Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 06, 2009 6:25 pm 
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A view of homelessness between realism and fable

Versailles, which contains remarkable performances by the late Guillaume Depardieu, dead last year at only 37, and a seven-year-old boy named Max Baissette de Malglaive, is about homeless people, but it's also about identity and freedom, regeneration and loss. Recovering from a life of homelessness or from drug addiction, the film says, takes about six or seven years. And a life without borders or plans has its attraction and its myths. Schoeller's screenplay and direction make realism an adventure, delving into harsh truths without resorting to miserabilism or sociology. In the flickering light of a bonfire in the woods, its characters sometimes seem to have returned to a primordial age or moved forward to the future nether-world of Haneke's Time of the Wolf. The resolutions may seem too facile, but intense, authentic performances and handsome cinematography make this somewhat thin tale redeem itself over time. Its sui generis style may eventually earn it a following. Depardieu and de Malglaive almost deserve comparison with Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola of De Sica's Bicycle Thief. Like Staiola, young de Malglaive seems well on is way to a film career, with a couple more film roles already under his belt. Depardieu has an edge and an innate marginality himself, an emotional transparency, that combine to give his Damien memorable authenticity and life.

We seem to be plunged into lurid sociology in the murky grimness of the opening sequence, where Nina (Judith Chemla) struggles from day to day living on the streets of Paris with her child, Enzo (de Malglaive). One evening she is forcibly rescued by social services that take her and the boy to a shelter at Versailles, of all places, near the palace of Louis XIV, the "Sun King." Instead of making it back to Paris the next day she wanders into a wood and they encounter Damien (Depardieu), living in a rough "hut" (cabane) he may have thrown together himself. He's ravaged looking, but lean, young, strong, and resourceful. He seems to always have cigarettes, and mostly food of some kind, and a wood fire to stay warm and cook by. Damien has little use for either Enzo or Nina, but he lets them stay a few nights, and one evening after Enzo's asleep, he and Nina find each other. Then she disappears leaving a note, and Damien's stuck with Enzo.

This gesture may seem a tragedy and a crime, but may also be Nina's only hope. She knows Damien can be trusted. She locates earth-mother-ish Mme Herchel (Brigitte Sy), the woman from her first night in Versailles, who had promised her work. Enzo is dirty and tired and frequently hungry, but he knows no other life. He gloms onto Damien, and Damien feeds, bathes, and protects him. There's a little group of squatters who've staked out territory in the wood, and their bonds are strong, as we see when one of them dies.

Nina learns to care for old people under the protection of Mme Hershel. When she's made some progress she goes back to the wood. The hut is gone, burned down, not a trace left. Nina is devastated and seems to fall back into homelessness, there and then.

When winter comes full on, Damien turns up at the house of his hostile father, Jean-Jacques (Patrick Deschamps), who now has a young wife, Nadine (Aure Atika). Damien's been given some money and offers it to pay for lodging, but there's no trust because he has been a drug addict. The argument ends anyway when Enzo waltzes right past them toward the house. Nadine takes to him. Damien gets a job in construction. Enzo adjusts poorly to bourgeois life and begs to go back to the hut, but Damien tells him that's over.

The film is most obvious but still authentically French in its constant assertion of the "republic's" overstructured system of loyalties and duties which provides extensively for the misbegotten by US standards, but still is letting more and more people slip under its protective radar. Damien reluctantly follows Jean-Jacques' suggestion and acknowledges Enzo as his son so the boy will have legal status and can go to school. But once this "rebirth" is celebrated, Damien's commitment to work and stability seems to vanish.

A brief epilogue shows Enzo seven years later, acclimated and schooled and living with Jean-Jacques and Nadine, but still remote and struggling when his mother turns up.

This is the directorial debut of Pierre Schoeller, a screenwriter for fifteen years. The film, which debuted in the "Un Certain Regard" series at Cannes, opened in Paris August 19 to generally good but not great reviews. It has a kind of poignancy given French cinema's loss of the talented, doomed Guillaume Depardieu, and it's hard to watch him struggling to breathe in an outdoor winter sequence knowing that he died of pneumonia two months after the film's release. With this role (as well as Rivette's Duchess of Langeais and Verheyde's Stella, just to name recent appearances), it's clear that with Guillaume's passing we lost greatness. Versailles was shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center, New York, in March 2009, as was Verheyde's Stella.

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