1. The Bad.
Three months ago, on a rainy day, my wife and I went to see La Môme (American title: La vie en Rose), an overlong biopic concocted by 40 year-old French director Olivier Dayan, that retraces sometimes painful and sometimes glorious moments in the life of Edith Piaf, the famous French singer who died prematurely at age 47. More than 80% of the French press raved about this film when it was released in February and according to Rotten Tomatoes 75% of the American film critics and reviewers loved it. Only a few, like A.O Scott of the New York Times, who dares at one point of his review to call the film ‘’ a complete mess”, or Richard Schickel of Time who confesses that during some scenes he was closing his eyes..., shared my own impression: This is a schlocky treatment of what should have been a great movie story. The script lacks coherence and precision. There is no attempt to describe or question the various characters and the real motivations behind Piaf’s emotional turmoils and her natural tendency to self-destruction. But the worst offense to the cinephile that I am is the fact that this film is bloated from beginning to end. The production is over-designed. During the first part of the film, that is so dominated by exploitative miserabilism that you may think that Olivier Dayan is trying to compete with Les Misérables and recreate Cosette’s or Fantine’s pathetic stories, there is an accumulation of scenes that are grossly over-directed. Sometimes you can visualize in your head the second assistant-director gesturing, bullhorn in hand, to the numerous extras to cross the set. In fact the whole production, shot both in exteriors and in studios in Prague, Paris, and Los Angeles, is too often shamelessly trying to imitate some Hollywood sentimental melodramas from the late fifties. And there is nothing worse that a French film trying to mimic an American filmic style. Unfortunately, it is a phenomenon that has occurred more and more frequently in French major co-productions over the last ten years. (The only exception is the marvelous “Coeurs”, shot last year entirely in studio by the great 85 year-old Alain Resnais and released in June in Chicago under the title of “Private fears in Public Places“. This film is full of visual references of great Hollywood melodramatic films of the forties and fifties. In any way it says a gazillion times more about human sentiments and despair than La Vie en Rose, and is a “must see” for any serious cinephile, even though it is not, by far, Resnais’s best film.) One of the father figures of the French New Wave of the early sixties, Jean Luc Godard used to say that “Le travelling est une affaire de morale” (A tracking shot should have a moral implication). In La Vie en Rose we are constantly subjected to artificial camera movements, including lots of elaborate tracking shots, that have absolutely no justification and have no connection whatsoever with the sequence and the story. Speaking of story, why did Dayan base his construction, or rather deconstruction, of the sequences of events on only the most depressing and ‘’clichéd” aspects of Piaf’s life: Alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, sickness, betrayal, temper tantrums, bad mouthing, and sometimes unjust treatment of her friends and managers. He should have instead described and explained some of her inhibitions, fears, need to be loved, deep feelings of inadequacy and depression, and her constant need for compensating for the parental neglect and abandonment? Dayan seems to have completely forgot to show her love of the pure joy of singing and her love for France. Now, about Marion Cotillard, the young actress that plays Edith Piaf. But maybe I should say “overplays”. She was my main reason to see this film, since I had been quite impressed by her great performance in the strong role of Tina Lombardi in “ A Very Long Engagement” the 2004 film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And a year before I was under her charm in “Big Fish” of Tim Burton. I did not see her most successful popular films, “Taxi” 1,2, and 3. I have to admit that she deploys an incredible energy and determination in trying to inhabit Piaf’s persona. In some sequences, especially the few good ones that involve her love affair with the French boxer Marcel Cerdan, very efficiently interpreted by Jean-Pierre Martins, she really manages to create a special aura around her and we believe in her. But too often she tries too hard to BE Piaf. And it becomes a bit embarrassing, as though she had escaped from the control of her director. But I have no doubt that she has the potential to be a very good actress. All in all, I was very ashamed of the perverted image that this film projects of the contemporary French cinema. I have nothing against ”popular commercial films” if they are well made and bear a distinctive mark. But I cannot stand exploitative blockbusters that have absolutely no redeeming artistic value to offer. Fortunately there are still several French directors of all ages who are battling very hard to continue, in spite of the pressures from the French production and distribution system, to make original and sincere films that reflect artistic integrity and creativity. I am thinking about directors like Claire Denis, Pascale Ferran, Xavier Beauvois, Philippe Garrel, Christophe Honoré, Arnaud Desplechin, Patrice Chéreau, Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné, Otar Iosseliani, Alain Cavalier, Laurent Cantet, Dennis Dercourt, Bruno Dumont, Patrick Grandperret , Bertrand Bonello, Jean-Pierre Limosin, Benoit Jacquot, Jacques Doillon, Eric Rochant. And of course the 6 survivors of the very important period of the late fifties-early sixties, and the ‘’ New Wave’’ that still make films nowadays. I am referring to Alain Resnais, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, Agnes Varda, and in a slightly less significant mode Claude Chabrol. You can see many of their films on DVD and in art houses.
2. The Good
Good French films a rarely shown in town at the end of the summer. But this year was an exception. In early September, I was really excited to discover a creative young director, 37 year-old Christophe Honoré, who in some way is a direct heir of the French New Wave of the early sixties. As a matter of fact he does not hesitate to quote his famous references (Demy, Godard, Truffaut, and Rivette in particular), in his films. But in Dans Paris, (In Paris), he shows, with a lot of assurance, a definitively very personal and precise directing style, sometimes a little too obviously influenced by the New Wave, but nevertheless quite original and contemporary. This film had received very good reviews when it was shown at the Cannes film festival in May 2006, and later on when it was released commercially in November. When I saw Dans Paris, I had not seen his previous feature films, the made-for TV Tout Contre Leo (2002), Dix-Sept fois Cécile Cassard (2002), with Romain Duris who plays the main character in Dans Paris, and Ma mère (2004) with Louis Garrel who plays the brother of Romain Duris in Dans Paris. But I had enjoyed reading his articles in the French monthly “ Les Cahiers du Cinéma’’ a very interesting magazine that I have been reading since the late fifties, and which now publishes an English edition. (Go on their site to know more about it: http://www.e-cahiersducinema.com/ .) Dix-Sept fois Cécile Cassard and Tout contre Léo, both deal with gay themes that present a specific interest to Honoré. He had also published several novels, including a few for children, and was a co-scriptwriter for Gael Morel (for Le Clan), Anne-Sophie Birot (for the very nice Les Filles ne savent pas nager), and Jean-Pierre Limosin, another very original French director, for NOVO (2002) a must-see if you did not see it yet. These films are available at NETFLIX. His most recent film, another homage to Jacques Demy, Les Chansons d’Amour (2007) got mixed reviews at Cannes this year, and will be shown at the Chicago International Film Festival next week. After screening Dans Paris in a Chicago theater, I wanted very much to see some of his previous films, and I selected Ma Mère, from NETFLIX that also has Tout Contre Leo in its catalog. Adapted from a short novel by the great French writer Georges Bataille, that was published posthumously after his death in the mid-sixties, this strange and disturbing film, rated NC 17, got its share of success, largely due to its ‘’scandalous’’ subject matter. A mother, played with lots of bravery by the great actress Isabelle Huppert, shares her secret totally unorthodox sexual life with her very pious and innocent loving post-adolescent son, played by Louis Garrel, after the death of his alcoholic father, and leads him into a pathologically neurotic discovery of all kinds of physical pleasures and painful emotions, quite often sado-masochistic. Of course the ultimate experience will be death. This film was beautifully shot in the Canary Islands, and it offers some very fascinating, very well directed sequences. But its very unbalanced script cutting and editing, in addition to some often brutal and not always necessary too graphic material, makes it difficult to watch. To get back to Dans Paris: Like so many films of the early sixties, it is a film about ruptures. Ruptures between generations, ruptures between life styles, ruptures between sexual tendencies, ruptures within families, ruptures between men and women. In this case two brothers are involved. Paul, the oldest, beautifully played by Romain Duris is returning to Paris, in an advanced state of depression, to live in his divorced father’s apartment, after the end of a difficult love affair with a beautiful, but demanding, young woman (Joana Preis), and the failure of an experiment consisting of living alone in a rural and supposedly peaceful environment. He spends his days in or on the bed of his younger and much livelier brother, Jonathan, played by Louis Garrel. Jonathan (Jo) tries to help him to emerge from his mental solitude and suicidal tendencies. He even reads him children’s books that they use to read in their youth. In the meantime Jo is pursuing a not too focused life consisting mainly in running the streets of Paris and partying in search of brief affairs with pretty girls. The father, played by the great Guy Marchand (remember him in Cousin Cousine?) does what he can to help, but he is not even able to take care of himself and lives a very boring and limited life. The brief visit by the mother (still stunning Marie-France Pisier) called to help in a crucial scene, is a very emotional moment where we realize that she is perhaps the only person able to instill some new life into this claustrophobic apartment and into her son. The relationships between the characters are described with a lot of finesse and maturity, that sometimes remind us of Eric Rohmer’s style. All these movements inside and outside of the apartment are filmed with an evident cinematic pleasure and great elegance by Honoré. But do not count on seeing much of Paris, like you do in Julie Delpy’s film or in Paris Je t’aime. This is a not a film about Paris, but about characters whose lifves evolve within a restricted area of Paris. And for a cinephile it is a real treat to detect all the references to these directors of the New Wave that Honoré idolizes so much: Godard (who in some way could be partially identified with Paul) and Truffaut, or more specifically his ‘’projection’’, Antoine Doinel-Jean-Pierre Léaud, that sometimes look like a cousin of Jonathan. But the marvelous sequence where Paul sings on the phone a love duo with his former mistress, is a direct homage to Jacques Demy.
3. The beautiful
To me, the real sunshine of this summer, was Lady Chatterley, a very powerful and intelligent piece of cinematic beauty that was directed in 2006 by Pascale Ferran, a very gifted film maker who, unfortunately, does not make films very often, due to difficulties in finding sources of financing for her projects that probably do not appear commercial enough to potential producers. Fortunately, she found a very intelligent producer in the person of Gilles Sandoz, who accepted her idea to make two versions of her adaptation of Lady Chatterley. One was produced for ARTE, the European cultural channel, that was shown in two episodes of 100 minutes each, and the other was the film I saw, whose duration is 2 hours and 38 minutes. I was very moved but a bit disturbed by her first feature film, Petits arrangements avec la mort (Coming to terms with the death), an intimate study on grieving the death of loved ones, that revealed a real ‘’auteur de films’’ and was justly rewarded with the ‘’Caméra d’or’’ prize at the Cannes film festival in 1994. But I did not see her next film, the made for TV L’âge des possibles (1995). It is unfortunate that none of them is be distributed in DVD by Netflix or Blockbuster. I have to check FACETS out to find out if they have them. From the first 5 minutes of Lady Chatterley I felt a pure cinephilic joy. This film is so intelligently composed, framed, and directed, that you do not SEE the ‘’mise en scene’’, you are literally swept away with the rhythm and the beauty of each scene, and forget about its construction. That for me is the proof of a very clever ‘’mise en scene’’. When you start thinking about the way such and such shot or sequence is organized and when you marvel about a specific camera movement or special effect, it shows that the ‘’mise en scène’’ is too over-composed and not subtle enough. I will not discuss the question related to the fact that this film is an adaptation of an earlier version of Lawrence’s novel. A review by Dennis Lim in the June 17 edition of the New York Times is sufficiently explicit on that matter. I will not expand either on the merits of Marina Hands as Constance: Her beauty is luminous, she is a ‘’perfect’’ Constance, and I am looking forward to seeing her again in Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, to be released at the Chicago film festival. Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, a non-professional actor has the necessary physical presence as the gamekeeper, and his awkwardness is often very touching, no pun intended. Hippolyte Girardot, as Sir Clifford, is perhaps the most surprising choice of the casting. But after a while I found it more credible than during the first half hour when his character is sometimes too schematically developed. His role was much more important in the TV version of the film. I prefer to insist on the fact that Pascale Ferran was very successful in establishing a perfect balance between the sensuality, that is never too erotically charged, of the couple and of the situations in which the evolve, and the immense impact of the nature in which they move. Rarely a director will have used natural settings, like forests, meadows, rivers, rural houses, etc. as powerfully and authentically as Pascale Ferran did in this movie. Nature, beautifully shot by Julien Hirsh, and the protagonists of the story are totally and perfectly intertwined, and never appear as being two different elements of the same film. (The only case where I had the same impression of a director being in full control of the integration of humans in a natural environment was when I saw the two mesmerizing films of the Thai director Apitchapong Weerasethakul, Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady.) What is also incredibly strong in this film, is the respect that Pascale Ferran has for the characters and her actors. Not a single time do you have the slightest feeling that she may over expand the erotic content and exploit the physical acting of her interpreters. Everything is perfectly honest but restrained and the sensuality remains beautiful and exhilarating all the time, never threatened by any faux-pas or risqué move. Whatever your age, you can project yourself in to these two marvelous characters without feeling embarrassed or voyeuristic. D.H Lawrence would have been proud of her.