Not a month after the Eiffel Tower turned off its lights for five minutes to ensure France was safe from verbal onslaughts by Al Gore and his cronies, the perpetual do-gooders at the Film Society of Lincoln Center unveil their latest installment of Rendezvous with French Cinema. The program, culled mainly from international festival circuits like Cannes and Berlin, attempts to give a brief summation of where the French are, cinematically speaking. Sixteen films, all being shown in America for the first time, diagnose where French filmmakers are 30-plus years after the French New Wave designated them as one of the most popular and progressive cultures in the celluloid cannon. As it was, it seems that the home of the city of lights is at a sort of standstill, curiously unable to give up the ghost of their forefathers but also unable to retain the vitality of their most essential current directors.
The return of the elusive Bruno Dumont with his war story Flandres () made for the most easily discussible film that screened. In a Podunk town in the Northeastern section of France (where it seems that regular dental hygiene carries a 25-to-life prison sentence), Demester (Samuel Boidin) lurches and slumps around his farm like a Neanderthal, waiting to be shipped out for military service. This action will effectively separate him from his ‘just friends’ lover and official town bicycle Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux). The bulk of the remaining film splits the narrative between rather barbaric scenes of savagery in the unnamed desert where Demester’s regiment is stationed and Barbe’s mental disintegration as she waits for Demester and the father of her unborn baby to return home. Shot beautifully by cinematographer Yves Cape, Dumont’s latest conundrum of human misery and stupidity lacks the concentration and definition of L’Humanite and the less-regarded, extraordinary Life of Jesus. Though Dumont’s characters have always borne a moronic sheen, Flandres takes this into brutal and cruel terrain; the basis in Dumont’s argument seems to be that in the end, we’re all either mentally-deranged sluts or sociopaths.
Less polarizing and abstract, Patrick Grandperret’s Murderers () continues France’s long-running interest in late-teen sexuality and feminine attachment. Two girls meet at a home for the mentally unfit, immediately bond and see fit to run away from the hospital. The trip leads them to poverty, attempted prostitution and, inevitably, to murder. Grandperret’s architecture falters here, not allowing adequate build-up to the actions that his troubled girls take as needed, specifically in the film’s second half where their situation gets dire. Lacking in dexterity but commendably restrained, the filmmaker’s smoldering sensuality gives way to gender politics with little hesitation. When the structure fails, Grandperret’s leading ladies, Hande Kodja and Celine Sallette, continue to give well-defined, psychologically complex performances that resonate till the film’s haunting last shot.
Another sort of lost little girl could be found in Philippe Lioret’s humid family portrait Don’t Worry, I’m Fine (). Though it begins as a mystery about a runaway brother and son, the film segues, with impressive fluidity, into a study of the sister he left behind. The psychological aspect of the sibling connection (they were twins) doesn’t get explored fully in lew of using the tired idea of the ruptured family to investigate a young girl’s alienation. Lili (radiant newcomer Melanie Laurent) starves herself until she begins to get postcards from her misbegotten brother, sending her on academic leave to work at a grocery store and hunt down her brother. Lioret’s restraint is astounding, never allowing this hazy, humane drama to slip into mystery or dark comedy, yet still giving us adequate (if a tad predictable) answers to the film’s unraveling enigmas.
In this case, Lioret’s emotional abyss proved a much more daring prospect than his once co-director Catherine Corsini’s brittle Ambitious (). When Julien, a young author, begins an affair with the head of acquisitions for a publishing house, his artistic temperament fails him but is reborn when he realizes that she is the daughter of a famous leftist guerilla who left her a treasure trove of correspondence and memorabilia from his fighting days. Julien turns these findings into a book, effectively infuriating the woman he’s been falling in love with and allowing her to unleash a media maelstrom upon him (which just helps sales). Corsini’s concept is precise, following two rather unappreciative people falling for each other and finding prickly bliss in each other’s neuroses. However, the neuroses are left limp and complexity becomes diluted under the guise of agreeability and convention. The purposefully grainy 35mm print gives the film a betrayed humbleness.
A betrayal of a different sort sets off the actions in Francis Veber’s latest comedy of manners following his spectacular The Closet and The Dinner Game. Far more clumsy and unfocused, The Valet () concerns a titular employee who wants to marry his childhood friend and get out of the small apartment he shares with his offish friend. Accidentally appearing in a photo with an adulterous businessman (the great Daniel Auteuil) and his model girlfriend allows him to get the money to save his love’s bookshop but not before posing as the model’s boyfriend. Though Auteuil fires on all cylinders, Veber loses the tight grip on premise that gave his past films such sharp wit. All the actors show comedic fervor, shaming the two-dimensional characters they are given to round out. There’s a deep lack of completeness to the work, giving one no pause on how this film will be rehashed by Veber and the Farrelly brothers in a planned 2008 remake.
For all these upsets, Rendezvous did afford itself two gems that show the French not only revising their own culture but upping the ante on the musical biopic. The latter comes in the form of La Vie En Rose (), Olivier Dahan’s hypnotic rendering of chanteuse Edith Piaf’s life as France’s favorite stage performer. As one of Film Society’s delegates stated at the beginning of the screening, Dahan’s film might be best enjoyed on an insular day with snow accumulating outside. More refined and stylized than recent American musician biopics, La Vie En Rose follows Edith’s life through the pitfalls and promises with the usual stop-offs at lost loves, drug abuse and rotating-door father and mother figures. These conventional means are weaved expertly by Dahan, however, and are blended to a frothy, dark pastiche of a great life tinged with dread. This wouldn’t be so if the superb Marion Cotillard, best known as Billy Crudup’s wife in Big Fish and the lady assassin in A Very Long Engagement, didn’t portray Piaf with unyielding gusto and bitter charisma; she’s a swaying glass of red wine, complete with the lucid repercussions.
Combining both old school vibrancy and new school psychological complexity, Christophe Honore’s inebriated Dans Paris () was the most singular enjoyable film that the festival screened. Starring France’s two most promising young actors, the film revels in the duality of a broken home, following the lives of two brothers: one freshly separated from his long-time girlfriend and the other collecting girls as if they were Faulkner first editions. Paul (Romain Duris from The Beat That My Heart Skipped) hovers in a trance-like depression, only making time to sing French disco pop and lament his ex while his younger brother Jonathan (Louis Garrel from The Dreamers and Regular Lovers) attempts to cheer him up, sidetracked by three lovely bevies. Honore’s immediacy allows for both sides of the spectrum to be fitfully studied; Jonathan’s youthful ambivalence and Paul’s suicidal brooding give equal engagement to the viewer. The charm of Jonathan’s introductory speech to the audience relieves the film of self-aggrandizement and art-house pretension swiftly. Dans Paris competently, with well-considered humor and heartbreak, expresses where the French cinema exists in the modern pantheon: attempting to bond its youthful vigor with the maturity of abstract psychology and narrative density.Read More