Don’t let the subtitles keep you away from these foreign films

Don’t let the subtitles keep you away from these foreign films
Don’t let the subtitles keep you away from these foreign films

So how did I spend my summer vacation? I traveled to Switzerland, Poland and went on a fabulous skiing trip to the Alps — and I never left my couch. I was catching up on some foreign films and here are three worth a look.

Few if any film fans got to see “Ida,” the Foreign Film Oscar winner this year. It’s the first film that Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (“My Summer of Love”) has set in his native country. Subtitled and filmed in black and white, the story takes place in post-war Poland in the early ’60s. Anna (Agata Trebuchowska), a novitiate, is about to take her vows, but on the eve of her commitment, Mother Superior informs her she has one living relative, an aunt living in Lodz, and she requests that Anna visit her before returning to the nunnery for her ceremony.

The two women, once they meet, could not be more different. Wanda (Agata Kuleska) is a hard drinking, promiscuous judge with an air of bitterness that has hardened her immeasurably. Anna soon learns from her that she is actually Jewish, and her real name is Ida. From this point that Pawlikowski fashions a road trip for the two to retrace what happened to the rest of the family and to answer the question of why Anna was raised as an orphan.

The black and white photography that captures the depressing cities and open spaces sets a bleak tone, and Pawlikowski makes use of hard angles and stark landscapes to make the characters smaller and less powerful than their surroundings. The dialog is sparse, using an economy of words only to inch the story forward as Pawlikowski focuses the camera for endless minutes on his actor’s faces, using a harsh contrast that only black and white cinematography can give.

It’s a sad, smart movie with two fascinating performances from the female leads.

“Force Majeure” is a Swedish film from director Ruben Oslund that pokes fun in a perverse way at relationships and role-playing. Set in the French Alps at a swanky ski resort, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children are enjoying a skiing vacation. Everything is going swell as they shush down the slopes and enjoy the good life. That is, until the second day when a controlled avalanche set off by an explosion threatens to overtake the outdoor deck where the family is enjoying an al fresco lunch.

Diners start to panic as the encroaching snow bank rolls quickly toward them, and chaos ensues. In the mix, Tomas grabs his cell phone and runs, leaving his family to fend for themselves. The repercussions of his cowardice are not readily evident until Ebba starts to crack, first telling a couple at dinner and later two friends who have joined them on the trip that Tomas’s actions are unforgivable as a husband and a father.

This revelation leads to a vigorous discussion, pitting the women against their male counterparts as Tomas’s friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju of “Game of Thrones), a divorced 40-something and his 20-year old girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius) jump in the argument and continue it in their own hotel room.

From there, it’s less certain where Oslund wants the story to go, but Tomas’ eventual breakdown adds an air of absurdity not often found in American movies. This is a thought-provoking film on many levels with an enjoyable cast.

“Clouds of Sils Maria” is perhaps the best of these three. Starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, this is a French film from director Olivier Assayas. Binoche stars as Maria Enders, an actress of a certain age who is quite aware of the passage of time — to her chagrin. Her assistant Valentine (Stewart) juggles her life for her in a beautifully efficient manner as the first scene of the film demonstrates, with Val switching back and forth between two cell phones standing in the aisle of a moving train.

Years before, Maria got her start in a play, “Maloja Snake,” as the young woman who seduces her boss, an older woman, with tragic consequences. Now a bright young director has decided to revive the play with Maria playing the older woman, something she chafes at, but is intrigued by as well. The younger woman will be played by an American actress, Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloe Grace Moretz), who has about as much good will with the paparazzi as Lindsay Lohan.

As the story moves around, so do the ever-changing roles of each of these women. The action cleverly parallels the play, and it becomes increasingly noticeable as Val runs lines with Maria and then as they engage in their own discussions about popular movies, the press, their own relationship — each remaining true to their age differences.

Stewart and Binoche share some great scene time in what is at times a rather ambiguous story. The actual legend of the Maloja Snake phenomenon turns this story into a sort of Mobius strip that twists and turns on itself in a most imaginative way.