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April 22, 2003 2:00 AM
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Finding France's Shining Stars At L.A.'s City of Lights, City of Angels Fest

Finding France's Shining Stars At L.A.'s City of Lights, City of Angels Fest

by Scott Foundas



Benedicte Lienard's "A Piece of Sky," a highlight of the City of Lights, City of Angels fest, juxtaposes women incarcerated prison with women working in a croissant factory.

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The lights shone no less brightly than usual at this year's City of Lights, City of Angels festival, despite the continuing suggestion that the war in Iraq had created a rift in Franco-American relations. True, attendance at the week of new French cinema, presented annually by the Directors Guild of America, experienced a slight dip in 2003, but that might just as soon have been caused by competition from the news itself (and its incessantly hopeful contention that the war is still going on). For those who did turn out, this year's broad assortment of films suggested that French cinema is not only alive and well (and making something other than "Taxi" movies), but that French filmmakers are continuing to find ways of addressing us in a language that is neither Gallic, nor Hollywood, but something more universal.

Festival director Christine Pernin has always had her work cut out for her -- striving to assemble a lineup that showcases both the commercial and artistic ends of the contemporary French film industry, without sacrificing quality works that might (for one reason or another) never pass through L.A. again. So, City of Lights festivals past have brought us everything from the slapstick antics of the remake-ready, Luc Besson-produced "Weekend Break" to the rarefied pleasures of Raul Ruiz's "Time Regained." (And, somewhere in-between, the director's cut of Arnaud Desplechin's "Esther Kahn.") Yet, in her final year with the festival, Pernin seemed confident about pushing the programming envelope further than ever before.

Benedicte Lienard's stunning directorial debut "A Piece of Sky" is the kind of movie it takes real guts to sit through, let alone for a festival to contemplate screening. Juxtaposing the inmates in a women's prison against the equally shackled mass of workers in a croissant-making factory, the film is about all the ways in which a prison can be like a factory and vice-versa -- bleak assembly lines from which anonymous, soulless drones emerge, the desired end product. The movie stars Severine Caneele in her first role since her controversial win of the best actress prize at Cannes for Bruno Dumont's "L'Humanite." And it's a performance destined to leave all naysayers in its tumultuous wake: As Joanna, who used to work in the factory until some unspecified transgression landed her behind bars (where she continues to advocate fair labor practices), Caneele blazes the screen, her edges as rough now as they were three years ago in that memorable debut. Lienard began her career as an assistant to Jaco Van Dormael and the Dardenne brothers (among others), but it's the latter whose work most richly informs "A Piece of Sky." Like the Dardennes, Lienard (who also scripted) has a marvelous knack for backing into her story; for celebrating the mundane virtues of real, honest labor; and for creating a cinematic atmosphere so intimate and palpably real that the film seems to close in on you, like a celluloid barbed-wire fence.

Almost as interesting and nearly as tough, Christophe Ruggia's "The Devils" updates Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter" for color and widescreen, and for an age in which an entire society of thoughtless, too-young parents and well-meaning, but ineffectual psychotherapists stands in for Robert Mitchum's hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. In short, the line between good and evil is no longer so black and white, especially when viewed through the eyes of two permanently neglected pre-teen runaways -- an autistic girl and her slightly older brother. As the children, Adele Haenel and Vincent Rottiers deliver two of the most deeply impressive, unselfconscious child performances I've ever seen in a movie. And as director, Ruggia shows enormous confidence in turning over vast sections of the movie to their pantomimic control, showing us the world through their desperate, deranged eyes. It's only in its more conventional stretches -- among them, a needlessly lengthy sequence in which the kids are temporarily detained in a state-run juvenile home -- that the film seems to be treading water. Which, fortunately, isn't that often.

Two films screening at opposite ends of the festival represented further attempts by filmmakers to wring wry humor from the vestiges of the Holocaust and, more specifically, the Nazi occupation of France. Early in the week, Gerard Jugnot's "Monsieur Batignole" surfaced as a well-meaning, but ultimately cloying exercise, in which a hapless butcher (played by writer-director Jugnot, who's a bit like France's answer to Albert Brooks) helps three Jewish children to escape to freedom, all the while his oblivious, collaborationist family frolics among once-Jewish riches. But on the festival's second-to-last-night, Michael Deville's "Almost Peaceful," set in Paris just after the close of the war, emerged as something completely different (and better). Detailing the comings and goings in a Jewish tailor's shop with the disarming delicacy of two stage farce masters, Deville and his wife (screenwriter Rosalinde Deville) work this ostensibly lighthearted romp into a pointed and deeply moving study of the many wounds left to mend after the end of a war -- between nations and between people.

And although it wallows in by-now very familiar satirical territory, I still have a lot of affection for Guillaime Canet's "Mon Idole," which spews more bile than most in its savage attack on the reality-TV craze, and has more fun doing so. Directed by and starring Guillaume Canet as the much-put-upon assistant to the vain host of a hilariously cruel gameshow called "It's Tissue Time" (in which contestants try to remain tear-less as cruel secrets about their lives are offered up for public consumption), the movie is something of a mess. It derails in the third act, becoming precisely the sort of broadly exaggerated deflation of privileged decadence (a la "Swimming with Sharks") it has theretofore scrupulously avoided. Before then, the movie is spot-on (and very funny) about the dignity-eroding climb up the entertainment industry ladder, as innocent Canet finds himself locked in a battle of wits and wills with the larger-than-life producer (Francois Berleand) he idolizes. In his filmmaking debut, Canet pumps the movie full of a zippy, widescreen energy that suggests early Blake Edwards, while on screen his flat-faced, working-class charm recalls the young Belmondo. But it's Berleand, in a magnificent, untethered comic performance -- sweeping up all those around him into the twisted grandeur of his larger-than-life, Hustonian character -- who steals the show.

As to the festival's other offerings; well, even an ace slugger like Pernin can't hit one out of the park every time she steps up to bat. Patrice Chereau's "His Brother" is an accomplished look at death and dying, with a lot of insight into the ways we can hurt one another while we're still alive, that nonetheless leaves me as cold and unmoved as most of Chereau's work. Laurent Bouhnik's "24 Hours in the Life of a Woman" has a magnificent Agnes Jaoui performance and some exquisite period detailing in service of a fairly conventional exercise in parallel storytelling, with a present-day framing device that easily might have been lopped off in the editing room. And Zabou Breitman's "Try to Remember" can't quite overcome its own schizophrenic busyness long enough to hone in on the one really compelling story it has to tell -- that of a young woman (Cesar award winner Isabelle Carre) slowly and painfully coming to terms with the fact that she is losing her mind to an Alzheimer's-like illness.

Despite its status as one of France's top box-office attractions over the last year, Claude Berri's "The Housekeeper" is little more than a tepid reprise of Berri's earlier "One Wild Moment," boosted by game contributions from stars Jean-Pierre Bacri and Emilie Dequenne. More distressingly, Pascal Bonitzer's "Small Cuts" is nothing more than a thoroughly delightful opening scene burdened down by the 90 minutes of excruciating, would-be fanciful nonsense that follow -- no matter the presence of stars Daniel Auteuil, Kristen Scott Thomas (looking particularly dazed and confused), and Bonitzer's pedigree as a frequent collaborator of Jacques Rivette. But the torpid double-dose of Depardieus (Gerard and Guillaume) known as "Love Thy Father" is strictly for those cine-masochists seeking to further ponder how Depardieu pere -- once one of the world's most vibrant screen stars -- has become such a slothful, hulking shadow of his former self (and fathered such unimpressive offspring, to boot). Once a reason to see a movie, he's now a big reason to stay away.

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