Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rendez-vous: Casel/Richet's César-wining MESRINE; Collardey's THE APPRENTICE

MESRINE, the two-part, two-ticket-price movie that just garnered a César for its star Vincent Cassel (below, center) and director Jean-François Richet (who co-wrote the film with Abdel Raouf Dafri) begins with a series of split-screen views of a couple of chary characters apparently on the run. These are accompanied by Marcus Trumpp's music, composed to ratchet up suspense. Ratchet it does. And then pushes, and pumps, and ratchets some more. By the time the sequence ends (with what looks suspiciously like the climax of this entire four-hour movie), you may have realized, as did I, that instead of actually being suspenseful, this few minutes has succeeded only in working very hard to appear so. If you buy into the "suspense," however, then you'll probably buy the remainder of this super-violent, bloody, action-packed and tedious film. TrustMovies didn't buy, but he managed to rent (or maybe sublet) off and on, over the film's very long running time.

Jacques Mesrine (according to this film, he pronounced his name May-reen, with a silent "s") was, by the end of his nearly 43-year life, Public Enemy Number One (the French subtitle of Part Two of the film) in both France and Canada, a feat he achieved after being a very nasty nuisance in Part One (subtitled The Instinct for Death). Richet's film catalogs his rise and rise in ways that, kindly put, are rather clichéd by now, unless Mesrine is among the first gangster epics you will have seen. Do we really need to hear Edith Piaf regretting nothing inserted into the soundtrack toward the finale? Would we not groan aloud were Sinatra's My Way to find its way into, say, the concluson of The Godfather trilogy?

By the end of Part One, my biggest question was "Who the hell is this guy Mesrine?" He manages to "off" (in a particularly brutal sequence, below) a nasty thug/pimp who has beaten and disfigured Mesrine's ladyfriend/whore, whom our hero, in any case, has already dumped. Later, after proclaiming his ardent love, he beats and threatens his own wife with something similar. Is he perhaps bi-polar? His actions and words toward his father indicate a similar diagnosis.

For explanation, the movie nods toward Mesrine's service in the art of torture/murder as part of the French military during the Algerian War. Well, many Frenchmen were implicated in this without their becoming gang lords. Unfortunately the most interesting aspect of Mesrine's character lies either on the cutting room floor or in the blank space between Parts One and Part Two, the latter of which introduces us to a whole new guy -- a kind of Bonnie-and-Clyde-like folk hero, who still does a few too many very bad things. (In its way, the movie seems as bi-polar as its lead character.)

For all Cassel's manic negative energy on display, this is nothing we've not seen before -- and often: from Hate through Brotherhood of the Wolf, Birthday Girl, The Reckoning, Eastern Promises and particularly Sheitan (now there's a film in which this guy is really scary!). By the end of the movie, while we're left with another instance of Cassel doing his thing, we're barely a step or two closer to understanding M. Mesrine. So it goes with the other characters on display. Take Cécile De France, shown above, for instance. If you recall her from films such as A Secret, The Singer, Avenue Montaigne or Russian Dolls, you may have trouble even recognizing her here. She gives a great one-or-two-note performance without providing us with much character detail at all. First she's hard as nails, then -- boom -- she's soft and sad. It's mostly the same with the other characters: Given only a few scenes or moments, the actors make the most of them but can't begin to probe or bring much subtlety to the goings-on.

And so events typical of the film biography march, as if in lockstep, before our eyes: entry into the criminal life, adoption by the big boss, a killing here, a killing there, imprisonment (complete with nasty guards and cruel warden), the prison break (there's one in Part I and Part II, each handled well), troubles on the home front with the little woman, a later reconciliation with a child, and on and on. It's not that this is so poorly done (it's serviceable and sometimes more than that) but we've seen it all rather often over the years. And nothing here, save the violence, is given much weight. Pasting a real-life character onto these events (along with a starry cast including Mathieu Amalric, Gérard Depardieu, Canada's Roy Dupuis (above), Elena Anaya, Michel Duchaussoy, Ludivine Sagnier and others) makes the film a bit more interesting, perhaps (Mesrine's foray into the Front de libération du Québec is particularly so) but it does little for the overall arc of the story -- or its meaning and importance. I would guess that France found the film fascinating, since all but its younger generation or two lived through this and should remember it well. For some of us, however, it's mostly the usual blood-and-guts.

Note for completists: An earlier Mesrine film appeared 25 years ago, written and directed by André Génovès, and a French TV movie and documentary have popped up along the way. Senator Entertainment, for which I could find no proper link, has picked up the movie for distribution in the US. While this two-part film will not screen at the at the IFC Center, if you can manage to procure a ticket, you can see it at the Walter Reade Theater: Part One on Tuesday March 10, at 6:15 and Saturday, March 14, at 1:30; Part Two screens Wednesday, March 11, at 6 and Saturday, March 14, at 3:50.

At the other end of the spectrum -- and consequently likely to be overlooked by audiences -- is THE APPRENTICE, a small documentary-like story of a student in a French agricultural high school who is sent to work part-time on a small dairy farm. That the farm is located in the hilly countryside near the border of Switzerland is a scenic bonus (see above). Two other big bonuses (boni?) are found in the lead actors Mathieu Bulle (below, seated, as the student) and Paul Barbier (standing below, as the farmer), both of whom have been cast as.... themselves! I knew none of this until after I had watched the film and then read the press notes, but evidently the co-writer (with Catherine Paille) and director Samuel Collardey found his leading men, one at an agricultural school, the other on his own farm, and then wrote his script, making use of much of the information he gathered from his "actors."

The Apprentice has a strong documentary feel, and now that I know the reasons, how could it not? Yet, it's certainly a narrative feature, with a beginning, middle and end -- built as much from truth as fiction. A lot happens along the way, and most of this is small and specific. We see some of the farmer's family life, and a little of the students' life at school and with friends. There is even -- hello, Mesrine! -- a scene of primal bloodletting. In this case it's a large hog that is slaughtered, and we view the steps in the process. It's not pretty (my ex-wife, who attended the screening with me, spent the entire scene with her head in her lap), but it makes its point very well indeed. There's some humor, too: the faux karaoke scene in the barn (shown below) is a delight, especially because M. Bulle may have one of the worst singing voices ever committed to film.

In addition to being low-key, believable and charming, The Apprentice is important for the ways in which it shows us, via its close look at the lives of its people, the larger picture of what is going on in France, and by extension, in much of Europe. The agricultural schools are as important as ever, even if, as ever, students don't seem to appreciate the education they're getting while they're getting it. The small farms of France may be doing better than small farms here in the US, but it is still a major struggle. And when Mathieu's modern learning comes up against Paul's old-time farming methods, it is clear that both parties can gain from the other. Watching this film we get a good look at yesterday, today and perhaps tomorrow -- and if the road ahead does not look easy, at least there's some hope.

The Apprentice
, no surprise, has not yet been picked up for distribution in the US, but it will screen at the at the IFC Center on Monday, March 9 at 7; at the Walter Reade Theater, you can see it Wednesday, March 11, at 3:45 or Thursday, March 12, at 8:45.

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