All in Film

Trying in vain to find reference in the English news media (I couldn't find any comment or obituary in the New York Times) to the death of Italian filmmaker Gilles Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers, Burn) Thursday, I was beginning to wonder if I had been mistaken. So, I checked the French magazine Le nouvel observateur which contained a short appreciation of a director who was nominated three times for an Academy Award for his most well-known film. I don't think Pontecorvo ever won an Oscar, which probably had more to do with his politics (Communist) than any deficiency in artistic quality or integrity.

By coincidence, only last week I rented The Battle of Algiers (which I first saw about 25 years ago at the Cinematheque in Paris I think) prompted by a comment in Tony Judt's book on post-war Europe about this "memorable" film. For young political activists like me in the late 60s, it was seen as the seminal examination of the brutality on both sides of the war for Alergian independence from France. It justified our commitment at the time to a somewhat naive anti-colonialism, and to the sense that profound changes were underway in the world. Pontecorvo gave those feelings a commanding voice in an intense and harrowing film.

Now that both my sons are back at university for another eight months I can recapture some of that Proustian concept of "lost time" . . . the time to reflect and to assess and to avoid what Proust defined as "the self-satisfaction felt by 'busy' men -- however idiotic their business -- at 'not having time' to do what you are doing". Of course, there is nothing idiotic about raising children -- one of the toughest jobs of all when done well, and I think I do it well -- but also nothing wrong with wanting the time to think out loud on 'paper' (or maybe it is 'screen'?) about the not so trivial other things that are part of an intelligently lived life. So . . . I was unimpressed with the French/Belgian film -- L'Enfant -- which won the Cannes Festival Palme d'Or in 2005, then played theToronto International Film Festival last year (which runs from September 7-16 this year). Usually I am a sucker for the intense humanism of many French/Belgian films (especially if they are set in Paris, which I love). But this one is simply too obvious, too enamored of the lingering close-up, too far from the tough reality of the street life it intends to show.
There are films which I feel obliged to like . . . but don't. Last night, fittingly after a dinner of lamb marinated in tandoori sauce, spicy vegetables and basmati rice (prepared by friends in a nearby cottage -- I am on holiday at my cottage at the moment), we watched Deepa Mehta's Water. Politically, it is correct: Following the plight of a house of Indian widows, forced to live apart because their husbands died young and remain separate and chaste (except if a man from the Brahmin cast takes a liking to one of them) because their religion compels it. Clearly, though, religion is this case (in most cases?) is just the infrastructure for enforcing a set of social and cultural values that benefit a particular class or simply men in general. That's one of the points of the film, that plus offering soft shots of the usual characters with indomitable spirit, big hearts and sad eyes confront their challenges in the exotic India of the late 1930s. So, why didn't I like it since even Salman Rushdie tells me it should "touch (my) heart"? Frankly, it is hard to care about characters who accept so willingly a fate determined by religious standards, who believe they should be punished because their husbands pre-deceased them, husbands who they were forced to marry at seven years old in the first place. Am I to be angry at them for accepting so readily their fate, angry at the caste system which subjugates them, angry at men for taking advantage of the system, furious with Lord Krishna and other deities who are so obviously nothing more than constructs of a repressive social structure? Not for me this film. Give me Casablanca any day . . . which leads me to Alan Furst's spy mysteries which I have just discovered. More later about The Foreign Correspondent, Red Gold and Kingdom of Shadows which I have been reading over the past couple of weeks.
There is really no specific connection for me between Montreal and French films. I am here on business. And over the past two weeks at home I have watched another two humanist French films which, not so coincidentally I think, have much in common. Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud won Cesars for best director and best actor, so its pedigree is sound. It's about a young woman played by a nuanced, and gently beautiful, Emmanuelle Beart who takes a job as an assistant to a retired judge and businessman writing a novel based on his life. Pierre Arnaud (Michel Serrault) is what all men (at least me anyway) hope they will be in their 60s . . . charming, mannered, cultured, gallant, perfectly dressed and, for the most part, gentle. Needless to say, Pierre quietly and without outward signs falls for Nelly (who is about 30 years his junior). Although Nelly at first has a brief affair with Pierre's editor after divorcing her futile husband, it is evident by the end that she shares his attraction. The stare with which she follows Pierre as he leaves on an extended holiday reveals a depth of feeling that you just know will never be requited.

The ending to the much different La Promesse shares something of the wistfulness of Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud, even though the relationship at its heart is between a 15-year old petty thief and a poor black immigrant woman and her baby. La Promesse (actually a Belgian film) is a gritty, bleak look at a young boy coming of age in industrial Liege. Although the drabness is unrelieved, and there is no love between the boy and the woman, the film ends with the same sense of deep connection between the characters.

The connection between people is, for me, what gives many European films their heart.

French film director, Patrice Chereau, has released a new film called Gabrielle starring Isabelle Huppert which will be featured in October at Montreal's Festival du Nouveau Cinema. (Thanks to a blog called Solid Waste for this information. It also played the Toronto International Film Festival, but I missed it.) When I lived in Paris in 1978-1979, I believe he was director of the French National Theatre at the Palais de Chaillot, although I can't seem to confirm that from online bios.

However, this post is about another of his films from ten years ago -- Queen Margot -- starring the young Isabelle Adjani and Daniel Auteuil and seen recently on DVD. This is the 16th century as I imagine it was . . . violent and vulgar . . . a world of browns and blacks where the appearance of red usually meant blood had been shed. All the Catholic French nobility were housed in claustrophic discomfort in the Louvre, with the young Protestant nobles lounging in the filthy streets waiting seemly to be massacred (as they were on St. Bartholomew's Day). The atmosphere is in muddy contrast to so many other 16th and 17th century period films in which the foppery and finery of the court make an issue of GQ seem dull. Queen Margot is beautiful in the visciousness of most of its characters, the malevolence of Catherine de Medici clad constantly in black and the innocence of Henri de Navarre who is saved by Queen Margot and becomes Henri de Bourbon, one of the most loved of French kings.

Give me more of Chereau's direction!

Having suffered through two weeks of streets littered with unsuccessfully dressed film cultists at the Toronto International Film Festival, I have wondered what so annoys me about film festival habitues. Not the stars; they can't be blamed for posing. We want them to do so. I mean those who affectedly sport colored identity badges and stride nowhere, apparently with purpose. They spend immoderate amounts of time staring at their cell phones . . . pretending, I can only guess, importance. I found my answer in a review by Frank Rich of Zadie Smith's On Beauty in yesterday's The New York Times Book Review. Smith describes the character Monty Kipps as "a man constantly on the lookout for the camera he knew must be filming him." That's it . . . but there are never any cameras are there?
Is there a more complex and, ironically, appealing character on television today than Hugh Laurie's Dr. House.? (Forgive the link here to Fox television - not my favorite network as a rule, for purely political reaons.) He is a Vicodin-popping son-of-a-bitch, liar and probably misogynist. He disparages friends relentlessly. If there is a purpose to his mistreatment of his colleagues - no higher value system seems at play - then it is lost on me. So, why do I keep watching, other than to admire Laurie's acting craft? For the very complexity of the character. There is no better antidote to the vacuousness of the people on reality television shows and most cop shows than this intricate, deeply human, fault-ridden character with a tenuous ego.