Time of the Wolf, 2003 (Michael Haneke). Set in the indeterminate milieu of an idyllically pastoral, rural province, a family from “the city” arrives at their summer home for a seeming holiday getaway to find a hostile, armed squatter and his family in the premises. Following an unprovoked act of senseless violence, Anna (Isabelle Huppert) and her children, Eva (Anaïs Demoustier) and Ben (Lucas Biscombe) are robbed of home, transportation (except for a bicycle), and provisions and cast out to roam the countryside in search of assistance. Eventually making their way into a loose, cooperative alliance of displaced, multicultural families living under the protection of a pragmatic, armed leader named Koslowski (Olivier Gourmet) at a disused way station, the family soon find themselves struggling with day to day survival, desperately pinning their ever-dimming hopes on a nebulous plan to compel a freight train to make an unscheduled stop for boarding so that they may be transported away from their oppressively inhuman nightmare. Recalling the distilled austerity, psychological desolation, and unconscionable violence of the filmmaker’s early Austrian films, Benny’s Video (which, uncoincidentally, is the enigmatic son’s name) and The Seventh Continent (although lacking the essential concentration of these films), Michael Haneke’s allegorical, post-apocalyptic anthropological dissection of catastrophe, alienation, dehumanization, and primalism is compelling, profoundly unnerving, and unrelentingly provocative. The film’s recurring elemental motif of fire – like the tribe’s literal and figurative existential way station – serves as an ambivalent symbol of destruction, instinctual self-survival, and ultimately, a tenuous glimmer of hope and humanity.
Twentynine Palms, 2003 (Bruno Dumont). In the opening remarks for the film, Bruno Dumont described Twentynine Palms as experimental film in articulating sensation without narrative through abstract, dissociated forms, teasingly remarking that “a Manet without figures is a Rothko”. An American photographer named David (David Wissak) and his French-speaking, Eastern European lover Katia (Yekaterina Golubeva) set off from Los Angeles in their Hummer, ostensibly to scout locations in the Twentynine Palms area of the California desert. Restless, increasingly bored with the endlessly barren sights, and unable to have substantive conversations due to language limitations, the two alternately bide their time driving, eating, swimming, and engaging in primal, uninhibited couplings, creating their own romantic (or at least sexual) odyssey in the vast desolation until a terrible act destroys their seemingly primitive existential paradise. In his earlier film (and arguably, his best to date), L’Humanité, the alienated and terrifying opening image is that of a violated body splayed against the eerily tranquil landscape; a similar shot exists in in the film but without the catalytic mystery (in a scene that is uncomfortably played for humor) nor the depth of torment and personal agony that results from the discovery. Had Dumont cut the final ten minutes of the film (i.e. the aftermath), the resulting indelible parting image would have been equally eviscerating and difficult, but nevertheless, a haunting and effective (albeit tragic) statement on the inviolability of love. In his self-described desire to erase the characters completely – compelling them to dissolve permanently into the landscape – in order to create a more abstract, filmic installation that conveys the essential experience of terror and violence, what seems left is an infinitely more troubling artistic expression: the shell of a Dumont film without the humanism or process of compassionate revelation …without a soul.
Les Sentiments, 2003 (Noémie Lvovsky). Les Sentiments is a richly textured, humorous, deceptively lyrical, emotionally lucid, and intelligently crafted exposition on the dynamics of love, marriage, fidelity, and attraction. The film chronicles the genial and affectionate interaction between a happily settled, middle-aged couple, Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and Carol (Nathalie Baye), and their young, overly amorous tenants, a newly married couple named François (Melvil Poupaud) and Edith (Isabelle Carré) – who have moved into the country so that the young man can assume Jacques’ medical practice after his retirement – as their relationships evolve from polite cordiality to friendship, and inevitably, to dangerous, impulsive temptation. Idiosyncratically (and cleverly) integrating a Greek chorus that alternately comments, presages, and contextualizes ellipses in the narrative, Noémie Lvovsky further demonstrates remarkable agility in creating subtle, but profound tonal shifts that propel the engaging and quietly, but astutely realized human observation to increasingly complex, difficult, and ambivalent emotional terrain that, ultimately (and deservedly), takes on the sublime (and equally compelling), emotional weight of a modern-day Greek tragedy.
Grand école, 2004 (Robert Solis). Adapted from a play by Jean-Marie Besset, Grande école auspiciously opens to a lavish party and fireworks display in commemoration of Bastille Day, an overt metaphor for the young men and women in the film who have completed their baccalaureate degrees and are about to shed their insular home lives for shared student dormitories and a rigorous academic curriculum in order to prepare them for their future roles as corporate and world leaders. Although recalling the social, sexual, cultural, and even political power struggles of R. W. Fassbinder’s cinema (along with his uninhibited treatment of human sexuality), Robert Solis (whose work is primarily documentary) lacks the iconic German filmmaker’s ability to sustain dynamic tension and create essentially flawed, but nevertheless endearingly human characters. Instead, what results is a tenuous amalgam of superficial insights into elitism and class stratification, sexual politics, psychological manipulation, and race relations that attempts to correlate (with limited success) the students’ real-life lessons within the privileged walls of the great institution with the inherently complex, isolating, and heartbreaking machinations of their self-inflicted and resolutely mapped out destinies.
Chouchou, 2003 (Merzak Allouache). A patently offbeat and whimsical confection, Chouchou recalls the more predictably outré, light comedies of Francis Veber (particularly, La Cage aux Folles), as a displaced foreigner named Choukri (Gad Elmaleh), nicknamed Chouchou by his late mother, claiming to be a Chilean political exile (albeit anachronistically after the fall of Augusto Pinochet), finds refuge in a church run by a compassionate elder priest, Père Léon (Claude Brasseur) and a zealous, chocolate-addicted junior priest (and ex-junkie) named Frère Jean (Roschdy Zem) who sees nightly visions of the Madonna. Rebuilding his life in a supportive community of the rectory, Chouchou obtains a job with a genial and tolerant psychoanalyst (Catherine Frot) who encourages him to re-assert his true identity as a drag queen and consequently, initiates the eccentric, but lovable young man’s process of liberation, independence, and self-(re)discovery in Paris.
Pas sur la bouche (Not on the Lips), 2003 (Alain Resnais). Resnais continues in the direction of his affectionate re-adaptation of early twentieth century French burlesque comedies (most notably, Mélo) in Not on the Lips, a faithful (which unfortunately, includes all the stereotypical and derogatory gibes at Americans), accessibly entertaining, technically accomplished, but hollow musical adaptation of the 1925 operetta by André Barde and Maurice Yvain. The film follows the romantic entanglements of a privileged married woman, Gilberte Valandray (Sabine Azéma), and her eclectic circle of friends – her devoted sister Arlette (Isabelle Nanty), an unmarried, perennial guest named Faradel (Daniel Prévost), a young, post-cubist/post-dadaist artist (a tongue in cheek integrated movement called coocooism) named Charley (Jalil Lespert), and a lovestruck ingénue named Huguette (Audrey Tautou). Having concealed the trivial detail of a prior marriage to an American named Eric Thompson (Lambert Wilson) (whose brief union was apparently undone by his reluctance to kiss on the lips) from her husband Georges (Pierre Arditi), Gilberte is compelled to walk a delicate (and amusing) situational tightrope when Thompson becomes her husband’s international business partner. Although retaining the musicality and intrinsically operatic nature of Resnais cinema (as well as the baroque, hermetic, and rigid formalism of his early, seminal films Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel), the structural and narrative nouvelle roman experimentation of his early cinema has been replaced by a seeming penchant to regress to the dated modernism of jazz-aged popular theater, creating an ebullient and accomplished, but slight composition.
Acquarello, 2004 [reprinted]