French cinema is in crisis, a Parisian director told me recently. The international success of Brotherhood of the Wolf and Amélie means more money for French productions, he said, but commercial strictures have grown tighter. A cursory sampling of the selections in this year’s Avignon/New York Film Festival (Alliance Française, through April 21) offers evidence to both dispel and confirm this gloomy assessment.
On the plus side is Little Senegal, Rachid Bouchareb’s intimate drama about a Senegalese man who gives tours of a fortress where slaves were held captive before being shipped to America. One day, Alloune (Sotiguy Kouyate) sets to trace the descendants of family ancestors who were sold into slavery. His travels take him to Southern plantations and, later, to Northern ghettos, where he confronts anti-Africanism among blacks and where his traditional values clash with American materialism and lawlessness. Bouchareb encounters some difficulty in making Alloune’s archival research cinematically gripping, but Kouyate lends the lead role elegance and gravity.
The festival is also known for presenting American independent films with a certain continental flavor. Dummy, Greg Pritikin’s eccentric debut feature, offers a tenderly comic vision of losers in suburbia. A shy youth (Adrien Brody) turns to a ventriloquist’s dummy to sort out his problems with work, romance, and family. The latter include an overbearing Jewish mother (Jessica Walter), perennially pushing tuna-fish sandwiches, and a sister (Illeana Douglas) pursued by a psychotic ex-fiancé (Jared Harris). Milla Jovovich screams her way through her role as a would-be rock star, though she makes an oddly glamorous klezmer musician. It’s a sweet film, but it suffers from an excess of cute quirkiness.