Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Catching Up on 2011: L’édition française


Heartbeats

Young Québécois actor Xavier Dolan’s second film as director, Heartbeats, is an assured and confident film that knows exactly what it wants to be and achieves it. He’s only 22. This is a wonderful film that captures a certain kind of precocious youth, indebted to the past in ways that heighten instead of dampen volatile youthful emotion in the present. A perfectly romantic atmosphere cribbed in part from Wong Kar Wai, and a muted Gregg Araki mixed with a French New Wave flavor, is here deployed in an agonizingly tantalizing story of one-sided infatuation. It's about a love triangle of sorts in which a gay man (Dolan) and his best girl friend (Monia Chokri) are both crushing on the same cute guy (Niels Schneider), but said crush object doesn’t seem to know it, or worse, knows it and is toying with them. The film follows the three characters as they circle each other, charting their small shifts, their cyclical emotional and physical attempts to draw closer, and the moody currents that drift them apart. However thin the plot is, Dolan, a terrifically promising director and a great screen presence, fills up the empty spaces with delirious style and a thick mood aching with emotions and impulses. This is a film about the romantic charge of absence, especially when mixed with the slight possibility, however impossible despite physical proximity, of attainment. Dolan has made his film in a bold style that’s as fresh as it is referential. It’s style as substance.

Potiche

About as pink and bubbly as a film can get without a physical problem with the print, François Ozon’s Potiche is a 1970’s period-piece women’s empowerment farce (both aspects are given their progressive expressions) that struggles but never quite collapses under the weight of its soap-opera elements. It’s a light confection through which some hugely talented French stars (no less than Catherine Deneuve among them) stride. Deneuve plays a stylish trophy wife who we first meet out for her morning jog decked out in pink athletic wear, moving at a pace that still allows her to admire all of the animals in the forest. Her husband (Fabrice Luchini) is the stingy, adulterous owner of a nearby umbrella factory who, after his striking employees confront him, collapses with a heart condition. This leaves his wife to shake off her trophy status and take charge at the company. Her new position creates differing reactions from their adult kids (Jérémie Renier and Judith Godrèche) and the factory’s secretary (Karin Viard) and brings her into contact with an old flame (Gérard Depardieu), all of which kicks off a narrative of self-discovery and a journey to fulfillment. Her story is wrapped inside a bright, light, farcical comedy and the film goes down happily and humorously.

The Princess of Montpensier

I feel compelled to call Bertrand Tavernier’s latest film, The Princess of Montpensier, based on a 1662 novel from Madame de Lafayette, lengthy. Despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed every minute, this is a film that feels long simply because it’s so tightly packed and richly spun. If anything, it’s surprising that it fits as much as it does in only 140 minutes. At times, Tavernier makes use of elisions in cutting between scenes, withholding information, allowing the audience to fill in gaps left by events and decisions unseen. In this way, the plot expands past the boundaries of screen time and feels richer for it. The film is a large-scale epic with terrific, muted melodrama played out against the backdrop of 16th century war between the Catholics and the Huguenots and the smaller, but no less important, scale of arranged marriages, true love, and broken hearts amongst dukes and duchesses and the children thereof. This particular story pivots upon Count de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), who we meet in the opening scene in the heat of battle, a fight that causes him to lay down his arms and take up pacifism. This eventually leads him to the home of the Prince of Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), who asks him to help tutor his new wife, Marie (Mélanie Thierry), so that she may be presentable when the time comes that she must appear before the royal court. Marie, the titular princess, becomes the other major figure in the film. We first meet her before the wedding, flirting with the dashing Duke de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). She loves him, but her father (Philippe Magnan) is persuaded by the elder Montpensier (Michel Vuillermoz) that his marriage proposal is most beneficial. And so, Marie becomes Princess of Montpensier while her heart still belongs to another. As the film unfolds, the characters are held captive by and rebel against the social constraints of their stations, struggling to assert or ignore their desires while submitting to sociopolitical and religious inevitabilities. Excellent acting across the board animates this handsomely gorgeous and refreshingly steady and restrained film of convincing period detail, complicated political intrigue, and piercing emotion. I found it a full and compelling experience.

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