Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 23, 2010 4:09 pm 
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Meeting on the way down: a film about economic marginality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8 Times Up was shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, March 2010, and is scheduled to open in Paris April 14, 2010.

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