Saturday, February 28, 2009

Rendez-vous' César winners: SERAPHINE and THE BEACHES OF AGNES

As it happens, I knew nothing at all about SERAPHINE prior to seeing this remarkable film that just yesterday walked away with seven of the nine César awards for which it had been nominated: Best Picture, Actress, Screenplay, Costumes, Score, Photography and Décor. I do not read the Rendez-vous with French Cinema press notes, nor even the FSLC's program notes, before I watch the film at hand. (I do check the running time to make sure my schedule fits, but that's it.) Because I know in advance that I am going to see all the films in the fest, it's a lot more fun to simply take my seat, ingest a coffee fix to ensure alertness, and then just watch and listen.

As impractical as this route would be for most people, I wish you all could experience a film in this way occasionally, because arriving as a kind of tabula rasa enables you to dispense somewhat with prejudice and perceived opinion and makes the occasion much more of an adventure -- which Séraphine certainly proved to be. I did not know that the title character had indeed lived as a noted "outsider" artist in early 20th Century France, but this in no way impacted my enjoyment and understanding of the film. Fictional character or real, this Séraphine came to enormous life via the great talent of leading actress Yolande Moreau (When the Sea Rises) and the writer/director Martin Provost.

I find it rare in any historical film when every detail seems correct. That's the case here. Taking the bare bones of what is known about this woman, Provost creates a rich, real world in which Séraphine labors (as a maid), sings, prays and paints, and in the process gives us one of the great movies about an artist. Granted this artist is atypical in her lack of the glamor and melodrama we generally expect from artists-on-film, but in this case that’s all for the best. Ms Moreau offers such dedication and commitment to the role that her performance will probably live in high regard as long as film (or the DVD transfer process) exists. Provost fills in some of this woman's history but wisely leaves out much of the explanation. Viewers can piece together their own reasons for what, why and how without disturbing the very real sense of time and place that the filmmaker, his cast and crew have created.

Music Box Films, which smartly picked up the movie that became the year's most popular foreign language film, Tell No One, will distribute Séraphine in the US. So don't despair if the Rendez-vous screenings are sold out: at the Walter Reade on Friday, March 6, at 8:45, and Sunday, March 8, at 12:30 and at the IFC Center on Saturday, March 7, at 4.

It has been 55 years since the 26-year-old Agnès Varda made her first film, La Pointe- courte, in the process helping to set off France's cinematic "new wave." That film holds up surprisingly well today, and you'll find parts of it featured in this 80-year-old woman's newest work -- THE BEACHES OF AGNES -- one of the supreme delights of this year's Rendez-vous fest. If you have any special feeling for the work of Varda and/or her late husband, director Jacques Demy, I can't imagine you'll miss her latest documentary, which is a kind of biography of her life, work, marriage -- and her interesting and unusual ideas about all this.

Much of the film takes place at the seashore, and the beginning, with its array of mirrors, clues us to the reflections that are bound to follow. Early on, the filmmaker (shown right, perhaps a decade or two ago) refers to herself as a plump old granny, which is indeed how she now appears. Then we see her as a sprightly young thing, and along the way meet many of the people -- a diverse lot -- who are/were important in her life, including M. Demy, whose story and meaning to Varda provides the most moving segments. These even include a bit of whimsical, charming hard-core (I know, but I can't describe it any other way) unlike anything you've encountered and which ought to be seen by whole families, after which questions and conversations about love and sex could so easily and beautifully be fielded.

Film is important to Varda, but so is family. You'll meet hers here, and her friends', as well, as you move from France to Belgium to Los Angeles and back. As interesting as was Varda's The Gleaners and I, this new one -- which picked up the Best Documentary prize at last night's César ceremony -- is ten times so. At the end of her movie, the director graces us with an entirely new use for film that I warrant you'll not have encountered. The film in question is one that initially flopped, but Varda has discovered an original way to honor it. What a woman this is -- and what a movie!

Cinema Guild, that earlier this year gave us Ellen Kuras' wonderful The Betrayal: Nerhakhoon will be releasing The Beaches of Agnes in the US. During Rendez-vous, you can catch it, should seats remain, at the Walter Reade on Saturday, March 7, at 1:30 and Monday, March 9, at 8:45.

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