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French Cinema at BAM: A Gem, Multiculturalism and Even Comedy

French Cinema at BAM: A Gem, Multiculturalism and Even Comedy

In 1954 then-critic Francois Truffaut wrote the influential essay, “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema,” for Cahiers du Cinema. In it he pejoratively lumped together France’s most gifted screenwriters and directors in a single, literary “Tradition of Quality,” destroying a few careers in the process. (As a filmmaker, he became what he knocked.) A five-title exhibition at New York’s BAM, New French Films (November 12-16), is skewed 180 degrees in the opposite direction. The series brilliantly highlights the multiple tendencies at play in contemporary Gallic movies. Most important, the BAM show includes what is, for me, the finest film of the past year, Tunisian-born Abdellatif Kechiche‘s “The Secret of the Grain,” which was ignored at Tribeca.

North African Voices

“The Secret of the Grain” feels so natural, so real–the characters seem to pull the frequently handheld camera with them–that it has the feel of a professionally made home movie. France is finally owning up to its multiculturalism, and good filmmakers with Maghrebian roots (Rachid Bouchareb, Merzak Allouache) have broken through. Who would have thought that “The Secret of the Grain”‘s tale of a poor family of Arab immigrants and their semi-assimilated offspring trying to survive in a bleak southern French port town would win the Cesar for Best French Film of 2007? No Deneuve, no Huppert, no Depardieu. The unobtrusive direction and screenplay, where every plot point is subtly signaled, pays off.

A creature of habit and a man of pure grace, 61-year-old Slimane (Habib Bourfares) loses his job at the boat repair yards, the site of tenuous relationships between struggling working-class whites and Arabs. (“You’re not profitable anymore,” his white supervisor tells him without a hint of compassion.) So Slimane busts his butt fixing up a wreck of a tub for a specialized restaurant, not only as a new source of income but to preserve his dignity. The town’s Caucasian power hierarchy feels threatened by this interloper and tries to undermine his enterprise. The bigger problem is that the eatery’s draw is a magical fish couscous, a dish perfected by his embittered ex-wife, whom he had abandoned for a mistress. The latter’s fiery, outspoken teen daughter, rather than his own grown children, believes in him and becomes his most helpful collaborator. (Hafsia Herzi has star quality in a major way.)

It is clear that Slimane requires both his families to get his project off the ground. The term extended family takes on a new, enlarged dimension on both sociological and narrative levels. You feel alive watching the camera jump from face to face at a large but casual couscous dinner for all the relatives, packed as they are in a tiny apartment, or among the baffled expressions of opening-night guests, who are being stalled so that a new batch of couscous can be made to replace the one that is missing. In the end, “The Secret of the Grain” is about aestheticized recycling, the creation of something of beauty out of decay, and the harnessing of the loving power of relatives and friends in order to achieve it.

Period Pieces

Francois Ozon adapted an overwrought 1957 novel by the English writer Elizabeth Taylor, a cross between Barbara Cartland and Harlequin, into an overwrought English-language film, “Angel.” Call it homage to ’30s and ’40s Hollywood, with lavish sets (from the 19teens), but this is replication, not reinterpretation. Romola Garai, who could have taken acting lessons from Kate Winslet, plays a self-absorbed lower-middle-class grocer’s daughter who never reads, yet becomes, most improbably, a best-selling author while in high school. Her success allows her to purchase the huge estate that had enthralled her as a child. She marries a handsome painter, played by Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands in “Hunger”), a moody, opportunistic, and deceitful man. He is the reason to see “Angel,” no matter how much of a misfire it is. Fassbender is one of the great thesps of his generation. I remember when Ozon himself showed promise (“See the Sea”), even balls. Now he’s all about nostalgia and feminine trappings.

A scene from Abdellatif Kechiche’s “The Secret of the Grain.” Image courtesy of IFC Films

Nasty Habits

There are no ruffles in “Just Anybody,” by Jacques Doillon (“Ponette”). Like Benoit Jacquot, among others, Doillon likes to put a beautiful young actress (usually one who can’t act) at the center of a movie for, hmmm, exhibitionistic purposes. This time it’s Clementine Beaugrand, whose lack of affect enervates the enterprise. Yet another characteristic of some recent French fare is here: utterly despicable characters.

Beaugrand’s Camille is mostly just annoying, duplicitous in an almost innocent way. But the two violent macho men she finds herself involved with in a northern French coastal town are so repugnant that you can not understand why anyone would want to depict them onscreen. One is an abusive junkie, a thoroughly unattractive deadbeat dad. The other is a local cop, childhood friend of the junkie, who’s a veritable Jekyll and Hyde with Camille. All are uninteresting and stupid. Yet as a filmmaker Doillon knows how to set up a shot, how to follow his characters at just the right distance. The one French director who does something provocative with the denizens of such a yucky parallel universe is Bruno Dumont, with oddballs played by non-pros in the sublime “Flanders” (2006) and the much-heralded but too self-consciously weird “L’Humanite” (1999).

Just Anybody also falls into the category of dialog-heavy gallic films, mostly for adults, a genre mastered by, say, Eric Rohmer et Cie, one that usually involves a battle of the sexes. But here, you don’t care enough about the characters to care about their discourse.

Schizoid Linguistics

Mia Hansen-Love‘s “All Is Forgiven” suffers at times from the wordiness of explication. Some critical sequences summing up actions of the past are long and unimaginative, the narrative advancing by exposition instead of montage or movement of any kind. But that is a quibble, and much of this film is aptly directed. The real problem with language here is that there are two, German (scenes in Vienna) and French (it’s mostly set in Paris). We have the revival of the Europudding, big in the ’90s, in which companies from different European countries help finance a film, with conditions including use of crew and/or actors and/or locations in more than one.

I’m not sure if “All Is Forgiven” is funded from France AND Austria, but it feels like that. The French, like many other nations competing with Hollywood, often dilute their films in this way in the belief that they will connect with otherwise closed markets. Why in the hell are the two leads, a married couple with a daughter, speaking to each other in German in Vienna and, five minutes later, chatting only in French in Paris? It sounds very strange and is off-putting.

Victor (Paul Blain), a frustrated writer who becomes an addict, blows his marriage to Annette (Marie-Christine Friedrich), who, with their little girl, abandons him. Eleven years later he meets up with his daughter, now a stunning teen, and forges a bond that seems to keep him going until tragedy strikes. But this climax seems like a negative deus ex machine: It appears unmotivated, merely a dark coda to add dramatic weight.

Gallic…Comedy?

A low-end tendency of French cinema, generic comedy, does not always resonate with Americans. I did not have the opportunity to preview “Journey to the Pyrenees,” by Jean-Marie and Arnaud Larrieu, but in Cannes Variety called it “a terminally dumb comedy…a threadbare yarn (in which) direction is leaden and (performances) by the two leads somewhere between overcooked and plain and silly.” The writer noted, however, that “local Cannes audiences seemed to find plenty to laugh at.” So it was made more for the home front than for some amorphous international crowd. Whether the final product turns out to be junk or not, I much prefer targeting the locals. Let them eat cake, if that’s what they want. And if the film travels, it travels, on its own momentum, rather than being plotted out by some businessy, Mabuse-like Marketeer.

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