Fine performances are the main attraction of this timely New York tribute to recent French film.
Rendez-vous with French Cinema 2003, screened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in March, presented nothing startling or insurgent. Even the purportedly daring offerings had about them a certain politesse that left only a gossamer impression. That said, at least French stars, unlike many of their surgically enhanced and chemically corrected American counterparts, look like humans, and there were many excellent performances. Several films showed an admirable engagement with realities of contemporary European life, especially French efforts to resist wholesale conversion from citizens to consumers.
In Benoit Jacquot’s Adolphe, Isabelle Adjani is the victim of a life-wrecking infatuation with the title character, played by Stanislas Merhar. Beautifully made and shot in colors so subdued they felt chilly, Adolphe worked best as a valentine to the radiant Adjani, allowing her to revisit the crazy days of Adele H. and to once again make suffering a sublime event.
Marina De Van’s In My Skin deals with self-centered aberrance; like Audition, In My Skin takes ambition and self-immolation to new heights. Thirtyish advertising writer Esther (De Van) is given an opportunity to move up professionally. Her probationary promotion occurs just after she gashes her leg while wandering in an unlit garden at a party. She can’t leave the cut alone, extending it along her leg, greedily sucking at every new incision. Eventually, in a ratty hotel room rented for this purpose, she expands the topomania to her entire body. This cannibalistically onanistic sequence, complete with vampiric sound effects, is agonizingly lingered over. De Van’s relentlessness undermines her laudable audacity; with a little less shock footage, In My Skin could resonate rather than clobber.
Much less effective but often almost as nauseating is Delphine Gleize’s Carnage. After goring a young bullfighter, a bull is killed. Its bits and pieces — horns, eyes, bones, meat, etc. — are sent to various parts of Europe, and the film follows how the bull’s remains affect various people. Carnage plays like Almodovar unloomed. Whereas Almodovar takes disparate strands and plaits them naturally into a story — coincidence rendered into fate — Gleize forces every element, the characters resolutely odd: an epileptic kindergartener wise beyond her years; an actress paralyzed by inhibition who falls for her stalker; a taxidermist who still lives with his mother and through his refusal to sell the bull’s horns meets the father he always thought was dead. Carnage became nothing more than an amalgam of unrelated ideas, the conceit of the bull both too flabby and too weak to support all the determined quirkiness.
Valerie Guignabodet’s Monique was also deeply disappointing. From its first cute scenes of bickering fortyish parents Claire (Marianne Denicourt) and Alex (Albert Dupontel) seeing their teenage son off for the summer, Monique posits unappealing people struggling with the predictable dilemmas of middle-aged marriage boredom. Frustrated, the pair begin affairs, she with her sculpture teacher, he with Monique, a life-size silicon sex doll. The dull premise — that lifelike, perfectly proportioned, and suitably orificed Monique puts the humans in touch with their real emotions and sexuality — is alleviated by neither the direction, acting, music nor cinematography.
Michel Blanc’s See How They Run shows ensemble work at its best. Charlotte Rampling heads a delightful cast in this grown-up comedy. The film revolves around a group of friends who take a weeklong vacation together, an unexpectedly revealing excursion. Beneath its farce-like surface, the story delves into some serious questions about sexuality, motherhood, competition and even economic disparities. Its madcap qualities never eclipse the characters. Each aspect of the rather convoluted story gets its due, summed up by Rampling’s mordant and swank husband, perfectly played by Jaques Dutronc: “Life is odd … If you think about it, it tears your heart to shreds … But if you zigzag through it like I do, it’s rather comical.” See How They Run has enormous charm, due in great part to Rampling’s central role; she infuses her fretful character with elegance, intelligence, and mystery, making even her seduction by a much younger man credible and sympathetic.
Similarly light in tone is Claude Berri’s Housekeeper. Left by his wife, Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a music studio engineer in his early fifties, lives in filth and disorder, his nearly ruined flat an outward display of his interior chaos. He hires a very young woman, Laura (Emilie Dequenne), to clean, and slowly they become involved. One of the pleasures of Housekeeper is that this somewhat predictable turn feels natural, even appealing. Much of this has to do with the power accorded Laura, whose patient insistence on what she wants — initially, a place to crash, eventually a commitment from Jacques — shows her as anything but a feather-head in search of the protection of an older man. Although she’s ready to make a go of things, Jacques is hesitant, still furious with his wife, still protective of his feelings. Neither character is thoroughly likable, Laura sweetly ruthless, Jacques irritatingly passive. Although the end doesn’t quite satisfy, it avoids the clichés of the May/December situation and doesn’t tie things up neatly.
In some ways, an updated version of The Sweet Smell of Success, with reality television in place of gossip, Guillaume Canet’s My Idol takes a merciless peek at the price of triumph. Bastien (Canet), an assistant on a hugely popular show, adores the producer, Jean-Louis Broustal (Francois Berleand), eager to reap his many prizes: total control in his career, plenty of money, and an enviably desirable wife. An invitation to spend the weekend at Broustal’s country place seems too good to be true, especially when Broustal appears willing to grant Bastien’s every wish in return for an unusual indentured servitude. Unexpectedly sadistic, My Idol pokes at all the conventional ideas of success, exposing an allegedly perfect but in fact utterly off-putting world. The two leads have the chemistry to make Bastien’s servile behavior and Broustal’s bullying convincing. From the garish baby blues and pinks of the television studio to Broustal’s stark house that’s less a dwelling than a bunker festooned with abysmal contemporary art, the sets aid and abet the characters to horrifying good effect. Even a weak ending doesn’t much mar the bitter pleasures of this sharply observed satire.
Jean-Pierre Sinapi’s Life Kills Me strikes a much more serious note, particularly in its detailed exploration of apparently well-assimilated Parisian Moroccans. In a series of flashbacks, Life Kills Me details the story of Paul (Sami Bouajila), a frustrated writer, obsessed with Moby Dick, who works dull jobs, reads fiendishly, and boxes out his aggression. He’s very close to his younger brother, Daniel (Jalil Lespert), an aspiring bodybuilder, whose sexual confusion contributes to an underlying self-destructiveness in which he willingly risks his life to achieve the ideal body. Paul does his share of self-undermining, destroying a budding romance with Myriam (Sulvie Testud) before it has a chance. Grim at times and always suffused with melancholy, Life Kills Me benefits from tender, nuanced performances by the three leads. Each reveals the confusion of outward success and interior turmoil, the often impossible task of balancing cultural and personal values.
Living up to an ideal also informs Nicole Garcia’s The Adversary. Based on the true story of Jean-Claude Romand, who, in 1993, killed his wife, children, and parents, then tried and failed to kill himself, this is in many ways the story of a virtual life. For 18 years, Romand, played by Daniel Auteuil, convinced family and friends that he was a doctor; a series of elaborate lies maintained the fiction. In reality, he had no job, supporting his family by investing his parents’ nest egg. On the verge of exposure and unable to bear the thought of being discovered, he eliminated those closest to him. The film has an almost stream-of-consciousness organization, reconstructing the events as if recalled by Romand. Yet he remains opaque, a mystery. Smart use of video — Romand has made a somewhat confessional tape — and well-managed cinematography — the layout of the house, so crucial to his murderous path, is haltingly revealed — correlates visually with his disorganized and desperate thinking. Shot from behind and from the side, Auteuil gives a steely performance, registering the turmoil of this deeply false character in tiny eye movements and through herky-jerky body language. Painted into a corner of his own making, Romand looks furtive as a rat, yet fundamentally ruthless, making his ultimate decision seem creepily of a piece with his counterfeit existence. Although very few people live at this extreme level of mendacity, The Adversary recalls the falsehoods, small and large, necessitated by what passes for a normal life. This smart, unsettling film concerns both a one-of-a-kind monster and the common-as-dirt monstrousness that lurks within us all.
Julie Lopes-Curval’s Seaside was the standout in the Rendez-vous selections. Set in a small town on the Somme bay, Seaside centers on Marie (Hélène Fillières), an attractive young woman in a desultory romance with local Paul (Jonathan Zaccaï), her ambitions vague but aimed at escaping. Unable to comprehend her and worried by his mother’s addiction to the one-armed bandits at the local casino, Paul loses Marie to Albert (Patrick Lizana), her boss. Other stories emanate from the central conflict, including details of Paul’s mother’s disappointing life, played to sad perfection by Bulle Ogier.
From the opening establishing shot of the town under a huge canopy of slate-blue sky, Lopes-Curval shows her first-class influences, among them Wim Wenders and Edward Hopper. Not a resort but nonetheless dependent on its summer influx of urbanites, the town is shown as both lovely and suffocating. The characters are recognizable but not types, and their struggles are shown in enough detail to make them sympathetic, their idiosyncracies natural not whimsical. The dead-end nature of the town (in one shot, Marie is shown between two DON’T ENTER signs) becomes a metaphor for the limits of any life, of any series of choices. Excellent performances make Seaside more than a cinematographic stunner, with Ogier especially affecting as the gambling-happy mother, her movements almost childish as she insists on frittering away the little she has to live on. There are references to the boredom of life everywhere: the endless connection to television; the forced early retirement of one of the workers who insists on showing up at the factory, planting himself among the rocks; Marie’s frustration summed up when Paul asks her to live with him and she asks “What for?”
The lovely, muted color and startling cinematography of Seaside capture the beautiful and often stultifying life in a beach town; its characters reveal the place as a microcosm of any community, urban, rural, or maritime. Lopes-Curval’s achievement is to invoke universal themes — love, progeny, mortality — by methods so particular and characters so distinctive that they abide long after the lights have gone up.