Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 20, 2006 11:03 am 
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Danis Tanovic's L'Enfer begins with opening titles and a pre-title vignette so glossy, elaborate, and symbol-laden they almost wear you out before the movie’s even started. The Times’s Holden called this the “most artistically high-reaching film” of the March 2006 Lincoln Center French Series and he's absolutely right; but though Tanovic said in the Q&A after the screening that his movies are highly planned and shot in single takes to spare the company, it was impossible to see where the moral intensity was in his boisterous on-stage Slavic version of an “aw shucks” attitude. Might there have been something missing, despite the impressive display of seeming importance and the high production values?

Hell is based on a 55-page treatment by long-time Kieslowski screenwriter/collaborator Piesiewiesz, and is the second part of a projected Heaven-Hell-Purgatory trilogy. But it’s hard to say whether this movie is a Kieslowski homage, an effort at continuation, or simply a glossy but empty knockoff. The question that now comes to mind is, if this is a good imitation of Kieslowski, was Kieslowski himself this artificial and unfelt? Surely at least some of the time he most emphatically was not. Does an artist like the Polish master Kieslowski need a homage? But apart from that, shouldn't a real homage go in more of a new direction, transcending the master's tradition in a new and interesting way?

There’s too much going on here, and there’s something lacking at the core, but there’s also too much good stuff to dismiss. Hell has a look as lush as any Kieslowski film, with filters, handsome and sometimes color-coded interiors, impressive locations – a perfectly grand chateau, a classic sculpted Sorbonne lecture hall, a dark, elegant photographer’s house and his equally “wow”-inspiring studio – and, last but not least, a brace of beautiful French movie actresses: Emmanuelle Béart, Caroline Bouquet, Karin Viard, Marie Gillain. (Tanovic, whose No Man’s Land won him praise and purged his obsession with the war experiences he grew up with in Bosnia, also made Hell as a homage to French filmmaking. Perhaps more specifically to Kieslowski's filmmaking in France.) There’s also Kieslowski’s preoccupation with destiny, chance, and mysterious interconnections between people and events. There’s so much going on here, and there's often the feel of Kieslwoski in superficial but entrancing ways, but still it’s hard to feel for any of the people, even when they’re laying on the emotion with a trowel.

This is perhaps because there’s too much flitting back and forth between characters, without getting close enough to any of them, despite a sense of high melodrama surrounding each of them. Béart, Viard and Marie Gillain represent three sisters who all live in Paris but have lost touch with each other. Sophie (Béart) has two kids and a lean, cool, and unfaithful photographer husband (Jacques Gamblin) whose adultery she humiliates herself by spying on. They subsequently separate, but apart from a couple of dramatic confrontations, we don’t get the details. Cécile (Viard) is sterile but sweet and takes the train to the country each weekend to care for the sisters’ mute, wheel-chaired mother (Carole Bouquet). When she's in Paris, she's occasionally pursued by a young man named Sebastian (Guillaume Canet) who may be in love with her. The younger sister, Anne (Gillain) is more out and about, but she's got a bad problem of her own. A Sorbonne student, she's madly in love with a prof named Frédéric (Jacques Perrin, who is also the judge in Le Petit lieutenant), a man old enough to be her father who, in one of the film’s several surprises, turns out to be the father of Anne’s “only friend.” But the family members know nothing of the relationship and unwittingly urge Anne to “fight” to win their own husband and father. Frédéric loved Anne once at the Acropolis, but now he’s trying to get rid of her because he loves his wife and daughter.

Sébastian has the key to something that may explain all three sisters' neurotic and lonely lives. It may also have something to do with the story of Medea, which Anne recites in a Sorbonne exam room with Cliff Notes simplicity. That's all I can tell you, not because I don't want to spoil things but because that's all I know. If it weren’t for the later scene in which Céline confronts Sébastian we wouldn’t know why we’re watching this movie. We wouldn’t even know these were three sisters. This kind of structure works well enough in a mystery story where there’s a specific mystery set up at the beginning, but here, there are just random events, and a lot of emoting and pretty scenery and portentous imagery. Style overwhelms substance in L'Enfer, even though its substance, in the form of elaborate plotting, is pretty elaborate too.

When it’s all over and the mute mother writes her unintentionally comic final mot echoing Edith Piaf, “Je ne regretted rien” (I regret nothing), things really still aren’t fully explained, but we, and Tanovic, have run out of energy. The fact that Tanovic can mount a production like this suggests that, if he finds something to say, he will have impressive means to say it. Meanwhile, these actors and images were too much fun to watch to dismiss the movie, but the emptiness at the center precludes giving it the superlative rating it aspires to.

(Shown during the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 2006, L'Enfer opened to very poor reviews but some spectator enthusiasm in Paris November 30, 2005.)

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