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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Monday, March 17, 2008

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Wrap-Up

Vadim Rizov asked me for a wrap-up of Lincoln Center and IFC's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series. I saw five films at Rendez-Vous, and had already seen one of the titles at Toronto. In approximate order of preference:

Tout est pardonné (All is Forgiven): I really like this one. The attention to ambient realism, and the chunky storytelling, reminded me a bit of Pialat, as did Hansen-Løve's willingness to let the characters contradict themselves emotionally from one scene to the next. (Pialat never would have chosen to tell a heartfelt story like this, though.) The film really kicks in in its second half, with the introduction of Constance Rousseau, who is the most expressive non-professional actor, like, ever. I loved the way Hansen-Løve declines to "narrate" the progression of the girl's feelings for her long-absent father: her plausible and understated emotions simply succeed each other across the time jumps.

Les Chansons d'amour (Love Songs): A weird movie that seems to be the expression of a genuinely weird personality. A big part of Honoré is old-fashioned surrealist, devoted to disconcerting and affronting us by various means, not the least of which is the use of the musical form in an unthinkable emotional context. And then, as if he has pushed hard enough to satisfy himself, he moves from acting out and goofiness into a solemn sincerity, and scores a number of emotionally complex coups. I kind of wish I could write the guy off, but I can't.

La Question humaine (Heartbeat Detector): A perplexing movie. I disliked it most of the way, but eventually acquired a grudging and partial respect for it. Klotz's odd distance from the fiction reminded me of Oliveira at times. When the Holocaust material is introduced in the second half, the film becomes almost too thematically tight, using the issue of the dangers of euphemistic technical language to put all its targets in one basket. The characters remain concepts and even mouthpieces, but Klotz's cold style becomes more impressive as it manages to stitch together the increasingly multifarious narrative.

Ceux qui restent (Those Who Remain): a character-based story with a few subtleties of conception but a rather heavy hand in the execution department. Both Lindon and Devos do a nice job with characters who are straitjacketed by their functions in the script. The story refuses to resolve in the expected way, failing to redeem the character who was earmarked for redemption. Not really a bad film, but not exciting enough either, suspended somewhere between the arty and the commercial.

Paris: I'm getting a little worn down by Klapisch. The film's brisk scene switches among the ensemble are interesting for a while, but practically every vignette is turned to some showy, exhibitionistic purpose. None of the characters really got their due, though there were lots of good performances, especially Binoche's.

Un baiser s'il vous plaît (Shall We Kiss?): rough sledding for me. It reminded me of a variety skit played at half-speed: characters are stripped down until they serve only the barest comic functions, discomfort and awkwardness are dragged out as long as possible. The concept of love on display here is so fantastically simplified that only a naif or a nihilist could be satisfied with it.

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Blogger David said...

Thanks for these; I'm glad to see that pardonnewas the highlight, since it was the only one I saw. I loved it as well--the grace note approach reminded me a lot of Assayas (I don't think she was pleased when I asked how she was influenced), and the title is perfect. Excepting the central/center scene, the fact that everyone is constantly willing to forgive (also somewhat reminiscent of Assayas) seems to imply both resignation and hope, which are both everywhere throughout the movie. The use of people playing music in the background of half the scenes adds a sense of naturalism (when it's actually totally manipulative), and I love how the girl brings along her friend for the walk, and it's awkward, and they say nothing, and still find it worthwhile. I think it's one of the few good affirmative films I've seen in a while.

March 17, 2008 11:46 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

David - someone else made that Assayas connection as well. I thought of him at one point: in that beautiful scene where Hansen-Løve follows the girls into that dance party and then lurks in the darkness with them, just to show a joyful moment of their lives. In general, though, I think of Assayas's films as having a rather aestheticized quality, whereas Hansen-Løve wants that feeling of building a story from shots that document the space she's filming in, the light and the sounds.

All those scenes with the girl and her girlfriend were terrific: Hansen-Løve just trusted that the bond between them would eventually be demonstrated, and let it happen naturally. And that kind of "ambient" characterization really paid off at the end, where it supported the idea that the girl's world would not be shattered by her father's departure. Hansen-Løve resisted the fictionalizing temptation to make the father-child bond the most important part of the characters' lives, despite its being the most important part of the movie. So part of the impact of the ending is the pull between the viewer's feeling that the whole fictional world has been rocked, and the characters' feeling that only a manageable part of it has changed.

March 18, 2008 10:43 AM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

I loved La Question Humaine. Your reaction is curious one, most friends I talked to that were somewhat cold towards it seem to think that it starts great and lose steam in the last act (i also remember that Emannuel Bordeau wrote that Klotz ended letting History eats his fiction, which I guess is somewhat true, but not in a bed way).

March 18, 2008 11:20 PM  
Blogger David said...

This post has been removed by the author.

March 19, 2008 3:04 AM  
Blogger David said...

Assayas and Hasen-Løve are a couple (evidently the French press has nearly been speculating he made a film), so it's understandable she got uppity. The dance moment seemed straight out of Paris Awakens, but while Assayas is certainly more of an object-fetishist than she is, I feel like the description that "Hansen-Løve wants that feeling of building a story from shots that document the space she's filming in, the light and the sounds" is a perfect one for Assayas as well. There were a couple points where she would have a jump cut as the camera moved, gently hastening people along, that also seemed Assayas-like, and the idea that everything is seen in glimpses barely caught seems very much a Assayas/Pialat type of ellipsis, vs., I guess, a Bresson/Garrel/Godard sort of ellipsis which presents only the essential facts (not always true of Garrel).

This is why I really like your second comment, that "part of the impact of the ending is the pull between the viewer's feeling that the whole fictional world has been rocked, and the characters' feeling that only a manageable part of it has changed." Throughout--in the ellipses, and all the people playing music in the background--there's a sense that we're only getting the parts relevant to the story, but that Hansen-Løve refused to filter out all the outside elements that would intrude on these moments anyway. Not that this makes her completely original--anyone using off-screen space is basically doing the same thing--but I also really like this idea that there's much more to their lives than they (or we) might think at any particular, particularly dramatic moment. But it really just adds to that sense of resignation too: not just that drugs, romances, break-ups, deaths (all present) aren't so consequential, but that they almost all realize this themselves, except maybe Antoinette. And that this is why it's so easy for all of them to forgive--it's just a way of moving on and forgetting. (Reminiscent a bit of Ozu, or Cary Grant's speech to Jean Arthur near the start of Only Angels Have Wings).

Saw Heartbreak Collector/La Question Humaine this afternoon--felt like it went from an arid TV movie to cliff-notes of Dialectic of Enlightenment, though I love the dance sequence. I should have followed the advice I thanked you for writing. Blood of the Beasts makes nearly the exact same argument, and in much more appropriate terms.

March 19, 2008 3:12 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Filipe - the first part of La Question humaine is more engaging from a narrative point of view, but Klotz and Perceval are so remote from the story: the dialogue is ritualistic and sometimes verbose, the acting is uninvolved, the camera lays back in a chilly way. I'm not sure what they are trying to achieve: it's the style that seems a bit inhuman, not the business world. And emotive touches, like Amalric starting to break down, seem unconvincing in this context. I became a little more attentive when the film started to examine those texts within the text: the pretense of fiction hadn't worked for me, but Klotz's style piqued my interest when applied to essayistic, commentative material.

I was actually curious enough to take the subway to a different venue to see La Blessure that same evening. Which is a lot of Klotz for one day. I didn't like the earlier film very much, I must say: Klotz definitely has an eye, and the film's last half hour broke in unexpected ways, but by that point I was feeling a bit harangued and numb.

David - I didn't know about Assayas and Hansen-Løve being a couple. I tend to think of him as having more in common with a guy like Téchiné, who has a love of artifice and fictional forms. I suppose I should confess that I've never found a way to appreciate Assayas (or Téchiné) much.

"You were going to have dinner with him, the Dutchman hired him, I sent him up, the fog came in, a tree got in the way. All your fault. Forget it, unless you want the honor." Did I get it right from memory? I spent a lot of my youth quoting Hawks films.

I just revisited Blood of the Beasts a few days ago. It fascinates me how that film speaks to me so differently at different eras of my life. The closer I get to old age, the less I flinch from all that brutal materiality, the more natural it seems that someone can throw one's head across a room.

If one thinks of Blood of the Beasts as a Holocaust film, then it's a film that loves the executioners as much as the victims. Which can be a tough pill to swallow.

March 19, 2008 11:36 PM  
Blogger David said...

First of all, sorry for those dramatic italics before. A technical error on my part.

That's exactly the speech--we're all going to die, death's it, therefore there's not much reason in making a fuss about it. Which leads pretty well into Blood of the Beasts. It certainly implies somebody has to do the dirty work, and states that the whistling is a coping mechanism, but I took that as just emphasizing the point that everyone is complicit in a larger mechanized system--even the sheep, leading each other off to save themselves. What's frightful is Franju's typical lack of outrage--there's no tension that things could ever turn out any other way, that it's even worth hoping or fearing that they might. (I'm not sure it has any feelings about the executioners). Bresson's as matter-of-fact and materialistic and obsessed with a duty to carry out a task (I like that comparison a lot), tons of German directors are as fatalistic, but I can't think of any other director so uninvested in considering possibilities for the way things could turn out. But Blood of the Beasts is remarkable for its lack of condescension--to the butchers, or to the viewers, whom Franju horrifies with complete transparency, no tricks, as though the horror really weren't the point at all (which, with all the humor, makes it all the worse).

I love Assayas, but Téchiné is prestige movies to me. I don't understand--or like--him at all, and I'm really curious why everyone does.

March 20, 2008 12:55 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

David - maybe I used the word "love" too readily. Franju gives a lot of attention to the abattoir workers: there's background information about their lives, and more than one mention of the specific risks they undergo.

To my mind, the filmmaker's attitude is not so much a lack of hope for change, but rather a desire to look in the face of painful or uncomfortable contradiction. If Franju were a vegetarian, there would be no contradiction between his discomfort and his politics - but the film excludes that position. Its acceptance of horror does not feel despairing to me.

Hôtel des Invalides shows Franju in more of a protest mode. For whatever reason - restrictions on his freedom of expression, perhaps - the protest is sometimes expressed as Eisenstein-like sarcasm, sometimes as a challenge to the pretense of objectivity. I don't think the results are all that successful, despite powerful moments. It seems to me more typical of Franju to want to make us uncomfortable with something we accept than with something we can reject.

I was sad that Anthology showed a print of Blood of the Beasts with English narration. The qualities of the voices of the French narrators are important to me.

Interesting that we have such different takes on Assayas. I admit that I don't understand him - I'd still like to find new ways of thinking about his films.

March 21, 2008 12:08 AM  
Blogger David said...

That's interesting--I took those comments on the risks the workers take to be completely mocking them. Animals are getting their heads chopped off, and the narrator's telling us that this one worker once (just once) sliced his hand open a bit, or hurt his leg, though everyone has clearly recovered. Maybe it had something to do with those cheeky Disney Land English narrators, nowhere near as grave as in the French version, who only made everything more horrific for me in daring me to laugh.

I'm honestly more baffled by people who love Téchiné than by those who don't love Assayas--partly because I find Assayas so intuitive, and partly because some of the things I love about his films change from movie to movie (the innocence of Cold Water vs. the maturity of Clean--or at least the innocence and maturity of their characters). But I do think he's one of the great directors working.

For me, the key Assayas scene is when Maggie Cheung dons the Irma Vep suit in Irma Vep and goes out for a robbery. In the next scene she's discovered waking up, obviously she needs to try to get into character, and she's riffing off of Les Vampires and scenes that have already been done--so she seems to be dreaming, acting one film, mimicking another, and becoming someone else (in a film about the gaps between people that don't even let them relate) all at the same time. It's certainly a fantasy of some sort. But Assayas plays it as total reality, as her latex squeaks awkwardly as she walks--and it's totally absurd. It's *the* Assayas scene for me--a character trying to flee material reality and herself, fumbling terribly, and still getting away with it in the end. His movies are all about characters whose dreamy perception is leagues away from the material-minded camera's.

Not sure if that's a new way.

March 21, 2008 11:47 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

David - didn't the one worker have a leg amputated thanks to those knives? Anyway, I definitely think that Franju is sincere in pointing out the unpleasant qualities of that job - the narration raises the issue several times.

Your take on Assayas is interesting. It seems to me that he doesn't want to clarify psychology much, doesn't care about giving us a good picture of his characters' interior workings. And yet I don't think of him as being faithful to reality either: I sense him wanting to create a dream world, but not one that necessarily connects to characterization - it's more as if he wants to induce the dreaminess in the viewer directly. It sounds as if you detect more of a documentary side to him than I do.

My favorite of the Assayas films I've seen is Paris s'éveille. But I wrote this in my journal after revisiting it last year: "Assayas seems bad with people, and has a sense of event and drama that strikes me as superficial and naive." I went on to write that what I liked was a sense of randomness in the story, or rather a crystallized, aestheticized rendering of randomness.

March 22, 2008 12:00 AM  

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