Va savoir

What follows is a discussion of five films appearing in the French Film Festival program, currently touring Australia. The five films include: Laurent Cantet’s L’emploi du temps, Etienne Chatiliez’s Tanguy, Jacques Rivette’s Va savoir, Christophe Gans’ La pacte des loups, and Claude Miller’s Betty Fisher et autres histories.

L’emploi du temps (Time Out, Laurent Cantet, 2001)

L'emploi du temps

Laurent Cantet’s third feature (after Les sanguinaires [1997] and Ressources humaines [Human Resources, 1999]) is a devastating journey into the world of unemployed men in a downsizing world. Apart from the obvious financial pressures, there are issues of what loss of employment does to one’s sense of maleness. Society places so many expectations on men, often contradictory, and almost all of them depend on one’s having the ability, and desire, to earn a living that at worst supports only oneself, but at best supports a family. Western culture has for too long been pre-occupied with other issues to take the complexities facing men seriously; the study of maleness is still so unborn there is no common equivalent term for feminism.

In L’emploi du temps, the dilemmas facing Vincent (Aurélian Recoing) are complex. He has lost his job but tells no one, preferring to live a lie (that he has another job somewhere else), which he finances through dubious means. He lives in a world of expectation he cannot meet: that he provide the main family income; that he work hard, be ever-more successful, and still find time to be a caring father; that he never let slip the construct of maleness needed to find useful employment.

That Vincent is in this predicament is ever so subtly established at the film’s start: there is no big loss-of-job sequence, no theatrical dramatics, merely the shot of a man sleeping in a car in a lay-over and then calling his wife to say he is off to an appointment on the other side of Marseille. But the misty countryside looks suspiciously unlike that of Provence. That is all Cantet allows to establish the drama; that is all he needs.

Vincent drives endlessly across France for no apparent reason other than he cannot face leaving the world of his car. He feels safe there, cocooned. This is a brilliant visualization of the interior worlds we all escape to in moments of stress, when it is easier to retreat than to confront.

Some critics (even those applauding the film) have called Vincent a wimp, but by labelling him as such they reveal that they are very much part of the problem the film is addressing. Vincent is not a wimp, he is just a sensitive person who wishes not to be ‘male’ in the way others expect him to be. One would of thought it self-evident that men ought to be allowed to live their lives as they wish, in ways that don’t necessarily conform to what society deems the approved image of strength and responsibility.

Inherent in that issue is the father-son relationship, where the parental male often tries to inculcate his set of male values in the young. Vincent’s father is a retired man after a career of financial success and endless networking. He clearly loves his son, but is unable to communicate easily with him. Tragically, and all too typically, his tender feelings are expressed only in terms of wanting his son to succeed. That in turn is misconstrued by Vincent as having to live up to expectations he knows he cannot meet. This tension of father-son misconception reaches agonising pitch in the scene where Vincent’s son, Julien (Nicolas Kalsch), watches as Vincent, unable to cope with the arrival downstairs of his father who has come only to help, decides to leap out the upstairs window and disappear into the night.

Vincent’s journey down the back roads of respectability involve an encounter with Jean Michel (Serge Livrozet), who on several occasions silently watches Vincent from across a hotel lobby as he pitches to friends a tantalizing investment scheme, in reality a con to fund his lie of continuing employment. Jean Michel is an angel of ambiguous profession and shrouded past. Whereas American films tend to view saviours in obvious ways (due to simplistic notions of good and evil), Europeans understand far more ambiguous universes, and invoke them on film with incredible nuance and power. The scenes between Vincent and Jean Michel simply break one’s heart.

L’emploi du temps is one of the most heart-wrenching films of recent times, effortlessly made with the most tender feeling for the plight of all the characters. It is a masterpiece.

Tanguy (Etienne Chatiliez, 2001)

Tanguy

An issue large in the lives of many Baby-Boomer parents is the fact that their children, many well into their twenties, are still living at home. As teenagers, Baby Boomers couldn’t wait to flee the family nest. Many today are puzzled that their children don’t feel the same. While understanding a desire to remain nested in a world of less job opportunities and far fewer certainties, the lack of impetuous to test individual wings is perplexing, sometimes upsetting and often irritating. Etienne Chatiliez, who has had a very successful career at the box-office making middle-class, middle-of-the-road comedies about topical issues, has struck gold again here. There is a huge audience worldwide that will respond, laugh and feel touched by this film.

Tanguy (Eric Berger) is 28 and just won’t move out of the family apartment. That is not hard to imagine: it is a flat to die for, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Paris (the Marais?), an oasis of calm and reassurance in a modern, commercially-driven city (albeit one with endless charming restaurants and gorgeous girls in their early twenties whom Tanguy effortlessly, and unconcernedly, beds). His parents (played broadly by André Dussolier and Sabine Azéma, as if on temporary leave from La Comedie Française) are typical French bourgeois, with all their inherent prejudices and strictures, but also with all their public good graces and charm.

When these parents turn on Tanguy, they turn rather nasty, having exhausted all manner of subtle ways to dislodge their son (some involving physical pain). They pride themselves as having always been open and forthright as parents, but they never sit down and discuss the burning issue of their lives honestly with their son. Truth, after all, should only be expended on minor matters. To the increasing barrage of underhand tactics, then outright abuse, Tanguy behaves as a New Ageist, quoting Chinese proverbs and responding with total calm and absence of malice. Nothing can shake his belief in his parents’ inherent goodness. And surely tested he is.

As one who has never fallen under the spell of Chatiliez’s previous work (La vie est un long fleuve tranquille [Life is a long, quiet river, 1988], Tatie Danielle [1990], et al), let alone been a fan of the perverse pleasure of watching people do nasty things to others (let’s tread on some flowers, why not?), this film is a bit of a shock. Yes, it turns quite nasty, momentarily, at the 80-minute mark, but then it opens out spectacularly from bourgeois claustrophobia to a new personal and cultural perspective. With what may seem to some 5 tacked-on minutes of travelogue in China, Tanguy quietly and subtly invites the audience to re-interrogate its reactions to all that has come before, to perceive the whole concept of family anew. It is like a breath of the freshest air.

Va savoir (Who Knows?, Jacques Rivette, 2001)

Va savoir

At age 73, Jacques Rivette has made one of his most charming films in some time. As with Out 1: Spectre (1972), and La bande des quatre (Gang of Four, 1988), to name but two, Va savoir inhabits the world of theatre, Rivette portraying the lives of people on, or at the edge of, the stage. He also includes, in a non-chronological way, excerpts from the Pirandello play being put on in Italian in a very romantic Paris. (Much of the film is set in the Marais, including the chic Villa Beaumarchais hotel, the preferred abode of many filmies, including one former Melbourne Film Festival director.)

Interlinking film and theatre has often led to dreary results, but here Rivette is playful without being too obviously post-modern. He is much more interested in affairs of the heart, and their lightning fast transitions and possibilities … mostly enacted by the characters with that superb restraint of the bourgeoisie. If one’s girlfriend crosses a street to kiss passionately a never-forgotten ex, one reacts, of course, with charm and politeness, without allowing any emotional disturbance to ripple across the face. Revenge, if required, needs to be calmly thought out and enacted like a chess game.

All Rivettes are hypnotic for the first half hour, but too often the pace then falters and the structure begins to reveal too obviously its mathematical permutations, the dramatic impulse evaporating like a mist. Va savoir, fortunately, goes for more than an hour without a misstep, elegantly introducing one character after another (there are six principal), the reasons for how and in what way they will relate to each other tantalizingly out of easy reach.

One sits delighting in the innumerable literary references (the reworking of the last line of Raymond Radiguet’s Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel perhaps the sweetest), in awe of an ensemble cast of such uniform brilliance, at the delicacy and sureness of Rivette’s touch or indeed the surprising power of release felt at the resolution of all the narrative strands. It should be corny, too-neat-by-half, but it is uplifting instead.

La pacte des loups (The Brotherhood of the Wolf, Christophe Gans, 2001)

La pacte des loups

Many directors have done their take on the legendary story of the beast of Gévaudan. In 1975, Walerian Borowczyk made La bête, a feminist masterwork where the attacked woman, Romilda de l’Espèrance (Sirpa Lane), refuses to allow herself to become a victim and fights back, pleasuring the beast to death. (For those interested, the recently-released DVD in the UK is superb.)

Christophe Gans, a young French director who came to note with his low-budget success Necronomicon (1994) and Crying Freeman (1995), has fashioned instead from the tale a Saturday-afternoon piece of light escapism. While the plot of religious fanatics using a fake beast to scare people into undermining the king has the hints of social comment (especially in an era of boat-people scare-mongering), Gans is really only interested in playing with cameras and computers, and staging extended (and very dull) acrobatic fights usually found in Hong Kong cinema.

Gans is clearly part of the “little boy” strain of French filmmaking, where scenes resemble little more than kids playing with toy trains and model cars. Even directors of great talent, such as Jean-Jacques Beneix and Luc Besson, often include moments of surprising triviality and silliness. Added to this is a reliance on the wizardry of computer-generated effects (CGI), which show things previously thought impossible. The only trouble is, such sequences tend to also look improbable. Whereas a good director like Hitchcock could create with basic tools incredible tension, making audiences feel genuinely frightened or shocked, many of today’s young turks seem unable to create even a basic level of tension or drama.

It impossible, for example, to imagine anyone who sees Le pacte des loups not easily picking every plot twist. Sometimes the fault is heavy-handed signposting, as in the women-of-Florence story told by Sylvia (Monica Belucci) which so obviously prefigures the drugged food given to Grégoire de Fronsac (Samuel le Bihan) in gaol. Sometimes it is because a love of CGI gets in the way of dramatic interest: a maiden might be chased by the beast, but the irritating use of ramping (the post-production speeding up or slowing down of action within a shot) kills all possible excitement. Ramping is usually the last resort of the talentless, which Gans is clearly not. He is a filmmaker of considerable gifts, and can be extremely elegant and effective, as when Grégoire, Marianne (Emilie Duquenne) and Mani (Mark Dacascos) rise to their feet in the Templar ruins on hearing the white wolf approach. But too much of the time his work is undisciplined and dumbed-down.

The over-reliance of computers (in editing and effects) has had a disastrous effect on effective storytelling, particularly in America. This is less noticeable in French films because they usually are made on low budgets, and can’t afford CGI. But in Le pacte des loups, the most expensive French film ever made, and a necessary and brave challenge to America’s dominance of the big-budget arena, CGI rules. And it just doesn’t work. The beast is as unconvincing as the big pig in Razorback (Russel Mulcahy, 1984), which is perhaps why she is on screen so little.

Betty Fisher et autres histoires (Betty Fisher and other Stories, Claude Miller, 2001)

Betty Fisher et autres histoires

When the son of Betty Fisher (Sandrine Kiberlain) dies in hospital from an unexplained fall, and Betty lies prostrate on the corridor floor, director Claude Miller cuts to an observing child of similar age and looks to the lost boy. Instantly, one knows what the story will be: the kidnap of one child to replace another.

This is the power of cinema: to quickly conjure in a filmgoer’s mind all manner of narrative possibilities. It is also the great challenge of cinema: to imagine plots, and ways of telling them, which are smarter than an audience’s ability to predict and decipher. In this case, Miller is well behind his customers, taking a laborious 15 minutes to get round to what the public has already deduced. (Why else the cut to the boy? What else, seriously, could it mean?)

Behind from the start, Miller never catches up. He achieves, in fact, the bizarre double of a highly convoluted screenplay which is also highly predictable (save for one narrative trick at the end, but that’s not that hard to pick, either). All this ensures there are few pleasures en route. Even the usually sublime Sandrine Kiberlain (who rose to great prominence in the superb Les patriots (1994), directed by Eric Rochant) is oddly flat and unconvincing here; Nicole Garcia is irritatingly over-the-top as her mother; and Mathilde Seigner is, well, Mathilde Seigner. (This is a disputed opinion; all three shared Best Actress at Venice in 2001.)

In this, his 15th feature, Miller does bravely attempt to bring the techniques of some contemporary documentary filmmaking to fiction. Cuts are based on energy and without regard to continuity. A shot of Betty walking into a room cuts to her statically looking out a window, then cuts again abruptly to her looking the other way. Sequences with two people talking to each other are a blur of incorrect eyelines. It is as if Miller has done several takes, insisting the actors say their lines in different parts of the room each time. He then cuts between takes so that people leap about like jumping beans. No wonder they are often looking in the wrong place; the other character is no longer there!

What Miller is doing may superficially look like a continuation of Godard’s jump-cuts in À bout de souffle, but there is little real connection. Miller is merely following developments in documentary filmmaking (the recent Being Mick on Jagger’s recording a solo album is a superb example of discontinuous cutting). One can understand Miller’s desire to cut out every extraneous frame from this film, because the material is thin, to say the least. (Not having read Ruth Rendell’s novel, it is impossible to say if the flaws reach back that far.)

All in all, Betty Fisher, along with Le sourire (1994), is probably the weakest film Miller has made. In some of his films there are passages which suggest he could be a notable successor to Claude Chabrol, and one hopes the recent travails of his work are but dips in a career that, like Chabrol’s, can also achieve great heights.

About The Author

Scott Murray is a filmmaker and co-Editor of Senses of Cinema.