“No-one can get over the paradox of a sphinx head on top of a chic model’s body: the sense of this slight figure propping up a magnificent mask.”
Cinemania has been running for 20 years on a bright idea: to curate a bunch of French-language films for Quebec audiences, from as many diverse sources as possible. This year that meant including works from Chad, Argentina, and Germany, as well as some hard-to-place films that the festival is particularly proud of. I’ve encountered associate programmer Guilhem Caillard at many festivals: always keen to find new directors, always looking for the next Francophone film.
According to Caillard, what sets Cinemania apart from other festivals is that it specializes in “UFOs”: multicultural oddities such as Arnaud des Pallières’ Michael Kohlhaas, a film made by a “very French” director with a Danish star, adapted from a German novella transplanted to the Cévennes. Other UFOs include Le Passé, the film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi that draws on French star power, and Gibraltar, a film with an international cast shot in Canada, Europe, and North Africa. In the past, these co-productions might have been dismissed as Europudding, but Cinemania actively seeks out these curious transnational films.
Where Cinemania does skew more stereotypically French is in its marketing and its guest list. This year’s festival could roughly be divided into two periods: the week devoted to Anouk Aimée and the week given to Emmanuelle Devos. Audiences are attracted to the queenly presence of French stars (previous guests include Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche), and in Aimée and Devos, there are two contrasting styles to compare.
The subject of this year’s retrospective, Aimée occupies a strange place in European cinema. Like Catherine Deneuve, she seems to glide by on restraint and little effort — but is that a choice or a necessity? For over 60 years, the ambiguity has kept people watching. No one can get over the paradox of a sphinx head on top of a chic model’s body: the sense of this slight figure propping up a magnificent mask. Aimée’s face is absolutely a monument, but we’ve never been quite sure what was happening behind it. During her Q&A session, the star gave very clipped answers; each time, she would deftly turn the question around to avoid saying anything exposing.
In general, Aimée looks stoic and womanly, holding her torso like a bust. Since her beauty is considered classical, she has not been subjected to taunts about aging, unlike more girlish or sexy stars. Career-wise she has not suffered from anti-Semitism. In France, being impassive and iconic is one way — for many women, the only way — to retain one’s power. George Cukor was one of the few to poke behind the mask: for him, the actress was a “disaster” in Justine (1969), being “indomitably refined . . . somebody who didn’t try.” But for Jacques Demy, that effortlessness was exactly what was needed: in Lola (1961) and Model Shop (1969), she gives off a vague sense of aloofness in a highly sexed world. And for some, the face will always do its trick — after meeting her, Dustin Hoffman famously recanted his refusal to act with an older woman. At Cinemania, the 81-year-old seemed like a small person maneuvering behind a statue, twisting it this way and that. With her mysterious blankness, Aimée is the forerunner of Kate Moss.
The festival’s final weekend was dominated by Emmanuelle Devos, with three of her new films plus a master class. Although initially marketed as a young beauty, Devos is the rare actress who has worked hard to get some blood, expression, and looseness into her face; she allows it to show some slack. Thus, she is well-cast in Martin Provost’s Violette, based on the life of Violette Leduc, the writer of sexy, gutsy prose who was mentored by Simone de Beauvoir. Provost makes sure we understand that this is no tame literary biopic: before we can get comfortable, he shows us the raw textures of meat and skin. This fierce approach works — as it does in films about George Sand and Camille Claudel — because its subject is a woman of impossibly high passions.
What is refreshing, then, is that Provost doesn’t take a clichéd “tormented artist” view of Leduc’s work. When the novelist sets pen to paper, she goes a bit blank. The camera then moves straight up — toward some bare branches — and down. This is as good a metaphor as any for the writing process. While films about authors often show them scrawling furiously at their desks, here the marked feature of creativity is absence, a lack of identity. Leduc looks unknowing and is detached from the actions of the camera. Rather than searching or soaring, the camera performs a weirdly impersonal move up and down — it goes up to get its fill of sky and then drops down as if on autopilot. Violette contains one of the few successful depictions of an artist at work, presenting writing as a loss of self rather than a declaration of intent.
Difficult to like or love, Leduc is often drawn to playing the villain and the hysteric. Determined not to be a pleaser, she is unwilling to present herself in the best light, and as a result, does the reverse. Devos nails this aspect of the character — she is prepared to seem heavy and sloppy, so that pretty clothes look like drag on her. Leduc is clumsy in her desire to know and possess people’s bodies. For her, self-expression is never easy, and always involves some act of dislocation. While Beauvoir (superbly played by Sandrine Kiberlain) is seen as orderly and controlled, Leduc always looks odd, trapped between expression and meaning.
One of Caillard’s favorite films at both Cannes and Cinemania was the aforementioned UFO, Michael Kohlhaas. It is a handsomely mounted, compelling production, but I should admit to a degree of critical bias against this film. I am in awe of Heinrich von Kleist’s source novella, and loath to see its strangeness made conventional on film; therefore, this movie would have to be stunning to turn me on. Kleist’s text is brilliant and singular, one of the most lucid and horrifying of short stories. His writing is filled with the fear and dread of people — particularly when they form excited masses, ready to turn on the slightest impulse. The protagonist Kohlhaas is a man of principle — but his “integrity” is seen as a kind of pedantic compulsion, a grain that keeps on provoking others to mistreat him. Even when his family is threatened, Kohlhaas keeps banging on about technicalities. This only encourages his adversary, the Junker: a figure who is both a real threat and an embodiment of Kohlhaas’ worst fears. Kleist’s Junker is a hideous but somehow invincible enemy — as elusive and powerful as the character of Quilty in Lolita. He — or “it” — is dark, mocking and retreating, always one step ahead.
As Kohlhaas attempts to take down the Junker, events spiral out of control, leading to mass slaughter and war. The more Kohlhaas resists, the more we have the sense that some force is pushing and favoring the case against him. There is a turn of the screw here, which is not solely attributed to the author’s style; it seems symptomatic of a wider world-view in which one can never be too pessimistic. This sense of diabolical ill luck, grounded in objective reality, is hard to depict onscreen.
Pallières’ film is a righteous tale of honor fighting against injustice. This Kohlhaas (Mads Mikkelsen) has been humanized via acts of love and kindness towards animals, and his rigor is admirable rather than irritating. The Junker (Swann Arlaud) looks more like an emo kid than a nemesis. Filled out with historic local detail, this atmospheric film cannot c
onvey the stark horror of the text. The film feels firmly rooted to its era, whereas there is no sense of “period’ in Kleist — everything is happening now, and it is appalling. It is that placelessness which makes the book so unusual: the feeling that we are watching an eternal cycle of violence play out, in a setting which could be modern Syria as much as 16th-century Germany.
The problem is that Kleist’s work is a UFO in itself, and the movie, for all its diverse origins, isn’t perverse enough. I feel that the film needed more of a “live and let die” attitude — a director like Polanski or Chabrol to amp up the chilling spiral effect. Kohlhaas is the archetypal Polanski figure: the wronged man who tries to assure himself he is paranoid — but as it turns out, he’s not paranoid enough.
Bertrand Tavernier is one of the few living directors who gives classicism a good name. He is inventive without being stylistically obvious and, like Cukor, he can change his approach with each film. In La Princesse de Montpensier (2010), his style was character-focused and nearly invisible; Tavernier doesn’t believe in being in being savvy or showy — unless the subject requires it.
Set in the French Foreign Ministry, Quai d’Orsay is a film that demands both flashiness and restraint. It is a broad political satire that exposes consensus seeking and the concern for human rights as clichés, designed to placate a certain kind of voter. British viewers may be familiar with this type of cheerful, high-speed cynicism, as seen in Yes, Minister (1980-4) and In the Loop (2009), and Tavernier does not deviate much from the style of those works.
It is in the performances and the sureness of touch that we can sense the director’s hand. As the charismatic foreign minister, Thierry Lhermitte is a rarity among French male stars of a certain age — he still has a light, deft presence, which in this case sweeps the film along. In one of the performances of the year, Niels Arestrup plays the chief of staff: a large man with soft little gestures that are somehow threatening. He maintains a faintly ironic tone, which may or may not disguise enormous intelligence. Tavernier plays with the conventions of broad humor, but in an agile, subtle way. Even the mock out-takes at the end — usually the sign of a dire comedy — tell us something about being cynical. When the actors deliver speeches and then crack up laughing, the film seems to say: our political system might look like a joke, but underneath… it really is a joke. That’s all.