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French Kicks

Revisiting a post–New Wave director's fixations with Gallic gamines and classic lit

A troublesome but fascinating figure in contemporary French film, Benoît Jacquot has made his splashes and exercised an erratic ambition, but you cannot find the consistency of either Téchiné's character detail or Assayas's conceptual energy. At best, Jacquot is a wistful interrogator of the viewing experience; at worst, his high-culture tastes glibly give way to the worship of nymphs. In fact, Jacquot's U.S. releases could pigeonhole him as a familiar kind of Gallic libertine, distracted by scantily dressed young womanhood and sexual desire.

A Single Girl (1995) is the exception that both proves the rule and renders it temporarily irrelevant. A trance-like mini-odyssey that sublimates ordinary narrative impulses to a blitz of ephemeral tensions and concentrated minutiae, the film rolfs your movie-watching muscles. Virginie Ledoyen, an instant star, is a long-legged Parisienne with an overactive bullshit meter—pregnant, arguing with her boyfriend, and embarking on her first day as a hotel room service waitress, restlessly pacing through a pointless maze of corridors. Shot and cut with a jeweler's blade, A Single Girl aches with real-time rhythms distilled from its heroine.

Jacquot has largely neglected such rigors, before and since, while remaining bewitched by the likes of Judith Godréche (1990's The Disenchanted), Sandrine Kiberlain (1997's Seventh Heaven), and Ledoyen (1997's Marianne). The films themselves are all charming in particulars but overall vaguely written, uninvolving, and brimming with contrivance. Marianne, in fact, is Jacquot's second adaptation of Marivaux's novel, and reveals, despite the Walter Reade series' moniker, Jacquot's aboriginal obsession: the high tradition of French lit. Besides a number of short docs about Marguerite Duras, this avocation is most eloquently elegized in Elvire-Jouvet 40 (1988), a made-for-TV adaptation of Louis Jouvet's transcribed series of acting lessons that the aging lion gave to Moliére-rehearsing students in 1940. Philippe Clévenot's Jouvet and Maria de Medeiros's pert leading lady engage in an aesthetic tug-of-war, and it's an instructive piece of theatricalized cinema to rival Renoir and Rivette.

An instant star: Ledoyen in A Single Girl
photo: FSLC
An instant star: Ledoyen in A Single Girl

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For The Love of Movies: The Cinema of Benot Jacquot
June 23 through July 11, Walter Reade

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Jacquot's been busy since his international breakthrough, adapting Mishima (1998's lackluster The School of Flesh) and retreating to the 19th century. He staged Marivaux's The False Servant (2000) with an all-star cast (Isabelle Huppert, Kiberlain, Mathieu Amalric) in an empty theater, finally Frenchified the Marquis in Sade (2000), filmed Tosca (2001), and dramatized as a miniseries (Princess Marie, 2004) the relationship between Marie Bonaparte and Freud. Refreshingly set in the '70s, À Tout de Suite (2004) was more like a return to Jacquot's hotsy '90s, a lovers-on-the-run melodrama revolving around the toothy, sylphlike, blonde-goddess presence of Isild Le Besco. Slack, New Wavey, and based on a true story, it'd be a shrug without Le Besco to glow at its center like a bulb filament.

 
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