March 8, 2007

Rendez-Vous. 8.

James Van Maanen on a unique documentary and two more entries in the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series running through Sunday.

Humbert Balsan If you've seen many French films over the past quarter century, the name Humbert Balsan may ring a bell. Not a resounding one, as the gentleman was but a producer, and, as we American cinephiles have learned over time, the producer is a "suit" to be tolerated - and barely, at that. Between the years of 1979 and 2007 (a posthumous credit for Béla Tarr's upcoming The Man from London), Balsan produced or co-produced some 68 films of surprisingly disparate variety (and quality) - from Lumière et Compagnie and the award-winning Will It Snow for Christmas? to the Merchant-Ivory productions Quartet and Jefferson in Paris, Chahine's great Destiny, Francis Girou's fun travesty Mauvais genres, Claire Denis's The Intruder, Elia Suleiman's Divine Intervention, Robert Salis's Grand École, Lars von Trier's Manderlay and Brigitte Roüan's Housewarming. That Balsan died an untimely death in 2005, I recall noticing. Money troubles were paramount at the time - not an unusual thing in the world of the motion picture producer. But the story told in Anne Andreu's wonderful documentary Humbert Balsan: Rebel Producer is so much richer, elusive and interesting than I might have imagined that it immediately becomes another of those Rendez-Vous films we're so fortunate to see because it most probably will not be seen elsewhere in America.

Balsan, from a wealthy bourgeois family, the father of which spent three years in a WWII concentration camp, was always a secretive man, as Andreu makes clear. That she does nothing to violate this secrecy is very much to her credit (you may form your own ideas from what is shown here and from the themes and interests of Balsan's films). Interviewing family, filmmakers and friends, Andreu creates the picture of a passionate, dedicated, flawed fellow whose like, as certain film people make clear here, will probably not be seen again - although one person does dare to hope that some of his better qualities might pass on to certain other of today's producers. If only. Balsan helped bring to the screen films that bridge the gap between east and west, haves and have-nots, hetero- and homosexuality and much more. What a man! And what a sad but ever so enriching experience this documentary is.

On the same program as the documentary is Sandrine Veysset's Once Upon a Tomorrow (or, Countdown), a 78-minute feature with the great Michael Lonsdale, Dominique Reymond (from Will It Snow) and two fine young actors, Alphonse Emery and Lucie Régnier. Balsan's penultimate production, this strange, slight tale of childhood longing and adult regret probably meant something special to Balsan. Beautifully filmed amidst some gorgeous location, exterior and interior, the film kicks into high gear once Lonsdale appears halfway through.

Les Ambitieux Based on the three films of hers I've so far seen (La Nouvelle Eve, La Repetition, and now, Les Ambitieux, which saw its American debut at Rendez-Vous), Catherine Corsini is an intellectually and emotionally attentive and provocative filmmaker. (Her most provoking movie is definitely La Repetition.) In her latest, she reunites with her Eve star, Karin Viard, coupling her with another interesting actor, Eric Caravaca (Son Frère, She's One of Us, Hanging Offense), to create a movie that begins as a light comedy about ambition in the French publishing world, then morphs into what can only be called a love story. And a good one. I think you'll be surprised not so much by the twists and turns of the plot (which adheres somewhat to comedy convention) as by the performances, which are more subtle and thoughtful than many in this genre.

The film is also about family lost and gained, and this adds measurably to the depths of emotion provoked at odd moments. Viard and Caravaca form an unlikely but winning team and the rush of feeling at film's end may come as a surprise, given what we expected toward the beginning and are left with by the finale. At the Q&A following the screen, comparisons were made between Viard and Diane Keaton, though the former strikes me as equally talented but less mannered than the latter. We shall see if she maintains as lengthy and interesting a career. Meanwhile, see this movie if the opportunity arises. Currently, it has not been picked up for US distribution, but we can hope.

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Posted by dwhudson at March 8, 2007 8:17 AM


James, your excellent and warm review of the Balsan doc. made me go back to find his obit I wrote two years ago. I'm sure it would have benefited greatly from seeing the doc, though that would have been an impossibility. I shall now look out for it in France.,,1423309,00.html

Posted by: ronald bergan at March 11, 2007 7:39 AM

Thanks for including the link to your Balsan obit. Reading it made me feel the loss all over again, while also making me aware of little things (like Balsan's Jesuit training) which I think were included in the documentary but did not make a firm impression me. Reading about these in your piece brought them home more clearly. It is enormously sad for the industry to lose someone who loved movies and understood their value so keenly--and then gave us so much to show for that love. And the suicide just makes it sadder--leaving friends, family and everyone who knew or cared about him with that awful sense of "If only...."
--Jim V.

Posted by: James van Maanen at March 12, 2007 3:53 PM