Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 04, 2011 3:45 pm 
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In flight from the French job market

The French title of Living for Love Alone, Isabelle Czajka's second feature, which she wrote and directed, is D'amour et d'eau fraîche, Of Love and Fresh Water. It comes from a saying, On ne peut pas vivre d’amour et d’eau fraîche, meaning You can't live off love and water alone; you've got to work. Czajka's protagonists are out to disprove that notion. As spirited and independent as its good-looking leads, it's a decisive slice of the life of Julie Bataille (Anaïs Demoustier), a pretty and resilient 23-year-old, and the man she runs off with. After coming to Paris from the country, Julie rejects a couple of demeaning jobs -- clerk at a photo service and girl Friday at a publicity company -- and winds up sleeping with a tattooed 41-year-old from a dance bar and a kind-hearted but flabby door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. They give her some money to keep her going as she chucks her jobs, but she finds a real kindred spirit (or is he a role model?) in Ben (Pio Marmaï), the "actor" who tested her sales skills during her job interview at the encyclopedia business. They hit it off right away, during their "test," when they laugh and joke together. After Julie's de facto trick-turning with older men, Ben isn't just a more appropriate mate: he's an object of beauty. It turns out he was only pretending to be an actor. More truly he's a small-time, off-and-on gangster, and Julie follows him to Spain for a "vacation" that's actually one of his little "coups," a "job" for some "pals" that involves switching cars a couple of times and picking up 3,000 euros for what's in the trunk of the last one.

What happens isn't so important. Living is imbued with the spirit of a young twenty-something, whose experiences are mostly throwaway steppingstones on the way to something that matters. Czajka's accomplishment is to tell her story with a kind of Nouvelle Vague lightness (people and scenes are borderline satirical and mocking) while keeping the action contemporary. Some French viewers, while finding Marmaï and Demoustier the "sexy revelations of the year," thought Czajka's action "sometimes too timid." Maybe they wanted something like Benoît Jacquot's À toute de suite, whose young woman (Isild LeBesco) joins an equally wet-behind-the-ears Arab-French bank robber on the run. But forget the fake excitement of À toute de suite, which eventually founders in detail. D'Amour et d'eau fraîche's more desultory line is more fraught with reality and danger. The pistol Julie finds in the Spanish house and learns from Ben how to shoot is more dangerous because we don't know, nor does she, what he or she will do with it.

At the same time Julie's life is mundane, almost pathetic. She can't afford a room with a shower. When she visits her family her mother is clueless, and her older brother is nasty when he learns she's been fired from the publicity firm job, which he helped her get. At the publicity firm she is treated vilely, and those two older men are nothing much. This is not the world of improvisational glamor and panache humorously and tragically enacted in Godard's iconic Breathless. Ben may end in a western-style shootout like Belmondo, but his future is really just one big question mark. The point is that Julie sees what's going on -- she's a respectable middle class girl with her University diploma ("Bac + 5") who can't get a decent job -- and thumbs her nose at this fact. Her decision to go on Ben's trip to Spain isn't so decisive; she has many misgivings. "I've got to go back and get a good job," she keeps saying.

But the film -- the director's second starring Demoustier -- which seems on a downbeat realistic trajectory, runs off the rails once Ben appears. "To make a lot of money you don't have to work," Ben says. "To make a little money, you have to work hard." In today's brutal job market, that is basically true, or very nearly. One may however still wonder why Czajka jumps from her rather subtle and telling little scenes of contemporary work, with their realism tinged with satire, into the conventionally anti-bourgeois romantic alternative of flight with an outlaw, which if not iconic as Godard, is still a fantasy. You could say in criticism as does the reviewer of Le Monde, that "Isabelle Czajka plays the social analysis card without quite being convincing. . .the director seems more concerned with entertaining than with sharply delineating the social system." Precisely: but this film is not a treatise so much as a series of slices of life which, if they teach, also delight.

Follow-through on the sociological commentary hardly matters, because the casual, offhand quality of Czajka's scenes is winning, and because Anaïs Demoustier, who also played the lead in Czajka's first film, is a star in the making. Demoustier is a delicate flower that turns out to be indestructible. She and Pio Marmaï, as her casual, affectionate, potentially lethal beau, have a chemistry that again, makes what happens a little beside the point. They're probably going nowhere, but love is in the air. And the water is fresh. Czajka steers a moderate course between the pure style of Godard and the intense commentary of the Dardennes. True, her work is not profound, and the outlaw, genre phase of the film is less effective than the Parisian phase of working and sleeping around. But the whole is cinematic, helped by her own long experience as a camera person.

Living by Love Alone opened in Paris August 18, 2011, to mixed reviews (Allociné rating 3.2 based on 16 reviews). Seen and reviewed as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, presented by UniFrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 3-13, 2011 at three venues, uptown at the Walter Reade Theater, downtown at the IFC Center, and in Brooklyn at BAMcinématek.

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