Another weekend, another hectic spate of film-watching. As I mentioned last week, was in NY this weekend attending screenings of three contemporary French films as part of the Lincoln Centre's Rendezvous with French Cinema (also stuffing my face with delicious home-cooked food and scrumptious desserts, but that's another post). Now as everyone knows, I only watch films in order to be able to review them on this blog, so here goes:
[Warning: Some Spoilers]
In Xavier Giannoli's The Singer (Quand j'etais chanteur) Gerard Depardieu plays Alain Moreau, a modestly talented singer who works in provincial dance halls and struggles to cope with his growing irrelevance in the world of MTV and Karaoke. He has his fans, but they tend to be among the elderly - folks in their forties and fifties seeking to relive the simpler, more innocent times when they were young, middle-aged divorcees in search of that last flutter of romance. Mostly though, Moreau remains in the background, singing at night clubs and restaurants where his pleasant yet unremarkable singing provides the elegant backdrop for the ongoing social interaction. Moreau likes to think of himself as an artist, but the truth is he's little more than a small-time entertainer, he and his band just one among dozens of acts that compete on the fringes of the world of live music.
Moreau's specialty, we are told, is the 'croonie' - the kind of slow love ballad that combines romance with nostalgia, notable more for its atmosphere than for its artistic merit. And that's exactly what The Singer is like - an easy yet unremarkable film, sentimental and soft-bellied, that tells a familiar story with passable skill. The main plot revolves around Moreau's fascination with the considerably younger Marion (Cecile de France) and the unlikely dalliance between these two. What we have here is a coming together of vulnerabilities - Moreau's sense of his own ridiculousness in courting Marion makes his passion for her more desperate, Marion's emotional fragility (she is just coming out of a failed marriage) makes her just susceptible enough to Moreau's mix of insecurity and charm to respond to his overtures with a combination of friendliness and exasperation. What develops between them is tentative and sweet, but not particularly exciting or credible. Like Moreau we live through the movie with the constant dread that it will all end badly, and when the ending turns out to be neither the tragic one we are expecting, nor the happy one that would make this movie a farce, we can't help feeling a little revealed.
On the whole though, this is a quiet, gentle movie, and like its main protagonist, the smallness of its achievement is matched by the discreetness of its ambition. Depardieu is as unexceptionable as ever, though much of his performance here felt like a reprise of his role in Changing Times, making me wonder whether he isn't overdoing the aging, insecure lover bit. The rest of the cast is adequate, and Giannoli does a marvellous job of bringing the marginal world that his story is set in vividly to life. The last thirty seconds are a false note, and I couldn't help wincing a little over the French version of 'Save the Last Dance for Me', (some of the other song lyrics are hilarious, though), but overall The Singer is an enjoyable film - though perhaps more for its ambience than for its art.
The phrase that best describes Bruno Dumont's Flanders is 'artificial intensity'. Flanders is one of those films so committed to being stark and gritty and doing everything in its power to contradict the glorified version of reality that cinema gives us that it overcompensates by presenting a world view that is every bit as stylised as the one it seeks to replace. Every scene in this movie is a deliberate attempt at artifice, desperately self-conscious and trying to make a point - and the result is a movie that suffocates as much as it shocks.
Flanders opens in the French countryside, where two young men are spending their last few days with their girlfriends before heading out to war. Why exactly these men are joining the army is never clear - it seems to be voluntary, but aside from a throwaway line about wanting to make money, no real explanation is offered. Comparisons with Godard's Les Caribiniers are inescapable, though Godard's easy, inventive dialogue is replaced here by an oppressive lack of articulation combined with a few mechanical couplings. In a strangely reductive move, Dumont then throws in that oldest chestnut of all, a love triangle, with one of the men's girlfriend taking up with another man, who is also, as it happens off to join the war, and, in a coincidence that's straight out of 60's Bollywood, will end up in the same platoon as the others.
From here the action moves to an unspecified desert landscape, where a war is being fought. Here the movie switches gears, and begins to feel a lot more like Full Metal Jacket, with hints of Platoon thrown in for good measure. All is gore and violence. Dumont pulls a few punches, but only where absolutely essential. In the course of half an hour we get to see a horse getting shot, a man being blown up by an explosion and his charred remains afterwards, two children being shot at close range (one of them in the stomach, so that he takes a while to die), a woman being raped, a man being castrated and at least four people being shot in the head. Dumont seems supremely unconcerned with narrative here - why a group of five soldiers (including - no surprise here - our three friends) has been left to wander seemingly at random through a land infested with guerillas is unclear and much of the action seems fragmented and illogical, yet the power of the images Dumont puts on screen is undeniable, as is the quality of the cinematography both here and in the Europe sections.
Meanwhile, back home, our protagonist's girlfriend (the apex of the love triangle) hallucinates about being pregnant and eventually has a nervous breakdown. By the time one of the young men returns though, bringing back the news of the others' death, as well as the guilty secret of his role in it, she seems to be recovering, and after a brief reflex of hysteria, the characters settle back into the everyday silence of their lives which is not so much calm as it is an absence.
Speaking briefly at the start of the screening, Dumont talked about watching the new Bond film on his flight into New York and made the point that the difference between his films and the Bond films is that in his films it's not always clear who is good and who is bad. While it's certainly true that Dumont's film actively avoids the characterisations of good and evil, it's also true that that idea isn't exactly new, even in Hollywood, and that Flanders makes that point so self-consciously that the very artificiality of it robs it of much of its emotional impact. With their air of isolation and their inability to articulate not only their ideas but also their feelings, Dumont's characters seem alien and unreal, and this undermines the point I suspect he is trying to make. Flanders is mesmerising to watch, combining a vividness of vision with considerable technical skill, but it is also emotionally sterile.
Easily the best film I watched last week (perhaps even the best film I've seen so far this year) was Denis Dercourt's The Page Turner. I tend to scoff at reviews that compare directors to Hitchcock, but it's a comparision this film entirely deserves.
The Page Turner is the story of Melanie, a young girl who, as a ten-year old, has her potential career as a pianist cut short after she fluffs an audition after she realises that the chief judge, a celebrated pianist herself, is not paying attention. Ten years later, and still seeking revenge, Melanie skilfully works her way into this pianist's trust and prepares to ruin her life. What unfolds is a tale of psychological manipulation that would have done Iago proud. Every scene in this movie is taut with suspense - the presence of Melanie (played admirably by Deborah Francois) haunts the screen like a specter, seemingly innocent but secretly ruthless, and with an intensity that could come straight out of Omen. Image after image brings premonitions of catastrophe, but the nail-biting question of what Melanie is going to do is never resolved until the very end, so that you spend the entire movie on the edge of your seat, waiting breathlessly to see what happens next. And if all that wasn't enough, there's also the music - a score consisting of Bach and Shostakovich and an air of being drowned in music in a way that connects the obsessiveness of Melanie's quest to something unforgiving in the notes itself.
So compelling are the performances in this astonishing film, so carefully crafted is the film as a whole, that you'll find yourself gasping with shock at each unexpected twist. The Page Turner is a must watch. Great suspense doesn't get more gripping than this.