Rendezvous w/French Cinema, Day 1

The mixed blessing of working for a living is that you don't get to see all the movies you would like, even if one of the day jobs is as a film critic. I say mixed because there are days when you know that the best thing that could happen would be to NOT see all the movies you think you would like to see. But I guess that's self-evident to anyone who has ever covered any kind of film festival.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center stages an annual French series that is, usually, one of my favorite events of the year, although the last couple of years have been rather disappointing. (At least some of the disappointment has come from the failure of any distributors to pick up the two most recent films by Andre Techine, Loin ("Far") or Changing Times.) Even the French have their down years.

This year's festival has the added attraction of showcasing mostly unfamiliar names. No Chabrol, no Techine, no Denis, to name three of the highlights from the past two otherwise rather otiose gatherings. The endless stream of feeble comedies from the likes of Tonie Marshall inspire little enthusiasm in me.

And the opening trio of press screenings threatened more of the same. I didn't go to the screening of Brigitte Rouan's new film, Housewarming, for the unusual reason that I had seen it on an airplane last fall. Given the praise heaped on her Post-Coitum Animal Triste, I had high hopes. By the time this over-sugared confection had finished I wanted a parachute. It reminded me of nothing so much as Chantal Akerman's Today We Move, a huge disappointment in itself, with what little wit that film displayed drained out by hypodermic needle. Carole Bouquet is a magically successful lawyer -- she dances in court, so you already know you're in for a surfeit of whimsy -- who hires an army of clods to redesign her apartment. It reeks of stale humor.

L'Enfer by Danis Tanovic is the second film of a trilogy originally conceived by Krzyzstof Kieslowski and his long-time collaborator Krzyzstof Piesiewicz. Piesiewicz wrote the three screenplays after Kieslowski's death and the first, Heaven, was filmed in 2002 by Tom Tykwer. I haven't seen it, but I can't imagine it is any worse than the Tanovic. This film is truly "Kieslowski for Dummies," a collection of stylistic flourishes in search of a unifying style, of themes in search of an expression; the film is tenth-rate Freud, noodle-headed family melodrama of the sort that Douglas Sirk flayed alive in his best American films. Karen Viard, Marie Gillain and Emmanuelle Beart are all scarred by the mysterious catastrophe that befell their father and live under the thumb of their largely absent mother (Carole Bouquet in the worst age makeup since Rock Hudson in Giant). The secret, when revealed, is almost as huge an anticlimax as the ludicrous last shot of the film, which indirectly (and perhaps inadvertently) name-checks Piaf.

Happily, the third film screened last week, Emmanuel Carrere's adaptation of his own novel, The Moustache, is a quirky, tricky joy. His second film as a director (the first, Retour a Kotelnitch, was shown on TV5 here in the States a few months ago; naturally, I have it on tape but haven't seen it), The Moustache is an elegant puzzle without a conventional answer. Marc (Vincent Lindon) shaves off his moustache for the first time in 15 years, but his wife (Emmanuelle Devos, glorious as usual), sees no difference. In fact she denies he ever had a moustache. As do his friends and colleagues. What starts out as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode quickly becomes a fascinating examination of the truth-value of photographic "reality," a subject that will be familiar to anyone who has studied film theory for more than fifteen minutes. Carrere plays straight with his material, which makes the film's denouement all the more satisfying for its obstinate refusal to explain anything. Marc, like any film viewer, is simply taken where the narrative goes. As Chico Marx says, "Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?" The result is sort of like Psycho with the last ten minutes lopped off. Happily, The Moustache has a distributor, so you might get to see it without having to come to New York. Of course, if you are already here, the public screenings are March 10 (1 p.m.), March 11 (6:15 p.m.) and March 12 (3:45 p.m.). Click the link to the Film Society for more particulars.

And a quick PS:
The co-producers of the event are UniFrance USA, who do a splendid job of promoting French film here in the States. They ought to be a model for other national film industries. Which also reminds me to note that Catherine Verret, who has been running the French Film Office longer than I can remember, has resigned. She will be much missed on the screening circuit and I don't mind saying that her leaving is a reminder to me of just how damned long I've been doing this stuff.

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