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Thread: Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2010 at Loncoln Center

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    Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2010 at Lincoln Center

    Rendez-Vous with French
    Cinema 2010


    Coverage and reviews by Chris Knipp

    Reviews and descriptions will appear here from Feb. 16 following.

    To comment go to the Filmleaf Forums comments and notifications thread for this year's Rendez-Vous here.

    Links to the reviews:

    8 Times Up (Xabia Molia 2010)
    Army of Crime, The (Robert Guédiguian 2009)
    Farewell (Christian Carion 2009)
    French Kissers, The (Riad Sattouf 2009)
    Hedghog, The (Mona Achache 2009)
    I'm Glad That My Mother Is Alive (Claude and Nathan Miller 2009)
    In the Beginning (Xavier Giannoli 2009)
    King of Escape, The (Alain Guiraudie 2009)
    Mademoiselle Chambon (Stéphane Brizé 2009)
    Making Plans for Léna (Christophe Honoré 2009)
    OSS 117: Lost in Rio (Michel Hazanavicius 2009)
    Rapt (Lucas Belvaux 2009)
    Regrets (Cédric Kahn 2009)
    Refuge, Le (François Ozon 2010)
    Restless (Laurent Perreau 2009)
    Thorn in the Heart, The (Michel Gondry 2010)
    Welcome (Philippe Lioret 2009)
    Wolberg Family, The (Axelle Ropert 2009)
    RENDEZ-VOUS 2010 SUMMARY: CK thumbnail reviews and picks



    Press Screening Schedule

    Please join us for advance press screenings at the Walter Reade Theater 165 West 65th Street, close to Amsterdam Ave. P

    Tuesday, February 16th
    10am
    The Army of Crime (L'armée du crime); 139m


    Wednesday, February 17th
    10am
    Regrets (Les Regrets); 105m
    12pm
    Restless (Le bel âge); 97m


    Thursday, February 18th

    10am
    Mademoiselle Chambon; 101m


    Friday, February 19th
    10am
    The King of Escape (Le roi de l'évasion); 97m
    12pm
    The Thorn in the Heart (L'épine dans le Coeur); 86m
    1:45pm
    OSS 117 - Lost in Rio (OSS 177-Rio ne répond plus); 100m


    Tuesday, February 23rd
    10am
    8 Times Up (Huit fois debout); 103m
    12pm
    Making Plans for Lena (Non ma fille tu n'iras pas danser); 105m
    2pm
    The Hedgehog (Le hérisson); 100m


    Wednesday, February 24th
    10am
    Rapt; 125m
    12:20pm
    The Law (La loi/La legge); 126m


    Thursday, February 25th
    10am
    **In the Beginning (A l'origine); 120m
    **TENTATIVE SCREENING DATE/TIME - please contact Emilie directly for updates


    Friday, February 26th10am
    The Wolberg Family (La famille Wolberg); 80m
    11:45am
    **Farewell (L'affaire Farewell); 113m
    **TENTATIVE SCREENING DATE/TIME - please contact Emilie directly for updates
    2pm
    **White as Snow (Blanc comme neige); 104m
    **TENTATIVE SCREENING DATE/TIME-please contact Emilie directly for updates


    Monday, March 1st
    10am
    The French Kissers (Les Beaux Gosses); 90m
    11:45am
    I'm Happy That My Mother is Alive (Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante); 90m
    1:30pm
    Hideaway (Le refuge); 88m
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-17-2015 at 09:19 PM.

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    Robert Guédiguian: The Army of Crime (2009)


    GRÉGOIRE LEPRINCE-RINGUET, SIMON ABKARIAN

    Robert Guédiguian: The Army of Crime (2009)

    The French resistance from another angle

    A rousing, lengthy and straightforward political thriller about a key aspect of the French resistance during the Second Wold War, Robert Guédiguian's new film focuses on the movement's early stages, when both leaders and foot soldiers made up an organization called the FTP-MOI: Francs-tireurs et partisans – main-d'œuvre immigrée or Partisans and Irregulars - Immigrant Work Force. it was made up of non-Party member communists or communist sympathizers of foreign, often Jewish, origin -- Spanish, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, Italian, or, like the director himself, Armenian. Of course resistance tales have been told before, most recently (in a film seen in the US) Danish director Ole Christian Madsen's Flame and Citron, about his country's most famous resistance fighters. Some will point to Jean-Pierre Melville's grim 1969 saga Army of Shadows/L'armé des ombres, which was given its first-ever US release to extravagant praise in 2006. This particular subject had been dealt with in the 1976 French feature L'affiche rouge.

    Guédiguian's film lacks the noirish flavor of Melville or the Butch Cassidy and Sundance panache of Madsen's film; but it starts well with Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet and Robinson Stévenin as two brave young men who begin acting on their own, and later are recruited to serve a more organized cause. There were always contrasts between young upstarts and disciplined old-timers. Resistance fighters worked outside the law and sub rosa; the "shadow" army was an army of "crime." Though the phrase "Army of Crime" is a Vichy smear issued after the principals of this story were rounded up and eliminated, the resistance life always attracted rebels and outliers.

    The gentle Armenian poet Missak Manouchian (Simon Abkarian) is the leader. His ballsy girlfriend Mélinée (the lovely Virginie Ledoyen) marries him and becomes a passionate supporter after his release from internment gradually turns him from peaceful propagandist to one capable of throwing a grenade into a German marching squad and taking out a dozen German soldiers (an incident neatly filmed here). He gets to know fiery young Marxist bomb-rigger Thomas Elek (Leprince-Ringuet) and swim champion/pistol killer Marcel Rayman (Stévenin). Marcel becomes infuriated when his parents are taken away and he learns that he won't ever see them again. He begins asking one German officer after another for a light and then pulling a pistol and killing them. He's good at less close range too and gives Missak a lesson in marksmanship. Thomas blows up a Nazi literary gathering by planting a big copy of Das Kapital with a time bomb inside.

    Older group leaders periodically chide the younger ones for acting independently and not maintaining cover; but it is one of the older ones who eventually names many members of the group after capture. Various group scenes, including an Armenian musical celebration with Zorba-style performances visited by a group of French cops, show that the authorities are onto the foreign communists and the rashness of one can endanger many.

    We get a look at French cops called upon by German occupiers to squash the resisters. They enlist a certain Inspector Pujol ( Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who plays a dubious Judas game of informing, rounding up Jews, and gaining rapid promotion by the French Gestapo while simultaneously sympathizing with the partisans, sleeping with a Jewish girl, and doling out favors to her, including gentler treatment for her interned family members. She wants to be a partisan too, but seems destined to go the way of the anonymous protagonist of Max Färberböck's A Woman in Berlin -- sleeping with the enemy to save her neck.

    The FTP-MOI throws out flyers (from hidden locations atop buildings, so they won't be seen) urging the French to sabotage Vichy-run industries. Their other mission is to strike visible blows at the Nazis, assassinating major figures of the Nazis in France like General Julius Ritter.

    A theme of the film is the complex bonds forged among immigrants and the loyalties among resisters. Missak, whose parents were murdered by Turks, looks upon his Parisian communist friends as his new adopted family. Marcel knows there's no one in his family left but his little brother Simon (Léopold Szabatura), and so takes him everywhere; the unfortunate consequence is that in a raid targeting Marcel, Simon is taken away. An original touch is a homage to the young militant, Henri Krasucki (Adrien Jolivet), who took it upon himself to bring Simon back alive from the concentration camp where they were sent.

    In The Army of Crime, the mix of nationalities and motivations is continually interesting and harmonizes nicely with the picture of how quite disparate individuals came together. Very important also is that toward the end, Guédiguian films sequences of the mass corralling and deportation of Jewish people by the French out of a stadium, an infamous moment that deserves to be seen as well as read about. The film is less effective in evoking strong emotion, and despite its generally favorable reception in September in France (after a Cannes summer debut), it's been criticized for a lackluster mise-en-scène. Some communist historians in France have insisted that Marcel is over-mythologized; that there was more restraint and coordination and more direct Soviet supervision than is shown. However the film's strengths remain its focus on youth and its strong ethnic and cultural mix.

    This is involving, fascinating stuff, and as good an evocation of that place and time as I can think of, but it doesn't seem as personal as the other films by Guédiguian that I've seen -- The Town Is Quiet (in US theaters) and Lady Jane (SFIFF). But since he is a communist of working-class origins with an Armenian father, it may be in another sense the most personal thing he has done. Another film of his, the 2006 Armenia/Le voyage en Arménie, is about rediscovering Armenian roots.

    Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and uniFrance) screened at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, New York March 2010.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-06-2014 at 01:31 PM.

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    Cédric Kahn: Regrets (2009)


    YVAN ATTAL AND VALERIA BRUNI TEDESCHI IN REGRETS

    Cédric Kahn: Regrets (2009)

    L'amour fou as thriller frenzy


    Yvan Attal runs circles around Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in Cédric Kahn's balls-out story of love passion and emotional confusion, Regret/Les regrets, a movie about a youthful love affair renewed fifteen years later when both lovers are married to other people. The heartbeats are fast, and even if it feels more like anxiety than passion, Kahn and his stars take us on a wild ride. This is a lot of silliness, but it's also fun and beautifully photographed, and it does powerfully evoke the feelings of adolescent romantic obsession -- except that the adolescent here is a grown man acting very immature and unwise. If there's an American remake, it can't be this good, because the French can do l'amour fou better than we can.

    Mathieu Liévin (Attal) is a middle-aged architect, married but without children, who runs into old flame Maya (Bruni Tedeschi) in the town square while back home with his mom dying in the hospital. The camera tracks in on both of them with that "gotcha" effect that means, these two folks are going to zoom in on each other pretty soon.

    What follows is all the chaos and excitement of a first-rate thriller, but without any dead bodies, though there are moments when you wonder if Matthieu and Maya are going to make it through alive. Much reckless endangerment occurs here, as well as chasing cars and trains and running from a man armed with a chainsaw. Maya turns out to have a drunken husband called Frank (Philippe Katerine) who's in the wine business and has a tendency to hatch elaborate schemes involving outside funding. Maya is maddeningly indecisive. Fifteen years ago Matthieu and Maya parted because they were driving each other crazy. They get right back into it in short order, except that life now is much more complicated.

    Matthieu's architect wife Lisa (Arly Jover) is pressuring him to enter competition for a major project. After his mother dies his ne'er-do-well brother wants to sell her house to pay off debts. Frank has his schemes, which Maya keeps committing to; she also has a daughter by a deceased African husband. The omnipresence of cell phones and the possibility of texting (energetically used, and romantic, here) seems to speed up the confusion and the wild pursuits. Maya is on and off about all this, ready to run off with Matthieu one minute, completely opposed the next.

    Kahn, who wrote as well as directed, has experience with serial-killer, crime-suspense, and sexual-obsession themes, and the mood here is one of thinly veiled criminal insanity on the part of Matthieu, with Maya as an unreliable but often equally mad collaborator. The film is skillful at weaving this pattern of wild behavior impulsively around the obstacles of the principals' everyday lives and commitments. This is adultery, of course, but it's a pumped-up, hyperventilating kind that we've rarely seen on screen, a kind that looks more akin than usual to flat-out criminal activity and is paced like a thriller. Attal is good as the hyperactive lover in his second adolescence, and Bruni Tedeschi is convincing and superb-looking as the old flame he can never see without grabbing and kissing and more often than not quickly making love to on a table top or a stairway. Full disrobing never occurs. Shouting matches can occur anywhere. Matthieu is continually confrontational, and Maya is unable to confront.

    Some Phillip Glass pieces are particularly well used during an ominous car ride when the adulterous couple is rushing away together and their desperation seems suicidal. The good-looking images are thanks to cinematographer Céline Bozon.

    None of this necessarily means anything, but Kahn is having fun with his blend of unlikely elements and he takes the viewer on an enjoyable ride. The near-absurdity of the behavior at times drew derision at Cannes. On the other hand, the feelings that are evoked seem perfectly valid as a description of the vagaries and torments of love -- in a brilliantly heightened and updated form.

    Shown at Cannes, Les regrets debuted theatrically in France September 2, 2009 to fair-to-good reviews. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, sponsored jointly by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance and screened at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center in NYC., March 2020.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-24-2010 at 01:34 PM.

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    Laurent Perreau: Restless (2009)


    YOUNG ACTORS PAULINE ÉTIENNE AND CLÉMENT ROUSSIER POSE FOR A PHOTO CALL

    Laurent Perreau: Restless (2009)

    The restless age, and restless old age

    Laurrent Perreau's Le bel âge is a coming of age story with a failed love affair and a swimming competition, but most of all it's a mood piece about an old man and a young girl, his lonely granddaughter, who share a French chateau and reluctantly discover they have things in common. A dodgy structure explains the only fair-to-good reviews the film has received in France since it opened at the end of 2009. Despite a disjointedness as "restless" and unfocused as its young female lead, the film's still a sensitive dual character study, and it nails the pain of young romance.

    At 17, Claire, an orphan who lives with her grumpy old grandfather, Maurice, is training for swim races but goes to a club late at night to meet or avoid boys. She walks over to Thomas to avoid two other boys and makes him pretend they're friends. This intimacy makes Thomas fall instantly in love with her.

    When Claire leaves the club after her first meeting with Thomas she has a bike accident, cuts her head, and discovers Maurice's dog, Morphée, has been killed on the road. The sequence is symbolic, perhaps of the harshness and isolation of her and her grandfather's lives; it's an opportunity to show how stubborn and independent Claire is. Thomas works at a casino "spying" on people by watching surveillance camera monitors behind the scenes and she gets in the habit of hanging out with him there.

    But Claire is like Maurice, her lonely grandfather, though she goes so far as to hide under the bed at times to avoid contact with him. She's used to fending for herself and feeling abandoned emotionally; Thomas' romanticism is a bit much for her. In time, she breaks his heart. And then she realizes what a terrible mistake she has made.

    Meanwhile though Claire is not attending her lycée, she's working daily to prepare for swim competition. Her coach Rafaël (Eric Caravaca) is teaching her how to use her emotion and avoid spooking herself with too much mental analysis before matches, and her times, though irregular, are improving overall. Though not as rich in atmosphere as those in Céline Sciamma's 2007 film about girl swimmers Water Lillies/'Naissance des pièvres, Restless' swim sequences are convincing

    The talented young Pauline Étienne (Claire) is a surprisingly good match for the cinema giant Michel Piccoli (Maurice). Unfortunately most of the time they are not in the same film, until somewhat artificially this spry man has a fall and is hospitalized for a while, as a result of which he winds up telling Clair the true story of how he got a bullet in his shoulder long ago. The revelation creates a deeper bond. A mysterious brooding role is assigned to Piccoli here that he takes on very well, even if the unhappy old guy on an estate is a bit of a Eurofilm cliché by now (more fully developed with Trintignant's character in Kieslowski's Red). Who Maurice is, what his WWII experiences exactly were, how he got here, are unexplained. He has only one friend, a hooker named Madeleine (Johanna ter Steege), who gives him (slight) sexual satisfaction and comfort; but he rejects even her. Still a good role for Piccoli, now 84 but very much alive; he even does a charming little turn performing Yvette Gilbert's classic Belle Époque song "Le Fiacre."

    Restless is beautifully photographed by Céline Bozon, who also did two other Rendez-Vous 2010 films, Kahn's Regrets and Axelle Ropert's The Wolberg Family/La famille Wolberg. Understated as it is, the film surprises with its rich mise-en-scène, which jumps from swimming pool to chateau to Thomas' flat to nightclub to gambling casino, and people appear without being identified in an interesting way, especially people associated with Thomas, who indirectly reveal that despite his love of poetic prose passages and dreams of romantic idyls, he's not the loner Claire and Maurice are. With its mix of physicality and the ethereal this movie occasionally evokes Claire Denis, though without quite her warmth.

    The real French title Le bel âge, The Best Age, is doubly ironic, since the focus is alternately on the torments, isolation, and uncertainties of two periods of life, adolescence and old age, neither of them seen as particularly happy, though the story ends with an embrace of granddaughter and grandfather and a shot of Clair exploring a new land, perhaps in search of Thomas.



    Restless/Le bel âge, also known by its introductory title "L'Insurgée" (The Rebellious Girl) opened in Paris December 30, 2009 and is part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, March 2010.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-25-2010 at 05:27 PM.

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    Stéphane Brizé: Mademoiselle Chambon (2009)


    SANDRINE KIBERLAIN, VINCENT LINDON IN MADEMOISELLE CHAMBON

    Stéphane Brizé: Mademoiselle Chambon (2009)

    A sweet sadness

    In Stéphane Brizé's restrained fourth film (which he's adapted from a 1996 Éric Holder novel) a tight-lipped mason named Jean (Vincent Lindon) in an unnamed provincial French town meets his little boy's schoolteacher, the Mademoiselle of the title (Sandrine Kiberlain) and his world subtly changes. He loves his wife Anne-Marie (Aure Atika), who works in a print shop, and little Jérémy (Arthur Le Houerou), but Mademoiselle (her name is Véronique, but Jean never gets beyond the formal "vous" with her) has a refinement, a delicacy. And she plays the violin -- classical music that Jean seems unfamiliar with but delighted by.

    At first Mademoiselle asks Jean at the last minute to fill in and speak to her class (and his son's) about his work, an experience that also gives him great pleasure. Perhaps he enjoys indirectly telling this refined maiden lady who attracts him about his basic, satisfying work, building houses that are always different and will last, as one child asks, "for your whole life." Then when she asks help with a broken window at her flat, he takes a look and then insists on being the one to replace it. Then comes the music. He insists that she play; photos and the violin tell him of her former profession.

    This film has only a hint of sex, and no raw physicality, but it works with the body, with silence, and with gesture. Throughout it shows Lindon acting the part by doing hard construction work on screen, breaking up paving with a pneumatic drill, mounting the window, laying bricks of a wall, and so on. He even walks like a skilled laborer. Anne-Marie is always ironing, cooking, shopping, making lists. Mademoiselle Chambon reads, rests, places her hand delicately on her neck. Jean tenderly washes the feet of his old father (charming veteran Jean-Marc Thibault).

    Finally the teacher plays a recording of chamber music at her place for Jean and as they sit together listening they slowly hold hands, embrace, and cling together as if at home, but afraid to go further. This carefully paced sequence is one of the film's most effective. However many "make-out" scenes you may have seen, this one still feels fresh. Lindon is like a fine mason in his acting, slowly, patiently laying the bricks of gesture. A silence and a pause can speak volumes.

    Both Véronique and Jean fight their attraction. And can it go anywhere? But it keeps growing, despite gestures in the opposite direction. Jean tells Mademoiselle that her CD's interest him even though he hasn't listened to them yet. She usually changes schools every year, but tells him, in a key scene, that she's been asked to fill in for someone and stay on. But instead of expressing enthusiasm, Jean blurts out that his wife is pregnant.

    This is one anchor to the family: one child, and another coming. Another is Jean's father. Jean and Anne-Marie are planning a big birthday party for the old man at their house with family members coming from all over. Family matters. But Jean shows how far his feelings have gone in another direction -- even though we've seen only those restrained moments -- when he invites Mademoiselle Chambon to come and play the violin for his father. It's not certain that his wife has suspected anything, but she has noticed that Jean seems bored, indifferent, irritable. And she might suspect why now.

    What follows is surprising -- agonizingly suspenseful -- and quite familiar. We've seen this kind of story before. We've seen these characters before. But we've rarely seen more delicacy than Bizé brings to his treatment of the story, which is haunting in a classic way without feeling in any way retro -- though perhaps the provincial setting was chosen to avoid that, to have events unfold in a place that's less aggressively modern and hip than Paris.

    Lindon and Kiberlain are husband and wife, though now estranged, which may help explain the magnetic energy in their scenes together. There are plenty of lines here, but there's a distrust of language, together with a touching desire to use it properly. "I'd like to hear more tunes," Jean tells Véronique. "Is that right, to say 'tunes'?." At the outset, Jérémy poses a homework problem to his parents to find the "direct object" in a sentence and they haven't a clue, but patiently figure out what this means. Bizé is great with the children. Arthur Le Houerou as the son is unfailingly alive and natural; and his classmates are spontaneous and charming (though primed, as classes are) when they excitedly ask Jean about his work.

    If there is a weakness to the film it's the danger that the differences of class and culture are spelled out a tiny bit too clearly. Jean is a kind of noble savage, or one of D.H. Lawrence's men, strong, inarticulate, earthy, ready to be swept away by the squeal of a violin in a drawing room. Lindon is a magnificent actor, but as a man with many illustrious relatives and one-time suitor of Princess Caroline of Monaco he is not exactly drawing on personal experience in playing a mason whose father was also a mason. Nonetheless he is for the most part utterly convincing. It's the film itself that plays on broad differences that a screenplay of 90 minutes duration cannot quite adequately delineate. Lindon has a harried, careworn, but solid quality that fits a working man in need of reawakening. Kiberlain seems held inward, decent but tragically needy. You wouldn't know that she's been around the block with the actual Lindon and had a child by him; she could be this uptight maiden lady on the brink of lifelong spinsterhood. There's a sadness about her, a sweet sadness.

    Opened in mid-October 2009 in Paris, this film is part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center for 2010. What a contrast with the mad body-presses and adulterous whirlwind of another film in the series, Cédric Kahn's Regret. When it comes to the varieties of love, the French have the bases covered.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-19-2010 at 06:18 PM.

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    Alain Guiraudie: The King of Escape (2009)


    HAFSIA HERZI AND LUDOVIC BERTHILLOT

    Alain Guiraudie: The King of Escape (2009)


    Odd couple

    In this version of a mid-life crisis story, Alain Guiraudie takes up the adventures of Armand Lacourtade (Gallic film vet Ludovic Berthillot), a well-liked and successful 40-year-old gay tractor salesmen in the South of France who falls by chance into the opportunity to try batting for the opposite team, when he rescues a 16-year-old school girl from some toughs and she falls for him.

    Armand is fed up with the limited provincial gay scene and his roommate's preference for roadside tricking with decidedly older dudes. He's taken to binge eating and napping on the job and his previously very satisfied boss wants to give him a vacation. Then Armand buys off the toughs who're about to rape the sultry, dark Curly (Hafsia Herzi, a beautiful 20-something who had a key role in Abdel Kechiche's Secret of the Grain), and a world of new opportunities opens.

    Before long things get complicated and then more complicated still. Armand's association with Curly draws the unwanted and decidedly disapproving attention of a tall, thin, black-suit-clad Commissioner (François Clavier), as well as Curly's mean dad (Luc Palun). Armond experiments with an aphrodisiac root (also used by out-of-control village officials) to get it up under these new circumstances, but for quite a while he and Curly are too often being harassed or pursued to be able to get it on, though when they finally do, the movie gets pretty graphic. Mad chase scenes frequently show Armand running around the southern French provincial countryside clad only in bikini briefs. For a man who's distinctly overweight, Berthillot is certainly in excellent shape. Not body-shape, stamina-shape.

    Armand meanwhile is also being pursued by an older gay man, a fellow of prodigious sexual appetites who at 70 (but he looks 80!) still wants daily lovemaking, and once satisfied his wife on a daily basis (he tells us all this and more). Due to simplistic morals laws the Commissioner puts a plastic electronic tracer bracelet on Armand, and that makes the chase eventually turn into a manhunt involving cops, private citizenry, and a helicopter -- all about nothing in particular. One of the main troubles with Guiraudie's wild adventure is that arresting moments and good dialogue can't save his scenario from remaining a meaningless tangle.

    Two popular outlets of French hipness, Cahiers du Cinéma and Les Inrockuptibles, published reviews praising Le roi de l'évasion ecstatically. "A hilarious, festive and liberating tale carried along by an exceptional cast" wrote Serge Kaganski in "Les Inrocks." "The hedonistic outlook makes for the gentlest film French cinema is capable of," raves Eugenio Renzi in Cahiers. "One leaves The King of Escape full of wonder," he goes on, "with the impression of having learned to desire all bodies."

    The latter comment is inspired by the final scene in which a bunch of naked fat middle-aged and old gay men are all in bed cuddling.

    Whether this teaches us to love, or stimulates repulsion, is another question. This is, after all, a comedy, and an oddball, sometimes shockingly crude, one at that, which often seems merely frantic and inexplicable rather than hilarious -- or liberating. It's particularly hard to perceive as liberating images of a 16-year-old girl having sex in the woods with an over-weight middle-aged man in a manner that is not to her liking. In the end, Curly doesn't get very much of value out of all this, and Armand escapes negative consequences a little too easily after his (spoiler alert!) essentially pointless experimentation has taken him pretty much back to where he started.

    The positive French reactions (though of course not all were positive) can be explained when one reads another comment (from the editors of Ouest France) that this Guiraudie's film style is "Rabelaisian." Through that lens, Armand's nude cavorting round the countryside begins to make sense and seem positive. However, neither Guiraudie nor his co-authors Laurent Lunetta and Frédérique Moreau is within twenty thousand leagues of being on a par with Rabelais. Armand seems a bit too uncertain a hero to make for a true celebration of life. Call me limited, but the message I get out of this movie is that you don't know for sure if you're gay or not till you've tried straight sex; though I'm not sure any gay person needs to know this. I'm also wondering if this offhand, cliché-free celebration of gayness doesn't wind up being unintentionally homophobic. This not only isn't Rabelais; Rabelais doesn't play any more. From the modern point of view these characters are drawn too sketchily, and none of the action ever seems remotely real. Perhaps fortunately.

    Opened June 15, 2009 in Paris to fair reviews. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, March 2010.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-20-2010 at 10:15 PM.

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    Michel Gondry: The Thorn in the Heart (2009)


    MICHEL GONDRY FILMED WITH HIS AUNT SUZETTE GONDRY IN THE THORN IN THE HEART

    Michel Gondry: The Thorn in the Heart (2009)

    Such a happy, such a sad, story

    Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep) represents a French filmmaker famous enough Stateside for any new titles to seem release-worthy. But this memoir of Gondry's aged aunt, rich in detail yet lacking in depth, remains too slight an effort to have much of a future. It has however been picked up by the young indie distributor Oscilloscope, who released the Danish noir comedy Terribly Happy.

    Suzette Gondry taught in a series of elementary schools in the Cévennes region of France from 1952 to 1986. The film begins with a film of a family dinner in which Suzette vigorously and with great pleasure tells a tale of Homeric food consumption with her late husband years ago. It's an image of vigor in age, family unity, and joie-de-vivre. Thereafter the director follows the lively old lady around to a dizzying series of towns where she taught. Each one is led into with focus on a place-sign set in a model train setup that turns out later to be a long-time preoccupation of Suzette's odd son Jean-Ives. He is an aging gay man, never happy, psychologically maimed in unexplained ways, who lives with his mother and is the person Suzette says was always "the thorn in my heart" ("l'épine dans mon cœur").

    The film alternates between pictures of a still-vibrant woman loved and admired by former students, praised by her own aged mother (herself highly articulate, perhaps also a schoolteacher?), creative and endlessly energetic in teaching at her succession of schools, including a group of Algerian Arab students in the Sixties -- and the muted tale of mother, father, and son. Jean-Yves is present on screen, but sometimes unresponsive to questions, saying he "can't remember" when queried. He was taught by his mother for many years, which he did not like, and worked for his father in his lumbering and sawmill business, which he also did not like.

    Questions remain unanswered. Why did Suzette teach at so many different schools? Did she commute to them or was she moving about? Where was her husband when she was on these assignments? A year in New York after her retirement is shown in the many home movies, with kids she oversaw then. Why was she there? Whose kids are these? Working with Michel on his films in recent years is mentioned, but without explanation of what she did. Her relationship with her husband, Jean-Yves' father, despite the latter's appearance in a series of stills and brief clips, is not much explained. Was Suzette a workaholic who escaped from family woes into her many classrooms? or did Michel simply fail to develop the family side in depth, despite touching on moot questions of the son and a daughter (the latter never spotlighted), except for a story about not telling them for days after their father died? There is also nothing about Michel Gondry's own mother and her relationship with Suzette.

    There's a self-conscious effort to show the workings of the project by occasionally shooting the camera or sound man as Suzette revisits school sites, and an interesting sequence where family members, including Suzette and Jean-Yves, watch rushes of the documentary and comment. But apart from the model train links between passages there is nothing of the wildly inventive and playful aspect of Michel Gondry's cinematic style.


    The result is a fascinating but also frustrating study. (For a bit more detail see the SCREENDAILY review.)

    Debuted at Cannes, The Thorn in the Heart/L'épine dans le cœur will open in theaters in France in April 2010. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, March 2020.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-20-2010 at 10:19 PM.

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    Michel Hazanavicius: OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009)


    OSS 117 AMONG THE RIO HIPPIES

    Michel Hazanavicius: OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009)


    Play it again, Michel

    Michel Hazanavicius again collaborates brilliantly and with no loss of comic energy with his star Jean Dujardin and co-writer Jean-François Halin in another film spoofing the novels and films of De Gaulle era, Bond-like French super-spy and politically incorrect ladies'-man Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath AKA OSS 117. Note, there were many serious films of the Jean Bruce-authored stories André Hunebelle directed, ending in 1970. Hazanavicius' versions, of which this is the second (the first was the 2006 Cairo, Nest of Spies),* differ in being thoroughly tongue-in-cheek and deliberately foot-in-mouth. Hubert is embodied by the talented Dujardin, an essential element in the success of the films. He's often compared to Peter Seller's Clouzot, but Dujardin has more panache. In looks Dujardin resembles the Sean Connery version of James Bond, and his character is unfailingly charming, adept, and a complete fool whose racism and condescension toward women are further heightened in this episode, because the date is now no longer in the Fifties but 1967, when women now answer back.

    The filmmakers were going to take Israel as their setting and include the Six-Day War, but including that historical event seemed too serious, so the decision was made to keep Jews in the picture but switch to Brazil, where Mossad agents could be tangling with (putatively ex) Nazis. Hazanavicius pushes the envelope more this time as Hubert insults not only the Chinese and Germans but Jews and women at the same time, when he teams up with Dolores (Louise Monot), a sexy Mossad lieutenant hunting down a Nazis organization plotting a Fifth Reich out of Rio. At one point Hubert suggests the Nazis should be allowed to have their own state -- "just like the Jews." Hubert's actual mission is to find the son of a Nazi general and get from him a microfilmed list of Frenchmen who collaborated with the Nazis. Hubert of course expects Dolores to be his secretary or his cook; he hasn't grasped the new role of women, and in fact goes into one of his maniacal laughs when someone suggests there could be better world coming than the one now.

    The film is just as brilliant and loving a reproduction of slick Sixties technicholor B-adventure movies, with the widescreen look and color schemes, striking period modern architecture shot on location in Brazil, and an exaggerated but still beautiful use of multi-screen images, beginning with an opening credits sequence in which Hubert dances the twist with a bevy of babes. This sets the style of the film's look, which is to be silly but pretty at the same time. There's an excellent sequence where the hero climbs up to the diving board of his luxury hotel flexing muscles and dozens of resident bathing beauties in perfect period suits ogle him lovingly.

    There are tiny throwaway touches. For instance walking through an airport Hubert spits out a wad of chewing gum and as he walks out of the picture stage left, somebody is picking the gum off his shoe. In another scene Hubert sets his camera (he's posing as a journalist) to take his picture roadside with a glam sports car he's been loaned, but he fails to notice the background next to the car is full of junk metal. Not such a throwaway but partly that for French audiences, Hubert's CIA pal Tremendous (Ken Samuels) is continually foul-mouthed and abusive toward Hubert in English, though the hero never takes note of that. Samuels pushes the character into a gross-out satire of American rudeness.

    Dolores and Hubert go to meet the Nazi's son at a costume party that turns out in fact to be a big convocation of the neo-Nazis in full regalia; OSS shows up disguised as Robin Hood. Meanwhile the good guys are continually being followed around by a pair of Mexican wrestlers in absurd head guards working as assassins for the Nazis. Hubert has a peculiar fear of heights -- "vertige," vertigo -- that goes back, oddly enough, to a trapeze accident he was involved in. The Nazi general is Rüdiger Vogler's Von Zimmel, who is not quite Christoph Walz's Col. Landa, but has some of that quality. His son Heinrich, found in a beachside hippie colony, is ably impersonated by Alex Lutz. Again, just as in popular American movies, even today, everybody speaks English, both Brazilians and Nazis talk to each other in French -- though Dolores and her two Mossad associates briefly exchange some Hebrew.

    Hazanavicius has said he switched references from early Bond movies and Hitchcock in Cairo, Nest of Spies to a focus more on action adventure references, and he says he "could mention over twenty films," but names Harper, That Man from Rio, The Thomas Crown Affair, North by Northwest, the "Matt Helm" series, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter. Scoffers who debunk both efforts or claim this one is cruder or less funny than the first, just aren't paying attention. These films are loving parody, which means their echoes are detailed and many-layered. Rio ne répend pas is actually better than Next of Spies in many ways, though fans will have different favorite sequences in each. The envelope-pushing prize goes to this film, with its combining of Jews and Nazis. There is a memorable scene in which von Zimmel, the film's most odious Nazi, begs OSS 117 for mercy high atop the foot of Corcovado's Christ over Rio by reciting Shylock's "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, substituting "Nazi" for "Jew." Now that's entertainment!

    One can't help imagining Tarantino relishing this movie. The filmmakers expect to continue the series.

    OSS 117: Rio ne répond pas opened in Paris April 15, 2009 to universal acclaim. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York in March 2010.

    *My review of OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies can be found here.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-20-2010 at 10:43 PM.

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    Xabi Molia: 8 Times Up (2010)

    Xabi Molia: 8 Times Up (2010)


    DENIS PODALYDÈS, JULIE GAYET IN 8 TIMES UP

    Meeting on the way down: a film about economic marginality

    Xabia Molia's first feature, 8 Times Up/Huit fois debout, a psychological and social study with a light touch, seeks to be an easy film about a hard subject, and largely succeeds in this aim. The narrative describes a process of decline but it's more spinning in circles than a straight drop. Hopelessness and desperation are tempered by whimsy, and however downbeat the film, it is delicate and specific.

    Molia is fortunate in his two principals, Julie Gayet and Denis Podalydès, both of whom are appealing. Gayet, who is pert and pretty but here has a kind of sad determination, is a busy and versatile film actress. Podalydès is a member of the Comédie-Française. He looks a bit like Wallace Shawn: balding, vague, rather sweet, someone you might like to have a drink with but probably not want to hire.

    Gayet and Podalydès play Elsa and Matthieu, two marginal people approaching middle age with limited prospects who meet because they're apartment neighbors on the verge of eviction for non-payment of rent. To make matters worse, both are hopeless at job interviews and lack solid credentials. They talk about putting interesting items in their CV's, to stand out from the crowd of applicants. Matthieu includes the fact that he practices archery and Elsa lists Kabuki.

    Matthieu uses offbeat Zen sayings in interviews. One is "7 fois à terre, 8 fois debout" -- "seven times down, eight times up." Another: "He who hits the target, misses all the rest." Both Elsa, who has an illegal job cleaning off buses and takes care of a well-off lady's little boy, and Matthieu, who has sporadic work doing PR surveys, know about being down and not hitting the target.

    We glimpse both characters doing job interviews. Elsa's are painful. She lacks motivation or confidence. When asked to show her knowledge of English during the pre-titles footage, she just stammers. She can't justify dropping out of nursing school except to say she wasn't cut out for it. Even when the interviewer tries to help her she flounders. Matthieu rambles and philosophizes. He goes on at length about what he was doing in the recent five-year gap in his resume. He was reading, he says, thinking, deciding whether working was a necessary thing to do; he concluded it was.

    A tentative romance develops between Elsa and Matthieu, the love of losers, simultaneously distracted from connecting and pulled together by shared confusion and need. Elsa is is the first to be evicted. She is now approaching desperation, but still hopes to find a good job and seeks to put up a good front, especially since she wants to be able to go on spending alternate weekends with her son Étienne (Kevyn Frachon) who otherwise is in the custody of her ex-husband. Her downward path continues when a mishap at the bus-cleaning job leads her to abandon it and she becomes too scattered to show up for her babysitting work and gives notice by phone.

    Matthieu, who is evicted soon afterward, seems more a whimsical drifter than a person like Elsa who is being pulled down against her will -- a man blithely coping, though remaining on the margins. He winds up for a while living in a tent in a forest, like the people in Pierre Schoeller's 2008 Versailles, which included the late Guillaume Dupardieu in a key role. Matthieu pops in and out of Elsa's life. She takes him to a dinner at her ex-husband's. It turns out he was a footballer, but only for the reserve team. Then he had muscle problems, and began to smoke, and went to Texas for a girlfriend, but didn't like Texas. End of football career. Elsa has been having psychological counseling, to conquer her fear of seeking jobs, but funding for these sessions has run out. She has also been evicted and is living out of her Volvo station wagon. She tries to give the therapist her mother's papyrus plant, but he refuses to take it. It floats down river when she throws it away, looking as if it may actually make it.

    Elsa has a cousin she goes to on her first night after eviction. But he can't take her in, even for a night, because his girlfriend objects. He does, however, secure her a job interview to be cashier at a supermarket. The trouble is, she has no experience as a cashier. As she becomes more desperate waiting for the results of this interview, Elsa takes her son Étienne on a wild weekend ride to the beach, where she seems about to do something dire. But all is well and she and her son hug warmly when she leaves him off at his father's. She runs into Matthieu again on the verge of being fired from her first day as a clerk at a clothing store, and it looks like they are going to be bobbing together on the river for a while, like the papyrus plant. In the forest, Elsa has tested Matthieu's willingness to (literally) catch her as she falls and finds him the person she can most trust.

    The film succeeds in its aim of showing Elsa and Matthieu's situation sympathetically and without pathos. It lacks the dark beauty and emotional power of Versailles, but its description of the opening stages of marginality may be more relevant to the sinking middle class today. 8 Times Up is a film that shows how thin the line between security and homelessness can be. But the light touch in part backfires: the very delicacy and the tenuousness of the couple's relationship makes the film feel itself marginal and tentative at times.

    8 Times Up was shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, March 2010, and is scheduled to open in Paris April 14, 2010.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-26-2010 at 05:41 PM.

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    Christophe Honoré: Making Plans for Léna (2009)


    CHAIRA MASTROIANNI AND MARINA FOIS IN MAKING PLANS FOR LENA

    Christophe Honoré: Making Plans for Léna (2009)

    A more complex and mature film from Christophe Honoré

    A rudderless plunge into Arnaud Desplechin territory, Variety calls this film, comparing it unfavorably to the latter's recent A Christmas Tale. True, there is an unruly family gathering around the older parents, who are affectionate, and one of them seriously ill, just as in Desplechin's film. But it's not Christmas, and that's not the whole focus. The genesis of Making Plans for Léna/Non ma fille, tu n'iras pas danser lies in several things. Honoré wanted to make a movie around Chiara Mastroianni; the focus on her makes the film far from rudderless. Having completed what he now calls his "Paris trilogy" -- Dans Paris, Love Songs, and La Belle Personne -- and now being married with a daughter, he wanted to return to his native Brittany and focus on family, children, and the role of women. And so, collaborating on the script with the writer Genevieve Brisac, he has made a more mature and many-layered work than he has ever done before.

    It naturally lacks the charm, the focus, the elegance and the fabulous quality of his Paris films, which deal with idealized or imaginary families and romanticized, amusing, frivolous young men, as represented by his alter ego, Louis Garrel. Garrel appears fleetingly here as Simon, Léna's (Mastroianni's) younger lover or would-be lover. Typically, he plays his almost throwaway role with lightness and verve, bringing welcome moments of fun into what is, after all, for the most part a pretty heavy flick.

    Taking her two children to the country to stay with her parents (Marie-Christine Barrault and Fred Ulysse, seen as both annoying and sexy), she encounters her ex-husband, the American Nigel (Jean-Marc Barr). On hand is her playful younger brother Gulven (played by the director's own brother Julien Honoré). Her sister (Marina Foïs) is fighting with her husband (Jean-Baptiste Fonck) and seems on the verge of divorce. Léna comes on the scene as one who can't cope: she momentarily loses her son Anton (Donatien Suner) in the Gare Montparnasse train station before ever leaving Paris. Then she agrees to take away the sick bird they've found but puts it in a bag that kills it. As in Honoré's Love Songs, Mastroianni is continually troubled and sad and overwhelmed. But this is the much bigger role that Honoré wanted to give her. As Variety reviewer Jordan Mintzer writes of this career-capping performance, Mastroianni "manages to channel real energy into her character early on, making for a strong performance reminiscent of both Emmanuelle Devos in [Desplechin's] Kings and Queen and Gena Rowland's unruly protags in the films of John Cassavettes." And the thing is, the other principal actors are also in top form, are doing some of their best work.

    The irony is that everyone else in the family wants to make Léna happy, and all this "making plans" for her makes her feel put-upon and overwhelmed. She wavers back and forth about whether to leave, with or without the children, and carries her worries about her role in life back with her to Paris.

    Anton is more articulate and calm than Léna is (and we get to see children really tormented by watching the desperate honesty of adults). In the country, he and Lena go on a walk and he recounts a Breton tale, of Katell Gollet (Katel the Lost). The story is dramatized by figures in traditional Breton costume enacting a festival where Katell torments young men by making them dance to death and winds up marrying the devil to defy her father.

    This strange but powerful interlude divides the film in two. Afterwards it returns to Paris and to Léna's continuing difficulty coping in her own life, whether taking care of the kids or her demanding job at a big florist shop that requires her to do wholesale buying and delivery service for an unsympathetic boss (Caroline Sihol).

    This has been seen by French critics as a feminist film, and it focuses primarily on how overburdened the modern woman is. But men are not demonized. When Léna can't pick up her children because of a delivery to a cemetery, Nigel immediately steps in to help. But there still comes a literally shattering moment for Anton.

    Making Plans for Léna, which is being released in the US by IFC Films, surprises with its complexity after the New Wave-ish, stylish, and relatively brittle Paris trilogy with a rounded, complex, mature work that takes Christophe Honoré to a new level. Long overshadowed by her illustrious parents, the film icons Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve ever since her small part was cut out of a Fellini film when she was eight years old, Chiara Mastroianni here finally has the opportunity to carry a film with a rich and complex role.

    Non ma fille, tu n'iras pas danser opened September 3 in Paris to excellent reviews. IFC release in the USA. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (co-sponsored by FSLC and Unifrance) at the Walter Reade Theater of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center, New York, March 2010.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 02-26-2010 at 05:37 PM.

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    Mona Achache: The Hedgehog (2009)



    Mona Achache: The Hedgehog (2009)

    Blame it on Barbery

    In this adept and well-acted little sentimental charmer, a screen adaptation of Muriel Barbery's bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a precocious and artistic little rich girl, an intellectual concierge, and a benevolent Japanese gentleman come together in a posh Parisian apartment building for a brief period of understanding, communion, and the beginnings of love. The story is a little like an episode from Kay Thompson's Eloise, but set in Paris with philosophical and orientalist touches, a girl who is more smug and priggish than cute and an increasingly saccharine trajectory that is only just barely saved by a tart finale.

    Paloma (Garance Le Guillemic) is continually filming her annoying family, her Minister father, her mother who is addicted to Freudian analysis, tranquilizers, and champagne and makes more fuss over her plants than her daughter, her non-entity sister, and people in the corridor of the luxury five-unit apartment building. As she films, she describes everyone and everything for us in a whisper into the camera recorder. She has concluded that her life is a fish bowl from which there is no meaningful escape and therefore on her next birthday, her twelfth, she has decided she will commit suicide. Meanwhile she makes her films, stockpiles her mother's tranquilizers, and does drawings that look like the work of a professional illustrator rather than a sub-teen kid (because that's what they are).

    Meanwhile one of the wealthy residents dies of a heart attack, and the Japanese gentleman, Monsieur Ozu (no relation to the director, we learn later) moves into a flat miraculously and instantly converted into a palace of Zen minimalism with gray walls, black ceramics, and other delights, an oasis of quiet, aesthetic calm, and Japonism. Even the concierge, or building janitor (though the term today is usually "gardien," concierge being considered outmoded), Madame Michel (Josiane Balasko), has a place that's rather handsomely decorated; quite lovely wallpaper. Paloma's room is a throwaway, we get only glimpses of it, but it's obviously as elaborately crafted.

    Madame lets Monsieur Ozu into his new place, and he discovers something: she has read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. And judging from the fact that her cat is named Léo, he correctly concludes she's a great fan of the Russian writer. He begins wooing her, starting by presenting her with an elegant two-volume edition of the novel. Other gifts and invitations follow, with dinner in Ozu's flat prepared by him, a private screening of a classic Japanese film on video that Madame Michel has, and finally a date at a posh sushi bar. With the help of a pal who's a lady dry cleaner, Madame Michel gets a complete makeover, with a fashionable haircut and nice clothes.

    Paloma is ridiculously and ultimately unbearably clever, most of the other characters are mere objects, Monsieur Ozu is just an attractive gadget to draw Madame Michel out of her shell. Her place is full of books -- but TV-friendly too, though she probably keeps the set on with the sound off merely to play the role of the classic concierge -- an aging, overweight, ugly, irritable old bag who sits around watching TV all day. Madame Michel sits with a purring Léo (though Monsieur Ozu has even better cats, by the way) reading good books -- when she is not cleaning up in the courtyard and sidewalk and being wooed by the wealthy, mysterious Japanese gentleman (we never learn where the dough comes from).

    Paloma, who partakes of some of the wisdom of novelist Barbery, a teacher of philosophy resident in Japan, announces during one of her monologues that she is sure Madame Michel is a "hedghog" (hérisson), prickly on the outside but possessed of an interior that's subtle and kind.

    The Hedgehog/Le hérisson itself partakes of some of the essential qualities suited to international bestsellers. Its simplifications are satisfying, if you don't go too deep. Its world is appealing and somewhat exotic. Its truths are self-evident. To do her credit, the excellent Josiane Balasko gives a degree of complexity to her performance one could hardly expect from such material. She is, of course, the film's most many-layered character. At least she has the outer and inner layers Paloma attributes to the hedgehog. Paloma admires her because she has "found the perfect way to hide." She can spend hours in her back room with her great books, while appearing on the outside to be a frumpy old creature that people don't even see and never bother except to have her hold a package for them.

    But the artificiality of ideas and the stereotypical nature of most of the characters make this, whatever its homely message of love and acceptance of life, altogether less humane and alive than a little film like François Dupeyron's 2003 Monsieur Ibrahim/Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs du Coran. That too was simplistic, but it had moments of life in it, especially the scene when Momo (Pierre Boulanger) rehearses how he'll introduce himself to a prostitute down on the street now that he's legally old enough to get laid for the first time: "Quel chaleur! C'est combien?"/"What a heatwave? How much do you charge?"

    Monsieur Ibrahim holds up better, but both these films fade a bit when compared to that other movie about a precocious girl's views, Julie Gavras' 2006 Blame It on Fidel/La faute à Fidel, which works through a child's sensibility to depict how -- from her viewpoint, anyway -- her family life goes quickly and irrevocably downhill when her parents become communist revolutionaries. Political realities stretch further than life lessons delivered in a completely contrived environment, even one in which a teenage boy can get laid.

    This film received indifferent reviews in Paris after its summer (July 3, 2009) release, particularly from the more sophisticated media, but it looks like it might have good American arthouse potential. It was part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (jointly sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance) and screened at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center, New York, in March 2010.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-03-2010 at 07:53 PM.

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    Lucas Belvaux: Rapt (2009)


    André Marcon, Yvan Attal, Anne Cosigny in Rapt

    Lucas Belvaux: Rapt (2009)

    The prison of release, the illusion of trust, ironies within ironies

    The Belgian-born Lucas Belvaux, who began his career by running away to Paris and becoming an actor, has over 45 TV and film acting credits and is in the cast most recently of Robert Guérdiguian's Army of Crime. As a director he's best known for his "Trilogy," three films with interlocking stories and characters, each filmed in a different genre. Cavale/On the Run is a policier, or thriller; Un couple épatant/A Terrific Couple is a comedy; Après la vie/After Life is a melodrama. For this now-famous project Belvaux won the Prix Louis-Delluc in 2003.

    Rapt is a thriller, and an elegant-looking and beautifully made one that is both breathtaking and thought-provoking. It stars a riveting Yvan Attal, a hot actor this year who also stars in another high-energy 2010 "Rendez-Vous with French Cinema" film, Cédric Kahn's amour fou tale, Regrets. Through the course of Rapt one is drawn into a closer and closer identification with Attal's character and his complex, disturbing, very modern fate.

    The English word rapt of the title, used for this French-language film, carries with it a hint of shock. It's meant in its basic sense of transported, carried away. It sounds like "raped." It's more arresting and harsh than the French word for kidnapping, enlevé. The subject is just that, the kidnapping of a rich and powerful corporate head so high up he deals directly with officials of the French government on a day-to-day basis. At first the movie promises to be a conventional thriller: rich guy held for ransom, bargaining, tension, threats -- and the diminutive, swarthy Attal doesn't seem totally convincing as Stanislas Graff, a mover and shaker of the French establishment. What's he running around about? The rapid sequence of opening scenes also fails to define fully who exactly Graff is, whether government or business. His being constantly called "Président" throughout may confuse us as American viewers. But it doesn't hurt the film too much for his identity to be somewhat generic.

    This is because once Graff is captured things become much more convincing, and after (spoiler!) he's released, things become interesting and surprising. Rapt is another stunning example, like Guillaume Canet's 2006 star-studded version of the Harlen Coben novel Tell No One, that the French now can do American thrillers better than Hollywood, giving a spin to them that's both classic and fresh. Belvaux's ingenious film succeeds very economically -- without wasted expense on explosions or special effects -- both as an intense nail biter and a tale that reaches for the philosophical and heroic. The kidnapping of Stnaslas Graff is seen as a primal trauma that irrevocably alters his life, his family, his company, perhaps his culture. Nothing can be done to right the changes this act has wrought, and nothing can ever be the same in Graff's world again.

    He's someone very high up, someone very powerful, and someone those closest to him hardly know. Graff's chauffeur-driven car is stopped, he's carried off, and very rapidly hidden away, terrified, humiliated, hurt, and mutilated. A finger is sent off to prove the kidnappers really have him. The confinement goes through stages. At first he's continually masked and not allowed to look in the face of the (also masked) guardians, and he must hover in a tiny tent inside what may be some vast abandoned prison complex. Later he's moved elsewhere, fed properly, talked to pleasantly, allowed to move around in a cell, and his chief kidnapper, still masked, lets him look. Meanwhile frantic activity goes on in Paris. The ransom demanded is 50 million euros. His family can't access his money. His company agrees to advance a sum, no more then 20 million. Later it goes higher.

    The police enter the picture massively, but against the wishes of the company and Graff's attorney, an elegant black man, Maître Walser (Alex Descas of 35 Shots of Rum, also in The Limits of Control). The rest is a story of warring forces and shifting loyalties, with female family members (Anne Consigny, Françoise Fabian, Sarah Messens as loyal mother and reproachful wife and daughter) tested by revelations of Graff's secret life, his gambling debuts at poker and the casino, his mistresses and posh glass hideaway above Paris. All this is in the magazines and tabloids. It's even suggested by people in the company and the police that Graff could have contrived the kidnapping to settle his debts. His influence at the company is seriously dented, and during the two months of his confinement, the interim CEO gains power. When it's all over, Graff has only his red setter to love him and to love. And yet there is a rebirth. But it may be illusory.

    The accomplishment of Rapt is to carry its story beyond the conventional climax into a kind of heroic struggle for identity and power, a drama of the essential loneliness of man and the dominance of image in the modern world. Some of the speeches in the last segment might come from a contemporary version of Corneille or Racine. Attal is remarkable, suffering, Christlike in confinement, also resembling the death mask of Marcel Proust; then reborn, fiery, but surrounded by confining police protectors and intimate betrayers of trust so his freedom seems anything but that and the real brutality may be in release, the real prisons wealth, power, and fame. But it's not that simple: Rapt isn't preachy or tendentious; it supplies you with a damn good time but leaves you pondering. It may be a better film than it seems, or even than its makers realized. In his famous "Trilogy" Belvaux played with genres. Here he uses a single genre to transcend genre. Like Cantet's Tell No One, this plays very well as a mainstream film, but is much more.

    (Based on the personal story of the 1978 kidnapping of the Belgian industrialist Baron Édouard-Jean Empain, whose testimony on TV struck Belvaux and inspired the film. A searing performance by Attal, who incidentally lost 20 kilos in two months for the role, taking him down to 106 pounds, what he weighted when he was 14. A strong cast, tight editing, striking camerawork by regular Belvaux cinematographer Pierre Milon, and an atmospheric score by pianist Riccardo Del Fra all add up to a highly polished package .)

    Rapt was released in Paris November 18, 2009 to very good reviews, and shown at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, jointly sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance, with screenings both at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center, New York, March 2010. No US distributor yet listed, but an American remake is already planned by a new company, Smuggler Films.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-25-2010 at 11:38 PM.

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    Xavier Giannoli: In the Beginning (2009)


    FRANÇOIS CLUZET AND EMMANUELLE DEVOS IN IN THE BEGINNING

    Xavier Giannoli: In the Beginning (2009)

    A petty swindle becomes an economic bonanza and a little news item turns into a great film

    In the Beginning/À l'origine is the story of a small time crook who falls into a big con and thereby becomes both a hero to the locals and a mensch in his own eyes. The con and the project are doomed, but both are sweet while they last.

    This suspenseful and curiously moving film includes a virtuoso lead performance by François Cluzet, was in competition at Cannes, and received eleven nominations at the French César awards. Director Xavier Giannoli (of The Singer) has again made a picture that's a sensitive study both of in individual and of a region. He also succeeds, like Lucas Belvaux in Rapt, in turning a news story that might seem on the face of it rather trivial into a psychological and philosophical thriller. It makes you think, it keeps you on the edge of your seat, and it shows once again that the French still really know how to make movies.

    Paul ( Cluzet), who uses the fake name Philippe Miller, is a petty con man who travels all around France Xing off construction projects on his highway map of the country. Taking down names and phone numbers from roadside signs and making deft use of product catalogs, he steals and resells parts and equipment from suppliers by pretending to be a project manager.

    Miller hits pay dirt, and ultimately gets in much deeper than he plans, when he comes upon a highway project abandoned two years earlier due to its invading the habitat of a protected beetle. Juggling company logo initials he pretends to be the representative of an invented subcontractor connected to the huge conglomerate originally involved in the shut-down highway segment. He meets the locals and hears about their needs. Sniffing around and making contacts, he gets payoffs from local agency heads and suppliers, assembling a small fortune in cash which he "launders' by ironing it flat to make it look new and erase fingerprints. These folks all stand to gain by the project's renewal, which they think he can make happen. In fact everybody in the region deeply wants it to happen; they've been going through hard times for a good while, and the cancellation of the highway was devastating to the whole region.

    Miller meets the eager, energetic Monika (Stéphanie Sokolinski, the singer known as Soko), who works at his motel, and her fresh-faced, sensitive boyfriend Nicolas (Vincent Rottiers). Before long he also meets the local mayor, Stéphane (Emmanuelle Devos, as always bringing something extra and very special to her role). By now rumors have created a mounting energy and hope. Everybody wants to get hired in some aspect of the project. Nicolas has been a bad boy, once dealing drugs and now still delivering them, but he wants to better himself. He becomes Miller's driver and confidant. Having lived a bit on the dark side himself, he's the first to pick up that Miller's staging a con. In the background is the evil Abel (Gérard Depardieu. star of Giannoli's 2006 The Singer, grubby and despicable here), who's bought stolen tools from Miller and knows all about him.

    The renewed highway project begins to happen just because Miller hints that it might, or just doesn't say it won't. Everybody wants it so much. Miller gets the suppliers he's conned out of money to start supplying and sets up an office, moves equipment onto the old project. A project boss steps forth, Louis (Brice Fournier). Monika is trained as an accountant and takes on the accounts. There are lots of IOU's, lots of faked stationary. Eventually Miller gets a local bank to issue him checks and advance funds for payments to suppliers that demand immediate payment. The bank wants a piece of the action too. But they will require authentication that Miller can never provide.

    Cluzet is energetic but repressed. At first his Miller seems to be imploding. When asked embarrassing questions, he has a dozen ways of deflecting them. If all else fails he just says he has another appointment and runs off. The situation is too tempting for Miller to resist. He knows he's getting in way over his head. But isn't it the nature of the con man to seek bigger and bigger deceptions? Actually nobody loses much here. The inevitable happens as Miller and the mayor are drawn to each other. Both are lonely, and they begin an affair. The highway construction begins. There are celebrations, articles, champagne, speeches, and children do dozens of little paintings celebrating "the Boss," "Mr. Philippe."

    The whole thing that terrified Miller begins to delight him. For once he is somebody. "I have wasted a lot of time" is one of his saddest lines to Stéphane, in bed. Of course ultimately Miller is going to go to jail, but he starts desperately trying to get the segment of highway completed before the time limit on payments ends and many bills become due. He has been paying out all the many thousands he accumulated at the outset in salaries to the workers. The money doesn't matter to him any more. He becomes a worker himself, pushing a broom to spread the asphalt in the rain. It's winter and the project is becoming more and more difficult to finish.

    In the Beginning is a nail-biter all the way through, and in the end you will react as the local community did to the real con man in this story: some of you will take him for a real S.O.B. Others will believe him to be a pretty nice guy. Environment and action create identity. We are what we do. Here, Miller is what he makes happen. Workers don't always care about the utility of their employment. They don't much care about beetles. (What happens to them is barely mentioned. In fact they were transplanted to a forest.)

    Cluzet, an extremely busy and popular French actor most recently seen by American audiences in Guillaume Canet's Tell No One (another hit thriller), is a neutral Frank Capra everyman, an individual who can seem shut down, but with a twinkle in the eye, a grump with a jovial chap hiding inside waiting to be let out. The film gradually lets out that chap, and then, when the big corporation comes in and the police descend, the highway project lit up at night like a film set, Miller is a little man who's strangely triumphant in defeat, waving the battered flag of his fake company.

    This is another marvelous French film that transcends genre, turning a crime thriller into celebration of work. Judging by this and Giannoli's The Singer/Quand j'étais chanteur, he has great sensitivity to solitary wanderers and paints rich psychological portraits in a complex social environment. He doesn't know so well how to end things. There is a little uncertainty whether we can take À l'origine as a mood piece about economic desperation (as Up in the Air partly is; but this is Down on the Ground ), a process picture, or a crime thriller. But it achieves success in each genre, because of the energetic world the director creates, the rich moral ambiguity he preserves. The secondary characters are of course a bit schematic, a bit obvious, but with such actors, they never seem that way. Like Laurent Cantet's study of a strike and of class conflict within a family, Human Resources, In the Beginning is about the human need to be doing work.

    An official entry at Cannes 2009, as mentioned, with 11 César nominations, À l'origine opened in Paris November 11, 2009 to very, very good reviews; more than one calls it "a great film." Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance and screened at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center in New York in March 2010.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 12-17-2016 at 11:41 PM.

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    Axelle Ropert: The Woberg Family (2009)


    Guillaume Verdier, François Damiens in The Wolberg Family

    Axelle Ropert: The Woberg Family (2009)


    Tableaux of family disjunction


    An old-fashioned, random, puzzling, but original and in some ways certainly engaging first feature written and directed by Axelle Ropert, The Wolberg Family focuses on Simon Wolberg (François Damiens), the Jewish mayor of a French provincial town, who seems good at giving celebratory speeches but gets into deeper, darker waters playing the roles of husband, father, and son. Simon has several very serious issues he's not quite ready to face. Lovely, intense widescreen images thanks to suddenly busy Céline Bozon (also d.p. for Cédric Kahn's Regrets and Laurent Perreau's Restless) complement the series of rather theatrical set pieces that give the film a novelistic subtlety, or read as a series of interlocking short stories, without quite coming together as a coherent narrative. Dialogue is witty and articulate, but delivered in tableaux. Sometimes character simply stop to philosophize too much. A little more showing and a little less telling on Ropert's part mightn't have hurt a bit.

    Axelle Ropert is an actress and film critic (La lettre du cinéma, Les Inrockuptibles) who has done the scripts for Serge Bozon (L'Amitié, Mods, La France, eccentric films much admired by hip French critics), the latter playing the role of Alexandre, Simon's "bohemian" sibling, a wanderer with a guitar who turns up unexpectedly and spreads his disapproval of his conventional brother, urging Simon's wife Marianne (Valérie Benguigui) to leave him and start a new life if she's not happy. In a meeting early on with his aging father Joseph (Jean-Luc Bideau), Simon appears unclear of his identity and admits he's old himself. At home, where we meet wife, daughter, and son, Simon makes veiled comments about a blond man. These guarded illusions are a big hint that Simon's fondest wish in life of a close-knit and loving family is illusory. Pretending to be canvassing for reelection, Simon visits the blond lover of his wife, Daniel (Jocelyn Quivrin) and they have it out in an intense face-to-face palaver in an increasingly violent pour-down rain -- a sequence that stands out as a tour de force but feels a little contrived.

    The children's loyalty is tested. Eleven-year-old Benjamin (Valentin Vigourt) knows things are uneasy at home and, usually taciturn and "peaceful," is acting out at school. The vivacious daughter Delphine (Léopoldine Serre) is not only making a big deal of her upcoming eighteenth birthday; she's seriously planning to use this occasion to leave home. She has a "blond man" of her own, it turns out. Daniel has said that Marianne is leaving, but her affair with him was only practice in doing so.

    Despite being a brilliant" mayor, Simon's Jewishness or just his oddity set him apart from French community feeling, and besides the town is Basque. After an annual celebration at his mother's grave with his dad at which they quaff Dom Pérignon and offer the deceased a libation, they're warned by a cemetery guard that such behavior is "disrespectful."

    Meanwhile there is a secret that Simon first confesses to his mother's grave and then discusses with the family doctor.

    The film builds to a climax of sorts with Delphine's birthday when further declarations and revelations occur amid a big party of townspeople and friends. There are several people who are leaving, including Delphine, Alexandre, and Simon's chief assistant François (Guillaume Verdier), who decides to give up his job and move away because he was in love with Delphine and is devastated to learn of her having an out-of-town boyfriend.

    Beautifully photographed scenes of original and heightened dialogue keep one watching The Wolberg Family, but it tends to have a rather static feel. Behind the warmth there is a certain preciousness.

    Sixties soul music is much featured, as in other Serge Bozon-Axelle Ropert collaborations.

    La famille Wolberg opened in Paris December 2, 2009 to very good reviews. Included in the March 2010 slate of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-Unifrance jointly organized series the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema and screened at both the Walter Reade Theater and IFC Center, New York.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-03-2010 at 06:12 PM.

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    Christian Carion: Farewell (2009)


    GUILLAUME CANET AND EMIR KUSTURICA IN FAREWELL

    Christian Carion: Farewell (2009)


    A bland spy story

    Farewell, or L'affaire Farewell in its original French title, is a middling spy story based very much on true events. That isn't always quite enough. The events are, so we're told, very important. During the early days of the Reagan administration a KGB officer called Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), who was thoroughly disappointed in Russian communism as administered by Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, took it upon himself to reveal extensive secrets about both the Soviet spy networks and the western secrets they had gathered, particularly about the Russians' big Cold War enemy, the USA. Because he had spent several happy years in Paris, he chose as his conduit for these revelations a young French engineer living in Moscow, one Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet).

    If only John Le Carré had had a hand in the telling of this story, though it's hard to see what even he could have done with events that, however momentous in theory, in practice were so banal. Neither Gregoriev nor Froment has any personal secrets worth delving into. Both have trouble with their wives. Froment's has an inkling that he's doing something dangerous of a cloak-and-dagger sort and nags him about it. Canet is a decent-looking young man with a beard; the self-consciously "period" over-large glasses look good on him, but he's about as distinctive as last year's GQ model. As for Gregoriev, he's got a lukewarm relationship with a gauche mistress. The most exciting thing that happens is that she worms her way into his apartment to buy something just so she can snatch a look at how he lives and what his wife and teenage son look like. She grabs a kiss when the wife isn't looking, but the son sees. This gives the son a thoroughly modern teenager's advantage on his dad.

    What would Le Carré do with the way the state secrets are passed over? Gregoriev, in what turns out to be a goofy kind of genius, completely ignores espionage methods and simply meets with Froment in his car and gives him big thick files. Reagan gets wind of these revelations, and powers that be, both in France and, reluctantly, on Reagan's side begin to take a keen interest. The Great Communicator, broadly impersonated by Fred Ward (a good joke, for a minute anyway) as a great fan of his own old films -- recognizes that this is an unprecedented flow of information. Reagan is very wary of dealing with a socialist French president (François Mitterand), but he has to hold his nose and cooperate. The intelligence people of both countries get Froment to give Gregoriev a Minox spy camera so he can deliver films instead of wads of paper. Froment leans to be nice to the soldiers assigned to watch him and the dumpy informer who is his wife's housekeeper, and, since he is a person of no interest, nobody is really watching him closely. So Gregoriev's unorthodox and very ordinary method of passing on secrets works. But it isn't interesting. Not much is shown of how Froment passes on to higher ups what he gets from Gregoriev (isn't there any danger?). Neither the slouchy, baggy-eyed Kusturica nor the pert, mildly nice-looking Canet is cool to watch. We have to be content with such mildly amusing tidbits as the fact that in asking for trophies for his son, Gregoriev thinks "Keen" is the name of the famous English rock group, and that the new portable music player is a "Johnny Walkman." Ha ha.

    All the scenes of secret-trading are in broad daylight; not even so much as an underground garage. It actually happens in Moscow, and though the cinematography isn't interesting, it does show the Moscow subway system and plenty of Stalinist wedding cake buildings. Did we say the cinematography isn't interesting?

    Fred Ward's Reagan isn't really broad (or observant) enough, and Willem Dafoe's CIA chief isn't officious or sleazy enough. One winds up wishing neither of them had gotten involved in this lackluster project.

    The whole story is one of unrelieved tedium for the first hour of the film, until finally Gregoriev gets captured and Froment realizes he and his family have got to get out of Moscow fast. There's a little tension at the Finland border. Gregoriev's incarceration and torture carry no tension: they're stylized and whited-out instead of dark (never underestimate the value of darkness in spy stories). There's a bit of drama between the battered Gregoriev and his wife and son. Time that might have been spent developing these characters (if they are in fact interesting) is lost with scenes about the pair's French, American, and Russian handlers and brief but unrevealing glimpses of Gregoriev's workplace. A few brief scenes of the great Niels Arestrup as an official of French domestic intelligence gives one a glimpse of some class. If only Kusturica's role had been assigned to someone as fascinating to watch as Arestrup.

    The reason why this story isn't so well known is that while it led to a crumbling of the Soviet's spy system when it all became blown, the US authorities did not want to reveal that the Russians knew all their secret codes and missile emplacements. "Farewell" and Star Wars coincide with the decline of the Soviet empire, but you can hear the air going out of the whole Cold War process, an event that Le Carré has been tackling (with considerable ingenuity and invention) ever since. But Christian Carion, Serguei Kostine whose book Bonjour Farewell (Farewell being the deliberately CIA-sounding French code name for the project) was the original source, and Eric Raynaud, who all collaborated on writing this film, aren't qualified to pen the dedication of a John Le Carré novel.

    If the idea of major Russian and American secrets being passed to a young Frenchman in the Reagan era under a socialist French president floats your boat, this is the movie for you. Just don't expect emotion, sharp dialogue, muscle, suspense, or excitement. Mostly in French but with scenes in English and Russian.

    L'affaire Farewell opened in Paris September 23 and received moderately good reviews, with some pretty damning ones. Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series (jointly sponsored by uniFrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center) and screened at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center in New York in March 2010.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-03-2010 at 06:10 AM.

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