Film Festivals

Rendez-vous with French Cinema (2007)

flandersFlanders, 2006. With Flanders, Bruno Dumont returns to the desolate pastoral and emotional landscapes of his earlier features L’Humanité and Life of Jesus, an austere, tonal, and visceral exposition into the integral nature of violence, sexuality, desire, and instinctual survival. A rugged young farmer, Demester (Samuel Boidin) impassively harvests his dessicated, autumnal fields before finding his neighbor – and unrequited object of affection – Barbe (Adélaïde Leroux) waiting for him in the clearing to take a casual walk in the woods and a diversionary afternoon rendezvous. In a subsequent encounter with mutual acquaintances at a local bar, Barbe seemingly trivializes her relationship with the introverted Demester by casually referring to him as a close, childhood friend before impulsively (and all too easily) submitting to the advances of a bar patron, another conscript named Blondel (Henri Cretel). The stark juxtaposition of Barbe’s fickle dismissiveness of her familiar intimacy with her obliging neighbor, and her brief, but intense affair with Blondel exposes the profound gulf that continues to separate Demeter from his beloved who, in his opaque gaze and uncomfortable silence, cannot articulate the depth of his despair over her cavalier treatment of their relationship – supplanting the greyness of their cold, unemotive, and mechanical post-coital embrace with the (alluded) image of unbridled carnality intrinsic in Barbe and Blondel’s desperate, needy, and frenzied coupling. Sent far away from their bucolic hometown to wage war in the trenches of a distant land with his unwitting romantic rival, Demester sublimates his wounded heart and sense of betrayal in their mutual struggle for survival against a brutal and faceless enemy. But as the inhumanity and carnage of a seemingly senseless and interminable military campaign continues to take its toll on the psyches of the young soldiers, Demester finds himself struggling to maintain his sanity by holding on to the fragile memories of his distant, unreciprocated, and increasingly impossible love. In capturing the progression of seasons against an unchanging landscape, Flanders may also be seen as something of a corollary to Twentynine Palms (a connection that is also suggested by Dumont’s comment on his penchant for the interchangeable placement of the final cut that would dramatically alter the tone of the ending, not unlike the polarizing editing strategy of Twentynine Palms), where the alien and often treacherous contours of the human heart are revealed in the abstraction of gestures and the silence of unarticulated despair.

i_doI Do: How to Get Married and Stay Single, 2006. Forty-something perfume developer, confirmed bachelor, and henpecked (and only male) sibling in a decidedly female-centric household of six children, Luis Costa (Alain Chabat) – still nursing a wounded heart from his only serious relationship during his twenties (a personal milestone that he nostalgically, but nebulously remembers as his “The Cure phase”, indelibly marked by his gothic, Robert Smith-styled, oversized fashion sense, his lover’s decision to leave him following an introductory meeting with his disapproving family, and his accidental discovery of his life-long passion when he attempts to recapture her essence by chemically synthesizing her complex scent into a fragrance) – has been officially classified as long overdue for marriage by his well intentioned, but intrusive family (in a motion overwhelmingly passed by the women under the collective resolution brought to the family’s “G7” domestic committee). In an attempt to stave off his sisters’ aggressive attempts at matchmaking – and who, in turn, have taken the cause of finding a suitable wife for their visibly disinclined brother by flooding the internet – Luis enlists the aid of his best friend and business partner, Pierre-Yves’ (Grégoire Oestermann) bohemian sister, Emma (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who, having recently ended a long-term relationship and moved back to France, is eager to prove her financial stability as she settles into a new phase in her life and prepares to petition a Chilean orphan for adoption. Hatching an elaborate scheme to rid the family once and for all of their chronic interference into his romantic life by transforming Emma into the ideal fiancée in order to win the hearts and minds of his sisters and, above all, the family matriarch, Geneviève (Bernadette Lafont), before staging a sudden break-up where he would assume (and eagerly exploit) the role of jilted lover humiliatingly left at the altar, Luis’ bright future of meddle-free bachelorhood seems tantalizingly within reach, until he finds himself on the defensive in the chaotic aftermath (and familial wrath) of the aborted wedding against amorphous accusations of unspecified transgressions that undoubtedly caused such a perfect woman to escape his grasp. Evoking the slapstick comedies of Francis Veber in its tortuous, absurd, over-the-top, rapid fire scenarios, Eric Lartigau creates a whimsical, charming, and infectious, if perhaps, characteristically over-the-top romantic farce in I Do: How to Get Married and Stay Single. Supported by equally solid performances from veteran actors Chabat (who also conceived the idea for the script) as cosseted man-child and hopeless romantic, Gainsbourg as the world-wise, but vulnerable object of affection, and Lafont as the indomitable, yet overindulging mother prone to histrionics, the film is an enjoyable, well crafted, and irresistible tale on the inexorable – and enviable – travails of love, commitment, and family.

pageturnerThe Page Turner, 2006. Favorably evoking Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie in its taut, slow brewing, and unnerving portrait of dysfunctional class relations, Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner is a distilled, understated, and elegantly realized psychological tale of fragility, revenge, and manipulation. At the heart of Dercourt’s dark allegory is a polite, attractive, and meticulous young woman named Mélanie Prouvost (in the astute casting of Déborah François, who played the role of Sonya in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s L’Enfant and embodies the role of Mélanie with the opacity of a Bressonian model in the film), the enigmatic daughter of a provincial butcher (an occupation that also alludes to Chabrol through the film, Le Boucher) who once obsessively practiced to become a professional pianist but, having failed in her entrance audition for a scholarship at prestigious conservatory due to an unforeseen, external distraction, impulsively abandoned the piano and altogether turned away from her musical studies. Now working in a law office as a seasonal intern for a successful attorney, Jean Fouchécourt (Pascal Greggory), Mélanie’s diligence and accommodating nature impresses the genial, if abstracted Fouchécourt and inevitably accepts her offer to watch over his son Tristan (Antoine Martynciow) in order for his wife, Ariane (Catherine Frot), a renowned pianist, to singularly concentrate on her rehearsals with her ensemble for an important radio performance that will mark her return to public appearance after an extended hiatus (stemming from a still unsolved hit and run accident). Gradually, Mélanie’s impeccable musical training enables her to insinuate herself into Ariane’s rehearsals, taking on the seemingly innocuous, but immensely critical role as her sheet music page turner and, consequently, becomes an intimate – and integral – part of her increasingly mercurial performance and eroding psyche. Perhaps the most emblematic aspect of Dercourt’s quietly rendered observation of social invisibility and marginalization resides in the catalytic nature of Mélanie’s imperceptible, yet palpable toll within the Fouchécourt household, a profound influence that is figuratively embodied through Tristan’s goaded, seemingly innocuous accelerated timing of the metronome – a subtle alteration that inevitably exposes the delicate and tenuous dynamic between strength and debilitation, character and mundanity, exaltation and agony.

ambitiousAmbitious, 2006. In an early episode in Catherine Corsini’s dark romantic comedy, a timid, aspiring writer book shop owner named Julien (Eric Caravaca) discreetly, but deliberately, foists his recently finished autofiction manuscript on unsuspecting friend and perennial store patron, Mathieu Séchard (Renan Carteaux), the son of a renowned literary publishing house director in Paris, and immediately becomes wracked with anxiety and insecurity over Mathieu’s seeming evasion and prolonged silence regarding his initial impressions of Julien’s work, mollified only by his friend’s impulsive offer, in passing, to send the manuscript to his father’s office. Julien’s seemingly amicable, yet intrinsically calculated encounter with Mathieu provides an incisive prelude to the film’s overarching themes of exploitation, vanity, and self-absorption, as his reprehensive opportunism is equally matched by the introduction of a mercurial publishing agent named Judith Zahn (Karen Viard) into his life. Delegated with the task of providing feedback on the manuscript’s potential for representation, Judith shirks her obligation to review the personal favor submission and, instead, sends an assistant to meet with Julien to tactfully, but decisively reject his work. But Julien soon proves to be a formidable non-client, ingratiating himself into a frazzled and distraught Judith’s reluctant company. Newly entrusted into her intimacy, Julien discovers the remarkable contents an entrusted box of souvenirs and personal effects that Judith has inherited from her estranged, late father – a 70s revolutionary who had lived a life of intrigue replete with covert acts of political espionage and assassinations – and decides to surreptitiously embark on a more marketable premise for his next novel, a story based on the mined contents of her father’s buried, secret history. Assembling an eccentric cast of morally reprehensible, yet endearing characters – a motley crew that also includes failed thespian, consummate freeloader, and part-time stalker, Julien’s former classmate, Simon (Gilles Cohen) – Corsini strikes a delicate balance between humor and pathos, revulsion and affection to create a slight, yet acerbic dysfunctional fairytale of the idiosyncratic intersections of deception, manipulation, betrayal, and desire that define the inscrutable course of neurotic true love.

singerThe Singer, 2006. Each day, a divorced, middle-aged dance hall chanteur, Alain Moreau (in an elegant performance by Gérard Depardieu), attired in his white satin suit and sporting a provincial, stylishly overgrown haircut with a touch of highlights, sings from his stout repertoire of familiar – yet not too iconic – love songs before an appreciative audience in assorted dance halls, upscale restaurants, and nursing homes throughout Clermont-Ferrand: special places where people with palpable life experiences – too old for the frenetic beat of clubs and discotheques – can come together and, for a brief moment, find connection with each other, their formative histories, their personal memories. It is a humble vocation that suits the endearing and charismatic Alain well with his easygoing, confident manner and refreshingly pragmatic outlook over his role – not as an artist seeking to elevate his performance in search of legacy and stardom – but as an entertainer for hire who must consciously remain attuned to the wishes of his audience to sing competently, yet unobtrusively, the sentimental melodies that will entice them to dance, to linger in the moment, to forget their pain, abandon their inhibitions and take a chance. It is perhaps Alain’s remarkable ability to put the audience at ease and break down resistances that propels real estate businessman, Bruno (Mathieu Amalric) to bring his newly hired real estate agent, an attractive, recently separated woman named Marion (Cécile de France) to the dance hall one evening, a manipulative ploy with seeming unintentional consequences when she catches the attention of the charming crooner. Instinctually drawn to each other by a sense of displaced longing and mutual woundedness, Alain enlists Marion’s aid in finding a new residence under the pretext of finally moving out of the home that he had shared with his manager and former wife Michèle (Christine Citti). But as Michèle strives to reinvent Alain’s flagging career in the face of dwindling bookings, declining health, and the increasing popularity of karaoke, his reinvigorated desire to start his life anew is tempered by the ambivalence of leaving behind the intimacy of his beloved dance halls. Channeling the spirit of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red in its suffusive evocation of longing and synchronicity, Xavier Giannoli’s The Singer is an intelligently rendered, understatedly resonant, and refined portrait of the often bifurcating trajectories of existential and emotional intersections. Concluding with the extended long shot of Alain and Marion in desperate and reluctant embrace from the windows of a café, the silent choreography of souls in restless motion becomes a sublime metaphor for their transformative, star-crossed encounter – fragrant in its fleeting intoxication, heartbreaking in its inevitable conclusion, and indelible in its haunting irresolution.

blame_fidelBlame It On Fidel, 2006. It perhaps comes as no surprise that the astute social observation and political acuity so integral to the wry, infectious, and irresistible whimsical humor of Blame it on Fidel comes from first (non documentary) feature filmmaker Julie Gavras, whose father, Costa Gavras, continues to redefine the bounds of political filmmaking with his distinctive blueprint for crafting articulate and thought-provoking historical docu-fiction. Set in 1970 France, the film opens to the insightful close-up image of cherubic, Catholic school girl, Anna (Nina Kervel) commanding (or rather, demanding) the attention of her dining companions by demonstrating the proper way to peel an orange using only silverware, much to the assorted bemusement – and indifference – of the children in the designated kids’ table of a wedding banquet. But beyond Anna’s projected confidence in demonstrating her impeccable table manners, the auspicious occasion has already begun to sow the seeds of confusion for the young heroine, as her father, a Spanish expatriate and successful trial attorney named Fernando (Stefano Accorsi) covertly scuttles his sister and niece from Spain following the arrest of Anna’s left-leaning uncle for political agitation, moves them in with the family, and invariably becomes galvanized into his own acts social action by his sister’s impassioned stories of struggle and resistance. Their unexpected arrival also causes consternation for the family housekeeper, Filomena (Marie-Noëlle Bordeaux), a Cuban exile whose family was brought to ruin and forced to flee the country after Fidel Castro’s rise to power, and who now sees the introduction of communists into the de la Mesa household as a harbinger for an inevitably great calamity. Meanwhile, Anna’s mother, Marie (Julie Depardieu), increasingly dissatisfied with her career as a journalist relegated to writing women’s issue fluff pieces for Marie Claire, decides to embark on her own independent research for an exposé on the (then) taboo subject of reproductive rights with unexpected – and life-altering – consequences. In her remarkable perceptivity and even-handed approach towards depicting the repercussions of transformative change and ideological awakening from all facets of social life, Gavras emerges from her father’s formidable shadows and into her own luminous spotlight as a conscientious and assured filmmaker, creating a charming and deceptively lighthearted, yet incisive survey of the cultural climate in the immediate aftermath of May 68, when the disappointment of the failed national revolution was seen, not as a death knell signal to the left movement, but as a momentary stumbling towards a still vital – and seemingly within reach – global wave of social revolution, a continued idealistic euphoria that was crystallized by the ground-breaking popular candidacy of socialist Salvador Allende in Chile. Capturing the profound trajectory of young Anna’s own domestic struggle to make sense of her parents’ newly (re-)awakened militancy through the subtle, yet poetic closing image of Anna, no longer in the center of her own dainty, cultivated – if insular – universe, but rather, among the diverse milieu and controlled chaos of multicultural children playing in the schoolyard, the film is a potent, uncompromisingly intelligent, and refreshing portrait of the enervating confusion and sublime exhilaration of social awakening.

Acquarello, 2007 [reprinted]

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