Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Feb 26, 2010 2:18 pm 
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Guillaume Verdier, François Damiens in The Wolberg Family

Tableaux of family disjunction


An old-fashioned, random, puzzling, but original and in some ways certainly engaging first feature written and directed by Axelle Ropert, The Wolberg Family focuses on Simon Wolberg (François Damiens), the Jewish mayor of a French provincial town, who seems good at giving celebratory speeches but gets into deeper, darker waters playing the roles of husband, father, and son. Simon has several very serious issues he's not quite ready to face. Lovely, intense widescreen images thanks to suddenly busy Céline Bozon (also d.p. for Cédric Kahn's Regrets and Laurent Perreau's Restless) complement the series of rather theatrical set pieces that give the film a novelistic subtlety, or read as a series of interlocking short stories, without quite coming together as a coherent narrative. Dialogue is witty and articulate, but delivered in tableaux. Sometimes character simply stop to philosophize too much. A little more showing and a little less telling on Ropert's part mightn't have hurt a bit.

Axelle Ropert is an actress and film critic (La lettre du cinéma, Les Inrockuptibles) who has done the scripts for Serge Bozon (L'Amitié, Mods, La France, eccentric films much admired by hip French critics), the latter playing the role of Alexandre, Simon's "bohemian" sibling, a wanderer with a guitar who turns up unexpectedly and spreads his disapproval of his conventional brother, urging Simon's wife Marianne (Valérie Benguigui) to leave him and start a new life if she's not happy. In a meeting early on with his aging father Joseph (Jean-Luc Bideau), Simon appears unclear of his identity and admits he's old himself. At home, where we meet wife, daughter, and son, Simon makes veiled comments about a blond man. These guarded illusions are a big hint that Simon's fondest wish in life of a close-knit and loving family is illusory. Pretending to be canvassing for reelection, Simon visits the blond lover of his wife, Daniel (Jocelyn Quivrin) and they have it out in an intense face-to-face palaver in an increasingly violent pour-down rain -- a sequence that stands out as a tour de force but feels a little contrived.

The children's loyalty is tested. Eleven-year-old Benjamin (Valentin Vigourt) knows things are uneasy at home and, usually taciturn and "peaceful," is acting out at school. The vivacious daughter Delphine (Léopoldine Serre) is not only making a big deal of her upcoming eighteenth birthday; she's seriously planning to use this occasion to leave home. She has a "blond man" of her own, it turns out. Daniel has said that Marianne is leaving, but her affair with him was only practice in doing so.

Despite being a brilliant" mayor, Simon's Jewishness or just his oddity set him apart from French community feeling, and besides, the town is Basque. After an annual celebration at his mother's grave with his dad at which they quaff Dom Pérignon and offer the deceased a libation, they're warned by a cemetery guard that such behavior is "disrespectful."

Meanwhile there is a secret that Simon first confesses to his mother's grave and then discusses with the family doctor.

The film builds to a climax of sorts with Delphine's birthday when further declarations and revelations occur amid a big party of townspeople and friends. There are several people who are leaving, including Delphine, Alexandre, and Simon's chief assistant François (Guillaume Verdier), who decides to give up his job and move away because he was in love with Delphine and is devastated to learn of her having an out-of-town boyfriend.

Beautifully photographed scenes of original and heightened dialogue keep one watching The Wolberg Family, but it tends to have a rather static feel. Behind the warmth there is a certain preciousness.

Sixties soul music is much featured, as in other Serge Bozon-Axelle Ropert collaborations.

La famille Wolberg opened in Paris December 2, 2009 to very good reviews. Included in the March 2010 slate of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-Unifrance jointly organized series the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema and screened at both the Walter Reade Theater and IFC Center, New York.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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