Saturday, November 7, 2009

BAM Does France -- 5 New Films: Cavalier, Mouret, Novion, Ozon and Podalydès

Beginning in 2002, BAMcinématek -- the repertory film program at BAM Rose Cinemas -- has presented a yearly program of new French films. The eighth installment, which starts this Wednesday, November 11, and plays through Sunday, November 15, is made up of five new films -- four of which TrustMovies has viewed. The fifth, a still from which appears above, is RICKY, the new film from François Ozon, which screens Friday, November 13, at 6:50 and 9:15 but will be opening theatrically via IFC this December, so we'll cover it at that time. (Find the entire program, with dates, ticket availabilities and other information here.)

You could, if you were so inclined, think of this mini-series as a kind of preview -- something to whet your appetite for the longer, ten-day series Rendez-vous with French Cinema that appears each March from the Film Society of Lincoln Center. However you choose to look at it, the quartet of films under consideration below varies widely in terms of content, style and quality. At the top of the heap is a movie that's so much fun, I'd suggest seeing it now, in case the opportunity should not arise again (you never know regarding foreign films -- particularly those without a "star" pedigree). The film in question, PLEASE PLEASE ME (Fais-moi plaisir!) by and staring Emmanuel Mouret (of last year's winning Shall We Kiss?), is so funny and bizarre that, by its conclusion, I think I can safely predict you'll find little with which to compare it.

Beginning in a manner that makes it seem the same sort of French philosophical/moral comedy as Shall We Kiss (including two of its stars: Mouret -- at right, above -- and Frédérique Bel), the film soon, via a kind of Rube Goldberg scenario of events, travels into a near-surreal realm that combines whimsy with deadpan slapstick and visual comedy as good anything we've seen since maybe the best of Blake Edwards. Because much of what transpires occurs in the oddball home of the President of France, the movie becomes all the more comic, satirical and loony.

The cast includes a serenely deadpan Déborah François (above, right), who -- with this nifty role added to her roster of those in The Child, The Page Turner and the recent Unmade Beds -- may be one of the most versatile actresses in all of France. Also on hand are Judith Godrèche (shown prone, above) as the daughter of the aforesaid President and a raft of fine actors chosen as much for their visual presentation, I suspect, as for their talent. Closing this mini-festival, Please Please Me plays Sunday, November 15, at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:15.

Speaking of fine casts (Catherine Deneuve, Thierry Lhermitte...) I'm trying desperately to recall another film with as starry a roster (Julie Depardieu, Chiara Mastroianni...) as the one provided by PARK BENCHES, written and directed by Bruno Podalydès. Watching as the names (Josiane Balasko, Olivier Gourmet...) are cleverly listed and take longer to unspool than do some entire movies, your jaw opens wider and wider. There would seem to be nary an actor (Hippolyte Girardot, Pierre Arditi...) in all of France (except, perhaps, Fanny Ardant) who did not work on this film. To what avail? There's the catch. M. Podalydès starts out well enough, as a woman (Florence Muller) traverses quite a lengthy distance to arrive at her office; once there, she and her co-workers notice a sign hanging below an apartment window across the way: Lonely Man. What could this mean? Ideas are offered, from the possibility of suicide to "what a great way to seduce the ladies!" From there, we go exploring: to that apartment with the signage, to a nearby mini-park, and finally into the equivalent, I think, of a French hardware store, where we meet the quirky staff and the equally quirky customers.

Along the way we get a little philosophy, humor, and lots of talk (see photo above), but little action, regarding love and sex, as we watch everyday people -- young, old, and in-between -- go about their every day. Some of this is fun but much of it, at a nearly two-hour running time, grows tiring. The dialog, occasionally keen, is too often prosaic, and the visuals and the visual style are nothing special. You could cut out half the movie and not lose much (except perhaps that amazingly stellar cast: Claude Rich, Michel Aumont.... The end brings things full circle, but by then it's a little late. This might have made a better hour-long show for TV, but with only half that cast (Nicole Garcia, Vincent Elbaz...). Park Benches screens Saturday, November 14, at 2, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:15.

Odder still, but with a stronger raison d'etre is Alain Cavalier's exploratory IRENE. Cavalier, whose most famous work (in the U.S., at least) is probably Thérèse, most likely had to make this movie. It's an extremely personal documentary in which he pieces together memories, objects, sounds, writings, locations, recordings, anything and everything he can find to bring together as complete as picture as possible of his late wife. That he succeeds more for himself than for the viewer is almost a foregone conclusion, and yet the film he's cobbled together is not without interest and moments of great feeling.

Irène died in a car accident (or was it a kind of suicide?) in 1972, so her widower has had nearly 40 years to suffer and digest. He recalls his late wife's sometimes violent orgasms (her sexual habits tended toward humiliation), reads from her diaries, remembers both her dreams and his. Frogs and rabbits dot the way, and at one point Cavalier gives us the image of an egg inside a watermelon to show us what happens in a breached birth. (It's an effective image!) Yet there are times that simple camera placement seems awry. Instead of showing us a childhood home, he lets us see only the signage (a plaque that reads "3"), or when he does latch onto a swell image -- a roll broken in two and a glass of wine -- he'll decide to hold it ad infinitum. Finally, I think, the writer/director has not been able to organize his own tale, let alone that of Irène's, so that, instead of fully entering this world, the viewer feels like a voyeur who might like to know more -- but can't. Irène (what a splendid, evocative poster, above!) plays Thursday, November 12, at 4:30, 6:50 and 9:15.

The French have long excelled at coming-of-age stories, probably because they realize, better than do many American filmmakers, how much more than "close family" is involved in most young people's growing pains. Writer/director Anne Novion understands this, and her first full-length feature GROWN UPS (Les Grandes personnes) is a testament to these forces -- including, in this case, a foreign country and culture. A single-parent dad and his daughter vacationing in Sweden are the centerpieces, around which swirl youth and maturity in the form of a hot, blond would-be rocker and an attractive older actress.

Not much happens in Grown Ups, which is part of its charm, but an awful lot almost does. And because the father is played by there's-no-one-quite-like-him Jean-Pierre Darroussin (above, left), the actress by Judith Henry, and the daughter by newcomer Anaïs Demoustier (above, right), who was nominated for a César for this role and can also seen of late in Give Me Your Hand), the time passes quickly and pleasantly. Tourist traffic from France to Sweden ought to have multiplied exponentially due to this film. Not only do the locations look gorgeous, the natives seem exceptionally attractive and friendly. Grown Ups screens Wednesday, November 11, at 4:30, 6:50 and 9:15.

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