Obscure Objets of Desire

Apocalyptic misanthropy and bourgeois adultery at an annual French film showcase

What does it mean for the state of cinema when an 81-year-old auteur's screen version of a 1920s operetta seems the freshest work in a program known for exploring film's more independent byways? Alain Resnais's dazzling madcap musical, Pas sur la Bouche(Not on the Lips), a highlight of this year's Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, makes the grim preoccupations of a younger generation appear rather conventional.

Adapted from absurdly wordy music-hall ditties penned by librettist André Barde and composer Maurice Yvain, this airy confection turns around a classic screen dilemma. Gilberte Valandray (Sabine Azéma), though pursued by numerous suitors, remains deeply in love with her husband (Pierre Arditi), an industrialist whose faith in her fidelity is based upon his conviction that he was the first to have her. One evening her ex-husband from a secret, long-ago marriage in America (Lambert Wilson) shows up for dinner as his new business partner. What follows, despite the clumsily translated rhymes, is a hilarious send-up of modernist art movements, feminine shopping habits ("Galerie Lafayette/home of the coquette"), Freudianism, and trans-Atlantic miscommunications.

"Now that was sweet," a chorus trills for Resnais's finale. No one leaving the theater after Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms will be humming that theme song. In La Vie de Jésus and L'Humanité, Dumont's considerable gifts served a relentlessly Hobbesian vision of existence, where sex is nasty, brutish, and short—Twentynine Palms is no exception. David Wissak stars as a supremely inarticulate American photographer, scouting locations in the California desert; Katia Golubeva plays his equally feckless girlfriend. They tour around, and have aimless conversation and sex in picturesque spots. Dumont calls Palms a "horror film," and I don't think he means just the final, violent twist; he's also referring to the general hell of relationships. Well, most of us could just stay home to see that. He deftly uses long shots to trace moods as changeable as weather—a woman's face slowly dissolving into tears, an alfresco nap that gradually turns Edenic—but his misanthropy seems increasingly pointless.

Now that was sweet: Isabelle Nanty and Audrey Tautou in Not on the Lips
photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center
Now that was sweet: Isabelle Nanty and Audrey Tautou in Not on the Lips

A more mournful misanthrope, Austria's Michael Haneke has set his visionary Time of the Wolf (a French co-production) at some apocalyptic moment in the near future. Isabelle Huppert plays a bourgeois wife and mother of two, who arrives with her family at their country house and is swept up in a vast, unspecified catastrophe. Urban dwellers lose their bearings and struggle to hold on to shreds of dignity—Time of the Wolf could get top billing in some 9-11-themed film festival. Like his countryman Freud, Haneke maintains a radical distrust of man as a social animal. A remarkable cast (including Olivier Gourmet and Patrice Chéreau) performs his all-too-plausible vignettes of desperation. But such close observation of humanity is also an act of love—running through the film is a tone of deep elegy, which saves it.

In the feel-good comedy Chouchou, a Moroccan transvestite (Gad Elmaleh) arrives in a suburb of Paris pretending to be a Chilean exile, is taken in by a church priest (Claude Brasseur), and finds work as a psychoanalyst's housekeeper, before discovering true love in a Pigalle nightclub. Despite the promising plot (based on Elmaleh's one-person stage hit), the film falters as Algerian director Merzak Allouache abandons the intimate tone of previous works like Salut Cousin! in favor of broad humor and big box office—French audiences embraced Chouchou en masse.

Finally, could there be a French film festival without some searching investigations of feminine desire? This year's Rendez-Vous boasts Nathalie, the latest from writer-director Anne Fontaine, whose chilly thriller Dry Cleaning (1997) also explored a middle-aged woman's sexual ennui and awakening. Here the ever elegant Fanny Ardant plays a woman who suspects her husband (Gérard Depardieu) of infidelity, and hits upon a peculiarly French solution—she hires a prostitute (Emmanuelle Béart) to seduce him and tell her all about it. But who is seduced by whom? Nathalie's plot sometimes skids into literalism—making Ardant's character a gynecologist seems too obvious a translation of her near-clinical curiosity—but Fontaine has an unerring instinct for the vagaries of the feminine imagination and its influence over the intimate life of a couple. Her portrait of a sexual relationship between women mediated exclusively by words sizzles.

 
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