Sunday, March 1, 2009

Rendez-vous: Costa-Gavras' Eden Is West & Dupeyron's W/a Little Help from Myself

Could anyone be surprised that Félicité Wouassi (above, center) won the Best Actress Award at last year's Toronto Film Festival? The woman is gorgeous: her radiant, beautiful face tops a body that's amply inviting. Yet, as her character Sonia -- who is trying to hold her family together on her daughter's wedding day after her no-account husband has gambled away the family savings -- she maintains the kind inner strength and reserve that makes her all the more enticing. Even when she's quiet she exudes an energy that never quits.

Neither, in fact, does the energy in François Dupeyron's new movie WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MYSELF. From its opening shot of a storefront/sidewalk, with characters and soundtrack moving in contagious rhythm, the film grabs us with wonder and pleasure. And though its story could be a sad one in other hands, here it's handled more as black comedy -- in every way, since its characters are part of the African-French immigrant community. The primary occupation for most of them appears to be caring for the increasingly senior white population of the projects in this banlieue.

One of these pale pasties is brought to extravagant life by the increasingly grand old man of French cinema Claude Rich (at right), a frequent player on French screens and at Rendez-vous, having made 116 film and TV appearances over his 80 years. He's splendid here, offering the wisdom of age that understands how things are and why you might as well "go for it." Together Rich and Wouassi form an interesting bond around both need and understanding, without the sentimentality that we might expect (and probably accept). That Dupeyron, as writer and director, does not allow this helps guide us around certain improbabilities (but not impossibilities) in his film.

Dupeyron, who has given us movies as varied as Monsieur Ibrahim and The Officer's Ward, add another odd and very different success to his resume. His cinematographer Yves Angelo (Un Coeur en hiver, Tous les matins du monde) shoots with some kind of yellow filter that's a nice change from the let's-show-the-projects-in-hues-of-blues-and-greens. Cast and crew never let up on the energy and drive so that we come to know and appreciate everyone on view, including even -- and for a change -- the "white" French, who are noticeably more kind and forgiving than we are used to seeing. Truthful? Sometimes? One hopes so.

With a Little Help from Myself screens at the Walter Reade on Saturday, March 7, at 4:10 and Monday, March 9, at 6:15, and at the IFC Center on Friday, March 6, at 7. (No US distributor yet.)

Costa-Gavras is up to something different, too, with EDEN IS WEST, his picaresque tale of an illegal immigrant trying to make his way to France. His lead character is kindly, smart and opportunisitc, not perhaps unlike the director as a young man, who was himself an immigrant to France from Greece. Along a circuitous route that involves men and women who use, abuse or help our hero (like the magician played by Ulrich Tukur, above left), the fellow has a series of adventures that shake but don't topple credibility, as he eats, sleeps, screws and learns -- while always on-the-run.

As his leading man, the co-writer (with Jean-Claude Grumberg) and director is blessed with the very good-looking and talented actor, Riccardo Scamarcio (left), who played the charismatic older brother in last year's My Brother is an Only Child. Scamarcio's Elias, wary but open, is rather like a Candide with smarts, and as his journey becomes ours, we grow to appreciate the character (and actor) more and more, hoping for the best but expecting something less. (The most touching incident in the film involves a jacket and its giver, demonstrating enormous loss on one hand, and on the other that clothes sometimes do make the man.)

Eden is West looks like a billion bucks: From the sets to the locations, the huge cast of speaking roles, the crack cinematography (Patrick Blossier) and other technical work, the budget here must have been enormous. What counts more is Costa-Gavras' approach to immigration: It's rather light-hearted, overall, and the viewer has the sense that nothing that drastic is going to happen. Indeed, the truly terrible never takes place, yet there are enough negatives along the way to give Elias -- and us -- pause. Finally, I think, the director is telling us that, for those who hail from have-not countries, the west is indeed the promised land. Once arrived at, however, its promises are rather difficult to keep.
Eden Is West screens at the IFC Center on Sunday, March 8 at 4 and again at 9, and at the Walter Reade Theater on Saturday, March 7, at 9 and Wednesday, March 8, at 1:30. (No US distributor as yet.)

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