Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2004

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2004

Hanging Offense (aka That Woman, aka Cette femme-la) covers nine days in the life of cop Michele Varin (Josiane Balasko, French Twist) leading up to February 29, the leap year date on which her 8-year old son died. The experience continues to cover her like a shroud even as she begins investigating the apparent suicide of a late middle-aged woman. The corpse is found hanging from a noose in the woods one dark, rainy night, but the death is complicated by the fact that one of her shoes is missing, her back sports severe lashings, and "pardon" is etched into her arm.

Michele spends her evenings working on jigsaw puzzles, an apt metaphor for her work, and taking care of her late son’s sick pet rabbit, Jo. She and her partner Sylvain Bazinsky (Eric Caravaca) look for leads in the veterinarian jogger who found the body and in Ms. Kopmans (Eva Ionesco) and her young son Leo (Ange Rodot) who live in a trailer near where the body was found. How does a missing raincoat, a nipple chain, an injured bounty hunter (Thierry Lhermitte, The Dinner Game), an abandoned daughter (Valerie Donzelli), and a man who breaks into Michele’s home fit into the mystery?

Writer-director Guillaume Nicloux, who also made the darkly comic detective thriller Le Poulpe, keeps things murky until the very end, but don’t expect every loose end to be neatly tied. Nicloux shows a mastery of ominous moods and atmosphere and is helped substantially by eric Demarsan’s spooky score and Pierre William Glenn’s lensing. Michele is haunted by nightmares of spectral presences, and Nicloux keeps guilefully slipping them into the movie which makes the viewing experience enormously unnerving.

Ultimately, this is as much horror film as detective mystery. Few movies create such a sense of dread as the climax of Hanging Offense. Balasko wears Michele’s pain like a comfortable old suit she refuses to give away. For the curious film buff, the movie clips Nicloux gratuitously references here are from Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni and Howard Hawks’ The Big Sky.

In Inquietudes (aka A Sight for Sore Eyes), Bruno Keller (Gregoire Colin, The Dreamlife of Angels) is a talented art student whose motivation is that he "can’t do anything else." The aesthetic motif with which he is obsessed is empty space surrounded by pure white walls. When Bruno’s sick father dies, Bruno drops out of art school and he indifferently kills his uncle. A flashback shows how his alcoholic father and uncle viciously abused his mother. Bruno, just a little boy, drags his bed mattress into another room amidst the fighting, thus staking a claim to his future autonomy.

The film jumps to 1992, to the story of Elise Gardet (model Julie Ordon, whose full lips Angelina Jolie might envy). When she is just seven, she hides in the bathroom while her mother is murdered. Could the anguished killer be her father, Richard (Laurent Grevill, Camille Claudel)? In the present, Richard has married Elise’s former therapist, Anne (Brigitte Catillon, The Housekeeper), who herself suffers from paranoid delusions and deteriorating mental faculties. Now a voluptuous eighteen years old, Elise is sick of Anne’s over-protection and she finds escape through Bruno, now doing interior design work at the clothing store at which she is a sales clerk. Anne frantically tries to keep them apart while Bruno moves his uncle’s corpse around to keep from being caught only to get into even deeper trouble.

Director Gilles Bourdos deftly keeps up a tone of tense anxiety matching Bruno’s own focused willpower in creating art and keeping his murder hidden. Inquietudes explores the inescapability of the past and the ways it repeats itself. Bourdos keeps the camera orbiting his subjects as a stylistic thematic parallel. One character asks, "Do you think a man can have a second chance in life?" The film suggests the answer to be "yes," but this hypothetical man, a victim of his own history, is likely to squander the opportunity.

Nathalie may well be the biggest draw of the series promising three of France’s biggest stars in Fanny Ardant, Emmanuel Beart, and Gerard Depardieu. Gynecologist Catherine (Ardant, 8 Women) and her husband Bernard (Depardieu, City of Ghosts) are successful upper crust types with a teenage son, Thierry (Rodolphe Pauly, Merci pour le chocolate). Catherine discovers Bernard is having an affair when she listens to his cell phone messages. Bernard at first denies it, then dismisses it, saying the affair means nothing. But Catherine wants to know what specifically about these women turns him on that she lacks.

At a nightclub near her office, Catherine hires elegant prostitute, Marlene (Beart, La Belle noiseuse), to become "Nathalie" who will get Catherine’s answers from Bernard. Marlene begins recounting her seduction of Bernard to Catherine in explicit and vulgar detail sounding like a page from Penthouse magazine’s letters. At first this just upsets Catherine more, but then she begins to find the stories arousing. Catherine constantly tries to correct Marlene’s interpretations of her husband’s actions, desperately hoping that she still knows him better than this woman. The women’s friendship grows more intimate and Catherine cannot help but notice Marlene’s sensuality.

There are many ways this story could unfold, but kudos go to anyone who guesses the final twist, one of clever irony and gratifying compassion. Director Anne Fontaine (Dry Cleaning), may draw the story out too long, but the emotional sense of the writing and the vividness of the characters are captivating. Ardant projects a complex mix of insecurity and sublimated desire. Beart is sizzling here, more for the star presence in her body language than for just her notable physical beauty. Depardieu’s part is relatively small, but his acting is nicely restrained in a way that hasn’t been seen for a while.

Not on the Lips (aka Pas sur la bouche) is Alain Resnais’ follow-up to his immensely popular (in France, that is) Same Old Song, which is also a musical. Lips marks the latest step in the auteur’s divergent career path moving far from his cinematic landmarks, Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Last Year at Marienbad. From earlier themes of memory and loss, Resnais now has become obsessed with the theatrical, prominently displayed in Melo and Smoking/No Smoking. His recent films, far more mainstream than his canonized artier works, make no pretense to realism and wallow in artifice. Lips is the most emblematic of this shift in direction yet. It opens to the sounds of an orchestra tuning up. A narrator welcomes the audience to this "operetta" and introduces the cast. Set in the 1920s, the story follows the romantic complications of the Valandray family. Pretty Huguette Verberie (Audrey Tautou, Amelie) is chasing after young artist Charley Brunner (Jalil Lespert, Human Resources), who is into his own art movement, coocooism, which he believes will supplant the Dadaists and Cubists. Charley is enamored of an older woman, Gilberte Valandray (Sabine Azema, La Buche). Gilberte is married to Georges (Pierre Arditi, Mon oncle d’Amerique), whose surprise business partner turns out to be Gilberte’s first husband, American Eric Thomson (the hilariously stiff Lambert Wilson, The Matrix Reloaded).

Of course Eric wants to rekindle the flame with his ex-wife. Getting confused in the middle of all the romantic shenanigans is Gilberte’s spinster sister, Arlette Poumaillac (Isabelle Nanty, Les Visiteurs) and old-fashioned womanizer Faradel (Daniel Prevost). The songs vary drastically in quality. The opening piece about gossip is sassy and toe-tappingly addictive, but the later numbers are dull until the film’s second half when the music returns to vivaciousness. Jacques Saulnier, who has been with Resnais since Marienbad in 1961, does outstanding production design duties, cluttering each environment with the ornate and the pristine beyond the point of gaudiness. The characters, who frequently break the fourth wall to talk to the audience, are mostly one-dimensional. Only Nanty and Prevost bring enough of a human presence to transcend their caricatures. The title is a send up of American prudery, and Resnais gets a further dig in with Eric’s purposefully awful French. Not that the French escape either, as their art movements gets thorough spoofing. For what it’s worth, Lips’ closest cinematic relative is probably Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. It has about the same level of substance.

In Siegrid Alnoy’s She’s One of Us (aka For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow, aka Elle est des notres), Christine Blanc (Sasha Andres) is a socially inept temp worker. She puts far more weight into every casual conversation than the other person is comfortable with and she has no understanding of when to start or stop talking. Alnoy deliberately starts the movie with a series of disorientating jumps in space and time, but slowly Christine’s narrative arc emerges. Christine lies about having an owl figurine collection to befriend her temp supervisor Patricia (Catherine Mouchet, Les Destinees), but when Patricia inadvertently puts Christine in an unpleasant position at a public swimming pool, Christine murders her in a brutal Jeanne Dielman-like explosion.

Christina’s social life improves immediately afterwards as she finds a permanent job, a lover (Eric Caravaca), a needy friend of her own (Mireille Roussel), admiration from her new boss, and fixation from her go-fer underling (Pierre-Felix Graviere). On the other hand, two young Tweedle-dum Tweedle-dee cops are on her trail while another cop, Degas (Carlo Brandt), becomes attracted to her.

This is among the rarest of French films in that from beginning to end, it is filled with the plainest, blandest looking people ever to star in a movie. Alnoy’s tone is similar to Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, but the style is even colder and more formal. Christophe Pollock, who shot Jean-Luc Godard’s recent In Praise of Love, intersperses the movie with some extraordinary imagery – a bus stop in the morning, trees covered in green moss, a wine glass in the rain – which verge on becoming dreamscapes. Unfortunately, the movie finally just wanders off into aimless thematic exploration and arty pretentiousness and ambiguity.

With auteur Bruno Dumont at the helm, 29 Palms, a film about extremes of cyclical love and hate, is both provocative and sedate, and it is likely the most divisive film in the series. American David (David Wissak) and French Katia (Katia Golubeva) journey from Los Angeles to the small, isolated California town of the title to find a desert location for a magazine photo shoot. They spend the entire time either fighting, fucking, or simply driving in their hummer whose auburn-orange color matches that of Katia’s hair. Looking like a scruffy scarecrow, David mostly speaks to Katia in English and she responds in French.

Katia gets upset when David glances at another woman in a restaurant, when she struggles to give him a blowjob underwater, and when he almost runs over a dog. Eventually writer-director Dumont feels no need at all to supply a reason for their fights. In one tussle, they lay into each other on a barren street in the wee hours of the night, David dancing around Katia like a boxer. The bouts of anger give way to forgiveness only to return to anger again.

In one memorable instance, Katia stops a David rant cold with a simple, "Je t’aime." Between the many scenes of fury are many scenes of sex, in at least one of which the actors engage in actual onscreen intercourse. Neither Dumont nor Golubeva are strangers to controversy in this respect. Dumont utilized actual sex in La Vie de Jesus, and Golubeva also engaged in real sex on screen in Pola X. Dumont depicts the sex more clinically than erotically, and at times the film approaches an anthropological distance. As with his two earlier movies, La Vie de Jesus and L’Humanite, Dumont is after the animality in humans, emphasizing their physicality, their breathing, their energy. He presents something primal in both the bodies and the emotions being captured. Still, Dumont is never in a hurry to get anywhere and he lackadaisically films a stroll down the street with the same unhurriedness as one of the couple’s fights. A third of the film is spent with the couple driving through the desert in beautiful Cinemascope. A note to the squeamish: in the film I Stand Alone, Gaspar Noe put a 30 second warning on screen, giving the audience a chance to escape before its horrifying closing. 29 Palms needs that warning even more.

Who Killed Bambi? is a provocative title, but in the interest of honest advertising, it must be noted that it is a misleading one. Director Gilles Marchand’s film is not a murder mystery exactly, and it reveals the villain right off the bat to the audience even if the other characters are oblivious. Dr. Philipp (Laurent Lucas, With a Friend Like Harry) first appears as an ominous out-of-focus figure. Unobserved in the shadows, he quietly watches a nurse check up on a beautiful sleeping female patient. His hard, stern rectangular face looks skeletal from a distance, and endowed with dark Martin Landau eyebrows, looks devilish up close. It makes a striking contrast with that of his nemesis, nurse-in-training Isabelle (Sophie Quinton). Her soft face, large round eyes, pale skin, cropped blond hair and mousy demeanor display a childlike vulnerability.

Because she suffers from fainting spells and also happens to have a wide-eye doe look, Dr. Philipp gives Isabelle the nickname "Bambi," saying that like the Disney character, she has trouble standing on her own two legs. Isabelle has trouble articulating why she distrusts Dr. Philipp, but when a female patient mysteriously disappears and some anesthesia is found diluted, she becomes all the more suspicious. Living in the nurses’ dormitory overlooking the hulking hospital, Isabelle finds solace in her cousin Veronique (Catherine Jacob, God Is Great and I’m Not), a fellow nurse, and her boyfriend, Sami (Yasmine Belmadi), an orderly.

Who Killed Bambi? comes close to being a conventional Hollywood thriller. What differentiates it is a casual pacing devoted to observing the characters and frequent dashes of full frontal nudity. The former would be intriguing if any of the characters actually possessed any psychological depth and the latter seems to be merely gratuitous. Marchand, aided by a soundscape seemingly inspired by Angelo Badalamenti (Mulholland Drive), does fashion an eerie atmosphere from the hospital’s tomblike antiseptic white corridors with Dr. Philipp always hovering nearby. But the more the movie progresses, the more contrived it becomes, especially in the villain’s omnipresence and omniscience and Isabelle’s illogical actions. The slow, but always alluring, buildup culminates in a disappointing and pretentious payoff.

George Wu

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New York ,
George Wu holds a masters degree in cinema studies from NYU. He eats, drinks, and sleeps movies. Fortunately, he lives in New York City, the best place in the country for disorders of this type. He also works on the occasional screenplay when inspiration strikes, but his muses don't slap him around enough.