RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2002 Send This Review to a Friend
The good news as evidenced by the 2002 edition of the "Rendez-vous with French Cinema" series at the Walter Reade Theater (March 8-17) is that some diversely excellent films are among France's latest productions, with numerous standouts among those I saw at press previews for the 14-premiere series. Some are relatively classical in approach, others are stylistically very much of the moment. Audiences attending were promised the extra treat of seeing some of the renowned directors and stars who flew the Atlantic to help promote their work.
Comparisons are difficult when looking for favorites among films so different from one another, so I'll just cite first those that made the strongest impression for various reasons. Coline Serreau's CHAOS is a knockout of a film that has much to say about the plight of some women and says it excitingly. The film begins dramatically with a desperate woman being chased and attempting to seek refuge in an automobile in which a man and wife are riding. But Paul, a boorish husband (Vincent Lindon), to the wife's dismay, refuses to open the door and they witness a brutal beating. Helene, the wife (Catherine Frot), has been getting fed up with Paul and this incident makes matters worse. She is haunted by what happened on the street and secretly goes to the hospital in which the woman, still in a coma, is being treated. Helene becomes increasingly involved.
From there "Chaos" grows even more interesting and complex. Malika, the victim (we learn that she's a prostitute), eventually takes center stage and affectingly pours out the story of her life in a sensational performance by Rachida Brakni. She and Helene, played superbly by Frot, combine forces in the face of danger to wreak havoc on Malika's enemies, and in the process Helene takes a leap forward as her own person. Serreau keeps the drama exciting and suspenseful apart from the importance of what it has to say about its women.
SUR MES LEVRES (READ MY LIPS), a film by Jacques Audiard, is probably the best made of the series. The story, which Audiard co-wrote with Tonino Benacquista, is offbeat, with Carla, the heroine, a hearing-impaired woman who lacks self-confidence. Emmanuelle Devos, who plays her, just won a Caesar award in France as best actress over the highly-touted Audrey Taitou, the star of "Amelie." When Vincent Cassel as Paul, a newly-released ex-con, applies for a job at the firm where she works, Carla takes pity on him, and the complications begin. He harnesses her ability to lip-read in a scheme to outwit criminals plotting a robbery,
"Sur mes levres," suspenseful and smartly shot and edited, has all the earmarks of film noir. But whereas Carla is a sympathetic character, Paul is not, and that's complicated by the scruffy, unappealing look of Cassel, who fits in the mold of what the French seem to think is attractive these days. Jean-Paul Belmondo in the classic "Breathless" was a departure from the pretty boy look but he had charisma and sex appeal, not qualities which Cassel projects. The violence is also tough to watch at times. Drawbacks aside, 'Sur mes levres" is certainly a hot new film.
As far as performances go, the great French actress Jeanne Moreau reigns playing celebrated writer Marguerite Duras in CET AMOUR-LA, directed by Josee Dayan. Moreau in one of her finest roles plays Duras in the final phase of her life--ill, dying, angry, frustrated. Moreau runs the gamut of emotions and is fiercely credible as a woman who wants to retain her dignity as her life wanes. She both revels in the adoration expressed for her by much younger lover and devotee, Yann Andrea (Aymeric Demarigny), in whom she finds comfort when she is not kicking him out in order to retreat into loneliness, which at times seems to be the best way to face her impending death.
This is certainly a grand tour de force for Moreau, who gives us an intricate picture of the influential writer as a proud woman who is at times filled with self-doubt but still conscious of her importance. Moreau makes her worldly, yet quietly desperate and bent on preserving her dignity in the face of the humiliation of illness and death. Dayan's screenplay is written in the haunting, poetic style that Duras used in her writing, making the result a fitting blend of character and technique. The film was inspired by Andrea's book of the same title. Think of "Cet amour-la" as somewhat of an intellectual "Harold and Maude."
OFFICER'S WARD is relentlessly poignant as an anti-war film and as a story about regaining a sense of self. In World War I a French soldier's face is gruesomely disfigured and in a hospital where he is recovering he meets survivors with similar casualties. The prospect of living the rest of one's life with ghastly facial wounds that will be off-putting to others presents a formidable challenge. Director Francois Dupeyron's film stresses the bonds that develop between the victims and the hope for surmounting the obstacles emotionally. There are devastating scenes, such as a trip to a bordello where the men must shell out extra cash in order to get women who will overlook their disfigurement.
French filmmakers have been taking a closer look at subjects related to the influx of immigrants. In INCH' ALLAH DIMANCHE director Yamina Benguigui examines what happens when Algerian family members are permitted to join workers already in France. In particular we meet Zouina (Fejria Deliba), who is subjected to the traditional maltreatment of women by their husbands and their mothers-in-law. The film is a moving exploration of the problems she faces and her struggle to gain some measure of dignity and independence. Deliba is memorable in the role, although the upbeat ending is hardly convincing. But the film gives a harrowing impression of family life under such conditions.
Veteran filmmaker Andre Techine has come up with the melodramatic LOIN (FAR AWAY), in which a Moroccan truck driver succumbs to the opportunity to work for smugglers operating between Morocco and Spain. He has a problematical relationship with a young woman, a Moroccan Jew, and he wants to win her back with the help of a youngster named Said, who is desperate to get to Spain. The film is marked by suspense, tension and an authentic atmosphere reflected in scenes at the docks, the trucking milieu and the scheming.
The film with the richest overall texture is Olivier Assayas's LES DESTINEES, based on the novel by Jacques Chardonne. Three hours long, the drama is a tapestry of family and industrial problems involving the manufacture of fine porcelain in Limoges. The saga spans three generations and encompasses World Wars I and II. It is visually splendid with major roles for Emmanuelle Beart, Charles Berling and Isabelle Huppert. The film is both interesting and on the stuffy side. It is difficult to become emotionally involved in the problems of the manufacturing family and others in the events depicted. Yet there is majesty to the beautifully filmed production and its historical sweep, and the scenes involving the porcelain industry are arresting.
There is also visual beauty in THE GIRL FROM PARIS, Christian Carion's film about a woman searching for a new experience in life, which she finds by buying a farm and trying to survive the ordeal of running it. A friendship of sorts develops between the newcomer and the elderly farmer who sells it to her and continues to live there. He would like to see her fail but a grudging admiration ensues. What keeps one's interest is the acting by Mathilde Seigner as Sandrine, the would-be farmer, and the always-impressive Michel Serrault as Adrien, the man of the soil who sells his property to the idealistic newcomer.
TANGUY is the funniest of the films that I caught in the French series, although it is basically a one-joke movie with a question of how inventively director Etienne Chatiliez and co-writer Laurent Chouchan can string out the gag. The film comically reverses the notion of parental love. Sabine Azema, always a delight, plays Edith and Andre Dussollier, also deft at comedy, portrays her husband. They are fed up with their son Tanguy (Eric Berger), who refuses to move out of their home. He's forever upbeat and happy living with his parents, and has no problem with bringing in his succession of women for sex. A China studies expert, he is a self-absorbed pain for intruding on the privacy of his parents dying for time alone. How can they get rid of him? The various ways in which they try provide the humor, some of it very funny indeed. But the situation goes on longer than the premise can support.
BETTY FISHER AND OTHER STORIES is dramatically engaging, with Sandrine Kiberlain playing Betty, who loses her son, and Mathilde Seigner as Carole, a hard-boiled, angry waitress who isn't very devoted to her unwanted motherhood. The appearance of Betty's mentally ill mother (Nicole Garcia) sets the stage for an unusual situation involving the kidnapping of Carole's youngster and Betty faced with a tough decision. The interlocking stories fuel the drama, which isn't always believable but is generally compelling under the direction of Claude Miller.
There is something strange in seeing Jean-Pierre Leaud, who grew up as the star progressing in a succession of Francois Truffaut's films, at this stage of his life, all the more so with him playing a maker of pornographic films. In THE PORNOGRAPHER, directed by Betrand Bonello, Leaud as Jacques is estranged from his son, who has frowned on his father's profession. Now Jacques returns to the business after a hiatus in hope of making an artistic porn flick and he and his son attempt to revive their relationship. The film is a tedious downer, although it doesn't flinch from showing explicit porn scenes as they are being shot. The effort to mix porn and art makes the whole procedure absurd, as is Leaud struggle to play the introspective, brooding has-been.
Making films of operas has long posed a problem. How much do you open up the opera from the way that it works on stage? Director Benoit Jacquot has taken the intrusive route with TOSCA, billed as "after Giacomo Puccini's opera." Entering the opera through shots of an orchestra and the stars in a recording session is a distraction right off the bat because it has no charm, and worse, there are scenes with dialogue undercutting the voice-over singing so that one can concentrate on neither. There are also senseless cuts back to the studio which intrude further. "Tosca" works best when the singing itself commands all of our attention. Angela Gheorghiu is terrific in the title role, Ruggero Raimondi is particularly strong as the evil Baron Scarpia and Roberto Alagna is in excellent voice as Mario Cavaradossi. They need no embellishment.