Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rendez-vous' actresses: Dominique Blanc in L'AUTRE, Léora Barbara in STELLA

Dominique Blanc (below) is a special actress. Her looks, as she ages, grow more interesting, and her abilities, fine from the start, have strengthened and diversified over the years -- from May Fools and Indochine to Stand-by, Poison Friends and the Belvaux Triology. Now in her early 50s, Blanc has already made 63 film and TV appearances. Her latest to reach these shores, THE OTHER ONE (L'Autre), may strike you as a very French take on Fatal Attraction, in which the loony gal philosophizes a lot -- in addition to wreaking a little havoc (mostly on herself, as it turns out).

The Other One tracks what happens when a middle-aged woman, Anne-Marie, is dumped by her paramour (or is this a love affair that never actually came to fruition?). From the first scene, odd and then a bit grisly, it’s clear that we -- and she -- are in deep water into which our heroine insists on swimming ever farther. The effort is never less than interesting, however, due to the work of co-writers/directors Patrick-Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic, who have adapted their film from a novel by Annie Ernaux.

We see Anne-Marie's "lover" (who appears simply diffident), her job (she's a social worker, which has us wondering about those people in the "helping" professions who need to help themselves), and her friends (one of whom has a problem that puts Anne-Marie's own in the shade). It's a high-tech, glass-and-metal world in which she lives, and the palette is cold and bluish (cinematography by Pierric Gantelmi d'Ille). The writers/directors do nice things with reflections in the mirror (it’s been done before, but not quite with the humor, speed and bizarre touches we see here) but sometimes lose their grip on narrative -- much as does their lead character on reality. Finally it's the wonderful Ms Blanc who makes this sometimes problematic movie worth seeing.

No distributor has as yet stepped up, and I suspect seats may still be available for The Other One, which screens at the Walter Reade on Wednesday, March 11, at 9 and Sunday, March 15, at 5:30, and at the IFC Center on Tuesday, March 10, at 7.

One of the best films to grapple with the travails of the adolescent girl, from both an inside and outside view, STELLA is a movie that rings true from every angle, including its marvelously recreated 1970s time frame and a performance in the title role by Léora Barbara -- her first -- that is quietly spectacular. (As is her countenance: Just look at the composure in that face, above.) Though she has made several films, this is also the first from writer/director Sylvie Verheyde that I've seen, and it's good enough to inspire the excited question, "Where did this woman come from?!"

Verheyde allows Stella to narrate a good deal of her own story, and the voice we hear, as well as the words she speaks, seem unusually on-target: correct for the age range, assured in their ability to express a young girl's feelings, questions and pain, but never wise beyond her years nor able to understand the adult world any better than might someone of her age and circumstance. Watching Stella negotiate her life -- family, friends, school -- becomes the kind of privilege we don't encounter often enough in our films.

Each setback or progress, small and large -- how, for instance, even a tiny success in a school class can crack open the door of learning -- is handled believably and given the right emotional weight so that we are able to experience it as does Stella herself. While this sounds rather like the obvious way to handle things, when you see the film, I think you'll be amazed at how few movies about children have been able to provide this -- particularly from the point of view of the child.

In addition to the young Ms Barbara, full performances are provided by Mélissa Rodriguez as Stella's best friend, Karole Rocher as her mother and Benjamin Biolay as her father. The whole cast does excellent work, including in small roles the late Guillaume Depardieu (shown below with Ms Barbara) and Johan Libéreau (star of The Witnesses). All the characters, locations and situations are fully rounded to include positives, negatives and all the gray "in-betweens" that add up to something closer to real life than what movies about children often give us.

Stella has no US distribution yet, but a film this good should not go wanting. I'd catch it now, just in case, at either the IFC Center on Wednesday, March 11, at 9:30 or at the Walter Reade on Thursday March 12 at 1 and 6:15.

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