Wednesday, February 07, 2007

2007 PSIFF—The French Line-up

Michael Hawley reports on the French fare he caught at Palm Springs:

It shouldn't come as a surprise that after the U.S., France had the most films in this year's PSIFF, (and that's without factoring international co-productions.) Which is fine by me, because for my money, France still produces the most interesting cinema in the world. It also offers up plenty of pleasant, middle-brow fare such as Avenue Montaigne, the French film that was on everyone's lips in Palm Springs. I saw it last autumn at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and all these months later I hardly remember a thing about it.

Years from now, however, I'll very much remember the experience of watching Denis Dercourt's The Page Turner (La Tourneuse de pages, 2006), one of my five favorite films at this year's PSIFF. This muted, modern gothic revenge thriller starring Catherine Frot and Déborah François had me completely unnerved for nearly all of its lean 85 minutes. Never have I felt so alert at a 9 a.m. screening.

We're first introduced to Mélanie (François) as a young, aspiring pianiste. When she has the chance to try out for a prestigious music academy, one of the judges is renowned concert pianist Ariane Fouchécourt (Frot). During the audition she is distracted by an inconsiderate action of Ariane's, and consequently blows her big chance. She returns home devastated, puts her Beethoven bust back in its box, closes and locks the piano. Forever.

Flash forward a decade and young adult Mélanie secures a secretarial internship in a law firm headed by Jean Fouchécourt (Pascal Greggory). When she learns that the famille Fouchécourt needs someone to watch their young son while on vacation, she readily volunteers. And thus begins a tale of revenge being served ice cold. Mélanie moves into their secluded country mansion and proceeds to destroy the life of the woman who had so thoughtlessly destroyed her own years earlier.

Dercourt's direction is deliciously taut, and his screenplay contains a number of wonderful red, and not-so-red herrings. My favorite moment in the film is when Mélanie, now working as Ariane's page turner, plants a seductive slow-mo kiss upon a bewildered Ariane's cheek after a successful radio concert. Equally stunning is the film's singular moment of real physical violence, a moment so unexpected and so disturbingly absurd that the audience howled with shock and disbelief.

Frot, as always, gives an astonishing performance, but the revelation here is François, whose only previous screen role was in the Dardenne Brothers' L'enfant (2005). This role is so completely different from her debut, one can't help but wonder what the future holds for this amazing young actress. François and Frot have both been nominated for Cesar Awards for their performances in this film.

From the sublime to the ridiculous (and in this case that's not a bad thing), we move on to Michel Hazanavicius' OSS 117: Nest of Spies, a sort of James Bond meets Maxwell Smart spy comedy set in 1950s Cairo. French comedian Jean Dujardin stars as Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, alias OSS 117, a cluelessly arrogant and fastidious French secret agent. This film was hugely popular in France (as was Dujardin's previous effort Brice de Nice) and has been nominated for five Cesars, including Best Actor, Screenplay, Production Design, Cinematography and Costumes.

It was great fun watching this film, and a welcome respite from the more serious fare that made up the rest of my festival schedule. The kitschy mid-century Orientalist production design sparkled and the action moved along briskly from one cleverly conceived set-piece to the next. I especially enjoyed a ridiculous nightclub scene that began with Hubert learning to mambo and ended with him enthralling the crowd with his masterful oud-playing skills. Another outlandish (and beautifully filmed) sequence had him escaping Houdini-style from a ball and chain, after he's been thrown into the Nile by Islamic extremists. Some of the recurring gags begin to produce diminishing returns by the film's final third, but by then you've had such a grand time it matters little.

I was intrigued by the film's comic use of Hubert's ignorance and blithe dismissal of all things Arab. There are many examples of this in the film, where the actions of this well-meaning buffoon comment tongue-in-cheek on France's colonialist past. In one scene for example, he's awakened at dawn by the muezzin's call to prayer. "Shut the fuck up!" he screams from his hotel window. When the prayer doesn't stop, he storms out of his hotel room and we hear him assaulting the muezzin over the mosque's loudspeaker. One wonders how scenes like this played for France's large Moslem population. At any rate, I'm sure they cheered a scene where Hubert, who fancies himself a ladies man, asks his beautiful Egyptian assistant if she'd like to make love. "I'd rather fuck a pig on holy Friday," is her terse reply.

Another commercial French feature I caught at the festival was Lionel Bailliu's Fair Play, a black comedy/thriller about the cutthroat nature of corporate culture. The film is an expansion of Bailliu's 2004 Oscar-nominated live-action short Squash, in which a boss and employee go to war on a racquetball court. Here, he takes the sports metaphor several steps further in a cleverly conceived two-act screenplay.

Act One of Fair Play consists of four lengthy scenes, each one involving a particular sports activity as played out by two competitive co-workers. Scene One finds Jérémie Renier and Benoît Magimel (barely recognizable with thick glasses, a paunch and flaming red hair,) who are both up for the same promotion, honing their river rowing skills. Scene Two is basically a re-filming of Squash, with Renier and Eric Savin, reprising the boss role from the original short. Scene Three is set on a jogging course, with Magimel harassing a female co-worker who's about to sue the corporation for sexual harassment at the hands of Savin. And a contentious golf game between Savin and the corporation's owner (who's also his father-in-law), played by vet Jean-Pierre Cassel, is the setting for Scene Four.

The entirety of Act Two takes place during a corporate "bonding" weekend during which Savin will guide his employees through a treacherous river canyon. There are waterfalls to jump from, cliffs to scale, and underwater ravines to swim through. Given the enmity, power plays and jealousies set up in Act One, we know that not everyone's going to survive. And sure enough, equipment fails, limbs are broken and a rainstorm threatens to submerge the canyon. It's all quite exciting, if one can ignore chunks of clunky dialogue and a few ludicrous plot points. But as the woman in front of me gushed as we exited the theater, "Now that was a movie!"

That it was, and a type of French film we usually don't see here in the U.S., even at festivals. I went to see it because of Renier, whose career I've followed with interest since his stunning debut as a 15-year-old in the Dardenne Brothers' La Promesse. Since then, he's had interesting roles in films like Brotherhood of the Wolf, François Ozon's Criminal Lovers, A Love to Hide (a made-for-TV film in which he's sent to Dachau for being gay in Vichy-era Paris) and finally reuniting with the Dardennes for L'enfant. His next film, Private Property, has him paired up with his older brother Yannick Renier and Isabelle Huppert.

Palm Springs had an impressive line-up of documentaries this year, including all of those on the MPAAA short list for Best Documentary Feature Oscar. There was also an 18-film "True Stories" sidebar, from which I saw two French documentaries, Beyond Hatred and Forever. I'd been hoping to see Olivier Meyrou's Beyond Hatred ever since it won the Teddy award for Best Documentary at Berlin last year. In French, the title is the mellifluous-sounding (at least to English-accustomed ears) Au dela de la Haine, which is very much at odds with the film's subject matter; the murder of a gay man.

In 2002, François Chenu went to the city of Rheims for the weekend. While walking through a park one evening, he was accosted by three skinheads who had come to the park with the intention of beating up an Arab. After admitting his homosexuality to them, they beat him unconscious, all the more furious because he kept calling them cowards. Thinking he was dead, they threw his body into a river, where subsequently he drowned. The film explores the emotional and legal aftermath of the murder as experienced by the families of both the victim and his attackers. No narrative voiceover is used to explain and expound upon the events in the film, only the interview footage of family members, law enforcement officials and the lawyers involved in the case. In one stunning, extended sequence, a stationary camera records the mundane tranquility of the spot where Chenu was attacked . . . people are strolling, jogging, bicycling. Concurrently, we listen as Chenu's older sister recounts in detail how she heard about the incident in a news report and slowly began to suspect it might be her brother. She then recalls the thoughts that raced through her mind as she drove to Rheims, and describes the horrifying task of identifying the body. It's a heartbreaking chronicle, and is matched in poignancy by the film's ending in which the entire Chenu family composes a letter of forgiveness to François' assailants, now in prison. Bay Area audiences will have three opportunities to see this remarkable documentary during the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, February 8th to 20th.

The other documentary I saw is officially Dutch, but its subject matter is decidedly French. Thanks to the San Francisco International Film Festival, Bay Area audiences are very familiar with the work of documentary filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, who has had at least six of her films shown there over the years. I've had the pleasure of seeing two, 1994's Metal and Melancholy, about the taxi drivers of Lima, Peru (where Honigmann was born and raised), and 2002's Dame la Mano which profiles the lives of Cuban immigrants living in Union City, N.J. This new film, Forever, is yet another one of her extraordinary portraits of ordinary people, namely, those who come to visit the graves of Paris' famed Père-Lachaise cemetery.

The visitors Honigmann chooses to profile in Forever fall into two categories: those who make the Père-Lachaise pilgrimage to honor a favorite writer, artist or poet, and those who actually have family members buried there. She interviews them in her customary matter-of-fact style at graveside, and in some cases follows them outside the cemetery to elaborate on their special relationship with the deceased. These interview scenes are cut with beautifully composed shots of the cemetery itself; its neglected mausoleums, the insects crawling upon the statuary, and graffiti pointing the way to Jim. (Morrison, that is, whose infamous grave she curiously chooses to ignore).

The profiles are all captivating, and I resist the temptation to describe them all. Here are a few I found especially moving:

Three elderly women are seen sitting together on a bench. One woman's husband, with whom she fled Spain during the Civil War, is buried in Père-Lachaise. She describes how she watched from her window as Francoist soldiers roughed-up a group of Nationalists, and how a priest came along and shot all the Nationalists in the head. "That's the day I stopped believing in God," she laments. "If a priest can kill, there is no God."

A young Korean man places a box of madeleine cookies on Proust's grave. Honigmann asks him to talk about his admiration of Proust, which he attempts in a halting, awkward English. Sensing his difficulty, she invites him to speak in his own language and he becomes joyfully animated as he speaks about his favorite writer. His passionate discourse in Korean needs no subtitles.

A 54-year-old woman visits her husband's grave, a man who was twenty years younger than herself. They were married for three blissful years, and then he died from a bee sting while they were on vacation.

A Père-Lachaise tour guide describes childhood walks though his village cemetery with his grandfather, and how he learned the alphabet from tombstone engravings.

If I have a single complaint about Forever, it's that some of the material filmed outside the cemetery feels extraneous. For example, the film's first subject is a young, Japanese woman studying piano in Paris, whom we first meet at Mozart's grave. Honigmann interviews her again in her apartment, where she gives a lovely accounting of how Mozart was her dead father's favorite composer and ultimately, her inspiration for studying music. The director comes back to this woman several more times in the film, and each time it's considerably less interesting. Frankly, I began to resent her, as I imagined the stories of other fascinating denizens of Père-Lachaise falling to the editing room floor.

In another example, we see the shared grave of Simone Signoret and Yves Montand. Next, two blind men are filmed walking down the street as they chat about nothing in particular. We soon see them in a friend's living room "watching" Les Diaboliques, discerning the story from dialogue, sound effects and Signoret's acting skills alone. It's fascinating to be sure, but because these men are never even seen in Père-Lachaise, it feels like this sequence belongs to another film entirely. These are minor beefs, however, and Forever is a worthy addition to Honigmann's estimable filmography. And how I would love to see Paris' Montmartre and Montparnasse cemeteries given the same privileged treatment.

Although the entirety of Tony Gatlif's latest film Transylvania is set in Romania, it's officially a French release, so I'm including it here. In recent years, Gatlif's films have received little or no theatrical distribution in the U.S. (his last film Exils received exactly one screening in the Bay Area, at the 2005 Arab Film Festival), so I was very excited to have the opportunity to see this at Palm Springs. Having seen it, I'm glad to report that this is probably my favorite Gatlif film since 1997's Gadjo Dilo, which coincidentally was also set in Romania.

Transylvania contains ingredients you'll find in almost every Gatlif film. First and foremost, you have a story set amidst some aspect of Roma (gypsy) culture. Second, there's a bounty of exuberant music and dancing. And third, there's a road trip in which a character is searching for something. In the case of Transylvania, that character is Zingarina (Asia Argento), who comes to Romania in search of the lover she believes was deported from France. When she finds him, however, he wants nothing to do with her. And so poor pregnant Zingarina proceeds to go bonkers.

Rescuing Zingarina from herself is Tchangalo (Birol Ünel from Fatih Akin's Head On), a scruffy trader who crosses the countryside buying jewelry and antiques from rural homesteads. His first order of business is getting Zingarina to an exorcist, in a wonderfully bizarre scene that would feel at home in any 1960's "mondo" movie. Spiritually cleansed and now sporting some serious gypsy drag, she and Tchangalo hit the highway for a series of misadventures on the back roads of Transylvania. The journey culminates with the birth of Zingarina's child, an event which reveals a slight continuity lapse in Gatlif's screenplay. Because we're never really made to notice Zingarina's pregnancy, it's disconcerting when the story line we've perceived in terms of a few weeks, inexplicably and unconvincingly turns out to be one of many months.

Asia Argento does a fine job with her portrayal of Zingarina, although I frequently wished she looked a bit less like Courtney Love in a black wig. I also enjoyed her low key performance as Madame du Barry in Marie Antoinette, and it appears as if she's set to become European cinema's go-to girl of the moment, starring in the upcoming films of Catherine Breillat, Abel Ferrara, Olivier Assayas, Amos Gitai, and even papa Dario.

I'd also like to make special mention of Transylvania's gorgeous cinematography by Céline Bozon. There's a wondrous scene where Tchangalo connects a chandelier to an overhead power line, then dangles it from a tree branch overlooking their nocturnal camping spot. If there was one indelible image I took with me from the Palm Spring Film Festival, this was certainly it.

Finally, in a case of not saving the best for last, we come to Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr's One to Another. I can't say I wasn't warned. Before the festival I read four reviews of the film, all of them loathsome. But the reviews did promise plenty of naked Euro-youth, so I added it to my festival schedule and hoped this poor film was being unfairly maligned. I was heartened when I picked up The Desert Sun newspaper and noted that a certain festival programmer (one I respect and who shall therefore remain nameless) listed it as one of his festival picks-of-the-day. Said programmer was also on hand at the screening to give a flowery introduction of director Barr, making it sound as if we were about to witness the second coming of André Téchiné. Alas, it was not to be.

One to Another tells the story of Lucie, her bi-sexual brother Pierre and three close friends. "Close" as in, Lucie has slept with two of them, and probably her brother Pierre as well, who is himself having sex with one of the friends. Shortly after the film begins we learn that Pierre has been murdered. That's when we also learn that the film's narrative will be lurching back and forth between our five-some's idyllic past, and the troublesome present where Pierre's murder needs to be solved.

Scenes of that idyllic past include swimming nude, sunbathing nude and just plain old lying around the house, nude. Also, the four guys are in a rock band together, and the big surprise is that they're actually not bad. After a drunken gig, one of them vomits and asks his friend if he has a mint to take the bad taste away. No, he replies in all seriousness, but he has a strawberry-flavored condom to suck on. Strawberries are of importance here because Lucie and Pierre each have one tattooed on their ass. As they lie on the ground together, butt cheek to butt cheek, Pierre demands to know, "How beautiful am I today? As beautiful as a new coin?" Lucy thinks to herself, "When I hold him I feel like I'm tasting eternity." I kid you not.

The search for Pierre's murderer provides some relief from these inanities. No one seems to really care except for Lucie, who confronts potential suspects such as the belligerent local skinhead and the older john who introduced Pierre to the world of sex orgies. She also busies herself accompanying friend Nicolas to the police when it's discovered that his sperm was on Pierre's t-shirt and he needs to give the cops a sample. Anyway, by the time it's revealed who killed Pierre, I had stopped caring, if indeed I had ever cared. In the post-screening Q&A, Barr revealed that the film is "partly" based on a true story, and that "the film is about the nihilistic violence of our times." That one almost made me choke on a Raisinette. In Barr's defense, I will say that he didn't write the screenplay (co-director Arnold bears that responsibility), and his work as co-director and cinematographer on this film are certainly nothing to be ashamed of. And had I known at the time about his acting career, I would have complemented all the fine performances he's given in a half-dozen Lars von Trier films. Lastly, at a time when hundreds of sublime foreign films go unreleased in the US each year, Barr announced that One to Another will receive a theatrical release this summer through Strand Releasing and become available through Netflix soon thereafter.

Next up: Films from Eastern Europe!

Cross-published on Twitch.

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