[Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2009 begins today. Screenings are held at both the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the IFC Center.]
If you need to be told that Claire Denis’ latest, 35 Shots of Rum is essential viewing, you might want to skip it. 35 Shots is classic Denis—she’s taking it easier here than she has of late, delivering pure pleasure without The Intruder’s buzzkilling grimness or Friday Night’s near-claustrophobic small scale, but she’s not about to change up her style to completely welcome the unconverted. Expansive and intimate, 35 Shots reminds me of my personal favorite Denis—1996’s severely undervalued Nenette et Boni—with its tonal lightness, emphasis on unhealthily close-knit family units, impressionistic construction in which elisions of seemingly key narrative data free you from the burden of having to follow what’s going on, and a magic-hour Tindersticks score, where the ethereal is instantly accessible without being annoyingly insistent.
I took almost no notes during 35 Shots, because it seemed kind of beside the point: Denis’ pleasures are almost all immediate. In an apartment complex, there’s father Lionel (Denis/Assayas regular Alex Descas), daughter Josephine (Mati Diop), ex-boyfriend Noe (Grégoire Colin), etc. There’s Lionel’s subway co-workers to be reckoned with as well, and various social networks that emerge over the course of the film, all of which seem beside the point. Some people take pleasure in figuring out what Denis is getting at with her characters; I have no interest in that. Denis opens up with many, many shots of virtually no narrative value: subways on their tracks speeding through the night, shots through the drivers’ window, etc. Light and motion abstracted is her version of aesthetic pleasure, and—over a long course of getting acquainted and comfortable with it—it’s now mine too. There’s a moment where the whole family winds up in a restaurant after-hours, eating, drinking and dancing while blue light gauzily floods and surrounds them. This is what I come to Denis films for, the constant minor magic she’s gotten proficient at without making it look too easy. (That, and the way she films naked bodies: without prurience or a misplaced sense of “courage” in capturing flabby skin, just capturing people comfortable with their full heft.) Denis remains, as always, deliberately low-key and stubbornly ineffable.
Unlike Denis, Agnès Varda actually has distribution for The Beaches of Agnès—which doesn’t mean it’s any less of a must-see, if not necessarily right this second. Always comfortable making her personal life quite public, The Beaches of Agnes is Varda’s cinematic memoir of sorts. It starts quite literally, with Varda setting up dozens of mirrors on the beach, creating her own rectangular frames to work out of. “Today I’m playing a little old lady,” she announces, but Varda is no one’s little old lady. In a just world, Varda—not one of Andy’s babies—would be the model for aspiring art-school queens everywhere. Spry and funkily-dressed, Varda nonetheless doesn’t confuse attitude for art. The Beaches of Agnes is a testament of sorts, but it’s also a real work of art that, halfway through, morphs into unexpected cubism. It’s headspinning.
Varda begins with the usual building blocks, artfully done: her own footage and photos (she appears blessed with immaculately preserved prints of her work), voice-over narration, re-enactments, whatever it takes. Things begin getting interesting when Varda’s friends begin showing up to help her out: it would appear that Varda has an even more amazing Rolodex than you’d suspect. Chris Marker (hiding behind his grinning cat), sure, alright, but Harrison Ford? Jim McBride? And—an unlikely coup—Zalman King and his wife, trotted out as an example of enduring, beautiful romance. Yes, that Zalman King.
But to say that Varda is just showing off her connections is disingenuous. Because at a certain point—having spent a lot of time on her early, less well-known years, filling in gaps—Varda begins collapsing the time left to cover, providing less connective tissue. Her increasing reliance on filming her own installations and art-projects (and there’s a lot of them) is a lesson on how to use your own art as a meaningful index rather than just solipsism. Varda’s vision of life is the kind that makes sense to me: as time marches on, the gap between what you once knew and your increasingly retrospective reality becomes both poignant and meaningful. The fact that Varda trusts you to have enough of a sense of her life to follow her as she increasingly doesn’t fill in the gaps is remarkable. Having become the preserver of Jacques Demy’s legacy, she is more than capable of taking care of her own.
There isn’t much of interest about Samuel Collardey’s The Apprentice. It’s enjoyable anyway, provided you have a relish for French movies about rural life; through constant immersion, I’ve come to enjoy them quite a bit. There’s Raymond Depardon’s ongoing Profiles of Farmers series, 1996’s Will It Snow For Christmas? and many others, which just makes me wonder why the French are so good and conscientious about documenting their rural culture while America seems terrified of admitting people still farm. Collardey’s put on a tricksy little spectacle, with real people having real interactions in single seemingly staged takes, but I’m not particularly interested in teasing out exactly what’s going on here method-wise. Collardey’s narrative approach is beyond low-key: I’m all for respecting the audience’s intelligence and leaving things unsaid rather than hammered home, but when part of your climax involves someone saying “remember that photo in the living room?” and we haven’t even seen the fucking photo, that’s taking it a bit far.
The subjects are Mathieu Bulle, a student at an agricultural school, and Paul Barbier, the farmer who manages his apprenticeship. It rains, they herd cattle, pigs are slaughtered. You should know if you’re the target audience for these kind of pleasures; while I am, it’s only a temporary fix until the latest Depardon (playing BAM in April, for the record). It’s shot on 35mm film, but—aside from some lovely shots of Mathieu on his moped, zipping in and out of forest roads where the shadows go off and on, wreaking color-shock havoc—I’m not clear exactly why; it’s used in generally undistinguished fashion. The main pleasure to be gained from The Apprentice (aside from the usual suspects already mentioned) is a vengeful, personal one: after years of being lectured by insufferably smug European students about how mature European teens are, how their drinking laws prevent idiotic high-school partying, and how generally superior and refined their citizens are, it’s simply delightful to learn that French teens can be every bit as pimply, homophobic and prone to post-binge-drinking vomiting as their American counterparts. Thank goodness.
If you’re familiar with the geekier strains of music writing, you’ll have come across the loudness war. Simply, it’s the idea that almost all modern albums are mastered at the same level, to the point where dynamic contrasts fail to exist: it’s just a steady roar. Personally, I don’t have a problem with this—if you’ve ever lived in an apartment building with thin walls, you’ll understand how desirable it is not to have to keep readjusting the volume to avoid pissing off the neighbors—but I can see what they’re talking about. I’m way more annoyed by the cinematic equivalent of this though. There was a time, not so long ago, when Luc Besson was considered the antichrist of French cinema, the one who would take a beautiful, subtle (vastly simplified) tradition of Rohmer and transform it into a subsection of American blockbuster filmmaking. This never happened, but it blinded people to the real danger: Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Jeunet was not always the antichrist; Delicatessen was and remains pleasingly witty and entertaining. (I hear The City Of Lost Children is cool too, and I obviously suck for not having seen it. Yet.) It was Amelie, though, that really ignited my ire, and it’s taken me a while to figure out why. It’s not just because it’s suffocatingly twee, overlong and mistakes creepiness for preciousness; no, it’s the noise. It’s the endless tracking shots, the tweaked colors, the suffocating mise-en-scene that makes latter-day Wes Anderson look like ramshackle Warhol. It speaks to a fundamental mistrust of the audience, the fear that an audience unentertained will somehow rebel, throw chairs at the screen, riot like Slumdog protesters and generally raise hell.
It’s these hypothetical dolts Christophe Barretier sets out to enrapture in opening-night special Paris 36. (It is delightful to report that Barretier was wisely rejected by a public less cynical than he: The Class handily outsold 36 in France.) Paris 36 wants to be Children Of Paradise, complete with the curtains that close it out, but it’s more Moulin Rouge! And it’s very, painfully loud. Sonically, every footstep, clang and whooshing sound is set to deafen; certain venomous consonants go off as loudly as an airstrike. The tracking shots are long, showy and immaculate; it’s like being smothered in plastic. Which is a shame, because somewhere in here, there’s a nice little movie. There, is for example, the splashy introduction of heartbreakingly beautiful Nora Arnezeder in her first major part; she’s stunning. There’s some nice minor players, and—in the rare moments the film relaxes—they give the whole world-of-theater camaraderie a nice, relaxed field.
Unfortunately, Barretier isn’t just setting out to revive a dead kind of entertainment, it wants to be a Serious, Thought-Provoking Entertainment. So in addition to the usual backstage antics, love affairs and jealousies, there’s the subplot of one Jacky (Kad Merad). A nice guy and terrible impersonator, Jacky finds his true métier performing anti-Semitic comedy routines for a French fascist party; of course, he eventually discovers the error of his ways and rejoins the fold. Presumably Barretier feels good about interjecting this “provocative” element; I, meanwhile, wonder why it’s always the least-talented, most easily mocked movie characters who become fascist stooges. Did Celine, Heidegger and Pound labor in vain? True guts would require showing a worthwhile character becoming a fascist, not some minor idiot.
Barretier appears convinced in general that people show up not to see musical numbers and witty interplay, but Very Serious Drama, such as whether or not the pure blonde virgin will have to sleep with the fatcat capitalist. This is probably the most boring thing I could think of having to sit played out very literally and slowly, but Barretier does it. An unwise decision. Sporadically charming, Paris 36 is nonetheless sound and fury, an unworthy heir to the movies it rightly venerates.