From France, with Self-Love
Less politically engaged and geographically far-flung than usual, Lincoln Center's spotty Rendez-Vous With French Cinema insinuates that a nation of filmmakers is forging inward with fiercer self-determination than ever before. An off-putting amour propre may linger in the program's air, but this year's sampling of Gallic cinema is not without its pleasures, not least of which is Benoît Jacquot's The Untouchable. This sensualist drama stars voluptuous beaut Isild Le Besco as Jeanne, an actress who travels to India to find the father she never knew she had. The film cares for no one but this transfixing femme, and its aesthetic self-radiance is a revelationimage and sound are a great seduction, catching Jeanne at fascinating nexuses between cultures, reality and artifice, and freedom and despondency.
A more insular but equally libidinous delight is the spectacle of Romain Duris moping in bed in his skivvies and rubbing Joana Preiss's face against his crotch in Inside Paris. An almost complete about-face after his joyless adaptation of George Bataille's Ma Mére, Christophe Honoré's homorific film is visually ungainly but sans pretense, deeply attuned to the see-sawing emotional rhythms of a familial clan when one brother sinks into depression while another boinks his way through Paris.
Two other contemplations of existential family ties: In Don't Worry, I'm Fine, Philippe Lioret charts a young woman cracking personae after her twin brother mysteriously leaves home. The ambiguous complexity of Mélanie Laurent's performance as the woman is a masterpiece of her own design. Equally fine is Nina Kervel in Blame it on Fidel, the story of a little girl flabbergasted by the rhetoric of the various revolutionary causes her parents adopt. As innocent and sweet as its main character, the film advocates that children should mandate their own political awakenings.
There is no such enlightenment for Olivier Dahan, who considers the biopic the greatest mode of American film production, operating entirely within its perimeters. Emulating some of the worst attributes of Monster, Ray, and Capote, fest opener La Vie en Rose renders the life of the great Edith Piaf as a horrible-wonderful freak show. Trampolining back and forth in time, shunning nuance and confusing incoherence for artfulness, Dahan stresses only the biggest, most traumatic biographical points on the Piaf timeline, resting shamelessly on the bold shoulders of Marion Cotillard, whose steadily melting face and ossifying body is a triumph of technical thespingwhich is to say, impeccably primped for award consideration.
Eric Lartigau's shrill I Do! and Denis Dercourt's preposterously self-serious The Page Turner borrow their parts from even sketchier assembly lines: the Nora Ephron rom-com and the Adrian Lyne adultery screed. In I Do!, a woman is hired by a famous perfume maker to play his fiancée and dump him at the altar in an attempt to get the women in his family off his back. Though it insults all women, it is Charlotte Gainsbourg's talents that are most callously regarded. Dercourt understands the female sex even less, but at least his haute bourgeois version of Fatal Attraction is good for a laugh. During a piano recital, young Mélanie's psycho gene is triggered after one of the judges messes with her concentration. Years later, the girl ingeniously ingratiates herself into the older woman's manse, skulking around like a T-1000 on dopamine and pretentiously plotting uncertain revenge. Fans of Notes on a Scandal, rejoice.
Less offensive but equally disposable is Patrick Grandperret's Murderers, in which two girls escape from an insane asylum to act out some malformed thesis by the late Maurice Pialat about what inspires pretty young things to violence. Essentially a twee version of La Cérémonie, the film awkwardly shoehorns feminist commentary into what is, no more, no less, a scenic tour of France. On the eve of my first trip to the country, the murderous girls' travels enticed, but a different sort of nightmare, Francis Veber's The Valet, made me rethink my own adventures. Farce with a capital F, this shrill comedy concerns the attempts of a businessman (Daniel Auteuil) to prove his fidelity to his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) by temporarily lending his mistress to the bug-eyed valet who walked into the photograph that immortalizes his marital indiscretions. A bland succession of double-crossings, the film suggests a sitcom without the laugh track.
Haunting this year's slate like a scarecrow peering across a field of sunflowers is Flanders. The grinch of French cinema, Bruno Dumont continues to work in an ambiguous, philosophical style, distilling narrative to a quintessence of Bressonian minimalism, only without feeling. From the countryside of Flanders to an unspecified war zone (Iraq, Afghanistan, it doesn't matter), man is presented as a Cro-Magnon blank slate that schleps through life in coldly determinist lockstep. Dumont pantomimes his previous work, not to mention every combat movie since Casualties of War. Of course, the filmmaker is too cynical to allow for a moral compass like Michael J. Fox's Eriksson to humanely clarify what makes monsters out of men. It would seem that life, along with war, is hell to Dumont. Alas, so is his movie.
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