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The 7th Avignon/New York Film Festival presents the usual panoply of social outcasts, ill people, and perverts that give both French and American independent cinema their special allure. This year’s 30 selections include a seven-film tribute to transatlantic icon Jacqueline Bisset, who remains composed and captivating while fending off murderous housemaids (in Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie) or dying of cancer (in Christopher Munch’s The Sleepy Time Gal).
Munch’s film follows Bisset’s character through her final months, as she struggles to come to terms with past conflicts, including both a child and a love she abandoned. A poet of loose ends and the things that might have been, Munch lets his story emerge obliquely, in all its messy complexity. His film is marred by inflated dialogue and jerky plot twists, but it offers a profound meditation on the maternal bond and the texture of memory.
France, a country that takes food seriously, could be the only setting for A Matter of Taste, Bernard Rapp’s clever psychological thriller, in which a wealthy industrialist (Bernard Giraudeau) hires a young waiter as his personal food taster and seeks to mold his palate. Told in flashback after the industrialist’s (presumably violent) death, Rapp’s film explores one man’s perverse desire to inhabit the skin of another. Giraudeau creates an amusingly paranoid and fetishistic character, though the taster’s limited verbal skills (“C’est délicieux,” etc.) make the exercise of his métier come as something of a disappointment.
Anyone who’s lingered too long at the site where their relationship ended will wince with recognition at Stand-By, Roch Stéphanik’s debut feature about a woman (Dominique Blanc) whose husband checks out of their marriage while waiting at the check-in counter of the Orly airport. As he flies away, she wanders about in shock; eventually she makes the airport her home, turning tricks and dining within view of takeoffs. Stand-By is most intriguing as an existential drama about a woman who remains in transit and refuses her place in society. Blanc won a César for her tour-de-force performance; but the film, like its heroine, has nowhere to go.
She might have headed for the hills of Andalusia, where Tony Gatlif has set Vengo. Gatlif (director of Latcho Drom and Gadjo Dilo) has spent his career mining the gypsy culture of his childhood. Here he turns his ear to flamenco, hearing echoes of his lost tribe in its lament. The powerful head of a gypsy clan is ravaged by the death of his daughter and wildly protective of his mentally challenged nephew, who is threatened by a rival group. Vengo proceeds according to the grim logic of blood feuds and vendettas, but also with the ferocious sentimentality and wild grief of the music’s spirit.