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    Rendez-vous With French Cinema '06




    THE RENDEZ-VOUS: AN INTRODUCTION

    Film Society of Lincoln Center page for this series is here.


    NATHALIE BAY IN LE PETIT LIEUTENANT

    Its sponsors call this 11-year-old Film Society of Lincoln Center series “America’s leading showcase for new French films.” This year it offers fifteen released in France in 2005 or 2006. Richard Peña (Film Society of Lincoln Center Director) thinks French cinema has never been in better shape – particularly in size of production and overseas audience. A certain documentary about large black and white birds topped $75 million at the US box office, and five other French movies had an average take of a million dollars in the US last year. Producing 200 films a year, France can compete in big budget, fast actioners as well as the talky, sensitive (or dark) films more often associated with their national film style.

    More significant than such bare figures are three facts. First, French filmmaking has stayed small and independent -- dominated not by big companies like Hollywood but by small ones producing only two or three films a year. Related to this there’s a belief in France that anyone there who has a film to make should be able to do so.

    Second, the government has been generous in its sponsorship of cinema in France as it is of the arts generally.

    Third France is a passionately film-loving nation, peopled not just with movie-goers but folks who’d as soon argue Godard or Audiard (or Nicolas Ray or Sam Fuller or Jerry Lewis or even Sidney Pollack) as watch a ball game. Perhaps it’s this national cinephilia that drives all the rest and makes French movies as vibrant as ever when the film industries of other western nations have faded and people have turned more often to Africa, Iran, China, and Latin America for exciting filmmaking.

    France has some amazingly good film actors, and particularly viable and important female ones. The generally high IQ-level of the filmmaking tends to select for actors who do complex, subtle work. Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang directly alludes to Truffat, and Korea’s (Chicago-educated) Hong Sang-soo evokes Godard -- just a couple examples of how French film still spurs people in many other countries to make movies. You could say French cinema is a beacon that the Rendez-Vous freshly redirects our way. The series ranges from glossy comedy through social commentary to updated noir, but such a description misleads because the French have shown an increasing skill at genre-bending and –blending these days. Look at two of the best from last year: Caché (in French and with noted French actors, if by an Austrian director), a social commentary, a family drama, and a thriller; The Beat My Heart Skipped/De battre mon coeur s’est arrêé, a noir, a family drama, and an artistic coming-of-ager. To work on all these levels so well comes from being in a place where you can think outside the box.

    (The Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2006 ran from March 10 to 19,2006.)



    PALAIS ROYAL!


    CATHERINE DENEUVE, VALERIE LEMERCIER

    The opening night movie of a well attended film series tends to be something lightweight and a bit glitzy that’s designed to be a deliberate crowd-pleaser, and the Rendez-Vous’s 2006 gala opener -- featuring Catherine Deneuve as a haughty queen mother -- is an elaborate, sometimes vulgar and slapstick, but mostly fluffy comedy about a principality like Monaco or Luxembourg and the things that happen when its ruler suddenly dies. The late king’s spoiled second son ascends to the throne bypassing his more serious, well-educated older brother because the latter isn’t married. Arnaud’s do-gooder wife (played by the writer/director, French comic Valérie Lemercier, a popular French comedienne more known in the US for starring in Claire Denis's well received and serious sexual adventure Friday Night/Vendredi soir).

    Lemercier's character gradually turns into an ambitious new princess like Lady Di, and along with general laugh-manufacture, the film constitutes a satire on such behavior and the packaging and promoting of modern-day high-visibility “royals.” There is no faulting the actors, and Deneuve is as droll as she’s elegant, Lambert Wilson is stylish as the lazy new king, Michel Aumont is imposing as the chief of protocol and Michel Vuillermoz is appealing as the sad elder prince. But though Palais Royal! moves as rapidly as a comedy should, it’s a bit hard to be interested in this theme at a time when people are starving and being tortured and real social gaps are between rich and poor, with a feudal aristocracy no longer a real issue.

    We begin with future king, wife, and two best friends on a shopping spree in London, and there is nothing to like about these spoiled people – which of course is the point; and the French are good at doing grumpy, obnoxious snobs (Pierre Bakri in last year's Look at Me/Comme une image is a splendid example) – but this makes it hard to stay interested in these folks. It's also hard to read the subtitles, and I couldn't follow the fast "comic" dialogue. Probably only the French people in Alice Tully Hall were able to find that dialogue consistently funny, and only some of them. Clearly there was a lot of word-play that the subtitles, when one could read them, obviously was struggling to convey.

    The glitzy fluff was there, there was fluency in the flow of the action, there was a satirical point of view, there were highly regarded actors. And if it was hard to sit through this and make it to the wine and cheese and French celebrities, I was, after all, gearing up for the whole Lincoln Center Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, and watching fifteen handpicked new French films in a row still seems like a pretty soft job.

    (Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2006 opening night presentation, March 2006; Palais Royal! opened in Paris November 23, 2005.)


    ORCHESTRA SEATS/FAUTEUILS D'ORCHESTRE


    CECILE DE FRANCE

    Danièle Thompson’s third directorial outing (preceded by La Bûche and Jet Lag/Décolage horaire) flows brilliantly on a grand scale doling out clichés and pungent acting in equal measure. It could do quite well with the older generation US art house audience and if the Film Society was looking for French films unlikely to be distributed here, this and the opener Palais Royal! were odd choices. Series viewers begin with a big dose of Valérie Lemercier, since she is prominent in both this and Palais Royal!

    Three high-profile lives will meet deadlines on Paris' chic Avenue Montaigne on the 17th of the month in this story – a famous pianist is going to perform Beethoven, a popular TV actress debuts in a Feydeau farce, and a millionaire is going to auction off the great collection of modern art he’s spent a lifetime assembling. All three are dissatisfied. TV star Catherine Versen (Valérie Lemercier) gets extravagant paychecks for playing a problem-solving mayor on a popular high toned soap and runs into passionate fans wherever she goes, but she’d really much rather be a serious actress and play, say, Simone de Beauvoir in the movie a famous American director, Brian Sobinski (Sydney Pollack) is in town to cast. Millionaire businessman Jacques Grunberg (Claude Brasseur) is still enjoying life, but he knows not much of it remains to him. He is ill, and his relations with his grumpy professor son Frédéric (Christopher Thomson, the director’s son) are cold. His collection is no longer alive to him either. He makes up for it with a young trophy girlfriend. Pianist Jean-Francois Lefort (Albert Dupontel) is managed by his mournful but devoted wife Valentine (Laura Morante, the mother in Moretti’s The Son’s Room) and he’s booked solid for the next six years, but the whole concert life feels as constrictive to him as the evening clothes he must wear for concerts (Dupontel looks like a hunkier version of the sad pianist played by Charles Aznavour in Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player/Tirez sur le pianiste). Jean-Francois wants to dump it all, but his wife, whom he loves, may bolt if he does.

    Tying all these celebs together are a couple of charming observers, Jessica and Claudie. Claudie (Dani) is the theater concierge and she's about to retire. Claudie has lived her dream of meeting all the pop stars as well as classical performers of decades past. She had no talent, she announces, so she chose to be around talent, and she succeeded and feels her life was very worthwhile. The moments when we see her lip-sync old French pop songs whose singers she’s known through her job are perhaps the film’s happiest. As a kind of Ariel and mascot for the piece there is Jessica (Cécile de France), a naïve cutie from the provinces with a pretty face and charming smile (the Belgian-born Cécile has been one of French film’s most promising young female stars of recent years) who’s just landed a wait job at the old-fashioned Café des Arts – a place that serves every level of society that works in the quarter – and who, wouldn’t you know it, quickly meets Jacques, Jean-Francois, Catherine, and even Frérdéric, who’s eventually smitten, and Jessica hears them all unload their problems.

    Book-ending the piece is the relationship of Jessica and the grandma who raised her (Suzanne Flon), Madame Roux, whose life foreshadowed Jessica’s: she “always loved luxury” but was poor so when she went to Paris she worked as a maid in the ladies room of the Ritz. Flon just died at 87 and the film is dedicated to her: one of those great French cinematic troupers, she was performing, delightfully, in films right up until the end -- eight films in the past five years.

    There’s climax, romance, and reconciliation in store at the end for the cast. This is very glossy mainstream French stuff, good writing by Christopher Thompson in collaboration with his mother Danièle, smooth directing, good work by the stellar cast. Lemercider isn’t as buffoonish as she was in Palais Royal!—one begins to see her appeal. The movie doesn’t take itself too seriously even if the scenes between the pianist and his Italian wife are a bit intense, due to casting. The question is, what’s this all about, and why must we concern outselves with the “predicaments” of people who from the looks of it are so singularly fortunate in life?

    (Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, March 2006; Fauteuils d'orchestre opened in Paris February 15, 2006.)


    NOT HERE TO BE LOVED



    Stéphane Brizé’s Not Here to Be Loved /Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé is the mournful character study of an aging, divorced court bailiff (a hussier de justice) who hand-delivers eviction notices and requisitions property -- a distasteful job and business passed on by his father which he understandably hates -- and on weekends goes to a retirement home where his father -- the dad from hell, whom it's utterly impossible to please -- makes cruel remarks to him. Life has little to offer the dour and unsmiling Jean-Claude till he starts going across the street from his office to attend a tango class (first glimpsed enticingly from afar like the dance studio in Almodóvar’s Talk to Me). There he meets and starts seeing a much younger woman.

    At his first class, he’s approached by another student, Francoise (Anne Consigny), not because she’s attracted to him but because his mother babysat for her when she was little. She’s supposed to be marrying a schoolteacher named Thierry (Lionel Abelanski) whom she's already living with, not altogether happily. He has taken off half a year to write a book and does nothing but complain about how badly it’s going. Francoise is obviously as displeased with Thierry as Jean-Claude is with his entire life. Both suffer with what the French call "mal de vie." Francoise and Jean-Claude are both bottled up and with their awkward silences they send confused signals to each other.

    The movie isn’t a happy ride but develops conviction and a subtle life-affirming feel thanks to the nuanced performance of sad-faced Patrick Chesnais – which got him nominated for a Best Actor César last year. Perhaps one of the reasons the French can make a film like this is their well-established willingness to see aging, unhandsome men as potentially attractive to the likes of Emmanuelle Béart and Catherine Deneuve. Chesnais has a kind of dignity that neither his deeply lined face nor his hangdog manner can erase. Anne Consigny is subtle as the lady friend, and longtime veteran film actor George Wilson is formidable as the hateful and ultimately pathetic father. Minimalist and depressing this film is, but not boring, because director and cast wring the ultimate riches from every moment.

    There is much subtlety and humanity in this film, whose minimal plot and minimalist style give the actors and their characters maximum room for development within a narrow but compellingly real range of emotion. But for some the result may be a bit overshadowed by other treatments of shut-down male characters like Daniel Auteuil's violin-maker in Claude Sautet's luminous Un coeur en hiver. It seems possible that indeed this film in the series will not be picked up for US distribution because it's so downbeat. If so, a pity, because this movie is not only a subtle character study but one that's very French.


    (Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, March 2006; Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé opened in Paris October 12, 2005.)


    GENTILLE


    LAMBERT WILSON, EMMANUELLE DEVOS

    In Sophie Fillières’ amiably ditsy but very original comedy Gentille/Good Girl, Fontaine Leglou (Emmanuelle Devos) is an anesthesiologist in a clinic that administers electroshock treatments, but when we first see her she is stolling on a Paris street and stopping a man she thinks is stalking her and then, when he denies it, inviting him for a drink. Later on her ramble she stops to have her face drawn by a street artist, but breaks off to have a warm conversation with a distinguished-looking man (Dr. Gudarzi -- Michel Vuillermoz, the king's elder son in Palais Royal!)—only after a few minutes they realize each has mistaken the other for somebody else.

    Fontaine lives with Michel Strogoff, (Bruno Todeschini of Chéreau’s powerful Son frère) a scientist specialized in the earth’s techtonic crust, who wants to marry her and repeatedly plants a wedding ring where she will find it. She can’t accept. She keeps appearing casually nude, once coming out of the shower when she tries on the ring Michel has put, this time, in the soap dish. Later he plants it in the yogurt when they’re at his parents and she swallows it. Then when Michel is out of the room his father tells Fontaine a story about how for several years when he and mom had divorced, he freaked out and became an alcoholic bum in the neighborhood unnoticed by the family, successfully pretending he was on a construction project in Costa Rica. The father is played by Michael Lonsdale, and his mother is Bulle Ogier, insuring the parents French cinematic cult status. This "Costa Rica" bum story gives Fontaine and Michel's father a secret together. Another secret she has is she’s flirting with several men, notably a patient at the clinic who’s a doctor, Philippe (Lambert Wilson), who’s under heavy medication and getting shock treatments, but seems if anything saner than most of the staff.

    The line between sane and crazy, doctor and patient, faithful and unfaithful, serious and frivolous is constantly broached in Gentille, which seeks to rehabilitate the idea of a well-behaved girl while depicting its heroine’s rather irregular lifestyle. Gentille isn’t about events so much as it’s about surprises, unexpected moments, and conversations. If you’re in search of progression or structure this film may disappoint you; but if you’re looking for charm, originality, wordplay, you’re sure to be delighted. The music is ballet, by Delibes, with a touch of Brahms, and it buoys you up at just the right moments. Fillières’ definitely has a voice and outlook of her own. She may not leave you with very much to remember other than some very good time spent with some extremely watchable actors. But isn't that usually enough? This film is the kind that’s so close to pure style you may be able to watch it over and over where a more plot-driven movie would go stale, and on repeated viewings you may find meanings and grace notes you missed the first time.

    Gentille was created for Emmanuelle Devos. American viewers may remember her as the vulnerable but stong-willed deaf lady who forms a strange liaison with a Vincent Cassel’s petty gangster in Jacques Audiard’s brilliant Read My Lips/Sur mes lèvres. She’s also the main character in Desplechin’s wildly inventive movie of last year, Kings and Queen/Rois et reine, has a powerful period role as the titular character of Frédéric Fontaine’s La femme de Gilles, and is Niels Arestrup’s girlfriend in The Beat My Heart Skipped/De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (Audiard again, and the Best Film César of 2006). In short, Devos is associated with some of the best of French cinema today. She's a world unto her self, a distinctly French and quite wonderful world. She is beautiful, but she is irregular. Her teeth aren’t quite right. Her full lips tilt down in an odd way. Her big liquid eyes are indescribable, somehow both wounded and laughing. Her body is on the voluptuous side, but there’s never a sense that she’s posing or flirting. She’s no Gina or Marilyn. Or Catherine. She’s comfortable. But she’s a great actress: she can be many people and always seem herself.

    As Fontaine, Devos fits into Fillières’ Bunuel-style surrealism by starting out looking more conventional and relaxed than in other recent roles. But in her relaxed way, she’s quite unpredictable. There’s a kind of liberation in her Hamlet-like indecision, her wavering over men. The final scene is unconventional and surreal, with Fontaine and Michel in space suits by North Face, but she has made the choice characteristic of classic comedy: to be with the man she loves – in Alaska, exploring the earth’s mantle at 40 degrees below zero.

    (Shown during the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema March 2006 at Lincoln Center, Gentille opened in Paris December 14, 2005.)


    LA MOUSTACHE


    VINCENT LINDON

    Judging by his bestseller Classe de neige (Class Trip), made into a film by Claude Miller, Emmanuel Carrère deals exclusively, and effectively, in the anguished confusion of reality and nightmare. La Moustache, a twenty-year-old novel by Carrère adapted by him in his first direction of a fiction film, bears out this analysis. La Moustache is about Marc Thiriez (Vincent Lindon), a well-off architect with loving wife Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos), who finds himself becoming invisible, and then sees his life itself disappear. He runs away, and then finds himself again, but the terror remains that normality will never be anything but provisional from now on.

    Massimo Bontempelli once wrote a story called “La Barba” (The Beard). In it the devil comes to torment a man named Federico by asking him if he sleeps with his magnificent beard over or under the covers. He can’t remember. The question so torments Federico that he has his barber shave off his beard – and he’s a ruined man without it.

    Ruination creeps up more subtly for Marc, but starting from a similar source. One night before going out to see friends for dinner he decides to surprise his wife by shaving off his moustache. He asks her and she says why not. But then neither she nor his friends Serge (Matthieu Amalric) and Samira (Cylia Malki) notice it’s gone. (The social evening is encapsulated in a scene of Serge telling a story, and as in Haneke’s Caché this conveys a sense of bourgeois helplessness and confinement, as well as repressed hostility.) Marc calls Agnès’ attention to her oversight, and as they drive home she insists he never had a beard. He flies into a rage, and she acts as if he’s become dangerous. He thinks he’s the victim of a hoax, and in days that follow snapshots from a vacation several years ago show the moustache, as does his passport, but no one notices it’s gone at work either.

    The story thus hovers at first between a sort of existential study of modern identity, and creeping paranoia. The film is full of brooding intensity and has an obsessive focus that’s heightened by repeated use of a 23-minute Philip Glass violin concerto that’s both hypnotic and irritating.

    Marc becomes increasingly disturbed and his wife suggests he needs therapy. He is in agreement and can’t see someone soon enough. At the same time he remains angry. The marriage seemed comfortable and loving. Now the husband is resentful and the wife is frightened and eager to take measures to help Marc but also protect herself. The story carries conviction because Vincent Lindon, an excellent actor, is well cast. Though he has skillfully played a transvestite (in Jacquot’s École de la chair/School of Flesh), he conveys the sense of being a man’s man, a solid, sane sort of person who wouldn’t be prone to hysteria or whims. We sympathize with him and feel his growing unease, even terror. This is heightened because everything is strictly from his point of view.

    Eventually Marc hears his wife talking on the phone, apparently arranging to have him carted off to a mental institution, and he flees into a driving rain. He’s also been told that his father is dead, and when he takes a taxi, he can’t remember where his parents live and he grew up. Before long he’s at the airport booking a flight to Hong Kong. From here we’re in Marc’s world of flight, possibly madness. If Wong Kar Wai were at the helm once Hong Kong heaves into view at least the visuals would have become kaleidoscopic and dreamlike. But that isn’t Carrère’s method and would be unsuitable to his purpose. We have to feel that things may be quite ordinary, but also terrifying. The frantic pace continues and Marc’s actions become increasingly numb, compulsive, and repetitious, but the world around him is nerve-jangling and ordinary, not beautiful.

    There are no flaws in Carrère’s method and his actors are exceptional: Lindon is the consummate professional, Devos is always interesting, Amalric is fine, if a bit wasted here. What has to be said is that there is never any resolution of the mystery. Why did all this have to happen? Did it happen? We never know. Those who want neat resolution will leave this film unsatisfied. Carrère deals in a kind of post-Hitchcockian suspense, where the final explanation is missing. He has substituted his original Dostoevskian finale with something mellower; in the Rendez-Vous Q&A at Lincoln Center he said dramatically ending one’s life seemed an attractive idea back in his younger days when he wrote the book, but now he’s much more interested in figuring out how to make a relationship last. And of course that’s one thing the story is about: the non-communication of couples. The film has intensity, but its concept is so simple that it tends to make one feel rather than think. The focus is admirable, the emotional impact of the film is solid and strong, but the complexity that could be conveyed in a novel are missing. This is efficient, but not subtle, filmmaking.

    (Shown in the March 2006 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Center, La Moustache opened in Paris July 6, 2005, and will be a Cinema Guild Release in the US.)


    YOU ARE SO HANDSOME/JE VOUS TROUVE TRÈS BEAU


    MICHEL BLANC

    Isabelle Mergault’s You Are So Handsome/Je vous trouve très beau is a conventional mainstream French film with a slightly new theme: what happens when an Eastern European mail-order bride is brought in on the QT to help out with chores on a French provincial farm. Shortly after the film begins, French farmer Aymé (super-popular actor Michel Blanc, a short, bald French screen everyman) loses his wife in an offscreen accident. Little love was lost between the gruff pair, and once his wife's gone, Aymé's main concern is who, now, is going to do the laundry, cook, and tend to the chickens and cows on his farm. He can't do all that himself. He’s barely out of his funeral suit when we see him accompanying a professional matchmaking lady on a plane to Bucharest to interview prospective brides. It’s obvious there are lots of girls over there desperate to get out, some with the rudiments of French. One of the interviewees, Elena (Medeea Marinescu), has the sense to dress down and say she likes animals. “You are so handsome” is what they all tell the farm widower – even Elena. When they say it, Michel Blanc’s rubber-faced deadpan goes all pouty.

    Je vous trouve très beau isn’t challenging or subtle, but it does bring up the rich nation/poor nation dilemma. It’s also a change from the general run of French films focused on sophisticated bourgeois Parisians (or their outcast banlieu neighbors). Veteran actress and experienced screenwriter Isabelle Mergault’s first directorial effort is an entertainment, not a specific regional portrait or a searching piece of social realism designed to arouse our geopolitical awareness. It’s a sentimental tale that milks its laughs and tears in an easy, simplistic way – even if it’s also marked by an emotional trajectory that leaves one feeling rather muddled.

    The widower winds up picking Elena – sort of. He doesn’t marry her. He arranges for her to arrive back home after him, pretends she’s a distant relative come for an internship on the farm, and doesn’t even admit to his family that he’s been to Romania. He produces faked photos and canned sauerkraut to simulate a trip to Germany for a farm equipment fair. He also forces Elena to pretend to everybody else that she speaks no French. And he hasn't committed to marrying her.

    Nonetheless Elena is soon living with Aymé – though “on approval” – and helping with chores. She wants to be affectionate, and her efforts are heartwrenching (the film is rife with sentimentality). But the farmer's a gruff old sort and will have none of it. The pout stays put, despite the charms of Elena, who could pass as a young Meryl Streep and captivates all the local boys at public functions. Aymé is not above getting jealous when that happens. He’s possessive, but not giving.

    The rest of the cast is replete with (believable) stereotypes, the noisy relatives (who’re quite appealing, but hardly seen in depth), the young country boys who gather around the pert, miniskirted Elena, a big mute boy, her best friend in the daytime, who moons around her and helps with the chores, an old crone who has one repeated joke refrain, “Who’s dead?”

    The cliché we’ve got to believe in is that Aymé’s gruffness eventually melts – but a little late. By the time he’s realized that he cares for Elena as a person and not just a housekeeper, and gives his one big speech about how her coming on to him made him feel old and undesirable and led him, in spite of himself, to turn agaisnt the one thing he most wanted, Elena’s just about unhappy enough to walk back to Bucharest. Shortely thereafter, he provides a way for her to leave him. But that's not the end of it; this is one of those stories that doesn't know when to end, because its beginning and middle have been too patchy to lead up to a clearcut goal.

    This is the old story of the hard-hearted loner (Aymé and his dead wife have obviously lived as if they were alone for years) whose façade eventually cracks and lets the human being timidly peek out. But the process is so protracted we barely get a payoff. Most of the relationship scenes are little images of hurt and apology, reaching out and drawing back. First-timer Mergault hasn't achieved a sure rhythm, her drama veers too much toward tele-drama, and her film's too tomid about its payoffs.

    (Shown at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Center in March 2006, Je vous trouve très beau opened in Paris January 11, 2006.)


    RUSSIAN DOLLS


    ROMAIN DURIS, CECILE DE FRANCE

    Cédric Klapisch’s 2002 L'Auberge Espagnole was a hit both in France and on the more mainstream Miramaxical side of the US art-house circuit. Its multi-lingual picture of the international student life in Barcelona went down easy, and Russian Dolls/Les poupées russes is the sequel, again featuring Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile de France, Kelly Reilly, et al.

    Russian Dolls picks up Xavier (Duris) five years later, now a well-paid writer, and focuses more on Auberge’s most provocative character, Wendy’s volatile brother William (Kevin Bishop). Oscillating between odious and cute, Bishop is an actor whose little riffs are irresistible if sometimes troubling. He seemed a bigot in Barcelona, especially when he suggested that the German roommate, Tobias (Barnaby Metschurat), must inevitably be a Nazi. Russian Dolls gives William a chance to redeem himself by falling in love with a Russian ballet dancer touring England and going the extra mile to woo her, taking a year to learn Russian before he looks her up in St. Petersburg. His romanticism trumps his bigotry. William’s suit is rewarded and there’s a full reunion of the Barcelona students for the Russian wedding finale with various amorous contretemps along the way.

    This is Romain Duris’ fifth film with Klapisch. Though it was Duris’edgy performance in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat My Heart Skipped/De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (released three months before Dolls) that most profoundly altered Duris' reputation into that of a serious actor, still it's clear that Klapisch and Duris have been very good for each other.

    While William finds true love, Wendy and Xavier have their own romantic whirlwind. Wendy seems to pick boozy, unreliable men. Xavier’s still friendly with his former girlfriend, Martine – how could Klapisch banish Audrey Tautou? – but he shares Wendy’s unlucky-in-love status. Even Martine seems stuck with a round of multiple partners -- a life now more worrying than fun: "Welcome to the thirties!" she declares. Xavier briefly dates a cute black girl, uses his lesbian ex-roommate Isabelle (Cécile de France) as a stand-in “fiancée” to meet his 98-year-old grandpa (Pierre Gérald), has a quick romance with would-be memoirist twenty-something super-model Celia (Lucy Gordon) and homes in on Wendy (Kelly Reilly).

    When the TV series Xavier is writing a sequel to is bought by BBC, it has to be switched to English, and who should turn out to be a great scriptwriter but Wendy. Xavier commutes back and forth between Wendy’s place in London and Celia’s fab flat in Paris overlooking Notre Dame, speeding back and forth on the Eurostar. Later he slips off to Moscow from St. Petersburg in the middle of the preparations for William’s marriage to Natacha (Evguenya Obraztsova). Locations change pretty fast, and never stop being glamorous and colorful.

    This is strictly movie land, and it would be a mistake to take any of Russian Dolls too seriously, but Klapisch, who had five years to ponder this sequel but likes to improvise his script from day to day during shooting, knows how to keep the ball rolling. His whirlwind round of warring and flirting and uniting couples is sort of like Gabriele (Last Kiss) Muccini’s operatic style, but with more international travel and fewer midlife crises. Paradoxically, though Muccini’s Italians can seem devastatingly superficial, Klapish’s motley crew seems even simpler. However, while Muccino’s men and women, boys and girls are full of themselves, Xavier has a wry awareness that his glam life as a ghostwriter is essentially shallow.

    It’s felicitous that the final post-wedding sequence on a boat is one of the film’s most memorable. Kevin Bishop’s parents fight, the old Barcelona roommates give teary little speeches, the German boy agrees to forget the Nazi slur, and William throws up and cries with joy. Since this was a reunion for the young cast that was itself emotional, the scene has a genuine feeling. Klapisch will consider another sequel five more years hence, and maybe this will turn out like a romantic fictional version of Michael Apted’s “—Up” series. This isn't deep, but it's warm, entertaining filmmaking with style and energy.

    (Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Center March 2006, Les poupées russes opened in Paris June 15, 2005. It will be distributed by IFC and is scheduled for limited US release May 2006.)


    COLD SHOWERS/DOUCHES FROIDES


    PIERRE PERRIER, SALOMÉ STÉVENIN, JOHAN LIBÉREAU IN COLD SHOWERS

    Mikael (Johan Libéreau) is the seventeen-year-old captain of a high school judo team who, as the film opens, is encouraged to befriend another team member, Clément (Pierre Perrier), whose wealthy father is the team’s sponsor. Once they start working together on the mats, they and Mikael’s now ripe childhood sweetheart Vanessa (Salomé Stévenin), with whom he’s already having sex, become a triangle.

    Maybe it’s generalized attraction or maybe it’s envy that allows Mikael to share Vanessa with Clément in a secret orgy-à-trois right on the gym mat, we don’t know. What is pretty clear is that Clément’s family is rich and happy and Mikael’s isn’t particularly either. Mikael’s dad (Jean-Philippe Écoffey) is a boozer whose drunk driving loses him his cab driver job, his angry mom (Florence Thévenin) does janitorial work at his school, and they live in a “banlieu” ghetto flat where mom has to cut off the electricity for two weeks because they can’t pay the bill.

    The “bac” high school general final exams are coming up and so is an important match for which Mikael must lose eight kilos in six weeks to qualify for a lower weight class. Mikael may outpace Clément in judo, but Clément has every other advantage, even to a better understanding of the strategy of the sport. Mikael feels dispossessed by comparison and this feeling is heightened when Vanessa and Clément again have sex – this time without him, because he flees from a hotel room he’s gone to with them: his class and his sex have endowed him with simpler notions of sexual roles. Only Vanessa of the three feels truly free to explore.

    Cold Showers is Antony Cordier’s first full-length film. It was well received in France, showcased in the new directors section at Cannes, and has US distribution. The physical frankness of the film may offend puritanical American sensibilities. In the Rendez-Vous Q & A Cordier said he's a fan of Larry Clark, and showed Clark’s Ken Park to his young principals before shooting because he knew they would like it, and it would serve as a test: would they be able to go this far in their interpretations? Well, Ken Park has been shown in France, but remains barred from public screenings in the US. Douches froides is milder than Ken Park, but its nudity and sexuality are still quite bold, including the sexual “democracy” of showing male bodies as freely as female, indeed more so, since the camera pursues the judo team into the showers to follow their horseplay and shows Clément and Mikael frontally nude after their sex marathon with Vanessa.

    Vanessa thinks sex with both boys is the best. Mikael decides it was wrong and comes to regard this experimentation, whatever his motive for participating in it, as having been a mistake. After the hotel incident, from which he flees, he rejects Vanessa, who for her part never forgot that Mikael was the one she cares about.

    Douches froides isn’t meant to be prurient, just open. Cordier wants to show the physicality of athletes and adolescent sexuality and also to confront how tragic and extreme adolescent life can be. Mikael is chosen as the film’s main character not to represent the dysfunctions of youth but its normal problems, and the fact that he faces specific class issues which he cannot transcend simply by being high-functioning. (The filmmaker studied editing at a prestigious French arts school, but grew up in a provincial working class family.) The hero’s new friend Clément is a golden boy because he comes from wealth and privilege. Both have parents who seem more adolescent than they do. It’s the youths here who are facing some of life’s most serious issues head-on, while the parents seem juvenile or evasive.

    A weakness of the film is that despite its rich physicality, there isn't much depth of character portrayal. The depiction of Mikael in particular is marked by a certain opacity. Despite his voiceover we rarely see into him, and his goof-up on the bac geography test is so total it makes him look inappropriately like a dimwit. Nor does his relationship with Clément go beyond judo moves and a party at the rich Steiners’ house where his dad disgraces himself. A plus is that the details of judo – a major sport in France – are very authentic. Otherwise, Cordier has chosen to classicize and generalize his milieu and his language. The location is made deliberately unspecific and the French is correct and without contemporary slang – two ways in which Douches froides differs from Kechicne’s recent prize-winning L’Esquive (Games of Love and Chance), which it resembles in taking youth seriously and attempting to show their relationship issues in depth.

    (Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Center March 2006, Douches froides opened in Paris June 22, 2005. Picture This, a US company that focuses on gay and coming-of-age films, has bought the US rights.)


    ZIM AND CO.



    Zim and Co., a lively story about four pals from the low income banlieu zone in the northern outskirts of Paris we know from riot reports, is nothing but fun to watch, though there’s also a vertiginous fear that its protagonist will fall into yet deeper shit from moment to moment. The film's fresh approach and watchability ought to make it a sure thing in the American arthouse market, but it has no distributor.

    Pierre and Adrien Jolivet: father and son. Experienced filmmaker (surpisingly given the youthful feel achieved, he's 54), born in this same northern ghettos of Paris himself, depicting the frantic Bicycle Thief-like search of Zim (Adrien) first for a job and then for a serviceable car so he can take the job so he can avoid jail by proving he has one -- a job, that is. He’s sideswiped a car on his moto, and cops have come and because he has a minor prior offense and now fails the drug test (he just came from playing a gig and smoked a spliff) the judge invokes tough new two-strike sentencing guidelines and threatens him with jail time if he can’t find proof of proper work by the time of his appearance. That’s your premise. With Zim (named for his long-gone Polish dad, Zimbietrovski) is his Arab pal and would-be inventor and jack of all trades Cheb and the obligatory black, Arthur, and Safia, who’s the brains and firm head of the group, and turns into Zim’s girl as the frantic story unwinds.

    Jolivet père’s skill at storytelling and Jolivet fils’s charm and physical panache combine to make this good-humored but well-grounded movie unwind enjoyably from start to finish.

    Zim (Adrien Joivet) is a tall, thin, mercurial, poetic-faced twenty-year-old with a big sweep of fashionable-looking hair who plays in a rock band and makes money occasionally unloading trucks for cash at a street market. He’s also a white guy in an overwhelmingly multi-cultural, disadvantaged world; the racism that surrounds him is as visible to him as to his ethnic, multi-racial friends, but sometimes it cuts to his advantage. When he considers a variety of possible legit jobs in a swift series of amusing, well-staged scenes, he has a good chance at several of them but rejects them for reasons of his own. He’s quickly hired at a sports merchendizing company for his knowledge of skateboarding but the day he starts work he has to show up with a high school diploma and a decent-looking car. Getting a driver’s license is something he’s been working on but not finalized; naturally he'll need that too.

    The events whirl around with Zim at the center, but camaraderie is the thing and we get a good look at his young friends' lives too. We learn how plump black Arthur (Yannick Nasso) is supervised by a racist boss as an apprentice in his auto repair program and find out how scary his disciplinarian dad (Maka Kotto) can be. Dinners at the house of Cheb (Mhamed Arezki) reveal his parents' happy interracial marriage and we follow his constant stream of inspirations for dubious labor-saving gadgets. The three pals often eat at the Tunisian sandwich joint where the independent-minded Safia (Naidra Ayadi) is a waitress., and Zim finds her a place to hide out for a while when she has a fight with her boss.

    Safia (Naidra Ayadi) has no trouble forging the diploma – while she’s at it she makes them for Zim’s best buddies Arthur (Yannik Nasso) and Cheb (Mhamed Arezki) too. Finding a car (preferably German) is a much taller order. They’ve got little money, Zim himself is broke, and when they pool their resources and Zim tries to buy a cheap used auto he gets conned: the man takes his cash and leaves with the car. They try various other schemes to find alternate cars. The film is a quick study in ghetto improv and semi-legal dodges. At his worst moment Zim offers his services to local drug czar Ikea (Abdelhafid Metalsi), but balks at the need to use a pistol.

    When he gets to the parking part of his driver’s license test Zim bangs into both adjacent cars, but the white racist lady tester immediately decides to pass him “to fill a quota.” She then lights up and roars with laughter at a comedy tape that makes crude fun of Asians.

    Zim and Co. works so well because of skilful writing that never lets the momentum falter no matter how complex the plot, and never loses touch with its genially comprehensive picture of Paris ghetto life – and because the young actors are lively and fine, and the scenes are shot in very real gritty locations, with a camera whose work is as colorful and fast-moving as the story. The lively, toe-tapping , appropriately rap-heavy music was composed and assembled by Adiren Jolivet and Sacha Sieff.

    Adrien Jolivet got a Most Promising Actor nomination at the French Césars this year, and it’s clear we’re going to be seeing him onscreen again.

    (Shown as part of the Renzez-Vous with French Cinema Today presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in March 2006, Zim and Co. opened in Paris August 17, 2006 to generally good press and audience response, and it was part of the Un Certain Regard showings at Cannes.)


    GREY SOULS


    JEAN-PIERRE MARIELLE

    Grey Souls/Les Âmes grises is above all the product of a fevered imagination. It’s like a super-downbeat version of some glossy TV historical miniseries such as one gets under the Masterpiece Theater imprimatur. This one of course is French, and based on a novel of the same name by Philippe Claudel about the strangely tormented inhabitants of a town in 1917 separated by a range of hills from the trench warfare of World War I but within earshot of the artillery fire.

    The story, which director Yves Angelo has evoked with a certain brilliance, suggests the proposition that people on the edge of war go morally putrid – though the main character, the wealthy, aging, brooding Prosecutor Pierre-Ange Destinat (a hypnotically powerful Jean-Pierre Marielle) may have dried up and turned strange and warped as long as forty-odd years ago, when his pretty young wife was found floating face down in a nearby stream.

    In the opening sequence a pre-pubescent girl called “Belle de jour” (Josépine Zapy) has just been found in the same location and is laid out ashen and cold on the misty ground. The repulsive local Judge Mierck (a compulsively watchable Jacques Villeret) is on the scene, and dominates it. He tends to act gleefully menacing and has the habit of gourmandising in the middle of his investigations, giving new meaning to the term, "chewing up the scenery." There’s no love lost between the oily, sadistic Mierck and the austere Prosecutor, though later Mierck does something he thinks is saving the Prosecutor’s skin. He gets no thanks for it.

    Next we see the local schoolteacher go definitively nuts in his classroom, dressing his youngsters in gas masks and having them sing the ferocious verses of the Marseillaise while he strips, throws boots and clothes across the room, and urinates on the blackboard. This is our first in-your-face warning that war’s a dangerous infection that may have its worst effects on those who've not been sent to the front.

    The teacher’s replacement is a beautiful young woman, Lysia Verhareine (Marina Hands). The loco prof has trashed his room shockingly, so she’s lodged in a cottage on the property of the Prosecutor’s “chateau.” She spends every spare moment pining for her beloved, with whom she exchanges letters to and from the front that she lovingly copies into a red notebook. The Prosecutor, who identifies her with his lost love, intercepts and reads the letters; they suit his own twisted broodings. When one comes with news of the lover’s death he holds it for several weeks. Lysia is found dead in mysterious circumstances shortly after the Prosecutor has finally released the letter to her.

    The rest of the film skillfully teases us over the question of whether the Prosecutor killed the lady schoolteadcher and the girl, and perhaps his long-dead wife -- who all three happen to resemble each other. These are mysteries that are never solved. The Prosecutor is the number one grey soul: he has a nobility about him, but seems capable of profoundly evil acts.

    We’re further “entertained” by watching as Judge Mierck, accompanied by a Russian-looking colonel, gleefully subjects two captured deserters to torments worthy of Abu Ghraib; and by observing the fate of a deputy policeman (Denis Podalydès). His wife dies in childbirth, probably because the road was blocked by soldiers when she went into labor and he was cut of from her.

    Almost everyone in Grey Souls is suicidal or homicidal or, if they lack the energy for that, just angry and vindictive. To say the way this town is depicted represents a Hobbesian view of humanity would be a bit of an understatement. “Grey” may mean they can go either way, and are not clearly either good or bad. That doesn’t seem to fit Judge Mieck, and “grey” also just means mournful. There is no bright happy soul in this film amd watching it isn't a fun thing, though one can't deny it's riveting and well made. Some of the wintry landscapes also have a greyness that's beautiful and unique.

    Audience members at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema screening, mostly well over forty, were well pleased with Angelo’s work and found it profound, eagerly discussing with the director himself the issues they felt it brings up – the main ones presumably being the very fundamental and dark questions as to whether humans are worth not exterminating and life is worth not ending. Grey Souls is very well done, if not without longeurs, but to me it seemed far too contrived and over-the-top -- far more a high-toned sort of horror movie or a novelist’s playful smelling-of-the-lamp mental construct – to think of as a serious and universal philosophical examination of morality and war.

    Even the audience laughed when it learned of the Judge’s painful off-screen demise, which smelled a great deal too much of poetic justice.

    Les Âmes grises has the downbeat French equivalent of a Hollywood ending: the deputy policeman does not kill his dead wife’s baby. That part of the book Monsieur Angelo leaves out. And a celebration in voiceover of the baby's innocence is as upbeat as the movie gets.

    (Shown during the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Cener March 2006, Les Âmes grises opened in Paris September 28, 2005.)


    I SAW BEN BARKA KILLED



    Serge Le Péron's I Saw Ben Barka Killed/J’ai vu tuer Ben Barka has Jean-Pierre Léaud playing French Forties cult director Georges Franju, and an actress called Josiane Balasko as Marguerite Duras. They’re contacted by a con-artist, ex-con and would-be artist-intellectual named Georges Figon (French film everyman Charles Berling), who’s been in turn contacted by mysterious others to start a project: a film about French colonialism, which will use exiled Moroccan revolutionary leader Mehdi Ben Barka (Simon Abkarian) as its historical advisor.

    Figon (also a historical figure, if of less note) has no particular business being involved in such a thing, but his handlers knew he would want to: he's out for the main chance and figures to get rich and make his actress girlfriend famous by doing it. The year is 1965.

    Figon meets with Ben Barka briefly in a hotel in Egypt with men he doesn’t realize are intelligence agents (one of them played by Matthieu Amalric). Ben Barka agrees to work on the film.

    Later Ben Barka comes to Paris to consult, but just before his first meeting is intercepted on the street along with a young Moroccan intellectual whose help he’s soliciting for the project. And that’s the end of Ben Barka. Later in the day Figon’s there, cooperating, when Ben Barka is upstairs somewhere outside Paris being tortured; but flexible though he may be, Figon comes down too. He was only a pawn in the game.

    We see actual footage of then President Charles De Gaulle at a mega-press conference denying any French government knowledge of or involvement in the wacking of Ben Barka. Shots of Figon’s body in a pool of blood on the floor (neatly suited as throughout) bookend the piece. He’s dead, but he narrates the movie – post-death.

    The aim of this nourish fictionalization is to dot i’s and cross t’s on a government assassination that could be considered an important footnote on the history of French colonialism. Unfortunately the noir hints only point up J’ai vu tuer's colorless generic quality. It never comes up with explanations of the deeper motives of the events it spotlights (why Ben Barka? Why now?) or gathers much real momentum, Figon hogs the screen while remaining a colorless shill. Actor Abkarian endows Ben Barka with dignity: he's like a North African Yves Montand (one remembers Montand's aging revolutionary in Resnais' 1966 La guerre est finie). But Ben Barka is only the indirect focus of the film, a backdrop for Figon’s story.

    The cloudy sources of the Ben Barka assassination would certainly be of concern to students of modern French politics. But despite respectable period mounting and a nice jazz score meant to evoke Peron fave and French Noir great Jean-Pierre Melville, this seems from an American point of view to be a misguided project of limited interest with no precise sense of style. It appears to have been the hands-down choice for most pointless inclusion in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today, March 2006 edition.

    (J’ai vu tuer Ben Barka opened in Paris November 2, 2005.)


    HEADING SOUTH


    CHARLOTTE RAMPLING

    Laurent Cantet’s Heading South/Vers le sud begins in the Port au Prince airport. A Haitian woman, with the greatest sweetness and dignity, implores a man she's never met, a resort hotel employee, to take away her teenage daughter with him so that the girl will be safe. The lady explains that her husband had a respectable position but suddenly was disappeared by the Papa Doc regime; now she is penniless. The man refuses to take the girl. Instead he meets a sad-faced, sallow white woman named Brenda (Karen Young) and takes her to the hotel.

    Soon Brenda is on the beach where young blacks – the favorite, Legba (Ménothy Cesar), lithe and sweet; the older Neptune (Wilfred Paul); little Eddy (Jackenson Pierre Olmo Diaz) and others – accompany women in their forties and fifties, of whom we observe Sue (Louise Portal), a French Canadian, and Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) – who almost seems to be in charge.

    There is something voyeuristic about the first third of this movie. The way the boys fawn on the women – and the women lap it up -- is more mutually exploitive, racist, political, more starkly rich/poor, young/old – even more starkly hedonistic than we’re accustomed to seeing on the screen – so overtly shocking that even before the film has gone into release American critics have taken offense at it. Perhaps most shocking of all, we know this is the poorest and scariest country in the hemisphere at one of the worst times (the Seventies, yet these people are having immense fun, living an idyll.

    Cantet is as concerned with the whole situation as he is with the few events that unfold; as concerned with the whole phenomenon of “heading south” as with Brenda’s hopeless, perhaps embarrassing, infatuation with Legba, or Ellen’s subsequent collapse, the trouble that befalls Legba – these dispersals and dispositions of the action. But the situation is such that something must happen. It’s a situation that’s satisfying to the participants but fraught with danger.

    Human Resource/Resources humaines (1999), Cantet’s second film and the first one shown in the US, shows a small factory where a young man who’s just come in as part of management joins a strike to support his worker father – even though his father rejects the strike and resents this stand. The film sees labor conflicts in a very personal way, and identification (labor/management, socialist/communist) as flexible. Time Out/L’Emploi du temps (2001), the director’s third outing, is also about work, identity, and masks. A man loses his job but out of shame invents a nonexistent one and for months pretends to his family that he’s traveling with important new responsibilities, international in nature, when in fact he’s just driving around vast stretches of country. Has he lost his job, his identity, or his sanity? A bit of each, because they’re intertwined.

    Heading South is also about work and masks and ambiguous roles. The white women's Haitian lovers aren’t simply sex workers or “gigolos.” At least one, the older Neptune, works as a fisherman. Free lancers, they aren’t “paid” in any organized way, just slipped some money or given presents. In return the Haitians satisfy the women in ways that can hardly be quantified. Three years ago Brenda seduced Legba at fifteen, after her late husband had been feeding him meals, and she had her first orgasm with the boy, at the age of 45. (She, Ellen, and Sue address the camera directly to describe their situation. Legba, who says it's sexier to talk little and preserve his mystery, never does.)

    The film’s based on three short stories by Haitian writer Dany Lafferière, and the action feels like an updated Somerset Maugham; this is colonialism, and it’s people who take foolish risks and get burned.

    I don’t think the white women are unaware of the awful regime; they just look the other way. Several times when the camera’s alone with Legba (that is, away from the white women), we see signs of the corruption, power, and danger close at hand and we realize these can crush Legba – even for almost no reason. When he’s taken for a ride in a limo with dark windows we know he’s in mortal danger.

    There’s a seeming contrast between the heart-on-her-sleeve, vulnerable Brenda, from the American South, and cool, sophisticated Ellen, a Brit from Boston who’s fluent in French. Ellen cynically says the women all want the same thing – a good time – but in the end it’s Brenda who goes on pursuing pleasure and Ellen who returns to the North, her heart and spirit broken. Brenda replaces Ellen; and little Eddy, who already wants to pair off with white women, in time will replace Legba.

    Heading South isn’t as clearly schematic as Human Resources or as intriguingly strange as Time Out, but brings up a wider and more troubling range of issues. Its up-front look at sexual tourism and the presence of the reborn and quietly magnificent Charlotte Rampling will insure that this third of Laurent Cantet’s movies to be distributed in the US will lead to more recognition by the American audience.

    Time Out NewYork, which reviewed Vers le sud as part of a quick glance at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema of March 2006, dismissed the film as “tone-deaf about race, class and gender.” At least one vocal audience member at the Lincoln Center Q&A found its treatment of Legba “condescending” because he doesn’t address the camera. These reactions show Cantet has unintentionally touched American nerves. He's simply cooler about race, class and gender; he’s not unaware of anything, but he lets us draw our own conclusions, and he enjoys provocations and ambiguities. He continues to be an interesting filmmaker who has a special skill at showing how public and private issues intersect, and Vers le sud looks as if it will win him both more friends and more enemies. By heading South, he’s put himself more on the map.

    (Shown during the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 2006, Vers le sud opened in Paris January 25, 2006. It’s been purchased by Shadow Distribution for US release.)


    LE PETIT LIEUTENANT


    JALIL LESPERT

    There’s nothing very original about a rookie police officer from the provinces fresh out of police academy on his first assignment in Paris tackling a homicide case, yet director Xavier Beauvois; his star, the experienced Nathale Baye (who got a César for Best Actress for this role); and the other actors, some rookies, others veterans, have made something so fresh, exiting, and touching out of this material you almost feel as if nobody made a flic (cop) flick in France before – though of course such things are a longtime specialty there. Beauvois’ Le Petit lieutenant simply shows that the French really know how to make movies. It doesn't matter how familiar the genre is, they can create something with texture and authenticity out of it.

    For me the rich feel Beauvois brings to his seemingly conventional material begins with the fact that there’s no background music – it gives events onscreen an unadorned quality – and with the way Beauvois, who’s still in his thirties, puts his own basic experience into the story. Antoine (Jalil Lespert), the “petit lieutenant,” the rookie, grew up in Normandy dreaming of being a cop in Paris where the great crimes are solved, he says – inspired by watching movies too. Beauvois grew up in Normandy himself, dreaming the same kind of dreams, watching movies, only the dreams were dreams of going to Paris where the great movies are made. Make the simple equation: Crimes+movies=crime movies and you've got a director who's making a parable about his own life.

    Caroline Vaudieu (Baye), the Inspector who chooses Antoine for her crime unit, is returning to work on the street again from a long period of the alcoholism that blighted both Beauvois’ father’s and his own life. Twelve-step recovery and addiction are felt and understood in the film. The AA meetings Caroline attends are in real AA meeting rooms with real alcoholics onscreen. Caroline and Antoine are linked in ways that are felt, not contrived. She lost her son to meningitis nine years ago and Antoine’s the age her son would be if he’d lived. Antoine’s elementary school teacher wife has stayed in Normandy and now he has a room in Paris. He and Caroline share lonely lives; both are making a new start. And the casting is close to home in multiple ways: Beauvois, who also acts in the film as one of the crime team, Morbé, has cast Jalil’s actor father Jean and brother Yaniss as his father and brother and his actress wife Bérangère Allaux as his wife.

    The opening scenes of Antoine’s graduation from police academy and being embraced and congratulated by his family, and the elaborate procedure by which the assignments are handed out to the new graduates, are moments that in other hands might seem routine, but here they fairly bristle with authenticity. Such realism takes time to achieve. Eventually Le Petit lieutenant is going to become exciting, even hair-raising, but it doesn’t have the BANG! BANG! opening sequences dear to US directors, nor are those openings about Antoine simply routine: they’re the beginning of an extended portrait of Antoine and his new life in Paris. This movie is fundamentally humanistic and it doesn't hurry because we need to get to know Antoine and the team he works with, feel the boredom and routine that are big parts of any cop’s life, acquaint ourselves with the details of their personalities.

    Somehow I don’t think a rookie in an American cop movie would tell his dad that the extraction of a brain in his first witnessed autopsy made him think of Mozart and say “It’s strange, I thought: ‘Mozart was made of this too.’” There's no "need" for that moment; but it makes all the difference. It's of such moments that good movies are made.

    Antoine’s on night duty at first and when his team goes out he’s made to stay behind to man phones. He gets drunk to celebrate his initiation, which is good for camaraderie (and for the rounding out of Antoine's character) but hard for Inspector Vaudrieu, who must stand by drinking nothing but soda water. As the film, knowing about alcoholism, makes us aware, the alcoholic is only one drink away from relapse, and such times are hard for Caroline. She has to leave the bar and go home early. Later naively the rookie admits to her he used to smoke the occasional joint and surprisingly, she shares one with him. There are inevitable hints from the outside that they might have an affair, but given the feelings, that would be incest. What's clear is that though not much time has passed, they've become close.

    The ensemble is excellent. Particularly strong is Solo (Rochdy Zem), who fits into the team like he was always there, and whose background gets its best development during a social evening at his house with his famly, when he talks about how his job was rough at first due to prejudice against people of Moroccan descent.

    The first homicide is a homeless person in the Seine – petty stuff. But there are connections with another crime and the investigation turns serious. Eventually a failure of responsibility of one of the men leads to dire consequences. When the action really heats up, it’s a shock that hits you in the stomach. The “dull, routine” establishing sequences have lulled you and made you forget that violence might be coming. They’ve also made you understand and care about the characters in an authentic-feeling way so that when somebody is at risk, you take it quite personally and the whole final section of the movie as its focus shifts more and more to Inspector Vaudrieu is tinged with overwhelming sadness.

    Nothing that happens in Le Petit lieutenant is out of the ordinary. What’s exceptional is the way the screenplay is written to make you care. There’s excitement, tension, violence. But it’s brilliantly yet understatedly contextualized. The awareness communicated is that cops’ frequently numbing work can also be thrilling, important – and heartbreaking. Hollywood sends that message out too, but too often in tired language. Because Beauvois’ team clearly cared about their work they’ve been able to show us cops that do so too.

    (Shown in the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today March 2006, Le Petit lieutenant opened in Paris November 16, 2005.)


    HELL (L'ENFER)



    Danis Tanovic's L'Enfer begins with opening titles and a pre-title vignette so glossy, elaborate, and symbol-laden they almost wear you out before the movie’s even started. The Times’s Holden called this the “most artistically high-reaching film” of the March 2006 Lincoln Center French Series and he's absolutely right; but though Tanovic said in the Q&A after the screening that his movies are highly planned and shot in single takes to spare the company, it was impossible to see where the moral intensity was in his boisterous on-stage Slavic version of an “aw shucks” attitude. Might there have been something missing, despite the impressive display of seeming importance and the high production values?

    Hell is based on a 55-page treatment by long-time Kieslowski screenwriter/collaborator Piesiewiesz, and is the second part of a projected Heaven-Hell-Purgatory trilogy. But it’s hard to say whether this movie is a Kieslowski homage, an effort at continuation, or simply a glossy but empty knockoff. The question that now comes to mind is, if this is a good imitation of Kieslowski, was Kieslowski himself this artificial and unfelt? Surely at least some of the time he most emphatically was not. Does an artist like the Polish master Kieslowski need a homage? But apart from that, shouldn't a real homage go in more of a new direction, transcending the master's tradition in a new and interesting way?

    There’s too much going on here, and there’s something lacking at the core, but there’s also too much good stuff to dismiss. Hell has a look as lush as any Kieslowski film, with filters, handsome and sometimes color-coded interiors, impressive locations – a perfectly grand chateau, a classic sculpted Sorbonne lecture hall, a dark, elegant photographer’s house and his equally “wow”-inspiring studio – and, last but not least, a brace of beautiful French movie actresses: Emmanuelle Béart, Caroline Bouquet, Karin Viard, Marie Gillain. (Tanovic, whose No Man’s Land won him praise and purged his obsession with the war experiences he grew up with in Bosnia, also made Hell as a homage to French filmmaking. Perhaps more specifically to Kieslowski's filmmaking in France.) There’s also Kieslowski’s preoccupation with destiny, chance, and mysterious interconnections between people and events. There’s so much going on here, and there's often the feel of Kieslwoski in superficial but entrancing ways, but still it’s hard to feel for any of the people, even when they’re laying on the emotion with a trowel.

    This is perhaps because there’s too much flitting back and forth between characters, without getting close enough to any of them, despite a sense of high melodrama surrounding each of them. Béart, Viard and Marie Gillain represent three sisters who all live in Paris but have lost touch with each other. Sophie (Béart) has two kids and a lean, cool, and unfaithful photographer husband (Jacques Gamblin) whose adultery she humiliates herself by spying on. They subsequently separate, but apart from a couple of dramatic confrontations, we don’t get the details. Cécile (Viard) is sterile but sweet and takes the train to the country each weekend to care for the sisters’ mute, wheel-chaired mother (Carole Bouquet). When she's in Paris, she's occasionally pursued by a young man named Sebastian (Guillaume Canet) who may be in love with her. The younger sister, Anne (Gillain) is more out and about, but she's got a bad problem of her own. A Sorbonne student, she's madly in love with a prof named Frédéric (Jacques Perrin, who is also the judge in Le Petit lieutenant), a man old enough to be her father who, in one of the film’s several surprises, turns out to be the father of Anne’s “only friend.” But the family members know nothing of the relationship and unwittingly urge Anne to “fight” to win their own husband and father. Frédéric loved Anne once at the Acropolis, but now he’s trying to get rid of her because he loves his wife and daughter.

    Sébastian has the key to something that may explain all three sisters' neurotic and lonely lives. It may also have something to do with the story of Medea, which Anne recites in a Sorbonne exam room with Cliff Notes simplicity. That's all I can tell you, not because I don't want to spoil things but because that's all I know. If it weren’t for the later scene in which Céline confronts Sébastian we wouldn’t know why we’re watching this movie. We wouldn’t even know these were three sisters. This kind of structure works well enough in a mystery story where there’s a specific mystery set up at the beginning, but here, there are just random events, and a lot of emoting and pretty scenery and portentous imagery. Style overwhelms substance in L'Enfer, even though its substance, in the form of elaborate plotting, is pretty elaborate too.

    When it’s all over and the mute mother writes her unintentionally comic final mot echoing Edith Piaf, “Je ne regretted rien” (I regret nothing), things really still aren’t fully explained, but we, and Tanovic, have run out of energy. The fact that Tanovic can mount a production like this suggests that, if he finds something to say, he will have impressive means to say it. Meanwhile, these actors and images were too much fun to watch to dismiss the movie, but the emptiness at the center precludes giving it the superlative rating it aspires to.

    (Shown during the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 2006, L'Enfer opened to very poor reviews but some spectator enthusiasm in Paris November 30, 2005.)


    HOUSEWARMING



    Housewarming: the complete title refers to home remodeling or construction work and it's a wry French saying Travaux, on sait quand ça commence... construction work —we know when it begins -- but never when it will end. Brigitte Roüan's film begins as a bit of whimsy, turns into a chaotic mess, and ends as a warm -- but unintentionally ambiguous -- editorial in favor of hiring undocumented workers. It's wholly inaccurate as a depiction of current demographics and overtly fantastic, yet the circumstances of the film-making mirror the circumstances of the story. The result is genial and amusing, but in terms of craft there's a bit too much bricolage in the mise-en-scène as well as the work in question on screen. From the American point of view there's probably also a lot of verbal humor that gets lost in translation -- though there's plenty of funny business going on visually.

    The whimsy concerns a Parisian lady barrister, Chantal Letelier (the lean, elegant Carole Bouquet), who’s highly successful in defending homeless illegals. When some Spanish sublets move out of a maid's room upstairs and she realizes she might be able to open up her ceiling a bit, Chantal practices what she preaches, so to speak, and lets her flat be overrun by Columbian remodelers, led by an aspiring and unpredictable architect (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo). There’s a fat, wrinkly former client with a big mustache, a sort of stubby Fernandel (Jean-Pierre Castaldi), who decides he’s in love with Chantal and pursues her with flowers and pet names, and there are a cute teenage son and daughter who have to put up with becoming nearly homeless themselves as all the walls are knocked out and the functioning parts of the flat are disconnected. The son, Martin (Ferdinand Chesnais, son of Patrick of I’m Not Here to be Loved/Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé), likes to rollerblade to the bathroom. The architect has new plans every day and cardless and dangerous workers who flirt with Chantal, dance with her daughter Pulchérie (Giulia Dussolier) and teach her Spanish, but can’t do plumbing, electric, tiles, or sheetrock. Their only real accomplishment is knocking out walls. And they aren’t very good at acting either.

    What contributes no doubt to the morphing of whimsy into mess and yet makes the movie work at times and even occasionally charm us in spite of ourselves -- though without impressing us cinematically -- is that the shooting and the story, as mentioned, were parallel situations: Roüan, whose advocacy parallels Chantal's, used dozens of undocumented workers to stage her project about undocumented workers, and the crew really did have to dodge the police during the shooting, which involved a lot of non-actors – as suggested; that's probably why they're not very good at acting – and surrounded the elegant, lithe Carole Bouquet – who breaks into a dance – and also break-dances – when she's presenting cases before judges – with real as well as simulated chaos.

    What one remembers about Housewarming is the people. If you like them, you like the movie. There are a lot of them -- Columbian, Malian, Moroccan, Italian, French – and some of them I liked. Not all. Some I got tired of pretty quick, and others I’d like to have seen more of.

    The whole thing is fast and loose, and at the end it’s held together by a kind of team spirit. Like classic comedies, it ends with a celebration.

    Roüan admitted, at the Lincoln center Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Q&A, that the movie isn't at all realistic – notably in putting a lot of Columbians on the job when in fact it's Arab and African workers who do such work in Paris. Why the change? Roüan's whim. Contrast Jolivet's Zim and Co, another 2006 Rendez-Vous film that's light and humorous about social problems, but concerns real and specific situations and follows accurate demographics for the Paris banlieu setting it concerns.

    Yong Betamax (Geovanny Tituaña), who quickly pairs off with Chantal’s daughter by mutual consent and teaches her rumba and Spanish and other nifty things, was a paid boy assassin in Medellín. Pretty cool; but would you want your daughter to date one? And given the pro-illegals stance, is it appropriate that the crew makes a costly mess of their house remodeling job? The gutted apartment looks splendid at the end, and is admired by Hugh Grant in a last minute cameo appearance – thus justifying English financial support for the movie –but there’s no progression in the chaotic film to this state or explanation of how it was arrived at.

    Travaux is a genial piece that's hard to dislike because it means so well and everybody had so much fun making it. But there are too many points when Roüan's directing seems as out of control as the events she relates. The scenario is much more precise and witty than the mise-en-scène, which clearly got completely out of hand more than once. This is good-humored advocacy which may be the right way to go – and this could have possibilities for US distribution, but it didn't work very well as a film for me and at times it was downright irritating.

    (Shown at the March 2006 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York, Travaux opened in Paris June 1, 2005, when it appears to have fared better with the critics than with the public.)


    THE RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA: RANKINGS AND COMMENTS


    LE PETIT LIEUTENANT.......................GOOD GIRL

    ZIM AND CO.......................................HEADING SOUTH

    RUSSIAN DOLLS.................................LA MOUSTACHE

    NOT HERE TO BE LOVED.....................GREY SOULS

    COLD SHOWERS.................................HELL

    YOU LOOK VERY HANDSOME...............HOUSEWARMING

    ORCHESTRA SEATS.............................PALAIS ROYAL!

    ........................I SAW BEN BARKA KILLED............................


    (Those are my rankings, from top rung to bottom. Two to a rung. )

    The Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Center’s 2006 edition brings home a lot of differences between American filmmaking and the French kind. I’ve heard someone say that anyone in France who wants to make a movie can do so. The French are more willing and able to do fresh, original work. Though it’s not like money grows on trees in France, money pressures may be less without the Hollywood behemoth looming overhead or off in the distance. Original means whatever you will – classic, out of touch, or engagé. As has become a bit of a cliché now, the French lately have excelled at mixing up the genres, combining them and confusing them. An unclassifiable movie is the best sign possible of an independent, fresh film industry.

    This is the best showcase we’ve got for new French films. But it’s not perfection. It’s gone a bit commercial. This is America. There’s money to be made here. In fact some French films made more money here last year than they made in France. Cahiers du Cinéma used to collaborate on the series back when it began eleven years ago. Now Unifrance and the French Film Office are involved, with more emphasis on finding US distributors than on selflessly showing the best French cinema of the past year that we haven’t seen – which would be, in part, a different list than the fifteen we saw. There are always remarkable films that haven’t been shown here, but most of the Rendez-Vous entries go back only six months; early 2005 was passed over.

    This commercial bias may explain some niggling preview pieces by New York critics: Time Out New York’s title was “French Can-Can’t,” and the Village Voice’s was “Déjà Vu.” It’s true there were some negligible entries. But somebody knew what she was doing, because they were well received. At least Isabelle Mergault’s first film, You Are So Handsome/Je vous trouve très beau – not such a good film – got favorable audience reactions. French critics said it wasn’t even a film at all; but its sentimental wintry-heart-awakened story and its look at the plight of Eastern European women might fly with US audiences.

    When you think about it there was a lot of social consciousness in the series, but most of it posed as frivolity, and some really was frivolous, and other films made deep sense. Brigitte Rouan’s Housewarming/Travaux...., which looked clever in the blurb but seemed inept, was a fuzzy-thinking effort at commitment to a social cause (hiring and protecting illegal workers), but Variety thinks its comic content will do well here.

    Pierre Jolivet’s Zim and Co. ought to. Jolivet does well what Rouan does badly: he creates a drama of the dispossessed, but he’s working closer to home, talking about young people in the poor banlieux where he himself grew up, and using his own son Adrien as the star, who with his three best mates is struggling to make it. Zim and Co is adept both intellectually and cinematically, and it’s also a lot of fun while being very knowing and specific about things like green cards and driver’s licenses and Le Pen.

    Laurent Cantet’s Heading South/Vers le sud, about white women taking black lovers in 70’s Haiti, clearly a film with both serious personal implications and socio-political ones, has a distributor. (It doesn’t hurt that it has a sexually shocking theme and the charismatic Charlotte Rampling.) But it’s good that it was included because it won critical acclaim by being shown here and added luster to the series.

    I already admired Cantet and am glad that now he seems to have become news, but I hadn’t heard of the directors of my greatest favorites. Xavier Beauvois (whose terrific cop flick blew me away) is young but already has been making movies. There’s nothing in Le Petit Lieutenant that you might not find on American TV: an alcoholic woman Inspector returning to work, a rookie officer joining her big city crime unit – except the big city is Paris. Beauvois works magic with this material because he treats it with such respect, and Nathalie Baye and Jalil Lespert and the other actors are so fine.

    Likewise Sophie Fillières — like Beauvois young and previously unknown to me. She arrived in a trenchcoat and looked like a college student. (She was also one of several who had lived here and spoke perfect English. In fact the strictly fancophone directors were few – to my disappointment since I wanted to practice my French, as well as admire the work of the excellent interpreter on board throughout the series.) I don’t know what Good Girl/Gentille is about. It’s about the wonderful actress, Emmanuelle Devos (for whom Fillière wrote her screenplay); about a woman finding herself; being herself; but along the way many wholly unexpected things happen that don’t so much explore character or tell a story as create memorable cinema, something rich in style and evocative of tradition while quite fresh. Some thought this movie frivolous and lightweight. I don’t agree.

    On my third rung Cédric Klapisch’s Russian Dolls/Les Poupées russes and Emmanuel Carrère’s La Moustache are more professional entertainments – though Moustache might be seen as an existential puzzler, it still has nicely tweaked Hitchcockian thrills, the suspenseful energy of an obsession. Klapisch, whose sequel to the popular L’Auberge espagonle starring Romain Duris this is – isn’t a profound filmmaker, maybe not even such a brilliant one, but he’s very adept with what he does in this sequel, using an improvisatory technique within a well-conceived formula that makes good use of his actors and his colorful locations.

    Now we come down to the realm of the grey, which is very validly French; for even Paris, the City of Light, is a grey lady and famous for her many shades of gray. The French know melancholy: Stéphane Brizé's Not Here to Be Loved/Je Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé is about a sad, lonely man, but the knowing portrait, which got Patrick Chesnais nominated for a César for Best Actor, is sympathetic and hopeful. Yves Angelo’s Grey Souls/Les ames grises is another, darker, shade of grey. It too is a depressed movie, and concerns another aging man with a shriveled heart – but this one is part of a World War I world of hallucinatory neurasthenia and moral decay where non-combatants verge on or fully enter into madness. This fevered invention is hard to buy, but Angelo’s craftsmanship makes it work. These are both well-made films, but they're too mournful and draining to be enthusiastic about.

    Now we're one rung further down, because at this point I'm not sure of the intentions of Messieurs Cordier and Tanovic in Cold Showers/Douches froides and Hell/L’Enfer, respectively. Cordier’s first-film portrait of teenagers involved in a love triangle and economic contrasts is interesting, but there is something voyeuristic about its images of nudity; Larry Clark is a tricky model to follow and not a good goal to shoot for – the movie has a distributor that deals in gay-interest films. Tanovic seems not to understand the high seriousness of Krzysztof Kieslowski and in his Kieslowski sequel/homage/knockoff has produced something more like high camp, with impressive production values and a glittering cast that only serve to highlight the shallowness inside. Better luck next time?

    The two comedy openers, both quite glossy, Palais Royal! and Orchestra Seats/Fauteuils d’orchestre – both featuring the much admired Valérie Lemercier, whose charms definitively elude me – came armed with awards and nominations and were also well thought of here and have entertainment value. But they aren’t likely to make any film buffs’ heart-rates go up.

    As for the bottom rung, that’s there because this dramatized incident where a con man was duped to play a role in a political assassination (of Moroccan revolutionary leader Mehdi Ben Barka) isn’t a fictionalized piece of history that comes off – and it’s too specialized. Those in France who think it’s a good evocation of film noir may need to go back and watch some Jean-Pierre Melville again. The man who is tired of watching Jean-Pierre Melville is tired of French cinema and needs to make a rendez-vous somewhere else. But though this exhibition of new French films was a mixed bag, the sack held eight or so well worth seeing, four or five quite fine ones, and a couple that are terrific. No déjà vu here. The French still can, and they do.
    _________________
    ©Chris Knipp 2006
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 10-02-2019 at 10:55 PM.

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