Time Regained

Compiled by Fiona A. Villella

The following are a collection of reviews on films screening at the 49th Melbourne International Film Festival under the banner  “Towering over the eiffel – new french cinema”. They are written by French film critics from Libération, a well-respected, left-wing French newspaper, and have been re-published here with the kind permission of the authors.  However, it is thanks to the invaluable work of those who translated these reviews that we are able to present them at all. – eds.

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La Veuve de Saint-Pierre (The Widow of Saint-Pierre, Patrice Leconte, 2000)
Review by Olivier Séguret. Translation by Inge Pruks.

Le Temps Retrouvé (Time Regained, Raul Ruiz, 1999)
Review by Olivier Séguret. Translation by Brad Stevens.

Mauvaises Fréquentations (Bad Company, Jean-Pierre Améris, 1999)
Review by Didier Péron. Translation by Brad Stevens, with assistance from Guillaume Ollendorff and Adrian Martin.

Ressources Humaines (Human Resources, Laurent Cantet, 1999)
Review by Olivier Séguret. Translation by Inge Pruks.

Peau d’Homme, Coeur de Bête (Skin of Man, Heart of Beast, Hélène Angel, 1999)
Review by Didier Péron. Translation by Nathalie Brillon.

Petits Freres (Little Fellas, Jacques Doillon, 1999)
Review by Didier Péron. Translation by Nathalie Brillon.

Interview with Jacques Doillon
Interview by Didier Péron and Laurent Rigoulet. Translation by Nathalie Brillon

Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes (Water Drops On Burning Rocks, François Ozon, 2000)
Review by Olivier Séguret. Translation by Inge Pruks.

C’est quoi la Vie? (What is Life?, François Dupeyron, 1999)
Review by Didier Péron. Translation by Bill Krohn.

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A new Leconte with no surprises, rescued by Auteuil and the script.

by Olivier Séguret

La Veuve de Saint-Pierre (The Widow of Saint-Pierre). Directed by Patrice Leconte. Starring Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica. Running time: 110 mins.

In connection with The Widow of Saint-Pierre, the most interesting criticism would be precisely that of the critical greeting reserved for this film signed Patrice Leconte, whose name has become, in the minds of those who make their profession as critics, synonymous with pyromaniac as the head of a certain quarrel which opposed them to part of France’s professional filmmakers. It is perhaps unjust (if you bear in mind that after having set off the fuse, Leconte clearly made it be known that he would no longer take part in the debate) but that’s how it is: simply by the effect of the director-critic polemic with which he is from now on identified.

Having written “unjust” one is very much aware, faced with the Widow of Saint-Pierre, how much Leconte would have loved to change his position for totally other reasons. It is the same lesson that could be learnt however from his decidedly curious path, which traces a symbolic ascension towards that what he seems to consider a cultural “always better”. Having begun with popular cult comedies like the Bronzes, he has not, despite a few detours such as One Chance in Two, stopped wanting to gain artistic kudos, with increasingly audacious subjects and ever more ambitious treatments. The Widow of Saint-Pierre is no exception: its theme is humanist and its style is tense in a great effort to create romantic and solemn cinema.

The best part of the film is its story: the fate of a man condemned to death on the isle of Saint-Pierre in 1849, whilst waiting for a guillotine and an executioner. The script – surprise surprise – is signed by the not negligible director Claude Farraldo, who weaves into it an exotic and often piquant suspense. Saint-Pierre is a bit like our icy Far West, an isolated dot on the map of the nation which, as it happens, is not going too well: in Paris, the Commune is brewing, and this distant rumble gives to the film its double backdrop (an extreme love story but also an abolitionist fable).

Bogged down by the typical reflexes of French cinema when it tries to create costume drama (but the formalism of crinolines had also weighed down Jane Campion’s The Piano, of which one is curiously reminded when watching The Widow of Saint-Pierre), Leconte only rarely allows himself these bursts of air by which a filmmaker escapes from his program. Thus, he seriously accomplishes the latter, leaving the task of surprising us totally up to the actors. Juliette Binoche only rarely succeeds whilst it is difficult to judge Emir Kusturica, being almost mute. Daniel Auteuil clearly stands out from the cast and it is to be expected since the best character, especially the one least predictable, is without doubt his own.

Translated from Libération, April 19, 2000, by Inge Pruks.

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Ruiz’s Partial Time: The Chilean filmmaker adapts Proust, agreeably but unevenly.

by Olivier Séguret

Le Temps Retrouvé. Directed by Raul Ruiz. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Béart, Vincent Perez, John Malkovich, Pascal Greggory and Marie-France Pisier. Running Time: 162 minutes.

If few filmmakers can claim any particular legitimacy as adapters of Proust, it is certain that Raul Ruiz is far from a bad choice. His profound cultural thirst works in his favour, as does the Chilean thrift of his complex spontaneity. But, above all, Ruiz’s cinema has, from the outset, displayed a pronounced taste for complex filmic experience, for paradoxical equations, the quest for a cinema which is mathematical, philosophical and alchemistic; all gymnastics are automatically welcome when tackling A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, that literary giant which defeated Losey and Visconti, among others (I believe that Schlondorff is the only previous director to have succeeded in filming even part of the text).

In Le Temps Retrouvé, based on Proust’s final volume, we find Ruiz’s typical approach, which often leads to a harmonious synthesis, setting itself in defiance of the challenge laid down by the writer and his narrator. Between paintings and distorted reflections, diverse dreams and theatrical mechanics, Ruiz graphically realizes the social chessboard endlessly woven by Proust in some scenes of great subtlety which, though often moving, rarely belong together. Thus we are deprived of that sideways continuity which held the book together, and of the specific knowledge that made its final revelation such a blow.

On the other hand, the great shadows of Ruiz’s film (war, changes of position, old age, funerals) have the flavour of ashes, as if dominated by the dust of the tomb. The acting provides another quality. The famous names are well used. Malkovich, Deneuve, Pisier. All very good. But also, in smaller roles, Edith Scob, Hélène Surgère, Dominique Labourier. Equally judicious is Ruiz’s use of sound, which the cinema apparently finds better suited than smell to provoking memories of dreams, “those miracles of recall which allow us to escape the present”.

If Le Temps Retrouvé is not an especially faithful adaptation (will we ever have one?), it is certainly not a bad film. The least we can say about Ruiz is that he skilfully perpetuates an enigma.

Translated from Libération, July 17, 1999, by Brad Stevens.

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A Blue Flower against a Grey Background: Jean-Pierre Améris’ Mauvaises Fréquentations (Bad Company)

by Didier Péron

Mauvaises Fréquentations (Bad Company). Directed by Jean-Pierre Améris. Starring Maud Forget, Lou Doillon, Robinson Stévenin and Maxime Mansion. Running Time: 98 minutes.

By giving us an almost timeless narrative without obvious directorial flourishes – in a barely concealed homage to the defunct ‘Cinema 16’ series for teens on TV channel FR3 – Jean-Pierre Améris defines himself negatively, placing the demands of subject, screenplay and characterization above any egotistical temptation to indulge in formal innovation. His previous film, Les Aveux de l’innocent (1996), also displayed stylistic modesty and understatement, achieving the perfection of a cinema which sets out to reproduce the greyness of everyday life. And this is even truer of Mauvaises Fréquentations, which features a sad town (Grenoble), an ordinary character (Delphine, a 15-year old high school girl), and everyday subject matter (the disappointments of first love). The film is drawn from newspaper accounts of a real case which the filmmaker uses as the basis for his tale of adolescent sexual initiation – like a mixture of a naughty teenage party and a journalistic ‘odd spot’ column.

Delphine is a girl without a past. Olivia, a new arrival, introduces her to the pangs of passion, encouraging her to experiment (by growing dreadlocks and losing her virginity) and reject the middle-class common-sense of her understanding parents. In the midst of this intoxication, Delphine falls in love with Laurent, a malicious and self-destructive boy. With him, Delphine goes too far, eventually becoming a prostitute, and Olivia accompanies her on this increasingly humiliating journey.

Améris is clearly at home in this area, shooting scenes of fellatio with a fragile naturalism, filming not as an adult, but as one who exists in a state of prolonged adolescence: his confidence in the setting is set against his determination to collect taboos or phantoms. A surprise party leads to an argument at the family dinner table, and the two girls – one out of love, the other out of friendship – decide to tackle their problems in a tougher manner. The film manipulates the kind of imagery one associates with sitcoms and movies about teenagers. In this respect, the complex figure of Laurent – seductive, deceptive and completely free of scruples – is fascinating. The little face of Delphine – who, like a modern-day version of De Sade’s Justine, discovers, in a single moment, the pleasure of absolute evil – juxtaposes morality with perversion.

Mauvaises Fréquentations is shocking because one sees very clearly that it is a machine which seeks to devastate rather than comprehend whatever appears before it. It captures a period when everything is lived as if for the first and last time, and with a purpose made all the more shocking by being exaggerated, giving the film a tremendous dynamism. But Mauvaises Fréquentations would not work unless the actors entered into the spirit of the thing, and Améris’ casting is very precise: the lead actress, Maud Forget, is excellent, while Robinson Stévenin (son of actor-director Jean-Francois Stévenin) plays the adorable bastard without a hint of compromise. The result, all things considered, is a pretty good film.

Translated from Libération, October 20, 1999, by Brad Stevens, with assistance from Guillaume Ollendorff and Adrian Martin.

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Human, all too human: With Human Resources, Laurent Cantet brilliantly (re)invents working-class cinema.

by Olivier Séguret

Ressources Humaines (Human Resources). Directed by Laurent Cantet. Starring Jalil Lespert, Jean-Claude Vallod, Chantal Barré, Véronique de Pandelaère. Running time: 103 mins.

Young French cinema has for a long time been reproached for showing interest only in its own illusions, its vain petty-bourgeois mirror. Forgotten, ignored, taboo, factories, the working class and social conflicts formed the big black holes of fiction on the big screen. Besides, it was not only cinema: television, literature, even sociology, have each kept their distance from the working class world, this uncomfortable object, so ill-suited to the fantasies of the ’80s and beyond, which celebrated its disappearance.

It needed a few opportune triggers for this state of mind to change. The collective tome published by Pierre Bourdieu, Toute la misère du monde, was such a trigger. The strikes of December 1995 were another. On this crest, without becoming altogether glamorous, the working class began to stage a striking comeback whose epicentre could be represented by Robert Guédiguian’s Marius and Jeannette, even if it is in the form of a civil and utopian fairyland. It consequently fell to others to shape the problem differently.

With Human Resources, it was done. And trenchantly. The story, co-written by the director Laurent Cantet and Gilles Marchand, tells us how Frank, a young executive appointed during a traineeship to the management of human resources, in the firm where his father has been working for thirty years, will be subject to manipulation by the hierarchy.

But the film advances on two fronts: the description of the process which makes the factory totter towards a strike, and the awakening of a new conscience, as much political as emotional, in both father and son. A non-striking father, submissive to management, but whose hide has been tanned by humiliations, and who nevertheless savours in silence the social revenge by proxy which is personified by his son. A son who is ambiguous, as generous as he is ungrateful, who seeks to shake his father from his moorings, this father who is inhibited, ashamed perhaps of his working class plight. Because it takes as its pretext the negotiations on the change to a 35-hour week in order to situate the action and the visible political stakes in its affair, the film very quickly takes on the semblance of an arrow, very straight and remarkably sharpened in the bull’s-eye of the times, right on target as concerns the preoccupations of the era and the present day. And suddenly it is as if French cinema is putting double helpings at the social table, around which it is a pleasure to watch an appetite such as that of Laurent Cantet.

His film is firstly a real pleasure in that respect: the frank and frontal gaze which he brings to the world of the factory, the empathy without pathos in which he holds each of his characters, the clarity and the freshness of his method. The result: abundance to the innocents! The fallow orchard visited by Laurent Cantet is vast, freely accessible and its fruits are mostly ripe. Consequently, the director takes advantage of it, he steals indiscriminately, demonstrating, if he still needed to, that you only have to point the eye and the camera to harvest to overflowing the murmurings of a world which is just asking to be filmed.

In this respect, the choice of non-professional actors in all except the main roles is particularly rewarding: right down to the approximation of the acting, something true and yet extraordinary vibrates in the militant union troublemaker, the paternalistic boss or the inarticulate father; something inexpressible whose power often transports us. On a still higher rung, the magical casting of Jalil Lespert in the role of Frank confirms how in all respects this actor is superb.

There is no doubt, behind Human Resources, an effect of a shrinking horizon. Cantet succeeds so well in treating his subject that he forgets to break out from the limits he has set for his project: the young hero seems to have no personal life, nor in fact does any other character. But this fictional leanness is not new to the scrupulous Cantet, who is here making a legitimate choice of precision, single-minded development and an unshakeable aim. The demonstration gains in effectiveness what it loses perhaps in poetry, but the effect obtained, by the grace of an ending which overwhelms, is not any the less indelible.

Translated from Libération, January, 14 2000, by Inge Pruks.

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Skin of Man, Heart of Beast: Psychoanalytic chronicle of childhood pains

by Didier Péron

Peau d’Homme, Coeur de Bête (Skin of Man, Heart of Beast). Directed by Hélène Angel. Starring Serge Riaboukine, Bernard Blancan, Pascal Cervo, Maaïke Jenssen. Running time: 1hr 37m.

Former student of FEMIS [French film school – eds], noted for her short film La Vie Parisienne (1995), Hélène Angel’s Skin of Man, Heart of Beast is her first feature film which won the Gold Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival, last summer. It is a fierce family story about the crawling return of the repressed, expressed through the double figure of feuding brothers, and the resulting traumatic drama – seen through children’s appalled eyes. At the end, long after the last credits, we guess that these children (two girls) will become broken adults, their heads full of neuroses, an oedipal fishbone stuck in their throats. To reassure us, we tell ourselves that these children will later start to exorcise these experiences in some way, such as through art. Coming full circle, even disguised or diverted, the autobiographical part of Skin of Man, Heart of Beast does not leave a lot of doubt. In the press kit, Hélène Angel admits that Aurélie’s look (the youngest girl) is in part her own.

There is something indisputable in this kind of project, probably because it is based on a private secret, so personal and basic that we are accused of bad faith if we do not find any interest. However, this terrible and apparently fundamental secret ought to have been felt by us, the audience as it is, not through the form of an already digested psychoanalytic assessment which is more or less skilfully stylised. The Unconscious too conscious, violence overplayed, a general feeling of trying it on without the delightful fallouts left by certain films of pure terror (such as the borderline case of The Shining). Hélène Angel’s film, which seeks in each frame to enforce a physical shake-up, “to drop kilos of guts on the table”, however, easily and almost systematically slides into didacticism.

The cries, the tears, the blood, the crap, the spectre of incest, the cannibal clan, the masochistic matriarch and the sadistic hatred of woman, the sallow slide (into prostitution, Mafia), the learning of cruelty, the murderous madness, the horror of being together and, worse, of being alone with his/hers impulses; we cannot finish the list of themes and explicit literary references (tale, tragedy, rite of passage novel…) which cross through and overload the film. Every scene seems to peer at the ever more remote, complex and inarticulate backgrounds of this violent domestic legend.

But, we can also say that Skin of Man, Heart of Beast, midway between a Freudian peepshow and an application of Rene Girard’s theses about literature to the cinema, vainly tries to convince the audience (who knows more) that behind the curtain (the Skin of Man side) bustles a hirsute horde of monsters without name (the Heart of Beast’s promise). We can think, in comparison, of Philippe Gandrieux’s Sombre, another first feature which digs tunnels into the night of the instincts, similarly indecisive, but formally more innovative.

Translated from Libération, December 15, 1999, by Nathalie Brillon.

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Housing project without crack: Jacques Doillon’s Little Fellas avoids banalities.

by Didier Péron

Petits Freres (Little Fellas). Directed by Jacques Doillon. Starring Stéphanie Toul, Illiès Sefraoui, Mustapha Goumane, Nassim Izem, Rachid Mansouri. Running time: 1hr 32mins

To the question regarding the timing of his new film with current events – the overheated housing projects and the aghast discovery by the media, politicians and public opinion of the violence affecting teenagers at a young age – Jacques Doillon curls up in his chair, furrows his overwhelmed brow and pulls a face: “Let’s say that when we started filming, there were some little savages who didn’t know yet, that was what they were!” There lies the whole irony of this film and its author, who has been unfashionable and his own master for long enough to be able to grant himself the luxury of being called an uninspired hack, one day, and then fighting in the middle of social Sargasses seas, the next. That is also why Little Fellas is a joy to watch, because Doillon places us in contact with a situation common to everywhere, which escapes and puzzles the audience without talking down to us, that is, without putting the audience in the position of bad citizens or irresponsible parents. Neither a product of film school, which knocks out the spectator, nor a false “rap-gangster” film following the moves, Little Fellas wants to relate its subject faithfully. That is, it wants to look at the teenagers of housing projects, in this case those that are under 15, without treating them as “problems” but instead as full participants in the “debate”.

The film’s heroine is called Talia. Severed from the family home (alcoholic and abusing father), she lands in Pantin with her best friend Kim, a pitbull. The local thugs, Mous, Rachid, Nassim and Illiès catch up with her, renaming her “Tyson” (for her killer eyes). But from the start, they betray her by capturing Kim (“It runs like lightnin’, that bitch”), and sell it to the “Big Fellas” who organise dogfights in the project. Talia settles down in the already crowded flat of Dembo and decides to turn the estate inside out till she finds her lost dog.

After establishing this storyline, Doillon depicts the “Little Fellas” in their daily life. Left to themselves in the buildings’ courtyard where hard loitering happens from morning till night, Illiès and his gang, with poise, rub shoulders with everyday evil, the one that we cope with and the one that we don’t hesitate, in desperation, to inflict upon others. The film, which wants to be a non-incidental chronicle of the housing project, without the smoking car and the frenzied riot, doesn’t give in to fantasy or otherworldliness but is realist. We can see arms-dealing between adults and children, endemic stealing between people who possess nothing, a certain rage transformed into the stupidity of circus games (the proliferation of pitbulls trained to kill each other), hypocrisy and mental confusion, aggressive paranoia, loss of moral markers…

Of course, Little Fellas is not sentimental or manipulative of viewer’s emotions, rather it risks scaring the audience with its hard realism. Doillon delivers no instruction, no framework with which to “read” his film. It is not a melodrama, a documentary, or a political tract. One has to take these images, the characters’ talk, their interaction and theirs idiosyncrasies, their sense of humour but also their stupidity, with, literally, an unwillingness to understand, but also, if one doesn’t completely renounce it, to have at least a certain sympathy.

Eight years after Le Petit Criminel, Jacques Doillon records, surprising no one, the objective decline of society’s rejects. Offering another chance to these kids through film, shooting them, as he likes to say himself, Doillon takes on the means of cinema to restitute some form of respect – probably the only guarantee against tomorrow’s subjects being completely derailed.

Translated from Libération, April 7 1999, by Nathalie Brillon.

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“I didn’t land like a tourist”Jacques Doillon details the stages of shooting his 26th film Petits Frères (Little Fellas).

Interview with Jacques Doillon, 55 years old, about his 26th film, Little Fellas.

Witness approach

JD: The Departure point? Certainly the desire to listen to the words of children who are quite psychologically and emotionally broken. In the beginning, around January last year, I attended some hearings in children’s courts. I didn’t take any notes, I was only a witness. At the same time, I had the desire to listen to the children who had been already placed by the judges for their protection, so children from DDASS [Departement de l’Assistance Sociale – Department of Social Services] and PJJ [Protection Judiciare de la Jeunesse – Youth Legal Protection) homes. With my two assistants, we had a great number of interviews with these kids who expressed a terrible suffering. Certain lawyers also gave us some names of “big fellas”. We went and looked on the edges of the projects, to meet some boys, like Dembo, who acts in the film. For them, the mess is already immensely advanced, they are involved in the black market due to the need to survive, because they cannot find any work. They truly are part of a sacrificed generation. The little ones, they didn’t seem screwed yet.

Actors from the projects

JD: There was a small starting synopsis, a little bit of technical stuff. We met everyday with the children whom I thought were the most interesting. They came here, in a small office. With a video camera, we did a normal casting session with simple improvisation techniques, to look for the children who were less inhibited in front of the camera. To detect the ones who had the most strength and charm, also the ones who were ready to truly be involved. I couldn’t place myself in the situation to be caught with kids who would only have come when they felt like it. At the same time, this work allowed us to pursue the work involved with the language, to listen to their manner of speech. This lasted for two to three months. When the choice was made, I began to write the dialogue over five weeks, three scenes a day.

Quiet shooting

JD: For them, the housing project’s domain, it’s really their territory, a zone that we happily concede to them, because no cops will venture there. I didn’t land like a tourist. We didn’t interview indiscriminately, we didn’t knock down doors nor did we pester people. We did know that there were places where we couldn’t film. But also, there was the presence and the friendship of some “big fellas”, like Dembo, respected in the project, who were, for us, a guarantee of trust. Even with the stress from the project which climbed steadily each day, and the “big fellas” who live on the edge, it went very quietly. It can become muddled very fast.

The dialogues were entirely scripted. Due to the actors’ ingenuity and a great number of takes [an average of twenty, sometimes more], the improvisation’s part during the filming became nil or very low. It is true, we have our own preconceived ideas, perhaps not entirely false, that these kids do nothing in school, they are always late, that we don’t understand a word they say, etc. If, in the start, there were some muddled-headed days, very rapidly, the children came to be on time, they knew their lines and they did twenty takes complaining less than most professional actors. If we present ourselves as adults in front of them, if they notice our attention, our interest and the love that we bear for them, and if the project interests them, then, evidently, these children are as amazing as anyone else. However, you have to battle against them, against their laziness and their lack of confidence.

A desire for normality

JD: When you think about the housing project, you think of pump-action guns and the erupting volcanos, and it is hard to get out of that frame. But the most alive in the project are the little ones, they ask themselves questions about their future. The scene in the film when Mous and Rachid kid a little about themselves, when they picture their future life as gangsters, in moments of extreme fun or despair, they can tell themselves this and at the same time they have deep down a political correctness which consists to say: “No dealing, never, no way.” Deeply, I believe that they often have dreams of what twenty years ago we called “middle-class”: a job, a house, a wife, children, a car, nothing more. But this “nothing more” seems for most of them an extraordinary utopia. Even the job part, it’s blocked to them. I didn’t see a lot of these dysfunctional children who were not able to differentiate between good and evil. On the contrary, they perfectly know it. I hear one of these kids say to me: “The ones who are in trouble, make easy money. It is not good but…” The exclusion is so strong that is very hard to make a judgement. Me, I feel sympathy for them but I cannot make a judgement. I really saw a lot of flats in this housing project, I didn’t see a single child with his/her own room, didn’t see a single desk to work on. I don’t say that they don’t exist, I didn’t see them!

June 1st, 1968, I took my old shitty Volkswagen on the freeway to the Coast, where the retailers were complaining about the lack of tourists because of those rotten students. I always have been scared. May ’68, with the CRS’ nasty looks, their grenade launchers… I was coming back immediately to hide under my bed. I am an incredible coward. I was very sensitive, as a high school student, because of the fact of being from a colonialist country. I have participated willingly in the protests against the war in Algeria. In 1968, I was 24, this interested me, but I could see that the Right would come back stronger with its great boots.

I never sign anything. Nobody asks either. Because I failed high school, I have always been on the fringe. There are not a lot of filmmakers who came from the same modest background as mine, and I never felt at ease with the middle-class, nor with their children, not really… I’ve got the impression to be in total darkness, and my only strength is, freely and without any prejudices, to see what goes on. I’m concerned to not distort reality as much as possible. I have the impression of being very precise in this work, to rarely be just sketching the issue. Outside cinema, I’m nothing, so I refrain… I see myself as freelance doing my stuff by myself. If I have the choice, if I was the producer of my films, for example, I would shut up. I would be quiet and lie low!

Interview by Didier Péron and Laurent Rigoulet

Translated from Libération, April 7 1999, by Nathalie Brillon.

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Masochist divertimento: The prolific Ozon succeeds in the adaptation of a play by R.W.Fassbinder.

by Olivier Séguret

Gouttes d’eau sur pierres brûlantes (Water Drops On Burning Rocks). Directed by François Ozon. Starring Bernard Giraudeau, Malik Zidi, Ludivine Sagnier and Anna Thomson. Running time: 90 mins.

François Ozon, a young man in a hurry, does he walk faster than music? Together with Benoît Jacquot and Jean-Pierre Mocky, he is in any case competing for the title of the fastest director in France: three features since 1998 and a fourth in production. This frenzy is his greatest quality. There is in fact in Ozon an appetite for filming which is a pleasure to see, even if it is traded for a certain frivolity. With Water Drops On Burning Rocks, the filmmaker has found an object stream-lined for speed, a play written by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in his youth, never before produced on stage and even less filmed.

Fassbinder, the fabulous colossus of post-war German cinema, was hardly a laggard either: his brimming filmography is a model of artistic frenzy. Besides, it is on this point that Ozon is most clearly Fassbinderesque: he shares the same intrepid bulimia, the same bold impatience, the same passion to make fire and film out of any wood.

In adapting the original play, Ozon seems to have kept to some basic principles from which he will not deviate. Mainly, historical reconstruction, which permits the director to preserve intact the marks of the era and those of Germanness without having to specify places or dates. The first names of the characters, the newspapers, the money, all this is German, and especially the one apartment in which the whole film takes place, decorated in the purest “Munich good taste” style. So you could almost be in the world of Inspector Derrick, but we are at Leopold’s place, alias Bernard Giraudeau (quite striking in the role), sporting a ’70s look, like Fassbinder’s heroes from the Martha period, the most sadistic and painful of sado-masochistic films ever made.

Also written by Fassbinder, Martha is a twin story to Water Drops On Burning Rocks, its mature version, its final outcome. In both cases, a process of masochistic attachment is described and pushed to its nth degree. Leopold, a dapper quinquagenarian is the predator, and the young Frantz, an angelic adolescent, the irresistible and consenting prey. He is 20, and considers art more important than love. The innocent will pay dearly for it (from the outset candidate Malik Zidi, places the bar very high with this role – his freshness and his explosiveness leave you stunned).

Although it is presented as sincere, the passion which unites Frantz to Leopold very quickly veers towards a dependent, odious and lamentable domesticity. Also, the arrival of Hanna and Vera, their respective ex-mistresses, is an immediate if relative relief – the bonds intermingle, and their untangling hurts. Nevertheless, the introduction of these women (the delicious Ludivine Sagnier and Anna Thomson) into a game between men permits Ozon to leave the intimate anatomical register of a love relationship for that of a more relaxed divertimento with tendencies towards swapping. All the same, as soon as the culmination of utopia and amusement has been reached (an impromptu ballet), everything immediately falls back into the fatal abysses. In the playing out of this sentimental yo-yo, one can note all the malice of Fassbinder who repaints the oldest threads of German romanticism in colours queer. In many ways, Water Drops On Burning Rocks can be read as an unpublished and trashy Fontane *  novelette. Perhaps it is also this disconcerting telescoping which perturbs Ozon when, at the very end of his film, he himself no longer seems to know, faced with farce and tragedy, melodrama or burlesque, which foot exactly he should dance on.

But what is missing most in this often charming film, is what was promised by its hot and cold, solid and liquid, title – the incarnation, the palpable reality of the elements, the concreteness of facts. Certainly, there is at work in Ozon a superficiality which has always affirmed and proclaimed itself as such. This time it comes up against the limits of exercising the style which he had fixed for himself. The style is very well-maintained, it will probably be very well-received. However, we continue to wait for the follow-up. But since we are talking here of Ozon, it will not take too long.

* Theodore Fontane (1819-98), whose masterpiece Effi Briest (1895) was filmed by Fassbinder in 1974. (Translator’s note.)

Translated from Libération, March 15 2000, by Inge Pruks.

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Large shoes of Dupeyron: Too many stereotypes of the rural world undermine What is Life?

C’est quoi la Vie? (What is Life?). Directed by François Dupeyron. Starring Eric Caravaca, Isabelle Renauld, Jacques Dufilho, Jean-Pierre Darroussin. Running time: 1hr 55 mins.

by Didier Péron

“I who am mage or angel, freed from all morality, returned to the soil with a duty to seek and rough reality to clutch at! Peasant!” One thinks of these words from Rimbaud’s farewell in A Season in Hell when the main character of François Dupeyron’s film, young Nicholas, decides to settle on an isolated farm in the Covennes. Having grown up in an agricultural economy ruined by a general crisis, he had planned to change settings. But after some procrastination and after an amorous encounter, he decides to stay and bury himself in this thankless soil about which he really knows very little. The solution of returning to the fold which wins out over the desire to flee, resulting in the omnipresent impression of failure that hangs over the film.

Since The Machine in 1994, a flop based on the novel by René Beletto, Dupeyron has not made a film. What is Life? a comeback whose title is a question too vast to be really legible, further deepens the enigma of a varied filmography where it would be vain to look for a signature or a theme. All the better, in one sense, because this obliges us to receive the film as an unprecedented proposition, stylistically distinctive and delivered after long reflection.

With his Japanese cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata, the filmmaker has created images where yellow predominates, far from the naturalism we might expect, particularly from French cinema when it sets out to depict the countryside and work in the fields. Certain shots approach Byzantine illumination or the abstraction of the fantastic. The characters seem to move about in spaces that become less and less human, Robinson Crusoes on a forbidden planet. This is the best thing about the film, when all familiar signs are lost and perception becomes so savage that one wonders why Dupeyron didn’t go ahead and push the pedal of experimentation to the metal like Michael Snow in La Région Centrale.

On the other hand, one is obliged to be more circumspect about the film’s baggage of homegrown cliches about the earth that never lies. We know what kind of beet grows in that kind of ideological humus. Let’s just say that the film does not always display finesse in its handling of pious figures of upright peasants. The presence of Jacques Dufilho, hard as a cudgel-blow, doesn’t help. Neither does the dialogue in which Dupeyron attempts to transmit his film’s philosophy directly – a sort of critique of the will and a call for resignation. At these moments the heaviness of the project appears flagrantly and the spectator becomes irritated that he has allowed himself to be moved so easily by a neoclassical daub, however powerful in its elegiac qualities. Summing up. One is not sure of really liking the film, even though, it persists strangely in the memory. A persistence to which the presence of Eric Caravaca, perfect in the role of Nicholas, greatly contributes.

Translated from Libération, September 8 1999, by Bill Krohn.

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