THE RAVISHING NORA AZEMEDER IN ‘PARIS 36’
With the economy tanking and our dollar ever-lousy, abroad, who can afford to go to France anymore? Next best thing: book a seat or three at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s anual RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH FILM festival, where you can blissfully immerse yourself in scrumptious-looking meals; gorgeous, sylvan countryside; Cote d’Azur sunbathed luxuriousness; excruciatingly tasteful city apartments; antiques-filled country estates; unbearably chic, witty women and burningly romantic, soulful men, Gauloises dangling from plush lower lips; relaxed full frontal nudity and grown-up sexual attitudes, and of course that city of cities, Paris, with its Eiffel Tower more magically a-glitter than ever.
The opening night feature, justifiably, is Christophe Barretier’s PARIS 36, a richly affectionate evocation of the raffishly enchanting pre-WWII music hall world which evokes the work of Rene Clair, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne, Jacques Prevert, Marcel Pagnol and Jacques Becker. It’s a film filled with color and romance, which although overlong and a bit too taken with its own charm, contains much of what we crave from the Gauls, film-wise. At the opening night introduction to the film, its ravishing star Nora Azemeder enchantingly sang its nostalgic theme song written by Reinhardt Wagner.
Agnes Varda’s MySpace Picture
Agnes Varda’s THE BEACHES OF AGNES is an enthralling film about her life – and what a life! From a fascinating childhood to being in the forefront of La Nouvelle Vague, with a funny little stopover in Hollywood, her rewarding marriage to director Jacques Demy (with its revelation about his death from AIDS in 1990), and her present-day, incredibly energetic and curious existence at 80, she has always been a complete artist to her fingertips and her unwavering perceptions on everything from photography and Jim Morrison to the Black Panthers and the conundrum of family are at once completely original and cherishable. Harrison Ford appears in this doc, describing how, as a tyro actor, Varda and Demy once wanted to cast him in MODEL SHOP (1969), but a Hollywood studio head declared, “He’ll never make it in movies!”
THE GIRL FROM MONACO
Anne Fontaine’s THE GIRL FROM MONACO is a luscious Mediterranean meditation on romance, between a prominent lawyer (the great French treasure, Fabrice Luchini) and an ambitious bimbo of a weathergirl (ravishing Louise Bourgoin), the two of them ever observed by the lawyer’s sexy, taciturn bodyguard (Roschdy Zem). Luchini adds another wonderful portrait to his personal oeuvre, as well as that certain cinematic one of the older man enslaved by a young tart, stretching back to Emil Jannings-Marlene Dietrich in THE BLUE ANGEL and beyond. The girl happens to be obsessed by Princess Diana, as well as Princess Grace, and there’s a scene shot at the very spot, now a memorial, where her car went tragically over that cliff.
Samuel Collardey’s THE APPRENTICE is the absorbing study of a young boy with anger issues (Mathieu Bulle), sent to work on a dairy farm in Doubs. Warning: it begins with the harrowing onscreen slaughter of a pig, but if you make it past that, you will be rewarded by Collardey’s thoughtful presentation of the boy’s complex relations with the old farmer who trains him (a magnificent, grizzled Paul Barbier) and his lonely fat frump of a misunderstood, uncomprehending mother. Bulle is a marvelous camera subject, with an uncanny reality to his every move and utterance that recalls Jean Pierre Leaud in his glory days as Francois Truffaut’s boy alter ego. It’s one of the best films ever made about adolescence in all of its mute pain, myriad moments of bored fecklessness, as well as those sudden, unpredictable spurts of joie-de-vivre.
Martin Provost’s SERAPHINE has already swept this year’s Cesar awards for its carefully calibrated portrayal of the artist Seraphine de Senlis (Yolande Moreau), who toiled as a domestic while drunkenly turning out brilliantly original canvases in her hovel of an apartment by night. The visual aspects of the film: the lighting (with exteriors right out of Courbet), the richly detailed period decor and perfectly observed costumes are painterly in their own right, in the best sense of the word, and Moreau delivers a performance, as this uncommunicative slavey with flashes of animal humor, that is utterly uncanny in its total commitment.
THE CAST OF ‘CHANGE OF PLANS’ AT THE PARIS PREMIERE
Daniele Thompson’s delightful CHANGE OF PLANS is one of the rare films that I did not want to end, so completely beguiling – witty and moving – was her presentation of a group of friends meeting at an annual dinner party, with all of the internecine tensions and romances bubbling under the surface. I adored just about every one of her characters, a tribute to an impeccable cast of French favorites (Karin Viard, Patrick Bruel, Patrick Chesnais, Marina Hands, Dany Boon, Marina Foïs, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Pierre Arditi) all working at top form.
THE JOY OF SINGING
Ilan Duran Cohen’s THE JOY OF SINGING is a trickily appealing black comedy in which all the characters eventually meet up at a Parisian singing class. There’s something to do with a spy ring and uranium trafficking, as well as music galore, from arias to American pop and gospel (often abysmally warbled), but, like other shaggy dog divertissements like BEAT THE DEVIL or THE BIG SLEEP, it’s best not to tax the mind too much, plot-wise, but just give over to the sexy, amusingly dark outrage Cohen offers in an often startlingly literate script.
All of the above-mentioned are good films, definitely recommended. The following two are not great, but possess redeeming qualities which definitely save them from being a waste of ever-more valuable time:
COSTA-GAVRAS DIRECTING ‘EDEN IS WEST’
Costa-Gavras’ EDEN IS WEST is something of an old man’s film, but very charming, for all that, in its story of a fugitive immigrant (the very appealing Riccardo Scarmaccio), who winds up in a hilariously chic beach spa and eventually makes his way to Paris. A lot of what he goes through is pretty harrowing but the director’s hand is blessedly light and filled with a sagely mature realization of life’s essential wonder, for all of its brutality. There’s a Chaplin-esque sweetness to the film (and Scarmaccio’s performance) that is very affecting and you’re absorbed by every one of his picareqsue adventures.
BENOIT JACQUOT DIRECTING ISABELLE HUPPERT IN ‘VILLA AMALIA’
Isabelle Huppert adds another depiction to her gallery of older women, burnt by love and recovering from it, in Benoit Jacquot’s VILLA AMALIA. If, like me, you instictively turn to the novels of Colette when recovering from romantic flame-out, this film offers some reasonable enough therapy. It’s like a modern-day Bette Davis Warners epic, with Huppert a world-class classical pianist who, after her lover betrays her, rids herself of her identity and finds succor in a deserted villa in Ischia where, through the benefits of sun, sea and a dash of lesbianism, she heals herself through solitude. Jean-Hughes Anglade gives a touching performance as her gay friend, in that somewhat hoary tradition of stiff-upper-lip queers – the type who goes on a hopeful Sicilian night on the town only to return thug-beaten and blames only himself for being an old fool.
CATHERINE DENEUVE AS A SUBURBAN NANNY IN ‘GIRL ON THE TRAIN’ – YEAH, RIGHT!
I was disappointed by Andre Techine’s THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, about a girl who reports an anti-Semitic attack upon her which becomes a media sensation. The situations and characters were just not that compelling in this ripped-from-the headlines conceit, and Catherine Denueve, playing a resolutely suburban Mom who babysits the neighborhood toddlers, seemed more than a tad miscast.
DANS ‘BELLAMY,’ DEPARDIEU EST ENCORE GROS
Claude Chabrol’s first film with Gerard Depardieu, BELLAMY, was also a let-down, a sub-Simenon-ian crime tale which felt endlessly talky and too emotionally manipulative.
ET DANS ‘MESRINE,’ AUSSI
I walked out of the first part of Jean-Francois Richet’s MESRINE. The entire two part film was 243 minutes long and, after more than an hour of lousy music to rival the worst in American film, in-your-face, repetitive violence a la Tarantino and an uncharismatic lead actor, Vincent Cassel, playing France’s most notorious post-WWII gangster, I figured how many more barroom bust-ups, nasty murders and scenes featuring Gerard Depardieu trying to out-do Brando’s GODFATHER could ensue in the next 3+ hours. For sheer incident, this film was the exact opposite of Claire Denis’ 35 SHOTS OF RHUM, in which nothing whatsoever seemed to be happening in a tale of a Parisian train operator (Alex Descas), who has an unnaturally close relationship with his daughter (Mati Diop). You could tell he was a train operator by the endless, extended shots of tracks recurring with numbing frequency. Spare us from directors who get hypnotized by their own “graphic” visuals.