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Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2008

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Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2008

These last four years, I’ve never seen a better film in the “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” series than actress Mia Hansen-Løve’s directorial debut All Is Forgiven (although that says as much about the hazards of programming an annual series of films not high-profile enough to get into NYFF or Tribeca as anything).

Hansen-Løve’s approach is aligned in many ways with the self-consciously dowdy minimalism practiced by Valeska Grisebach’s Longing and Barbara Albert’s Falling—two recent movies of Teutonic origin (Germany and Austria respectively) that put ordinary people through romantic torture. Elliptical story-telling is favored over the concrete; big romantic and personal ruptures emerge from quotidian dissatisfaction and banal affairs rather than the classical “inciting incident”; airbrushed physical perfection is shunned in favor of “realistic-looking” people; ostentatious mise-en-scene is outsourced for static frames just wide enough to contain all the necessary information and, at special heightened moments, handheld camera; conspicuous elegance is forbidden, and the only sense of release comes during a party dance sequence. I’d hesitate to call this a new arthouse/festival trend per se, but there’s something going on: these films are poised uneasily between Bresson/Tarr-esque rigor and middlebrow sloppiness.

I found Longing and Falling unsatisfying; the former is almost consciously opposed to any pleasure, its actors as ugly as its visual scheme. Falling can’t work out if it’s a lecture on political activism or a personal drama and how to integrate the two. No such problems here. All Is Forgiven starts in Vienna, 1995: a large, window-lit house where Victor (Paul Blain) plays with daughter Pamela (Victoire Rousseau). Victor is ostensibly a family man, yet tensions seem latent with partner Annette (Marie-Christine Friedrich). They go to her family’s to celebrate Pamela’s birthday, and Victor seems on the verge of making out with her sister, eye contact discreetly behind her back. That false lead unconsummated, Victor and Annette move back to Paris. 20 minutes have gone by before we learn that—in addition to writing poetry and looking after his daughter—Victor likes to do coke recreationally. Every day.

All Is Forgiven is so resolutely modest that it took me a while to realize what I was seeing was closer to Yi Yi than another purposefully small-scale festival movie. The style may be hermetic, but all the better to keep the plot away from the melodrama it would’ve turned into in lesser hands. There’s heroin addiction here, destroyed marriages, abandoned children and all kinds of casual emotional damage—but it never feels like one damn thing after another, just a truthful look into the lives of adults fighting problems they should’ve resolved well before marriage and their potential march to serenity. (Imagine the kids from Regular Lovers still pulling the same shit 15 years down the line.) Indeed, what happens is so devastating I began to hope the title was a promise. It is, of sorts, but All Is Forgiven hedges its bets on its conclusion, afraid of committing too grand a gesture. It’s a small movie stylistically, but there’s a whole life in here, literally. Always truthful if rarely comforting, it’s the closest thing to a filmed psychological novel I’ve seen in a long time: when Paul eloquently pins down Annette’s attraction to him as her seeming impression that “my inertia somehow made her stronger,” it’s one of many moments of seemingly effortless insight and honesty.

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Another must-see is arguably Fear(s) of the Dark, though I’m really just talking about one segment of this animated horror anthology. That would be the last one, a Richard McGuire short that’s a wordless variation on the old trapped-in-a-haunted-house-you-can-never-leave scenario: everyone’s trotting out the same praise, and it’s all true, because this really is the most stunning, near-abstract exercise in black-and-white contrasts in eons. (It also has the best, longest foley sequence of someone fighting their way out from a completely black screen into a crack of light since Uma Thurman fought her way out of the coffin Bill left her in.) Just see it: like the best segments here, McGuire manages not just to set a graphic novel in motion (yes, you Persepolis) but use every trick at his disposal to stun the eye.

Also present, in descending order of entertainment value: Marie Caillou’s samurai ghost story, which has a sinister doctor who keeps forcing a girl to go back to sleep every time she wakes up so she can “complete” her dream. It’s awesome, and curious for anyone who wonders what Frenchi-fied anime might look like. Charles Burns kicks things off with a misogynistic E.C. Comics tribute full of sub-Cronenberg orifice imagery that still managed to creep me out. Lorenzo Mattotti offers up a classicist “I remember one weird summer” story that’s satisfyingly predictable and appropriately melancholy. Blutch provides one of two segments that bridge the various segments, a stupidly satisfying bit about a cadaverous 18th-century marquis walking super-vicious dogs, one of which kills someone on sight every time. It’s perversely funny and not remotely scary, even if the punch-line is obvious, and the decision to break up the shorts is a wise one; this is an anthology of free-floating terror, and the comic relief is a big help.

The only real bummer is the other linking segment, Pierre di Sciullo’s neato geometric experiments backed by an incredibly whiny Nicole Garcia monologue playing mostly to the Michael Moore cheap seats: “I’m scared of having to explain the superiority of Western culture to an Afghan villager watching TV with me.” Nice try lady, but not nearly as terrifying as headless samurai chasing little girls. Only the last segment is an unadulterated knockout, but—especially at a zippy 78 minutes—Fears(s) is consistently rich visually and ever-creepy. And it kicks Persoplis’ ass.

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I’d never seen a film by Claude Lelouch before Roman de Gare—odd, because the man’s directed 41 one of them, including 1966’s famed A Man And A Woman. Lelouch was French cinema’s whipping boy before Luc Besson—too frothy and substanceless, presumably—and he’s well aware of it. Roman’s press kit comes with a long, remarkably defensive interview where Lelouch lays out the terrain: “The title ’roman de gare’ refers to popular literature, which is not derogatory,” he explains, sounding like Stephen King. “What works commercially is not necessarily bad.” The film came together under a pseudonym—Lelouch became “Hervé Picard,” a young director making his first film. “I wanted to send a message to those who dismiss my work,” the auteur continues. “I wanted one of my movies to be seen for what it really was and not as a Claude Lelouch film.”

So what’s a Claude Lelouch film anyway? Visually light and skillful, Roman de gare is lifestyle porn both high and low, offering up Bordeaux wine orchards and poor mountain farms with equal aplomb. It’s also a glossy circle around territory covered recently in Adaptation and Stranger Than Fiction, without the rigor of the latter or the whimsy of the former. The very first shot is a reference—a sign for Quai des Orfèvres, where author Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant) is undergoing interrogation for murder. Flash-back and we’re in that classical staple of the middlebrow French film, the TV show devoted to literature, Ralitzer comfortably enshrined among France’s novelistic elite. Or is she?

A radio announces that a pedophile rapist has broken loose from prison, and Lelouch layers an extremely slow dissolve—a first-person POV shot of hands and feet climbing down a rope over a car driving fast and reckless, the camera poised on the dashboard. It’s an elegant way to speed things up quickly, and much of Roman de Gare excels in this kind of stuff—Lelouch does long shots of motion nicely, even if he’s no Béla Tarr. The murderer’s face is never shown, but girl beware—if your fiance ditches you in a gas station, perhaps it’s not better to take the first ride a strange-looking man offers you. Especially if said girl—Huguette (Audrey Dana)—is a self-proclaimed “airhead,” and the man (Dominique Pinon) is a shifty-looking creep. But Lelouch gives his fugitive the MO of enticing kids with magic tricks, and that’s how much of the movie functions—sleight-of-hand, misdirection, harmless contrivances to keep the plot moving. By the time Huguette and the man—masquerading, for complicated reasons, as her fiance—arrive at her parents’ house and Lelouch places a chopped-off pig’s head dead-center of the frame, you know there’s no serious reason to get tense: any move that hambone couldn’t possibly be earnest.

Unremarkable but smooth, Roman is a trip back to the good old middlebrow days, when would-be film snobs went off to the art-house to gawk at expensive clothing, pretty countrysides, chain-smoking and fresh country food—the “French film,” presumably always reducible to the same elements. Roman gives people the unchallenging fare they want, and it does so cheerfully; it’s a pleasant enough film, remarkable more for Lelouch’s persistence than anything. Not being interested in solely mortifying my aesthetic flesh, I was hardly immune to the genial, glossy takes on both luxury—yachting to Cannes!—and peasant life (the aforementioned pig’s head). The ending’s a mess, and Lelouch’s view on the interaction between art and life is beyond banal; still, if I’m not fully prepared to lobby for a Lelouch retro and re-canonization, I won’t go out of my way to avoid his work, should it ever be revived. He has a light enough touch (and a casual eye for a good widescreen shot) to quite possibly pull off a minor coup with the right script.

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Anne Le Ny’s Those Who Remain is a curious romantic dramedy mainly interesting for its casting and ending. Another actress’ directorial debut, it’s glossy and brightly lit enough to be upgraded for American audiences with little effort; even though it takes place largely in a hospital, it’s colorful enough to be a McDonald’s commercial. The unlikely couple are grumpy German professor Bertrand Liévain (Vincent Lindon) and kooky magical pixie Lorraine Grégeois (Emmanuelle Devos): she’ll be the underaged Portman to Zach Braff. But Le Ny generally just avoids the precious: at their first meeting, Lorraine’s too flustered to realize that mascara is smeared all over her face, but she’s just dealing with her boyfriend’s rectal cancer diagnosis and calms down thereafter. In other words, quirk is not her usual mode, although it takes Bertrand a while to figure that out. Devos has done grand eccentricity as well as anyone for Arnaud Desplechin with virtuoso turns in My Sex Life and Kings And Queen; it’s surprisingly refreshing to watch her tackle a standard part and just relax.

Those Who Remain putters along agreeably enough, making the best of the potentially grim story of two people who become involved while their significant others are terminally ill. Devos and Lindon save the screenplay from itself, but despite many agreeable moments I was convinced I was basically watching a higher-toned Richard Curtis movie where a happy ending would be along any moment now, earned or not. The ending is both organic and shockingly abrupt, and, were I a proper English major, I would’ve immediately started wondering if that means Those Who Remain is deliberately subverting genre convention or if I was just imposing my low expectations on a movie that really has nothing to do with contemporary rom-coms. Either way, though, it’s a solid but unexceptional film—a fuzzy, slow romance that turns into the damn-near-suicidal at the end.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.