FESTIVAL: At City of Lights, Some Bright Spots And a Few Dim Ideas
by Scott Foundas
(indieWIRE/ 04.22.02) -- Perhaps not all that surprising, given his reputation as both chef and cineaste, Bertrand Tavernier's "Laissez-Passez" (Safe Conduct) -- which opened the sixth edition of the City of Lights, City of Angels film week at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles -- is a big, stringy goulash of a movie, at once too much and not enough. There's little doubt that Tavernier -- who also co-wrote with his frequent collaborator, Jean Cosmos -- was the right person to attempt a film about the French film industry under the German occupation, based in part on the memoirs of Jean Aurenche (who scripted Tavernier's early films). But the result is a mess, as though Tavernier's archivist mind simply couldn't bear the organizational duties the subject matter presented and has emptied out on to the screen, like a dump-truck unloading. "Laissez-Passez" begins with some fecund ideas -- chief among them, the way in which filmmaking was itself a form of popular rebellion during the occupation. But over the film's course, Tavernier veers away from this to tell more familiar stories of wartime heroism in which the participants just happen to be filmmakers. (One of these episodes -- in which the assistant director Jean Devaivre goes to pick up a script and, through a series of comic machinations, finds himself recruited by the French resistance for an impromptu reconnaissance mission -- is beautifully executed, but is too little too late.)
Three hours aren't nearly enough for Tavernier to execute the story he has conceived -- there are dozens of characters rushing in and out of the action, locations are leapt to and fro with a whiplash-inducing fury -- and, while the film is never boring, it's also never settled; its chief effect is that of a nervous foot tapping noisily, wishing the actors would hurry about their business. This is a mangy, undisciplined work, and it derives no charm from that shapelessness. Working on his biggest canvas yet, and with one of his biggest subjects, Tavernier has (and misses) a big chance, and you're left pondering what went wrong. After all, the director has memorably filmed epics before, but those films were striking for their isolation of a few delicate strains of human drama beneath their vast landscapes. And so there is nothing in "Laissez-Passez" to equal the tentative romance of Philippe Noiret and Sabine Azema in "Life and Nothing But" or the curdling, ingrown horror of Bernard Pierre Donadieu's madness in "The Passion of Beatrice." The physical production of "Laissez-Passez" is magnificent, making its ultimate disappointment all the greater, as one is reminded of what might have been. (One is alternately reminded of the Orson Welles quote: "The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.") The film is packed with activity and enjoyably idiosyncratic actors, and you want to sit back and let Tavernier's meticulousness wash over you -- for who else is conceiving of, let alone executing, films of this scale anymore. (It's like one of those great, rumored dream-projects that directors spend their entire lives trying to get made.) But at every turn, "Laissez-Passez" resists your inclination -- it's too fidgety to be warmly embraced.
Tavernier's film could have been titled "Chaos," were the moniker not already so befitting Coline Serrau's latest. It's tempting to say that Serrau's film, like Tavernier's, includes everything but the kitchen sink in its multi-character, multi-directional story, except that Serrau doesn't seem to have forgotten even that -- her basin is there, and it's overflowing. The film opens with a traffic mishap, in which a young prostitute of Algerian descent (Rachida Brakni) darts in front of the car driven by a bourgeois Paris couple (Vincent Lindon and Christine Gozlan) and is brutally beaten by her pimps as the couple looks on in feigned horror. The husband is unfazed, but the guilt-stricken wife takes up a quest to find the prostitute and to help her however she can. The point being that the wife and the prostitute are basically nice, benevolent people, while the husband, the pimp and every other man in sight are the dregs of humanity -- ungrateful, violent-tempered pigs who deserve to be treated the way the prostitute is in the opening scene. Serrau's film is that beating -- a strained female-empowerment revenge-fantasy, with the wife and the prostitute wreaking vengeance not just on evil pimps, but on every man who has ever dared to so much as look at a woman the wrong way; it's "Amelie" meets "Death Wish." There are a half-dozen or so other characters too, all weaving in and out of each other's lives in a series of contrived ways, and the film is a jumble of tones from harrowing to farcical. But mostly, "Chaos" is a torpid sermon on the virtues of womanhood, how a woman's work is never done and even less frequently appreciated -- its bra-burning politics as retrograde as those in Silvio Soldini's "Bread and Tulips" last year. "Chaos" was a hit in France, and the riveting Brakni deservedly won the Cesar for most promising young actress, but did any men see it, or feel less than shamed for doing so?
Ironically, it's Patrick Alessandrin's comedy "15 Aout" (Weekend Break) that features a warning on its poster: "No men were abused during the making of this film." That's because, despite its premise, this film -- about a trio of bumbling husbands whose wives abandon them (and their kids) at a rented beach house -- is decidedly free of the vindictive man-hate that fuels "Chaos." Rather, this slapstick romp is patterned distinctly in the mold of Serrau's earlier "Three Men and a Cradle" -- the protagonists still get their comeuppance, but the film has a sunny attitude towards their buffoonery and you don't feel like it's out to get anyone. Make no mistake: "15 Aout" is stupid as all get-out, and my own affection for the film -- I laughed myself silly -- may have less to do with its quality than with my general preference for big, dumb French comedies over big, dumb American ones. (Several years ago, I cackled uproariously throughout Jean-Marie Poire's "Guardian Angels" at the Sarasota French Film Festival, much to the embarrassment of the others in my party.) But "15 Aout" was a huge commercial success on its home turf --even more so than "Chaos" -- and it has already been acquired by no less than Miramax for an American redo. Chalk that up to the wonderful chemistry of the three leads: the sour Jean-Pierre Darroussin; the springy Charles Berling; and the grave Richard Berry, who has a blast here lampooning his patented tough-guy image. The Miramax remake will probably star Robin Williams in one of the parts (or perhaps all three) and not be worth anyone's time.
On to the festival's two greatest pleasures: Jean-Pierre Ameris' "C'est La Vie" and Christian Crion's "Une Hirondelle a Fait le Printemps" (The Girl From Paris). On paper, these two films, which screened on consecutive nights, mid-week, in two of the festival's lower-profile slots, sound like routine, eminently miss-able commercial concoctions: the first, with its generic, oft-used title and cancer-stricken plot; the second with its fish-out-of-water meets grumpy-old-fish scenario. But the great surprise of both pictures is how their makers contort familiar characters and situations in ways that buck your expectations. For starters, "C'est La Vie" is no treacly movie-of-the-week, but rather a film about dying more mordant than morbid, with sanctimony and sentiment kept far afield. (It's one to set beside Tavernier's "Daddy Nostalgia.") Set in a nursing home for the terminally ill, it tells an unhurried love story, between an irascible new patient and a recently-widowed volunteer, and in doing so employs two of the best available actors: the bony Jacques Dutronc, who seems manufactured to play dying men; and the heart-stoppingly gorgeous Sandrine Bonnaire, who may be the most beautiful actress in movies today, but who, in her best roles (like this one), bares a ravishing soul too. Ameris takes his time developing these characters and doesn't push too hard to make us see them falling for one another, which is precisely why their duet to "Mon Menage a Moi" in a karaoke bar is charmingly romantic instead of sickeningly cute. But most impressively, the film is a resolutely dignified affair in which death is more inevitable than sacrosanct; the dying here are permitted to smoke, drink, carouse and otherwise enjoy their final days instead of having their suffering prolonged by doctors and nurses who "know best."
"Une Hirondelle a Fait le Printemps," on the other hand, is a sunny delight of a movie, as gentle as a breeze and as warm as spring rain. From its glorious opening shot, it sweeps you up into its story of bored Parisienne Sandrine (Mathilde Seigner), who decides to trade the city life for the country one, enrolls in an agriculture program and then purchases a remote Rhone-Alps farm, where the prior owner (Michel Serrault), as part of the deal, will be staying on for another nine months. Despite your iron-clad resistance to this sort of thing -- your certainty about Serrault's eventual softening and the ensuing May-December romance, your retreat from any film that so shamelessly mines laughs from a temperamental pet dog -- "Une Hirondelle" is irresistible, and rarely goes where you think its headed. This is not a movie about some brash city girl turning the countryside upside-down (the way it might be if Miramax remade it with Melanie Griffith and Anthony Hopkins) nor some message-y tripe about love's ability to transcend age barriers. It's a loving, humanistic romp about two strong-willed personalities coping with change in their lives, tempted by the past, resolved to build a new future. What's more, the film has an indelible appreciation for the land and for human endeavor; it's a valentine to the Rhone-Alps (from whence Carion hails) and its people. Like Ameris, Carion keeps things simple -- there are perhaps 10 speaking parts in the entire film -- and he puts enormous trust in his actors: the consummately cranky Serrault; and the luminous Seigner, who seems as comfortable on horseback as she does delivering two stillborn baby goats. The week's one film that I wished went on longer.
It can't be easy being Mathilde Seigner, daughter of a famous photographer and younger sister to sultry screen siren Emmanuelle. But since Claude Miller first cast her in "Le Sourire," Mathilde has persevered, and she has had a run of good parts ("Time Regained," "With a Friend Like Harry") that have revealed her as the possessor of her family's dominant acting genes. But if "Une Hirondelle" is something of a breakthrough for her -- a big leading role where she fully bursts into bloom -- then seeing that performance back-to-back with her smaller, supporting turn in Miller's "Betty Fisher and Other Stories" is sufficient convincing that Mathilde is someone to get excited about. She's easily the most remarkable thing on screen in the oft-misguided "Betty Fisher," adapted from a Ruth Rendell novel and just acquired by Wellspring Media for a U.S. release. Playing a saucy, working-class tart whose fatherless child is kidnapped by the mother (Nicole Garcia) of a famous author (Sandrine Kiberlain), Seigner is the earthy center of the film -- a forthright free-thinker motivated by an insatiable desire to have fun. The rest of the film is a noble, if not always successful, effort by Miller to gradually transform this dark scenario into a lighter exploration of chance, coincidence, and moral ambiguity. It's vintage subject matter for the director of "Garde a Vue" and "The Accompanist" and he pulls it off, if just barely.
The last film I saw at City of Lights, City of Angels, "Vidocq," was preceded by the demonstration of a new sound-mixing process called Arkamys -- a demo that entailed showing the "Vidocq" trailer twice consecutively, once with "normal" sound and once with state-of-the-art Arkamys sound. The occasion was fitting, because "Vidocq" itself is something of a state-of-the-art film: at a cost of $25 million and starring Gerard Depardieu, it's easily the highest-profile movie, pre-"Star Wars: Episode II," to be shot using the 24P high-definition video camera. And "Vidocq" is the best sell yet of the technology -- the images are not indistinguishable from film, particularly in daylight scenes and in tight close-ups, but for most audiences it will suffice, and it's easy to see how 24P might become the new filmmaking standard as soon as the people who fund movies become convinced of an ensuing increase in their profit margins. I mention all this because it is more interesting than anything in "Vidocq" itself, which is more commodity than real movie and a grueling, unpleasant affair useful mainly as a reminder of just how little $25 million really buys you. The film, which was directed by Pitof (a longtime collaborator on the films of Luc Besson and Jean-Pierre Jeunet), is an alleged whodunit in which the main selling points are a killer with a mirrored face and lots of ornate CG dreamscapes. But the only real mystery offered by "Vidocq" is trying to figure out when Depardieu -- once one of the screen's most excitingly physical actors -- transformed, Brando-style, into a sulking mass with two huge sagging breasts, for whom even the slightest action seems to require enormous effort.