Sunday, March 8, 2009

Rendez-vous ends with the splendid Jacquot/Huppert VILLA AMALIA

The final film to debut in the current French Festival from FSLC and Unifrance turns out to be among its finest -- and this year, with so many good movies in the roster, that is saying something. Villa Amalia -- co-written (with Julien Boivent from a novel by Pascal Quignard) and directed by Benoît Jacquot, and starring the not-just-sturdy but going-stronger-than-ever Isabelle Huppert -- is up there with Jacquot's best: Sade, The False Servant and À tout de suite.

Unlike The Untouchable and Adolphe, two beautiful but seemingly not so well thought-out Jacquot movies from the past decade, Villa Amalia -- though full of fast edits from person to event to country, and despite a situation and character that are anything but typical -- succeeds beyond all expectation. I'd say this is due to the director's and actress' ability to keep the focus of the film exactly where it belongs throughout: on the character of Ann ("There's no e," she makes clear to an underling early in the film, and we take note of this with raised eyebrow). We meet Ann in media res, and only moments later, she observes a scene that will divide her life into a neat before-and-after, from which all further events will spring. Her reaction here sets the tone of the film and prepares us for the unusual occurrences that will follow.

Post-viewing, I've tried to imagine other actresses in this role but keep coming up empty handed. Really, no one but Ms Huppert could bring such inner strength coupled to the kind of stubborn, almost blind, dedication that this actress offers and which carries us through what could be some rough patches of beliveability. And Jacquot -- by maintaining tight control over what we see, including the length of each scene and the reactions of others to the Huppert hurricane -- keeps the film on track, building quiet tension and suspense, as well as offering some of the most beautiful scenery and vistas in a very long time.

To all obvious purposes, this is one-woman show, and yet the small supporting cast brings much to the table: Jean-Hugues Anglade (below, right, from Queen Margot and La Femme Nikita) as a now-grown childhood friend, Xavier Beauvois as Ann's insignificant other, Maya Sansa as her gorgeous rescuer, and especially Clara Bindi, as the old Italian woman who brings her home. In the title role is a little bit of heaven atop a cliff that you'll not soon forget.

Another in this series that, as yet, has no US distribution, Villa Amalia is a "Don't Miss" that plays at the IFC Center on Thursday, March 12, at 9:30 and at the Walter Reade on Friday, March 13, at 8:45 and Saturday, March 14, at 6:45.
This concludes my coverage of the programs in the current Rendez-vous series -- except the Tout Court: New French Shorts. With no press screening or DVD screener available, this one will have to be seen during the festival itself, this coming Thursday at 4pm, soon after which I'll try to have something posted. The shorts' final screening is Sunday 15 at 3:15. Clearly a step-child -- as short films often are -- the program is receiving no screening at the IFC Center.

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