February 28, 2008

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 08.

Roman de gare Roman de gare opens this year's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. All in all, 15 films will be screening at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center in New York through March 9, and James Van Maanen previews every one of them here and now. A few notes follow.

Serial killers and grocery delivery men, missing fathers and autistic children, the Holocaust and speed dating, the new Lelouch, the new Klapisch and someone - Emmanuel Mouret - who reminds me at least of a possible new Marivaux: They're all here, along with so much more (including a first-time program devoted to animation), in the Film Society of Lincoln Center/uniFrance's 13th annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Sponsored by Société Générale Private Banking and TV5 Monde (with additional support provided by agnès b, LVT Laser Subtitling, Sofitel and the French Cultural Services), Rendez-Vous remains the place to be for foreign film buffs and Francophiles from this Friday, February 29, through Sunday, March 9.

Each new year appears to increase the status of the series, in which many of the screenings quickly sell out. Ticket prices are now the most expensive on the FSLC chart: $12 per ticket for the general pubic and $8 for seniors and FSLC members. (One interesting guideline to the popularity of Rendez-Vous is that its 10 am press screenings are often more heavily attended than many of the public screenings for other programs!) This year's roster includes 15 films, all of which I managed to see prior to opening day - so here's a heads-up on what to expect and what, if you're lucky enough to cadge a ticket, you should try to see.

If there is no masterwork in this 13th edition (as there was in the recent Spanish fest: Jaime Rosales's Solitary Fragments, a work of art that just this month won Spain's Goya award for Best Film and Best Director), this year there are so many really good movies that choosing among them will be as difficult indeed. Ten of the films, for my taste, reach the Don't-Miss level: Ain't Scared, The Grocer's Son, Heartbeat Detector, Her Name Is Sabine, Love Songs, Paris, Roman de Gare, A Secret, Shall We Kiss? and Those Who Remain. Another three are well worth seeing: Fear(s) of the Dark, The Feelings Factory and Let's Dance. While I'm happy to have viewed the first film by actress Mia Hansen-Løve, All Is Forgiven, the quality of its screenplay and conception did not seem up to the level of the others. And one film (which I often find to be the case at Rendez-Vous) seems so out of place as to approach the ridiculous. This year it's Trivial (talk about your don't-go-there titles!), in which Sophie Marceau appears, to little effect, both in front of and behind the camera.

Selecting the Rendez-Vous roster must be a tricky task for program director Richard Peña, who always manages to include a splendid and bracing range of ideas and themes, directors and actors. This year is no exception, and while there may be less of an emphasis on the workplace or immigration, you'll find everything from the kind of frisky/frothy yet morally grounded romantic comedy at which no one beats the French (Shall We Kiss?) and a singular view, narrative-style, of corporations and the Holocaust (Heartbeat Detector) to a funny, life-affirming look at a group of French seniors (Let's Dance).

If you cannot obtain tickets to four five of this year's films - Roman de gare, Heartbeat Detector, Her Name Is Sabine, Love Songs and The Grocer's Son - take heart. All will be receiving a theatrical release (which undoubtedly means a later one on DVD as well) in the next couple of months. And now, in alphabetical order... the films!

Ain't Scared

Ain't Scared "Private life" cannot exist in the projects outside Paris, and this, as much as anything, condemns the residents to their hellish fate. Or so it seems in Audrey Estrougo's unsettling and powerful debut film Ain't Scared (Regarde-moi), in which everyone knows everyone else's business. When peer pressure is all and no one is able to rise above mass mediocrity (or worse), doom is likely sealed. While the breaking of the color barrier in same-sex friendship and opposite-sex amour seems healthy and a big step forward, eventually this, too, goes down to defeat.

We spend only a brief time in these Parisian suburbs that have been much in the news over the past few years. While the movie jumps ahead a few months for its finale, the events that unfurl seem to take place within a single day. In that 24 hours or so, we get to know this group of teenagers, and to a lesser extent their siblings and parents - emotionally more than intellectually. It seems that emotions count for everything here, and while I am all for an "open" emotional life, the movie becomes more frightening as it moves along because Estrougo makes the viewer aware that emotions are nearly all these kids possess. Clearly, this is no kind of foundation upon which to build a life.

Initially the writer/director seems to be giving us a plain, in-your-face, documentary-style narrative. Slowly, it becomes clear that she has a much more complicated plan: Lines of dialogue and events are repeated and seen from different perspectives so that what occurred before and after an event becomes more apparent. This enriches our comprehension so that, little by little, we better understand this emotional life and identity of many of the characters. Moments and objects from these lives - two boys dancing, t-shirts, and especially a blond wig - become almost iconic in Estrougo's hands. Her style is never showy, however: no Tarrantino-esque editing and clever-than-thou repartee. In fact, much of the kids' dialogue is cliché-ridden. But so strong is the director's sense of where and how to place her camera, and so fine are the performances of the ensemble, that we are soon wrapped in these characters, for better, or mostly, for worse.

Ain't Scared

As good as was the César winner of a few years back, L'Esquive, I think Ain't Scared is the stronger movie. Its reach and range may be less, but it places you inside the emotional lives of its characters as few other films have done. Estrougo gives sexual role playing - among the boys and the girls - the weight and the negativity it deserves; seldom has it seemed more overbearing and destructive. What else is there for these kids, the movie seems to ask? In the final scene, there is a moment of unexpected solidarity that is as creepy as it is profound. This movie will stay with you. Ain't Scared will be shown at Rendez-Vous's Walter Reade Theater venue on Sunday, March 2, at 3:30 and Wednesday, March 5, at 1:30; at the IFC Center venue, it will be shown on Tuesday, March 4, at 9:30 pm.

[Ain't Scared screened at the Berlinale and Daniel Kasman reviewed it for the Auteurs' Notebook.]

All Is Forgiven

All Is Forgiven One of the goals of the series is to bring to the attention of film buffs the work of new French directors - such as the first full-length feature written and directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, All Is Forgiven (Tout est pardonné). In it, we meet a French-German family that, around midway point in the movie, is fractured by separation and divorce. During the remainder, father and daughter are reunited.

Ms Hansen-Løve is also an actress who has appeared in Olivier Assayas's Les Destinées and Late August, Early September, and I believe she may have retained some of Assayas's sometimes flat, un-italicized technique. She certainly loves the countryside, offering us some exquisite visuals of it, and she has assembled a very photogenic cast, among whom the stand-outs are Constance Rousseau (quite a find!), Marie-Christine Friedrich and Paul Blain (handsome son of the handsome late actor Gerard Blain). What Hansen-Løve has not done is construct her movie with any more than a rudimentary sense of pacing and storytelling. It moves along with a consistent clunk, clunk, clunk.

All Is Forgiven

There is a sudden surprise along the way but little explanation of why this event has occurred, which perhaps does not matter much in the overall scheme of things. But the details that a writer/director chooses to include, as well as leave out, are important, I think, and considering that this film lasts only 98 minutes, Hansen-Løve might have given us a good deal more than the somewhat obvious clichés - family gatherings, partings, returns, etc. Nothing seems false, mind you, but neither does it seem particularly trenchant or specific. And most of the dialogue is flat. Again, this is believable, in its way, but less interesting and character-precise than it might have been. (The Rendez-Vous program lists the movie as running 105 minutes; perhaps the seven minutes that may be missing from the version I watched made all the difference.)

I will be interested to see what Hansen-Løve does next, however, and do not regret seeing her movie, which was a co-winner of the 2007 Prix Louis Delluc for Best First Film and has been nominated in the same category for this year's César. All Is Forgiven will screen at Rendez-Vous's IFC Center venue on Thursday, March 6, at 9:30 pm and at the WRT on Friday, March 7, at 8:45 and Saturday, March 8, at 4 pm.

[All Is Forgiven screened at Cannes.]

Fears(s) of the Dark

Fears(s) of the Dark Rich, inventive, black-and-white animation (of the sort that puts to shame the neither-fish-nor-fowl, million-dollar color stuff that makes Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf such a bore) gets a go-round in Fears[s] of the Dark (Peur(s) du noir). This most interesting compilation of stories - some are self-contained while others wrap around the movie in strange and witty ways - is artful, often gorgeous to look at, and clever in the manner in which it makes its points and ties things together. What it is not is scary. At all. Which is fine by me. I'll take my scares in live-action movies, thank you. Perhaps I am no longer able to be frightened by animated films. I recall being so by Disney's Fantasia when I saw it as a very young boy, but the flat, two-dimensional artwork on view in this movie, I should think, will appeal more to animation connoisseurs than to folk looking for a fright. Yet there is plenty to enjoy for ancillary reasons.

Fear of insects, transformation and the "other" highlight Charles Burns's contribution. Highly story-heavy, it tracks a quiet young man who one day discovers and captures an odd insect, continues his life, first at university, then in a relationship - via which he eventually learns that, regarding the insect, it was actually the other way around. The animation, hard-edged and comic book-like, is eerie indeed, as is the story - which is also lots of fun.

Marie Caillou and Romain Slocombe offer their take on needles, imprisonment and Japanese samurai, among other fears. The animation here is airier and more bizarre. Fears are tapped but more glancingly, I think, than in Mr Burns's installment.

In their rich and all-over-the-place contribution, Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky (who works closely with Mattotti and lives in Italy) deal with fears of monsters, dreams, magic and... oneself. I must admit to drifting off somewhat during this installment, which had a kind of hypnotic effect on me. I'd like to see it again after downing a large cup of coffee.

The section that comes closest to the title moniker belongs to Richard McGuire and Michel Pirus. This duo track a poor fellow who wanders from a snowbound landscape into a dark house, occupied by a perhaps not so friendly female and from which there appears to be no escape. The use of black and white is in some ways the most stunning - witty, bizarre, clever and creepy - of all the segments.

Fears(s) of the Dark

The two other installments come and go throughout the movie, wrapping around it and offering, in the case of Blutch (a pseudonym for artist Christian Hincker), fear of canines - particularly those of the killer kind. You might call this section "gory," except, as animation, it comes off much less so than any number of "slasher" movies many of us have seen. The animation is quite interesting, however, with a nearly-complete gray-scale spectrum that only the Mattotti/Kramsky section approaches elsewhere in the film.

Wittiest of all are the wrap-around/on-and-off bits provided by Pierre di Sciullo, who mixes very funny text/narration (dealing with the everyday fears of our modern times: social, political, environmental) with equally witty black-and-white geometric visuals. One can, it seems, be just as afraid of what lies ahead in broad daylight, once we've gotten out of bed in the morning, as of those other, more obvious and clichéd fears.

One more artist is mentioned in the press book for the film: Etienne Robial as artistic director. I don't think Robial is responsible for any individual segment, but more likely, he helped bring the movie together. In any case, if you are an animation aficionado, I don't imagine you'll want to miss this black-and-white feast. Even if you're only so-so on the subject, there's enough in the 78-minute running time to warrant a visit. Fears[s] of the Dark screens at the IFC Center on Saturday, March 1, at 9pm, and at the WRT venue on Saturday, March 8, at 9 and Sunday, March 9, at 1:30.

The Feelings Factory

The Feelings Factory Differences between French and American films get another heavy-duty workout in Jean-Marc Moutout's The Feelings Factory (La Fabrique des sentiments). Imagine - or better, remember - the numerous American films you've seen over the years that use the ploy about dating services guiding two people toward romance. Prepare now to enter a very different world, one in which the characters possess, in their arsenal of enticements/weapons, everything from philosophy to anger, physical sickness to sudden surprise - and above all, a self-awareness that is sometimes staggering, even if it, too, is not enough to guarantee success.

Our main character is Eloise, played by Elsa Zylberstein (Mina Tannenbaum, La Petite Jérusalem), an actress who specializes in bringing to life intelligent, full-spectrum women. She does her job extremely well. Consequently, we get to know Eloise in depth: her physical problems, mind-set, imagination, desires and needs. We also get to know, less well but well enough, a couple of the men in whom she becomes interested, one of these splendidly detailed by Jacques Bonnaffé, an actor who comes perilously close to the French "Everyman." (He's made some 80 appearances over nearly three decades, including in The Page Turner and Poison Friends in 2006, Lemming and Cote d'Azur in 2005. He's always excellent, yet I never recognize him until the credits roll.)

The Feelings Factory

There is a lot of context to The Feelings Factory: workplace, family, friends and especially the dating arena. As director and co-writer (with Olivier Gorce and Agnès de Sacy), Moutout penetrates character and the current scene with vigor and originality, showing us more of what we don't expect and less of what we do. And then comes the finale, which, for some, will be a deal-breaker. It will certainly provoke a lot of well-earned discussion, including what happy relationships might actually entail. (Don't even try to guess what M Moutout has up his sleeve; let's just say it's about as far from Claude Lelouch-land as it's possible to travel.) I suspect that the seeds for this harvest were planted all along the way, but I'll have to see the film again to be sure. In any case, and for better or worse, I'd call this one oddly memorable and Ms Zylberstein aces - as usual.

The Feelings Factory will be shown at the IFC Center Sunday, March 2, at 8:45. It will screen at the WRT venue on Tuesday, March 4, at 8:45; Wednesday, March 5, at 4 and Sunday March 9, at 6:15.

The Grocer's Son

The Grocer's Son Like taking a vacation the French countryside and meeting people there of whom you grow extraordinarily fond, The Grocer's Son (Le Fils de l'epicier) is an unalloyed pleasure, start to finish. Writer/director Eric Guirado pulls you steadily into his story of a young man from the provinces, somewhat alienated from his family, who has moved to Paris. When his father is taken ill, he returns home, accompanied by his pretty, young neighbor, on whom he has a crush. Back in the countryside, his life - and the viewer's - slowly begins to expand.

While American audiences will have almost no reference to the kind of work the family does (the father has for years driven a van around the farther reaches of his territory, delivering groceries and sundries to the folk, mostly seniors, who have no shopping available to them), even French audiences, I suspect, have had little experience of this - which gives the movie an ambience both exotic and homey and may account for its surprisingly strong showing at the French box office.

This is only Guirado's second full-length feature, yet he has a wonderful sense of pacing, storytelling, characterization and, best of all, the ability to avoid unduly "pushing" anything. His movie unfurls leisurely yet never drags, so filled is it with remarkable detail and interesting people. In his leading actor, Nicolas Cazalé (Le Clan, Le Grand Voyage), Guirado has found an actor who possesses a terrific mix of inwardness, reticence and sex appeal, and who, like the movie he inhabits, never pushes. And Clotilde Hesme (also in this year's Love Songs) complements Cazalé beautifully: She's as sprightly and buoyant as he is reserved. The parents, well played by Daniel Duval and Jeanne Goupil, don't say a whole lot, but their characters, too, grow in the course of the film. Among a fine supporting cast, it's a pleasure to see the great Liliane Rovere (Safe Conduct, Seaside) as both the most troublesome and, in her way, the most appealing of the customers on the route.

The Grocer's Son

The Grocer's Son may remind you a bit of The Girl from Paris, shown at Rendez-Vous a few years back. Both films take city folk into the country, where we learn and enjoy, and both feature fine performances all around, though I would call Guirado's work much more of an ensemble piece. It can be seen at the IFC Center on Tuesday, March 4, at 7 and at the WRT on Wednesday, March 5, at 6:30; Thursday, March 6, at 3:15; and Friday, March 7, at 6:30.

Breaking news: Guirado’s movie has just been picked up by Film Movement and will have a limited US theatrical release, followed eventually by another on DVD.

Heartbeat Detector

Heartbeat Detector For those who hold the belief that most corporations are evil incarnate and, further, that their personnel department / human resources / call-it-what-you-will is somehow at the heart of the matter, the new film Heartbeat Detector (La Question Humaine) should provide a number of Ah-hah, told you so! moments. Yes, yes: I realize that the ostensible "hero" of the movie is the personnel director of the corporation - in this case a German multinational chemical company. And while this fellow, played with his usual subtlety and deference by the fine Mathieu Amalric (My Sex Life... or how I got into an argument, Kings and Queen and the recent Diving Bell and the Butterfy, for which he just won the Best Actor César), comes to distrust his bosses, his job and very nearly everything around him on his quest for understanding, at the film's beginning, he is pretty much already 'round the bend. But then that may be the point that director Nicolas Klotz and writer Elisabeth Perceval are making here: We're all of us 'round the bend because we've been listening our entire lives to the crap/conventional wisdom put out by fascist power brokers to keep us on course. Theirs, of course.

If I make this movie sound like some sort of screaming screed, it is not. It's relatively quiet, considering that it could easily be lumped into the mystery genre (What's going on here and who is telling the truth?) - yet there is little sense of menace. But how could there be when it's the entire environment - job, friends, you yourself - that is responsible for what's going on? How can you be menaced by your own life? Well, you can. Heartbeat Detector is full of strange and interesting connections, made by visuals, sounds and music but mostly by ideas and history.

Heartbeat Detector

We're back to the Holocaust again. Yet, as with Claude Miller's A Secret (even more so here), this is nowhere near your typical Jews-in-danger story. Instead, what makes its mark most indelibly is the shocking disconnect during this period of history between the technical understanding of, say, the construction of a van and for what purpose that van will be used, between someone simply doing his job and of what that job consists. This disconnect has rarely been brought home better than it is here. And yet the method used by Klotz and Perceval often involves someone reading a transcript, accompanied by visuals so simple that you find yourself forced to listen. The finale, in fact, is nothing more than quiet speech on the soundtrack against a black screen. Still, I suspect that you'll be listening (or, as I was, reading the subtitles) intently.

I find it interesting that a film this unusual and relatively rigorous is to receive a theatrical release. But let's not do the gift horse thing. Red Envelope Entertainment and New Yorker Films have picked up Heartbeat Detector for a release on March 14. Meanwhile, at Rendez-Vous, it will be shown at the WRT on Friday, February 29, at 3:30 and Sunday, March 2, at 8:45, and at the IFC at Saturday, March 1, at 3:45.

[Heartbeat Detector screened at Cannes.]

Continued here.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 28, 2008 2:43 PM