FESTIVALS: Scenes from the Class Struggle and Coming-of-Age in France's Hills
by Andy Bailey
(indieWIRE/ 03.09.01) -- French cinema began the year with a bang back home as attendance jumped 42 percent during February alone, aided by a triumvirate of blockbusters including Francis Veber's "The Closet," starring Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu; Christophe Gans' "Brotherhood of the Wolves," a two-hundred-million-franc action/horror/period hybrid nabbed by Universal for worldwide distribution; and "La vérité si je mens 2," a sequel that's already Warner Brothers' biggest box office success in France after a month in theaters.
America has seen a major jump in distribution of French films, with nearly 40 films (a dozen of them co-productions) slated for screens in 2001, led by Agnès Jaoui's recent comedy "The Taste of Others," an Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film and a huge hit in France where it gobbled up multiple Césars. If a renaissance looms for mainstream French cinema both inside the hexagon and abroad, the word from the minor leagues is almost as encouraging.
For the sixth year, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presents its Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series, opening today through March 18 at New York's Walter Reade Theater, and while only three films in the series have landed distribution deals (Benoit Jacquot's "Sade," Jean Becker's "A Crime in Paradise" and Anne Sophie-Birot's "Girls Can't Swim) this year's line-up is notable for its emphasis on "les petits films" that won't likely receive the same fanfare as the blockbusters that boosted French attendance to the highest level in twenty years.
Rendez-Vous includes one undisputably great film, Robert Guédiguian's "The Town is Quiet," my choice for the best international film currently without distribution, goddamn it, as well as one minor masterpiece, Arnaud Desplechin's English-language character study "Esther Kahn." With only a few duds out of thirteen, including two disappointing costume dramas starring Daniel Auteuil and Isabelle Huppert, it's a healthy enough sign that French cinema remains as strong on the sidelines as in les grands salles.
The stand-out theme of this year's series (and one that never goes away, it would seem) is that of nubile young women coming of age under a malaise that inches toward violence. Festival scandalmongers like "Rape Me" and "Fat Girls" have made the world hungry for such fare; joining these is "Girls Can't Swim," the fidgety account of two 15-year-old girls whose long-distance friendship gets tested when one runs away from home to join the other for a summer holiday in Brittany. Frisky Gwen (Isild Le Besco) has grown into a nymphet, while introverted Lise (Karen Alyx) struggles to find herself after the death of a father she never knew. Birot's approach is textbook hormonal rush, as the girls' differences collide in a shocking dénouement that feels out of place in an otherwise restrained film. Le Besco, however, is a revelation in denim cut-offs, busting out of her baby fat with a sort of peevish glee. She's also the best thing about "Sade" -- prim, pouty putty in the moribund Marquis' calloused hands.
Arnaud Desplechin's "Esther Kahn," on the other hand, is about a young woman horrified of growing up -- out of fear that she might actually be capable of greatness. A starkly rendered Edwardian period drama, set in London's working-class Jewish slums, Desplechin's English-language debut irises in on a young aspiring actress (Summer Phoenix) trying to find her voice on the stage after her family dismisses her as a freak. The film "reads" like a sprawling 19th century novel of scope and squalor, stretching out leisurely over two and a half hours; its austere, muted tones suggest the brush strokes of an old master painting. If "Esther Kahn" tests one's patience -- many have found Phoenix's performance flat, her Cockney accent a crock; but isn't that sort of the point? It rewards those who stay put for its grueling, grandiose climax with one of the great backstage sequences ever shot.
Declared the best film of last year by Cahiers du Cinema -- enough to scare anyone off -- "Esther Kahn's" nothing less than a masterpiece of character illumination. When its titular heroine finally unleashes her voice, after devouring broken glass moments before enacting Hedda Gabler, it's the opposite of Björk losing hers to the noose in "Dancer in the Dark." Like von Trier, Desplechin pushes his fragile star to the brink, often violently so. It's Desplechin's second character named Esther, after the Sorbonne student in 1997's "My Sex Life . . . or How I Got Into an Argument," who spent an eternity waiting to get her period. Here's another director who loves to watch women bleed, though not for reasons you might think. Von Trier created a crass epiphany out of Björk going blind; Desplechin rejoices in watching Esther learn how to see. Meanwhile, another Phoenix rises from the flames.
"Hair Under the Roses" feels like an anomaly in French film -- an American-style teenage sex romp -- but filmmakers Agnès Obadia and Jean-Julien Chervier locate a middle ground between ennui and ebullience that feels just right for about an hour. Nobody fucks an apple pie, though one horny young buck steals his mother's pubic trimmings and -- in an act of Freudian bricolage that only the French could dream up --Scotch tapes them onto a centerfold beaver shot then urinates on the totem before running away from home. Set in a Parisian suburb where 14-year-old protagonist Roudoudou (Julie Durand, a delight) wakes up one morning with one cyclops breast, "Hair Under the Roses" is an extroverted, somewhat slight virginity farce that dabbles in airy surrealism -- including anatomically correct animated dream sequences à la "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" -- until it crashes down to earth for a cutesy consummation scene that makes you pine for the pimply promises of "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret."
Scenes from the class struggle is the other big theme of this year's Rendez-Vous, with no less than four proletarian-centered freak-outs, including Jean-Pierre Denis' murky "Murderous Maids," the umpteenth retelling of the Papin sisters' bloody, incestuous spiral from Le Mans housekeepers to cold-blooded murderesses. Up-and-comer Sylvie Testud, a cross between Hatchet Face and a pre-Raphaelite sprite, won the bright young thing César for her fine performance as Christine Papin.
Class hostility also burns with a vengeance in "According to Matthew," Xavier Beauvois' brooding brothers-up-in-arms potboiler that's the sort of well-made domestic drama that France churns out rather effortlessly. Only slightly narcoleptic in its depiction of a young Normandy factory worker (Benoit Magimel, a more angular Sean Penn) who tries to sleep his way into the landed gentry, the moral here is not liberté or egalité, but fraternité that rules out in the end. Remember your place, Matthew learns, even if your wet noodle of an older brother has a mortgage and you don't.
Phillipe Le Guay's "Nightshift" caught me totally by surprise. This psychodrama with homoerotic undertones about an assembly line worker in a bottle plant who is harassed by a boorish fellow employee is one of those films that won't let you turn away from it. Another searing meditation on class hostility, this cat-and-mouse sleeper surprises you at every turn -- the less said about it the better.
"The Town is Quiet" received a five-minute standing ovation at last year's Venice Film Festival and it has since amassed its share of aficionados. But regional filmmaker Robert Guédiguian's great leap forward remains without a distributor -- and this critic is NOT quiet. A stunning multi-narrative canvas set in present-day Marseille, the epicenter of France's myriad social problems, it's one of the most intelligent and politically engaged urban dramas I've ever seen, adept at leaping from the micro to the mondial with consummate ease. A soulful civics lesson in race, class, urban planning, generational shift, among other things, it's the best film of its kind since "Nashville" in the way that it uses one city's identity crisis as a microcosm for what's not working in the society at large. Featuring a devastating central performance by Ariane Ascaride, the director's wife, as an exhausted night-shift fishmonger who resorts to drastic measures to save her junkie whore daughter, "The Town is Quiet" serves up one grim crisis after another until you expect Marseille to crumble under its own hubris and fall into the Mediterranean. Instead the film ends in an act of comic transcendence that makes Paul Thomas Anderson come across like a third grader.
Indefinable is Chantal Akerman's edgy Proust-via-Hitchcock psychosexual drama "La Captive," in which a wealthy young Parisian named Simon (Stanislas Merhar) goes to disturbing lengths to possess his ambivalent lover, Ariane (Sylvie Testud), who might be a golddigger, a lesbian, an unrealized actress, or all of the above. Befuddling as it is kinkily arresting, "La Captive" marks a return to form for the film snob's critical darling, whose last American release was the straight-to-video snore-fest "A Couch in New York," starring William Hurt and Juliette Binoche. What's most unnerving about "La Captive" is its clipped, call-and-response dialogue between Simon and Ariane, recalling the absurdist wordplay of Beckett or Duras. Based on a story from Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past," "La Captive" verges on postmodern absurdity but earns its wings as the stodgiest, most uncompromising film in the series.
Finally, is there a crisis in the French costume drama? It would appear so, though in France there seems to be a crisis in everything, at all times, which might explain why its culture rarely ceases to fascinate, perplex, instruct and annoy, in that order. So then why have all the French period dramas since "Ridicule" felt so sterile and lifeless? "Sade" and "Saint-Cyr" are no exception. They're barely resuscitated by the presence of the great Daniel Auteuil and Isabelle Huppert, stalwarts of the French screen who tend to slouch toward period fare every few years. Both turn in commendable if not methodical performances, as the Marquis de Sade during his imprisonment at Picpus and as the Madame de Maintenon, the wife of Louis XIV who tried to set up a boarding school for destitute nobility outside Paris.
But the films feel cold and listless, even considering the austerity of the times they depict. Jacquot's "Sade" plays out like the opposite of "Quills" -- gutless when it should have smacked you in the gut. "Saint-Cyr" tries to be sincere in its depiction of a woman's attempts at progress during the turbulence of the former regime, but winds up feeling as cumbersome as a corset. In the end, all you remember about "Sade" and "Saint-Cyr" are the two faces up on the screen -- the grizzled creases of Auteuil and the deadpan smirk of Huppert. You can put them in breeches and bustles, but like Isild Le Besco, they'll bust out of the material eventually.