Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 24, 2013 10:18 am 
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Young poetry of night

It sounds extravagant, but French critic Romain Blondeau of Les Inrockuptibles was right when he wrote that Héléléna Klotz's The Atomic Age/L'Âge atomique "is a first feature that's fragile, very beautiful, senual, engaging and devilishily romantic." "Fragile," because it's a film about youth, and on the surface there's not much to it. Well, there may not seem to be much to Patrice Chéreau's L'Homme Blessé either, but that doesn't keep it from being a definitive statement about doomed gay youth in the provinces. The Atomic Age is slight; it's only 68 minutes long, and it details nothing more than two young men's failed night out in Paris. But in the way it looks and unfolds there's a fluidity, an art, and an assurance that explain how it can be beautiful, sensual, engaging, and devilishly romantic, because with a fine and dramatic eye it captures the spirit of pretentious (or simply self-consciously hip) young men (they only think they're doomed, we suspect) dying of longing, and on the periphery of things both geographically and metaphorically. Maybe they're not quite ready for the passion of their lives. Or maybe it's just not coming along this evening. But in a way they are willing as only very young men are to go for broke, bet everything on a dance, an intense stare or a glass of beer.

The Atomic Age is not without significant incident -- every little moment is significant --but primarily it's a visual poem. Taking full advantage of its nighttime setting, it's shot in images rich in velvety blacks and it ends with a dawn that arrives with a mysterious sparkle. Don't be deceived by the ephemeral material: there's magic and mastery here in every shot.

But it also feels quite real, fluid, and natural. At first the two young men, Victor (Eliott Paquet) and Rainer (Dominik Wojcik), are riding the train from far out in the banlieux to Paris, going "en boîte," clubbing. Where they wind up seems familiar to them, and Rainer, a poète maudit of Central European origin who sleeps badly, is lonely, and puts himself to sleep reading and memorizing poetry, and it later seems, may actually lives in Paris. They drink on the train, a gulped mix of this and that designed to blast their brains. At the club, mobbed with a weekend crowd, they dance, and they talk.

Héléna Klotz's amazes by making the movie cliche of this disco-like place with its loud music and lurid lights not only beautiful but someting we take for granted as simply the water Victor and Rainer swim in. A handsome, long-haired and forward young gay man (Luc Chastel) dances closer and closer to Rainer, and for a long time he does not push him away. Victor tries to find a girl who's interested in him and repeatedly fails. After a particularly humiliating rejection, when the girl unexpectedly slaps him and hurls a nasty epithet at him, he climbs up on the roof and weeps. Rainer follows him there. Lighting may not be unselfconscious as we notice from the golden tints on the roof, but it is beautiful throughout, in the train in the club, on the roof, in every shot. When they leave the club they engage in verbal sparring with a handful of more priviledged young men, whom Victor has mocked as badly dressed. All of the guys, but especially Victor, who we now suddenly notice is shorter than the others, are wiling to push their provocations to and beyond normal limites. Yet seems for a moment -- Klots is excellent at capturing the thin edge between provocation and approach -- like the hostility could turn to friendship and the city slickers with the Audi and the boys from the sticks might join forces for the rest of the night.

But then epithets turn to fisticuffs, and Victor and Rainer wind up in a train station, where a pretty girl sits next to Victor, puling off her false eyelashes and starting a conversation. Her name is Rose. She gets up to leave and wants him to follow. But the deparessed Rainer will not hear of it when Vicktor offers him the keys to his place. He won't be abandoned -- but by now if not all evening both boys feel abandoned and disillusioned, left with only each other. And so Victor actually chooses to stay with Rainer and let the pretty young girl (she may be too young) go off by herself. The geography becomes confusing after this. Victor is leading Rainer through the woods, apparently a back way to his house, and when they finally lie down they declare their love to each other, combining French teenage bromance with a hint of River and Keanu in My Own Private Idaho. Now, Victor says when two days go by and he doesn't see Rainer, he misses him. As dawn begins to come, the camera draws back, and we see the two boys walking Indian file in a field of brambles, their white shoes twinkling hauntingly in the crepuscular light. And there you have it. That's all there is, but it feels like quite a lot, because this adventure is so vividly and beautifully imagined.

Hélena Klotz, who did a 55-min. TV film version of this material titled Val d'Or in 2011 and has worked as a casting director, is the daughter of Nicolas Klotz of La Fémis, the French national film school. Klotz père is known for Heartbeat Detector/La question humaine(R-V 2008), a moody, resonant study of lingering traces of Nazism in France with with Matthieu Amalric and Michael Londdale. He also made last year's not-so-successful evocation of youthful revolutionaries, which seemed a failed attempt to do what Philippe Garrel nails in Regular Lovers. Anyway, the family has a new winner with The Atomic Age and we look forward to what Héléna Klotz may do next.

Screened for this review as part of the Unifrance-Film Society of Lincoln Center series Rendez-Vous with French Ciname (Feb. 28-March 10, 2013), L'Age atomique won the 2012 Jean Vigo prize and is a TLA Releasing film. It was released in France November 38, 2012 to favorable reviews (Allociné press rating 3.4 from 14 reviews), particularly from the usual hipster suspects like Les Inrocks, Cahiers, Le Nouvel Observateur.

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