ESTHER KAHN (Arnaud Desplechin) ***1/2

I'm with CAHIERS DU CINEMA, who called this last year's best film. (Their rival POSITIF was equally enthusiastic.) I liked Desplechin's first 2 features, LA SENTINELLE and MY SEX LIFE...OR HOW I GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT , moderately, but thought they might be a bit too ambitious for their own good. It would be hard to make a  more "typically French" film than MY SEX LIFE, with its three hours of detailed study of Parisian intellectuals' love lives, and with ESTHER KAHN, Desplechin moves into new territory: the English language and a period setting. It's the anti-SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE:  his title character may be doubly marginalized as a Jewish woman pursuing an acting career in turn-of-the-century London, but she's no lovable underdog. Esther is too singular a character to stand in for anyone but herself. Taking a cue from Truffaut's 70s period pieces (especially in his use of irises and a third-person male narrator), Desplechin has made a literary, distanced slow burner, whose underlying intensity breaks out in its final half hour. Esther is impossible to pin down: a cold, taciturn woman - who methodically sets out to lose her virginity when an older actor  tells her that it will improve her performances  - who nevertheless seems to be a proto-method actor. I'm still not sure whether she has much talent or if she eventually reaches a simultaneous artistic and emotional breakthrough before her debut as the star of HEDDA GABLER. If the latter were the obvious conclusion, ESTHER KAHN might be rather banal, but to its credit, it raises a set of questions about the nature of talent and the uncertainties of making art without settling on any firm answers. As Amy Taubin has written, "there are a half dozen ways to read what's going on here, but none of them quite add up." The result is a mesmerizingly elusive work. 

MURDEROUS MAIDS (Jean-Pierre Denis) ***

A powerful film, but not very pleasurable. In this period piece, Denis strives for an anti-Tradition of Quality approach, choosing a relentlessly grim tone and stark asceticism: no music, little costume/production design fetishization, very muted colors. Based on a real-life murder case that inspired Jean Genet's play THE MAIDS,  MURDEROUS MAIDS is closer to Straub/Huillet - albeit far less extreme - or Jacques Rivette's JEANNE LA PUCELLE than Merchant/Ivory. However, it seems overly familiar. Echoes of the same story can be found in Peter Jackson's HEAVENLY CREATURES, Claude Chabrol's LA CEREMONIE (and, undoubtedly, the Ruth Rendell novel it's based on) and François Ozon's SEE THE SEA, among other films. In order to bring  life to it, Denis would have to find a new approach, but the most personal touch he brings to MURDEROUS MAIDS is an incessant coldness. Unlike Jackson or even Chabrol, he has little empathy for his characters. However, Sylvie Testud livens up  the film with a ferociously memorable performance. All told, it's impeccably crafted - especially an actors' showcase - but rather detached and airless. Hmm, maybe it's not so far from Merchant/Ivory after all.

SAMIA (Philippe Faucon) **1/2

Both in SAMIA, a portrait of a rebellious French/Arab teenage girl and her family, and MURIEL UPSETS HER PARENTS (a "Rendez-vous" entry a few years back), Faucon comes across like a social worker who decided to become a filmmaker after seeing Maurice Pialat's A NOS AMOURS. If I saw a steady diet of trashy American teen sex comedies, maybe the strict naturalism of SAMIA would be a refreshing break. But having seen countless French films about teenage girls in much the same style, it's old hat. The film is certainly compassionate and well-intentioned, but good intentions don't necessarily make good art, especially when they boil down to predictable stances against sexism, racism and  organized religion. At its most interesting, SAMIA captures some of the tensions and contradictions of French/Arab life: teens struggling to balance the rules of the two cultures without being fully accepted into either, and a  matriarch whose internalized misogyny goes hand in hand with her strength and determination to hold her family together while her husband is hospitalized. Faucon does avoid the garçons-n-the-hood clichés of many French  films about people of color (like THE MAGNET, which opened in New York the same day as this series), but the  clichés he opts for instead are no fresher. At least he shows good taste by playing a Rachid Taha song over the closing credits.

THREE BY  EIGHT (Philippe Le Guay) ***1/4

LeGuayís view of  work as an  arena of vicious male competition isnít particularly groundbreaking; his film, whose alternate English title is NIGHTSHIFT, is bound to be called a French IN THE COMPANY OF MEN. Nevertheless, it aims to creep us out from the very start,  steadily cranking up the pressure and accomplishing this malevolent task skillfully. Pierre (Gérald Laroche) is a 40-ish family man who switches to the nightshift at a bottle factory. When Fred (Marc Barbé), a younger  borderline sociopath, joins his shift, Pierre gets manipulated into unwillingly becoming the bottom in an elaborate game of mental and physical S/M. However, Fredís behavior  comes across as an extension of a dangerous workplace - where  men constantly risk burns from red-hot glass and have to wear earplugs - and an atmosphere of bonhomie - fueled by sports, practical jokes and porn  - in which any sign of vulnerability or ďfemininityĒ is a weakness rather than individual pathology. (The only woman who works at the factory is a  janitor, and Pierreís volunteering to do her job once turns him into a running joke.)  Updating the implicit homoeroticism of Herman Melvilleís BILLY BUDD via Hitchcock and Fassbinder, THREE BY EIGHT suggests that Fred couldnít get away with so much if Pierre wasnít attracted  to him on some level. (Fred himself certainly thinks so; he taunts Pierre by standing  naked in the shower in front of him and painting ďI suck cockĒ on his car.) Even so, Fredís string-pulling  is so blatant that itís hard to believe anyone would fall for it. While two men jostled over a vulnerable woman in IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, Pierreís son plays much the same role here, but his instant bonding with Fred feels  like a conventional plot device. Despite LeGuayís weakness with character development, heís made both a disturbing, suspenseful psychological horror film and a scathing vision of capitalist  masculinity that avoids the self-righteousness of an AMERICAN PSYCHO. 

LA CAPTIVE (Chantal Akerman) ***

I could call LA CAPTIVE cold and bloodless, but doing so would miss the point of this anti-love story. A modern-day adaptation of Proustís THE PRISONER, itís frequently been compared to VERTIGO. But unlike Hitchcockís film, its romanticism has completely boiled away, leaving only a stark glare at loveís destructive power. Gazing at the male gaze, Akerman chooses Simon (Stanislas Merhar), a man often rendered a shut-in by allergies, for a protagonist.  Fascinated by lesbianism - especially the prospect of  his girlfriend Ariane (Sylvie Testud, also in MURDEROUS MAIDS) cheating on him  with another woman - and confusing intimacy with control, he grows increasingly jealous, asking an endless string of questions about her every thought and movement. In response, she only puts up  a passive-aggressive front. The filmís structure, alternating between indoor conversation and tense drives (often in pursuit of Ariane, and showing traces of Akermanís interest in structural cinema), offers little release. As  much  as LA CAPTIVE criticizes Simon, it offers no pretense of understanding Ariane better than him. Akermanís feminism here lies in her attitude towards male desire, rather than in debunking Simonís view of women as mysterious enigmas. Instead, she extends this view to his entire world, getting sub-Bressonian, mannequin-like performances from Merhar and Testud. As a result, LA CAPTIVE is one of the most passionless films ever made about  love. It may be a LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN for our time, but itís far less seductive or moving, although Iím reluctant to pass final judgment or even offer a star rating based on a single viewing.

THE TOWN IS QUIET (Robert Guédiguian) ***1/2

Needless to say, the title is ironic. Introducing THE TOWN IS QUIET, Guédiguian described it as a film about everything that scares him, adding that he would feel relieved if the audience shares his fears. Itís a despairing State of the Union address about present-day France, set, like all of his films, in Marseilles. A regional filmmaker with a deep attachment to the working class and a tendency to stick with the same cast,  heís struck me until now as a French analog to Ken Loach - with an unfortunate dab of Pagnolian cutesiness. However, THE TOWN IS QUIET, his version of  the ever-fashionable post-SHORT CUTS city symphony,  widens his vision without abandoning Marseilles or his commitment to naturalism or leftism.

Opening with a loving 360-degree pan of the Marseilles waterfront (Guédiguian films his city with a palpable tenderness), it goes on to navigate its way through the cityís circles of misery. THE TOWN IS QUIET binds together numerous characters, but the two most memorable are Michele (Ariane Ascaride), a fishmonger whose unemployed, alcoholic husband and  infantile junkie daughter (a mother herself) have brought her to the end of her rope, and Paul (Jean-Pierre Daroussin), a cabdriver she meets while trying to pay for her daughterís habit through prostitution.

An entire written plot summary of THE TOWN IS QUIET would make it sound unwatchably grim. The plot about Michele sometimes succumbs to miserabilism, particularly when Guédiguian repeatedly synchronizes the sound of her granddaughter crying for her bottle and  daughter crying for her fix. This image made my skin crawl (as itís obviously meant to), but it also made me mad at him for resorting to such shameless - and easy - button-pushing. Nevertheless, the constant cutting between storylines and quick pace (despite a 132-minute running time) give the film a real momentum even at its bleakest. Even if the tone is more melancholic than angry, thereís an underlying rage at the social and political conditions that make it so easy for people to fall through the cracks. Guédiguianís vision of a cruel world is compassionate, but also clear-eyed. His biggest hit (and only American release), MARIUS AND JEANETTE, romanticized its poor characters shamelessly; in this film, even sympathetic, working-class people are capable of  murder. (Itís closer to Renoir than Pagnol.)  Guédiguian ends the film by panning from an image of bloodshed to a touching vision of the possibilities of community that MARIUS AND JEANETTE took for granted and whose fraying THE TOWN IS QUIET devotes so much time to mourning. This isnít a perfect film - in addition to its occasional melodramatic excesses, it incorporates a few too many characters than it can do justice to - but itís an intensely moving one, close to being a masterpiece.