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Oscar Shorts 2018: Rise of a Star

Andrew Young looks at this French drama featuring Catherine Deneuve as part of Nouse's look at some shorter Oscar hopefuls

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With cinema's most-hyped awards show creeping up on us, Nouse turns its attention to an oft-ignored Academy Award: Best Live-Action Short Film. With access to several of the 10 films that have made the Oscars shortlist, our team will be tackling them in a series of interviews and reviews. From thrillers with timely racial commentary to dance dramas, there is plenty of wonderful work to see on the shortlist. The final five nominees will be announced on 23rd January.

Image: FullDawa Films

Director: James Bort

Starring: Dorothee Gilbert, Antonia Desplat, Pierre Deladonchamps

The original French title for James Bort's handsomely-made short film Rise of a Star is Naissance d'une Etoile, a title that is rather more apt than its English translation. The word "naissance" is translated as "rise" but it can also be used to mean "birth". This subtle double meaning hints at the film's premise: how does a high-end ballerina, poised for her greatest success, deal with the news that she is pregnant?

It is an interesting topic to tackle and one that ably explores the nature of womanhood and motherhood and their engagement with the workplace. Setting this story in the exaggerated, physically demanding world of ballet is a smart move. It not only shows us a milieu that is naturally fascinating for the ambition, drive and perhaps suffering of its participants, but also exaggerates questions of female empowerment and brings them to the forefront of the conversation.

Rise of a Star is a film that has been made by an interesting group of people. Lead actress Dorothee Gilbert is a ballet dancer herself, but her screen-acting ability is in no doubt as she not only shows her prowess as a dancer in front of the camera but manages to carry off moments of emotional heft too. Director James Bort is an accomplished photographer, who has snapped the likes of Ryan Reynolds and Michael B. Jordan as well as several ballet dancers. His talent in this area is clear in a film that certainly looks good. Bort and his DP Mahdi Lepart combine to wonderful effect several times, especially in a photoshoot scene that does plenty to advance the film. As Gilbert's Emma feels the pressure pile on as the photographer continually repositions her and the value of aesthetics in her world become clear, Bort splices together quick shots to help build the tension.

This compelling scene highlights Bort's impressive use of music too. The photoshoot is scored to pulsing electronic music, not just adding a sense of urgency but also unsettling Emma. The rest of the film regularly uses classical ballet music, its ever-presence highlighting how ingrained the ballet world is in Emma's life. It gives her comfort but also never leaves her.

Image: FullDawa Films

The other person bringing intrigue to this Oscar hopeful is French cinema legend Catherine Deneuve. Whether it's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or Belle de Jour, she's an icon and her presence in a lesser-seen short film is not necessary, but proves incredibly valuable. When she walks into her first shot the weight of Deneuve's standing as an actress is palpable. This fades, however, as her talent sees her blend easily in to her role as the head of Emma's ballet company. In a single shot, she introduces themes of aging and regret that are never expanded. Both Deneuve's ability as an actress and the knowledge of the youthful roles she is renowned for help bring this to the fore.

All of these various talents through cast and crew are brought to a head in a somewhat triumphant ending. Stephane Landowski's script asks questions of both the characters and the audience, but then makes a bold sweep to answer them itself. Some rousing words from Deneuve and a wonderfully-shot ballet sequence to close the film, in which Emma's raw power, both physical and emotional, is intensely felt, leave us in no doubt as to the film's message. In communicating its moral of female empowerment in an extreme and fascinating world, the film is an undoubted success.

Criticism could be levelled at Bort's work in the form of a slight lack of complexity. The characters would perhaps be in danger of feeling one-note, something very hard to avoid in shorts, if it wasn't for the convincing portrayals of the entire cast. The story's dilemmas themselves, including the health of the baby and the psychological strain on Emma, could have been explored in more detail perhaps. But then, the simple power and statement of the film may have been lost. Rise of a Star is a film that has clearly been made with great skill and it is one that explores a fascinating topic with good scope within its running time. If it was longer, then perhaps the whole film could have an added layer of depth.

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