Notes from Rendez-vous with French Cinema 2011
Having been going through something of film burnout that began midway through the New York Film Festival last year, I had planned to attend only a few screenings from this year's Rendez-vous with French Cinema as a way of working through the inertia. The film that finally succeeded in coaxing me out of hibernation was Benoît Jacquot's latest offering, Deep in the Woods. Jacquot's films have in one way or another examined the nature of identity and performance, and his previous film at Rendez-vous, Villa Amalia had struck a personal chord about the compulsion for anonymity and renunciation. Suffice it to say, I had high expectations for Deep in the Woods and it did not disappoint.
During the Q&A, Jacquot commented that the real-life inspiration for the film was a fait divers that had set a precedence for mental manipulation as a legal basis for criminal responsibility under French law. Ostensibly the story of Joséphine (Isild Le Besco), a pious young woman who abandons her privileged life to follow a coarse, mesmeric drifter, Timothée (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) across the provincial countryside, the film explores the grey area between identity and role, will and compulsion. Especially intriguing is the way Jacquot ambiguously frames seduction as a kind of mental sleight of hand - a performance (and an apparently nefarious one) intended to override free will. By capturing the shifting dynamics between the captor and captive, Jacquot poses a fascinating paradigm in defining the ephemeral nature of desire.
The question of identity and performance also forms the core of René Féret's period piece, Mozart's Sister. Based on the life of Mozart's older sister, Nannerl (Marie Féret), whose own ambitions and future had been subjugated to promote the international reputation and career of the young prodigy, the film finds kinship with Jacques Rivette's La Religieuse in capturing the stricture, captivity, and marginalization of women in eighteenth century society.
Based on Keith Ridgway's first novel (albeit translated from rural Ireland to Belgium), Martin Provost's The Long Falling is a thoughtful and provocative interrogation on guilt, culpability, and redemption. Tracing the trajectory of a middle-aged woman's (Yolande Moreau) attempt to break away from her abusive husband and reconnect with her estranged son (Eric Godon), the film elegantly captures the deeply rooted dysfunctional cruelty, repression, and psychological enabling that forges the heroine's transformation. Weighing the mother and son's violent reactions against past transgressions, The Long Falling exposes the inhumanity of inaction and instinctual self-preservation that underlies the moral ambiguity of a seemingly justifiable murder.
The idea of defining one's identity while living under another person's shadow resurfaces in Eric Lartigau's The Big Picture. Based on the novel by Douglas Kennedy, the film chronicles the unraveling of a successful attorney (Romain Duris) after the collapse of his marriage. Striking the tone and tension of a Patricia Highsmith novel (as well as the moral ambiguity of the antihero), the film's attraction resides in Duris's subtly modulated performance in his ever-transforming persona as law partner, family man, fugitive, recluse, and photojournalist. Suggesting kinship with Jacquot's Villa Amalia in the narrative arc of an adrift protagonist traveling to a remote region in order to escape a life-altering trauma (this time, within the framework of a genre film), The Big Picture proves to be a competent, if unremarkable exploration of identity, fugue, and reinvention.
Ironically, the idea of constant reinvention also captures of Claude Lelouch's autoportrait, From One Film to Another. Admittedly, I had never been a great admirer of Lelouch's pastiche, uneven cinema. That said, Lelough's obviously deep love for the cinema and desire to continue to make each successive film unlike anything he had done before in the quixotic quest to make the perfect film made for an interesting biography. Opening with a jaw dropping archival footage of the young filmmaker racing through the streets of Paris by weaving his way through traffic, skidding through sharp turns, and barreling past red lights, Lelouch creates a metaphor for the kind of risk-taking, recklessness, and exhilaration that embody the spirit of his films. Having been figuratively born into the cinema with his parents meeting over Mark Sandrich's Top Hat - and subsequently hiding him from the Germans during occupied France by bringing him from one movie house to the next during the school day - Lelouch's unorthodox education has not only led him to embrace all forms of cinema, but also to try his hand at the different genres. Running the gamut from drama, to western, to romantic comedy, to musical, Lelouch's humorous and self-effacing survey of his film career reinforce the idiosyncrasy, audacity, and infectious enthusiasm that binds together his singular body of work.