Better late than never… a few spoilers in here, so be warned. Toronto wrap up coming next and NYFF starting soon…
One of the “surprise screenings” at this year’s Toronto Film Festival was Christophe Honoré’s latest, Making Plans For Lena. How much of a surprise? So much so that a colleague told me about the press screening just before the lights went down at a film starting almost simultaneously, so I broke the hell out like I had the chicken pox, ran to the subway and made it in time to discover an almost empty theater; there were maybe 12 people there? No one seemed to know the screening was happening. Surprise! C’est la vie, more for me.
Making Plans For Lena is the story of a mother, ex-wife, sister and daughter named Lena (Chiara Mastroianni, who turns in the best performance of her career), a woman who seems as confused by her own needs and desires as her family and friends seem certain of their own. And why not? Complications abound; on a visit to her parents’ country home with children in tow, Lena is confronted by the judgements and expectations of her mother Annie (played by Marie-Christine Barrault, as luminous here as she was in Stardust Memories all those years ago), the drippy romance of her brother Gulvan (Julian Honoré) and his girlfriend Elise (Honoré regular Alice Butaud), the emotional roller-coaster of her smoking, drinking pregnant sister Frédérique (an hilariously edgy Marina Foïs) and the unexpected appearance of her ex-husband Nigel (Jean-Marc Barr). Outside of the discomforts of family life, Lena is facing a timely predicament; unemployed and looking for work, Lena left Nigel without a word, loading her belongings into her father’s car and setting herself and the children up with her parents, a newly single mother. Suddenly alone, and open to the possibility of a relationship with a new lover (Louis Garrell, naturellement), Lena makes a major life decision that throws her character into stark relief against the backdrop of otherwise reasonable expectations.
Making Plans For Lena
Making Plans For Lena seems, upon a single, rather unexpected viewing, to be a film that finally addresses the enigma of French womanhood and, in particular, the director’s attitude toward the feminine hemisphere of love. Despite the gravity of Lena’s situation, Honoré remains playful and somewhat cryptic about his character’s motivations, instead focusing on the impact of their actions on those around them. Instead of a psychological, character-driven approach to all of his dilemmas, Honoré does what he does best– he turns to the mythology of cinema to draw subtle connections between his characters. In Dans Paris, there was Roman Duris breaking into sad songs when he discussed his feelings while his brother, played by Louis Garrell, hopped from bed to bed like some enchanting nouvelle vague lothario. In Love Songs, the characters again broke into song to express their true feelings, but there the musical numbers flowered into muted versions of old Hollywood glamour. In Lena, Honoré instead chooses to insert a long, strange period fable set in the middle ages, that seems to presage a curse upon Lena’s own heart; a princess only wants to dance with a true partner, but she is so desired by men she cannot find happiness. Instead, each of her suitors falls dead after betraying her pure intentions only to be replaced by another man who doesn’t understand, who in turn falls dead. This passage in the film seems to describe Lena’s feelings about how she is seen and understood by those who love her, and as self-images go, it betrays the sad “otherness” that Lena feels in her own skin; she exists outside the realm of female expectation and, exhausted by suppressing her desire, can’t help but feel the sting of judgement.
The film’s title in French, Non ma fille tu n’iras pas danser, literally means “No, my daughter, you will not dance ” and it goes much further toward explaining Honoré’s intentions with this beguiling film than the English title Making Plans For Lena (a pun on the great XTC song Making Plans For Nigel which is features in a key moment in the film). Honoré is interested in the social and familial pressures that keep Lena’s true self unknowable, both to her and to us, and tries to build a framework for her ultimate decision that makes it seem both tragic and inevitable. Everything and everyone is bearing down upon a woman who is trying her best to honor her own needs and feelings, and while such a dramatic scenario would be pure grist for someone like Fassbinder or, say, Douglas Sirk, Honoré is a far more elliptical filmmaker than they are; instead of explaining or even dramatizing the depth of Lena’s confusion, he lets Mastroianni carry the load, constantly moving her from room to room, situation to situation, feeling to feeling until the sting of it all pushes her away from the trappings of her life and into the unknown. The film quite literally ends with a beginning and obviously bears a repeat viewing, but it was affecting for me to try to connect with this story and to feel as if I was on the precipice of understanding only to have the rock tumble away from me, back down the hill. I’ll be happy to try and push it up again.
Why Not?: XTC, Making Plans For Nigel
Another moving and intimate film that confronts this same dilemma, this need for a woman to abdicate her sense of responsibility in the name of self-realization, is François Ozon’s tremendous La Refuge which sees the director return to the tonal mastery he displayed in Under The Sand. Isabelle Carré (who, let’s be honest, is the French Amy Adams… and I mean that in the best sense) plays Mousse, a drug addict who awakens to discover that she and her wealthy lover (and fellow junkie) Louis (Melvil Poupaud) have overdosed on some bad heroin. She has survived, he has not, which deeply complicates the fact that Mousse is pregnant with his child. Louis’ rich parents demand that Mousse end the pregnancy, but instead Mousse heads off to a friend’s oceanside home to ride out the pregnancy (and her methadone prescription) in solitude. Louis’ brother Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy) shows up one day, passing through on holiday and interested to see how Mousse is coping in the aftermath of their mutual loss. Something greater than a friendship forms between the two, something akin to family, and after Mousse returns to Paris to give birth, Paul arrives to greet his niece, setting up a wrenching finale that pays off beautifully.
I have long admired, defended and been moved by the dexterity of Ozon’s filmmaking, and while so many seem to struggle understanding the way in which he uses genre to outline his concerns, from the campy, kitschy tradition of a certain strain of gay culture that spans the ages to Fassbinderian melodrama to the psychological thriller straight through to the fairy tale, each of Ozon’s films bears the mark of a true auteur whose visual strategies, direction of actors and framing underscore a singular approach to cinematic storytelling. When you sit down to watch Ozon, you may not know which side of himself he will express, but each and every frame is of a piece with his unique voice. It seems to me that Ozon is deeply undervalued in both the queer community and the film community as a whole and I am not sure why that is. It may be that while many of his films don’t address the issues of queer politics and desire directly, each of them is steeped in the grand (and wonderful) tradition of queer filmmaking and each draws deeply from the well of a certain gay aesthetic, one that walks a tightrope between melodrama and drama, with a wink and a kiss on the cheek to what has come before.
Which is not to say that a chubby breeder like me can’t find a way into Ozon’s work; I’ve seen almost every feature film he’s made and I am knocked out by almost all of them (I’ll admit I didn’t love Sitcom, although I certainly laughed through it). Is it that Ozon is so prolific in the age of fast fast fast mass media that no one can keep up with his work? Or does it say something unthinkable about the state of our cinema in general that a great director like Ozon would be as marginalized by American audiences as he seems to be? I know it is not a great time for foreign film in this country, but if movies like Under The Sand or Swimming Pool or 8 Women or 5×2 or A Time To Rest barely make a dent in the community of people who care about these films, I’m not sure there is much I can continue to hope for. Le Refuge is more than just a continuation of Ozon’s work and concerns– it is not just “The new Ozon”– it is a beautifully registered drama full of emotional conflict, each frame of which feels true to the heart of the matter at hand. Ozon’s work continues to be a rare accomplishment, a cinema I’d rather celebrate, debate and discuss today than look fondly upon tomorrow.