Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 21, 2006 12:17 pm 
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LE PETIT LIEUTENANT ....................................GOOD GIRL

ZIM AND CO...................................................HEADING SOUTH

RUSSIAN DOLLS.............................................LA MOUSTACHE

NOT HERE TO BE LOVED...................................GREY SOULS

COLD SHOWERS..............................................HELL

YOU LOOK VERY HANDSOME.............................HOUSEWARMING

ORCHESTRA SEATS..........................................PALAIS ROYAL!

................................I SAW BEN BARKA KILLED............................

(Those are my rankings, from top rung to bottom. Two to a rung. )

The Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Center’s 2006 edition brings home a lot of differences between American filmmaking and the French kind. I’ve heard someone say that anyone in France who wants to make a movie can do so. The French are more willing and able to do fresh, original work. Though it’s not like money grows on trees in France, money pressures may be less without the Hollywood behemoth looming overhead or off in the distance. Original means whatever you will – classic, out of touch, or engagé. As has become a bit of a cliché now, the French lately have excelled at mixing up the genres, combining them and confusing them. An unclassifiable movie is the best sign possible of an independent, fresh film industry.

This is the best showcase we’ve got for new French films. But it’s not perfection. It’s gone a bit commercial. This is America. There’s money to be made here. In fact some French films made more money here last year than they made in France. Cahiers du Cinéma used to collaborate on the series back when it began eleven years ago. Now Unifrance and the French Film Office are involved, with more emphasis on finding US distributors than on selflessly showing the best French cinema of the past year that we haven’t seen – which would be, in part, a different list than the fifteen we saw. There are always remarkable films that haven’t been shown here, but most of the Rendez-Vous entries go back only six months; early 2005 was passed over.

This commercial bias may explain some niggling preview pieces by New York critics: Time Out New York’s title was “French Can-Can’t,” and the Village Voice’s was “Déjà Vu.” It’s true there were some negligible entries. But somebody knew what she was doing, because they were well received. At least Isabelle Mergault’s first film, You Are So Handsome/Je vous trouve très beau – not such a good film – got favorable audience reactions. French critics said it wasn’t even a film at all; but its sentimental wintry-heart-awakened story and its look at the plight of Eastern European women might fly with US audiences.

When you think about it there was a lot of social consciousness in the series, but most of it posed as frivolity, and some really was frivolous, and other films made deep sense. Brigitte Rouan’s Housewarming/Travaux...., which looked clever in the blurb but seemed inept, was a fuzzy-thinking effort at commitment to a social cause (hiring and protecting illegal workers), but Variety thinks its comic content will do well here.

Pierre Jolivet’s Zim and Co. ought to. Jolivet does well what Rouan does badly: he creates a drama of the dispossessed, but he’s working closer to home, talking about young people in the poor banlieux where he himself grew up, and using his own son Adrien as the star, who with his three best mates is struggling to make it. Zim and Co is adept both intellectually and cinematically, and it’s also a lot of fun while being very knowing and specific about things like green cards and driver’s licenses and Le Pen.

Laurent Cantet’s Heading South/Vers le sud, about white women taking black lovers in 70’s Haiti, clearly a film with both serious personal implications and socio-political ones, has a distributor. (It doesn’t hurt that it has a sexually shocking theme and the charismatic Charlotte Rampling.) But it’s good that it was included because it won critical acclaim by being shown here and added luster to the series.

I already admired Cantet and am glad that now he seems to have become news, but I hadn’t heard of the directors of my greatest favorites. Xavier Beauvois (whose terrific cop flick blew me away) is young but already has been making movies. There’s nothing in Le Petit Lieutenant that you might not find on American TV: an alcoholic woman Inspector returning to work, a rookie officer joining her big city crime unit – except the big city is Paris. Beauvois works magic with this material because he treats it with such respect, and Nathalie Baye and Jalil Lespert and the other actors are so fine.

Likewise Sophie Fillières — like Beauvois young and previously unknown to me. She arrived in a trenchcoat and looked like a college student. (She was also one of several who had lived here and spoke perfect English. In fact the strictly fancophone directors were few – to my disappointment since I wanted to practice my French, as well as admire the work of the excellent interpreter on board throughout the series.) I don’t know what Good Girl/Gentille is about. It’s about the wonderful actress, Emmanuelle Devos (for whom Fillière wrote her screenplay); about a woman finding herself; being herself; but along the way many wholly unexpected things happen that don’t so much explore character or tell a story as create memorable cinema, something rich in style and evocative of tradition while quite fresh. Some thought this movie frivolous and lightweight. I don’t agree.

On my third rung Cédric Klapisch’s Russian Dolls/Les Poupées russes and Emmanuel Carrère’s La Moustache are more professional entertainments – though Moustache might be seen as an existential puzzler, it still has nicely tweaked Hitchcockian thrills, the suspenseful energy of an obsession. Klapisch, whose sequel to the popular L’Auberge espagonle starring Romain Duris this is – isn’t a profound filmmaker, maybe not even such a brilliant one, but he’s very adept with what he does in this sequel, using an improvisatory technique within a well-conceived formula that makes good use of his actors and his colorful locations.

Now we come down to the realm of the grey, which is very validly French; for even Paris, the City of Light, is a grey lady and famous for her many shades of gray. The French know melancholy: Stéphane Brizé's Not Here to Be Loved/Je Je ne suis pas là pour être aimé is about a sad, lonely man, but the knowing portrait, which got Patrick Chesnais nominated for a César for Best Actor, is sympathetic and hopeful. Yves Angelo’s Grey Souls/Les ames grises is another, darker, shade of grey. It too is a depressed movie, and concerns another aging man with a shriveled heart – but this one is part of a World War I world of hallucinatory neurasthenia and moral decay where non-combatants verge on or fully enter into madness. This fevered invention is hard to buy, but Angelo’s craftsmanship makes it work. These are both well-made films, but they're too mournful and draining to be enthusiastic about.

Now we're one rung further down, because at this point I'm not sure of the intentions of Messieurs Cordier and Tanovic in Cold Showers/Douches froides and Hell/L’Enfer, respectively. Cordier’s first-film portrait of teenagers involved in a love triangle and economic contrasts is interesting, but there is something voyeuristic about its images of nudity; Larry Clark is a tricky model to follow and not a good goal to shoot for – the movie has a distributor that deals in gay-interest films. Tanovic seems not to understand the high seriousness of Krzysztof Kieslowski and in his Kieslowski sequel/homage/knockoff has produced something more like high camp, with impressive production values and a glittering cast that only serve to highlight the shallowness inside. Better luck next time?

The two comedy openers, both quite glossy, Palais Royal! and Orchestra Seats/Fauteuils d’orchestre – both featuring the much admired Valérie Lemercier, whose charms definitively elude me – came armed with awards and nominations and were also well thought of here and have entertainment value. But they aren’t likely to make any film buffs’ heart-rates go up.

As for the bottom rung, that’s there because this dramatized incident where a con man was duped to play a role in a political assassination (of Moroccan revolutionary leader Mehdi Ben Barka) isn’t a fictionalized piece of history that comes off – and it’s too specialized. Those in France who think it’s a good evocation of film noir may need to go back and watch some Jean-Pierre Melville again. The man who is tired of watching Jean-Pierre Melville is tired of French cinema and needs to make a rendez-vous somewhere else. But though this exhibition of new French films was a mixed bag, the sack held eight or so well worth seeing, four or five quite fine ones, and a couple that are terrific. No déjà vu here. The French still can, and they do.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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