Catching Up -- Tavernier, Capotondi and Tribeca

Lots of new films to talk about, what with the Tribeca Film Festival in town, the Israel Film Festival right around the corner and the usual steady flow of product all over the place. Let's be quick about it.

La Princesse de Montpensier -- Bertrand Tavernier
Bertrand Tavernier was always rather more of a publicist than a film critic, and that difference has frequently been reflected in the glossy surfaces of his sedate films. If ever there was a filmmaker who seemed a direct descendant of the "tradition of quality" much derided by Truffaut and others at Cahiers de Cinema he's clearly the one. Although he seems to consciously alternate period films with contemporary subjects, his films all have the slightly stuffy air of an obscure museum. When emotions break through in a film like A Sunday in the Country, the result can be quite satisfying but I have generally found his films better mounted than directed.

Regrettably, La Princesse is of the latter group. Drawn from a story by Madame de la Fayette, the film bears a strange, faint resemblance to Kobayashi's magnificent Samurai Rebellion, with the husband in an arranged marriage, blandly played by Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, coming to love his new bride, the title character (Melanie Thierry) with unforeseeable and disastrous results. Instead of Toshiro Mifune as proud father and previously loyal retainer, Tavernier gives us Lambert Wilson as the Comte de Chabannes, a Montaigne-like polymath who has fought on both sides in the Wars of Religion and who counsels moderation in most things. Sadly Wilson, who was so staunch and moving in Of Gods and Men, a beautifully nuanced performance in a brilliant film, is just inert here and, since he is apparently the mouthpiece character for much of the film, he sets a tone of harrumphing indignation that hangs over the entire project.

Not that Tavernier has any trouble setting that tone himself. La Princesse is like an overstuffed chair, ponderous and uncomfortable.

The Double Hour -- Giuseppe Capotondi
Imagine a version of Vertigo told from the point of view of Madeleine/Judy. An idea with considerable merit and something of a quick-and-dirty synopsis of Capotondi's feature film debut. Ksenia Rappaport is a hotel maid who meets Filippo Timi at a speed-dating evening. Both are clearly undelighted with the process but pleasantly surprised by one another, and a relationship begins. He is an ex-cop who now is a security consultant for the very rich. One afternoon, he brings her to his current workplace for a romantic lunch and suddenly they find themselves the victims of a highly organized heist. When he tries to resist, one of the thieves shoots him, also wounding her. Capotondi handles all of this action with flair and skill, but the film goes wildly off the tracks in its next section, which is either a fever dream experienced by the woman while she is comatose or a very creepy turn of events in which she finds herself accused of being part of the gang. After that, as in some of the worst of Brian DePalma's Chinese box puzzle narratives, you stop caring. And the final third, in which all the narrative threads are seemingly worked out, is perfunctory and unconvincing.

When will filmmakers realize that there are some plot twists that leave an audience feeling betrayed, that break the chain of identification so severely that one loses faith in the filmmaker? Capotondi is clearly a talented tyro, and it will be interesting to see where he goes after The Double Hour, but this film is so over-elaborately plotted, yet so slackly written that the middle section serves no purpose whatsoever and we are left with little or no sense of who the characters really are.

The Tribeca Film Festival has begun its 10th annual run, and my review of the two Israeli films in the event can be found here. It's a strong offering from festival that usually carries a great deal of interest. Lately, Tribeca has been showing a lot more genre films, but they've been choosing quirky, unpredictable stuff that swings a lot harder than the run-of-the-mill crap that turns up at the multiplex.

One excellent example is Dick Maas's Sint, a Dutch horror-comedy that, like the Israeli film Rabies, has a lot more on its mind than teens threatening to have sex. Sint reworks the Dutch version of the legend of Santa Claus by having Niklas turn out to have been a renegade bishop who headed a gang of vicious, murderous thieves during the Middle Ages; they were finally stopped by vengeful villages (pitchforks, axes, torches -- you know the drill), but every December 5 on which there is a full moon, they come back from the dead to wreak havoc on unsuspecting Dutch folk. Maas tells this twisted fable with the same knowing meta-commentary smarts as Wes Craven did with the first Nightmare on Elm Street and the early installments of the Scream franchise. He doesn't have Craven's way with a political subtext -- any paranoia about government cover-ups is strictly lip service in Sint -- but the film is brisk and sufficiently goofy to keep you well-occupied for 84 minutes.

I'll have more Tribeca to mull over during the coming week.