Sunday, April 10, 2011

Is SERGE BOZON the best barely-known name in New French Cinema? Find out this week, as the FSLC & AFA host the wunder-kind--& the films & philosophy of his group

FREE RADICALS: Serge Bozon and the New French Cinema is the title the the Film Society of Lincoln Center has given its six-day program (is there perhaps religious connota-tion here, as in resting on the seventh?) devo-ted to the new young cinema of France, and the man who, per-haps more than any other, repre-sents it: Serge Bozon (at left).

Down at Anthology Film Archives, where but a single day will be devoted to Bozon, the program is called simply Serge Bozon Presents. The filmmaker will appear in person at both venues, and on film, as well -- since he and the other directors represented here often draw from a stable of like-minded actors, in which he is prominent. This is all to the good, as M. Bozon has a face that was made for the camera: dark brooding eyes, curly black hair, strong nose, lips and chin -- all perched atop a compact little body that, if it appears not to easily relax, is still capable of a lot of interesting movement, some of which is danced.

Two of M. Bozon's four films will be shown as part of this series, one of which -- La France, here in the U.S., at least, is the most famous of the movies to come out of this group of critic/filmmakers who sprang from the late and probably lamented film magazine La lettre du cinéma (1997-2005). Though, since these critics also make films, their work is perhaps more important than their words. I would say that Bozon's certainly is. When I first saw La France, just prior to its run at AFA several years ago, I was impressed and annoyed with it in about equal doses. Here is what I wrote at the time, previous to the existence of my TrustMovies blog:

Are we back again in the Forest of Arden? Yes and no. There is something to be said for oddity in films, and I am not speaking of the odd scene or moment in a movie that may otherwise be rather obvious. Films that are truly odd -- Todd Rohal's The Guatemalan Handshake, for instance, and now Serge Bozon's La France -- simply elude definition on some level. You can describe them -- their characters and events -- and still not begin to capture their essence. Whether or not they have an essence may also be up for question.

Bozon's movie is a formally executed combination of war film (WWI), road movie, cross-dressing/hidden identity tale, love story (think A Very Long Engagement but pizzazz-free) complete with major musical numbers that are more folk/rock than Broadway belted. That this bizarre mash-up works to any extent is due to the formality of Bozon's approach and his control over the material. From the first, everything seems both "real" and a little "off," and the movie continues in this manner for its entire length. Consequently, we begin to concern ourselves more with symbolism and metaphor than character or plot. So is La France all about the fruitless search for love? Nah. The question of how women must fit themselves into a world run by men? Please: not something this obvious. Do the songs sung and played (wonderfully, too!) by the soldiers (above) stand for "home" or the breaking down of territorial boundaries? All of the above? None of the above? It finally doesn't seem to matter -- if we can just wish upon a star.

The fine cast is led by Sylvie Testud (above: is there a better actress for convincing cross-dressing?) and Pascal Greggory (below: who’d make a great Jacques in “As You Like It”) -- two performers whom I never tire of watching. They're up to snuff here, and so is their supporting ensemble. Though I was never uninterested in the film, I also never managed to fully "arrive" in it. (Oddly enough, it does appear to offer "closure," even though we may have little notion as to what is being closed.) The most enchanting moments are provided by the lovely and peculiar songs (Bozon wrote their lyrics) that may remind you of Ragni/Rado/MacDermot's "Hair" and/or Jonathan Larson's "Rent" -- not so much because of lyrics or music but due to the unique "spirit" with which they imbue this strange film. The cinematography, too, is often splendid, full of wonderful compositions and a blue/gray color palette of night, sky and military uniforms that works beautifully against the lush foliage (most of the movie is shot outdoors).

For a "war" film, La France is relatively free of violence, which makes it especially shocking when this occurs. Who is responsible and why are two questions that should give you pause. But, again, what this signifies remains as elusive as the entire movie. Oh, yes-- the film's title: It's got to mean something, right? Right.

As I re-read all of the above, I find I agree with myself, and yet, now, what remains with me concenring this film is practically all positive. I love it, flaws and all. So it was with great anticipation I slipped a screener of Bozon's second film, MODS, into my machine and watched. And experienced no disappointment whatsoever. In fact, MODS, on a much more limited budget and at a length of just one hour, may be even better than his later, full-length work. Again, the filmmaker, with his writer/co-writer and significant other Axelle Ropert (who herself is represented in this series by two films), tackle love, war and musical numbers, as two brothers, both soldiers (above, with M. Bozon on the right), visit a third (in academia) who has suffered a breakdown, though how and why, no one seems to know.

There's a doctor who greets his visitors/patients with a sudden "Did I scare you?", a young barmaid with a reading problem, a sexy older woman teacher with whom both soldier brothers fall in love, a leader who has trouble leading, and finally Anna (played by the slightly mysterious Ms Ropert, who may be a the actual ruler here (rules are quite important to the venue at hand). All this is presented to us in quite the straight-forward manner: without irony or the sense that Bozon/Ropert are laughing at themselves or at us viewers. The underlay, however, is definitely philosophical. Cinematography for both films by Céline Bozon (this does seem to be a family affair) is first-rate, the choreography clever (without perhaps winning any awards), and the music well-chosen. As are the cast members Bozon has assembled, with each man and woman possessing a face more beautiful than the last.

By the finale ailing brother Edouard has become the be-all for all, and the rest of the cast automatons (or were they already?). MODS gives up its secrets maybe a little more easily than La France. But that may be because I don't understand it as well as I imagine. I do know that I enjoyed it immensely, and I think you will, too.

Now to the work of Ms Ropert. If you follow this blog, you'll already know of my very high affection for her first full-length features The Wolberg Family (above and below), which made its New York debut at the 2010 Rendez-vous With French Cinema and then played the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and elsewhere, most recently as part of Now, here it is again, so you've no excuse of missing it this time around. My earlier coverage of this film can be found here, here and here.

Ropert's first film, the 44-minute short Étoile violette , is also on this program, and again, as with the films of M. Bozon, the short works quite beautifully, too. A young tailor listens to a radio program in which callers confess to various things.  As he listens, he is reminded of an appointment, and off he goes ... to a night class on literature. The teacher -- a bald-headed, unprepossessing fellow -- wants to teach his pupils of solitude, specifically the solitude experienced by famous Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau. To this end, the teacher uses explanation and then role-playing to coach his pupils into some kind of empathy. It works, perhaps better than he had planned, as our tailor begins first the role-playing and then fantasizing chats with the philosopher/writer (who is played by acting great Lou Castel, below, right).

Again, too, this film has a certain straight-forward motion and sensibility that keep events and characters perched on a tightrope of weird believability. As odd as things get, never do they seem ridiculous or wanting in logic or sense. The teacher wants to teach, and so, like the students, we listen and learn... what? It's mysterious, all right  Maybe the mystery of life. And what does the teacher hold in his hand at the end?  I couldn't see it properly -- unless that was the point. The cast of regulars from this group does wonders, especially Bozon, who shows his versatility as the little tailor, and Emmanuel Levaufre as the teacher.

Ms Ropert and M. Bozon would seem to share a certain stylistic commonality, yet their concerns are quite different, perhaps as befits male and female filmmakers, both of whom possess a philosophical bent. In addition to these four films, looks for others in the series from Pierre Léon Jean-Charles FitoussiJean-Paul CiveyracSandrine Rinaldi (a still from her Mystification is shown below), Benjamin EsdraffoAurélia Georges -- plus several films, French and American, said to have heavily influenced the school of New French Cinema.

You can find the entire FSLC program here at the Walter Reade Theater of the FSLC, and the one-day AFA program here. I hope to see several other of these movies during the run of the series. If so, and if I have time, I'll report on them in this post.

And -- if you're as hooked on this interesting film philosophy from France as I, you'll probably want to look into the accompanying special panel discussion -- SERGE BOZON AND THE NEW FRENCH CINEMA, which is said to answer the question, What makes a "new wave"? In the expected, wide-ranging conversation, Bozon and fellow Lettre du cinéma alumni Jean-Charles Fitoussi (The Days I Don't Exist, shown above) and Aurélia Georges (The Walking Man, shown below) will discuss their work, their influences, and the relationship between film making and film criticism, in conversation with Film Society Associate Program Director Scott Foundas, critic/programmer Miriam Bale, and Columbia University French Department Chair Phil Watts. For more information, visit

The Panel Discussion: Serge Bozon and the New French Cinema will take place at Columbia University East Gallery, Buell Hall on Friday, April 15 at 4:00PM.

If you can't attend this panel discussion, to get some greater sense of Bozon, I recommend that you read the interview with him and Pascale Bodet by Dmitry Martov and Larysa Smirnova that appeared in a MUBI post last year. As you read, you'l become aware of a mind that jumps around quickly and facilely from topic to topic, of a superior intelligence and philosophical bent, and of an ego that appears to be kept nicely in check. After reading this and seeing two of Bozon's films, I still can't begin to know who this guy is or even half of what he represents. But I absolutely do want to see more of his films, as he continues to make them.

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