Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 22, 2011 12:27 pm 
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Falling for the wrong guy

When Barbara Vidal (Ronit Elkabetz, Israeli star of Late Wedding and The Band's Visit), who's experienced at such work, makes a film in a prison outside Paris, she falls in love with one of her inmate actors, Michel (Carlo Brandt), and he with her. Furtive kisses, a little hand-holding, and a smoke together are all they get. Passionate letters are exchanged, à la Eldridge Cleaver and Beverly Axelrod. Michel is finishing eleven years for robbery and may get out soon, though he doesn't know exactly when.

"A true story" covers a multitude of sins. Here, in this belated debut feature (she is 55) by the mother of Louis Garrel, the problem is flatness. This film plods. It doesn't help that scenes outside the prison are void of content. They show Barbara with ever-smiling best friend Rita (Noémie Lvovsky), exchanging telegraphic comments on the love affair, or with the sound off.

Barbara interviews the participating inmates, then makes up a script using their words. The result is a series of brief monologues. Nothing much new seems to be added, paralleling the effect of this film itself, which is a film about a film in which reality and illusion are indistinguishable -- but equally uninteresting. The film rushes seem disappointing to the inmates. The warden (Alain Ollivier) is favorable to the project but thinks the film would have been more fun for the prisoners if the filmmaker had thought up an original story for them to act out. It might have been more fun for us too. The scenes are repetitive. All that stands out is the urgency of Michel's love for Barbara, nurtured in the hothouse atmosphere of prison.

Elkabetz and Brandt are intense presences separately, but despite the long stares and snatched kisses show little chemistry together. The prison too is lifeless, too clean and orderly to seem real till finally there's a single shot of the yard, recalling the place where some of the key moments of Jacques Audiard's much more powerful prison movie A Prophet take place. Unlike Audiard's film, with its complex, pulsating milieu, this one makes no attempt to depict life behind bars -- or, for that matter, life outside.

In one conversation Michel tells Barbara criminals often spend whole years in dive bars waiting for something to happen, decades waiting for the one big "job" to come along. Another time he describes bank robberies. All this seems academic. Sy labors under the handicap of a story that must tell rather than show.

What we learn about Barbara as time goes on is that she has an ex-husband, a young child, and a druggie former boyfriend who comes around to pester her. The way she looks at the latter suggests her penchant for the wrong sort of man is still strong -- as if we didn't see that already from her fascination with the thuggish Michel. She also is HIV positive and takes multiple medications, a fact hinted to us and revealed by her to Michel late in the game.

Eventually Barbara introduces into her screenplay a conversation between Michel and a woman surrogate, Chloë (Camille Figuereo), a trainee, that gives away the romance. This alerts the warden that something improper may be going on.

Finally, complication, a pause, a staged event, and a follow-up. Barbara does something illegal for Michel concerning money, he gets rearrested, and she is briefly incarcerated as an accomplice. (One wonders if she got her medications, but that detail is ignored.) She 's quickly cleared of criminal intent and released on condition that she not see, call, or write him for a year. When that time is up they marry in the prison, a ceremony that is shown. To show passage of time, Michel has grown a beard. A final title shows the honeymoon did not last long.

There's a brief reference to Sy's longtime companion and mentor, the cult filmmaker Philippe Garrel: one inmate reassures another that his films aren't difficult, just "slow." It would have been interesting if Philippe Garrel had made this film. He would not have been as literal. His minimalism and stylistic originality might have made something arresting and poetic out of this material. One thinks also, of course, of Genet, another master of mood. Though there's nothing gay, the focus on passion and incarceration reminds one of Genet's jail poetry. Carlo Brandt looks so much like Genet Sy must have thought of the connection too. Genet's ability to paint a personality in a few bold strokes would have come in handy here. In contrast, the World War II bomb squad makeup of the inmate group -- black, Arab, white, Asian -- is hackneyed and uninformative in its facile but superficial delineation of character.

Sy not only has made films for years inside prisons, but is HIV-positive, and this story is said to be altogether autobiographical. Her closeness to the material, however, may have been more a liability than an asset. It did not keep this debut from being a disappointment.

There is a good audience for this kind of severe, earnest film in France and when Les mains libres (100 min., in French) opened in Paris June 16, 2010 it was widely and often favorably reviewed, though some writers, like the reviewer for Les Inrockuptibles, saw the same problem I did: too little distance between artist and subject. Seen and reviewed this time as part of the March 3-14, 2011 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, presented by UniFrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center at the Water Reade Theater, the IFC Center and BAMcinématek.

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