(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)
35 Rhums (Claire Denis)
Denis’ films appear regularly at the festival but are rather hard to see otherwise. Her best-known may be the 1999 Beau Travail, a dream-like memory of the French Foreign Legion. I saw it twice but still found it hard to penetrate. Since then I’ve only seen Trouble Every Day, a horror movie of sorts – overflowing with fascinating, superficially contradictory elements, but very easy to lose one’s bearings in (when I saw it, many people simply walked out). This is to say that Denis’ films are not easy. 35 Rhums seems much more accommodating on the surface – a gentle portrayal of a black single father and his daughter, and some of the people in their vicinity. The title refers to the father’s notion (which he may have invented himself) that notable life-changing occasions need to be marked by 35 shots of rum; a practice that on the face of it could only result in obliterating the very memory being celebrated. This device symbolizes the film’s broader balancing between life-changing events and others which – although inherently transient - may carry as much spiritual weight at least at the time and perhaps even (given the vagaries of personality) permanently. Take for example the scene where one character, realizing that his 17-year-old (and apparently fondly regarded) cat has died during the night, throws it and its toys in the trash and almost immediately announces his intention to take a job overseas, given his sudden absence of ties. The film incorporates some wonderful invention and observation of character – overall, grappling with Denis’ complexity is as pleasurable and immediately rewarding here as I’ve ever known it to be.
Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)
Folman’s film is in the animated genre of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, films that essentially paint on top of real life, in the hope perhaps of attaining something more vivid, heightened and meaningful than “mere” photographic representation (reportedly it’s a mixture of “flash animation, traditional hand-drawn technique, and computer-enhanced 3-D modeling”). It’s an investigation in memory, carried out at a 20-year distance by a former Israeli soldier (the director himself) who’s lost most of his recall of what he did, and tries to reconstruct it by interviewing past colleagues and others. After such a period, of course, recovered memory might be indistinguishable from retroactive invention, and for a while it seems the film may be more interesting in structure and style than historical illumination. But the closing sequences – focusing on a 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians – compellingly wash away that impression (as the program book notes though, there’s little or no explicit political content). Just as memory and history intertwine, it’s intriguing how the use of animation both confuses and heightens the sense of what’s being represented here. There are a couple of references to people going through momentous events as if in a film – to keep their emotional distance – and Folman exploits that concept quite slyly here. There’s a lot of humour and artful audience-tweaking in the mix too, but when it switches to live action for the final few shots, any sense of protective distance falls away. It’s a good film, although it feels more like one of cinema’s numerous one-shot wonders than the start of a major career for its director.
Un conte de Noel (Arnaud Desplechin)
Desplechin’s Kings and Queen is one of my favorite films of recent years – an amazing tumble of characters and ideas and allusions, with a hugely sophisticated sense of behavioural complexity. I later went back and watched the director’s earlier Esther Kahn, a very strange but perhaps waywardly brilliant English-language piece about a turn-of-the-century actress. I would love to see Desplechin’s other films, but I don’t think anything else is readily available for now. The new film is almost as enthralling as Kings and Queen. Like 35 rhums, the raw elements are deceptively familiar – one of those grand family dramas in which old resentments, passions, secrets and so on play themselves out over Christmas. The most immediate crisis is the mother’s leukemia, for which she must find a bone marrow donor within the family (she’s played by Catherine Deneuve; the fine cast also includes Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos), and yet in the film’s scheme, almost as significant is the doubling with her first-born child, who died decades earlier at the age of 6. The sense is that this threw off the family’s equilibrium forever, leaving it in constant scramble to make sense of itself, and the film orchestrates a dizzying, often knowingly theatrical, but precisely conceived tapestry of highs and lows. This being a French film, there’s an immense pragmatism to many of the attitudes (watching it in the immediate wake of the week of Sarah Palin just makes you think again how little sense of possibility so many Americans have, for all their land-of-the-free rhetoric). Who among us, comes the question near the end, can take life and its experiences seriously, and the film might be viewed as a multi-faceted reverie on attaining a bearable lightness of being (to lift a concept Desplechin, in one of the interviews on the Kings and Queen DVD, applied to that film’s protagonist). Overall, this is a very fine film.
The Girl from Monaco (Anne Fontaine)
I’ve written here in the past that Fontaine seems capable of major work – her last film Nouvelle Chance was completely delightful and gracefully meaningful. But she’s another director with very little exposure beyond the film festival. Her new work – selected as a festival gala - might have a shot at greater exposure, although ironically it’s certainly the least interesting of those I’ve seen. A doughy, emotionally rather repressed criminal lawyer, in Monaco for a big trial, falls for a dizzy TV weather girl who rapidly messes up his head; and by the way, his taciturn bodyguard is her former lover. The movie is fun to watch but never seems even remotely plausible; it’s one of those films the flimsiness of which gets you mulling on issues such as how the guy manages to prepare for and perform in court every day when he’s spending entire nights dancing and boozing and making whoopee. Louise Bourgoin, as the danger woman (in a part reportedly drawing on her own French TV presence), is diverting, but hardly groundbreaking – the notion of female directors redeeming characters who might appear merely slutty in coarser hands has been well covered now. And although the ending is much darker than you’d ever see in a Hollywood treatment of this material, it’s also pretty arbitrary. On the whole, after the banquet of Denis’ and Desplechin’s films, this is like snacking on a cookie.