Schedule and program notes

I'm constantly reminded that my high opinion of current world cinema - and current French cinema, in particular - sure isn't a universal taste. The residual Francophilia of 60s film culture and the productivity of the French film industry ensure that we get to see more films from France than any other non-Anglophone country. Even so, French-bashing has become as hip as Francophilia was 30 years ago. A case in point: the editor of THE EXHIBITIONIST, a now-defunct magazine, altered my review of Arnaud Desplechin's MY SEX LIFE...OR HOW I GOT INTO ARGUMENT by inserting a snide remark about the size of the French ego. Egotistical "the French" may be, but they've got nothing on the smug insularity and xenophobia of "the Americans", including plenty of film critics. A reader once complained that my Francophilia comes "30 years too late," but I don't think I'm simply nostalgic for the glory days of the Nouvelle Vague. The best of 90s French cinema - films like Leos Carax's LES AMANTS DE PONT-NEUF, Olivier Assayas' IRMA VEP, André Téchiné's MA SAISON PREFEREE and the ALL THE BOYS AND GIRLS OF THEIR TIME series - has been every bit as exciting as the best recent American films.

That brings us to another dilemma. One of my favorite French films of the 90s, Patricia Mazuy's TRAVOLTA AND ME, has only appeared in New York twice - for one or two-day engagements at the Walter Reade in 1995 and MOMA in 1997 - and I doubt it's played in more than a handful of other American cities. Attentive New Yorkers did have a chance to see it, but plenty of other well-received French films have never had a single public screening here. (Eric Rohmer's A TALE OF SUMMER and Alain Resnais' SMOKING/NO SMOKING are two glaring examples.) Consequently, I'm baffled by the ease with which some American critics make pronouncements about the death or decline of French cinema. We may not be missing any masterpieces, but I don't trust the taste of American distributors or festival programmers enough to be confident that we're not missing major films.

TRAVOLTA AND ME was shown as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's annual series of new French films, presented every March. This series was begun by the editors of CAHIERS DU CINEMA, but Unifrance, a French government-financed agency with the mission of promoting the country's film industry, took over its programming a few years ago. Although I didn't always agree with the taste of CAHIERS, I prefer their choices to the more eclectic - and uneven - ones made by Unifrance, who can never resist the inclusion of a few trashy comedies. Even so, the series offers an invaluable chance to make personal discoveries and to see films that will never be distributed in the U.S. At its best, it gives "the Americans" a chance to make contact with "the French" and see what happens.


THOSE WHO LOVE ME CAN TAKE THE TRAIN (Patrice Chéreau) ***

"Those who love me" are a group of friends, relatives and lovers making a journey by train from Paris to Limoges to attend the funeral of painter Jean-Baptiste Emmerich (Jean-Louis Trintignant, who also plays his brother.) Chéreau really succeeds at making the audience feel his character's turbulent blur of emotions through very aggressive camera-work, editing and a loud rock soundtrack - it's the only 'Scope film I've seen since BREAKING THE WAVES that makes extensive use of hand-held camera - while using a more classical style for quieter moments. (The opening scene gets the noise and chaos of a crowded train station down just right.) Unfortunately, Chéreau's direction is a great deal more eloquent than his screenplay, written with Daniéle Thompson and Pierre Trividic. He's much better at expressing strong feeling through mise-en-scene than by having the actors scream at each other. (One such shouting match occurs at least every 5 minutes.) The ensemble cast - Charles Berling, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Pascal Gregory, Roschdy Zem (typecast once again as a character involved with drugs) - does a pretty good job, but almost all of their performances tend towards the histrionic and overblown. Nevertheless, this is a ride well worth taking.


CLASS TRIP (Claude Miller) ***1/2

It would be an understatement to say that Nicolas (Clement Van Der Bergh) is a boy ill at ease in his own mind and body. At night, he's plagued by bed-wetting episodes and vivid nightmares, while his daytime thoughts are full of obsessive fears, particularly of being kidnapped by traffickers in human organs, and uncontrollable hallucinations. (At one point, his imagination morphs a TV cooking show into the image of his father dying in a car crash.) Helplessly caught in a private world of Freudian symbols (rollercoasters, hooks, detached body parts, mysterious bags), he's a younger cousin to the tormented men of David Cronenberg's VIDEODROME and NAKED LUNCH and Claude Chabrol's L'ENFER, and Miller makes it quite easy to identify with his hell. The rationale behind his torment is eventually discovered, but CLASS TRIP deals much better with mystery than its resolution. (One certainly doesn't need any experience of real violence to share Nicolas' vulnerability and anxieties about his body.) While Hollywood cranks out slasher retreads, Miller has made a real - and extremely unsettling - horror movie about childhood desperation.


LUCK OR COINCIDENCE (Claude Lelouch) *1/2

The high point of Monsieur Middlebrow's latest film arrives in its first two minutes, which make witty use of a Discovery Channel-style documentary on polar bears. Its intricate structure kept me interested enough that I wasn't tempted to walk out, even though most of the individual subplots didn't engage me at all. The audience that thinks IL POSTINO and SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE are masterpieces will eat this up (if it gets an American distributor, which it doesn't yet have) and would probably be impressed by the way it wears pretentious stabs at modernist reflexivity and references to dance, painting, theater, Rousseau, Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati as a badge of cultural credentials. As for me, its smarmy "charm" made me feel like I'd just had a wisdom tooth extracted. Anyone looking for a real film about the vicissitudes of luck and coincidence would be bother off renting Krzysztof Kieslowski's RED, Claire Denis' I CAN'T SLEEP or Cédric Klapisch's WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY.


SOMBRE (Philippe Grandieux) ***


FOR SALE (Laetitia Masson) **

FOR SALE follows the investigation of Luigi (Sergio Castellito), a detective hired by Pierre Lindien (Jean-François Stevenin) to track down his wife France Robert (Sandrine Kiberlain), an ex-prostitute who ran off with his savings. As Luigi travels across France, the interviews he conducts with France's lovers and relatives prompt flashbacks to the past two years of his life. I enjoyed Masson's first feature, TO HAVE (OR NOT), but while FOR SALE may be more ambitious, it's far less successful or focused. Luigi gets plenty of screen time, but he feels more like a pretext for flashbacks or a stand-in for the male spectator (especially given his endless ruminations about France) than a real character. Unlike Benoit Jacquot's SEVENTH HEAVEN, which also starred Kiberlain, the air of mystery that permeates FOR SALE seems forced. France's motivations eventually become a little clearer, but by that point, the film had pretty much lost me.


VENUS INSTITUTE (Tonie Marshall) ***

VENUS INSTITUTE's titular beauty-salon setting might seem like a fitting backdrop for a sitcom or musical comedy (a la Jacques Demy's YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT and Chantal Akerman's mall musical WINDOW SHOPPING), but Marshall uses it as a launching pad for an intimate character study. While reeling from an ugly breakup, 40-year-old beautician Angele (Nathalie Baye) finds herself gradually attracted to the obsessive devotion of Antoine (Samuel Le Bihan), despite his borderline stalker behavior and engagement to another woman. This film is far more concerned with people than plot, and given the double standard about aging that governs American movies (and American life), it's refreshing to see how seriously it takes a middle-aged woman's passions. Although Angele and Antoine's relationship sometimes feels underdeveloped or overextended, especially because one can see the ending coming from a mile away, it culminates in a beautifully cathartic final scene, especially affecting because the film's view of love's possibilities is rather dark. This sublime finish fulfills every promise held by the first 100 minutes.


L'ENNUI (Cédric Kahn) ***1/2

L'ENNUI isn't going to be anyone's idea about a fun night at the movies, but it's a tremendously powerful experience: a LAST TANGO IN PARIS for the new millennium. Charles Berling plays Martin, a depressed philosopher who becomes attracted to Cecilia (Sophie Guillemin), a 17-year-old whose last lover, an elderly painter, died during sex with her. Martin's interest in her lies almost entirely in his view of her as a literal femme fatale and a sex object, and once he starts projecting his self-destructive urges onto their relationship, things quickly turn ugly. Berling's astonishing performance is the source of most of the film's power: even at his best, Martin's behavior is too needy and desperate for identification (or even sympathy) to come easily, but his worst behavior never seems monstrous. As cruel as he can be, his pain feels all too real. L'ENNUI starts off relatively slowly - initially feeling like yet another distanced French tale of l'amour fou - but it eventually draws one with all the force of prime Cassavetes. This may not be a particularly pleasant film to watch, but it's sure to stick with you long after the memories of more "enjoyable" ones have faded.


THE NEW EVE (Catherine Corsini) ***

I'm no fan of the kind of lite French comedy favored by American distributors and middlebrow audiences 15 or 20 years ago, but THE NEW EVE is about as good as the genre gets. (It may be something of a sex farce, but next to the vulgarity of a FRENCH TWIST, it looks as classy as Lubitsch.) A although much of its humor does stem from coincidence and incongruity, Corsini attempts something more than stringing gags or funny situations together. Her concern with character is refreshing, and the characters themselves appealing. This may not add up to anything greater than a well-crafted sitcom episode, but that's no insult.