Monday, July 2, 2012

Confessions of a Francophile (Part 2 of 2)

Of the ten French films mentioned in the last post, I saw four at the Sacramento French Film Festival (SFFF).  I saw Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, La Rayon Vert and The Wages of Fear at the Viz (or as I find myself calling it more frequently, the Film Society Cinema).  I saw Children of Paradise and Grand Illusion at the Castro.  Finally, I watched The Kid With a Bike at the Landmark Center Embarcadero Cinema

Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle and La Rayon Vert was presented as a double feature; the first I've attended at the FSC. 

The Kid With a Bike was part of the Film Society's 2011 French Cinema Now series which ran last October/November.  I missed it then so I'm glad I got a second chance.

Children of Paradise also played at the SFFF.  The film underwent a 4K digital restoration by Janus Films.  That version has played at the Castro on two different occasions this year.  That reminds me, I asked one of the SFFF/Crest workers (who was working the control panel) what kind of format the "films" were presented.   He said the short films were digital but the features were all 35 mm.  Indeed, they had problems with the Hôtel du Nord projection which was blamed on an old print.  I wonder how they projected Children of Paradise from celluloid when the Janus website claims they played the digital version.  Perhaps he was referring to the first weekend's screening only.


The Kid With a Bike was a French language, Belgian film.  I can never recall if the French speaking peoples of Belgian are Flemish or Walloons.  The film was about Cyril (Thomas Doret), a 12 year old boy, living in an orphanage of sorts.  He runs away to be with his father but discovers his father has moved out of their apartment without warning and sold his beloved bike.  With the help of Samantha (Cécile de France), a good Samaritan, Cyril is reunited with his bike and his father; the latter with less than satisfactory results.  Explicitly rejected by his father, Cyril forms a psuedo-maternal retaltionship with Samantha which is tested when he comes under the influence of a local gang leader.

That synopsis does not do justice to the film because Doret's performance as Cyril is alternately exasperating and endearing.  I could quibble with the relative ease with which Samantha situates herself into Cyril's life or the contrived ending but Doret's performance is reason enough to see the film. 

Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle and La Rayon Vert were two mid-career films from Eric Rohmer.  Four Adventures had a whimsical quality and consisted of four vignettes about two girls (one from the country & one from Paris).  My favorite was the fourth with Fabrice Luchini memorably playing a pretentious art gallery owner.

La Rayon Vert translates to "The Green Ray" which is a reference to the title of a novel by Jules Verne.  La Rayon Vert was released as Summer in the US.  Marie Rivière is Delphine, a young woman in Paris who is suffering from a terrible case of ennui.  Delphine is also guarded, difficult to engage and self-pitying.  Frankly, the character resonated with me.  In Delphine's case, she has broken up with her long-time boyfriend and had a cancellation in her vacation plans.  She's stuck in Paris in July & August (the days are stated in intertitles).  Actually, she is not stuck.  She accepts (and rejects) offers from friends and family for a vacation but her restlessness doesn't allow for any peace.  Whether it is her passive-aggressive behavior towards non-vegetarians or her unwillingness to flirt with men, Delphine is uptight and unhappy.  Rohmer never reveals the root cause of Delphine's behavior.  The audience is left to witness her self-imposed travails.  Although I empathized with her character; I can easily see how some in the audience would grow to dislike Delphine.  Rivière delivers a strong performance.  Of the two Rohmer films, I preferred La Rayon Vert.

The Wages of Fear is a Henri-Georges Clouzot film which I missed during the PFA series earlier this year.  Set in a small South American town (in Venezuela?), Wages of Fear essentially tells the story of polyglot bunch of refugees who came to town to make their fortunes drilling for oil.  Once the Americans arrive, they freeze out the non-Americans who are stuck in the small town.  Few jobs to be had and not enough money to afford passage on the airplane out of town (which is the only way out of town).  Bored and disconsolate, they are resigned to their fate.  Clouzot uses the first hour to set up the situation, develop Yves Montand & Charles Vanel's character and display the considerable sex appeal of his wife, Véra woman ever looked sexier scrubbing the floors.

The second half of the film is a hair-raising thriller involving transporting nitroglycerin by trucks over rough roads to put out an oilwell fire.  The harrowing trip brings out the best and worst of the truckers.  Charles Vanel's Jo experiences a notable change in demeanor.  Bristling with unnecessary anti-Americanism, Wages of Fear would have been more effective if it had dispensed with the political commentary and simply placed the men in their situation which has existed since history began.  However, it was intertesting to see Clouzot's criticism of American hegemony in 1953...a scant 8 years after WWII ended.

Somewhat silly at times, Wages of Fear is a taut thriller in both its depiction of the journey and into the psyche of the men who risk their lives on the journey.

Grand Illusion is a very famous film by Jean Renoir with Jean Gabin & Pierre Fresnay as two French aviators who are shot down by German Baron von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim).  French Capt. de Boeldieu (Fresnay) is an aristocrat while Lt. Maréchal (Gabin) comes from the working class.  Maréchal & de Boeldieu are moved from POW camp to POW camp.  Never able to form a true friendship due to the class differences, they learn to accept each other along with Lt. Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), a Jewish nouveau riche who forms the third leg of Renoir's exploration of the social classes.

Later von Rauffenstein reappears as a POW camp commandant and rekindles his friendship with de Boeldieu who appears to have more in common with his German captor than his French comrades.  Von Rauffenstein & de Boeldieu are officers and gentlemem so they carry out their duties which leads to de Boeldieu's death and Maréchal & Rosenthal's escape.  The final portion of the film find the two fugitives taking refuge at a German widow's (Dita Parlo) farmhouse. 

Grand Illusion takes the humanist view of war as all the characters are terribly decent given their suffering.  As such, Grand Illusion is nothing like Stalag 17 or The Great Escape.  Renoir's film aspires to celebrate the human condition and condemn warfare.  With von Stroheim leading an extremely capable cast, Grand Illusion is a great film which transcends its pre-WWII overtones.

Children of Paradise & Hôtel du Nord were both directed by Michael Carné.  They depict a time and mentality which simply don't exist anymore and as such they look out of place today.  They both feature Arletty who was 47 and 38 when the films were released, respectively.  I don't know if it was the magic of moviemaking but she was quite attractive at age 47.  Well made films both, I couldn't really get excited about either.  I recognized their merit and the skills of the director and performers but neither film captured my excitment.

Romantics Anonymous, which will play at the Roxie starting July 20, was a delightful romantic comedy about a shy chocalatier and her new boss, who is anxiety ridden, tongue tied and profusely perspiring.  A non-threatening and nice film which showcases the comedic performances of Benoît Poelvoorde & Isabelle Carré.

A View of Love is a film I could not quite embrace either.  Moving back and forth between 1980s Aix-en-Provence and 1960s Algeria, the film focuses on the deferred romance between a high-end real estate agent (Jean Dujardin) and his wealthy client/childhood sweetheart (Marie-Josée Croze).  Full of intrigue (perhaps over-stuffed), the affair never really sizzles although Marie-Josée Croze is certainly a sexy woman.  Sandrine Kiberlain, who I have recently seen in The Women on the 6th Floor and Polisse shows up as Dujardin's wife.  I'd really like to see her in a lead role.

My favorite film of SFFF was Empty Days.  The 1999 film explores the romance between a corporate executive (Patrick Dell'Isola) and mousy housewife (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi).  Both have been unemployed for an extended period which takes its toll on their psyches and self-esteem.  Looking for support from each other, the two fall into an illicit romance (they are both married).  Both have their character flaws - the man is conceited while the woman is lacking in self-confidence.  They give each other a needed sense of validation as they spend their days passing time.  The film is loaded with small nuances such as their grocery shopping sojourns and Tedeschi's numerous facial expressions to show her insecurity.  I thought Tedeschi quite attractive so I wasn't sure about her character's obsession with losing weight but she displayed the character's diffidence in subtle ways. 

Empty Days was an extremely fulfilling film which combined the anxiety of long-term unemployment, the camaraderie of the unemployed and the need for empathy that even a spouse cannot provide.  Two people who wouldn't otherwise associate and who know their relationship is doomed still proceed because of their desparate isolation resulting from their unemployment and subsequent loss of self-worth. 

Dell'Isola and Tedeschi give outstanding performances. Tedeschi is the older sister of Carla Bruni, the wife of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

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