August, and finally a real summer movie: Julie Lopes-Curval’s simple, wise, pitch-perfect Seaside, a tapestry film comprised of unanswerable questions, briefly glimpsed lives, and a naturalist’s sense of place. Compare it to what passes for sophisticated filmmaking in this country and the movie becomes a living instrument of cinematic humanism: lovingly intent on observing, not judging; concerned with sympathy, not control; accepting the inevitable ambiguities, not denying them. It’s an approach prevalent in French films, and though it’s not exclusively feminine (Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, and Cédric Klapisch have all nailed this Rohmeresque sensibility), Lopes-Curval lends it a nurturing generosity. Devoid of any dictatorial point of view or dramatic structure, Seaside ambles like a beachcombing, on- and off-screen.
Lopes-Curval makes it look easy: Quartered into seasonal sections and set entirely in a tiny, fading beach community dependent upon a local quarry operation that digs and sorts decorative rocks, the movie wanders among more than a dozen locals and vacationers, catching snippets of their behavior and inner tensions. Marie (Hélène Fillières), a young assembly-line stone sorter, seems dissatisfied with everything, including her pushing-30 lifeguard boyfriend Paul (Jonathan Zaccaï), whose lonely mother, Rose (Bulle Ogier), has blown her retirement savings at the town’s small casino. Marie is otherwise tempted by Albert (Patrick Lizana), the son of the factory’s original owner and now a powerless bureaucrat with the new company.
Scores of other characters come and go—including a fashion photographer, his blissfully dim girlfriend, and his lovely, increasingly anxious mother (Ludmila Mikaël)—but we see them only in random cross sections. The changing of the seasons leaves some of the town’s inhabitants gone, some pregnant, some resolved to shoulder their burdens; we are not necessarily privy to the changes or how they came about. We do get subtle gestures and evaporating moments: a mother looking with fondness and worry after her son, a tug on an uncomfortable dress, a cocktail drained too quickly, a decision to hold one’s tongue visualized as an eyebrow flex.
It’s a gently sensible strategy that dares to suggest, as Renoir, Ozu, Rohmer, and Kiarostami films do, that you can only know so much about other people by watching them, and that our small “knowing” says as much about us as it does about the subjects of our attention. Certainly, Hollywood films encourage us to enjoy an absurd God-like omniscience; all relevant thoughts, incidents, and connections are made plain as day. In her first feature, Lopes-Curval lets the human mysteries play out invisibly, and even the actors are forced to economize in short scenes of little dramatic import. A stare held a split second too long or an evaded gaze can mean the world.
Seen last spring in the Walter Reade’s “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema” series, and bearing a Cannes Camera d’Or, Lopes-Curval’s film has too small a canvas to be heavyweight, but the grand-dame triumvirate of Ogier (aging oddly as only movie stars do), Mikaël (a 30-year veteran and Sautet alum), and Liliane Rovère (a Blier favorite, playing a prodigal trophy widow) musters a sort of old-town grandeur all its own. In the end, though, Seaside‘s about a place and some people—as if we were vacationing ourselves, and the other inhabitants were merely passing us on the boardwalk.
On the far side of convincing, Martin Brest’s Gigli displays nerve both in bearing a perverse title likely to provoke a curdled-milk sneer in most filmgoers, and in positing Jennifer Lopez as a mob contractor-hit woman dressed like a Radley Metzger sprite. The titular lug (Ben Affleck), whose pointlessly difficult name barely sustains two bad jokes, is a dim, false-bravado-exuding wise guy told to kidnap a retarded teenager (Justin Bartha), whose brother is a fed prosecuting the East Coast boss. Assigned as coverage, Lopez’s vampy, breathy, New Age-y dyke Ricki provides Gigli with an obscurely flirty object of desire, Lopez with an excuse to perform her stretch workout for us, and Brest with the odd bickering-couple shtick each of his movies demands.
The basilisk-eyed, tissue-voiced Affleck must strain for personality, and so Brest coasts on Lopez’s redoubtable glow. (Affleck has wooed a lesbian before—in Chasing Amy—and it might be his best shot at a career theme; Brest even throws in an overwritten Kevin Smith scene, in which the two gendernauts debate the contrasting glories of penis and vagina. Clearly, Smith’s Lopez-Affleck-starring Jersey Girl will be déjà vu all over again.) Having the simple advantage of being a dialogue-dependent film in a summer ocean of monosyllabitis, Gigli would simply be mild potato au gratin if it weren’t for the patronizing Rain Man setup and mercenary zeal for jokes made at the expense of the mentally handicapped. Gigli berates, insults, dismisses, throttles, and bellows at Bartha’s meticulously aped retard, and then turns sensitive and warm—it’s hard to decide which attitude is more insulting. Christopher Walken and Lainie Kazan manage to brighten the one dull scene each gets, and since Lopez is best at quiet brooding and sultry playfulness, she hits her notes consistently. But Brest would have to go back to his outline to repair this lemon and give America something akin to what it’s told it really wants—a helping of Lopez-Affleck home movies.