Friday, March 2, 2012

RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA '12: Lucas Belvaux's 38 WITNESSES takes Kitty Genovese from Queens to France

Rendez-vous is huge this year, the largest array of films ever in the series 17 year history. Unless I miscounted, there are 42 films scheduled for Rendez-vous 2012 -- including, in a new sidebar called Rendez-vous +, recent documentaries and rarely screened "classics" (including a 1970s vampire movie by the recently-re-discoverd -- on these shores, at least -- Jean Rollin). Consequently, for the first time in at least a decade, yours truly will not have seen every film in the series. Sorry. Can't manage it. And I'd have to be in two placed at once to catch the "+" sidebar. But I have seen 17 of the films, which I'll report on now and in a post or two to come. Collectively, those 17 movies add up to one of, maybe the best Rendez-vous in my memory, regarding the high level and art and entertainment on view. Given what past years have brought us, this is saying something.

For TrustMovies' money, the film that cuts the deepest this year is Lucas Belvaux's 38 WITNESSES (38 Témoins), providing the height of art and entertainment via a surprising subject: the 1960s murder, here in Queens, New York, of Kitty Genovese, during which none of her neighbors, despite her screams, called the police or tried to help. Belvaux has updated his version to modern-day France and an upscale apartment building in a port city. Initially, the filmmaker's images of the sea and the port are stately and beautiful (the fine cinematography is by Pierric Gantelmi D'Ille).

We never see the actual murder; once past the sea and shore shots, the film begins with a young woman's body on the floor of the lobby of the apartment building and simply moves on from there,sparing us the actual in-the-moment killing. Instead, it's all about investigation -- by the police and by a smart, if cynical, journalist (Nicole Garcia, above, left) -- of why no one saw or heard anything. The film's focus is on the character played by that increasingly compelling actor Yvan Attal (above right, and below). At first it seems as if Attal, who seems distracted and very ill at ease, may have had something to do with the murder. As Belvaux's version proceeds, things proves nothing so simple or obvious.

The movie deals with guilt, shame and responsibility in ways that I have not heretofore seen handled this well. Belvaux and his cast, particularly Attal, make you experience the pain and shame like nothing else. The audience's keyhole and identification is provided via Sophie Quinton (remember Who Killed Bambi?), who plays Attal's wife and she is wonderful, too. The finale, which takes the shape of a reenactment of the crime, is one of the most riveting and profound pieces of cinema I've seen. It gives you exactly what you need to experience -- what the filmmaker wants you to feel and understand -- and it's harrowing, yet without a shred of exploitation or self-serving hypocrisy. This is an amazing movie, but so far as I know, it does not yet have U.S. distribution. Will someone step up to the plate, please?

38 Witnesses screens tonight, March 2, at 7pm at the IFC Center; Saturday, March 10 at 6:15 at the Walter Reade Theater and Sunday, March 11, at :1:30, again at the Walter Reade.

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