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French Film Festival 2002

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  • Noel Vera
    Frenching Noel Vera This year s French Spring Film Festival (can we call it that even if it s already June?) we have Olivier Assayas first attempt at a period
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 14, 2002
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      Noel Vera

      This year's French Spring Film Festival (can we call it that even if it's
      already June?) we have Olivier Assayas' first attempt at a period film, and
      an epic one at that. "Les Destinees Sentimentales" (2000), based on the
      novel by Jacques Chardonne, is about the life and fortune of one Jean
      Barnery (Charles Berling), who starts out as a cuckolded Protestant minister
      and ends up an industrial baron. He keeps rejecting and taking back his
      wife, Nathalie, who he considers impossible to live with (since she's played
      by Isabelle Huppert, he's got a point); he falls for and marries a friend's
      orphaned niece, Pauline (the eminently fall-in-lovable Emmanuelle Beart). He
      switches career in midstream and goes into mass-produced pottery in a big
      way, obsessing over glazes and kilns for the rest of his life, and the rest
      of this three-hour movie.

      Assayas seems to have different notions about telling a story: instead of a
      clear line of narrative, he's more concerned with characterization and
      subtle relational nuances; instead of action and excitement he's more into
      moods and emotional textures, captured offhandedly, almost by accident.
      Which stood him in good stead in his previous films (e.g. "Late August,
      Early September," 1998), set in a contemporary France struggling to make
      sense of everything (half the dialogue in French films nowadays, it seems to
      me, talks about the uselessness of it all; the other half seems to complain
      about the food and terrible service). Here, telling a story set in the
      beginning of the 1900s, one with many characters spread out over many years,
      this kind of casual storytellng works oddly--sometimes in a good way, as we
      are kept in intimate terms with the main characters, made alert to their
      shifting moods and temperaments.

      On the other hand you wonder if the story can't use the kind of sprawling,
      complex coherence a David Lean can bring to the subject--less imagination
      and sensibility, in other words, and more of that old humdrum virtue,
      clarity of narrative. So many issues are raised and never really answered,
      or resolved, or at least satisfactorily developed--the strikers, for
      example, protesting Barnery's freezing of their wages: what happened to
      them? For about an hour in the middle of the film, they were the largest
      fact looming over Jean and Pauline, the dark side to his capitalist drive to
      succeed; then they're dropped, forgotten. Did Jean strike a compromise? Did
      his not opening a new factory due to the Great Depression help (probably,
      but wouldn't you prefer a more explicit connection?)? Later Jean's child
      with Nathalie, Aline, pops up; she's barely introduced before she's already
      having a homosexual affair, after which she goes on to become a nun. Max,
      Jean's child with Pauline, is barely more than a cipher; same with Pauline's
      young lover, who Pauline later gets rid of offscreen (you tend to think that
      the action in the wings of this drama seems more interesting). And so on
      and so forth, for a hundred and eighty minutes of puzzling, sometimes
      annoying, ellipses.

      If anything makes the film, or gives it the status of an absorbing failure,
      it's the performances, especially of Beart and Berling, who are compelling
      enough to distract us from the huge holes in their characters' development
      (when, for example, did Jean, a church minister, show any previous ability
      or inclination to run a pottery factory?). That and the pottery, the scenes
      of which are endlessly fascinating--the types, from Oriental porcelain to
      Celadon; the process of designing them, an unbelievably narrow art form (how
      may variations can you ring on a plate, after all?), yet one full of
      sophistication and elegance. When Assayas, who can evoke endless nuances
      from the human face, shoots a bowl from up close--the highlights darting
      across its surface like tiny lightning bolts--you can't help but wish he'd
      make more of these kinds of pictures--a four-hour epic on French cuisine,
      perhaps. I'd love to hear his take on the development of the cassoulet.

      On the other hand Francois Ozon's "8 Femmes" (8 Women, 2002) is an
      unmitigated delight. Eight women and one man--Gaby (Catherine Deneuve); her
      daughters Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier) and Suzon (Virginie Ledoyen); her
      mother Mamy (Danielle Darrieux); her maids Madame Chanel (Firmine Richard)
      and Louise (again, Emmanuelle Beart); her husband Marcel (Dominique Lamure)
      and his sister Pierrette (Fanny Ardant)--all live in a mansion. Marcel is
      found the next morning with a knife in his back. Who killed him? And why?

      You'd think the genre of the locked-door mystery died out with the Agatha
      Christie movies in the '70s starring Peter Ustinov; Ozon, however, dusts off
      an obscure theater piece by Robert Thomas, plays up the artifice and style,
      allows his eight beautiful stars to have the time of their lives, and shoots
      that assumption down like the dirty dog that it is. Everyone in the
      picture is wonderful, but special mention must go to Emmanuelle Beart as the
      carnal fantasy of a French maid made, uh, incarnate; Fanny Ardant as a
      hedonistic sister-in-law with a smile like a cat that swallowed a flock of
      canaries; and Isabelle Huppert--you heard me, she of the dour smile and
      temperament--making savage fun of her own humorlessness as a desperate,
      middle-aged virgin.

      The picture hums to the sound of its own clever intricacy, and Ozon throws
      in a few visual tricks to make the audience's neck hairs tingle--the feat,
      for one, of orchestrating everyone's movements so that almost every time a
      revelation occurs, the entire cast is arranged in various positions and
      poses, as if before a photographer.

      Ozon's previous film "Under the Sand" was a thoughtful (but aren't they all,
      in French Cinema?) meditation on grief and denial, featuring a powerful
      performance by Charlotte Rampling as a woman who lost her husband. If it had
      a flaw, it's that it invites comparison to Michelangelo Antonioni's
      "L'Avventura," another film about a loved one lost and grieved over
      (unfairly of course; "L'Avventura" is filmmaking of a different level
      altogether). You'd never suspect Ozon capable of relaxing and cutting loose
      like this at all--capable of a campy, high-style black comedy in the
      tradition of Almodovar. Easily one of the best, if not the best, in the
      festival, and the most fun I've had in any recent French film.

      (French Spring continues at the Shangri-la Mall's The Cinema; "8 Femmes"
      will be screened at 3 pm, June 20; 8 pm June 22; 5.30 pm June 23; 8 pm June
      24; and 5.30 pm June 25. Admission P20.

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)

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