Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 24, 2011 2:38 pm 
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Titillating surfaces in a 19th-century tale of sex subjugation

He's uneven, but successful in landing cool actresses to work with, in keeping with his persistent fascination with the evanescence and power of sexuality. These include Anna Karina, Isabelle Huppert (several times), Dominique Sanda, Virginie Ledoyen, Isabelle Adjani, even Catherine Deneuve. Benoît Jacquot has worked with the savage-looking Isild LeBesco in Sade, Adolphe, À tout de suite and L'Intouchable. Now he has her back again for the semi-factual 19th-century story of a filthy, feral vagrant with inexplicable powers of magic, telekinesis and hypnosis who abducts the daughter of a village doctor to be his trance-like sex slave as he wanders around a rugged segment of the southern French countryside babbling in a patois of French combined with Provençal, Spanish and Italian.

One of Jacquot's films, The School of Flesh, was in competition at Cannes. If this intermittently compelling study of a sexual liaison between a rich sybarite (Isabelle Huppert) and a bisexual barman (Vincent Martinez) is the height of his achievement, that gives you an idea of his limitations. His other outings with LeBesco have been only so-so, despite their titillation factor. There is plenty of that again here, with LeBesco doing her standard wild and weird act with shivering body, crazed eyes, and the trademark pouty lips, along with the well-deployed breasts, tiny waist (good combination in tight-bodiced period costume), high forehead and striking nose.

Joséphine (LeBesco) comes under the spell of the ratty young Timothée (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart of the offbeat Argentinian teen film Glue), who pretends to be deaf and dumb to get a free meal from the good doctor Hugues (Bernard Rouquette), Joséphine's dad, and then puts her under some kind of spell. Later after the wanderings and a fight with roadside robbers that leaves Timothée with an infected hand, Joséphine goes to an apothecary, which leads to her and the boy's being hauled off by the police.

The film is long on scenes of attractive costumed or nude "savagery." Timothée seems to need to put Joséphine under a spell to have sex with her, but then after a while she even gets on top. When the two are rounded up and interrogated after he's had his beard trimmed and his hand amputated, Jacquot is wishy-washy about where things stand. Did the wild guy use "magnetism," i.e., hypnosis, or really put her under a spell? Did he force her to endure repeated rapes, or was she complicit all along in the S&M liaison? No answers are forthcoming, and confusions multiply since there are various diversionary scenes (including a spliced-in trip to a blacksmith who may be his family) that do not build toward a consistent narrative.

Joséphine is clearly a weird one from the beginning: but can LeBesco ever play any other kind of role? It doesn't seem so. Her shtick is beginning to become over-familiar. Maybe Joséphine and Timothée are two of a kind. But what is he, actually? And what is she? Nothing is worked out. The scenes are vivid and well-photographed and lighted. Timothée's stagy bad teeth and dirty nails would require hypnosis for a girl to overlook, as are his greasy ragged clothes; but his skin and eyes shine forth with an intensity that seems indeed hypnotic, not to mention kind of cute. Pérez Biscayart is as arresting and bizarre as LeBesco and undeniably talented, though at times his face, often shot in extreme closeup, begins to seem too juvenile for a young woman. In the end the whole undeniably beautiful and arrestingly staged costume extravaganza begins to feel familiar (L'Enfant sauvage meets Criminal Lovers), and nothing more than a tony French period framework upon which to hang some wild outdoor sex scenes. Jacquot's screenplay with his co-writer Julien Boivent sets up the machinery of a period drama but it introduces an investigative finale that goes nowhere and serves only to flatten the mystery that came before. Au Fond des bois is less of a washout, to be sure, than Jacquot's two preceding films, L'Intouchable and Villa Amalia, but it feels vacant at its core.

The film debuted at Toronto and opened in Paris theaters October 13, 2010 to rather enthusiastic reviews, with some strong dissents. Seen and reviewed as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in NYC, a series from March 3 to 13, 2011 presented by UniFrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Film trailer.

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