Friday, December 7, 2012

The Beauty of the Real

From August 17 to 23, the Roxie presented a 14 film series called "The Beauty of the Real: A Celebration of Contemporary French Actresses!"  The series was programmed by San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle.  Some of the films in the series also played at the Smith Rafael but I don't recall which ones or how many films.

I saw 12 of the 14 films; all at the Roxie.  The two films I missed were Empty Days and 5x2.  I saw Emtpy Days at the 2012 Sacramento French Film Festival which LaSalle partially programmed.  I had not seen any of the 12 films before.

Anthony Zimmer starring Yvan Attal & Sophie Marceau; directed by Jerome Salle; French with subtitles; (2005)
Le Prix à Payer starring Christian Claiver & Nathalie Baye; directed by Alexandra Leclère; French with subtitles; (2007)
Le Petit Lieutenant starring Nathalie Baye; directed by Xavier Beauvois; French with subtitles; (2005) - Official Website
Entres ses Mains starring Isabelle Carré & Benoit Poelvoorde; directed by Anne Fontaine; French with subtitles; (2005)
Le Role de sa vie starring Agnes Jaoui & Karin Viard; directed by François Favrat; French with subtitles; (2004)
Le Cérémonie starring Sandrine Bonnaire & Isabelle Hupert; with Jacqueline Bisset; directed by Claude Chabrol; French with subtitles; (1995)
Post Coitum Animal Triste starring & directed by Brigitte Rouan; French with subtitles; (1997)
A nos Amours starring Sandrinne Bonnaire; directed by Maurice Pialat; French with subtitles; (1983)
Les Ambitieux starring Karin Viard; directed by Catherine Corsini; French with subtitles; (2006)
Alias Betty starring Mathilde Seigner & Sandrine Kiberlain; starring Claude Miller; French with subtitles; (2001)
Didine starring Géraldine Pailhas & Julie Ferrier; directed by Vincent Dietschy; French with subtitles; (2008)
Intimate Strangers; starring Sandrine Bonnaire & Fabrice Luchini; directed by Patrice Leconte; French with subtitles; (2004)


The Beauty of the Real was one of the most satisfying film series/festivals I've attended.  Night after night, outstanding films were screened.  I was largely unfamiliar with the films although I was surprised at how many of the actresses I recognized.  There were healthy crowds too.  I predict there will be a follow up although the series was designed to promote LaSalle's (then) new book - The Beauty of the Real.  Towards the end of the series, I considered buying a copy of the book but they weren't selling them.  After the first or second day of the series, LaSalle was out of town.  He had prerecorded introductions to each film which would precede each film.

My favorite film was the last film I saw, Intimate Strangers.  Sandrine Bonnaire is Ana, an agitated housewife who goes to see a psychiatrist.  Taking a wrong turn on the floor, she enters the unmarked office of tax accountant William (Fabrice Luchini).  Assuming his secretary forgot to mark the appointment on his calendar, William invites Ana in to discuss her "problems."  Thinking he is a psychiatrist, she divulges intimate details of her marriage and sex life.  Stunned, William attempts to keep his composure but he is doesn't correct her mistaken assumption about his profession.

Attracted and intrigued by Ana, William allows the charade to continue over several sessions.  He even seeks advice from the psychiatrist down the hall who Ana was intending to see.  Some of the funniest scenes are between William and Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy) who begins to psychoanalyze Williams...and even bills him for it.

If the first half of the film is a comedy with romantic overtones, director Patrice Leconte mixes it up in second  half as Ana's life and motives are seen in a different light.  These plot twists (always with an undercurrent of black humor) are deliciously intriguing.  Intimate Strangers is the cleverest of films.  The audience never guesses the next step and is constantly entertained while Ana & William are peeled like an onion - remove one layer and there is another beneath until the end when I still wondered if there were more layers to them.

I'm becoming a big fan of Fabrice Luchini.  I had previously seen him in The Women on the 6th Floor.  A skilled comedian, Luchini is able to shift into dramatic scenes effortlessly.


Le Prix à Payer (The Price to Pay) was a showcase for Nathalie Baye, an actress I've previously enjoyed in Beautiful Lies.  Jean-Pierre (Christian Clavier) and Odile (Baye) are a wealthy married couple whose marriage has become strained.  When Odile refuses Jean-Pierre amorous advances one time too many, he retaliates by disabling her credit cards and bank account.  He is tired of being treated as human ATM without enjoying any of the carnal aspects of marriage.  He agrees to restore Odile's access to funds if she will resume marital relations.  Thus begins a delightful sex farce which draws the chauffeur (Gérard Lanvin) and his girlfriend (Géraldine Pailhas) who represent the proletarian view.  I could go on but writing fatigue and time force me to cut this capsule short.

Géraldine Pailhas appeared in Didine, another film from the series which I liked.  A contrived romantic comedy, I would typically eschew this type of film.  Like Beautiful Lies (another contrived romantic comedy), it appears that what I reject in Hollywood films, I will accept in French films.  Didine works for me because Pailhas and Julie Ferrier's performances.  The younger Didine and older Muriel (Ferrier) start at odds with each other but become friends with Muriel imparting some lessons on life along the way.  Even one sentence description sounds clichéd.  Sometimes the performances in a film (and one's latent Francophobia) can overcome a tired script.


So I enjoyed the comedies but most of the films were more serious.

Le Petit Lieutenant and Le Cérémonie were the most well known films in the series.  The eponymous Lt. is Jalil Lespert, a young police officer from Le Havre who transfer to Paris.  His commanding officer is Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye).  The first half of the film follows Antoine (Lespert) as he adjust to his new job in a the big city.  We sense there is tension between Antoine and his wife who remains in Le Havre.  The police in Antoine's precinct begin investigating a series of killings which bring Lespert into closer contact with Vaudieu.  The film slowly shift its focus to the relationship between these two.  Vaudieu is recovering alcoholic who son died at age 7 and she never fully recovered.  Antoine reminds her of her dead son and she begins to nurture the young police officer as his mentor and surrogate mother.  In the background, are these murders which will have tragic consequences for Antoine.  Not quite functioning as a taut thriller or policier, Le Petit Lieutenant hits it stride when it explores the lives of Antoine & Vaudieu.  It adds complexity to the characters as they go about their jobs which is 99% boredom and 1% terror.  Le Petit Lieutenant is worthy of whatever accolades and awards it has received.

Le Cérémonie was outstanding also.  Sandrine Bonnaire is Sophie an illiterate woman who comes to work for the Lelièvre family as a live-in maid in a small town.  Catherine (Jacqueline Bisset) and Georges (Jean-Pierre Cassel) are a well-to-do couple with two teenage children.  They treat Sophie well but their patronizing attitude towards her and affection towards each other create a distance between Sophie and her employers.  Her unwillingness to admit her illiteracy also causes misunderstandings.

Into this void steps Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), the postmistress of the town.  Rebellious and resentful of people better off than her (such as the Lelièvres), Jeanne proves to be a bad influence on Sophie.  When Sophie discovers a secret about the Lelièvres' daughter, she threatens blackmail since the young woman knows about her illiteracy.  This results in Sophie being fired which in turn results in the violent finale.  Shocking in its brutality, Le Cérémonie ramps up the tension until Sophie breaks.


At the 2012 Sacramento French Film Festival, I saw Romantics Anonymous which also played at the Roxie in July.  That reminds me, for some reason "The Beauty of the Real" was delayed by about a month.  Originally scheduled for July 20 to 26, it was postponed to August 17 to 23.  On the Roxie printed calendar, Romantics Anonymous was scheduled for August 17 to 23 but actually played July 20 to 26 (it may have been held over for another week).  In a nutshell, "The Beauty of the Real" and Romantics Anonymous swapped places on the Roxie calendar.  No explanation was given.

Romantics Anonymous, a 2010 comedy, was successful because of the chemistry between its two lead actors - Isabelle Carré & Benoit Poelvoorde.  Perhaps their on-screen chemistry was due to the fact that Romantics Anonymous was their second film together.  They made Entres ses Mains in 2005.

Entres ses Mains is the story of woman (Carré) who falls in love with a serial killer (Poelvoorde).  She is initially unaware of his murderous predilections but it is the scenes after she begins to suspect his "hobby" which make the film memorable.    Carré & Poelvoorde show a palpable on screen chemistry which must have led to their being cast in Romantics Anonymous.  It was particularly interesting to see Poelvoorde go from a meek chocalatier to a psychopathic killer.

A nos Amours was Sandrine Bonnaire's film debut.  She plays Suzanne, a promiscuous 15 year old. (Bonnaire's actual age during filming).  Bored at home, she begins to sleep around to the consternation of her father (played by director Maurine Pialat).  When he abandons the family, Suzanne mother (Evelyne Ker) has a nervous breakdown.  Her brother (Dominique Besnehard) becomes head of the household and begins beating her (while simultaneously showing more than brotherly love).  It's a Eurotrash family portrait rendered in realist brushstrokes and unsentimental tones.  A nos Amours is powerful film and Bonnaire's performance is amazing considering her age and lack of acting experience.  LaSalle said it was Bonnaire's sister who auditioned for the role but Pialat was immediately drawn to Sandrine's look and attitude.


Three other films were not quite to the level enjoyments as the one I've summarized here.  I still liked them but just not as much.

Le Role de sa vie stars Karin Viard as a writer who becomes the personal assistant for a famous actress (Agnes Jaoui).  The film explores their relationship which evolves over the course of the film.

In Post Coitum Animal Triste, a 40something woman (Brigitte Rouan) begins a passionate but destructive relationship with a younger man.  It destroys her family (husband and two children) and nearly herself.

Les Ambitieux has a similar plot as Post Coitum, right down to the fact that both women are book editors.  In Les Ambitieux, Karin Viard plays an older woman having an affair with younger man (a writer) who begins secretly write a story about Viard's 1970's revolutionary father.  Les Ambitieux is a dark comedy whereas Post Coitum is drama.  In both films, I didn't find the lead character compelling.

Alias Betty felt like a Tarantino film at time.  There were a lot characters, many of the criminals, interacting with each and several plot threads that came together and then split apart and then came back together again.  Alias Betty tried to be too clever for its own good.


The only film I didn't like was Anthony Zimmer, the first film of the series.  Zimmer was original material from which The Tourist (Angelina Jolie & Johnny Depp) was drawn.  Recalling how LaSalle's felt The Tourist was inferior to Anthony Zimmer, I think my expectation were raised too high to be fulfilled.  Not nearly "nerve-racking" as LaSalle led me to believe and with an ending I found incredulous, "The Beauty of the Real" did not start well for me but I'm glad I stuck with for 6 out of its 7 day run.

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