Three New(ish) French Films On Bastille Day!

A consolation prize after the World Cup final?

Okay, strictly speaking, that headline is flawed. First of all, Andre Techine's Changing Times is at least a year old, and I've already written about Time to Leave, the new Ozon, but it is opening in New York today. Then there's Gabrielle, the new Patrice Chereau with the usual sterling performance from Isabelle Huppert. . . .

Changing Times is typical Techine, a film about ambivalent people crossing borders, either literal or figurative, and finding themselves someplace (this time metaphorical) that they never expected. Like his other recent films, Loin/Far and Les Egares/Strayed, Changing Times is coolly dispassionate, which allows the intense feelings of its characters to take center stage. An ex-critic, Techine brings a certain clinical detachment to his material, yet the films never feel cold. This one juggles multiple storylines, with Antoine (Gerard Depardieu) seeking out old flame Cecile (Catherine Deneuve), now unhappily married in Tangier, while her son (Malik Zidi) juggles male and female partners.

The film has a complicated structure revolving around a single, terrible accident that strikes one of its key figures. We see the event three times in the film, with a bit more information provided each time, and one could, I suppose, read the entire story as the hallucination of the comatose character, although I doubt if that is what Techine intends. Rather, I think he is exploring the mutual attraction of star power, with Depardieu and Deneuve, old sparring partners in at least five other films, fated to be mated by sheer force of iconography. It's the same game that George Cukor plays in several of his best films, but the stakes are made higher by the potential for catastrophe that Techine finds lurking throughout.

Techine has one directorial tic that used to bother me until I saw this film for the second time and realized how expressively he uses it in almost every one of his films. He will focus in medium shot or long closeup on a character (occasionally two characters) as they run headlong through a scene; his camera follows them closely enough that we never lose sight of their expression, yet their surroundings are reduced to a blur. It is, of course, a perfect visual equivalent for how utterly lost his protagonists are in the moment, how incapable they remain of assessing their enivronment, of making judicious choices. Yet Techine never loses sight of them, their reactions, their humanity. These are not jagged, hand-held shots in which the actors are rendered as inscrutable as their surroundings. Quite the opposite. And that is the strength of Techine's cinema, a coolly thoughtful attitude towards its characters that neither condescends nor makes excuses for their choices, however wrong or foolish they may appear.

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I am a bit embarrassed to confess that although I have almost all of his work on tape, Gabrielle is the first film directed by Patrice Chereau that I have actually seen. (Hey, I taped the movie, I don't have to actually watch it, right?) And I have to admit, with slightly less embarrassment, that Gabrielle does not whet my appetite for a weekend of screening those other films.

Chereau and frequent collaborator Anne-Louise Tridivic adapted a minor Conrad short story, "The Return, " about a wealthy and successful man who comes home one day to find a note from his wife announcing that she is leaving him for his seemingly less desirable friend (and employee). Then she returns home as well and things get messy. In the hands of, say, Max Ophuls this would be the jumping-point for a delicate rumination on fate and love. Chereau, regrettably treats it as a bombastic opportunity for grand-opera posturing, as befits a man who is probably still better known for his staging of Wagner than his filmmaking. On the positive side, Isabelle Huppert is the wife and she brings an astonishing unflappability to everything she does. Even when her husband, essentially, rapes her, she still maintains an icy reserve that rightly leaves him utterly deflated. Every time I watch Huppert, I am baffled that no one has seen fit to cast her as a rogue cop, a sort of implacable Dirty Harr(iette). Heck, she should be getting some of the parts that go to Depardieu. And she even makes Gabrielle bearable whenever she is on-screen.

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Finally, I have to admit that, despite my misgivings about it, expressed below, I find that Time to Leave has grown in my memory, nagging at me insistently. It is, I think, Ozon's best film to date, propelled primarily by Melvil Poupaud's performance. The film, as I noted a moment ago, opens today and you should see it and make up your own mind. (Now that's something I don't say very often!)

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