Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 13, 2004 4:02 pm 
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Provincial oppression in the French "Nord prolo," ca. 1930

The acting discovery of my personal mini-film festival in Paris this September was Clovis Cornillac, who was playing both the bumptious, droll ego-maniac football star in Mensonges et trahisons and the jealous adulterer and oversexed factory worker in Frédéric Fonteyne's adapted Thirties melodrama La femme de Gilles in the same week. He'll be seen next in the US in A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles) with Audrey Tautou, directed by Amélie's Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and apparently he was working on all three films at the same time: he's as energetic as he is talented. Le Monde's weekly events supplement, Aden, commented at the time of Gilles' opening: "one doesn't cease to find [Cornillac] formidable from film to film. In the same week one can see him at the opposite pole to this restrained role. In Mensonges et trahisons he's a football star. Macho and limited, funny and exasperating, he's always just right… imagine what would happen if they gave him really great roles?"

Indeed. This means Fréderic's Gilles isn't a "great role" for Cornillac any more than the funny footballer in Tirard's Lies and Betrayals. Much of La femme de Gilles focuses on Emmanuelle Delos as Elisa, the sad-eyed wife of the title, and the film is practically without dialogue. In climactic moments when husband and wife explode with anger it's in almost-wordless vignettes. But in any mode, Cornillac's titanic energy bursts onto the screen -- even when he just stares into the camera, as he does here.

This is a somber, claustrophobic film set in the French provincial North of the poor without land, the "Nord prolo." The staging is minimal and repetitious. Gilles is always sitting down to a meal, which his wife humbly serves but does not share. All day she absorbs herself in wifely chores, taking care of her two little children and scrubbing the floor even in the last stages of pregnancy. Much is made of faces and Delos' is almost too expressive, varying from complaisant and happy to depressed and long-suffering. The point is forcefully made: Elisa is a simple, slavish housewife who lives for her husband. Her younger sister, Victorine (Laura Smet), who's lively and single and works in a shop, comes by often to help out a bit and keep Elisa company. Eventually the doubt arises in Elisa: is she still pleasing to Gilles? Could there be something between him and her sister?

We have our own doubt: is this extreme picture true to the period? Women in provincial working class families, sure enough, were less liberated before the war. But it's hard for us talky-trained movie viewers to know if there's a real character in Elisa. The Belgian Fonteyne has an odd, personal take on sexual relations: his previous film was his 1999 An Affair of Love (Une liaison pornografique,) with Nathalie Baye and the terrifying Sergi Lopez, which dealt bluntly with sex but was almost too talky. The same writer, Philippe Blasband, collaborated with Fonteyne on both films.

Curiously, Cornillac's Gilles is almost a victim. He can talk directly to Elisa about his jealousy toward Victorine (whose freedom he envies), because he seems as powerless over his adulterous passion as the priest is to help his wife. She represses her resentment and chooses to "wait" for the affair to "pass," which seems a good idea in theory given the limitations of the milieu, but takes an impossible psychological toll on these brutish, trapped, rather D.H. Laurence people. (But they're D.H. Laurence without the joy.) Is the film unconsciously condescending toward them?

La femme de Gilles is off into its period. A town crowd scene of bustling streets is wonderfully authentic and atmospheric. But this is a somewhat conventional accomplishment. Is anything new being said? Fonteyne's approach to sex isn't as graphic as Bruno Dumont's but almost as crude. These are people who don't read or have a radio. They're shut up in this little house. Only once briefly do we see where Gilles works. Where do they get their ideas? Do they have any? There are all these doubts. If the movie's worth seeing it's for the performances of Devos and Cornillac and to savor the concept of almost wordless scenes in talking pictures. From a 1937 novel by Madeleine Bourdouxhe that I have not read.

Screened for this review in Paris, September 2004.

©Chris Knipp 2004

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