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DISPATCH FROM NEW YORK | The City Hosts The French, Iranian and Canadian Invasions

DISPATCH FROM NEW YORK | The City Hosts The French, Iranian and Canadian Invasions

It was a veritable EPCOT Center in New York this week. On Thursday night, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy held a reception for the continuing Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, featuring lovely-looking pastries and Unifrance‘s John Kochman offering a harsh reality in his address, that “French films are competing for maybe 2% of the market, maybe 1%”. It was a point that was being discussed throughout the week: while a little over half of the films screening at the Rendez-Vous have distribution attached, there has still been a noticeable decline in French films that have made it to Stateside cinemas (R.I.P., Wellspring). Beyond the French, Iran continued to grab attention in New York with the ongoing Abbas Kiarostami retrospective at MoMA, while across town Lincoln Center spotlighted Jafar Panahi.

Cameras Eye le Besco at Rendez-Vous

Probably the most noticeable presence at the soiree belonged to actress Isild le Besco, star of Benoit Jacquot‘s Rendez-Vous entry “The Untouchable,” Trailed as she imperiously made her rounds by a flock of cameras fiming her every move, wearing bright red lipstick and a formal black dress, le Besco looked every inch the prototypical actress–which is, in fact, what she was playing. The majority of the attendant cameras were shooting a film she is making with actor/director Jean-Marc Barr (“One to Another“, which also played at the Rendez-Vous) about a French actress who visits New York. Asked whether it is difficult to play up one’s own glamorous facade, le Besco breezily responded, “whenever I am out, I feel I am always playing a part, the part of an actress. Why should this be different?” And does it excite her that she is clearly the focal point in the room, with her film cameras drawing in multitudes of gawkers making photo requests? “I don’t notice it,” she confessed. “It’s just for the role.”

The Rendez-Vous concluded on Saturday with a screening of the latest comedy from “The Dinner Game” director Francis Veber‘ “The Valet,” a sweet little farce about a nebbishy parking attendant who finds himself improbably living with a supermodel, whose billionaire boyfriend has made the arrangement to throw off his wife’s suspicions. It’s a broad comedy with a sitcom setup, for sure, but unlike the majority of Hollywood comedies-of-error, Veber’s humour depends on his characters’ intelligence, and their logical attempts to solve the problems presented to them. It may still get its chance to get dumbed-down: “There was a bidding war for the rights to remake my movie, though not so much to distribute it,” said Veber of the film. “My movies are more likely to get remade rather than shown… I think it is believed that the American audience for comedies does not enjoy reading subtitles.” He hardly seems bitter, however, “You can get your movie shown however you like in New York, but if you want to touch Tucson, if you want to touch Arkansas, you do what you can.”

Lincoln Center Screens “Offside”

The increasingly vital cinema of Iran received attention this week both through the Museum of Modern Art‘s continuing Abbas Kiarostami retrospective (March 1 – 19) and, on Monday night, with the Film Society of Lincoln Center‘s special screening of frequent Kiarostami collaborator Jafar Panahi’s entry at the 2006 New York Film Festival, “Offside,” a tensely riveting comedy about a group of women detained in a stadium after they have attempted to pass themselves off as men in order to attend an important soccer game (an arrestable offense in Iran).

Filmed, “Medium Cool”-style, in part during the actual 2006 World Cup Qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain, the film’s ending was decided on the spot, based upon the outcome. “The cinema of Iran tends to be very improvisational, very on-the-spot”, said Columbia University professor Hamid Dabashi (author of Iran: a People Interrupted) during a Q & A that followed the film. “‘Offside’ is lighter than Pinahi’s last films, ‘Crimson Gold‘ and ‘The Circle,'” explained Dabashi, “but its commentary is just as plain, not just in how it shows Iran’s gender apartheid, but also in the class conflict, [and] in the conflict between the rural soldiers and the Tehrani women.” The commentary may have ultimately led to the film’s ban in Iran, or as Dabashi described it, “the functional equivalent of being nominated for an Academy Award.”

“As it happens,” he concluded, “my wife and I went to see ‘300‘ (a Hollywood offering that was recently condemned by the regime in Tehran for being anti-Iranian) last night. And tonight we saw [‘Offside’], and it says something about the meaning of film that the excitement and suspense about whether these women will fix a broken antenna before the game ends [was greater than the] 10,000 CGI soldiers fighting one another.” “Offside” receives its US release on March 23, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Sarah Polley Joins “Canadian Front” Series at MoMA

Returning to MoMA, the museum opened its “Canadian Front: New Films” series, launching Wednesday night with Sarah Polley‘s assured directorial debut, “Away From Her.” The program, which continues until Monday, March 19 and features a varied selection of eight Canadian films, raised the question of what elements, in particular, distinguish Canadian films… Admitted MoMA curator Laurence Kardish, “It’s a cinema difficult to define in technical terms.” Polley agreed, saying, “I don’t know what it is that makes a film Canadian, except I feel it. I think you instinctively feel when something is from where you’re from.”

There may have been some clue to the national identity, though, when Wayne Clarkson from Telefilm Canada joked, “You can tell it’s a Canadian program because of the number of government officials,” (there were three such officials who issued introductions), and an even greater clue in Polley’s statement, “I was privileged to make my first film entirely with public money.”

To that end, “Away From Her”, felt Canadian, not least because it bore unmistakable touches of Polley’s mentor and executive producer (and fellow Canadian), Atom Egoyan, in its sad, muted treatment of mortality and in its unexpectedly disjointed chronology. The screenplay was adapted by Polley from the short story The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Ontario’s Alice Munro, about an aging academic (Gordon Pinsent) coming to terms with his wife’s early-onset of Alzheimer’s Disease–played by a never-better Julie Christie). Co-star Olympia Dukakis joined Polley for the post-screening Q & A at MoMA, looking younger than she did in “Moonstruck,” and discussed emotionally her own mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. “Eventually, I couldn’t even be in the room with her unless someone came with [me].” Lionsgate will open “Away From Her” beginning May 4.

Opening in Theaters this Week (March 16 – 22):

The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (March 16), directed by Ken Loach. Distributor: IFC First Take. Official website

I Think I Love My Wife” (March 16), directed by Chris Rock. Distributor: Fox Searchlight. Official website

Sunshine” (March 16), directed by Danny Boyle. Distributor: Fox Searchlight. Official website

Blind Dating” (March 16), directed by James Keach. Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films. Official website

Adam’s Apples” (March 16), directed by Anders Thomas Jensen. Distributor: Outsider Pictures. Official website

American Cannibal” (March 16), directed by Perry Grebin and Michael Nigro. Distributor: Lifesize Entertainment. Official website

Nomad” (March 16), directed by Sergei Bodrov, Ivan Passer, Talgat Temenov. Distributor: The Weinstein Company. Official website

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon” (March 16), directed by Scott Glosserman. Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment. Official website

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