresh rabbits of a few years back.  
What a disappointment. I think that the quality of the rabbit was at fault. And that I should have used salt pork instead of bacon. And that the dish would have been tastier if I had used fresh sliced mushrooms instead of the cheap generic can from Jewell that I bought in a hurry. And that a little flour instead of the diluted corn starch I used to go faster would have made a more unctuous sauce. After dinner I said to your mother: ‘’ After all, you get what you pay for’’. But we could not find an exact equivalent of this saying in French. So, the always biased me told her : ‘’ It is because in France the ingredients are much better’’. So, over there we say the reverse: ‘’ At least, what I got is worth what I paid for ...’’ Next time I will try to put to practice what I learned again for the 100th time last night Don’t be cheap with the ingredients. And if you cannot afford the right ones, cook another dish.

February 12, 2008

My favorite movies of 2007 on DVD

  Films I rented or saw on my DVD player


I always wanted to see this film that has been for a long time the object of a real cult among the European film critics that I respect. Unfortunately, it never benefited of a large commercial release in the U.S., although a new copy was re-released in a very few venues in 2007, including in Chicago. It is a very important film in the history of modern Spanish cinema, since it was one of the few in that delicate transition period that dared to brave the censorship of the Franco regime towards the end of his dictatorship in dealing with the painful subject of repression and fear during the terrible Spanish civil war. The story takes place in 1940 precisely at the end of the Civil War in a small Castilian village where to young sisters, Ana, the youngest played by the marvelous Ana Torrent, who was 7 year-old at the time of filming and became famous 3 years later in Carlos Saura’s “Cria Cuervos”, and 10 year-old Isabel, live in a big country house with their parents. We soon find out that the father, who’s life revolves entirely around his caring of and writing about bees, and the mother who writes letters to an unknown far-away lover and dreams of a more fulfilling life, do not have a happy life together and are not very caring about their daughters who spend a lot of time by themselves. The parents relationship obviously has been seriously impacted by the war. The visit to the village of a traveling picture show featuring the famous “Frankenstein” shot by James Whale in 1931 with Boris Karloff, is going to excite Ana’s imagination and phantasms to the highest point, since her sister makes her believe that a monster like Frankenstein’s lives nearby but is in fact a spirit, and can be met by being called by anybody who cries his or her name. Ana will look for him and find instead a wounded young man, a fugitive Republican soldier probably shot by the Guardia Civil, in an abandoned barn . She will believe that he is the reincarnation of the monster and will feed him and help him, until her parents bring her back home while she is traumatized by the experience. This beautiful but very melancholic film, shot by a great director of photography, Luis Cuadrado, who was progressively turning blind during the filming of this movie, is very lyrical and poetic, and sometimes flirts with an eerie expressionism. You will be haunted for a long time by the very moving musical score. It is too bad that Victor Erice shot only 3 feature films in 34 years. This one, his first, was followed by El Sur (The South) in 1983, and “Quince Tree of the Sun”, a beautiful essay on art in 1992. But “Spirit” is probably one of the most authentic masterpieces of the European cinema in the Seventies.

2. TOKYO EYES Jean-Pierre Limosin, (Japan-France, 1998)

I had read a lot about this director who made only 5 feature films, but is well-known for a few very good made-for-TV documentaries including portraits of famous Iranian director Kiarostami, and of legendary Japanese actor-director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, who has a very funny cameo appearance as a not too bright Yakusa gangster in Tokyo Eyes. I had rented his interesting NOVO (2002), that tells in a very glossy and stylish way the sex and love adventures of an amnesic young man. But I did not expect such a thrilling and creative movie. TOKYO EYES , written by Limosin, was supposed to be shot in France with French actors. But Limosin, who is fascinated by Japan but does not speak the language, decided suddenly to instead shoot it entirely in Japan, with Japanese actors, and in Japanese. He took with him his very gifted director of photography Jean-Marie Fabre who created a very exciting and fast moving cinematography that reflects perfectly the local urban environment, and recalls the style of imagery and rhythm the great Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle had created in “Chungking Express” in 1994. The story line is very entertaining: A young computer and video games programmer, K, played by the impressive Shinji Takeda, is a vigilante during his free time and shoots people, like bullies and night club bouncers, whose behavior he disapproves. But before shooting them he modifies his gun and wears very thick glasses that confuses his vision, so that he voluntarily misses his targeted victims. The sister of the policeman who is tracking this “faux-serial killer” nicknamed “four eyes”, a very sexy and alert young hairdresser played by Hinano Yoshikawa, a Japanese model and singer, is fascinated by this case that her brother does not seem to eager to solve. She manages to identify and to meet K, becomes his friend and gets romantically involved with him. He will eventually be fatally shot by his own gun in the hand of the small time gangster played by Kitano who fires it by accident. But K. seems to survives and will be reunited with Hinano in a very mysterious ending. The whole film is reminiscent of French New Wave films, especially Godard’s. At one point the girl is dressed like Anna Karina in a “Woman is a Woman”. This film is a pure cinephile’s delight.

3. LE PETIT LIEUTENANT Xavier Beauvois, (France, 2005) Xavier Beauvois,

whose 5 feature films have not been widely released in the U.S , is a 40 year-old man who left his native working class environment in Northern France to come to Paris to learn cinema, with the help of the great Jean Douchet, a famous movie critic and professor. After being the assistant director of André Téchiné, he reached relatively rapidly a good level of recognition in 1995 with his second feature film ‘‘ N’oublies pas que tu vas mourir’’, that was rewarded the coveted Prix Jean Vigo and the Jury Prize at the Cannes film fest, that touched both critics and general audiences with his lyrical but very restrained story of the daily life and relationships of an HIV-positive student in Paris. With this film, that was nominated for 6 Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars), Beauvois reaches an almost perfect level of balance between a very precise narrative process, and a very efficient directing style, sometimes reminiscent of Techiné and Tavernier, but in a much more contemporary and austere way. His story describes the evolution of a charming but tough and ambitious young man, Antoine, played very convincingly by the very good Jalil Lespert whom we had discovered in ‘’Human Resources’’ who, as soon as he graduates from the police academy and after some work in a small provincial town’s police station, decides to go to Paris and volunteer to work as a detective (he has rank of lieutenant) in the crime department of a commissariat (district police headquarter). He leaves behind his young wife and his parents and friends. The first part of he film focuses on his discovery of the tough but sometimes boring routines of his new job, and his relations with other cops, among them Solo, played very efficiently by Roschdy Zem (‘’Indigenes’’). The description of his work and of his new life is described in a almost documentary style. It is probably one of the best depiction of what is really the daily life of a police station ever filmed. The second part is more focused on a specific investigation about the death of a poor immigrant Polish homeless man, found in the Seine river. And essentially about the relationship that Antoine develops with his boss, a veteran female police inspector who is recovering from alcoholism and the death of her son, who was the same age as Antoine’s. This role is perfectly played by Natalie Baye who was justly awarded the Cesar of the best actress. The cinematography by the super director of photography Caroline Champetier, one of the best in France, is very precise and avoids all easy clichés often found in the ‘’noir’’ or ‘’policier’’ genres.  

4. FREE ZONE Amos Gitai, (Israel, 2005)

I consider this Israeli director as one of the best story-teller in the present international cinema landscape. I still have vivid memories of the intensity of emotions I felt while watching some of his best films such as “Kippur”, “Kadosh”, “Kedma” or “Yom Yom”. Once again we are sharing the complex relations between individuals within the framework of the turmoils linked or derived from the Israeli-Palestinian, or Israeli-Arab conflicts. This time it is almost a “road movie” involving a very strong Israeli woman, Hanna, who drives a taxi, and her American passenger, another strong but emotionally disturbed woman called Rebecca, who insists to accompany Hanna to the “Free Zone” , a strange no-man’s land between the borders of Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, where all kinds of not necessarily legal business deals are negotiated. Hanna needs to drive there to collect an unpaid debt to her wounded husband from a former partner who sells military vehicles in that strange Free-Trade Zone. Rebecca needs some perspective to distance herself from her separation with an Israeli boyfriend who might have shown some nasty behavior against Palestinian refugees. They will find, when they finally reach their destination that both the man they are looking for and the money are gone. Hanna forces a Palestinian woman who works for him to drive with them and help in finding him. The rapidly changing nature of the relationship and of their initial personal objectives between these 3, culturally different, women is fascinating to follow. The Palestinian actress Hanna Laslo won the Best Actress at Cannes for her role as Hanna, but both Natalie Portman, and Hiam Abbass (“Paradise Now”) are equally convincing. At the beginning of the film that takes place near the famous Wall in Jerusalem, there is an extraordinary long take, in one shot, of Natalie Portman crying alone in the car, that is a piece of cinematic anthology. Besides, the shooting in this Arab zone by an Israeli film director constitutes in itself a premiere.

5. QUAND LA MER MONTE (WHEN THE SEA RAISES) Yolande Moreau and Gilles Porte (Belgium, France, 2004)

Sort of a masterpiece in a minor genre, this gem of a very touching, and beautifully written and directed film, was perhaps my best surprise of the year when I rented it from Netflix. I knew Yolande Moreau, a Belgian comedian with both an unusual physical appearance and a unique way to phrase her sentences, after having seen her many times on French Television in the very popular farcical short sitcoms series “ Les Deschiens". In the early eighties she also wrote, directed , and played in a one-woman travelling show, “Sale Affaire, du sexe et du crime” (Dirty business, sex and crime). She personified a very plain, low-middle class woman who has just killed her lover and shares her feelings about it with the audience. In this film, her first that she co-directs with Gilles Porte, a director of several short films, she recreates her life when she traveled from cities to villages in Northern France and Southern Belgium, on both sides of the border. She plays her original role in front of real audiences that are filmed live by Porte. She talks at night from her modest hotel or motel rooms on the phone with her husband about redecoration he tries to do in their house, and with her child. At the same time she develops an intriguing and almost surreal relationship with a member of her audience, Dries (played by Wim Willaert a very good Flemish actor with a strange accent), who is a “giant carrier”, drinks a lot, and starts to follow her from town to town. They will have a brief but complicated romantic liaison. The job of “giant carrier” (porteur de géant) is unique to this part of Europe where giant folkloric and comic figures made of papier-maché and light wood are walked around during local festivals and celebrations of all kinds. Dries’s giant, name Totor, plays an important part in the story. The cinematography by Gilles Porte himself captures in a very authentic way , and visually stunning style, the particularly lively atmosphere (and cheerful behavior of its people) of this region around Armentières, Béthune, and Lille. A very heart-warming experience.

6. LES TEMOINS (THE WITNESSES) André Téchiné, (France, 2006)

This film that just got its first theatrical release in New-York City in February 2008, should be available from Netflix, and released in some theaters, pretty soon. I obtained a DVD from Europe through a friend. The 21st film of Techiné’s very interesting and consistent career, is perhaps, along with ‘’Wild Reeds’’ (Les Roseaux Sauvages, 1994), his most personal work . According to some comments he made to the press when the film was presented to the Berlin Film Festival in January 2007, he had to do this film as a reflexion on that period in the mid eighties when AIDS became a pandemic worldwide, including France, when several of his personal friends were affected by the virus and died, but he was himself spared from that curse. What he witnessed at that time left a deep mark in his perception of why some people survive and some die. In some ways you already find this subject treated at a different level in both “Wild Reeds” and the very moving “Les Egarés’’ (‘’Strayed’’, 2004). Here we have a story in 3 phases: 1. In Paris in 1984 Sarah (beautiful Emmanuelle Béart) writes children books but has a problem to adjust to her new condition of mother. Her husband, Mehdi (Sami Bouajila) a tough vice-squad policeman of Maghrebian origin has a problem understanding her lack of focus and patience with the newborn child. At the same time a very naive and charming provincial young man Manu (Johan Libéreau), arrives in Paris and decides, against her will, to live in his sister’s room, ana aspiring opera singer (a very convincing Julie Depardieu) in a cheap hotel full of prostitutes while he looks for a job. In fact he spends more time looking for brief sexual encounters in gay meeting places. That is how he meets a doctor, Adrien (Michel Blanc) a very close friend of Sarah, who falls in love with him and takes him home. 2. Manu is introduced by Adrien to Mehdi and Sarah. During a week-end in the Mediterranean villa of Sarah’s parents Mehdi saves Manu from drowning, and later engages in a very passionate relationship with him. But Manu gets sick (HIV Aids) without knowing exactly what happens to him and while continuing his sexual affair with Mehdi. Adrien, the Doctor, tries to help Manu who does not seem to care. Adrien becomes the leader of a medical research team that works on the new pandemic and tries to fight it and inform the public. He gets through rough times with Mehdi. 3. Manu dies. Mehdi finds out that he is not infected. He tells the truth to Sarah about his relationship with Manu and she decides to write a novel about it after reading his journal relating the progress of his disease. Life goes on. In spite of such a painful subject, Techiné tells his story with restraint and precision, without a trace of moral or social judgment. The film is never a tear-jerker and avoids ambiguous situations or elliptical editing. It is not a masterpiece, but it is a model of story-telling and professional directing.  

7. TOSCA Benoit Jacquot, (Italy, France, Germany, 2001)

I am usually totally allergic to filmed opera, especially the Franco Zeffirelli type. But I do not mind an intelligent cinematic adaptation of a good opera, as it was the case with Joseph Losey's "Don Giovanni", or Bergman's "Magic Flute". In the case of Tosca, Benoit Jacquot who is a very competent, sensible, and eclectic director with a 30 year-long career (La Désenchantée, La Fille Seule, l’Ecole de la Chair, A Tout de Suite, Sade, Intouchable) who openly confessed that he strongly disliked Italian Opera, has taken a very different approach: making a good film for cinephiles who do not have to be opera-lovers to appreciate this fully cinematographic reflexion on melodrama, a bit like Resnais did it in Private Fear in Public Places. But it never reaches the point of becoming too didactic or a caricature of the ultimate melodramatic opera, precisely because the cinematic qualities of the melodrama are given a more important priority than its purely operatic ones. His idea was to shoot in beautiful natural settings, located mainly in Germany, very good professional opera singers, ‘’acting’’ the opera and at the same time showing us black and white video clips of the same artists in ‘’civilian’’ clothes, recording the music in a studio, under the direction of conductor Antonio Papanno. Sometimes when the singers-actors are shot in close-ups, some too obvious post-dubbing and lip-synch problems become a bit annoying. But the quality of the cinematography by Romain Winding, the elegance of the direction and the intense acting performances of Angela Gheorghiu (as Tosca), of Roberto Alagna (as the painter Cavaradossi) in less convincing way, and above all of Ruggero Raimondi, in a scary very impressive almost Shakespearian interpretation of Scarpia, the nasty Rome’s Chief of Police who wants to exchange the life of the painter for an affair with Tosca, make us actually ‘’feel’’ their respective passions and torments. Raimondi was also a great actor in Losey’s Don Giovanni, and in the "Carmen" made by Francesco Rossi, a good Italian director.

8. BLISSFULLY YOURS Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand, 2005)

I was totally mesmerized by the serene but almost mystical and hallucinated beauty of "Tropical Malady", the third film by this young Thai director, who studied cinema at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. A large part of it was taking place in a tropical forest in Thailand, and the sound track was spectacular. It was No. 7 in my list of favorite films seen in 2005 published on this blog. This time we are again watching a very sinuous, very slow moving like in a dream, progression of three people, one man and two women, in a heavenly Thai forest. A couple, a man suffering from a terrible rash all over his body who might be an illegal Burmese worker and a woman who tries to both obtain a work permit for him and to relieve his anxiety and pain, go for a picnic by a river and some sexual interlude, in the forest. They will be joined by a second woman and engage in a strange and sometimes sad relation with her. . It is impossible to really describe a story that is so unconventionally told. But I can assure you that the lighting, the sounds, the rhythm of the camera movements in this film are incredibly beautiful. But you need to accept the ‘’ mood’’ of this movie and be patient, otherwise you may hate it, and that would be too bad.  

9. GABRIELLE Patrice Chéreau (France, 2005) For many years Patrice Chéreau

was better known in France as a stage and opera director. He is also an actor and a script-writer, But since his first feature film in 1975, ‘’Flesh and the Orchid’’ an adaptation from the famous J.H Chase’s ‘’No Orchids for Miss Blandish’’ with Charlotte Rampling, Simone Signoret, Alida Valli and Bruno Cremer, he has become a darling of both critics and spectators, for his great ability to direct actors and particularly actresses in very complex, uneasy, passionate, and generally tense and dramatic love stories. He also got very good response in the U.S, where he taught film on the East Coast for a while, for films such as the beautiful ‘’Queen Margot’’ (1994), Intimacy (2001) and "Those who love me will take the train" (1998). "Gabrielle" is only his 10th feature film (he also directed several plays and operas for Television), but to me it is one of the most brilliantly ‘’ mis en scene’’ (directed). Adapted from ‘’The Return’’, a short novel by Joseph Conrad, is very precisely describing the catastrophic tragedy of errors that occurs when a ‘’bourgeoise’’ played perfectly portrayed by Isabelle Huppert, tries to leave her wealthy but vain and pretentious upper-class husband (great actor Pascal Gregory) after 10 years of a loveless marriage. She leaves a letter for him in their luxurious mansion explaining that she is leaving him for another man (a pretentious journalist whom her husband hates), but for no reason changes her mind and comes back home to retrieve it before he reads it... but too late. Their ensuing confrontations will be terrible, even during a fancy party where they entertain high-society guests, including her lover. Like in a Bergman or Visconti film, the tensions are going up, and down while the mansion’s servants try to keep the situation under control. All this is beautifully orchestrated in sumptuous framing and camera movements, and the acting is so painfully precise that it leaves you nervously exhausted at the end that I will not reveal. Quite a job...  

10. MARIE-ANTOINETTE Sofia Coppola (USA, 2006)

Why did almost half of the American film critics (a few even booed at its premiere at the Cannes Festival) pan this very creative, beautifully shot, and very astute movie goes beyond my comprehension... As a matter of fact I did not see the film when it was released in Chicago’s theaters in 2006, in spite of my being intrigued by the trailers, because I was influenced by some bad reviews. It was a poor decision on my part. I would have enjoyed it even more if had watched those splendid shots and bold camera movements in glorious colors on a big screen and listened to the great soundtrack, with its provocative mix of baroque and pop music from a good sound system. Perhaps some critics did not like the film because Sofia Coppola dared to do something completely different than in her previous successful pictures, especially ‘’Lost in transaltion’’. But is it really so different from the point of view on modern young women she ha s been trying to give since the ‘’The Virgin Suicides’’ . As Roger Ebert rightly wrote in his 4 stars review of Oct 20, 2006: "Nobody cares if the film does not always respect the real historical facts. It is a very contemporary reflection, made by a film-maker, not an historian, about a teenager ahead of her time, who is in a state of complete refusal of the role court people and her family expect her to play, and at the same time wants as a sort of revenge against the decadence and the moral corruption that surrounds her, to find an escape in a passionate search of pleasures". Kirsten Dunst is very charming in the title role. But I enjoyed Rip Torn as Louis XV, Danny Huston as Marie-Antoinette’s brother and Asia Argento as Madame Du Barry even more. Needless to say, the scenery is stunning. The film was actually shot on location at the Versailles Palace, and in other castles of the Paris area. some scenes were even shot inside the Opera Garnier in Paris. The dialogues are often very funny, and the numerous pastries, actually baked by the famous Parisian pastry chef Ladurée , are mouth watering. Alain Maes, February 2008

February 02, 2008

Pommes Frites

Hi Dad, I've been craving pommes frites like we have when in France and have not found any that really fit the bill here in silicon valley. Ironically, some of the best "french fries" are from a well known west coast chain of fast food joints called "In and Out Burger". They slice the potatos right in from of your eyes and then throw them directly in the deep fryer. The french and california french restaurants in silicon valley don't duplicate the hot and crispy outside with soft flavorful potato innards. I find myself sending the fries back very often at such places as the "Left Bank" because they always arrive cold and have no semblance to the fries in France. In Chicago, places like Kiki's make fantastic pommes allumettes which I've not found here. So what makes a good Pommes Frite and why is it so hard to find ones that are like we have in France? And on top of that, why are they called "French Fries" here in the US? Did French Fries even originate in France. Love Your Pommes Frites deprived son