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The Conversation: Producer Michel Merkt

The Conversation: Producer Michel Merkt

Swiss producer Michel Merkt, who runs his own company KNM alongside his wife and often produces noted international projects with Said Ben Said of SBS Productions, has become one of the most important European producers of auteur projects over the past decade. His projects are often proliferated across Cannes (in the 2018 competition he had his stamp on five of the selectees, including Ayka, Yomeddine, Under the Silver Lake, Capernaum, and Happy as Lazzaro). This year, he brings Palme d’Or winner Jacques Audiard to his first time competing on the Lido with English language debut The Sisters Brothers, a high-profile item whose absence at Cannes was one of several surprises last spring. Besides David Robert Mitchell, Merkt isn’t a stranger to producing American auteurs either, having financed Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and Walter Hill’s The Assignment.

Merkt’s schedule is as packed as ever, extended way beyond Venice 2018, waiting to bow finished items like Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Canto Due, Nadav Lapid’s Synonymes, Elia Sulieman’s It Must Be Heaven, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Nighthawk, Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta, Ira Sachs’ A Family Vacation, and Brian De Palma’s Predator. And he’ll be on hand at TIFF with Xavier Dolan’s English language debut The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. Here’s a glance at five of our favorite projects produced by Merkt.

5. Maps to the Stars – David Cronenberg (2014)

There’s as much to love as there is to disdain about this pulpy Hollywood nightmare from Cronenberg. As far as Los Angeles soap operas go, Maps to the Stars could have been better served with a tighter edit as it labors to be as much of a cultural parody as it is a supernatural thriller (this would make a great double feature with Zoe Cassavetes’ Day Out of Days, by the way). But as grating or underwhelming as some of its supporting characters are (Robert Pattinson comes to mind), it features a wickedly entertaining performance from Julianne Moore as the laughably named Havana Segrand, an actress hungry to reclaim the celebrity she feels she’s owed.

4. Aquarius – Dir. Kleber Mendonca Filho (2016)

For his sophomore effort, Brazilian director crafts an intriguing character study around a brazen Sonia Braga in what is possibly the most magnificent role of her career with Aquarius. Breaking out in 2012 with his feature debut Neighboring Sounds, which focused on a neighborhood in Recife with intersecting narratives of several residents, he distills his storyline to this tale of a widow who’s a retired music critic being pressured to move out of the eponymous apartment house after her building has been purchased by an aggressive property developer.

3. Zama – Dir. Lucrecia Martel (2017)

Zama Lucrecia Martel

Narratively speaking, Zama feels related to plenty of similarly themed desperate scenarios centered on government officials struggling to escape from a culture they’re charged with suppressing. Whether it’s the Portuguese soldiers in the recent Conrad adaptation An Outpost of Progress (2016) or even this year’s Joaquim from Marcelo Gomes, which delivers a similarly designed central character as it relates the partial (if equally idiosyncratic) history of local Brazilian hero Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier, these are protagonists desperate to be anywhere rather than the toxic station they’re assigned.

2. Elle – Dir. Paul Verhoeven (2016)

Arriving with a knotty snarl of perverse commentary, Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven proves he’s lost none of the daring which marked his early works in his latest feature, Elle, an adaptation of a novel by Philippe Djian (Betty Blue; Love is the Perfect Crime). Headlined by the inimitable Isabelle Huppert, the vehicle once again proves her to be a leading formidable talent, with a expertise when it comes to controversial portrayals of warped sexual expression. Their pairing is delectable and marks a ravishing return to the screen for Verhoeven, who hasn’t presented a feature since 2006’s Black Book. Opening with the violent rape of a woman who runs a successful video gaming enterprise, she experiences a sordid journey of problematic coping mechanisms, while a significant, infamous chapter from her past simultaneously returns to haunt her. Meanwhile, her rapist continues to stalk her, but rather than seek revenge, she formulates a complicated game of cat and mouse and slowly begins to usurp an upper hand.

1. Toni Erdmann – Dir. Maren Ade (2016)

Comedic films coming out of Germany, at least those nabbing international acclaim and/or distribution, are few and far between. And although one could describe director Maren Ade’s lovely third film, Toni Erdmann in such terms as novelty, it’s also much more complex and elegant than what such a label connotes. Spectacularly engrossing and emotionally generous, the near three-hour venture sounds slight when described, as it details a retired German music teacher and his idiosyncratic method of trying to reconnect with his distant daughter, a woman scrambling to climb the corporate ladder in a consulting firm in Bucharest. Instead, sequences, which end up being a series of increasingly oddball sketches where father and daughter formulate a rather distinctive method of communication build efficiently and energetically into a formidable testament of its director/writer’s skills

Read Nicholas Bell’s previous The Conversation: Producer profile instalments:
David Thion (2018)
Janine Jackowski (2018)
Jean Labadie (2018)
Christine Vachon (2017)
Olivier Père (2017)
Paulo Branco (2017)
Vincent Maraval (2017)
Megan Ellison (2017)
Sylvie Pialat (2016)
Saïd Ben Saïd (2016)

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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