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Thread: Rendez-vous With French Cinema 2007

  1. #16
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    Counrdown and Humbert Balsan


    An original film and its deceased inspiration

    Sandrine Veysset's Countdown/Il sera une fois is like a meandering philosophical short story. It begins on the cold French coastline. A boy, Pierrot, (Alphonse Emery) is counting down to zero wherever he goes, and when he first appears onscreen he’s at 12,000-something. A big sad teddy-bear of a man with long gray hair and a long beard (Michael Lonsdale) is following him. It’s him as an old man. He has a young girlfriend named Elise (Lucie Régnier). His mother Nadine (Dominique Reymond) is always ill and listens obsessively to a Rachmaninoff piano concerto. His father Henri (Jean-Christophe Bouvet) is always out at his mysterious club. They live in a big old house at the top of a cliff over the water. A frustrated cripple and his wife are the girl’s parents. The cripple is raising a pig for slaughter. These are the elements that Sandrine Veysset’s Countdown/Il sera une fois provides us with, but its essence is the boy's transformation. After the old Pierrot confronts the young Pierrot, the boy is revived. He stops counting backward and begins counting forward. He kisses Elise and flirts with her mother. He isn't going to have regrets; he's going to live. Old Lonsdale, now 76, is still wonderful and Alphonse Emery is a precocious talent.

    The making of this highly original mood piece and meditation on life and aging and death was interrupted by the suicide of Humbert Balsan, who had been producer and inspiration for Veysset’s four previous films and was the producer for this one. After faltering a while, Veysset was able to finish with the assistance of producer François Cohen-Séat. Countdown is dedicated to the memory of Humbert Balsan.


    The legacy of Humbert Balsan

    Countdown/Il sera une fois was shown in the FSLC Rendez-Vous series together with Anne Andreu’s hour-long documentary about Veysset's producer, Humbert Balsan: Rebel Producer/Humbert Balsan: producteur rebelle. As this documentary shows, Humbert Balsan was an remarkable French figure in the world of independent film who was especially encouraging to Third World and Middle Eastern filmmakers, as well as French ones. In particular he worked with the leading Egyptian director Yousef Chanine and produced Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention/Yadon ilaheyya, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2002 and various other awards. Born into an extremely wealthy industrialist family with a father who had spent three years in the Matthausen concentration camp and written a book about it, Balsan was educated privately with his siblings in privileged surroundings and became an accomplished equestrian. This led to his being cast as Gawain in Robert Bresson's Lancelot of the Lake at the age of 19. Shortly thereafter he was an assistant to Bresson for Le diable, probablement.

    It was largely this close encounter early in his life with the charismatic and dedicated Bresson , the documentary narration says, that inspired Balsan to resist family pressures to study in Switzerland and go into business, and instead to devote his life to film. He starred in a picture about WWI, Michel Mitrani's Un balcon en forêt (1979), but proved not to be very much in demand as an actor (though in fact he appears in 27 films), so he turned to other aspects of the industry. He made a documentary about French keyboard luminary Nadia Boulanger, then gradually moved to producing and in particular to encouraging independent films. He produced 66 of them, 17 by Arab directors. (IMDb now lists his as producer of 68.)

    Balsan spend nine months in Egypt at one time and professed to be very much at home there. One scene shows him frequenting Feshawi's famous Cairo café. Among various notable figures Michel Piccoli, who starred in a film about Napoleon shot in Cairo, speaks at length about the charismatic and elegant producer, and so does Carole Bouquet., the star, and Brigitte Roüann, the director, of Housewarming/Travaux, on sait quant ca commence..., which was being completed at the time of Balsan's death. Always working on the edge with too little budget, Balsan endured tremendous stress always with outward panache and charm. His family motto was "Jamais battu," never beaten. He "had painful secrets," Piccoli says, but he "always hid his despair." Finally he gave way to these inner pressures and hanged himself. A fascinating and touching portrait of someone who to the world of French cinema was clearly one of the great ones. (Made for TV. 57 minutes.)
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-04-2007 at 11:51 AM.

  2. #17
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    Zabou Breitman: The Man of My Life/L'homme de sa vie (2006)


    Good intentions

    The French blurb says (my translation), "Like every year, Frédéric and his wife Frédérique are spending their summer vacation in their big house lost in the Dôme with a good part of their family. One evening they invite Hugo, their new neighbor, for dinner – a man who blithely makes known his homosexuality to everyone. Hugo and Frédéric stay up talking till dawn and sow the seeds of a relationship that will disturb their hearts and those around them."

    From the Rendez-Vous packet for the film : "The Enguerands are getting ready to spend another summer in their villa deep in the verdant Provence countryside….Invited by Fréderic to a barbecue, their solitary, self-possessed gay neighbor Hugo (Charles Berling) openly parades his homosexuality. The two men stay up till dawn, exchanging radically different visions of love. As the summer wears on, Frédérique notices a distance opening between her and her husband, and a powerful bond developing between Frédéric and Hugo."

    All that is very nice, but it's more a description of what Breitman may have started out to do or what we might expect from the material than what we actually end up with. What might have happened? Would the bond developed that night lead to a deep friendship? To an actual physical relationship – that might have spoiled things? We'll never know. Instead of having the courage to let the implications of the situation play out in real terms and real time, Breitman's playful artiness, far from daring, is a cop-out.

    David Rooney, in Variety, wrote this, the sole comment on the film included in the Rendez-Vous press packet, surprisingly enough, since it is pretty damning : "Actress-turned director Zabou Breitman’s elegant visual compositions and willingness to experiment with style and structure are evident in her second feature, The Man of My Life. But those virtues become vices in a drama that steadily succumbs to self-conscious artiness, drunk on its own sense of contrived poetry and cloudy existential reflection. Exploring the man-crush between a happily married heterosexual and a gay devotee of emotionless physical gratification, the movie is a big tease. Even auds inclined to indulge its pretentiousness will start tuning out as its multiple endings drag on, none of them satisfying or revelatory.”

    David Rooney’s assessment is fair. This beautiful film throws away all the sympathy it earns in its early sequences. The summer family atmosphere, Fréderic’s attraction to his wife, the charm of the kids, the disarming directness of Hugo, (as ably played by Charles Berling, clearly a man of keen intellect, confident of his outlook and easy in his skin), the beautiful look of the place – all this is jettisoned when the all-night conversation gets chopped up through the whole rest of the film and intercut with real and fantasy sequences that are confusing and sometimes irrelevant. Breitman says her inspiration was a dream and her note from the dream was “Boy meets boy.” That may have been her intention. (The title, L'homme de sa vie, the man of his life, goes way beyond anything that happens onscreen.) Clearly Breitman is too much in love with her own effects. Her film is so artfully sliced up as to have no progression or clear meaning, and if she meant to show a straight man strongly drawn to a gay one, she botched the effort. Bernard Campan as Fréderic and Berling are fine; if I'd worked on this film I'd feel cheated by the result.

    Fréderic goes jogging with Hugo with a twisted ankle and makes it worse. Hugo winds up carrying Frédéric most of the way back. There is some touching and indeed there’s a suggestion that the intense night of conversation may have forged the strongest connection Frédéric has ever felt with another man. But love? Boy meets boy? Not in what emerged from the cutting room. There is also a subplot of Hugo drawn by his daughter to revisit his dying father, who kicked him out of the house twenty years ago. Frédéric was having erection problems with his wife before he met Hugo – at least as the film ended up. There’s exhaustion and confusion, but love or a new sexual orientation? No. Too bad that Breitman wasn't willing to just let the late night conversation – which could have been a bravura bixexual My Dinner with André – play itself out, and then follow normal chronology to show some results of it. Sometimes life as it is, so to speak, is far more fascinating than any dreams or any artistically scrambled narratives with discos and tango floors and beautiful naked young men floating in the air or string quartets playing in a field of grass for the benefit of no one but the camera.

    Opened in Paris October 11, 2006. To be shown at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center March 3 and 5, and at the IFC Center March 4, 2007. US distributor Strand Releasing.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-04-2007 at 03:42 PM.

  3. #18
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area




    Of foreign films shown in this country, a high proportion are French. The Rendez-vous is a cross section of recent ones, some great, some good, some mediocre. All are worth seeing if you want an idea of current French film production. Below are the ones that stood out most to me among this year's selections. All the latter are marked by an original and dedicated vision. And as with any preeminent film culture, France has great actors. France is the leading producer of luxury products in the world – couture, wine, cognac, aircraft, cosmetics, jewels. Maybe we should start to recognize that French cinema is another of the country's luxury products. At their best, French films are jewels. Behind them is a very favorable industry and a refined sense of craft. Here in a nutshell are descriptions of Julie Gavras' Blame It on Fidel, Christophe Honoré's Inside Paris, Olivier Dahan's La Vie en Rose, Bruno Dumont's Flanders, Denis Dercourt's The Page Turner, and Xavier Giannoli's The Singer.

    Julie Gavras: Blame It on Fidel/La faute à Fidel (2006)

    Former documentary filmmaker Gavras probably inherited her political awareness through her father, the Costa-Gavras of Z and State of Siege, but she's expressed a woman's point of view toward politics by choosing a subject that deals with its effect on a family. The film is bright and entertaining and has some good laughs. But it deserves extra credit for having a good head on its shoulders at all times. Blame It on Fidel deals with how children may be victimized by the ideas of their parents, even when those ideas are well-meaning and progressive. The film comes up with the startling revelation that a nine-year-old can seriously engage with issues like abortion and capitalism vs. communism. When young Anna sees her parents' get involved in political activism in the early seventies and abandon their comfortably bourgeois lifestyle, she doesn't take it sitting down. Instead she engages tooth and nail with the ideas her parents are indirectly imposing on her -- the importance of group action, the injustice of a market economy, etc. She thoroughly enjoyed the perks and rituals of a comfortable bourgeois life; and catechism, which she's been taken out of in Catholic school, was one of her best and favorite subjects. She loved her anti-Castro Cuban nanny and thought her conservative grandparents (her mother's parents, heirs to a Bordeaux vineyard) had their own worthwhile ways of doing good. (And they did, but they didn't disturb the existing social order as her father Fernando's Chilean activist friends want to do.) At first, amusingly, the feisty, impulsive little François, Anna's younger brother, is better at adjusting to the changes, to sleeping in the same bedroom and eating exotic food prepared by their new political refugee nannies from Greece and Vietnam. In the end though, Anna has come to terms with the principle of change, and it's she who insists on being transferred to a secular school that's multicultural and free-wheeling, and she's happily joining in the play there at recess time as the film ends. This isn't a story of a child passively witnessing traumatic political events. Instead it's an illustration of the fact that kids can think. And this film that might have been solemn and self-conscious given some of the subject matter instead is a light-hearted comedy that's also beautiful to look at. (No US distributor).

    Christophe Honoré: Inside Paris/Dans Paris (2006)

    After the turn-off of his previous Ma Mère and the gloomy intensity of previous films, Christophe Honoré has produced a fourth feature that's economical and entertaining, a remarkable balance of moods that (as before) studies parental and sibling relationships, this time with elegant dialogue and amusing contrasts of scenes and characters and an evocation of the French New Wave that gives two of France's best and hottest young male film actors a chance for virtuoso performances. Romain Duris is an older brother returned to his father's Paris flat suffering from a heavy depression in the wake of a failed marriage. Louis Garrel is his spunky, playful younger sometime student brother who has yet to leave the parental nest, and Guy Marchand gives a winning performance as their father trying to create equilibrium in this bipolar family situation at Christmastime. One of France's hippest journals, Les Inrockuptibles, called this the best film of the year. Apart from the playfulness with film tradition, Honoré has taken a fresh look at depression that recognizes it may be interrupted by moments of hectic glee and deep self-awareness. (US distributor: IFC First Take).

    Oliver Dahan: La Vie en Rose/La Môme (2007)

    This biopic about the tragic, tumultuous life of French singer icon Edith Piaf, "the kid sparrow," greeted ceremonially as a "film event" in France as befits an elaboration of the history of a national treasure, is crowned with a spectacular lead performance by Marion Costillard that's at once go-for-broke and precisely accurate down to the fingernails. Whatever you may conclude about this overwhelming, chaotic film – it really doesn't want to give you time to think – you're going to grant that Cotillard delivers one of the most remarkable star performances ever in a singer-biopic. "The narrative had to be impressionist, not linear," Dahan has commented. Certainly this isn't studied, analytical filmmaking but, as Dahan's remark suggests, the wildly impressionistic kind. The film shifts back and forth vertiginously between Piaf's last days – she died at 47 – and the many highlights and low points of her incredible earlier life. "This is a Kid who will make you blubber," wrote French critic Patrick Fabre after La Môme's Valentine's Day opening in Paris, "like you've never blubbered at the movies before." And this film too is beautiful and full of fine actors. (US distributor: Picturehouse).

    Bruno Dumont: Flanders/Flandres (2006)

    Dumont's people are laconic, his settings are remote and cheerless and his characters are played by non-actors, but the powerful filmmaking of his unique, harsh style presents a clear and moving narrative. Using simple, economical means and focusing on a few individuals, presenting scenes that follow a logical, universal progression, Flanders is able to tell a profound story about war's ravages at home and on the front. This is classic Dumont style, if on a bolder and grander scale than before. His people are none the less noble, pathetic, and human for being reduced to simplicity, even crudity. Dumont has made a film as energetic and forward-driven as the Dardennes brothers' L'Enfant, but more universal, and even more concise (91 rather than 100 minutes). As in Dumont's L'Humanité and La Vie de Jésus, there's a grandeur that emerges from the stripped-down, minimal scenes and people. Everything works. We might see a home truth in this account of young men who go off to fight in an Arab country, are led to do terrible things, suffer horribly, and come back to ordinary life shattered but more than ever in need of love. It's surprising that Variety's usually canny reviewer made it sound dull and off-putting. There is still resistance to Dumont's style. (US distributor: International Film Circuit).

    Denis Dercourt's The Page Turner/Le tourneuse de pages (2006)

    Director Desnis Dercourt is also an accomplished classical musician. His film combines performance anxiety with suspense as we await the unfolding of a revenge. This is the cooler side of the French personality. Dercourt's people, frustrated, demanding, nervous musicians, seem curiously wooden most of the time – like Daniel Auteuil's violin-maker character in Un coeur en hiver, they seem to live in a continual winter of the spirit – but within the world of austere elegance and musical dedication that Dercourt creates, somehow that woodenness becomes believable and even moving. And the tension is worthy of Chabrol. Exceptional performances here by Catherine Frot as Ariane, a self-centered pianist, and Déborah Francois as Mélanie, the young student who loses a scholarship through Frot’s thoughtless behavior and gets delayed revenge. Dercourt gets deep into the myriad ways musicians may suffer – the demanding hours of practice, the merciless competition, the terrifying concert nights with their inevitable accompaniment of 'le trac' (stage fright) – and the ways that these musicians’ personal agonies may engender suffering in others. In this film, all is bright and clear on the surface, but a mere walk down a corridor to an indoor pool can be heavy with foreboding. We know that young Mélanie will bring down pianist Ariane's world, but we don't know how or where the destruction's coming: Dercourt is continually raising the tension to a tighter pitch by keeping us guessing. (US Distributor: Tartan Films).

    Xavier Giannoli's The Singer/Quand j'étais chanteur (2006)

    The French press has been understandably ecstatic about this film. It brings together one of the most distinguished and prolific actors in French cinema with one of its most luminous and vibrant young female talents. But this isn't just a film about stars and authentic-feeling chemistry. It's a film about character and situation. First and foremost it's a film about dance halls and the singers who work in them. Gérard Depardieu is the aging, almost over-the-hill Alain Moreau –"Alain Moreau et son Orchestre." Cécile de France is Marion, a fragile young woman, tough and beautiful on the outside but inside rather shattered, in a new place, Clermont-Ferrand, in a new job, selling real estate, with her young son she doesn't get to spend much time with. When they meet a transitory but transformative relationship happens.

    The Singer is a film that breathes. Its beauty is that it has no easy tragedies or easy resolutions; that things are almost as uncertain between Alain and Marion at the end as they were that first night when she sat in front of him in the dance hall blonde and bright, like a diamond in a red dress. Giannoli is a young director who works with independence and drive. His Les corps impatients was a distinctive and risk-taking film but this one is a leap forward beyond passion and conviction to larger conception, deeper commitment and broader communication. This time Giannoli has done something that can reach a lot of people. Depardieu sings his own songs, and his performance as Alain Moreau is one of the best things he's done in a long time – at least over a decade – and a great thing it is. This was a magnificent opportunity for Cécile de France and she's met it with her best and richest acting in a film to date. It's a tribute to both actors' work in The Singer that you find it hard to separate either of them from their characters. The film ends with a song, "Quand j'étais chanteur," ("When I Was a Singer" – the title of the film in French). Je m'éclatais comme une bête, it goes, quand j'étais chanteur -- I had a hell of a good time when I was a singer. The Singer is one of those films that isn't putting on a show for you: it's inviting you to come in and hang around a while, join in the dance. It moves you with performances that are authentic and direct, "as simple," as one French critic put it, "as a song." (US distributor not yet announced).

    [Also published on Cinescene. ]
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 03-04-2007 at 11:08 PM.

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