Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rendez-vous Bigwigs: Chabrol's BELLAMY, Claire Denis' 35 SHOTS OF RUM

Over the years, the FSLC has offered a number of films from New Wave director Claude Chabrol and newer-wave wonder Claire Denis. This Rendez-vous offers them both -- the former working his usual mystery vein of French bourgeois hypocrisy (in a city in which everybody seems to know everybody else), the latter offering another very different addition to her troubling explorations of character and place.

First the Denis. I'm happy to report that the filmmaker has forsaken, for now at least, the impenetrably fudgey, dreamlike nature of her last Rendez-vous effort, The Intruder. With 35 SHOTS OF RUM, she gives us an intimate family drama about taking leave -- of locations, desires, each other, and life itself. Post-film, what you're likely to remember best are the beautiful and expressive faces of the characters here: A father, his daughter, the woman next door, friends, co-workers, a neighbor -- literally everyone encountered in this amazingly-photographed movie.

The cinematographer is Agnès Godard, who has shot many ground-breaking films -- from most of Denis' work to Backstage and particularly Golden Door. Here, she makes every face a miracle, every night shot aglow with light, heat or something cool -- like the moon as you've never quite seen it. Not being a photographer myself, I don't know how she does it. But she does it -- again and again. I am almost tempted to use as my guide for movie-watching the name of the cinematographer, rather than director, so that I will not chance to miss any film by Ms. Godard or a relative newcomer like Natasha Braier (In the City of Sylvia, Glue).

Back to Ms Denis. 35 Shots of Rum is certainly her most accessible movie since... perhaps her very first, Chocolat. There is such feeling here -- love, appreciation, caring, kindness -- and yet something is missing for these people. That, I think, may be a connection to or passion for anything outside each other: ideas, art, goals, something larger than the immediate friends and family. Is this because France has not offered a real home for the citizens it colonized -- a place from which they might expand beyond the simple acts of working, living, loving, eating? Perhaps. For instance, the lead character (played very well by Alex Decas, shown, top and above, at right) has a workplace friend whose retirement from his job leaves him utterly bereft. Is there nothing else in his life? We can't know. Verbal communication counts for little in this world; instead, connections are made visually or by touch. This is realized most beautifully by the scene in the small restaurant to which our characters escape out of the rain when their car breaks down. They barely speak, but they touch, look and -- especially -- dance. Slowly, right there in front of us, their entire world changes. You don't get a scene like this all that often. Which is one of the reasons Ms Denis is so prized by so many of us.

No distributor's been set as yet for 35 Shots of Rum (step forward now, please!). If tickets remain, you can see it at the IFC Center on Thursday, March 12, at 7 or at the Walter Reade on Friday, March 13, at 1:30 and 6:15 and Sunday, March 15, at 8.

Of the French New Wave directors, no one has achieved the output -- in terms of sheer running time -- as Claude Chabrol (right). Approaching 80, he's made 71 films (mostly theatrical, a little TV). While Godard, who's the same age, is on record for 91 outings, many of these are not full-length. Eric Rohmer, who will be 90 soon, has made 51, and Jacques Rivette, who's 81, has made only 32 (but his are often long). Each of the men and one woman (Agnès Varda) who make up the group of directors often associated with the New Wave are so spectacularly different in their style and interests, that it's no wonder, taken together, they were able to point movies in a new direction. Of them all, Chabrol seems to be the one who has changed the least over the years. He has his interests and his style (some might suggest a lack if it) and he continues on his path, making films that are sometimes more, sometimes less, successful with audiences and critics but that adhere to the theme of unmasking the hypocrisy residing in his characters, who often come from the haute bourgeoisie. The films usually take the shape of a mystery.

In BELLAMY, made because Chabrol and actor Gerard Depardieu (above, right) had wanted to work together, many of the director's favorite concerns are in place. Depardieu plays a famous inspector vacationing with his wife, played by Marie Bunuel (above left), when he comes upon a mystery involving an insurance scam, adultery, death and disguise.

As usual with Chabrol, the "mystery" seem to interest him the least -- exploring it, resolving it -- so that our attention is held more by the characters than by what they are doing, which, in any case, often borders on the ridiculous. It almost appears that no real investigation of the "crime" is being done by authorities in the city in which it took place (except by the Depardieu character, who's on a busman's holiday). Chabrol gets around this by offering excessive exposition and making repeated references to the incompetence of the local inspector-in-charge. This does not result in particularly good movie-making, though the acting by all concerned is first-rate.

Fortunately, the film has two stories going on at once, one mirroring the other in terms of emotional landscape. Depardieu's inspector has a no-account brother (Clovis Cornillac, above, also seen in Rendez-vous' Faubourg 36) who comes for a visit, wreaking his own havoc on the people around him, just as the "criminal," played by the ever sleek and sophisticated Jacques Gamblin, above, with toothbrush) is doing to those around him. This provides the emotional core of the movie and accounts for its working as well as it does. What looks initially like a old-fashioned nod to the portly, clever detective (Depardieu is carrying a lot of weight these days) is, in fact, a messy upheaval of raw, often repressed and mostly unresolved jealousy and anger within people who have barely begun to explore themselves.

-- with no US distributor in place as yet -- is getting five (count em!) showings in Rendez-vous: at the IFC Center tonight Friday, March 6, at 9:30 and Tuesday, March 10, at 9:30, and at the Walter Reade on Thursday, March 12, at 3:45; Saturday, March 14, at 9:30; and Sunday, March 15, at 1.

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