Saturday, June 27, 2015

French Delights: Late August, Early September, The Lady and the Duke, 5 X 2, and The Taste of Others

While checking out some foreign films I needed for a course I was teaching, I realized once again how many movies that may have come and gone too quickly in the cinemas or did not play commercially there at all – can find a second life streaming, or on DVD. Despite downloading and streaming, however, I still prefer to find my movies the old fashioned way, on screen, or in the video store’s stacks. Here are four French films you ought to check out.

Late August, Early September (Fin août, début septembre) (1998): Olivier Assayas, followed up his delightful Irma Vep with a much more serious but equally adept film – one that confirmed him at the forefront of French filmmakers. Spanning sixteen months and divided into six chapters, Late August, Early September eavesdrops on the fragmented lives of a group of mostly artistic Parisians whose beliefs and feelings are tested when one of them, writer Adrien Willer (Francois Cluzet), becomes seriously ill.

The beauty of Assayas' films is that they are completely unsentimental and refuse to wrap anything up neatly. So the tumultuous relationship between the emotionally adrift Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric) and his vivacious, strong-willed girlfriend Anne (Virginie Ledoyen, who also starred in Assayas' Cold Water) undergoes changes but is by no means resolved one way or another. Gabriel's rapport with ex-girlfriend Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) is similarly opaque and refreshingly adult. And Adrien's love affair with a 16-year-old, Vera (Mia Hansen-Love, whom Assyaas later married), which none of his friends know about, is depicted without any salaciousness or exploitation. It's actually the most touching romance in the film.

More than most filmmakers, Assayas understands that friendships and sexual relationships are based as much on unresolved tensions and unexpressed feelings as they are on spoken words and deeds. His penchant for extreme close-ups, matter-of-fact presentation of scenes and simple breakdown of events and timeframes add up to a wide-ranging portrait of French life today, laced with disquieting undercurrents of economic dislocation and spiritual emptiness.

The Lady and the Duke (L'Anglaise et le Duc) (2001): Master filmmaker Eric Rohmer (Claire’s Knee, Autumn Tale) returned late in his career with a change-of-pace film, miles removed from his usual sunny take on the human condition. Based on the memoirs of Grace Elliott, a Scottish woman who moved to France in 1786, not long before the Revolution, The Lady and the Duke begins one year after that violent event with a civilized conversation between Grace (Lucy Russell) and her friend and former lover, the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus). Grace is loyal to the king of her adopted country but the Duke is on the side of the people, whom he feels are ill done by their undemocratic monarch. Those differing views don't seem insurmountable but in the next scene, there is an attack on the Palace and Grace is forced to flee Paris to her country home. Those long sequences as Grace tries to escape the city convey the fear and terror that the Revolution wrought in a unique manner and more effectively than any other film on the subject. But Rohmer goes a step further, showing the inexorable fallout from the fighting that followed, from the brutal murders of aristocrats and Royals to the threat to Grace, who is suspect because of her friendships with many enemies of the state.

Rohmer's likening of the viciousness of the French Revolution to the excesses of Stalinist Russia makes for heightened drama, which is perfectly interpreted by his skilled cast. Russell is especially fine as the stranger in a strange land. Shooting digital for the first time, Rohmer had the backgrounds of the scenes painted and then inserted the actors, horses and carriages into them.The result is ravishing but it is art in the service of story. At 81 years of age, Rohmer showed that he still had what it took to make great movies. 

5 X 2 (Cinq Fois Deux) (2004): Five scenes from a marriage, beginning with its ending and concluding as the couple first meet, with snapshots of the relationship, the birth of the pair's child and their wedding in between. What could have merely been a gimmick is, instead, an emotionally rich and poignant drama that confirms that filmmaker Francois Ozon is at his best when he crafts thoughtful films (Under the Sand) instead of toying with various film genres (Swimming Pool, 8 Women). Unlike the similarly structured Harold Pinter film Betrayal, which shows how a marriage goes wrong, 5 x 2 suggests, disturbingly, that this marriage wasn't any good in the first place. The luminous Marion (superbly embodied by Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi) may never have had much in common with the rather nasty Gilles (Stephane Freiss), but 5 x 2 never condemns her for her mistake in choosing him. Instead, the film memorably plays out as a touching tragedy that began with understandable hope for another future than the one depicted onscreen.

The Taste Of Others (Le Gout Des Autres) (2000): The Taste of Others does what the French do best – craft romantic dramas that ring true and offer wisdom and insight into the relationships between men and women. Chief among them are Castella (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a likable boor who finds himself attracted to Clara (Anne Alvaro), a 40-year-old actress who has given up on ever finding love. At the same time, her friend Manie (Agnes Jaoui, who made her directorial debut with this movie and co-wrote it with Jean-Pierre Bacri), begins a relationship with Castella's tough bodyguard, Moreno (Gerard Lanvin), who has vowed to never settle down with any woman. Then there's Castella's neurotic wife, Beatrice (Brigitte Catillon), who prefers animals to people, and his driver, Deschamps (Alain Chabat), who has romantic problems of his own. The linkages between the characters are never forced and the performances are uniformly pleasurable. Some of the characters, such as Beatrice, could have been sketched in more depth and Jaoui's direction is somewhat clunky but this sweet film will leave you smiling.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he has concluded a course entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course looked at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences. He will be teaching a course on documentary cinema at Life Institute in the fall.

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