Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rendez-vous: the Mathieus (Amalric and Demy) offer THE SCREEN ILLUSION (Corneille!) and AMERICANO (corny)

Are you versed in Corneille? Me neither. We probably know a lot of Molière (and a little Marivaux) but this classic French writer most likely escapes us less French-literate Americans. (I thought he wrote Phèdre; turns out I'm mixing him up with Racine.) Never mind. If you see the zesty new film from Mathieu Amalric -- THE SCREEN ILLUSION, based on Corneille's L'Illusion comique -- you will at least have a good taste of the guy and his work. That is because Amalric, best-known as an actor (he has 77 titles to his credit since 1985), has kept much of Corneille's dialog intact (it was written in 1636). That dialog has then been translated into some excellent English subtitles. Otherwise, the filmmaker (this is his fifth full-length film since 1997) sets his tale in present-day France, using everything from the current "high technology" of computer surveillance to hot, after-hours clubs and chic hotels.

The tale tells of a father, estranged from his son, who hires a third party to trace the young man (quite a performance from Comédie-Française actor Loïc Corbery, above, as the son) and report on his doings. Those doings appear alternately dastardly and delightful, but then, there are surprises aplenty in store. Hearing this 17th Century dialog set against up-to-the-minute visuals takes only a few lines to get used to, and Amalric keeps things zipping along in fine style, while his cast -- including the always interesting Denis Podalydès as a delusional nutcase -- is first-rate. How Amalric takes the original story and dialog, mashes them it into today's sullied life-style and makes them work, via choice after choice that resound remarkably well, is something to see. I am sure he must have cut down the original source by, what, half or more? And his movie -- made for French TV (can you, in your wildest dreams, imagine something like this on American TV?) -- lasts only 77 minutes. But it's time well-spent: equally enjoyable and educational. More, please. The Screen Illusion screens Sunday, March 4, at 6:15 pm at the Walter Reade; Sunday, March 4, at 9pm at BAM; Monday, March 5, at 8 pm at IFC Center and Tuesday, March 6, at 4pm, again at the Walter Reade. M. Amalric will appear in person at the first three of the four screenings.


What happens to French filmmakers when they come to Southern California (and then, god help them, head for Mexico)? I ask because I have noted some very good movie-makers like Jacques Demy (with his Model Shop), Erick Zonca (with Julia) and now Demy's own son, Mathieu Demy, fall prey to --what is it? -- the come-to-LA-LA-land-and-lose-your-marbles syndrome. Then move on to Mexico and go completely bonkers (Demy père managed to stay in L.A., as I recall). Truth to tell, this is Demy fils' first full-length film as writer and director, and I am more familiar with this fellow via his often excellent acting. Most recently he's been seen here as the dad in the fine movie Tomboy and on VOD in the very interes-ting, student-as-prostitute tale Student Services (Mes chères études). So, what to make of his film-making debut? Whew. Of the 17 films I'm seen so far, AMERICANO is the stinker of the bunch.

The movie begins with Mr. Demy's character cuming (yes, he's having sex) and it ends with him on the phone to his girlfriend (the highly wasted Chiara Mastroianni, and I mean the role, not the actress) telling her, "I'm coming" (meaning he's returning to France). I don't know that the joke is intentional, but I would dearly like to think so, for it is just about the the only amusement the movie provides. Otherwise, this tale of a repressed man named Martin (played by the consistently sad-eyed Demy, above, right, and below, right), who comes to L.A. to pack up his recently deceased but long estranged mother's belongings, is a bogus, pretentious fiasco. After spending a few minutes with Martin, I found the man so ridiculous, so willfully stupid that I just wanted to slap him silly. This seems to be the feeling of many of the other characters in the film, too. In fact, Martin gets slapped, beaten and knocked about so much (and so deliberately on his character's part) that you begin to wonder if Demy isn't going after the torture-me-some-more mantle of Mel Gibson.

Also involved in this mess are good actors like Salma Hayek (above, left: a mystery girl who turns sentimental and has a surprise connection to another character we've seen), Geraldine Chaplin (a one-note cliche who, at least, gets to slap Demy) and Carlos Bardem (two photos up, at left, as the Hayek character's pimp/protector, who really gives Martin a pummeling -- or ten). None of these actors can begin to latch on to anything approaching a real character, thanks to the pre-determined whims of the very poor screenplay (Demy again). I don't know what to think. The wisest, kindest thing might be to proclaim happiness that the filmmaker has now gotten Americano out of his system and can move on to, well, just about anything else. The movie screened yesterday at the Walter Reade and will show again today, March 4, at 6:45 at IFC Center and again Tuesday, March 6, at 7:30 at BAM.  M. Demy will be making a personal appearance at all screenings. And if you miss at at Rendez-vous, his movie has been picked up for U.S. distribution by MPI Media Group.

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