Few films are as success fully Kafkaesque as Arnaud Desplechin’s La Sentinelle, the story of a young French forensic pathologist named Mathieu (Emmanuel Salinger) who becomes obsessed with a well-preserved human head that has been stowed in his suitcase. “The dead are your patients,” says Mathieu’s teacher. Acting on that instruction, Mathieu attempts to discover the identity of the head so that it can have a proper burial.
Sound strange? Well, it is and it isn’t, though the film does have its grisly moments (rather like E.R. crossed with the recent British vogue for taxidermic art). What’s remarkable—and Kafkaesque—about La Sentinelle is how Desplechin grounds the phantasmagoric aspects of his tale in the details, routines, and conflicts of daily life. The film can be interpreted as a realist narrative about a young man whose family background (his father was a diplomat) and profession make him an unwitting tool of political intrigue between France and what was about to become “the former Soviet Union.” (La Sentinelle is set in 1991.) Or, one might read everything that follows the opening scene as the anxiety dream of a young man who, leaving home for the first time, feels guilty toward his parents and alienated from his peers.
In either case, the film is a political allegory about the emergence of the new Europe, which in its rush toward prosperity has crassly and crudely repressed its own history. Alone among his friends, classmates, and family, Mathieu feels burdened by the ghosts of the Holocaust, the Resistance, and the near-50 years of divided Europe that followed World War II. He cannot move from adolescence to adulthood unless he finds a way to honor the past and keep its memory alive.
Subtract the spy shenanigans and La Sentinelle is very much like My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument, the film Desplechin made in 1996 and the first of his three films to get U.S. distribution. (His first, The Life of the Dead, has never been shown here.) Mathieu’s psychological dilemmas—the anger and competitiveness he feels toward his more careerist peers, his desire for women just out of reach—are the same as those of the hero of My Sex Life. La Sentinelle is less visually fluid and less emotionally naked than the later film, but it’s just as intellectually compelling.
The continuity between the two films is the result of their open-ended, porous narratives and the fact that many of the same actors are cast in both of them. Emmanuel Salinger, who plays the overwrought Mathieu, also plays Nathan, the self-possessed best friend of the hero of My Sex Life. Emmanuelle Devos, who appears as Mathieu’s object of desire, appears in My Sex Life as the long-term girlfriend the hero is desperately trying to dump. That hero is named Paul, but he’s played by an actor named Mathieu—Mathieu Amalric. Amalric, who can be glimpsed in La Sentinelle as one of Mathieu’s medical school classmates, has rapidly become as much of an axiom of French filmmaking in the ’90s as Jean-Pierre Leaud was of the ’60s New Wave. He also plays the lead role in Olivier Assayas’s recent NYFF entry Late August, Early September, which is strikingly similar in its themes to My Sex Life.
If Assayas is the stylist of this generation of French filmmakers (which also includes Pascale Ferran, Danielle Dubroux, and Noemie Lvovsky), then Desplechin is the intellectual. While his films pack an emotional punch, they’re also a workout for the brain. He has a knack for revealing the life of the mind in characters so consumed with anxiety that they can only act spasmodically. Mathieu, the fish out of water in yuppified Paris, is an unforgettable character—so unsophisticated that he inquires of a colleague he’s just met, “Are you Jewish?” and so diligent in applying his forensic skills that he analyzes history even as it’s being shredded and dumped.
The more I look at the films of Desplechin and the others in this group (and they are definitely a group, not only because they share actors and ideas, but also because they actively assist one another in the filmmaking process), the more I’m convinced that they are as expressive and complicated reflections on their time as were the films of the New Wave. Like those earlier films, these are actors’ movies, though the performances are less flamboyant and more inner-directed.
The most commercial New Wave films seduced American audiences by flattery. We loved them for fetishizing Hollywood movies. This new generation of French filmmakers trains its sights on Europe—on its history and its future. Thus, their films are a more difficult sell. And yet, there are few contemporary American movies that treat a young man’s struggle to define himself in relation to friends, enemies, and family, and to make his way (pay the rent) in a cosmopolitan city, as brilliantly as La Sentinelle. See it in New York, and recognize yourself.
Time has tamed some of the terror and eroticism of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, but it’s still a haunting thriller about guilt and the supernatural. What’s notable (more notable even than the much celebrated bedroom scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, in which sex is displaced into memory even as it’s taking place) is that Roeg’s use of the death of a child as the focus of a horror film never feels exploitative.
But 25 years after its release, Roeg’s most precisely constructed film seems a bit weighed down by its predictable narrative. Its scariest moments—the glimpse of that small, red-coated figure disappearing into a doorway, or the soft sound of its sobbing before the final confrontation—are more powerful remembered than when they appear on screen. That said, the new print is gorgeous, and Christie and Sutherland, as the parents of the child who dies by drowning, actually convince you that they’ve been married for years and that their loss is slowly driving them crazy, albeit in different ways.
Roeg maps Sutherland’s disintegrating psyche onto the city of Venice, with its labyrinthian alleys, murky canals, and crumbling facades. It’s as perfect a setting for contemporary Gothic horror as the swimming pools of Hollywood are for the science fiction of Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth.