Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 14, 2011 2:30 pm 
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All men are the same

The Queen of Hearts (La reine des paumes) is a kooky little movie whose voiceovers, neat scene progressions, low budget production and witty, conceptual depiction of relationships ties it in very firmly with the (old) French New Wave. Its style (and it is very stylized) seems in many ways an amalgam of Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer, except that it's all from a woman's point of view; but there are touches of Agnès Varda too. The writer-director is a woman, Valérie Donzelli, who also plays the protagonist, and her three would-be lovers are all played by the same person, the amusing, tongue-in-cheek Jérémie Elkaïm, who, we learn, in real life is Valérie's ex, and also collaborated on the writing. This is the first feature to be directed by Donzelli, an actress in TV and films since 2000 with many credits with directors of note, including Anne Fontaine. Good job here by Elkaïm, who has fun playing divers Wrong Guys. The film is shot in cold-looking, grayish DV in a square format that harmonizes with the retro-style way scenes are framed.

Adèle's fiancé Matthieu (also Elkaïm) has abandoned her, she is devastated, and she takes refuge with her rather strange cousin Rachel (Béatrice De Staël). Rachel, perpetually in dark glasses and plagued by an inexplicable ailment in one eye, counsels getting out of town, but, barring that, going to bed with other men as soon as possible. Along come Pierre, Jacques and Paul. Pierre is a university student who takes care of Adèle while Rachel dumps her, heavily sedated, on a park bench while she goes to work. They meet periodically and Adèle recognizes that Pierre is really nice, but thinks he's too young for her. Jacques is the husband when Adèle gets a baby-sitting job once she has pulled herself together a bit. Paul is just a guy on the street who locks eyes with Adèle on a stairway: they fall for each other. With Jacques, there is a huge mutual sexual attraction. They do it in the car when he's driven her home. After meeting Paul, Adèle has to buy a cell phone so they can exchange "textos." He wants her to do kinky stuff.

She does, and when that leads her to stage an event involving Jacques, Pierre, and Paul, and Rachel turns up unexpectedly too, things get pretty complicated.

The absurdist element of casting the same guy in all three roles is also a feminist one. Or is it a put-down of women too for not distinguishing one man from another? Or are Elkaïm and Donzelli trading off jaundiced views of the opposite sex in their collaborative writing? In any case, there is no self pity or psychobabble in this very French view of romance and sex, which indeed mocks the female protagonist, somewhat autobiographically, by her own admission, for branding herself as a hopeless loser and wallowing in a sense of love-sick abandonment; and also mocks young men as much for focusing on sex as for, at the other extreme, being too willing to be the respectful friend, when coming on strong might be just the ticket.

Donzelli's taste for meetings in Parisian parks (and later in a New York one) is one of many links with the tastes and tropes of the Nouvelle Vague. A wispy song by the protagonist to express her love-longing much recalls the style of Christophe Honoré, another New Wave acolyte, in his Love Songs.

The Queen of Hearts is notable for its precision, its daring eccentricity, and its comic edge. Donzelli never drifts into the realm of conventional French romantic comedy. Rooted in the Sixties French cinema tradition though it is, this film is bold and free in contemporary film terms. The result is nonetheless perhaps a bit superficial, jokey, slapdash, and the tiny subplot with Rachel and a damaged eye is icky and sketchy. But the sensibility is droll and the scenes are witty. It's hard to say what Donzelli might do next as a director. This may have burned bridges, eliminated some possibilities. The next one may go somewhere else. We'll have to see.

Seen and reviewed as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance, March 3-13, 2011. Released in France February 24, 2010.

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