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PostPosted: Tue Feb 14, 2012 1:27 pm 
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JACQUES NOLOT IN SMUGGLERS' SONGS

Mid-eighteenth-century followers of the French Robin Hood

Smugglers' Songs/Les chants de Madrin, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's fourth film, is an atmospheric and musical evocation of the pre-revolutionary spirit of mid-eighteenth-century France and of the period outlaw hero and French Robin Hood Louis Madrin. Madrin defied the fermiers généraux, the rapacious tax collectors for the King who had grown immensely rich and were widely hated for the way they were exploiting the whole country. He stole and sold goods cheap in illegal markets. His brutal torture and execution made him a national revolutionary martyr.

The film joins a band of Madrin followers after their hero's death. Zaïmeche himself plays Bélissard, the de-facto "chef" of this band though he says there is no "chef." We first meet a handsome young deserter who has been shot by the military who wanders across a field and collapses. Bélissard rescues him and later recruits him after shooting and killing three soldiers who come to get the young man. hen the scene shifts and we join an anti-establishment aristocrat, the Marquis de Levezin (a fine Jacques Nolot) who had become close to Madrin and is now engaged in writing his biography. The Marquis gives a ride in his carriage to an itinerant book peddler or colporteur (Christian Milia-Darmezin). This man is well acquainted with the Madrin contraband markets, and through him the Marquis finds his way to the friends of his hero.

The smugglers carry on Madrin's spirit, defying and fighting off the tax collectors' army, selling contraband. They collect songs in honor of their hero and get them published and distributed to the public (sometimes along with the 1001 Nights, in its unexpurgated form, bien sur). Their spirited and well-armed band sets up temporary markets on the edges of villages. There they hastily sell tobacco, silk, and precious objects to willing buyers as well as books, including works by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, and the Marquis travels with them The colporteur joins up too, selling books and transporting the song collection. He gets captured and imprisoned and nearly despairs, but is rescued in a bold attack by Bĺissard and his band.

The anti-establishment tone is set in the opening scene. It's pretty clear who the good guys and the bad guys are. Bias aside, Smugglers' Songs is atmospheric and pleasant, far from the usual costume drama and, in its ideological bent, a little like Rossellini. The focus is on lifestyle and spirit rather than an action-picture story line. The cinematography by Irina Lubtchansky brings out the nice costumes by Christiane Vervandier and the natural landscape; no set design needed, since nearly all scenes are set outdoors. Several sequences are beautifully shot entirely in silhouette, an effect that suggests events being transformed into legend in the eyes of the beholder. There is impressive musketry and handsome horseflesh and the regular musical interludes (arranged by Valentin Clastrier) make use of violin, flute, and a curious cranked instrument. It's all about the atmosphere and the camaraderie, despite some violent episodes when the military step in and must be repelled.

There's a notable sequence that further emphases the legend-making enterprise when Bélissard meets with anti-establishment printer Jean-Luc Cynan (Jean-Luc Nancy) to get the pro-Mandrin songs editioned and this also turns into a little lesson in period typesetting and papermaking: the wooden pulp-working machine in particularly is a marvel to behold in operation. There is a sophisticated sense of period here, but those hoping for the excitement of an action film may become uneasy at this point. Zaïmeche is in no hurry. One has the distinct impression that the filmmakers were having fun. There is much laughter on screen.

The spirit of Madrin hovers over events, and the climax shows the band and a group of pretty women indoors for once while the Marquis delivers the words of the famous "Complainte de Madrin." Set to music from an opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau, the "Complainte" casts Madrin as a national hero, looking out on all of France as his unjust end approaches. In it, Madrin speaks of his robbery and selling and capture and execution and ends with the plaintive, elegiac lines, "Compagnons de misère/Allez dire à ma mère/Qu'elle ne m'reverra plus/J' suis un enfant, vous m'entendez,/Qu'elle ne m'reverra plus/J'suis un enfant perdu.""Companions of misery/Go tell my mother/That she will see me no more/I'm a child, you hear me,/That she won't see any more/I am a lost child." You will find more than a dozen interpretations of this very famous song (including a period one from Le Chat Noir and a moving rendition by Yves Montand) will be found here.

Smugglers' Songs exudes a gentle French "after May" spirit here of 1968 -- the year in fact that Zaïmeche was brought from his native Algeria to France, at the age of two. "Revolt meets poetry," one French review summarizes; "an alliance between a quasi-insurrectional theme and a very sweet tone," says another. There are killings and three armed encounters (which the Mandrin-followers win against the army of the King and the tax collectors) but a gentle, humanistic sprit reigns: there is a lot of hugging and pauses to play music and hints that these men living off the land are eco-warriors who've gone green long before the creation of the Sierra Club.

This film won the Jean Vigo Prize, an award that itself tends to favor eccentric and revolutionary work. A similar recent winner was Serge Bozon's La France, an even more eccentric and less strictly historical film, also full of musical pauses, also set outdoors, about a World War I band of deserters and a woman posing as a man hunting for her soldier husband. Les Chants de Mandrin[/i may be less appealing to avant-gardists but it is more accessible and pleasnat. It] debuted at the Locarno festival August 11, 2011 and entered French theaters January 25, 2012, receiving generally favorably reviews (Allociné 3.6).

[i]Smuggler's Songs
is part of the joint UniFrance-Lincoln Center Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, March 1-11, 2012. The film was shown to press and industry at the Walter Reade Theater, where it was screened for this review. Public screenings:

*Wed., March 7, 9:30pm – IFC; *Thurs., March 8, 6:15pm – WRT; Fri., March 9, 1:30pm - WRT
*In person: Rabah Ameur-Zaïméche

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