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Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 12, 2011

Notes from Rendez-vous with French Cinema 2011

deep_woods.gifHaving 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.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 12, 2011 | | Filed under 2011, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 15, 2009

Bellamy, 2009

bellamy.gifIn hindsight, the establishing shot of Claude Chabrol's Bellamy showing a relaxed Paul Bellamy (Gérard Depardieu) trying to solve a crossword puzzle while on vacation at a well appointed country estate in Nîmes - an apparent compromise in destination from his wife, Françoise's (Marie Bunel) suggestions to take a more exotic trip - serves as both hint and a ruse to the renowned police inspector's ever-analytical personality. Struggling to cope with the unexpected arrival of his troublesome, ne'er-do-well, younger brother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac) and visited by a stranger, Noël Gentil (Jacques Gamblin) who may have been involved in the unsolved disappearance of an industrialist named Emile Leullet, Bellamy is gradually pulled away from his seeming hibernation, seduced by the stranger's tale of double lives, insurance fraud, a beautiful, young mistress (Vahina Giocante), a grieving, persecuted wife (Marie Matheron), and face-altering cosmetic surgery that seem worlds apart from his comfortable, settled life. Similar to Chabrol's previous film, A Girl Cut in Two, the psychology of the pursuer not only shapes the narrative trajectory of the film, but also continually redefines his ambiguous motivation: an unmade bed opens up the possibility of an affair, a missing gun corroborates a theoretical pattern of self-destruction, an all-too-forthcoming suspect that suggests hidden, ulterior motives. Bookending with a shot of a motorist's violent death on a desolate beach, the image suggests both a tragic conclusion and the ingredients of a new mystery - a paradoxical reflection of Bellamy's own self-perpetuating puzzle quest.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Eden Is West, 2009

eden_west.gifThe quixotic search for a better life in the West collides with the reality of immigration raids, exploitation, and poverty in Costa-Gavras's picaresque, if insubstantial and ultimately unremarkable film, Eden Is West. Embodying the prototypical image of the naïve, wide-eyed immigrant is Elias (Riccardo Scamarcio) who, as the film begins, has paid smugglers a substantial fee for the privilege of staking a spot in the overcrowded hull of a ship bound for the French coast. Fearing immediate deportation after a coast guard vessel announces its intention to board the ship for inspection, Elias and his friend (Odysseas Papaspiliopoulos) - alomg with a handful of other desperate voyagers - jump overboard and head toward the lights of a nearby shore, landing on the clothes-optional beach on the foothills of a luxury resort appropriately called Eden. However, even the seeming paradise of all-you-can-eat buffets and wealthy, attractive patrons (in particular, a German woman named Christina [Juliane Köhler] who embarks on an affair with the handsome Elias) still has its drawbacks - a clogged toilet that needs immediate clearing, the continued presence of police searching for illegal immigrants who may have reached the shore, a resort manager (Eric Caravaca) who uses his position of authority to proposition a subordinate - that would invariably send Elias away in search of greener pastures, spurred in part by the invitation of a traveling magician, Nick Nickelby (Ulrich Tukur) to visit him in his hometown of Paris. Part whimsical comedy that conveys an immigrant's sense of wonder and part social realism that illustrates the plight of undocumented workers, the idiosyncratic fusion results in a film that is neither satirical enough to expose underlying social absurdities nor illuminating in its cursory and generalized observations of complex issues.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 15, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 13, 2009

Villa Amalia, 2009

villa_amalia.gifAs in his previous film The Untouchable, Benoît Jacquot's sublime and brooding film Villa Amalia, an adaptation of Pascal Quignard's novel, also explores themes of identity and fugue. This ambiguity is suggested in the film's opening sequence, as a distracted Ann (Isabelle Huppert) - having just witnessed her long-time partner, Thomas (Xavier Beauvois) near the doorway of another woman's home one evening - fails to recognize her childhood friend, Georges (Jean-Hugues Anglade) in the street. In a sense, the juxtaposition of their shared childhood in Brittany (which, in turn, evokes the region's Celtic and French biculturality), and her delayed response to the calling of her birth name (having adopted the surname, Hidden - an Anglicization of Hidewitz - for her professional career as a concert pianist and composer that alludes to her estrangement from her Romanian Jewish father and his ethic roots) is also a reflection of Ann's ambiguity and figurative rejection of her identity. Withdrawing from colleagues, refusing to take on commissioned work, and deciding to sell her shared apartment and all of its contents - including her collection of pianos - Ann gradually begins to divest herself from the life she has known, paying a final visit to her estranged mother, saying goodbye to friends, and asking Georges to keep a remote house that he once inherited for her, before setting off on her own journey to the volcanic island of Ischia on the Italian coast. But the island also proves to have its own entanglements: an Italian woman (Maya Sansa), on the verge of a breakup with her boyfriend, finds kinship with Ann despite the language barrier, a divorced lover's adolescent daughter begins to spend more time with her than with her workaholic father, and a fragile, emotionally abandoned Georges who is facing his own mortality. Jacquot creates a sense of fracture through narrative ellipses, dislocation, truncated conversations, and extended silences (most notably, in Ann's visit to her mother who may be suffering from a degenerative memory disorder) that reinforce her increasing isolation. Set against the idyllic, but weatherworn abandoned hilltop cottage, Villa Amalia becomes an embodiment of Ann's self-imposed exile as well in its haunted history of love and loss, beauty and austerity, celebration and mourning.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 13, 2009 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

With a Little Help from Myself, 2008

with_help.gifLike Pierre Schöller's Versailles, François Dupeyron's With a Little Help from Myself similarly presents a portrait of the marginalized in contemporary France, in this case, the plight of immigrants and the elderly. Shot in yellow hues characteristic of African cinema, as well as vibrant, chaotic milieus and canted angles that invite comparison - albeit to the film's detriment - to Spike Lee's seminal film Do the Right Thing (complete with an aggressive, urban soundtrack and repeated shots of people trying to find relief from the blistering summer heat), the film's silver lining is found in actress Félicité Wouassi's charming performance as the indomitable Sonia, a role that runs the gamut from aggrieved wife to self-sacrificing mother to sympathetic companion to seductive enchantress (during the Q&A, Wouassi had commented that her acting experience before the film had been primarily theatrical, and was cast by Dupeyron after appearing as Mrs. Miller in Roman Polanski's stage production of John Patrick Shanley's play, Doubt in Paris). Ironically, in attempting to create a simple tale of working class life, Dupeyron resorts to familiar stereotypes, resulting in an unwieldy, over-contrived structure that paradoxically converges more towards fable than social realism: a sex-crazed best friend, an abusive, gambling husband (Mamadou Dioumé) who suffers a fatal heart attack only a few hours before their daughter's wedding, crotchety employers (with an added dose of racism for good measure), a lonely elderly neighbor (Claude Rich) eager for some excitement in his life, a drug-dealing son (Ralph Amoussou) who is arrested on the day of the wedding, a pregnant teen-aged daughter (Elisabeth Oppong), a self-destructive younger son (Charles-Etienne N'Diaye), a handsome suitor (Jean-Jacques Ido).

Posted by acquarello on Mar 13, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 11, 2009

The Beaches of Agnès, 2008

beaches_agnes.gifA clear highlight in an already strong French cinema program this year is Agnès Varda's playful and understated, yet endlessly inventive The Beaches of Agnès. Part autobiographical survey from her childhood in wartime Europe to her lifelong activism (she self-effacingly admits that she missed the events of May 68 because she was living in California at the time, and instead got caught up in the Black Panther and anti-war movements), and part career retrospective of her body of work as photographer, New Wave filmmaker, documentarian, and artist, the film is also an incisive essay on the amorphous nature of memory and representation. This ambiguity is perhaps best illustrated in long-time friend and colleague, Chris Marker's tongue in cheek, pre-scripted Q&A session with Varda on her life and work, using a mediated appearance through his iconic cartoon avatar, Guillaume-en-Egypte - complete with a disembodied MacinTalk™ synthesized voice - to conduct an ironically "personal" interview with the filmmaker. For Varda, reflections on her debut film La Pointe-courte not only revisit historical intersections between real life (her teen-age years spent in the fishing village during the war) and fiction (alternating segments between the lovers and village life), but also reveal the fissures between past and present, as many of the villagers appearing in the film have since died (including a poignant episode involving a stand-in actor whose son, born after his death, would commemorate his legacy by accompanying a projection cart that is screening the film through town), their children now elderly, and the lead actor, Philippe Noiret, appearing in his first film, would succumb to cancer in 2006. Inasmuch as Varda remarks that the trajectory of her life may be traced through the physical and metaphoric geography of beaches - from family summer vacations in Calais on the coast of her native Belgium, to a life of exile in La Pointe Courte in Languedoc-Roussillon on the southeast coast of France, to Venice Beach in California where the family had settled after her husband, filmmaker Jacques Demy was invited to work in Hollywood - her legacy is also appropriately found in the transformation of the ephemeral to the physical: a convergence that is prefigured in the opening sequence of Varda experimenting with mirror angles that alternately recasts the film crew as both documenters and subjects in the film, and culminates with the ingenious shot of a prismatic tent composed of unspooled reels from Varda's commercially unsuccessful film The Creatures. The image - and implicitly, the past - once again becomes tangible and relevant, re-animated by the curious and impassioned eye of an ageless spirit.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 11, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Change of Plans, 2009

change_plan.gifFrom the opening images of Change of Plans, Danièle Thompson illustrates the intersection between personal and public spaces, initially, in the title sequence shot of a flamenco class in which a distracted, rhythm-challenged attorney, Marie-Laurence (Karin Viard) tries to keep up with - and out of the way of - other people, and subsequently, a gynecologist, Mélanie (Marina Foïs) examining a patient before being interrupted by a phone call from her lover. Having learned from her stay-at-home husband, Piotr (Dany Boon) of an added guest - her recently jilted lover, Jean-Louis (Laurent Stocker) - Marie-Laurence impulsively decides to invite her dance instructor Manuela (Blanca Li) in order to maintain the balance of men and women at the table, despite not having prepared enough food for the added guests. With the building access code having been changed earlier in the day, Marie-Laurence's estranged father, Henri (Pierre Arditi) unexpectedly coming for a visit, traffic coming to a virtual standstill with the advent of a music festival street fair, and friends Mélanie and her oncologist husband Alain (Patrick Bruel) uncommitted about coming to the dinner party (Mélanie having decided to reveal her affair with a jockey and ask for a divorce that evening), the occasion invariably turns from carefully planned event to barely controlled chaos, with Marie-Laurence's younger sister, Juliette (Marina Hands) deciding to drop in for a visit with fellow actor, Erwann (Patrick Chesnais) in tow, and divorce attorney, Lucas (Christopher Thompson) dragging along his neurotic wife Sarah (Emmanuelle Seigner) on the pretext of the dinner in an attempt to woo Marie-Laurence into his practice with the tantalizing offer of assigned parking space. As in her earlier films, Thompson returns to her recurring theme of shared spaces as intersectional précis for the banalities and transformative junctures of everyday life. Less cohesive than Orchestra Seats, the organic, decentralized framework of Change of Plans becomes an implicit inversion on the myth of bourgeois complacency, where the notion of settled lives at forty-something collides with the reality of life-altering changes, mortality, new love, and self-discovery.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 11, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 9, 2009

Versailles, 2008

versailles.gifThe woods surrounding the Palace of Versailles serves as a real-life metaphor for the stark disparity between wealth and poverty, privilege and exclusion in Pierre Schöller's sobering and unsentimental tale of two cities, Versailles. At the heart of Schöller's social interrogation is the plight of a young homeless boy, Enzo (Max Baissette de Malglaive) who, as the film begins, is wandering through back streets and dark alleys with his mother Nina (Judith Chemla) in a seemingly familiar routine of searching for suitable places to pass the night. Approached one evening by patrolling social workers with an offer of a warm place to sleep, Nina and Enzo are soon scuttled to Versailles under the pretext of filling out requisite forms to help them obtain public assistance: a process that will invariably send the mother away for vocational training as part of the prescribed workforce re-introduction program, while the child is processed into the foster care system. Refusing to provide their real names for fear of being separated by the state, the two instead cross into the woods in an attempt to reach the train station, and stumbles into the makeshift home of Damien (Guillaume Depardieu). Finding a kindred spirit and unlikely protector for her son in the brooding recovering addict and ex-convict, Nina, leaves Enzo in Damien's care and, armed with a newspaper article on unemployment featuring business woman and social activist, Mme. Herchel (Brigitte Sy), forges to find her way back into "productive society". Schöller incisively illustrates the parallel, surrogate relationships formed among the marginalized - the poor, homeless, and elderly - that redefine the notion of family and community. By chronicling elliptical, transitory moments in the lives of people living under the shadows of a gleaming Versailles, Schöller not only reflects the transient nature of their threadbare existence, but also confronts the eroded revolutionary ideals of an inclusive, egalitarian society that these unregistered, shadow communities represent.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 09, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

The Girl from Monaco, 2008

girl_monaco.gifThe prevailing stereotype of Monaco as exotic, laid back resort destination and land of fairytale - perpetuated in part by the public's enduring affection for the principality's most famous transplant, Grace Kelly - provides the surreal atmosphere for conscientious, Parisian attorney and self-styled ladies man, Bertrand's (Fabrice Luchini) inopportune case of tropical fever in Anne Fontaine's wry and breezy, The Girl from Monaco. Hired to defend a local socialite, Édith Lassalle (Stephane Audran) who is accused of killing a known gigolo with reputed ties to the Russian mafia, Bertrand's attempt to embrace the town's more unstructured lifestyle is soon quashed by the appearance of personal bodyguard, Christophe (Roschdy Zem) who has been hired by Lassalle's son (Gilles Cohen) as a precaution against possible retaliation by the mob. But Christophe's intractable sense of duty to constantly secure his client's "perimeter" also proves to have its advantages, managing to send away the inconvenient Hélène (Jeanne Balibar) who has decided to leave her husband (and life) in Paris and impulsively follow Bertrand to Monaco in order to pursue a relationship, and introducing him to a former lover, sexy, singing weather girl and aspiring starlet, Audrey (Louise Bourgoin). But as Bertrand's continues to fall under the spell of the interminably perky siren (a swooning that crystallizes in his truncated attempt to follow Audrey into the sea for a swim that is visually connected to a subsequent shot of him falling into a swimming pool before Audrey's camera), he becomes increasingly conscious of his own faltering objectivity and enlists the task-oriented Christophe with helping him maintain focus on the high profile trial. Returning to the moral ambiguity and sexual politics of her earlier films - in particular, Dry Cleaning in its themes of dangerous attraction and latent sexual awakening - Fontaine's seemingly idiosyncratic juxtaposition of idyllic setting and psychological portrait astutely reflects Bertrand's increasingly out-of-control obsession that, framed within the context of Audrey's fascination with iconic princesses Grace and Diana, reinforces the dark side of the fairytale.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 09, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 4, 2008

Un Secret, 2007

secret.gifIn an early episode in the film, a bookish, teenaged François Grimbert (Quentin Dubuis) sits in a classroom intently watching the archival footage of the mass collection and burial of concentration camp victims during the Holocaust, before flying into an inconsolable rage over a student's racially insensitive comments. For François, the sobering images of emaciated, broken bodies not only raises the specter of his suppressed identity after his parents Anglicized their surname and had him baptized as a Catholic in the aftermath of their untold experience during the war, but also reminds him of his own physical frailty. The son of athletic parents, a ruggedly handsome gymnast and haberdasher named Maxime (Patrick Bruel) and his beautiful, fashion model wife, Tania (Cécile De France), François's self-consciousness over his own physicality has plagued him since childhood, even imagining that he had an athletic, alter-ego brother who could climb the ropes and execute perfectly controlled turns on the high bar that he could not perform for his demanding father. Even the idea of his parents humoring his fanciful whims for an imaginary brother would prove to be elusive, answered instead with almost desperate re-assertion of their singular existence. It is a gnawing sense of insecurity over his parents' evasive silence that would continue to consume him until one day when the family's longtime friend and neighbor, Louise (Julie Depardieu) decides to tell François the story of his parents' entangled destiny of unreconciled ghosts and memories in the shadows of occupied France. Adapted from the novel Memory (Secret) by Philippe Grimbert, Claude Miller's Un Secret is an articulate and well-rendered, if occasionally belabored portrait of guilt, transference, and survival. Framed within the context of the now grown François's (Mathieu Amalric) attempts to find his missing elderly father following the accidental death of the family dog, his search also becomes a metaphoric quest for identity and connection within the silence of a traumatic and dislocated history (a haunted persistence that also evokes integral, recurring themes in Chantal Akerman's cinema).

Posted by acquarello on Mar 04, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Ain't Scared, 2007

aint_scared.gifDuring the Q&A for Ain't Scared (Regarde-moi), Audrey Estrougo remarked that one of her motivations for making the film was to create a more authentic portrait of les cités - the low income housing neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city - that had become an all too convenient political target for all the social ills of France by then right wing candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy during the presidential election, especially in the aftermath of the 2005 civil unrest. Within this context, it should come as no surprise that Estrougo finds certain kinship with the films of Spike Lee in capturing the sense of entrapment, poverty, despair, and frustration that lead to these eruptions of violence. Composed as a two-part chronicle (with epilogue) of a day in the life of residents at a housing project - initially, from the perspective of the young men, then subsequently, from the young women in the neighborhood - Estrougo proposes that violence and social inequality are not overtly issues of racism, but rather, a broader symptom of underprivilege and disenfranchisement. Indeed, Estrougo subverts this convenient generalization in the early establishing shot of Yannick (Paco Boublard) receiving money inside a parked car before trying to catch a glimpse of his ex-girlfriend, Melissa (Djena Tsimba), his friend Jo (Terry Nimajimbe), who has been training for his debut with a professional soccer league, and even in the image of a bare-chested Mouss (Oumar Diaw) practicing an assortment of romantic overtures in front of a mirror that would later prove to actually succeed in seducing his girlfriend, Daphné (Salomé Stévenin). In contrast, the plight of the women is harsher and more restrictive: a reality that is foreshadowed in the film's black screen opening sequence as two women scandalously argue over the stealing of a lover (later identified as Melissa's mother and her neighbor) that ends with the slamming of a door, that is subsequently mirrored in the escalating rivalry between Jo's girlfriend, Julie (Emilie de Preissac) and Mouss's younger sister, Fatima (Eye Haidara) that dominates the second half of the film. Paradoxically, it is through this sobering glimpse of petty territoriality and jealousy that Estrougo not only reinforces the idea of violence as an integral reflection of poverty, dispossession, and exclusion, but also offers a semblance of hope and solidarity.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 04, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 3, 2008

Love Songs, 2007

love_songs.gifChristophe Honoré's idiosyncratic concoction of irreverent humor, subverted expectation, romanticism, and affectionate homage falls elegantly and poignantly into place in Love Songs (Les Chansons d'amour): a lyrical, immediately engaging, yet substantive thirteen song musical presented in three chapters, each bearing a title from the three parts of Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Departure, Absence, and Return). The unexpected presentation of the film's opening credit sequence - citing only the surnames of the actors and production crew - sets the tone for Honoré's whimsical exploration of loss, incompleteness, and emotional fracture. Ostensibly a film on the amorous (mis)adventures of indecisive, twenty-something Parisian copy writer, Ismaël (Louis Garrel) who, as the film begins, has embarked on a ménage à trois with the reluctant consent of his devoted girlfriend, Julie (Ludivine Sangnier) and his co-worker Alice (Clotilde Hesme), the film similarly sweeps through the variegated arcs of Demy's quintessential film as it traces the complex emotional trajectory of loss, grief, survival, and healing following an unexpected tragedy. However, Honoré's rumination on lost love is far from a derivative reconstitution, but rather, a contemporary examination of the malleability - and interchangeability - of modern identity. Featuring original songs by collaborator and friend Alex Beaupain (whose experienced loss of a mutual friend served as the inspiration for the film's narrative) and a strong ensemble cast who perform the musical numbers in their own unadulterated voices - including Brigitte Roüan in the role of Julie's mother, Chiara Mastroianni as Julie's sister Jeanne, and Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet as the idealistic Breton student, Erwann - Love Songs delightfully (and unabashedly) expresses the poetry in the quotidian in all its intoxicating, dislocated presence and bittersweet, lingering memory.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

La Question humaine, 2007

question.gifIn an interstitial episode the occurs halfway through Nicolas Klotz's La Question humaine (Heartbeat Detector), a group of diners at a low rent café are racially profiled and rounded up by the police for a random check of identification papers, the first among them, Papi (Adama Doumbia), the African immigrant whose wife, Blandine (Noëlla Mossaba) was injured during deportation in Klotz's previous film, La Blessure. It is a jarring contrast from the world of indulgence, privilege, ivy league education, and corporate grooming that would define the characters in La Question humaine, the final installment in what Klotz would describe during the film's introductory remarks as the Trilogy of Modern Times (along with Paria and La Blessure), in tribute to Charles Chaplin: an interrogation of society's conscience - its humanity - at the beginning of the 21st century, a century after the Industrial Revolution. Adapted from the novel by Belgian author François Emmanuel, the film is set within the fictitious global conglomerate called SC Farb, a thinly veiled reference to the notorious, Nazi-era, German chemical company IG Farben whose dismantled and reacquired industries include the French multinational pharmaceutical corporation Aventis (which subsequently merged into the Sanofi-Aventis that is headquartered in Paris). Ostensibly centered on corporate psychologist and executive trainer, Simon Kessler's (Mathieu Amalric) attempts to perform a covert evaluation of the CEO, Mathias Jüst's (Michael Lonsdale) mental health at the request of a high-ranking executive, Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) following a series of erratic behaviors and questionable actions, the film chronicles Kessler's own moral awakening after gaining Jüst's trust by drawing on the memory of a company quartet that he had formed years earlier with Rose, his then-mistress Lynn Sanderson (Valérie Dréville), and former employee Arie Neumann (Lou Castel), and uncovers the closely guarded secrets that would bind the amateur musicians together in the buried knowledge of a shameful collective history. Framed as a mystery and corporate intrigue film, La Question humaine is a scathing and unflinching indictment of the societal toll of corporate economics, where efficiency, optimization, productivity, and profitability are used as evasive euphemisms for inhumanity, exploitation, and social genocide. Klotz uses cold tones, dark contrast palettes, and institutional spaces that figuratively mirror the grey souls of corporate white-washing and amnesia, where new generations (a sentiment acutely embodied in the incorporation of New Order music during a rave party attended by newly recruited employees) systematically collude to bury the transgressions of their forefathers in order to avoid confronting the past and consequently deflect their own personal accountability and sense of moral restitution.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2008 | | Comments (13) | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Let's Dance, 2007

dance.gifNoémie Lvovsky returns to the idiosyncratic, subtly modulated multigenerational human comedy of Les Sentiments with a more diluted, but still insightfully rendered examination of aging, identity, and the changing role between parent and child in Let's Dance (Fait que ça danse!). Lvovsky's affectionate portrait centers on the sprightly, Holocaust survivor Salomon Bellinsky (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who, as he nears his eightieth birthday, has been spending his days dodging funeral obligations of friends and fellow survivors, taking tap dancing lessons to emulate his favorite actor, Fred Astaire, arguing with insurance agents who are quick to reject his application on the sole basis of age, and paying cordial visits to his willfully independent, estranged wife Geneviève (Bulle Ogier) who has been reduced to increasing financial straits after struggling with the effects of Alzheimer's disease for years, attended to her devoted caregiver, Mootoosamy (Bakary Sangaré). Faced with the reality that his wife is now a virtual stranger in the final stages of her degenerative illness, and relegated to obligatory, quick checkup visits from his preoccupied daughter, Sarah (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), Salomon turns to the personal ads to find companionship and meets the charming, if insecure Violette (Sabine Azéma), where soon, his own fears of an uncertain future begin to take their toll on his relationships with the people around him. As in Les Sentiments, Lvovsky frames the parallel lives among the disparate generations as emotional intersections that reveal the fundamental human desire to remain vital, useful, and relevant.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


February 26, 2008

All Is Forgiven, 2007

all_forgiven.gifOriginally produced by Humbert Balsan before his death in 2005, Mia Hansen-Løve's All Is Forgiven (Tout est pardonné) recalls the muted, slow brewing, slice of life implosions of Stefan Krohmer's Summer 04 and Valeska Grisebach's Longing, as well as the naturalistic, organic narrative and chance intersections of Barbara Albert's cinema to create a raw and distilled, yet intimate and insightfully rendered rumination on the nature of connection, longing, regret, and forgiveness. Composed of a series of elliptical, self-contained episodes of the quotidian that collectively reveal the fragments of a disintegrating relationship, the film is also a reflection of human memory in its lucid, essential reconstitution - and awareness - of (life)time passed: Annette's (Marie-Christine Friedrich) frequent castigation of Victor's (Paul Blain) excessive drinking, his frequent absences from family outings with their daughter Pamela (Victoire Rousseau) to meet a drug dealer, his increasing disenchantment with his life as an underemployed translator and frustrated poet in Vienna that would lead to their decision to uproot the family move back to Paris, a conversation between Victor and his sister, Martine (Carole Franck) that exposes the fissures in his passionate, but volatile relationship with his devoted and long-suffering partner, a chance encounter with a drug dealer's friend, Gisèle (Olivia Ross) during a party that would lead him to the abyss of heroin addiction, and ultimately, his separation from his family. Shot using hand-held DV cameras, Hansen-Løve's aesthetic juxtaposition of saturated light against vérité-styled images that convey a sense of raw immediacy creates an unexpected coherence between disparate images that evokes the spirit of German Romanticism in its expositions on the duality of nature. It is this poetic transfiguration of the banal that is implicitly revealed in Victor's letter to his absent daughter, now an adolescent (Constance Rousseau), a passage adapted from Romantic poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff that articulates both the reassurance of eternal devotion and regret of missed opportunity.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 26, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

The Feelings Factory, 2008

feelings.gifFor successful, attractive, career-minded, thirty-something real estate attorney, Éloïse (Elsa Zylberstein), there is a certain efficiency and reassuring sense of retained control in the dynamics of speed dating that proves particularly appealing: seven pre-selected men, seven minute face-to-face meetings to form - and leave - an impression and exchange information that, at the end of each allotted time, allows each participant to start anew no matter how promising or disastrous the previous encounter proved to be, and, at the end of the evening, the flexibility to pursue or reject a subsequent relationship with any or all of the eligible bachelors or simply walk away. At first, the rapid fire pace of the encounters proves awkward, reducing the conversations to polite small talk, uncomfortable silences, reflexive regurgitations of one's curriculum vitae, or impromptu interrogations that attempt to dissect the failures of past relationships as a means of evaluating future compatibility. Nevertheless, Éloïse remains unfazed, sensing a potentially suitable complement in the handsome, self-assured trial lawyer, Jean-Luc (Bruno Putzulu), even as she finds a momentary, if reluctant connection with the insecure, neurotic André (Jacques Bonnaffé) amidst the din and haze of the evening's self-induced emotional rollercoaster. But the cracks in Éloïse's carefully controlled existence have already begun to surface, metastasizing in bouts fainting spells, unexplained physiological changes, and panic attacks that would soon send her to a series of medical specialists in search of proper diagnosis and treatment. Struggling with the physical and emotional toll of her increasingly complicated professional and personal life, Éloïse is forced to set aside her romantic ideals of finding perfect love in order to confront the mundane reality of her debilitating (and life-altering) illness. Expounding on his earlier film, Work Hard, Play Hard, Jean-Marc Moutout's The Feelings Factory (La Fabrique des sentiments) similarly captures the anxieties of urban existence, industrialization, modern identity, and disposability. At the core of Moutout's articulate and lucid contemporary portrait of love in an age of technological convenience (and anonymity) is Zylberstein's remarkable, subtly modulated performance - alternately struggling between pragmatism and quixotic romanticism - where the human heart, too, is a compromised, tradable commodity of instant gratification, weighed options, and accepted risk.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 26, 2008 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Shall We Kiss?, 2007

shall_kiss.gifThe possible implications of an innocent kiss hover like a dark cloud over the almost perfect evening out between an attractive, out-of-town textile designer, Émilie (Julie Gayet) and good Samaritan Gabriel (Michaël Cohen) in Emmanuel Mouret's refined and effervescent comedy of manners, Shall We Kiss? (Un baiser s'il vous plaît). Unfolding as a story within a story as Émilie attempts to explain her insistence against capping off their casual dinner date with an almost obligatory goodbye kiss that, with both parties involved in committed relationships and Émilie on the last day of her business trip before heading home the next morning, would seem an innocuous enough request, she recounts the emotionally prickly tale of another pair of erstwhile innocent kissers, Judith (Virginie Ledoyen) and Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret) whose polite gestures and good intentions lead to unexpected catastrophe. At the heart of the story is the ever-analytical and pragmatic Judith, a laboratory researcher who has been happily married to pharmacist Claudio (Stefano Accorsi) for several years. Always eager to lend a sympathetic ear to her best friend Nicolas who has fallen into an inextricable romantic slump after having ended a long-term relationship with a mutual friend, Judith has become a close confidante to Nicolas's neurotic tales of self-defeating, frustrated intimacy - fearful of returning to the dating scene without appearing too desperate after having been celibate for so long, yet unable to summarily consummate the physical act and snap his dry spell by hiring a prostitute when she prevents him from kissing her as a prelude to their mechanical coupling. As a remedy to the impasse, Judith suggests that she serve as Nicolas's surrogate, rationalizing that their friendship would fill the semblance of emotional connection that he seeks to be able to consummate an act of intimacy. However, when Judith's selfless act of intervention proves to be less than resolved despite Nicolas's newfound relationship with a sexy fight attendant, Câline (Fréderique Bel), the two are forced to confront the Pandora's box of confused emotions and irrationality that their meaningless encounter has caused. Favorably evoking Woody Allen's witty, self-deprecating humor combined coupled with the clinical observations of human interaction (and dysfunction) inherent in Eric Rohmer's cinema, Shall We Kiss, nevertheless, bears the imprint of Mouret's characteristic, tightly woven construction - a subtle choreography of words, scenarios, elisions, and ambience that, in turn, reflect the ephemeral alchemy of human connection and desire.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 26, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 4, 2007

I Do: How to Get Married and Stay Single, 2006

i_do.gifForty-something perfume developer, confirmed bachelor, and henpecked (and only male) sibling in a decidedly female-centric household of six children, Luis Costa (Alain Chabat) - still nursing a wounded heart from his only serious relationship during his twenties (a personal milestone that he nostalgically, but nebulously remembers as his "The Cure phase", indelibly marked by his gothic, Robert Smith-styled, oversized fashion sense, his lover's decision to leave him following an introductory meeting with his disapproving family, and his accidental discovery of his life-long passion when he attempts to recapture her essence by chemically synthesizing her complex scent into a fragrance) - has been officially classified as long overdue for marriage by his well intentioned, but intrusive family (in a motion overwhelmingly passed by the women under the collective resolution brought to the family's "G7" domestic committee). In an attempt to stave off his sisters' aggressive attempts at matchmaking - and who, in turn, have taken the cause of finding a suitable wife for their visibly disinclined brother by flooding the internet - Luis enlists the aid of his best friend and business partner, Pierre-Yves' (Grégoire Oestermann) bohemian sister, Emma (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who, having recently ended a long-term relationship and moved back to France, is eager to prove her financial stability as she settles into a new phase in her life and prepares to petition a Chilean orphan for adoption. Hatching an elaborate scheme to rid the family once and for all of their chronic interference into his romantic life by transforming Emma into the ideal fiancée in order to win the hearts and minds of his sisters and, above all, the family matriarch, Geneviève (Bernadette Lafont), before staging a sudden break-up where he would assume (and eagerly exploit) the role of jilted lover humiliatingly left at the altar, Luis' bright future of meddle-free bachelorhood seems tantalizingly within reach, until he finds himself on the defensive in the chaotic aftermath (and familial wrath) of the aborted wedding against amorphous accusations of unspecified transgressions that undoubtedly caused such a perfect woman to escape his grasp. Evoking the slapstick comedies of Francis Veber in its tortuous, absurd, over-the-top, rapid fire scenarios, Eric Lartigau creates a whimsical, charming, and infectious, if perhaps, characteristically outré romantic farce in I Do: How to Get Married and Stay Single. Supported by equally solid performances from veteran actors Chabat (who also conceived the idea for the script) as cosseted man-child and hopeless romantic, Gainsbourg as the world-wise, but vulnerable object of affection, and Lafont as the indomitable, yet overindulging mother prone to histrionics, the film is an enjoyable, well crafted, and irresistible tale on the inexorable - and enviable - travails of love, commitment, and family.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 04, 2007 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2007, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

The Page Turner, 2006

pageturner.gifFavorably evoking Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie in its taut, slow brewing, and unnerving portrait of dysfunctional class relations, Denis Dercourt's The Page Turner is a distilled, understated, and elegantly realized psychological tale of fragility, revenge, and manipulation. At the heart of Dercourt's dark allegory is a polite, attractive, and meticulous young woman named Mélanie Prouvost (in the astute casting of Déborah François, who played the role of Sonya in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's L'Enfant and embodies the role of Mélanie with the opacity of a Bressonian model in the film), the enigmatic daughter of a provincial butcher (an occupation that also alludes to Chabrol through the film, Le Boucher) who once obsessively practiced to become a professional pianist but, having failed in her entrance audition for a scholarship at prestigious conservatory due to an unforeseen, external distraction, impulsively abandoned the piano and altogether turned away from her musical studies. Now working in a law office as a seasonal intern for a successful attorney, Jean Fouchécourt (Pascal Greggory), Mélanie's diligence and accommodating nature impresses the genial, if abstracted Fouchécourt and inevitably accepts her offer to watch over his son Tristan (Antoine Martynciow) in order for his wife, Ariane (Catherine Frot), a renowned pianist, to singularly concentrate on her rehearsals with her ensemble for an important radio performance that will mark her return to public appearance after an extended hiatus (stemming from a still unsolved hit and run accident). Gradually, Mélanie's impeccable musical training enables her to insinuate herself into Ariane's rehearsals, taking on the seemingly innocuous, but immensely critical role as her sheet music page turner and, consequently, becomes an intimate - and integral - part of her increasingly mercurial performance and eroding psyche. Perhaps the most emblematic aspect of Dercourt's quietly rendered observation of social invisibility and marginalization resides in the catalytic nature of Mélanie's imperceptible, yet palpable toll within the Fouchécourt household, a profound influence that is figuratively embodied through Tristan's goaded, seemingly innocuous accelerated timing of the metronome - a subtle alteration that inevitably exposes the delicate and tenuous dynamic between strength and debilitation, character and mundanity, exaltation and agony.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 04, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 3, 2007

Ambitious, 2006

ambitious.gifIn an early episode in Catherine Corsini's dark romantic comedy, Ambitious, a timid, aspiring writer book shop owner named Julien (Eric Caravaca) discreetly, but deliberately, foists his recently finished autofiction manuscript on unsuspecting friend and perennial store patron, Mathieu Séchard (Renan Carteaux), the son of a renowned literary publishing house director in Paris, and immediately becomes wracked with anxiety and insecurity over Mathieu's seeming evasion and prolonged silence regarding his initial impressions of Julien's work, mollified only by his friend's impulsive offer, in passing, to send the manuscript to his father's office. Julien's seemingly amicable, yet intrinsically calculated encounter with Mathieu provides an incisive prelude to the film's overarching themes of exploitation, vanity, and self-absorption, as his reprehensive opportunism is equally matched by the introduction of a mercurial publishing agent named Judith Zahn (Karen Viard) into his life. Delegated with the task of providing feedback on the manuscript's potential for representation, Judith shirks her obligation to review the personal favor submission and, instead, sends an assistant to meet with Julien to tactfully, but decisively reject his work. But Julien soon proves to be a formidable non-client, ingratiating himself into a frazzled and distraught Judith's reluctant company. Newly entrusted into her intimacy, Julien discovers the remarkable contents an entrusted box of souvenirs and personal effects that Judith has inherited from her estranged, late father - a 70s revolutionary who had lived a life of intrigue replete with covert acts of political espionage and assassinations - and decides to surreptitiously embark on a more marketable premise for his next novel, a story based on the mined contents of her father's buried, secret history. Assembling an eccentric cast of morally reprehensible, yet endearing characters - a motley crew that also includes failed thespian, consummate freeloader, and part-time stalker, Julien's former classmate, Simon (Gilles Cohen) - Corsini strikes a delicate balance between humor and pathos, revulsion and affection to create a slight, yet acerbic dysfunctional fairytale of the idiosyncratic intersections of deception, manipulation, betrayal, and desire that define the inscrutable course of neurotic true love.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2007 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2007, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

The Singer, 2006

singer.gifEach day, a divorced, middle-aged dance hall chanteur, Alain Moreau (in an elegant performance by Gérard Depardieu), attired in his white satin suit and sporting a provincial, stylishly overgrown haircut with a touch of highlights, sings from his stout repertoire of familiar - yet not too iconic - love songs before an appreciative audience in assorted dance halls, upscale restaurants, and nursing homes throughout Clermont-Ferrand: special places where people with palpable life experiences - too old for the frenetic beat of clubs and discotheques - can come together and, for a brief moment, find connection with each other, their formative histories, their personal memories. It is a humble vocation that suits the endearing and charismatic Alain well with his easygoing, confident manner and refreshingly pragmatic outlook over his role - not as an artist seeking to elevate his performance in search of legacy and stardom - but as an entertainer for hire who must consciously remain attuned to the wishes of his audience to sing competently, yet unobtrusively, the sentimental melodies that will entice them to dance, to linger in the moment, to forget their pain, abandon their inhibitions and take a chance. It is perhaps Alain's remarkable ability to put the audience at ease and break down resistances that propels real estate businessman, Bruno (Mathieu Amalric) to bring his newly hired real estate agent, an attractive, recently separated woman named Marion (Cécile de France) to the dance hall one evening, a manipulative ploy with seeming unintentional consequences when she catches the attention of the charming crooner. Instinctually drawn to each other by a sense of displaced longing and mutual woundedness, Alain enlists Marion's aid in finding a new residence under the pretext of finally moving out of the home that he had shared with his manager and former wife Michèle (Christine Citti). But as Michèle strives to reinvent Alain's flagging career in the face of dwindling bookings, declining health, and the increasing popularity of karaoke, his reinvigorated desire to start his life anew is tempered by the ambivalence of leaving behind the intimacy of his beloved dance halls. Channeling the spirit of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red in its suffusive evocation of longing and synchronicity, Xavier Giannoli's The Singer is an intelligently rendered, understatedly resonant, and refined portrait of the often bifurcating trajectories of existential and emotional intersections. Concluding with the extended long shot of Alain and Marion in desperate and reluctant embrace from the windows of a café, the silent choreography of souls in restless motion becomes a sublime metaphor for their transformative, star-crossed encounter - fragrant in its fleeting intoxication, heartbreaking in its inevitable conclusion, and indelible in its haunting irresolution.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 03, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


February 24, 2007

Flanders, 2006

flanders.gifBruno Dumont returns to the desolate pastoral and emotional landscapes of his earlier features L'Humanité and Life of Jesus in Flanders, an austere, tonal, and visceral exposition into the integral nature of violence, sexuality, desire, and instinctual survival. A rugged young farmer, Demester (Samuel Boidin) impassively harvests his dessicated, autumnal fields before finding his neighbor - and unrequited object of affection - Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux) waiting for him in the clearing to take a casual walk in the woods and a diversionary afternoon rendezvous. In a subsequent encounter with mutual acquaintances at a local bar, Barbe seemingly trivializes her relationship with the introverted Demester by casually referring to him as a close, childhood friend before impulsively (and all too easily) submitting to the advances of a bar patron, another conscript named Blondel (Henri Cretel). The stark juxtaposition of Barbe's fickle dismissiveness of her familiar intimacy with her obliging neighbor, and her brief, but intense affair with Blondel exposes the profound gulf that continues to separate Demeter from his beloved who, in his opaque gaze and uncomfortable silence, cannot articulate the depth of his despair over her cavalier treatment of their relationship - supplanting the greyness of their cold, unemotive, and mechanical post-coital embrace with the (alluded) image of unbridled carnality intrinsic in Barbe and Blondel's desperate, needy, and frenzied coupling. Sent far away from their bucolic hometown to wage war in the trenches of a distant land with his unwitting romantic rival, Demester sublimates his wounded heart and sense of betrayal in their mutual struggle for survival against a brutal and faceless enemy. But as the inhumanity and carnage of a seemingly senseless and interminable military campaign continues to take its toll on the psyches of the young soldiers, Demester finds himself struggling to maintain his sanity by holding on to the fragile memories of his distant, unreciprocated, and increasingly impossible love. In capturing the progression of seasons against an unchanging landscape, Flanders may also be seen as something of a corollary to Twentynine Palms (a connection that is also suggested by Dumont's comment on his penchant for the interchangeable placement of the final cut that would dramatically alter the tone of the ending, not unlike the polarizing editing strategy of Twentynine Palms), where the alien and often treacherous contours of the human heart are revealed in the abstraction of gestures and the silence of unarticulated despair.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 24, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Blame It On Fidel, 2006

blame_fidel.gifIt perhaps comes as no surprise that the astute social observation and political acuity so integral to the wry, infectious, and irresistible whimsical humor of Blame it on Fidel comes from first (non documentary) feature filmmaker Julie Gavras, whose father, Costa Gavras, continues to redefine the bounds of political filmmaking with his distinctive blueprint for crafting articulate and thought-provoking historical docu-fiction. Set in 1970 France, the film opens to the insightful close-up image of cherubic, Catholic school girl, Anna (Nina Kervel) commanding (or rather, demanding) the attention of her dining companions by demonstrating the proper way to peel an orange using only silverware, much to the assorted bemusement - and indifference - of the children in the designated kids' table of a wedding banquet. But beyond Anna's projected confidence in demonstrating her impeccable table manners, the auspicious occasion has already begun to sow the seeds of confusion for the young heroine, as her father, a Spanish expatriate and successful trial attorney named Fernando (Stefano Accorsi) covertly scuttles his sister and niece from Spain following the arrest of Anna's left-leaning uncle for political agitation, moves them in with the family, and invariably becomes galvanized into his own acts social action by his sister's impassioned stories of struggle and resistance. Their unexpected arrival also causes consternation for the family housekeeper, Filomena (Marie-Noëlle Bordeaux), a Cuban exile whose family was brought to ruin and forced to flee the country after Fidel Castro's rise to power, and who now sees the introduction of communists into the de la Mesa household as a harbinger for an inevitably great calamity. Meanwhile, Anna's mother, Marie (Julie Depardieu), increasingly dissatisfied with her career as a journalist relegated to writing women's issue fluff pieces for Marie Claire, decides to embark on her own independent research for an exposé on the (then) taboo subject of reproductive rights with unexpected - and life-altering - consequences. In her remarkable perceptivity and even-handed approach towards depicting the repercussions of transformative change and ideological awakening from all facets of social life, Gavras emerges from her father's formidable shadows and into her own luminous spotlight as a conscientious and assured filmmaker, creating a charming and deceptively lighthearted, yet incisive survey of the cultural climate in the immediate aftermath of May 68, when the disappointment of the failed national revolution was seen, not as a death knell signal to the left movement, but as a momentary stumbling towards a still vital - and seemingly within reach - global wave of social revolution, a continued idealistic euphoria that was crystallized by the ground-breaking popular candidacy of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile. Capturing the profound trajectory of young Anna's own domestic struggle to make sense of her parents' newly (re-)awakened militancy through the subtle, yet poetic closing image of Anna, no longer in the center of her own dainty, cultivated - if insular - universe, but rather, among the diverse milieu and controlled chaos of multicultural children playing in the schoolyard, the film is a potent, uncompromisingly intelligent, and refreshing portrait of the enervating confusion and sublime exhilaration of social awakening.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 24, 2007 | | Filed under 2007, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 22, 2006

I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed, 2005

benbarka.gifCrafted as a cine-reportage restaging of the circumstances surrounding the 1965 abduction - and presumed assassination - of mathematics professor and exiled Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka (Simon Abkarian) on a Paris street, I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed is told from the point-of-view of petty criminal turned informant Georges Figon (Charles Berling) who, as the film begins, lies dead on the floor of a hotel room with a gun shot wound in the back in what the investigator would expediently classify as a suicide. But the reality of Figon's involvement with the still-unsolved disappearance would undoubtedly prove to be more complicated. Recruited by a nebulous band of politically connected thugs, Figon poses as an intermediary and aspiring producer bearing guaranteed financial backers for a proposed film on decolonization, a project that attracts the attention of the usually-cautious Barka who views renowned filmmaker Georges Franju's (Jean-Pierre Léaud) involvement in the project as a sign of its legitimacy, and envisions his own participation as an opportunity to rally the Third World movement during his planned appearance for the upcoming Tricontinental Conference in Cuba. Meanwhile, Figon has been burning both sides of the candle as the charismatic con-artist insinuates himself into the company of author and scenarist Marguerite Duras (Josiane Balasko) by appealing to her first-hand childhood experiences with the inequity of colonialism in French Indochina (as well as touting Barka's participation), and who, in turn, has expressed interest in bringing her good friend Franju into the project in an attempt to reinvigorate his career (and psyche) after suffering a nervous breakdown following the financial failure of his latest film. Filmmaker Serge Le Péron employs a clinical and objective tripartite structure of the film that, like the real-life incident, reflects the messy and tangled web of crossed alliances, double-dealing, deception, and betrayal that interweaves the scandal - a journalistic approach that ultimately suffers in its broadstroke rendering of underlying human stories (Franju's breakdown, Duras' anticolonial activism, or even Figon's chameleon-like social networking) in favor of a more comprehensive, if less insightful cultural snapshot of the volatile zeitgeist that ignited the political powder keg of the Ben Barka affair.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 22, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Housewarming, 2005

housewarming.gifDivorced single parent, successful attorney, sans-papiers advocate, and not-so-obscure object of desire Chantal Letellier (Carole Bouquet) has led a fairly manageable life of controlled chaos in her comfortable, if occasionally unhinged flat until one day when she seizes the opportunity of a vacated sublet upstairs maid's room to open up their living space and convert the second floor into an office area. Hiring the services of a Colombian architect (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) brimming with lofty design ideas and ambitious concepts but with little preoccupation towards more pragmatic issues of logistics and schedule, Chantal's life is soon turned into upheaval when her apartment is thrown into a state of perpetual construction, demolition, and rework, and the apartment becomes a haven for a stream of immigrant workers with varying degrees of questionable job skills and even more dubious immigration work permits. Recalling the idiosyncratic humor of recent "fish out of water" comedies such as Les Petites Couleurs and Chouchou, the whimsical, pell-mell structure of Brigitte Roüan's Housewarming appropriately mirrors the film's motley cast of characters and infectious, freeverse narrative, melding together such oddball ingredients as courtroom dance sequences, social activism, hapless romantic comedy, and even Santería occultism to create an effervescent, good natured, refined, and patently goofy confection.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 22, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 21, 2006

Grey Souls, 2005

ames_grises.gifDuring the introductory remarks for Grey Souls, Yves Angelo commented that perhaps the most enduring lesson that had remained with author Philippe Claudel during his years spent working as a prison guard while writing his acclaimed novel was the idea that in such an environment, no one can be completely trusted. This sense of pervasive uncertainty also infuses the atmosphere in the filmmaker's realization of the dour, haunting and interminably bleak tale, as villagers struggle to carry on some semblance of a normal life in the austere winter of 1917 at a provincial border town, even as the Great War tragically unfolds within earshot of the town and all enlistment-aged men - except for factory workers and local authorities deemed essential services to the civilian population - are being sent off to the battlefield to reinforce the protracted war campaign: an idealistic schoolteacher, Lysia (Marina Hands) who has been recruited by the elementary school to replace a teacher who suffers a nervous breakdown during gas attack drills; a widower prosecutor, Destinat (Jean-Pierre Marielle) who finds a semblance of his late wife in Lysia and begins to pry into her affairs in an attempt to draw himself closer to her; a bombastic mayor (Michel Vuillermoz) who seems more eager in maintaining class order than social order; a frazzled police inspector Mierck (Denis Podalydès) trying to juggle the responsibilities of law enforcement and impending fatherhood. Structured through a series of elliptical flashbacks that obliquely trace the progress of an overarching murder investigation of the innkeeper's lovely young daughter, Belle (Joséphine Japy) found strangled near the riverbank that overlooks the reclusive prosecutor's estate, the film is also an acutely grim and unflinching view on the baseness of human behavior that is nurtured by the folly and madness of war. Shooting in somber hues that mirror the interiority of the characters, Angelo indelibly captures the ambiguity and desolation that inevitably surface within the periphery of the dispirited rituals and moral vacuum of human crisis.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 21, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Le Petit Lieutenant, 2005

petit_lieutenant.gifPart police procedural and part character study of the camaraderie of detective work, Xavier Beauvois evokes the unsentimentality and objective, cinéma vérité-styled painstaking observation of Maurice Pialat - with similar conflicted results - in his latest film Le Petit Lieutenant. The titular rookie investigator is Antoine (Jalil Lespert), a prototypical provincial cop from Normandy eager to experience the adrenaline rush of metropolitan crime busting. Assigned under the tutelage of the well-respected, second-generation "supercop" Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye), Antoine becomes closely involved with the seemingly routine investigation into the death of a vagrant - later identified as a Polish migrant worker - found floating in the river after he recognizes the victim from an earlier encounter at the police station for public intoxication. As in Pialat's oeuvre, the success of the film ultimately resides in the strength of the performance of the actors, and Baye's role as Vaudieu is complexly rendered (she received Best Actress at the 2006 Césars) as a recovering alcoholic who has declined promotion into the higher ranks of law enforcement to instead return to the "real world" of field work after two years of sobriety - a nuanced performance that seems particularly in sharp contrast to the almost superficial characterization of Antoine as an immature, impetuous thrill seeker. Perhaps driven to drink by the unexpected death of her only child - who would have been Antoine's age had he survived - Vaudieu's relationship with the idealistic young detective is protective and intimate, yet necessarily distanced (a subtly evident demarcation between personal and professional life that is illustrated in her physical separation from her colleagues' after hour drinking parties, invariably leaving early after finishing a glass of soda water). Beauvois' approach is systematic, organic, episodic, and precise in execution, which lends itself to a certain degree of aesthetic clinicality and emotional disconnection, to create a competent, if coolly detached policier.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 21, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 20, 2006

Vers le sud, 2005

vers_sud.gifSet in 1970s Haiti under the post-colonial repressive regimes of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, Vers le sud provides an incisive and provocative recontextualization of cultural imperialism as neocolonialism - specifically, in its economic manifestation - as Westerners, particularly middle-aged women, converge in an idyllic seaside resort where handsome, native young men from the slums of nearby Port-au-Prince vie for the favored company of the women in exchange for money and access to social privilege. From the opening sequence of a curious encounter between a polite and mannered man, Albert (Lys Ambroise) and an imploring, desperate woman, Cantet reflects the contextual ambiguity (and complexity) of social interrelationships within this seemingly hermetic paradise, as he awaits the arrival of the latest hotel guest, an attractive American divorcée named Brenda (Karen Young), and the native woman attempts to give Albert her attractive, young daughter to him to serve in some nebulous, unspecified capacity in an attempt to save her from the fate of many impoverished, pretty girls within the fear-riddled social climate of government-sanctioned, tonton macoutes thugs who operate with impunity throughout the city. This prefiguring dynamic of servility, myopic self-interest, ignorance, entitlement, and rejection provides the framework to the unraveling of Brenda's long-awaited idealized fantasy of returning to the resort as she attempts to recapture the euphoria of her sexual awakening with an undernourished and obliging then-15 year-old boy named Legba (Ménothy Cesar) who had once insinuated himself into her company for meals, and who she would, in turn, violate under the romantic delusion of reciprocated attraction. Now the constant companion of a handsome and imposing, if aloof and forbidding Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), the headmistress of an all-girl boarding school who spends her vacation trying to slough off the discontentment of her repressed and unfulfilling life, Legba soon becomes the unwitting pawn in a desperate, calculated tug-of-war between the two equally possessive, determined, and vulnerable women. Continuing in the sociological vein of his recent film Time Out, Vers le sud expounds on Cantet's recurring expositions on the masked - and masqueraded - unarticulated psychology of quotidian and social ritual. During the Q&A for the film, Cantet recounted his inability to shoot most of the scenes on location in Port-au-Prince due to the rampant lawlessness and random violence pervasive in the area (the resort sequences were filmed in the Dominican Republic). In a way, this pervasive anarchy can be seen as an evolution of the dysfunctional relationship between post-colonial African nations and western society, as commodification, territoriality, and favorable compensation reflect the everyday social dynamics of an implicit cultural and economic imperialism, where humanity and sense of community have been replaced by instinctual self-preservation and the volatile cocktail of impoverishment, privilege, and desire.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 20, 2006 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


February 27, 2006

L'Enfer, 2005

enfer.gifDuring an oral dissertation that occurs near the denouement of L'Enfer, the youngest sister Anne (Marie Gillain) is randomly assigned the topic of Euripedes' Greek tragedy Medea, a mythological character who, betrayed by her husband Jason, exacted revenge by killing their children. The allegory of Medea would prove to be an insightful framework into the fractured, disparate lives of Anne's estranged family as well. Her volatile, married sister Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart) has become increasingly consumed with a crippling obsession over her husband's infidelity. Her introverted sister Céline (Karin Viard) continues to lead an emotionally closed life of self-devotion and predictable ritual by dutifully attending to their invalid, embittered mother (Carole Bouquet) in a secluded nursing home, even as she wrestles with her surfacing feelings for an enigmatic, handsome stranger named Sébastien (Guillaume Canet) who begins to court her undivided attention. Even Anne's seeming youthful idealism cannot mask a life-altering personal crisis as she struggles to make sense of her married lover (and professor) Frédéric's (Jacques Perrin) unexpected rejection after informing him of her pregnancy. Segueing into her literary exposition with the remark, "Today, tragedy is no longer possible," Anne's evocation of modern-day tragedy as the walking wounded tersely encapsulates the invisible, yet immediately palpable repercussions of the sisters' own deep rooted childhood trauma surrounding their father's (Miki Manojlovic) imprisonment (and subsequent death) and their mother's cold, retreated silence, as the siblings embody a figurative, sacrificial death at the hands of parents' tumultuous marriage, yet survive to bear the collective scars of their broken childhood into their unreconciled, adult lives. Invoking the spirit of Krzysztof Kieslowski through similar aesthetics of thematic color palettes (in the compositional representation of the sisters) and imagery (most notably, a drowning insect struggling to make its way out of a glass from Decalogue, and a shot of an elderly lady recycling bottles that recurs through all the films of the Three Colors trilogy) and realizing a scenario by Kieslowski and long-time collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, Danis Tanovic further creates a Bergmanesque atmosphere of claustrophobia and Antonioni-inspired interior landscapes of profound desolation. Unfolding as fragments of an elliptical puzzle that, when reconstructed, precisely interconnect to reveal a portrait of revenge, self-absorption, and despair, L'Enfer is a thoughtful and articulate examination of the myopia and untold legacy of human cruelty and emotional warfare: a metaphoric representation of hell as a godless - and graceless - existential plane of inured suffering, silence, longing, and disconnection.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 27, 2006 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


February 26, 2006

La Moustache, 2005

moustache.gifPopular novelist and first-time filmmaker Emmanuel Carrère takes a decidedly more affirming and compassionate adaptation of his twenty-year old dark, psychological novel on obsession, identity, and alienation for his debut feature, La Moustache. While getting ready for a dinner party with mutual friends, a comfortably settled, middle-aged married man and successful architect named Marc (Vincent Lindon) impulsively decides to surprise his wife Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos) by shaving off his well-worn moustache - a facial feature that he has sported through much of his adult life - for the occasion. However, when Marc subsequently realizes that neither Agnès nor their dinner hosts Serge (Mathieu Amalric) and Nadia (Macha Polikarpova) seem to notice the change in appearance, he begins to suspect that his wife has somehow involved his friends in the ruse, a wounded perception that Agnès tries to quell by insisting that he had never had a moustache. Frustrated by her intransigence to admit an apparent conspiracy in their seeming oblivion over such an obvious physical transformation, Marc attempts to catch Agnès in a lie by finding some trace of proof of his moustache's former existence - a family photograph, a double take reaction from his colleagues, or even the retrieval of errant hair trimmings from garbage cans set out on the curbside for pickup - to no avail. Soon, Marc's obsession to prove elaborate deception begins to place a strain on their relationship, as he begins to question the continuation of their life together after such a casual betrayal, even as he harbors increasing doubts over his own sanity and sense of identity. At the core of Carrère's surreal and nightmarish descent into madness, disconnection, and fugue is a thoughtful, lucid, and penetrating exposition into the inevitable transformation of all human relationships from visceral passion to emotional partnerships, when a relationship inevitably begins to evolve - and sometimes, drift apart - through the passage of time (and comfortable familiarity), and lovers no longer see things through the same blissful prism of lovestruck intoxication. It is this inevitable transformation that is metaphorically represented by Marc's existential crisis over his unnoticed, missing moustache - an illuminating personal and mutual journey beyond the superficial novelty of romantic love towards a deeper realization of true, shared intimacy.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 26, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Gentille, 2005

gentille.gifThe whimsical and offbeat opening sequence of subverted expectation and role reversal provides a tongue-in-cheek glimpse into the eccentric humor and understatedly irony of screenwriter turned filmmaker Sophie Fillières latest film, Gentille, as an anxious Fontaine Leglou (Emmanuelle Devos), an anesthesiologist working the evening shift at a private psychiatric hospital, accosts an unwitting man on the street with a vehement rejection of any potential attempt at romantic pursuit in the mistaken belief that he had deliberately followed her from the train in order to chat her up. Chagrined by her impulsive act of presumptive aggression, Fontaine then invites the stranger for a drink to atone for her unprovoked brusqueness. Fontaine's reaction to the awkward, if amusingly disarming, encounter provides an insightful glimpse into her character that will inevitably set the tone for a delightful comedy of manners when her behavioral pattern of exceeding politeness, discretion, and opacity collides with her emotional ambivalence over a patient and fellow colleague, Philippe's (Lambert Wilson) not-too-subtle romantic overtures and a marriage proposal from her long-time, live-in lover Michel (Bruno Todeschini) towards an attenuated (and occasionally surreal) self-induced crisis of evasive indecision. Inviting favorable comparison to Noémie Lvovsky's deceptively lyrical, breezy, and idiosyncratic, yet sophisticated, incisive, and poignant comedies on the travails of romantic relationships (in films such as Les Sentiments), Gentille similarly captures the eccentricities of human behavior and the imaginative humor and sensual mystery that can be found in the quotidian. Chronicling Fontaine's humorous attempts at maintaining a semblance of normalcy despite surfacing - and increasingly distracting - romantic entanglements, Fillières insightfully navigates through the ever-complicated terrain of evolving relationships and the enigma of the human heart.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 26, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 21, 2005

The Bridesmaid, 2004

bridesmaid.gifWhen the attractive widow Christine (Aurore Clément) asks her children for permission to offer a statue in their garden - a gift from their late father - as a housewarming present to her new beau Gérard Courtois (Bernard Le Coq), the eldest child, Philippe (Benoît Magimel) appears visibly disconcerted by the proposal, but nevertheless acquiesces for the sake of unanimity and subsequently insists on personally hand carrying the object to Gérard's home. However, it seems that the nature of his apprehension does not stem from a suppressed Oedipal rage or the traumatic idea of Gérard taking the place of his late father, but rather, from a curious attachment to the statue itself: an idealized image of classical beauty that would seem to have come to life in the soulful and enigmatic gaze of his sister's beautiful and alluring bridesmaid, Senta (Laura Smet). Living alone in the basement of a large, dilapidated country estate (and apart from her estranged stepmother and her lover who live two floors above) that she had inherited from her father, Senta's obscure personal history would seem to be as near-mythic as the Hellenic statue that she resembles: an Icelandic mother who died in childbirth, a reckless, disreputable past as an exotic dancer in New York City, an evil stepmother who has emotionally abandoned her to pursue a career as a tango dancer. Aroused by Senta's uninhibited desire and touched by her fragile vulnerability, Philippe is all too willing to embark on Senta's seemingly operatic (and fated) course of romantic destiny, and in the process, becomes increasingly entangled in her myopic - and delusive - quest for love and loyalty. Adapted from the novel by Ruth Rendell (whose novel La Ceremonie also provided the basis for the earlier Claude Chabrol film), The Bridesmaid exhibits a similarly deceptive and slow-building narrative crescendo as La Ceremonie and is bolstered by the fine performances of Benoît Magimel as the bumbling, eager to please lover and in particular, Laura Smet as the emotionally needy seductress. However, the film ultimately suffers from an almost caricatured - and incongruent - lighthearted direction which creates tonal inconsistency from the film's gradually unravelling mystery. Recalling the oppressively hermetic bohemianism of his earlier film Les Biches, the film serves as a competent, though superficial psychological examination of obsession, rootlessness, and co-dependency.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

When the Sea Rises..., 2004

sea_rises.gifEach day, a struggling touring comic named Irène (Yolande Moreau) checks out of a modest hotel, packs a large, aluminum gear case and a wooden chair into the trunk of her Peugeot, drives through long stretches of empty, rural roads along the northern towns straddling the Franco-Belgian border, sets up her minimal equipment on the stage of a small theatrical venue (often, local clubs, town auditoriums, nursing homes, and converted classrooms), selects a volunteer "chicken" from the audience who will act as her partner in crime for the comedy skit, performs her comedy routine before an animated crowd, checks into a convenient hotel in town, and calls her supportive husband and daughter to dispense and receive equal measures of advice, encouragement, and affection before turning in for the evening. It is a lonely and uneventful, but personally fulfilling routine that Irène knows all too well, buoyed by her brief, yet affectionate connection with her appreciative audience, the adrenaline rush of the performance, and the warmth and generosity of the townspeople she meets along the way, until one fateful day when Irène becomes stranded on a empty stretch of road and is assisted by a flighty, but genial parade float conductor named Dries (Wim Willaert). Marking the debut feature film of actress turned filmmaker Yolande Moreau, When the Sea Rises... is an irrepressibly eccentric, thoughtful, and infectiously whimsical comedy on loneliness and emotional synchronicity. Inspired by Moreau's own experiences as a traveling comic during the 1980s, the film affectionately captures the laid back, free-spirited, and interpersonal indigenous character of the northern border towns that, as the filmmaker comments, "do not take themselves too seriously". Following in the similar vein of idiosyncratic, bittersweet, muted kitsch comedies often associated with Swiss and Belgian cinema, and infused with the intimate insight of Moreau's first-hand experience and clear passion for the region and her craft, the film is a quietly observed portrait of the disconnected lives of traveling performers, and a humble and tender love letter to a surrogate community that had nurtured and supported her career before achieving fame and success.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Me and My Sister, 2004

me_sister.gifIn an early episode of Me and My Sister, the younger sister Louise (Catherine Frot), having been picked up from the train station and driven home by her older sister, Martine (Isabelle Huppert), discovers her manuscript haphazardly tossed in the trunk of her sister's car as she retrieves her luggage, yet says nothing about the apparent slight to the culmination of her dedicated hard work. It is an episode that speaks volumes on the nature of the relationship of the siblings. Rejected by their alcoholic mother and forced to lead independent lives at an early age, the pragmatic and sensible Martine has consciously worked to shed her provinciality and cultivate an air of sophistication and bourgeois respectability in Paris while the fanciful and quirky Louise remained in Le Mans to lead a humble life as a beautician and aspiring writer. However, Martine's seemingly comfortable, lush life is also far from ideal. Trapped in a passionless marriage yet bound to the social comfortability afforded by her husband's success, Martine has become increasingly exacting and hardened to the people around her, and invariably, Louise's unpolished manners, idiosyncrasies, and interminably bubbly personality quickly begin to fray her carefully cultivated social decorum. Alexandra Leclère's film is a slight, yet charming, admirable, and effervescent comedy on manners, sibling rivalry, and the unbreakable bonds of family. By examining Louise and Martine's lives through the reflective prism of their interactions with each other, Leclère also creates an insightful social allegory for elitism, classism, denial of roots, and cosmopolitan arrogance.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


March 20, 2005

L'Intrus, 2004

intruder.gifL'Intrus opens to a shot of the Franco-Swiss border as a border guard performs a customs check and inspection of a random vehicle with the aid of a contraband-sniffing dog. The seemingly mundane image of frontier, wilderness, and deception provides a curiously appropriate introduction into the Claire Denis' impenetrably fractured, enigmatically allusive, otherworldy, and indelible metaphysical exposition into the mind of an emotionally severe, morally bankrupt, and profoundly isolated heart transplant patient named Louis (Michel Subor). Idiosyncratically unfolding in elliptical, often reverse chronology (with respect to the heart surgery) through the lugubriously fluid intertwining of Louis' alienated existence and deeply tormented subconscious, the film is a fragmented and maddeningly opaque daydream (or perhaps more appropriately, a haunted nightmare) of the price exacted by his disreputable past, estranged relationships, hedonism, and instinctual quest for survival: his inability to reconcile with his only son and his family; his sexually motivated, yet emotionally distant relationship with a materialistic pharmacist; his dubious, transcontinental past (a suppressed history that may have included murder). Perpetually followed by a beautiful, enigmatic sentinel (Katia Golubeva) - or conscience - who seems to have been instrumental in obtaining his new heart, what emerges is an indelible, elegiac, and poetically abstract dreamscape through the wondrous, alien terrain of unreconciled (and irreconcilable) personal history, unrequited longing, and haunted memory.

Transcribed notes from the Q&A with Claire Denis:

• Denis initially envisioned L'Intrus to be three distinct parts: northern hemisphere, limbo, and southern hemisphere. She then found out that Jean-Luc Godard had conceived of a three part structure to Notre Musique (Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise) at Cannes and consequently, collapsed the three parts into one fluid, hyperextended dream sequence to avoid incidental comparison (or implications of creative appropriation). She envisioned the southern hemisphere to be a kind of parallel (or existential) universe of the northern hemisphere, and therefore, images in the two hemispheres become mirrored converses of each other and together create a closed cyclicality to the film.

• Denis proposes that the only two instances of "real" people in the film are Louis and his estranged son (Grégoire Colin) (and by extension, his son's family). The other characters are manifestations of Louis' imagination, but like all mental constructions, are not purely fictional but rather, based on varying levels of an underlying reality: a "real" person whom Louis has encountered or interacted with sometime during his life.

• Denis describes the film as an adoption rather than an adaptation of Jean-Luc Nancy's novel L'Intrus which, in turn, was inspired by Nancy's own experience after undergoing a heart transplant operation. Denis was equally haunted and fascinated by the idea of a foreign body's "intrusion" into another body, and how that organ(ism) is rejected by its "new" body even as it needs it for survival and viability (Note: This metaphor can also be applied to the image of illegal immigrants crossing the border: a broader social commentary on the pervasive mistreatment (and marginalization) of migrant workers and immigrants in "civilized" countries). Also, intrinsic in this idea of transplantation and rejection is the paradoxical coexistence of life and death that a heart transplant patient's post-surgery life represents (Note: I had also thought that perhaps this coexistence extended to the merging and coalescing of life experiences as well within Louis' subconscious, who begins to daydream seemingly abstract, fragments of personal histories that are not always his own. This may also be an extension of the earlier note on the "variable" degrees of reality, although Denis doesn't mention this idea of "collective" memory/dream).

Posted by acquarello on Mar 20, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Clean, 2004

clean.gifOlivier Assayas' latest film, Clean, is a sincere, well-intentioned, and technically proficient, but uncharacteristically trite and formulaic portrait of a drug-addicted, washed up celebrity and recent widow named Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung) who, having lost custody of her son Jay (James Dennis) to her Canadian in-laws, Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary Hauser (Martha Henry) while serving a prison term in North America for drug possession, decides to return to France in order to forget her personal tragedy, embarking on a long, emotionally draining, uncertain, and lonely journey to rebuild her life in an attempt to earn the Hausers' respect and repair her estranged relationship with her abandoned son. It should be noted, however, that as in his earlier demonlover, Assayas displays an uncanny insight and well-researched, indigenous authenticity into, not only the creation of the subject art and its corresponding medium (in this case, music), but also the formative pulse of its supporting industry. During the Q&A, Assayas remarked that he had envisioned Cheung's character as a kind of updated insight into the true nature of the actress that, unlike her character in Irma Vep (which the filmmaker admittedly describes as a superficial characterization of an "outsider" Hong Kong actress in France), incorporates more of her intrinsic Western characteristics, having lived in England in her youth and attained a level of fluency in both English and French. The thoughtfulness of this vision is clearly evident in Cheung's complex, sensitively realized, and indelible portrait of fragility and resilience, vulnerability and determination, and uncertainty and sincerity.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 20, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Local Call, 2004

localcall.gifDuring the Q&A for Local Call, filmmaker Arthur Joffé expressed his great fondness and respect for the works of Nobel laureate author and playwright, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom he credits as his primary screenwriting influence, and from the complex tragicomic, impassioned, affecting, and deeply humanist tone of the film, the affinity is easy to see. As the film begins, the neurotic, well-to-do, and (perhaps all-too) comfortably settled astrophysicist Félix Mandel (Sergio Castellitto), arranges to meet with his first love Wendy (Emily Morgan) during a working trip to London and returns home with her gift for his son, an overfamiliar gesture for which his wife Lucie (Isabelle Gélinas) responds with an order to clean out his wretchedly overfilled, disorganized home office. Leaving only a box filled with his late father's belongings for storage, including a cashmere overcoat that Félix had retrieved unaltered from the tailor for him on the day of his death, Félix decides to offer the overcoat to a homeless man who then promptly sells the article to a near-mythical, joy-riding, motorcycle daredevil known in the streets as Le Prince Noir for spare change. However, Félix soon discovers that dispossessing himself of his father's effects will not allow his father, Lucien (Michel Serrault) to rest in peace, as he begins to receive mysterious - and exorbitantly expensive - collect calls from Heaven reproaching him for dispensing of his overcoat so readily. Driven into near bankruptcy (and brink of insanity) by his father's rationally unsettling, yet intrinsically emotionally reassuring conversations, Félix resolves to recover his father's overcoat and complete the alteration that the tailor (László Szabó) had earlier refused to perform. It is important to note that the French title, Ne quittez pas! ("Don't hang up") is more thematically in keeping with spirit of the film. During the Q&A, Joffé also offers two additional anecdotes that greatly contribute to the appreciation of the film: the first is that the alteration that was asked to be performed - and adamantly rejected - by his personal tailor is based on a true incident in Joffé's father's life (both his father and the tailor were children of the Holocaust); the second is that Joffé had intended for a French actor to play the part of Félix, but soon found that cultural and spiritual issues - and social implications in French society - that underpin the story made the role uncomfortable, and none of the French actors whom Joffé had approached with the script accepted the part. Unable to cast locally, Joffé then turned to Sergio Castellitto, with whom he had previously collaborated on Alberto Express, in what turned out to be a stroke of pitch-perfect casting that delicately balances fragility, affection, humor, charm, sophistication, intelligence, turmoil, and spirituality into an intelligent and affirming, yet whimsical examination of cultural rootlessness, despiritualization, filial devotion, and the legacy of the diasporic experience.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 20, 2005 | | Comments (1) | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


February 22, 2005

36 Quai des Orfèvres, 2004

36quai.gifFrom the opening sequence of 36 Quai des Orfèvres that shows intercutting parallel sequences between a band of thugs who break into a bar and physically abuse the proprietress and a pair of vandals who pry off a street placard and subsequently emerge in the private room of a bar with other drunken, trigger-happy carousers, Olivier Marchal establishes the film's overarching moral ambiguity and blurred delineation between criminals and undercover police. Ostensibly a professional (and inferentially personal) competition between two seasoned law enforcement agency lead investigators Denis Klein (Gérard Depardieu) and Léo Vrinks (Daniel Auteuil) as they try to apprehend the perpetrators responsible for a string of boldly executed, daytime armored car robberies by any means possible in order to secure a promotion to commissioner, the rivalry soon escalates into a protracted, acrimonious, and increasingly reckless and unethical power struggle for professional validation, glory, and revenge. Drawing inspiration from the filmmaker's former career in law enforcement as well as a beloved national cinema legacy of atmospheric and highly stylized crime thrillers (that include such eminent filmmakers such as Louis Feuillade, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Henri-Georges Clouzot), 36 Quai des Orfèvres is an accomplished and entertaining film that is bolstered by the impeccable performances of a strong lead and supporting cast that, nevertheless, ultimately suffers from an overly contrived, conveniently structured, and tidy resolution (in particular, an extraneous, tangential subplot that could only have served to set up a set of conditions in place for the inevitable outcome).

Posted by acquarello on Feb 22, 2005 | | Comments (2) | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema


February 21, 2005

Le Silence, 2004

silence.gifAn apprehensive Olivier (Mathieu Demy) inscrutably stands watch at an outpost on the side of a mountain, cursorily surveying the desolate topography with a pair of binoculars, waving to armed comrades situated on an adjacent clearing, checking the sight on his rifle...waiting for something to happen. The seemingly idyllic opening sequence of natural communion provides an insightful glimpse into the heart of the conflict as the chaos of shots fired and a faint rustling in the brush momentarily betrays his insecurity and allows a wild boar to escape into the wilderness. On holiday in his native village in Corsica, Olivier has returned with his fiancée (Natacha Régnier) to reconnect with his ancestral identity (perhaps resulting from an existential crisis brought on by his impending fatherhood), returning to the simpler life and camaraderie of the hunters who have continued to carry on the centuries-old tradition of his cultural heritage against the tide of inevitable depopulation (and vanishing way of life) in the dying village. Bound by the cultural code of self-reliance, rugged individualism, and independence, Olivier's moral allegiance is tested when he becomes an inadvertent witness to an act of cold-blooded murder. Orso Miret's sophomore feature is an elegantly shot and sincere, but thematically slight and ultimately superficial psychological portrait of guilt, conformity, and personal responsibility. Juxtaposing stylized, oneiric images that reveal Olivier's crisis of conscience against the naturalism of the region's harsh and unforgiving terrain (and further correlating the boar hunt as a social metaphor for natural law), Le Silence serves as a thoughtful exposition on instinctuality, character, and human resolve.

Posted by acquarello on Feb 21, 2005 | | Filed under 2005, Rendez-vous with French Cinema