Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Feb 27, 2012 4:29 pm 
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Politics is a game at which we all lose

Cavalier is something of a French provocateur (if a discreet one: but his Le Filmeur annoyed and won a special prize at Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2005) and his Pater was deemed one of the most surprising French entries at last year's Cannes Festival. It's political; it's conceptual. It's witty; for some it's provocative, for others terminally annoying. It's seen by some French observers as a reply to Xavier Durringer's film The Conquest (La Conquête), a French Masterpiece Theater-like rendering of the story of Sarkozy's rise to power. Or it might be a more whimsical version of Pierre Schoeller's L'Exercise de l'État, a fairly realistic and suitably intense film focused on the travails of a new and overtaxed French government minister.

For a year the two were filmed: the filmmaker and the actor; the President and his Prime Minister; Alain Cavalier and Vincent Lindon. In each of these three roles, personal, professional, and metaphorical, the two men interact and improvise on camera in a fiction they invent together. This is Pater. Cavalier doesn't enter like Durringer or Schoeller into the elaborate make-believe of a pseudo-historical contemporary film. Alain Cavalier and his partner Vincent Lindon take on a different game -- one that's more childish and yet both more serious and funnier. Let's play, Cavalier proposes, that I'm President of the Republic and that I name you my Prime Minister.

They take on two topics: the span between minimum and maximum salaries in a company, and electoral politics. Conversations go back and forth. And, by the way, all this takes place at a nice country house, in the study, dining room, and kitchen. When the film begins, Cavalier is spooning out truffles and other delicacies, including tuna, from jars to plates. It's a picnic, and a sybaritic one! There are others who gather around. The team to make a film doubles nicely for the assistants and security people surrounding heads of state. There is some talk about security, but Lindon soliloquizes that Cavalier's fuss over bullet-proof glass at the new residence is really just a way of showing him, Lindon, that he's going to be displeased with him, his Prime Minister. They also talk about ties to wear, and suits, and visit Lindon's museum-like dressing room.

Electoral politics comes later, and it will turn out that Cavalier apparently has lost, before he has even served, and has to let Lindon go. Or run again. And for the election results are substituted a set of 100 euros worth of lottery cards. Cavalier, that is, the President, says he lost because he lacked the energy to go to enough cities. In other words, in shorthand, political campaigning, from the study.

For salary discrepancies, the President favors a factor of 1 to 12. The highest paid cannot make more than twelve times the salary of the lowest paid. The Prime Minister favors a factor of 1 to 10. The President concludes that the head of a corporation can make as much as, and no more than, the President of the Republic. This debate goes back and forth (sometimes with others present) and stands for the highest discussions of policy in a government.

At one point Prime Minister Lindon appears at the Presidency of the Republic and is shown a compromising photo of his political adversary. Should he use it or not? He analyzes the ethics of the situation, if he does, or if he doesn't. Again: a game, and a set of strict rules and consequences. Which you cannot escape, and which you cannot, strictly speaking, win.

In the film, private area and public debate merge. While communication is the law in ministerial cabinets, Pater reminds us that politics is both intimacy and conviction. And asks simple questions: What is the relationship between two politicians? And between a director and actor? And between two friends? Pater's constant deliberate (and natural) confusion of roles makes it challenging and amusing to watch -- although, for those who like a clear set of rules, it may be simply frustrating and confusing. And they should go and watch The Conquest or L'Exercise de l'État, which are worth watching, but do not provide the kind of intellectual satisfaction Cavalier offers.

It's difficult to convey a sense of Pater without seeing Alain Cavalier and Vincent Lindon. And there are moments when they tell very personal things about themselves: Cavalier's lack of familiarity with cell phones and computers; Lindon's quarrel with his landlord, whose inherited wealth and complacent favoring of power infuriate him. Cavalier's mild, distinguished appearance, snowy white hair, dark but unpretentious suits; Lindon's tics, his unruly hair, his "terrifyingly sympathetic" presence, his robust physique, the intensity and surprising clarity and elegance of his speech. The accomplishment of this film is the way it conveys the two men so vividly simply as men before the camera, without destroying the illusion or illusions that are created of heads of state and politics. It's a brilliant touch the way a film crew stands in for the entourage of heads of state; the way the making of a film thus becomes the making of politics.

If you want to understand the Alain Cavalier of Pater, imagine the Lars von Trier of The Boss of It All or The Five Obstructions in a good suit eating potted truffles. Combining him with Vincent Lindon is like mixing the most theoretical and cooly provocative of filmmakers with the most soulful and morally responsible of actors. Pater was seen as one of the most bizarre of films at Cannes and also received nine nominations and a 17-minute standing ovation and this ovation was seconded by the Paris critics when the film opened there in June 2011.

The French critics loveed this film but I warn you, it is more French and more political than an American audience can easily handle. The Variety critic described it as, "The epitome of an in-joke, best appreciated by director Alain Cavalier and his slender cast. " But Le Nouvel Observateur wrote - brilliantly I think -- that "Pater is akin to a class in film taught by a master who pretends to believe you know as much as he, lets you play with the illusion that in his place you'd do as well; thus you feel the film is as much yours as his, as theirs." In other words, Cavalier makes it look very simple what he does, but what is behind the film is shrewd and ingenious. Variety saw it as sloppy and wrote a hasty, dismissive review. Tastes across the pond do radically differ quite often, but this is, clearly, not mainstream stuff and the French public was not as enthusiastic as the press.

Debuted in competition at Cannes, 2011, Pater/Our Father opened in Paris June 22, 2011, with rave reviews (Allociné 4.3) from all the best sources. It is included in the March 1-11, 2012 joint UniFrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center series, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, and was screened for the press for this review. Public screenings will be:

Fri., March 2, 3:45pm – WRT; *Fri., March 2, 9:15pm – IFC; *Sat., March 3, 6:30pm – BAM; *Sun., March 4, 3:30pm - WRT
*In person: Vincent Lindon

When he made Pater, as he tells Cavalier on camera, Lindon was working in another film: Moon Child, or La Permission de minuit, about a boy with XP, a genetic disorder. This film is also included in the Rendez-Vous.

(Parts of this review are adapted from a Cannes posting about the film on Allociné entitled, "Cannes 2011: We have seen Pater!".)

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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