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Schooled for Scandal

If there's a trend to be detected in the 1999 edition of "Rendez-Vous With French Cinema Today," it's that there are more naked tits and asses on display than ever before, and more seemingly realistic depictions of sex acts, some of them skirting the edge of hardcore. Sound like fun? It's not. No, no, no. If the proverbial Martian wandered into just about any film in this series, he/she/it would conclude that humans engage in sex so that they can feel anguished, panicked, confused, and enraged.

Straight from the Rotterdam Film Festival, where they created minor scandals, come Catherine Breillat's Romance and Philippe Grandrieux's Sombre. Romance wasn't available for preview, which is unfortunate, since I suspect it might on its own provide the series with a reason for being. Breillat is the "bad girl" director of French cinema and Romance, the story of a woman with three lovers, was described to me as being closer to pornography than Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses.

Long overdue for a U.S. retrospective, Breillat has made six films, beginning in 1976 with the nightmarish, Bataille-influenced Une Vraie Jeune Fille. Although 36 Fillette (1987), a swaggeringly tough coming-of-age film about a 14-year-old girl whose summer project is losing her virginity, is available on video, her two most powerful films, Dirty Like an Angel (1991), a darker-than-noir policier told from the point of view of a grubby femme fatale, and Perfect Love(1996), which tracks an affair between a young man and an older woman that ends in her murder, never received any kind of distribution. (Both were shown in previous incarnations of the "French Cinema Today" series.)

Train spotting: Berling and Trintignant in Those Who Love Me...
courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center
Train spotting: Berling and Trintignant in Those Who Love Me...

Romance, I hope, is an antidote for Sombre, a repellent psychodrama about a serial killer whose gruesome m.o. is repeatedly detailed. Sombre is part of a cinema of abjection that includes some far more interesting films, among them, Fred Kelemen's Fate and Frost, and Gaspar Noé's I Stand Alone. Grandrieux has great control over his expressionist mise-en-scène, and there is something truly disturbing about his twisting, tracking shots through dark forests and the rushing sound of wind that accompanies them. Grandrieux wants to put you inside the mind of a man who is compelled to kill women for sexual gratification. The problem is that he seems to believe that there's something awesome and pure in what this man does. It would be bad enough if Sombre were merely an exploitation film (an excuse to show naked women with their legs spread struggling to keep from being strangled to death— and I'm not giving away the worst of it), but it also fancies itself a Beauty and the Beasttale in which the Beast is transformed (for a brief moment) through the devotion of a beautiful virgin.

Of the films I saw, only Patrice Chéreau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train was thoroughly pleasurable. A gay, more operatic Rules of the Game, it opens with a dazzling sequence of fast-moving camera shots connecting a large group of characters on their way to the funeral of a painter and teacher, who seems to have had a profound, though not necessarily positive, effect on all their lives. Chéreau is not only a brilliant director, he's also willing to risk going over the top, which he does here quite often. And his actors are mesmerizing even when they're yelling too much. Among the best are Jean-Louis Trintignant as an embittered shoe-store magnate, the wasp-tongued but saintly Pascal Greggory, the ravishingly beautiful Sylvain Jacques, and the sly Vincent Perez. Trintignant and Perez have a scene involving a pair of red spike-heel pumps that's to die for. Don't worry if, the first time round, you can't keep track of who everyone is or who they're fucking. Those Who Love Me is one of those rare films that yield more with each viewing. Perhaps some courageous distributor will give it a life after this series.

Adapted from a Moravia novel, Cédric Kahn's L'Ennui is another sexual-obsession flick. Charles Berling, the new angry neurotic intellectual of French cinema, plays Martin, a philosophy professor on the rebound who becomes enthralled with a 17-year-old girl played by the stunningly self-possessed Sophie Guillemin. (Guillemin seems neither flattered nor fazed by the fact that her Renoirish body is the film's object of constant scrutiny.) Moravia shared with a number of European writers of the '50s (ranging from Nabokov to Françoise Sagan) a fantasy about an enigmatic young woman who was both sexually avid and emotionally indifferent. Among the more memorable incarnations of this dubious psychological profile are Bardot in Contempt (another Moravia adaptation) and Sue Lyon in Lolita. L'Ennui is neatly directed, but, aside from its relatively explicit sex scenes, it adds little to a played-out genre.

Less satisfying on the level of filmmaking, but more interesting in the depiction of confused but fiercely independent heroines are Catherine Corsini's The New Eve, Laetitia Mason's For Sale, and Tonie Marshall's Venus Institute, a surprise box-office smash in Paris. Much indebted to Chantal Akerman's shopping-mall flick The Golden Eighties, Venus Institute features a lovely performance by Nathalie Baye as a 45-year-old beautician who settles for one-night stands rather than risking loss in love.

Schizophrenically programmed, the series also showcases some more mainstream films. Among the not recommended: Claude Miller's Class Trip and Claude Lelouch's Chances or Coincidences.

 
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