Monday, March 2, 2009

Rendez-vous: Cohen's JOY OF SINGING and Téchiné's GIRL ON THE TRAIN

I believe that history will bear me out when I suggest that the annual Rendez-vous series often includes an outré little item that compares with almost nothing else. This year, it's THE JOY OF SINGING. Not to be confused with that 2007 senior singing-group documentary Young @ Heart, this enjoyable trifle combines mystery, espionage, comedy, thrills, music and sex of all kinds (a "bear" getting a blow job, anyone?). Alert foreign film fans will already know, via his 2000 movie Confusion of Genders, that writer/director Ilan Duran Cohen enjoys crossing sexual boundaries. This time (with his co-writer Philippe Lasry) he's trying for, as much as anything, a kind of sexual romp and, were he more secure in his filmmaking style -- for my taste something a little sharper, slicker and definitive would have helped -- he'd have achieved his goal more efficiently early on.

I won't even try to explain the film's many plot points (I'm not sure I understood them all, in any case), but I can say, spoilage-free, that The Joy of Singing includes a lot of song and joy, in addition to two covert spying lovebirds who happen to be employer and employee, a very nasty sister-in-law, and deaths aplenty (though of the non-bloody, little-violence sort). The sex is hetero, homo and bi -- most of it quite fun -- and much of the movie takes place in the apartment of a singing teacher, to which, for some strange reason, every espionage-connected character in Europe seems to flock.

That Cohen can finally bring his movie home may depend on your ability to embrace what's very good here and play down what’s not. In the former category is Jeanne Balibar (above right), as the sweet and ditzy widow of a man involved in some nefarious doings. Ms Balibar is as delightful as you will have ever seen her (this is saying quite a lot). Does she do her own singing? If so, I want more. I'd also like more of a very hot young actor, Julien Baumgartner (above left) -- though, goodness knows we see plenty of him, full frontal, as it is. Possessed of a face that lasciviously combines the handsome and the pretty, a willowy body and a very impressive package, Mr. Baumgartner can also act. The rest of the cast, including Marina Fois (also on view at this fest in Change of Plans), Lorànt Deutsch and Natalie Richard, are both game and fun at their fun and games. By the finale, if you are not reveling in the sounds and silliness, the kitsch and coincidence, well, go soak your head.

The Joy of Singing has no US distributor as yet, but once word of Monsieur Baumgartner leaks out, I imagine that Strand, Wolfe, Waterbearer or TLA will quickly come calling. Meanwhile, it screens at the Walter Reade Sunday, March 8, at 3:30 and Tuesday, March 10, at 1, and at the IFC Center on Wednesday, March 11, at 7.

Clockwise from top left, Catherine Deneuve, Michel Blanc and
Émilie Dequenne
have lunch by the lake in The Girl on the Train.

André Téchiné is not given to spelling out his themes and connections, so you have to work to piece them together. It’s usually worthwhile, however, and his latest, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, which is having its world premiere at this edition of Rendez-vous, is no exception. Class, prejudice, religion, violence, guilt and other of life's little delights rear their heads in odd ways throughout this very interesting, though perhaps not completely satisfying, movie. The film is based upon an incident that occurred some time back in France, but since that incident does not occur in the film itself until halfway through, there is no need to go into details here and set you up for something that ought to come more naturally -- and as a surprise.

What Téchiné is up to, I think, is getting us to better understand and care for his characters prior to the event itself, so that, by the time of the event and its aftermath, we can see things in a much wider, more inclusive manner than do the media, the politicians or anyone else involved -- including the perpetrator -- who cannot observe the entire situation as clearly as do we viewers. This is a very difficult and unusual thing to pull off, and I am not sure the writer/director has accomplished it as fully as he might. There's a combination of structure and restraint at work here that keeps the film from taking off as completely as have some other of the director's films. This is not a deal-breaker, however. Téchiné forces us to confront an event from a subtler yet broader perspective than we are used to doing. This alone makes the film worth seeing -- as does the cast the director has assembled, including Catherine Deneuve and Émilie Dequenne (as mother and daughter), Michel Blanc as a famous lawyer, and especially Nicolas Duvauchelle (above) as Ms Dequenne's alternately courageous and conflicted boyfriend.

The Girl on the Train has no US distributor as yet, but since Rendez-vous is the film's world premiere venue, it's a little early to worry. The movie screens at the Walter Reade Tuesday, March 10, at 3:30 and 9:10, and at the IFC Center on Sunday, March 8, at 6:45 and Monday, March 9, at 9.

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