View Full Version : Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2009

Chris Knipp
02-16-2009, 06:45 AM

Rendez-Vous with French
Cinema 2009

Coverage and reviews by Chris Knipp

Links to the reviews:

35 SHOTS OF RUM (CLAIRE DENIS 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21357#post21357)
APPRENTICE, THE (SAMUEL COLLARDEY 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21356#post21356)
BEACHES OF AGNES, THE (AGNES VARDA 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21352#post21352)
BELLAMY (CLAUDE CHABROL 2009) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21414#post21414)
CHANGE OF PLANS (DANIELLE THOMPSON 2009) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21417#post21417)
EDEN IS WEST (COSTA-GAVRAS (2009) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21404#post21404)
GIRL FROM MONACO, THE (ANNE FONTAINE 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21361#post21361)
GIRL ON THE TRAIN, THE (ANDRE TECHINE 2009) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21416#post21416)
JOY OF SINGING,THE (ILAN DURAN COHEN 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21396#post21396)
MESRINE, PART 1 (JEAN-FRANCOIS RICHET 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21371#post21371)
MESRINE, PART 2 (JEAN-FRANCOIS RICHET 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21372#post21372)
OTHER ONE, THE (PATRICK MARIO BERNARD, PIERRE TRIVIDIC 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21477#post21477)
PARIS 36 (CHRISTOPHE BARRATIER 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21349#post21349)
SERAPHINE (MARTIN PROVOST 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21397#post21397)
STELLA (SYLVIE VERHEYDE 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21398#post21398)
VERSAILLES (PIERRE SCHOELLER 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21476#post21476)
VILLA AMALIA (BENOIT JACQUOT 2009) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21415#post21415)
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MYSELF (FRANCOIS DUPEYRON 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21360#post21360)

Extra, BAM Cinematek:
BELLE PERSONNE, LA (CHRISTOPHE HONORE 2008) (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21515#post21515)

For French critical ratings of the films from 'Allocine':
[click here] (http://www.filmleaf.net/showthread.php?s=&postid=21497#post21497)

Press Screening Schedule:

Wednesday, Feb. 11
10:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.:
Paris 36 / Faubourg 36
Christophe Barratier, France/Germany/Czech Republic, 2008; 120m

Thursday, Feb. 12
10:00 a.m. - 11:42 a.m.:
Pierre Schoeller, France, 2008; 102m

12:00 Noon - 1:37 p.m.:
The Other One / L'Autre
Patrick Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic, France, 2008; 97m
PLEASE NOTE: This film will be press screened on Digibeta. It will be shown to the public on a 35mm print.

Tuesday, Feb. 17
11:00 a.m. - 12:50 p.m.:
The Beaches of Agnes / Les Plages d'Agnes
Agnes Varda, France, 2008; 110m

Wednesday, Feb. 18
10:00 a.m. - 11:22 a.m.:
The Apprentice / L'apprenti
Samuel Collardey, France, 2008; 82m

12:00 Noon - 1:40 p.m.:
35 Shots of Rum / 35 Rhums
Claire Denis, France/Germany, 2008; 100m

Thursday, Feb. 19
10:00 a.m. - 11:34 a.m.:
With a Little Help from Myself / Aide-toi, le ciel t;aidera
Francois Dupeyron, France, 2008; 94m

12:00 Noon -1:35 p.m.:
The Girl from Monaco / La Fille de Monaco
Anne Fontaine, France, 2008; 95m

Friday, Feb. 20
10:00 a.m. - 11:53 a.m.:
Mesrine Part 1 / Mesrine, L'instinct de mort
Jean-Francois Richet, France/Canada/Italy, 2008; 113m

12:45 p.m. - 2:57 p.m.:
Mesrine Part 2 / Mesrine, L'ennemi public no. 1
Jean-Francois Richet, France/Canada, 2008; 132m

Monday, Feb. 23
10:00 a.m. - 11:39 a.m.:
The Joy of Singing / Le Plaisir de chanter
Ilan Duran Cohen, France, 2008; 99m

12:00 Noon - 2:05 p.m.:
Martin Provost, France/Belgium, 2008; 125m

3:00 p.m. - 4:43 p.m.:
Sylvie Verheyde, France, 2008; 103m
PLEASE NOTE: This film will be press screened on Digibeta. It will be shown to the public on a 35mm print.

Tuesday, Feb. 24
10:00 a.m. - 11:50 a.m.:
Eden Is West / Eden a l'ouest
Costa-Gavras, France/Greece/Italy, 2009; 110m

12:00 Noon - 1:50 p.m.:
Claude Chabrol, France, 2009; 110m

3:00 p.m. - 4:34 p.m.:
Villa Amalia
Benoit Jacquot, France, 2009; 94m

Wednesday, Feb. 25
10:00 a.m. - 11:50 a.m.:
The Girl on the Train / La Fille du RER
Andre Techine, France, 2009; 110m

12:00 Noon - 1:40 p.m.:
Change of Plans / Le code a change'
Daniele Thompson, France, 2009; 100 min.
Emilie Duquenne, Catherine Deneuve

Chris Knipp
02-16-2009, 10:02 AM


Glittering period crowd-pleaser

Christophe Barratier found box office success in France in 2004 with his cute feel-good story The Chorus/Les choristes, which was about how a new music teacher brought humanity to a rural French reform school just after WWII by starting a boys' chorus. This also made newcomer Jean-Baptiste Maunier into a French teen icon. Faaubourg 36 is a glitzier, more musical, more nostalgic period drama meant to evoke French films of the Thirties through its focus on a little working class Paris music hall called Chansonia. As the film opens, financial problems lead a mean magnate called Galapiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) to shut Chansonia down. But it's 1936, and in the spirit of socialist fervor (and universal labor-management strife) signaled by the rise of Leon Blum's Popular Front, the employees decide to take over Chansonia and run it themselves, on no money. This effort is spearheaded by the stage manager Germain Pigoil (Gerard Jugnot). Pigoil's life has filled with heartbreak. His dancer wife Viviane (Elisabeth Vitali) has left him and the state has chosen to take away his beloved accordionist son Jojo (Maxence Perrin) and send him to live with Viviane.

Trying to create triumph out of adversity, Pigoil designates an awkward song-and-dance guy called Jacky Jacquet (Kad Merad) and a militant (and Jewish) leftist called Emile "Milou" Leibovich (Clovis Cornillac) to reopen the shuttered musical theater in uneasy cooperation with Galapiat. The show must go on!

This seems a feeble prospect without financial backing, till the three men get lucky when a young newcomer nicknamed Douce (Nora Arnezedzer) turns up at tryouts. She's talented, pretty, and clearly a crowd-pleaser capable of selling tickets and keeping the place going. Her presence provides further insurance when the local boss turns out to like her.

The ups and downs of the plot include depiction of the pervasive anti-Semitism of the extreme Right and the exacerbated hostilities between labor and ownership. There are little tragedies, but everything is softened and ends happily. Seekers of cinematic edge should look elsewhere. I found it hard to engage with the story, because it's too derivative, stereotypical, and diffuse. Production values are excellent and the music hall performances, if sometimes borderline cringe-worthy, carry through the period flavor. And there are some catchy tunes and sprightly stage turns as well.

I saw this film when it was screened last summer at Saul Zaentz Studios in Berkeley by Tom Luddy, Co-Director of the Telluride Film Festival and the consensus of those then present seemed to be that Paris 36 (which has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics) wasn't interesting or unusual enough to show at Telluride.

But Paris 36 seems likely to do well with the more general US subtitles-film audience, and makes perfect sense as the "gala opening film" for the FSLC-UniFrance co-sponsored Rendez-Vous with French Cinema--though in my opinion last year's first night presentation, Claude Lelouch's Roman de Gare, made a much more interesting opener.

Chris Knipp
02-17-2009, 05:40 PM


Varda stages and composes an imaginative poetic autobiography

Agnes Varda today is an impressive woman, whose present self is woven throughout this poetic film autobiography. At eighty (a surprise birthday celebration decorates the end credits) she is spry of body and vigorous of mind, inventive and alive, looking forward as well as back in this poetic film autobiography. She blends living tableaux, installations, old footage, voice-over, interviews. She is ever present, talking, inventing, directing, symbolically (and actually, on camera) walking backward. The result is far too beautiful to call "documentary portrait."

Varda's eliding of distinctions between real and imaginary, documentary and fiction, present and past can be very confusing: distinctions don't mean enough to her. But though things could be more informative, her confusions and conflations are always beautiful and fascinating.

Remembering the film, one thinks of Agnes at various ages, always with the same shiny dark cloche of hair (allowed to grow white in some shots) and the same solid, mobile form. One also remembers circus acrobats performing on a beach; a carnivalesque film office set up in the sand. One thinks of Agnes with Demy, and his sweet, sad face; her children and grandchildren, dressed in white and cavorting around her for the camera contre jour, into the sun, on the sand with the sea behind them, glorious and handsome and Mediterranean. This is a celebration of cinema and of life.

She does not forget to talk about the Nazis and the extermination camps, or her schoolgirl songs celebrating the collaborationist government of Petain and Vichy. Or her sadness about all the great people she photographed and knew who are gone. Or her anger about the exploitation of women.

But The Beaches of Agnes/Les Plages d'Agnes is also not without deliberate lacunae. How did the love of her life, her husband, her co-director on his famous Umbrellas of Cherbourg, happen to die of AIDS? Everybody is talking to her, so they tell her what she wants to hear. There's nothing wrong with that, because we want to hear it too. Yet with the poetry and beauty one's left in a bit of a daze, because film fiction and film fact and reenactment and chronology are interwoven so cunningly and rapidly you need a time outlline and a stop button, which are not provided. The fluidity of it is quite enchanting. But it doesn't exactly leave you with a precise knowledge of this wonderful, long life that's probably not near its creative end. (After all, we already live in an age of 80-something and 90-something filmmakers. And here is a woman, and women live longer than men.)

To hold together such a rich life, Agnes Varda needed a theme, and she feels in everyone there is a landscape, but in her there are beaches; her life has often revolved around them. The eternal theme of woman and water, weave, wave, wife. And if it was difficult to provide unity, that only reflects the richness of the life.

Her father was Greek, her mother French; her first name was Arlette; she legally changed it to Agnes at 18. She was born in Belgium, and in 1940 they fled to Sete on the south coast of France (where Kechiche's Secret of the Grain unfolds) and she lived her adolescence. After studying photography in Paris and working for the Theatre National Populaire, she came knew everybody, including Godard, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, Demy of course; Jean Vilar of the national theater, Philippe Noiret, whom she used in her first film, Pointe courte. In Hollywood she befriended Jim Morrison of the Doors, and was the first to use Harrison Ford in a movie at a time when he was told he had no future in pictures.

She covered the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, fought for abortion and other women's issues, was grouped with Marker and Resnais as part of the Nouvelle Vague, lived in and loved LA and was filming the Black Panthers when Paris was in turmoil in June of '68. (In '67, the Summer of Love, she made Uncle Yanco, about her bohemian painter uncle who lived on a houseboat in Sausalito.) She made such classic films as (her first important work) Cleo from 5 to 7, the Bresson-like Vagabond/Sans toit ni loi; The Gleaners; One Sings, the Other Doesn't. Vagabond won the Golden Lion in Venice and made Sandrine Bonaire a star. Varda made films about LA murals (Murs murs) and hippies (Lions Love, with Warhol's Viva), and Jane Birkin, and completed three about Jacque Demy after his death. As she points out, light small digital cameras were important for in the making of The Gleaners (perhaps also for Vagabond?).

In 2006, at 78, she was invited to do a video and stills installation, "L'Ile et elle" (the island and her: she likes such punning titles), about the island of Noirmoutier--a step forward in a new career that's reflected in the various tableaux vivantes and installations of this film that evoke her past poetically, express her vision, and simply enchant and avoid forever the boredom of the conventional filmed autobiography. She begins with rich use of mirrors on the beach, moving among them and directing and talking to her typically attractive young film crew. In one remarkable sequence, she has the men who worked in one of her early films reassembled, pushing a large cart through the street at night, with a projector mounted on it showing the film.

She can be a bit maudlin, as she is throwing down roses in a huge installation of her old much enlarged black and white portraits of Gerard Philipe, Philippe Noiret, and other departed stars of her firmament and French cinema's. And when talking about Jacques Demy, she weeps. But mostly she is joyous, and smiles. The fact the cause of Demy's death, AIDS, was kept secret then and for years after she attributes to the stigma attached to the disease in the Eighties.

Varda's eliding of distinctions between real and imaginary, documentary and fiction, present and past can be very confusing: distinctions don't mean enough to her. But though things could be more organized and expository, her confusions and conflations are still beautiful and fascinating to watch.

With many nominations and high critical acclaim after its theatrical presentation in France, this won the award for Best Documentary of 2008 at the Cesars this year. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, March 2009. Released by Cinema Guild in the US starting July 1, 2009 at Film Forum, NYC, and unfolding in multiple cities through October.

Chris Knipp
02-18-2009, 06:44 AM


Big cameras in humble settings

The apprentice is Matthieu Bulle, a tall, gangly 15-year-old boy in an agricultural high school with divorced parents who divides his classes half-time apprenticing with a dairy farmer named Paul Barbier, in the Haut-Doubs region of France, close to the Swiss border. The boy learns, and he and Paul bond.

This film reminded me of Nicolas Philibert's superb 2002 documentary To Be and To Have, and also of a significant passage of my own early life. Like Philibert's film, Collardey's is about French education in a rural farming area (mostly dairy) up near the French Alps. Like this boy Matthieu Bulle, I had a kind of apprenticeship in my teens that supplied me with a surrogate much needed second father.

I also thought of the Dardenne brothers' powerful The Son/Le fils (also 2002), about another, far more intense (and more fictional) apprenticeship. These are all variations in documentary technique. The Italian neorealists used "real" people as actors. The Dardennes have done that, in part--though Olivier Gourmet and Jeremie Renier are certainly professional actors, of the first order.

Collardey's way of working was marked by a certain stateliness and beauty. He used 35 mm. cameras that required some formal setup time--not tiny DV ones. His shots are sequential and carefully chosen. The images are beautiful, sharp, spacious at times, full of light and air. "I have been greatly influenced by Courbet," he said in an interview with Claire Vasse, "who, incidentally, was born in Ormans, the town I live in. Courbet's revolution consisted in dedicating large formats, until then reserved for religious scenes, to more trivial scenes featuring peasants... As a rule, 35 mm. reels are only for actual film actors; but I use them to film Matthieu, Martine [the boy's mother] and Paul, and film the way they speak. I felt like making them full-fledged film characters."

By the way, apropos of Courbet, Matthieu in talking to classmates defines himself as a "paysan," a peasant, rather than a "cultivateur." This boy and his classmates don't seem to want to be modern agriculturalists "running" a farm.

Is this a pure "film," or a documentary? Isn't this distinction artificial? The people and events are "real." Collardey selected Paul, a man who has had apprentices before, and seemed like a nice man who doesn't exploit them. When the director was looking for a boy for his film Matthieu, without being chosen by the principal, came knocking on his door, told an emotional story, and his freshness and volatility won him the "part." Collardey films him giving a class presentation, drinking, dancing, swimming, roughhousing in the locker room with his classmates, meeting once with his absent dad, taking finals, and arguing more than once with his mom. But his main interest was Matthieu's interactions with Paul as he helps herd the cows, cuts wood, shares a secret, sleds and trades snowballs, or gets dressed down by Martine for cleaning out cobwebs when he should have been helping her milk the cows. In several memorable solo moments, Matthieu struggles with guitar chords and gives himself up to a song, singing at the top of his lungs off key with total abandon, wearing headphones when Paul's away as he sweeps out the stable.

Collardey set up that dressing-down, suggested the time for it and set up the shot. But he knew it was going to come.

I think what makes this a fine film is the other dimensions provided by the spontaneity of the boys' scenes as they grab-ass in the shower, pop beer caps and sing a drinking song; when Matthieu pleads with his girlfriend, dances with her and kisses her; or speculates with his best friend about sex and women's bodies when they're both standing immersed at the edge of the swimming pool. To have kept it this natural in all these different settings of a young boy's life and never faltered from the handsome 35 mm. images is a technical and aesthetic accomplishment that is also an act of patience, humanism, and sympathy. It reaches its quiet emotional peak when Paul admits to Matthieu he lost a son at an early age and has never gotten over it. He's a tight-lipped countryman and doesn't have to say, as my teacher did to me, that Matthieu is the son he might have had.

Collardey grew up on a farm too, and also lost his father when he was 13 and felt the lack Matthieu suffers because he's given up on his dad and rarely sees him. Collardey's not approaching as a neutral observer. Nor can you. If you find the idea of toiling on a small farm, or nurturing a teenager with some emotional issues and a squeaky voice unappealing, forget it. But this won the Critics Week prize in Venice. Another fine documentary about rural life not shown here, Raymond Dupeyron's Vie moderne, won the prestigious Louis-Delluc Prize, for which The Apprentice/L'Apprenti as well as Cantet's The Class, Desplechin's A Chrismas Tale and Assayas' Summer Hours were finalists. Previous Louis-Delluc winners were Secret of the Grain the year before; To Be and To Have in 2002. So, tough competition, and The Apprentice isn't quite at the the level of care and intensity of To Be and To Have. But it won the Louis Dellac Best First Film prize. And it's beautiful work, its marriage of humble subject matter and visual grandeur quite special, and one should not be distracted by the boy's adolescent stumbles and the alleged "reality-TV" moments from recognizing this Femis graduate's demonstrated humanity and command of a medium that he transcends and redefines in ways that are both classic and contemporary.

Released December 3, 2008 in France. Part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, March 2008.

Chris Knipp
02-18-2009, 07:01 AM


People moving together and apart and Claire Denis weaving her subtle magic

Alex Descas (Late August, Early September, Boarding Gate) stars with Denis perennial favorite the "sexy, soulful" Gregoire Colin, Mati Diop, Nicole Dogue, and Jean-Christophe Folly in a deceptively simple-seeming film about a group of apartment neighbors and coworkers, mostly black. Lionel (Descas), an RER train conductor, has raised his daughter Josephine (Diop) alone since she was a little girl. She's grown up now, a student at the faculty of anthropology who works in a music shop. They live together as a couple, each caring more for the other than for anybody else but increasingly realizing this doesn't make sense any more. Neighbor and ex-girlfriend Gabrielle (Dogue) still evidently hankers after Lionel. Noe (Colin), also down the hall, lives in the cluttered apartment of his deceased parents, goes on long rips, and hankers after Jo. They're all stuck. And all very close to each other.

The engines of the plot are the retirement of one of Lionel's longtime coworkers and friends; a party; a missed concert; a bad storm; a funeral; and the death of Noe's 17-year-old cat.

Denis' special touch shows in her handling of family intimacy, the way a routine event can suddenly shift into a life-changing moment. The apartment block seems ordinary and mundane but the relationships resonate from the first shots. A car that breaks down in the rain leads to a party in a closed bar with music that lights up the theater. A long stare into a woman's eyes speaks volumes. A pair are jogging on a wet day and the guy jumps in the river on a whim. His cat dies and Noe decides to move to Gabon. And an extra rice cooker taken out of its box means a new start. Almost everything is communicated with faces and very little exposition or dialogue.

It's interesting how the chameleon Gregoire Colin blends in with the black people. His own face seems stained and tawny, his look gypsy-like and sly. He slips in and out of some of Denis' films almost casually, seemingly unnecessary yet essential, mysterious yet making them more real. Here he reappears at the end almost phantom-like, after he seemed to have left. Music, rain, trains, and a motorcycle become symbols of change.

After the group has been established, especially the intimacy between Lionel and Jo, comes the retirement of fellow trainman Rene (Julieth Mars Toussaint), which leads to the "35 rum shots" evening--but Lionel stops short, saying the occasion doesn't warrant going to the whole 35. Rene is sad and lost without his work to define him. He speaks grimly of living to 100, but will come to a tragic end after appearing alone at a bar the group frequents and taking a sad ride in an RER engine car with Lionel.

Then comes the concert, the car breakdown, and the impromptu, and wonderful, party in the bar the group persuades the owners to reopen. There are jealousies--Lionel's disapproval of Noe's intimate dancing wht Jo; Gabrielle's of Lionel's dancing with the beautiful cafe owner (Adele Ado); but the warmth of the group is confirmed in this subtle, intense sequence.

Sequences in which Jo disputes sociopolitical issues and Franz Fanon in a university class and is approached by fellow sudent Ruben (Jean-Christophe Folly) at the music shop (he invites her too late to the concert and gives her a romantic bouquet with a note) are a bit more artificial and expository but help show Jo's developing life away from her father. There's also a trip to Germany that shows who Lionel's wife (and Jo's mother) was. But this is explanation that only shows us how much we don't know.

Denis mostly, as usual, makes us do the work, but the job isn't as tricky or complicated as in her previous (and remarkable) The Intruder. This film seems like the essence of what good contemporary French filmmaking is about: the subtle surface, the hidden depths behind ordinary appearances, the shifting amber lights in soft dawns and sunsets by Denis' cosumate DP Agnes Godard; the rain, the warm cafe. I'm indebted to the review by Variety's Jay Weisberg for pointing out that the original music is by the Tindersticks, and the enveloping song in the bar is the Commodores' "Nightshift"; and he also points wisely to the importance of Judy Shrewsbury's costume designs, which are notably lovely in the case of Adel Ado's dark red dress in the bar and the white sheath-like one worn by Mati Diop for a funeral--the occasion when Lionel finally drinks the 35 shots of rum.

Opens in Paris February 19, 2009; part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, March 2009. Raves from some of the French print sources that count most: Liberation, Le Monde, Le Point, Cahiers du Cinema, Les Inrockuptibles.

A US theatrical presentation of the film opened at Film Forum in New York September 16, 2009.

Chris Knipp
02-18-2009, 09:29 PM


Yellow-tinted turbulence and hope in the French urban ghetto

Dupeyron's new film, which blends the feel of a Fifties comedy with the raw materials of contemporary social realism, views the French urban ghetto through a yellow filter and the turbulent lens of black experience. The screen explodes with action from the first tilted, colorful shot. On her daughter's wedding day, Sonia (Felicite Wouassi) finds her husband Georges (Mamadou Dioume) has just gambled away all their savings so there's no money to buy the laundromat she hoped to own--or even pay for the wedding party. While she's having her hair done she learns her teenage son Victor (Ralph Amoussou) has been arrested for possession of drugs (he deals, and hangs with a bad crowd) and she has to go and plead for his release. The younger son Leo (Charles-Etienne N'Diaye) is unreachable, whether playing video games in the apartment or, more often, risking his life with insanely suicidal stunts on the roof. And very shortly Sonia is going to learn that her younger, unmarried, daughter Suze (Elisabeth Oppong) is seven months pregnant, father unknown.

But that's not the worst of it. After Victor learns Georges has blown the family savings, the two have a violent fight. And there and then, in the bedroom, the much older Georges, who's now on a pension, has a heart attack and dies. Sonia hides this uncomfortable fact, gets people off to the wedding, and cries through most of the ceremony. She's in a fix, because if Georges' death becomes known to the State, she'll lose his pension, and it provides the only financial security.

Not knowing what to do, Sonia seeks advice from the elderly white man across the hall, Robert (Claude Rich), a lifelong loner, who lets her leave her husband's corpse with him till the wedding's over, and then suggests she bury it in the cellar. His lines are a droll blend of pathos and irony. "It'll be nice to have the company," he says of the corpse. "I've always been alone." And when they take the body down to be buried, he says, "This is so exciting! I never thought such a thing would happen!"

Eventually a bizarre relationship develops between Sonia and Robert, with elements of complicity and blackmail. She awakens a long-stilled (or perhaps never awakened) physicality in him and makes him long to see her naked and touch her flesh, even as the summer heatwave (canicule) leads everyone to dance half nude beside fire hydrants or sleep on the bathroom floor. The Sonia-Robert situation teeters between the touching and the creepy, but the veteran Rich's subtlety saves the day and in these scenes for once the ebullient and powerful Wouassi holds back. These sequences almost seem part of another movie, though they're lightened by the warm communal context. This is Dupeyron's first film since his 2003 Monsieur Ibrahim, and here again there's not only an interest in immigrant communities but a sense of pulsating neighborhood atmosphere. Duperron got his first idea for the film from reports of all the elderly French people dying in the summer heat wave of 2003, with a President who glossed over the seriousness of the issue and a troubled ambulance driver who told the media how bad things were. Hence the role in this film of the elderly people (some, Sonia's white charges, tend to be cranky bigots) and the recurring presence of Fer (Jacky Ido), an ambulance driver who falls in love with Sonia. Fer persists even though she rejects him because he's with her best pal, the upbeat hairdresser Marijo (Mata Gabin)--who is always urging Sonia to have fun and find a man. Eventually this gets sorted out, but the film still ends with everything very much intentionally up in the air. As a rap song over the closing credits points out, life is not a thing of resolutions.

Wouassi is a force of nature, though her character's unflappability is somewhat implausible. Claude Rich is haunting, and the many younger black actors are fine.The movie is winning, if somewhat messy. The tilted wide-angled camerawork is obtrusive and the endless yellow filter use ultimately unlovely. Some of the scenes have an intensity that makes you forget this is happening in France and Victor's references to the country almost seem spliced in to remind us. Apart from the bitchy old ladies, white France seems a mostly benign presence, especially as embodied by the expansive priest (Luc Leclerc du Sablon) at the wedding and baptism and a harried but indulgent policewoman (Carole Frank). Where is the anger of Kassovitz's Hate, the pressure of Jolivet's Zim and Co, not to mention the alienation of many other French banlieue films, even Kechiche's delicate (and realistically textured) Games of Love and Chance--which, incidentally, came out the same year as Dupeyron's gentle, nostalgic crowd-pleaser, Monsieur Ibrahim? Dupeyron says he was partly inspired by Four Weddings and a Funeral. One can enjoy the abundant energy and humor of the director's new film and applaud the acting skill of Wouassi and the rest of the cast, while still finding certain elements wanting, or curiously incongruous.

Aide-toi, le ciel t'aidera was written and directed by Francois Dupeyron. It was part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center 2009. Telluride, Toronto, Tokyo, Rome festivals; Best Actress prize for Wouassi at Tokyo. It opened commercially in Paris November 26, 2008 to excellent reviews.

Chris Knipp
02-18-2009, 09:51 PM


A comedy that turns serious for no very good reason

Fontaine's new film seems on the surface simply a brightly colored Riviera toy, a romantic comedy with some Chabrol-eque twists at the end. There's a bit more; the salt-and-pepper casting of Fabrice Lucchini and Roschdy Zem is at least meant to be sly, the use of newcomer Louise Bourgoin an amusing experiment. Since this is Anne Fontaine, the comedy-drama is also a study of unexpected sexual attractions. It's a somewhat bizarre threesome: a famous lawyer, Bertrand (the soft, mercurial, witty Lucchini); his assigned and initially unwanted security guard, Christophe (the chiseled, tight-lipped Zim); and an air-headed but voluptuous TV weather bunny, Audrey (Bourgoin, a "meteo" presenter and TV personality in real life). But if the approach and the thinking are individual, the result is still pretty bland and generic.

Bertrand is a crack trial lawyer--and that's an excellent role for the ultra-articulate Lucchini. He's engaged in a high-profile trial in Monaco in which he is defending a posh lady, Edith Lassalle (a rather wasted Stephane Audran) who murdered, by stabbing, her younger Russian boyfriend, a gigolo characterized in court as having been spectacularly well hung. The family's rich, the case is high profile, and the boyfriend was a a sleazy, possibly mafioso Russian, so Edith's son Louis (Gilles Cohen) has engaged a full-time bodyguard for Bertrand.

He, Christophe, maintains his distance, but the cliche happens: Bertrand notices him and, not to be bothered by his hovering, invites him to dinner. There not being any real physical danger anyway, Chirstophe soon becomes simply Bertrand's girl wrangler, disposing of an annoying ex-girlfriend of the lawyer (Jeanne Balibar) by bedding her, then keeping Audrey at bay when she begins seducing the lawyer in the middle of the trial. The surprise (but isn't it another comedy cliche?) is, Christophe and Audrey have a history. Why not? She's screwed everyone on 'The Rock.' He pretends to be the strong silent type, but the new Bertrand-Audrey story complicates the buddy-picture aspect of things by making Christophe both more personally protective of Bertrand and dangerously jealous of him, when this strong silent type turns out not to have gotten that girl out of his system. Christophe reacts with repressed rage toward Audrey, and the film turns strangely serious. But not serious enough to make an impression. And the comedy wasn't funny enough to be memorable either. The screenplay might have worked better if Fontaine had chosen one direction or the other and flown with it.

Sure, this is a good cast and the colorful, free Monagasque atmosphere is made integral to the action. But truth to tell Bourgoin is just a tasty bauble who's not drop-dead gorgeous or soulful enough to have a great future ahead of her. Whatever they may have thought, Bardot she's not. Fontaine's strict directing of Lucchini (who is far wittier and funnier on TV and probably in his stage performances) and Zem (whose role remains relatively servile here), holding both back from "doing" much, or being fully themselves, fails to make the most of either. Lucchini is always fun to watch (and to hear talk) but he's more fun to watch when he's just being himself. It's obvious that a Chabrol treatment of this theme would be better and his recent Girl Cut in Two has more depth--without having much depth.

Ultimately, and, alas, well before the last scene, this is a movie that disappoints. Will Sloan wasn't far from the mark when he commented that this illustrates Matt Groening's notion of "cinema's greatest paradox," that "the French are funny, sex is funny, and comedies are funny, yet no French sex comedies are funny." It's true of this one at least. A perusal of How I Killed My Father and the less often mentioned Dry Cleaning will show how far this piece of frippery is from Anne Fontaine's best work.

La fille de Monaco debuted in Paris August 20, 2008, to satisfactory reviews. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center 2009. It has been bought for distribution by Magnolia Pictures, with US release planned for early July 2009.

Chris Knipp
02-20-2009, 06:18 AM


"The Origins"/"Death Instinct": the birth of a criminal dynamo

Richet's Ma 6-T va cracker is a legend and his Carpenter re-make Assault on Precinct 13 is a fluent and explosive action update. Clearly an accomplished filmmaker with a flair for violence, he was evidently attracted by the sheer ambition of this project but also the complexity of a gangster who, flourishing at the time of the Red Brigades and Bader-Meinhof, came to think of himself as not just an outlaw but a revolutionary, who wrote two autobiographies, and thus provided material for filmmaking that would be both layered and epic.

This double biopic, part one in 113 minutes and part two 132 minutes, resembles Soderbergh's Che diptych. It too is neither a feature nor a mini-series, but a vanity project, a labor of love devoted to an ambiguous hero that's hard to market and unsuited to normal theatrical distribution patterns. Both parts are saddled with the biopic burden of a churning chronology and an ever-shifting cast. It's rather conventional and heavy-handed (though mostly successful) in its use of Marco Beltrami's loud surging studio music to augment excitement and heighten suspense. But it's at least as three-dimensional and logically structured as the Soderbergh project, and it has a star in Vincent Cassel who was made to play this role (Richet has said that there would be no Mesrine without him) and despite pell-mell pacing endows the protagonist with complexity. The film may be accused of jamming in too much incident and allowing too little reflection but I was impressed beyond expectations. Still, Mesrine has the same excess and lack of analysis one finds in Che and Garrone's Gomorrah. Is this a trend toward sheer randomness? Or is it a return, as some French critics have thought, to the cold minimalism of early Jules Dassin and Nicolas Ray?

Richet's first part shows the formation of a super-outlaw. Mesrine's bank robberies and prison breaks are so spectacular and defiant that he's declared "Public Enemy No. 1" in two countries, Canada and France, officially one of the most famous and dangerous criminals in French history, a figure cops wet themselves over and women want to sleep with. Mesrine, both parts, is full of the sense of how intoxicating it is to live outside the law, and how deeply cinematic gangster life is. Vincent Cassel is charming, charismatic, and loyal to his accomplices as he is ruthless and violent, a complex and magnetic figure who keeps changing from one sequence to another.

The second part shows him playing the role, a media-savvy public icon who would seek front page coverage and give Paris Match an exclusive interview while on the run. Loud, kinetic sequences alternate with quiet ones. This is a great and challenging role for Vincent Cassel, the role of a lifetime, appearing in every scene over a nine-month shoot, 45 pounds put on, early sequences shot at the end with the weight gain. The cast is full of first rate actors, including Depardieu, Ludivine Sagnier, Amalric, Samuel Le Bihan, Olivier Gourmet, Cecile de France, and more. This is not only an impressive and expensive project with high production values and an excellent technical package. It's watchable and well done and at the end of Part One I was eager for Part Two.

Mesrine begins as an agent of De Gaulle's colonial ambitions as a soldier in the Algerian war. "The Marseillaise was playing when they put a gun in my hand--my hand developed a taste for guns." Like American Iraq war vets "Jacky," as his parents called him, came back to his well off upper bourgeois parents (they live in a chateau) unstable and hungry for violence. War has taught him to torture and murder. It's also left him with a racist hatred of Arabs. His father finds him a job but he prefers to work for a fat, tough crime boss named Guido (an excellent Gerard Depardieu, so submerged in his role he's almost unrecognizable).

Mesrine (pronounced "may-reen," not "mes-reen," as he later insists to cops and journalists) is fighting a war with the rich that may be a war with his own origins. A trip to Spain gets him a beautiful wife, Sofia (Elena Anaya). He's no good as a father, but he remains linked with his firstborn, a daughter, for the rest of his life. After a stint in jail, Mesrine gets a regular job to be there for his family. But he's laid off, and goes back to Guido. Sofia objects, and he beats her up. Sofia disappears, and the film drops that thread.

Escape from the cops leads Jacques to go to Canada with a new girlfriend, Jeanne Schneider (Cecile de France, also submerged and barely recognizable), met like the other women in his life in a bar. This one is not just a bedmate but a willing partner in crime. Denied immigration status in Canada and told to leave the country, Mesrine and Jeanne hide by becoming housekeeper and butler for a wealthy disabled man, but clashes with other staff lead them to lock him up and extort money from his son. This fails and they flee, but are extradited back to Canada from Arizona. Mesrine's subsequent hellish treatment in the Quebec Province SPC (Special Corrections Unit), worthy of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, is graphically depicted. This prison and escape sequence is anchors the film. With Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis), his Quebecois accomplice from the extortion scheme, Mesrine breaks out in broad daylight. They immediately rob two banks and, keeping a promise, return to the prison armed to the teeth and attempt (unsuccessfully, but messily) to liberate the other prisoners. After this, Mesrine is declared "Public Enemy No. 1" in Canada. He has arrived. The storytelling in this first half is breathless but compelling. It is given particular coherence and focus by the vivid Canadian sequences and the prison escape.

L'Instinct de mort debuted in Paris theaters October 22, 2008. It is part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, March 2009.

Chris Knipp
02-20-2009, 06:23 AM


"The Legend"/"Public Enemy No. 1": the self-destructive exploitation of the image

Part 2 is more episodic, but it has several unifying elements: the relationships with a notable accomplice, the quiet, secretive, but equally bold Francois Besse (Matthieu Amalric); with his last and perhaps most romantic girlfriend, Sylvie Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagier); and, after a special "anti-Mesrine cell" has been created just to track him down, with the police manhunt that ends his life. Their code name for him is simply "le grand," the Big One. Above all the film now has an overriding focus on Mesrine's growing public identity, which he consciously shapes. This grows out of the energetic theatricality of Vincent Cassel's performance. There are various scenes of Mesrine "performing" in a police station (where Part Two begins); for journalists of high-circulation weeklies; in court; robbing banks; and for the world at large. If there was once a discernible difference between his public and private life, it has disappeared now that he's assumed arch-gangster status. Cassel literally takes on volume, having put on 45 pounds for this part of the role. His character is solid, confident, and aware of his public image at all times, and with his inflated self-importance, he redefines himself as some kind of savior of the common man from the tyranny of the banks and the bourgeoisie. Various more sophisticated thinkers try to explain to him that the banks aren't the problem, and that robbing them doesn't alter the system and perhaps reinforces its importance.

As Part 2 begins, the now notorious gangster has made his way back to France. Spectacularly, Mesrine and another accomplice escape by holding up a Compiegne courtroom where he's about to be put on trial, taking the judge hostage on the way out. This segment is told in flashback: the gangster is telling his story to the cops after getting caught. He is subsequently furious to learn that the dictator Pinochet has seized page one of the newspapers by being apprehended, and pushed him out. He immediately demands a typewriter and begins to write his first autobiography, L'Instinct de mort (Death Instinct) to gain more attention.

But we also see Mesrine concealing his now more prominent public identity by assuming a series of disguises. He dresses up as a doctor to visit his dying father in a hospital and say goodbye. ("Why are you here?" his dad asks. "Well," answers Jacky, "all the banks were closed. . .") He not only gives Paris Match an important interview, but (in a sequence of excessive violence) tracks down, tortures and murders right wing journalist Jacques Dallier (Alain Fromager), who enraged Mesrine by having written a piece for the journal Minute calling him a "dishonorable crook" and claiming he has "betrayed" his associates. And we see Mesrine operating through the medium of his attorney (Anne Consigny, of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and A Christmas Tale), who risks her career by helping him get pistols for yet another of his escapes--one that includes fording a river and passing a police roadblock in a farmer's Peugeot.

This time, he escapes with the reserved, suspicious Francois Besse (Matthieu Amalric), who, like him, has already escaped from prisons three times before and is treated as a celebrity by prison guards. Besse is a sharp contrast to the flamboyant Mesrine and thinks him foolish and mad, though like everyone else, he respects his courage and audacity. The two men rob the Deauville gambling casino's coffers, posing as inspectors to get in. But before that at Mesrine's instigation they pose as Paris cops checking on the local police headquarter's duty roster, to find out when the station is least well-manned. Besse is uneasy about such bold maneuvers, but even more, questions Mesrine's talking to Paris-Match and claiming he's a revolutionary. But it's the late Seventies, the time of the Aldo Moro kidnapping in Rome.

After hearing about the Red Brigades and the Badder Meinhof, Mesrine tells Besse he wants to attack maximum security prisons, in the same way that he went back and attacked the Guantanamo-like Special Corrections Unit in Quebec. The film tells us the SCU's malpractices were ended as a result of Mesrine's exposure of them after his escape. Meanwhile, he persuades Besse to help him kidnap Henri Lelievre (Georges Wilson), a millionaire Paris slumlord, for ransom, telling the slumlord he represents the PLO. This is another exploit that doesn't go as planned, but leads to a bold escape.

For a while Mesrine connects with Charles Bauer (Gerard Lanvin), an out-and-out radical, and it's with him that he traps and snuffs the right-wing journalist. Bauer in particular debunks Mesrine's claims of being a revolutionary.

The two-film diptych is bookended with the final police shootout in Paris traffic at the Place de Clignancourt that kills Mesrine with Sylvie Jeanjacquot and her little dog at his side, after he has used the slumlord's money to buy her a lot of diamond jewelry and himself a luxury model brown BMW. This is a convention of the genre--the bookending with a final showdown--but the way it's expanded in the finale of Part Two shows both films' fine sense of detail. Olivier Gourmet, among so many others, excels as Commissioner Broussard, head of the anti-Mesrine unit whose operatives are so terrified when the short, now overweight Mesrine walks by where they're hiding.

L'ennemi public no 1 had a November 19, 2008 theatrical release in France. It is part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, March 2009.

At the February 28, 2009 French Cesars awards ceremony Vincent Cassel received the Best Actor prize for 2008 for his performance as Mesrine in both Parts 1 and 2.

Chris Knipp
02-22-2009, 08:24 PM


Fear and loathing, uranium and voice lessons

"Confusion of Genres"--the title of a previous Duran Cohen film--is a good way to start looking at this one, the two main genres being "confused" this time being (screwy) romantic comedy and (peripheral) spy story. The take on relationships both social and professional is consistently wacky and the laughs are many. A spy-counter-spy hunt for a USB drive computer file that has something to do with illegal uranium trading is one plot line; the other is the intermingling of the students of Eve (Evelyne Kirschenbaum), an opera singer who gives voice lessens in her Paris apartment. The two plots are joined in a single big tangle when two partnered French intelligence agents, Muriel (Marina Fois) and Philippe (Lorant Deutsch), are commanded by their haughty boss (Dominique Reymond) to join the class in order to spy on the widow of a recently murdered banker-cum-uranium dealer, Constance Muller (Jeanne Balibar). She may know where the USB drive is; it belonged to her husband.

Something of the droll Gallic ill humor perfected by the team of Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bakri has rubbed off on Duran Cohen. Most of the characters are kvetches, except maybe Constance, and except that this time they all can sing, or try to. And their kvetching is consistently amusing. This film isn't a masterpiece, but it's fun to watch.

The director says, "I like characters who don't take their own story seriously, they refuse to get totally involved with their destiny because they are either scared or refuse to grow up, although others always catch on to them, forcing them to shatter their cynicism."

It goes without saying that Muriel and Philippe have sex, but Philippe isn't really interested, and Muriel annoys him and turns him off by constantly fretting about growing older and getting wrinkles.

It's not always clear whether these two are tracking the other singing students or just getting embroiled with them, because everybody's looking for sex, or love, or a mate. One other student, Anna (Caroline Ducey), they think may be connected with the Israelis or the Russians. Rejected by Philippe, Muriel becomes interested in voice student Julien (Julien Baymgartner), a male prostitute who is having sex with Constance's sister-in-law Noemie (Nathalie Richard) and also the hairy gay "bear" and radiologist-terrorist Reza (Frederic Karkosian). And Reza and Noemie are in cahoots with each other. Julien is worried about getting old too--he's 29, ancient for a hustler. At a moment when everyone unloads before a class, Muriel reveals she wants to have a baby. Eve's oversensitive son Joseph (Guillaume Quatravaux), despite his lovely voice, wants to give up singing and leave his mother and her classes.

All this may be too complicated to follow, but it's held together by Duran Cohen's sense of rhythm, and by the sublimely ditsy Constance--that is, Balibar--who has no clear-cut direction in life--at the end she will drop opera singing for pop and enter a French variation on "American Idol"--but nonetheless is mellow about everything. It's she above all who helps us to understand Duran Cohen's idea about people not taking their story too seriously. And obviously the hunt for the computer file isn't more important than each person's search for happiness. Or a good blow job, or anal sex. (There's male frontal nudity, and some droll sex scenes.)

Jeanne Balibar is ditsy, but with inner composure. It's a combination that's hard to explain, but very appealing. I'd never really understood Balibar's appeal till this film; now I get it. If she was annoying in Rivette's Duchess of Langeais (though many loved her), in this you want to hug her, or at least I do. Constance is naive, and doesn't even know what a USB drive is. Or is she? Or does she? For Balibar agnostics like myself, this is a revelation; for believers, it takes her up a notch. Her naturalness
and subtlety with the other actors are astonishing.

Philippe Lasry and Noemie Lvovsky collaborated with Duran Cohen on the writing, which keeps things too complicated without it really mattering. I don't know who among the various cast members is doing their own singing, but there's plenty of enjoyable music, and some beautiful voices, and even some nice piano playing. Constance not only has a large, attractive apartment in Paris, but a Steinway. I guess this shows that a French sex comedy can be funny (unlike the slick and labored Girl from Monaco).

Both were shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center in March 2009. Le Plaisir de chanter opened in Paris theaters November 26, 2008 to some good reviews--though not all critics were convinced.

Chris Knipp
02-22-2009, 08:49 PM


A visionary artist, her sometime mentor, and her sad decline

Veteran actress Yolande Moreau gives a dedicated performance in this biopic about the neo-primitive, or "naive," or "outsider" or "visionary" flower painter Srraphine Louis (1864-1948), now called Seraphine de Senlis, from the town where she worked. An orphan looked down on by all, she survived, barely, by doing cleaning and laundry paid by the job, but in her little room in town at night by candlelight made strange, visionary paintings of flowers in large clusters, looking like diamonds or insects. Raised and cared for in early life by nuns, she sang to the Virgin when she finished a painting. Beautifully photographed, meditative, with a strong sense of the quietude of rural France in the teens and twenties, this picture doesn't provide deep insight into either Seraphine or the German art collector who discovered and supported her, Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur, another veteran; he has one of the secondary leads in The Lives of Others). Uhde deserves his own biopic. He was the first to purchase the works of Picasso and discovered the great modern primitive Henri "Le Douanier" Rousseau.

Slowly, methodically, the film shows how Uhde finds out by chance that the haggard-looking, middle-aged woman cleaning up in the big house he's renting in Senlis with his sister is doing unique paintings on wood. Nobody else around appreciates them or, in fact, understands modern art. He buys all her work from Seraphine and urges her to concentrate on her art. But WWI comes, and as a German he is forced to leave precipitously, leaving behind his little notebook and most of the art he's collected in France.

Uhde returns years later with his sister and also a male lover, Helmut Kolle (Nico Rogner), a talented young German expressionist painter dying of TB, and rents another house in the area. Once again he comes across Seraphine's work and finds it more ambitious and much more brilliant. He puts her on a generous monthly stipend. She shows signs of mania, and her disappointment when she finds the Paris exhibition she's been promised must be put off due to the worldwide financial crisis leads her into insanity. The trajectory is ever downward, though the final scenes suggest that her last years in a sanatorium may have been spent in serenity, close to the nature she loved.

This film is thorough and handsomely made, but a little too much on the dutiful and academic side. It has parallels as a story with Bruno Nuytten's 1988 Camille Claudel, but it has neither the level of drama nor the presence of Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Adjani (as Rodin and Claudel) to give it energy. As director Provost has said, Uhde had a "dark side": his willingness to virtually abandon Seraphine when things got rough for her, and not to bother looking for her when he first returns to France after the War. Provost leaves this mysterious, which is just historically, but unsatisfying cinematically. But Provost did apparently help organize the recent Musee Maillol exhibition of Seraphine's work. And this film is a thought-provoking addition to the on-screen literature of outsider or visionary art.

The film opened in theaters in Paris on October 1, 2008 to respectful if not overly enthusiastic reviews. It has been bought by Music Box in the US, but no release has been announced. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, NYC, in March 2009. Seraphine won seven Cesars at the February 28, 2009 ceremony, Best Film, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Photography, Best Music, Best Decor, and Best Costumes.

Released on US DVD March 23, 2010.


Chris Knipp
02-22-2009, 08:56 PM


Director's autobiographical portrait of her 11th year really sings

It's 1977 and Stella Vlaminck begins her first year in a prestigious Parisian secondary school. Home for her is a boisterous working-class cafe on the edge of Paris. This is a chance. Can she make it?

That's the premise of this buoyant, touching autobiographical film by Sylvie Verheyde, which has to be one of the best movies made from the point of view of a pre-teen girl. It's on a par with Julie Gavras's very fine young girl's political biography, Blame It on Fidel, and depicts its family with the same unwavering eye.

To understand why this is such a terrific movie, begin with Lora Barbara, the young actress who plays Stella, who's superb. Sometimes she's plain. Sometimes she's lovely. Sometimes she seems tiny. Sometimes she's big. Always, she's present. And she narrates (a device that's seamless and delicate, guiding us often but never intruding).

The essence of the story is that though Stella happens to find her one friend in Gladys (Melisa Rodrigues), a more middle-class girl from an intellectual Argentinian Jewish family, and Gladys is the best student in her class, Stella finds out she doesn't know a lot of things she needs to know. She knows about pinball and cards and pop music and TV and football and how a bar is run. European history and Greek mythology, Balzac and Cocteau are a mystery to her. And at first she doesn't care, and she comes home with all F's. Her father (played charismatically by cool singer-songwriter Benjamin Biolay) is sexy and well-liked, and her mom (Karole Rocher) runs the cafe efficiently and is good-looking. They're "stars" in the neighborhood. But mom is angry and sad and is two-timing dad with one of the regulars, and dad drinks too much and is weak. Her older brother Loic (Johan Libereau) tries to help, but can't. Very kind to Stella is another local, Bubu (Jeannick Gravelines), but his motives turn out to be ugly indeed.

Under Gladys' influence, Stella begins to read. Marguerite Duras and Balzac become her friends. But they don't yet help her in French class, where the teacher finds her spelling utterly pathetic.

Life at the cafe is entertaining to come home to. And there's Alain-Bernard (Guillaume Depardieu, sadly, dead four months ago at 37), the kind, charismatic regular Stella's got a crush on, who used to forge her parents' signatures for her. She plays cards, and is good. She plays the pinball machine with Alain-Bernard too. There's always something going on. It's fun, but it's chaotic, and it distracts Stella from studying, or keeps her from going early to bed. There is TV to watch (Gladys' family doesn't have one; they're "against" it). Sometimes the working-class patrons seem more childish than the bourgeois kids at the school, whose teachers are imperious and demanding gatekeepers of French high culture. This is a contrast to the present-day banlieue school depicted so accurately in Cantet's recent prizewinner, The Class. No teacher is going to bend to Stella. Some of the teachers are abusive and throw tantrums--or throw a kid's stuff out the window.

In the summer Stella's parents dump her off somewhere in the country with her grandmother, her father's mother, who steals from the till when she visits them in Paris. At school, Stella's a hick, a nothing, not too smart and not too cool. In the country, she's "rich," because from Paris. But here too she's a misfit because her only friend is Genvieve (Laetitia Guerard), a girl with a retarded brother and a nasty scary alcoholic dad, and Genvieve herself is shunned by most of the other kids in the northern French village.

Verheyde shows a masterly ability to film all these milieus and make them seem like it's just happening and the camera's a fly on the wall. The cinematography by Nicolas Gaurin is light as a feather. This filmmaker creates a turbulent world, yet knows how to stop and let her story breathe. There were many moments that reminded me why I love French cinema.

Stella opened November 12, 2008 in Paris to excellent reviews. There's not much you can say against this film, though some thought the screenplay ought to have been less episodic. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous at Lincoln Center March 2009. No US distributor, but this is highly recommended. 103 minutes.

Chris Knipp
02-25-2009, 04:47 PM


A gorgeous undocumented modern Chaplin thrust upon an implausible Odyssey

Greek-born, long-time Paris resident filmmaker Costa-Gavras (of the classic political thriller Z) had grand ambitions in making Eden Is West/Eden a l'ouest. He engaged veteran playwright and screenwriter Jean-Claude Grumberg to write the dialogue. He also recruited Italian heartthrob Ricardo Scamarcio, charismatic and appealing as Elias, the mostly silent, Chaplinesque, yet gorgeous lead character, an illegal of no specific nationality (when he briefly speaks his own tongue, it's a made-up language) aiming through thick and thin to get to Paris. A very modern story meant to engage universal sympathies was the aim.

But in the event, Elias' adventures seem little more than a motley series of improvisations, some lurid, some hairy, some comical, unable to form into anything lastingly memorable, touching, or meaningful. Scamarcio shows himself an excellent mime and is sympathetic throughout. Elias is a chameleon whose ability to insert himself into almost every situation he enters borders on the fantastic. When he talks about the film, Costa-Gavras mentions globalization, the exploitation of immigrants, world poverty, the wanderings of Ulysses. But Eden Is West winds up being mostly just the picaresque tale of a young charmer, attractive to men and women, trusted by all, endlessly resilient, surviving on minimal sleep and a diet of hastily grabbed croissants and gulps of coffee, shedding garments and identities with equal alacrity. And that's all very well, but so what? If this is Candide, it's Candide without the enlightenment or the political savvy.

Elias' adventures begin when he jumps off a boat full of illegals as the coast guard approaches, and is one of several young men who lands, alive, on a posh island resort called "Eden" that has nude bathing as one of its entertainments. The film holds our attention and sets the theme: Elias is always in danger of getting found out and hauled away. We hold our breath as he runs just ahead of the cops or security. Awekening the next morning on the island, he strips naked to fit in, turns into a bellboy by donning an 'Eden" jacket, get kissed by a gay hotel host, is forced to repair a jammed toilet by an Israeli, and is adopted as a bed-mate by a horny German widow Christina (Juliane Koehler) during a spectacular rainstorm. This resort sequence is slickly done, more extended and more emotionally engaging than the precipitous road picture that soon follows. But it also reads as a segment out of a soft-core B picture: in terms of setting tone and focus, it gets things off to an unpromising start. Things are too easy and too random. The first twenty minutes show the flaws of the whole 110-minute film. Costa-Gavras is adept at convincingly establishing his kaleidoscopic sequence of milieus. But not so good at making a logical arc of the adventures.

Elias' ability to fall easily into any role leads him to serve not only as a hotel underling, and as Christina's lover, but also as the assistant of the Eden resort's German resident magician, Nick Nickelby (Ulrich Tukur). Later he escapes the resort and finds himself working for a traveling vendor, recruited at a clandestine electronics recycling factory, and donning various disguises to evade the cops. He's a fugitive, cut-rate Felix Krull manque, and there's the suspicion from the start that all these things are temptations the delay this Ulysses from finding his Ithaca--which may be the Paris nightclub where Nick Nicholby tells him he usually works. Nickelby says, "If you come to Paris, come and see me," and through his travels, Elis keeps struggling to get this sentence in French memorized, and to make it to the Paris nightclub and the magician. Nobody knows his language, and his hold on French is shaky; hence the value of Scamarcio's expressive mouth and big, soulful eyes.

It's hard to see what the point is of the rich, squabbling Greek couple (Ieroklis Mihailidis and Annie Loulou) or the gang of gypsies who at first think him one of theirs, or the louche pair of German truckers (Antoine Monot, Florian Martens) who leave him off at a crossroads between the routes to Hamburg and to Paris. More adventures and narrow escapes follow, and Elias does eventually make it to the City of Light and find the magician.

Apparently Costa-Gavras meant to keep his treatment of an illegal's travails on the way to gainful employment in the European Union lighthearted, but the various episodes just aren't memorable or meaningful enough. This is a great role for Ricardo Scamarcio, or might have been; unfortunately the project seems too ill conceived to have lasting value.

Eden a l'ouest opened in Paris February 11, 2009 to mediocre reviews. It was shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, March 2009. 110 minutes.

Chris Knipp
02-26-2009, 09:53 AM


Up to his old tricks with the help of Gerard and a nod to the two Georges

Chabrol is 78, and this is his 57th film. He's in fine form here, though this hasn't quite got the delirious malice or the cloying bourgeois atmosphere of his most potent works. The closing dedication is to "the two Georges." They are Georges Brassens, the French singer-songwriter, and Georges Simenon, the prolific Belgian-born maker of novels hard and soft and the creator of the inimitable Commissioner Maigret. This is the first time Chabrol and Gerard Depardieu have worked together. For the occasion, Chabrol has conceived a lead character who's half Maigret, half Depardieu. And he has based his crime plot on a news item. The ingredients blend well and the result is guaranteed to entertain.

There is an actual Maigret novel in which the Paris detective goes on vacation with his wife, but then becomes involved in a case. (Les Vacances de Maigret--and it was made into a film!) It's a foregone conclusion that Maigret, and Chabrol's Commissioner Paul Bellamy (Depardieu) is no different, is happiest when he's solving a murder mystery. Bellamy spends every summer with his wife Francoise (Marie Bunel) in the region of Nimes, in the south of France, where she maintains a cozy bourgeois family house. She would prefer they join a cruise on the Nile, where Bellamy would be less able to get his nose into French crime, but here they are. And as the film begins and Maigret, I mean Bellamy, is doing a crossword and Francoise is planning dinner and shopping, a suspicious-looking lean sort of fellow called Noel Gentil (Jacques Gamblin) is hovering around in the garden just outside the picture window, and finally gets up his courage and raps on the front door. Bellamy has written a well known memoir and like Maigret is so famous people seek him out.

Mme. Bellamy turns the man away, but there's a phone call, and Bellamy goes to a motel room, and he finds this chap interesting because people interest him. Gentil turns out to have several aliases, and even faces, because he's sought the help of a plastic surgeon. He shows the photo of a man who looks rather like himself and says he "sort of killed him." He declares himself to be in a terrible mess. There are several women, a wife (Marie Matheron) and a beautiful young woman who has a beauty shop (Vahina Giocante) in the town. And, as in the Simenon novel, there is a local police inspector, a certain Leblanc, whom Bellamy doesn't respect, and assiduously avoids, and Chabrol never shows us on screen.

M. Gentil turns out to be a suspect involved in a double life and a devious crime. But he is seeking the Commissioner's help--on a private basis. It has to do with an insurance scam that went awry.

Chabrol is also involved in a double process, because the film takes a complicated family turn with the arrival of Bellamy's ne'er-do-well half-brother Jacques Lebas (Clovis Cornillac), who gambles, drinks too much, and has a habit of going off with things that don't belong to him. Cornillac wears this character's skin so comfortably he never seems to be acting, and with a part like this, that's a neat trick, and he makes Jacques somehow elegant as well.

Part of the charm of this easy-to-watch if unchallenging film is the warm relationship between Francoise and Bellamy, which is romantic and affectionate and physical and cozy all at once. Bunel and Depardieu (who is very large now, a benignly beached whale in a good suit) play very well together. There is a dinner with a gay dentist (Yves Verhoeven and his partner, which Jacques horns in on; this isn't terribly interesting. Nor is the case extremely resonant. The most memorable moments are those between Bellamy and his wife and his love-hate squabbling with the unpredictable half-brother, which are enhanced by the bright colors and warmth of the southern French setting. There is a young lawyer who shines in court, and lines from a Georges Brassens song are used in a surprising way. Fans of Chabrol and of Depardieu (and the two Georges!) won't want to miss this.

Bellamy opened in Paris February 25, 2009 to decent reviews. Given its north American premiere at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center in March 2009, this seems sure to get a US distributor, but none has been announced yet.

Chris Knipp
02-26-2009, 10:01 AM


One kiss, and she abandons her life

Huppert, twice a Best Actress winner there, has been elected president of 2009's Cannes festival jury. This is is her fifth gig for Jacquot, the previous ones being Les ailes de la colombe (1981), L'école de la chair (1998), Pas de scandale (1999), and La fausse suivante (2000). L'école de la chair is the adaptation of a Yukio Mishima story 'The School of Flesh,' a dry yet passionate tale of pride and power in love involving a wealthy woman's affair with an unpredictable young bisexual hustler (Vincent Martinez). Huppert was as remarkable as she's ever been in the underrated School of Flesh, a haughty, elegant beauty often drenched in tears.

Villa Amalia is another literary adaptation, this time from a novel by French author Pascal Quignard that won the Prix Goncourt. It concerns a woman who remakes herself, and the formidable Huppert is equal to the task. Again Jacquot's treatment is dry, and this time the motivations and emotional ties are more talked about than felt. The voyage however is more focused and less fatuous than the young French actress' trip to India in Jacquot's previous movie, The Untouchable (2006) In fact there is a terrifying and mysterious intensity about the protagonist.

Ann (Huppert) fleetingly sees her long-time boyfriend Thomas (Xavier Beauvois) kissing a woman in the doorway of their house. From then on she will have nothing further to do with him. Something clicks. It's not just him. This is just the last straw. She's fed up with her life. Her realization comes quickly and her actions also. She is a concert pianist. She stops playing in the middle of a concert, and cancels the rest of the season. She bundles up all her clothes in some very large plastic bags and puts them in the trash. (Hasn't thought about recycling, it seems.) Burns snapshots and papers, and a couple of CDs. (Hasn't thought about toxic waste damage either.)

Coincidentally, right after seeing Thomas that evening, she runs into Georges (Jean-Hugues Anglade), a friend from her youth who turns tout to carry the flame for her, although he also seems to be gay. A lonely fellow, Georges, he is dying to share meals with her. They do have one restaurant dinner. She says she loves eating out alone. He hates it. He also had a little cabin attached to his house she can use for her practicing. She has not vowed to give up playing; even less her composing, for she does compose, and we see her doing it.

Ann uses the self-effacing Georges to efface herself. She takes out all her money from the bank and Georges agrees to keep it in his account, so her name is no longer on anything. She has decided to sink below the global radar and so must have no cell phone, no email, no credit cards. And off she goes, leaving poor Georges and Thomas (who keeps pleading to be taken back) far behind and taking public transportation first northward, then south. She's talked to Georges about Tangier. In fact after a long swim--made credible by our seeing her doing constant workouts in public pools in the lead-up--she somehow winds up on the island of Ischia, disappeared among yachts like the girl in Antonionni's L'Avventura.

Here, with her hair cut short and minimal belongings, she sets up a retreat, persuading an old Italian woman to let her use an abandoned building she finds at the top of a hill. (It's painted a lovely faded Chinese red, which goes perfectly with Isabelle's coloring and hair.) She lets Georges come and visit her. She's taken up with a girlfriend, a lovely young Italian woman (Maya Sansa), who comes in a boat with her ex-boyfriend and rescues Ann when she has swum out too far. She composes, drawing the bars on paper herself with a pencil.

When Isabelle Huppert says no, and trashes her possessions, you don't know really why. She doesn't seem to know. But with Huppert, there's a devastating self confidence that makes it plausible. This is said to be faithful to the Quignard novel; I cannot comment, not having read it. The film is an experience, even if it feels in some ways derivative and unsatisfying.

Villa Amalia opens in France April 9, 2009. It is part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, March 2009.

Chris Knipp
02-26-2009, 10:22 AM


Stabbings, lies, and a bar mitzvah

This Teéchiné "issue" film is based on an actual news story of a young woman who pretended to have suffered an anti-Semitic attack on an RER (Reseau Express Regional) train that connects Paris with the surrounding regions. The story was originally adapted for the theater by Jean-Marie Besset and watching Besset's play gave Téchiné the idea for this quickly-shot film.

There's much to like, not least of which is a cast that includes Francophone megastars Michel Blanc and (Téchiné regular) Catherine Deneuve (as old friends) and lively young actors Nicolas Duvauchelle (of Les corps impatients) and Emilie Dequenne (star of the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta). This director is always good at juggling social levels and relationships (see Les Voleurs). But the subject matter seems forced and not super-relevant, a problem also of The Witnesses, but this time the issues arise in a way that makes them seem much less urgent than the AIDS crisis. Why does Jeanne (Dequenne) make up this story? What are its ramifications for actual Jews victimized by anti-Semites--and for the level of anti-Semitism in Europe and the world today? To what extent are individuals more victimized than ever by media invasions of privacy? These aren't questions that get sufficiently explored, either on a personal or a collective level. As a result viewers will experience a complicated set of characters they care about only intermittently, and a central event whose motivation is too vague to make it emotionally involving.

Jeanne lives with her mother Louise (Deneuve) in a house with a garden in the suburbs of Paris very near the RER line. They get along really well. Louise earns a living minding children. Jeanne is looking for work, but not very energetically. Louise reads a web notice one day that gives her the fantasy that she can get Jeanne a job working for a famous lawyer, Samuel Bleinstein (Blanc), because she knew him well when they were very young. Jeanne gets an interview. It's not very promising. But she and Louise are going to get plenty of quality time with Bleinstein after Jeanne's lie comes out.

Before that, an online meeting: Jeanne connects in a chat-room with Frank (Duvachelle), a tattooed martial arts champion whose background may be dodgier than she realizes, but who is clearly more motivated than her because of his credible pro-sport ambitions. Jeanne and Frank have a roller-blade date and hit it off pretty fast. Before long Jeanne's not only sleeping over with Frank but sharing the responsibility of minding a mysterious electronics warehouse whose owner is away. It turns out the warehouse holds something other than electronics, and Frank's uncooperativeness with some gangster types causes him to wind up in the hospital with a potentially fatal stab wound. Frank, who has already been troubled by Jeanne's habit of lying, decides his involvement with her isn't good for either of them. It's in the wake of Frank's rejection that Jeanne cuts herself and paints on swastikas with a felt pen, then goes to the police with an invented story of being assaulted on the RER by racist anti-Semites.

Somewhat to Jeanne's shock, her story arouses an immediate and rapidly metastasizing media frenzy. She is soon forced to admit her lie. This gets her in trouble with the law. This in turn leads Louise to call on her old friend Samuel, whom she's newly aware of from finding the job at his office on the Internet. We get scenes of Samuel's extended family, a Jewish family, whose members are debating over the coming bar mitzvah of young Nathan. (The young actor has a strong presence; I can't find his name in the casting list. But his father Alex is played by Mathieu Demy and his mother Judith by the vivid Ronit Elkabetz.)

La fille du RER (film's French title) is meant to creep up on you. Perhaps to avoid being stamped "thriller" or "crime story," but also to show how violence can pop up unexpectedly in what seem everyday lives, it meanders for an hour before Frank's stabbing. Throughout, the film explores semi-chance interconnections of different people with complex family ties--and some, like Frank, who're estranged from any family--in a world where violence can strike all of a sudden, and is so ever-present it becomes a tool to be used by a young woman to get attention. In her search for identity--missing perhaps due to the absence of her father and the lack of any commitment to work--Jeanne seeks an artificial identity in pretending to be Jewish and a victim of violence. As Stephen Holden notes in his NYTimes Rendez-Vous roundup, "Mr. Téchiné shows his special empathy for the ways youthful impatience can trigger impulsively self-destructive behavior." For young Nathan, identity is being presented on a silver platter in the traditional coming-of-age ritual of a bar mitzvah.

Julien Hirsch is responsible for the film's bright, beautiful look. Costume designer Radija Zeggai gets the credit one assumes, for Deneuve's wonderfully frumpy-chic outfits.

The film is scheduled for French release March 18, 2009. Its showing in the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center is its world premiere.

Chris Knipp
02-26-2009, 10:39 AM


The door code has changed; the premise has not

It's a well-worked comcept, that of a gathering of old friends that turns sour. This time it's complicated enough, with four couples, all more or less in crisis. They're all forty-something "bobos," well heeled bohemians. It's not a "Dinner Game" (Diner de Cons) a la Francis Veber, because everybody is partly deceiving and partly a dupe. Danielle Thompson's skill at this kind of complicated festive gathering from hell, with personal baggage unpacked, was evident in her first film, La Buche. Her mobile camera entertainingly explores a series of warm portraits. Or at least it did in La Buche, and did also more simply in her last film, Avenue Montagne. This time the interactions are a bit too complicated to follow, let alone care about. Thompson and her usual co-writer, her son Christopher (who as usual is also in the cast) must perforce spend a lot of their time on basic exposition of simply who everybody is and what their relationships are.

The dinner takes place at the giant flat of cutthrouat divorce lawyer ML (Karin Viard) and her unemployed spouse Piotr (Dany Boon). Guests include oncologist Alain (Patrick Bruel), his gynecologist wife Melanie (Marina Hinds), successful attorney Lucas (Christopher Thompson) and his pretty wife Sarah (Emmanuelle Seigner). There's an actor who works in TV commercials named Erwann (Patrick Chesnais) with a much younger lover Juliette (Marina Hands), who's ML's sister.

When they get to talking they reveal both their discontent with their current official partners and their rampant infidelities. While we're still chewing on all the exposition and chatter, the film jumps ahead a yea to show how couples have rearranged themselves, with flashbacks to the painful dinner and the unfolding of some tragic events that it may be hard to care about.

It's all very glossy and actors like Hinds and Seignier add warmth (and Chenais his customary dryness), but it's also pretty hard to care about the intricate but generally superficial proceedings. The bouillabaisse has too many ingredients this time.

Chris Knipp
03-05-2009, 09:25 PM


A view of homelessness between realism and fable

Versailles, which contains remarkable performances by the late Guillaume Depardieu, dead last year at only 37, and a seven-year-old boy named Max Baissette de Malglaive, is about homeless people, but it's also about identity and freedom, regeneration and loss. Recovering from a life of homelessness or from drug addiction, the film says, takes about six or seven years. And a life without borders or plans has its attraction and its myths. Schoeller's screenplay and direction make realism an adventure, delving into harsh truths without resorting to miserabilism or sociology. In the flickering light of a bonfire in the woods, its characters sometimes seem to have returned to a primordial age or moved forward to the future nether-world of Haneke's Time of the Wolf. The resolutions may seem too facile, but intense, authentic performances and handsome cinematography make this somewhat thin tale redeem itself over time. It's sui generis style may eventually earn it a following. Depardieu and de Malglaive almost deserve comparison with Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola of De Sica's Bicycle Thief. Like Staiola, young de Malglaive seems well on is way to a film career, with a couple more film roles already under his belt. Depardieu has an edge and an innate marginality himself, an emotional transparency, that combine to give his Damien memorable authenticity and life.

We seem to be plunged into lurid sociology in the murky grimness of the opening sequence, where Nina (Judith Chemla) struggles from day to day living on the streets of Paris with her child, Enzo (de Malglaive). One evening she is forcibly rescued by social services that take her and the boy to a shelter at Versailles, of all places, near the palace of Louis XIV, the "Sun King." Instead of making it back to Paris the next day she wanders into a wood and they encounter Damien (Depardieu), living in a rough "hut" (cabane) he may have thrown together himself. He's ravaged looking, but lean, young, strong, and resourceful. He seems to always have cigarettes, and mostly food of some kind, and a wood fire to stay warm and cook by. Damien has little use for either Enzo or Nina, but he lets them stay a few nights, and one evening after Enzo's asleep, he and Nina find each other. Then she disappears leaving a note, and Damien's stuck with Enzo.

This gesture may seem a tragedy and a crime, but may also be Nina's only hope. She knows Damien can be trusted. She locates earth-mother-ish Mme Herchel (Brigitte Sy), the woman from her first night in Versailles, who had promised her work. This gesture may seem a tragedy and a crime, but may also be Nina's only hope. She knows Damien can be trusted. She locates earth-mother-ish Mme Herchel (Brigitte Sy), the woman from her first night in Versailles, who had promised her work. Enzo is dirty and tired and frequently hungry, but he knows no other life. He gloms onto Damien, and Damien feeds, bathes, and protects him. There's a little group of squatters who've staked out territory in the wood, and their bonds are strong, as we see when one of them dies.

Nina learns to care for old people under the protection of Mme Hershel. When she's made some progress she goes back to the wood. The hut is gone, burned down, not a trace left. Nina is devastated and seems to fall back into homelessness, there and then.

When winter comes full on, Damien turns up at the house of his hostile father, Jean-Jacques (Patrick Deschamps), who now has a young wife, Nadine (Aure Atika). Damien's been given some money and offers it to pay for lodging, but there's no trust because he has been a drug addict. The argument ends anyway when Enzo waltzes right past them toward the house. Nadine takes to him. Damien gets a job in construction. Enzo adjusts poorly to bourgeois life and begs to go back to the hut, but Damien tells him that's over.

The film is most obvious but still authentically French in its constant assertion of the "republic's" overstructured system of loyalties and duties which provides extensively for the misbegotten by US standards, but still is letting more and more people slip under its protective radar. Damien reluctantly follows Jean-Jacques' suggestion and acknowledges Enzo as his son so the boy will have legal status and can go to school. But once this "rebirth" is celebrated, Damien's commitment to work and stability seems to vanish.

A brief epilogue shows Enzo seven years later, acclimated and schooled and living with Jean-Jacques and Nadine, but still remote and struggling when his mother turns up.

This is the directorial debut of Pierre Schoeller, a screenwriter for fifteen years. The film, which debuted in the "Un Certain Regard" series at Cannes, opened in Paris August 19 to generally good but not great reviews. It has a kind of poignancy given French cinema's loss of the talented, doomed Guillaume Depardieu, and it's hard to watch him struggling to breathe in an outdoor winter sequence knowing that he died of pneumonia two months after the film's release. With this role (as well as Rivette's Duchess of Langeais and Verheyde's Stella, just to name recent appearances), it's clear that with Guillaume's passing we lost greatness. Versailles was shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, in March 2009, as was Verheyde's Stella.

Chris Knipp
03-05-2009, 09:38 PM


Jealous obsession in a beautiful, ice-cold landscape

Though well received in Venice and praised upon its theatrical release in Paris, this was the FSLC 2009 Rendez-Vous series' "most problematic movie," according to the NYTimes' Stephen Holden. He describes it as "a a portrait of female jealousy run amok in which Dominique Blanc plays a toxic control freak with Bette Davis eyes." May we guess why Holden calls this "problematic"? Surely just because this transcendently self-absorbed character strains the patience to the breaking point well before the film's 97 minutes are up.

It's a film that's gorgeous to look at, and a star turn Dominique Blanc might have found impossible to pass up. The 52-year-old Blanc's a veteran who's appeared in some films seen in America: Chereau's Queen Margot and Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train and Lucas Belvaux's trilogy. She plays Leo DiCaprio's Rimbaud's mother in Total Eclipse. Her appearance in a Bernard/Trividic film realizes their long-time wish and hers too. Whether this was the ideal occasion is another question.

Anne-Marie, Blanc's 47-year-old character, divorced after an 18-year marriage, tells her pleasant and presentable younger black boyfriend Alex (Cyril Guei) that she wants to be independent. She values her freedom now, she says. No more marriage-like arrangements for her. She wants him to know that, not get any ideas about their moving in together. But the minute Alex gets involved with another woman and reveals he plans to move in with her, Marie-Louise goes into a tail-spin. She immediately interrogates him about the other lady. He protects her, not revealing anything at first. He and Anne-Marie still meet, though less often. He finally lets out that the new girlfriend is a teacher at the Faculty of History who did a doctoral thesis on the Chaldeans. And then he admits that she lives on a certain chic Paris street. What upsets Anne-Marie the most is that Alex's new girlfriend isn't a "girl" at all, but the same age as herself. This makes her think Alex's attraction to her was sort of generic. It wasn't just her. He just has a thing for older women.

With these bits of information Anne-Marie does Internet searches and begins calling phone numbers. She leaves obscene phone messages. But she remains only a virtual stalker, because she never really lands her prey for sure.

Anne-Marie is shown as a social worker, though rather sketchily. She has a woman confidante, and stages a reunion with an older man, Lars (Peter Bonke), who's a former lover. She takes refuge in him and seeks his help in further researching her stalking project, and then after making a wish for her rival to die realizes how selfish she's been when she finds out Lars is seriously ill and she ought to have been praying for his health instead.

Anne-Marie lives in one of the sleek but rather soulless "Nouvelles Villes" Paris suburbs depicted in several of Eric Rohmer's films, and we constantly see her training back and forth from there to the center and rambling through a glitzy mall, or hanging out in glassed-in office spaces or shadowy modernistic bars. (Only once we see an open square of the housing area that shows their bright cheery side, which we see in Rohmer's films such as Full Moon in Paris and Boyfriends and Girlfriends). The surroundings are cold but beautiful as photographed in rich dark shots inspired in part by Michaal Mann, according to the directors--perhaps they're thinking of Mann's Collateral's lush digital images of L.A. But when they went on to say at the IFC Center Q&A that the vision of urban emptiness was already set up by Antonioni, the leap from the great Italian to the Hollywood neo-noir guy seemed a bit facile. I wondered whether films like Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels might have been a visual influence. Or even the Assayas of demonlover. But the Bernard/Trividic insistence that dark urban landscapes must be exclusively cold and alienating seems narrow and doctrinaire, and their restricting Anne-Marie exclusively to such landscapes seems forced.

The portly, bald Bernard and Trividic, who in person are hard to tell apart, insisted that Anne-Marie isn't ever "crazy" in the film. And indeed Blanc's measured performance can be taken as bearing this out. However, her state seems more notional than real, perhaps ultimately incomprehensible. The way she repeatedly sees her own image appear in mirrors and in passing trains, smashes her "Cyberbox" home surveillance device with a hammer, and eventually does herself serious harm, all seem excellent evidence of derangement. There is a symbolic use of fluids--rain, tears, whiskey, wine--though that seems tacked on. The trouble ultimately is that in their adaptation of Annie Emaux's novel L'Occupation the directors have greatly expanded the alienating external surroundings while allowing the interior of their main character--as well as her motivations--largely to go missing. One of the directors focuses on screenplay, the other on the visuals and tech aspects, they said. Maybe they ought to get together more. The beauty of the images indicates that their films may yet be worth watching; that the directors have a strong sense of style.

L'Autre opened February 4, 2009 in France to some excellent reviews. It had been nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice, where Blanc received the Volpi Best Actress award. Shown in March 2009 as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York.

Chris Knipp
03-08-2009, 10:46 PM

The French film website ALLOCINE' (http://www.allocine.fr) summarizes film reviews like Metacritic or Rottentomatoes. Below are the French critical rankings of the Rendez-Vous 2009 films as based on their Allocine totals:

GIRL ON THE TRAIN, THE (ANDRE TECHINE 2009) [March 18 release] 52

Not yet ranked:
VILLA AMALIA (BENOIT JACQUOT 2009) April 8 release


[The three top ranked films of March 2009]


Chris Knipp
03-10-2009, 04:55 PM


(I'm including this, shown at BAMcinematek as a kind of sequel to their "Garrel Generation" series, because it's a new and choice French film introduced in Paris at the "rentree" September 17th last year. It's not part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2009 series at Lincoln Center but it might otherwise have been.)

Classy Paris lycee as royal court; teenage love as tragic drama

For a TV film, Christophe Honore's La Belle personne is elegant and allusive. It's a rethinking of Madame de Lafayette's' 17th-century classic La Princesse de Cleves for Paris lycee classroom and courtyard--which may make you think of the way de Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons was adapted to an American high school in Roger Kumble's 1999 Cruel Intentions. Honore makes use of the fact that the good looks of youth confer a kind of nobility, high school cliques resemble court life, and teenage machinations aren't far from royal plots. The "beautiful person" (a phrase from the book) is any youth from a good family in a fashionable school. The director features Louis Garrel, himself clearly a "beautiful person," for a fourth time. The way he slips in appearances by Clotilde Hesme and Chiara Mastroianni and a tragic main role for Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, all from the director's musical film Love Songs, with one song included, makes you feel like the director is playing off his own company of players. As the self-centered seducer Nemours, Garrel, himself part of a French cinematic dynasty (his father and grandfather are both film icons), gets movie royalty for his love interest. Lea Seydoux, who plays the central female, lycee newcomer Junie, is a direct descendant of scions of the two great houses of French cinema, Gaumont and Pathe. Garrel is dreamier than Truffaut's alter ego Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud). More than ever he seems Honore's muse, his classic young Parisian boulevardier, flaneur, seducer. It's s all beginning to seem at bit inbred (but what genes!). On top of that former Cahiers du Cinema writer Honore, not surprisingly, as before, slips in illusions to the Nouvelle Vague, especially Godard.

If this sounds interesting, even classic, but emotionally a bit uninvolving, that's pretty much true. There's some titillation (but not much sex), long kisses, and a chance to look up close at beautiful boy and girl faces. For complication, as before with Honore, a gay affair is woven in as if it were the most natural thing in the world (though this time there is also a great effort to hide it). But while the director's Dans Paris lurched back and forth between hilarity (embodied in Louis Garrel) and deep melancholy (hovering over Romain Duris) and in Love Songs a sudden death clouded everyone else's life, this time the teenage passions, ostensibly mortal, feel more superficial, and Nemours, who is involved with a woman teacher and a girl student at the film's start, barely shows a flicker of concern about his multiple affairs and broken hearts apart from the worry that they might get too messy. So the film may be a pleasure to look at; it may even provide the vicarious pleasure of imagining life at a snooty Paris high school; but the sweetness and sublime gloom of Love Songs and Dans Paris are now more fleeting and peripheral, replaced by machinations it's somewhat difficult to keep track of.

When Junie arrives at mid-term, her life disrupted due to the death of her mother, all eyes turn toward her sultry pout. One boy snaps photos of her. Nemours, not so much older than his charges, ostensibly teaches them Italian--not very seriously, it seems. This school lacks the ghetto intensity shown in Cantet's The Class or the elite-school rigor of Verheyde's Stella. Nemours purveys Italian by setting up a field trip to Italy (which falls through), having pop song lyrics read and translated, and allowing a student to play a record of Callas singing Lucia, causing him and Junie to fall for each other when Junie weeps and rushes out, leaving behind her photo-portrait for Nemours to grab and stash away.

Then comes the misplaced love-note, which gets very complicated, and leads to a revelation at a Metro stop about boys loving boys. Otto feels betrayed, though on the basis of another boy's mistaken observation. Why does Junie give him a children's book called Otto? Why does he wear a big sheepskin coat all the time, while the other kids wear lighter, hipper outfits, and Nemours' ensembles are like Hedi Slimane, only better? There are bits of guys playing basketball, scenes in a local cafe with a tough, motherly patronne; and the flashbacks have an appealingly blurry Nouvelle Vague look. We are talking style over substance here, but not exclusively. As in Dangerous Liaisons, those who suffer elegantly stil suffer. And Honore's relatively weak grasp on what happens in the classroom can't detract from his ability to convey with some vitality the snippy-chic atmosphere in the hallways, and the quick devastation of a teen romance gone wrong (the original Princesse de Cleves, by the way, was fifteen).

Thanks to Alex Beaupain's songs and a well-structured sequence of scenes built around them, Honore's Love Songs captured a bittersweet melancholy that perfectly fit the gray winter season in the Bastille quarter of Paris where it was set. This time the director has created a different atmosphere, lighter and noisier--but emotionally less engaging. But he has by no means lost touch with his Parisian milieu or his cast of attractive people. This is still a film that will be worth seeing again. Some of it flits by too fast to take in the first time.

The Princesse goes into a convent and dies at a young age. June instead withdraws from the lycee and goes on a long trip to a warm place. Otto has a more dramatic and sudden end than M. de Cleves, his counterpart in the novel. Working on the adaptation with Gilles Taurand (who wrote Techine's excellent Strayed), Honore has shown a light touch and is working in a consistent vein that is ever more Parisian and urbane, ever more "Dans Paris."

Except for "Comme la pluie" sung by Otto (Leprince-Riinguet), this film has no songs by Honore's Love Songs collaborator, Alex Beaupain. Instead it is peppered with musical numbers and the songs of Nick Drake. Not part of the Rendez-Vous, though it might have been, La Belle personne opened theatrically at BAMcinematek March 6 as kind of followup of a 2007 series there called "Generation Garrel," which provided a sneak preview of Dans Paris. La Belle personne has been bought for US distribution by IFC Films. It played in the London and San Sebastian film festivals.