Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 15, 2011 3:37 pm 
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Nice girl seeks leather boys

The director Maurice Pialat has often been mentioned in connection with the dark, intense style of French girls' coming-of-age story Belle Épine by first-time director Rebecca Zlotowski. This nice Jewish girl whose mother has just died and whose father has gone to Canada to look into property issues is taking walks on the wild side from the first frames, where Prudence Friedmann (Léa Seydoux) is shown stripping with another girl who has also been caught shoplifting at a store, Marylene (Agathe Schlenker). Prudence refuses to grieve. She seems dead set on disproving her name and in the middle of the night she's dragging Marylene out to the periphery to join leather bikers risking their lives on motorcycles at Rungis in illegal races. Zlotowski's film takes us on a rambling, rapid journey full of shocks and contrasts -- a journey that, alas, rambles too much sometimes to keep us engaged in its action or even sometimes clear what's going on. The ambiance is often wonderful, and it's good to see a coming-of-age story about a girl that's so fraught with danger and risk. There are scenes whose howling music and dark desperation have an edge and energy rarely felt since Patrice Chéreau's 1983 L'Homme Blessé. But Zlotowski and her collaborating writer Gaelle Mace needed to construct a screenplay with more of a shape to it. A nice final scene in which Prudence begins to come to terms with a phantom of her mother almost saves things.

A member of a French movie royal family, since she's the granddaughter and grandniece of the directors of Pathé and Gaumont, Seydoux is a rising star in her own right who has been seen in movies as different as Le Belle Personne, Robin Hood, Lourdes and Inglourious Basterds. Her performance here is intense and defiantly unglamorous, though hardly unsexy, since both she and Demoustier appear bare-breasted early on. She loses her virginity to Franck, a boy from the Rungis circuit whose mother runs a small hotel and whose own job involves cleaning fish. As Franck, Johan Libéreau (Cold Showers, The Witnesses) is, like Seydoux, de-prettified for his role.

All this wild stuff is in contrast to the bourgeois Jewish life exemplified by Prudence's friend Sonia Cohen (Anais Demoustier), whose home Prudence goes to for a dinner that turns out to be a religious evening when the meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are explained to her.

Back to contrast again, Prudence invites her wild-side pals to come to the family apartment -- her dad's still away -- and trash it. Most of the scenes in the film take place at night (or indoors) and in (except for Rungis, seen only as a dark place of shiny roaring motorcycles) unspecified locations. Eventually the death of someone she knows in the illegal bike racing circuit jolts Prudence back to an awareness of her own recent loss. Moments here are compelling, and Seydoux gives a good performance, but the action doesn't come together; Bell Épine seems a bit of a waste. It's atmospheric, edgily exciting, well shot, and stars several of the poutiest, sexiest young female stars in French cinema. But when you consider Chéreau's L'Homme Blessé, and why it has far greater power, apart from the greater ease of having a young man rather than a girl take a run on the wild side for their coming-of-age, and the stunning obsessive drive of Jean-Hugues Anglade's debut performance, you have the fact that the main characters are locked into a death grip with each other. In contrast the main characters of Belle Épine rarely seem truly engaged. The film is on a search; it never finds itself. Besides an attractive cast it has great music (by Rob) and atmospheric images (by George Lechaptois) -- and a theme worthy of treatment.

Le Belle Épine opened in Paris November 10, 2010, when it received some dissatisfied reviews ("moody and disjointed," "terribly boring"), but also some very favorable ones from good sources, like Les Inrockuptibles, which approved the film's willingness to go "beyond social realism" and "affirm the power of fantasy and of fiction" -- a valid point. They may have been welcoming qualities the film promises. The public was less favorable in its ratings. Zlowkowski, a graduate of the elite École Normale Supérieure, is only 31; she's made a promising first film and is a new director to watch. This film was reviewed earlier on Filmleaf by Howard Schumann.

This film was part of Critics' Week at Cannes last year. Seen and reviewed as part of New Directors/New Films presented March 23-April 4, 2011 by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

ND/NF sceenings:

2011-03-24 | 6:00 PM | FSLC
2011-03-26 | 1:00 PM | MoMA

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