Top 5 Desert Island DVDs (sub-category: European)
1: Betty Blue (France) – ‘Betty Blue’ is a movie I discovered in my teens and the first French film to ever ‘break out’ on the other side of the world. It was a phenomenon in 1986 and was the biggest grossing French film of all time until ‘A Prophet’ came along in 2009. It is, in my opinion, also the only film ever to have a ‘director’s cut’ that is actually better than the original cinematic release. Jean-Jacques Beineix was told that his original 3 hour version would not be released and that after the financial failure of his previous film he was to cut ‘Betty Blue’ down to 2 hours. He did so to ensure the release of the film but then 15 years later was able to release the version he had always wanted to. It’s hard to say exactly what the main strengths of ‘Betty Blue’ are simply because there are so many to choose from. The performances from Jean-Hugues Anglade and Béatrice Dalle are mouth-watering as is the cinematography and the unforgettable soundtrack. It’s the saddest love story I can think of and that’s why it’s the greatest love story of all time.
2: Frozen Land (Finland) – ‘Frozen Land’ or ‘Paha Maa’ as it is known in its home country is about as Finnish as it gets. It is the interconnected stories of a bunch of sad, troubled people trying to get their lives together against a backdrop of poverty, crime, loneliness, alcoholism and copious amounts of despair, grief and loss. It is not a happy watch but it is undeniably brilliant. Shot in a Finnish winter as you might expect from the title it is heavy going from the beginning and doesn’t let up at any point along the way to the sad, poignant ending. What it does give you en route though is a solid insight into Finnish ways of dealing with loss and the acceptance that life just hasn’t turned out the way you might have hoped. It won’t do much to dissuade people of the idea that Finland is full of vodka-drinking suicide cases even if in my experience the Finns are some of the nicest people I have ever met. It is a hard-hitting social commentary on modern life and what people will do in the pursuit of money.
3: Mastermind (Sweden) – This is brilliant. Episode 6 of Yellow Bird’s Wallander Series 1 was so good that it was deemed worthy of a cinematic release. It is the story of a disgruntled villain who Kurt Wallander helped put in prison. While said villain was incarcerated his daughter killed herself. When he gets out it’s time for revenge and he gets a job where he can keep a close eye on Wallander and his colleagues. Both Martinsson and Wallander have their daughters kidnapped in circumstances that are both ingenious and genuinely spooky and soon both officers are desperately trying to stop the unthinkable from happening. The writing is so clever I wanted to stand up and clap the first time I watched it and it was a huge influence on my first novel. All three series are worth a watch. This just happens to be the crowning jewel.
4: Rare Exports (Finland) – Another Finnish movie here and this time we are embracing the other side of the Finnish mind-set – total craziness. Two young boys stumble upon what looks to be a large mining operation near the Finnish/Russian border but they can’t possibly be ready for what it is that the scientists are trying to extract from the ice. Santa Claus is coming to town but not the rotund affable Santa that we all know and love. No. This is the giant child-eating phenomenon that Finland has. Once his many helpers find out that Santa is about to be released from his icy tomb hundreds of naked Finnish men in their late 90s start to arrive to help him out. They slaughter entire reindeer herds and hide him in a barn where they defrost him by stealing the town’s supply of heaters and radiators as well as every single potato sack in sight. That’s right, potato sacks. Is this because Santa loves his tatties? No. It’s because you can fill them with children and then he has something to eat when he gets free. This film is disturbing and hilarious in equal measures and genuinely tickled my sense of humour. The Finns are a lot funnier than people give them credit for and this movie is a great example of that even if the humour is as dark as midnight on a Lapland winter’s evening. The title comes from the fact that all the naked ‘helpers’ are cleaned up at the end of the film and shipped off around the world to become Santas in their own rights.
5: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (France) – This tender and touching film is based on the memoir of journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor-in-chief of French Elle magazine. It shows us what his life is like after suffering a massive stroke that left him with ‘locked-in syndrome’ and how his speech therapist helped him write his autobiography using the only part of his body that still moved to dictate the text to her. His left eyelid. She devises a way that he can work through the letters of the alphabet and spell out each word for her. The technique is simple but incredibly time-consuming and her patience is endless but the brilliance of the story is found in the compassion that the two main participants bring to a strange and sombre tale. There is something haunting about the movie and the gentle way that the nurse brings this broken man back to the point where he wants to tell the world about what has happened to him. I’m not usually one for these ‘guy overcomes all odds’ sorts of stories but this left me feeling genuinely moved mainly because of the relationship that is struck up between this man and his one and only link with the ‘outside’ world.