Friday, July 23, 2010

Recent French Cinema: New Directions, Mixed Results

French filmmakers, more often than not, tend not to stand still in terms of repeating themselves in their films. They may stick to their favourite themes but their movies usually vary in tone and intent. That’s the case with three movies from 2009 that have opened commercially this summer, Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard (Barbe Bleue), Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass (Les herbes folles) and Jean – Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs (Micmacs à tire-larigot).

Fans of Catherine Breillat, the enfant terrible of French cinema, may be surprised how relatively tame and conventional Bluebeard is, compared to such incendiary movies of hers as Romance (1999), Anatomy of Hell (Anatomie de l’enfer (2001) and Fat Girl (À ma soeur) (2004). Her concerns about female desire, sexual attraction and the age old gender wars are still there but filtered through the 300 plus year old Bluebeard fairy tale. That’s the famous French fairy tale of the young girl who marries a famous lord and is warned, when he goes away on a business trip, not to go into a room of the castle they live in. When she does, she discovers what has happened to his many previous wives.

Breillat, who made the film for French television, juxtaposes that 17th century story with a present day one whereby two sisters take turns reading Bluebeard from a book of fairy tales, showcasing their naiveté and lack of understanding of what the Bluebeard tale really means. They may be modern young girls but they’re either ill prepared to confront the realities of what’s behind the door of the forbidden room, or when they do, unable to absorb the momentous nature of what it all means. It’s a provocative approach to the story, and one that packs a shock ending, but the movie is just a bit too dry and sluggish for its own good, despite compelling performances by Dominique Thomas as the fearsome Bluebeard and Lola Créton as his young bride.

Wild Grass is something of a departure, too, for the now 88 year old Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad / L'année dernière à Marienbad 1961) as he ventures into the territory of amour fou, obsessive love. But Resnais’ approach to the subject is not the sexually explicit, raw take we would get from a Catherine Breillat but an intellectual, almost anthropological, study of the subject. When the contentedly married Georges (André Dussollier) finds a wallet belonging to Marguerite (Sabine Azéma), it seems a simple enough matter of his returning the stolen object to the woman. But Georges is a little off and soon enough, his attentions to Marguerite begin to assume an ominous hue. Beautifully shot, with a colour scheme meant to evoke Will Eisner’s graphic novels, Wild Grass is a welcome, quirky departure from Resnais’ more recent sterile offerings, such as Private Fears in Public Places (Coeurs, 2006) and Not on the Lips (Pas sur la bouche 2003), and graced with good performances by Resnais film mainstays Dussolier and Azema, who is also the director’s off screen partner. (Mathieu Almaric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly / Le scaphandre et le papillon 2007) also contributes a nice turn as a harassed cop.) Wild Grass never cuts as deep as it could and it’s still more of an exercise in style than a fully fleshed out film but it’s nice to see Resnais stepping out of his comfort zone and trying something different, especially at an age when so many directors would have long retired from or been forced to quit making movies.

Micmacs, Jean – Pierre Jeunet’s first film since his 2004 anti – war / romantic masterpiece A Very Long Engagement (Un long dimanche de fiançailles) seems, at first glance, to be not at all different from his previous work, borrowing the look of his early science fiction films such as Delicatessen (1991) and adopting the quirky (but not saccharine) tone of his hit Amélie (Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001). But as it unfolds, it soon becomes clear that Jeunet’s comedic adventure is the most completely realized and original of the three French films. And while it’s a decidedly lighter and more whimsical movie than A Very Long Engagement, it’s no less inventive for that. If you can imagine Ocean’s Eleven, crossed with Mission: Impossible and leavened with the gentle wit of Jacques Tati, you begin to get some idea of what Jeunet and screenwriter Guillaume Laurant have concocted in this unique and inspired French comedy.

The film’s story is a simple one, buried in a complex and intricate plot. It begins with a French Foreign Legionnaire blown up by a landmine in the desert and then moves onto his son, Bazil (Dany Boon), who thirty years after his father’s death, is a movie obsessed video store clerk. One night, while the police chase after some criminals, a stray bullet strikes Bazil, the innocent bystander, or babysittee, as he’s watching TV at work. Surgery saves his life but the slug remains stuck inside his skull, occasionally affecting his thought processes, and functioning as a symbol of the dramatic turn his life now takes. While in the hospital, he’s evicted from his apartment, then replaced at work and suddenly homeless, he’s wandering the streets, just another sad sack cast out from French society. Falling in with a group of similar eccentrics, who live beneath a junkyard, he decides to get revenge on the arms manufacturer who made the bullet that he carries around inside him and on the arms maker’s compatriot, who built the bomb that killed his father.

By returning to the art deco, retro look of Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, the earlier 90’s science fiction films that Jeunet co – directed with Marc Caro, Micmacs sets itself apart from the serious, realistic French movies that usually play in our cinemas. But it’s a sunny movie with a difference, one whose special effects, unlike Hollywood’s, are never ladled on with a trowel and where the flamboyant set direction is not a substitute for a smartly thought out tale. That tale essentially revolves around Bazil and his unusual pals, who include Tambouille (Yolande Moreau), a tomboyish female contortionist who describes herself as a “sensitive woman in a twisty body”, Remington (Omar Sy), an African ethnographer prone to bursting into laughter at odd times, and Jeunet film regular Dominique Pinon as Fracasse, a man who is attempting to set the record for longest distance ever flown by a human cannonball. With their aid, and their talent for elaborate disguises, Bazil pits the arms manufacturers / dealers against each other, with the end goal of exposing their crimes to the outside world.

But the path to the film’s conclusion takes all sorts of unusual and roundabout turns, so you’re often sitting back trying to figure where the movie is going. That’s not a flaw by the way; Micmacs meanders along pleasingly, in the same way Jacques Tati did in the 1953 French film classic Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot), leaving comic, slapstick havoc in its wake. (The inventions created by the denizens of the junkyard are also reminiscent of Tati, notably the ones depicted in his clever 1958 film Mon oncle.) The film’s French title Micmacs à tire-larigot means to overindulge, which is likely a jokey riff on Bazil’s over the top plotting.

As the arms dealers, André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié do a slow burn par excellence as their ordered world slowly collapses around them. And while Dany Boon (Welcome to the Sticks / Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis (2008), The Valet / La doublure 2006) isn’t quite in the Buster Keaton / Charlie Chaplin category, the characters Bazil is most meant to resemble, he is refreshingly ordinary and believable in his role. Even Bazil’s sweet romance with the contortionist doesn’t play out as neatly or obviously as most cinematic romances do.

As a bonus, Micmacs offers up a bit of satirical social critique, attacking the arms dealers’ collusion with African dictators and coup plotters, and France’s discarding of the citizens who don’t fit into ordinary social norms. Those may seem like obvious targets for criticism but like everything else in the delightful Micmacs, the political points go down easy and memorably.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto.

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