06 August 2007

Un Petit Cahier du Cinéma

Cet habit me donne de l'esprit:
Luchini and Duris in the costume comedy Molière

Movie-going is one of the distinct pleasures of life in France. The French take their movies seriously, and their movie theaters are clean, comfortable and numerous, their audiences avid and respectful, their programming varied. They still have repertory cinema in this country, meaning that I can go back and fill in gaps in my education, review old favorites and discover new pleasures in the work of great directors and actors. It’s a thrill to see an old comedy by Lubitsch or Sturges or Keaton not in the isolation of my living-room but in the company of strangers in a darkened space far from my home: the jokes are better, I think, when they’re shared — as they were meant to be. And the movie theaters are air-conditioned, too, according to the French theory that air-conditioning isn’t supposed to make the air cold, as in the U.S., but merely not hot anymore. Likewise, in winter, heating is relative: not as cold as it is outside. Some days, that’s excuse enough for me to see three or four pictures in a row.

I sometimes chide myself for not taking notes on all the movies I see. I ought to be compiling my own cinema notebooks (Cahiers du cinéma), to reflect upon later. The French make a prodigious amount of movies, and since most of these are low-budget, talky, intimate psychological dramas with the same actors, the pictures do run together after a while. Because some of the more interesting recent French pictures are now getting a U.S. release, I offer a few notes — not least because, to read the reviews in the U.S. press, it’s not clear I see the same picture here that you get to see over there.

At the very least, something seems to get lost in translation, and that’s the case with Molière, a light comedy that got clobbered by most American critics. The great French playwright’s biography is marked by a “dark period,” during which we know very little about his activities: as the leader of a traveling theater troupe, he crisscrossed the provinces, honing his craft and developing a reputation that would ultimately bring him to Paris and immortal fame. But there are few records, and French schoolchildren often are required to speculate on what really happened to him during this time.

That seems to be what the American critics didn’t grasp, because — very much in the vein of Shakespeare in Love — screenwriters Laurent Tirard and Grégoire Vigneron depict the young Molière encountering characters and situations that would inspire a handful of his greatest plays (The Bourgeois Gentleman, The Misanthrope, The Miser, and especially Tartuffe). American critics spluttered that the screenplay thereby minimizes Molière’s genius, in its suggestion that a writer can draw inspiration only from experience. But they’re taking much too seriously a script that’s meant to be a kind of party game — or an extension of the classroom assignments typical in France. (Not only “What happened to Molière during the dark period?” but “You are Emma Bovary. Write a love-letter to Jean Valjean.”)

It’s to be argued further that any satirist must get his material from real life: he must observe his targets in order to depict their foibles. In some cases, we know precisely which writers, doctors and courtiers Molière was trying to skewer: even Tartuffe has real-life models.

Outstanding in his field: Duris as Molière

Set aside all this lit-crit, and Tirard’s movie is quite entertaining, especially if you know the plays in question: oh, look, it’s the table scene from Tartuffe! There’s a line from The Miser! There’s Célimène from The Misanthrope! The actors are very much in on the joke, particularly Fabrice Luchini as the model for the Bourgeois Gentleman. Luchini is one of France’s finest actors — ever — and in addition to crafty, scene-stealing performances in dozens of films, he’s also played quite a bit of classical theater. He can improvise soliloquies of heroic verse on the spot, and he has memorized whole chunks of canonical texts: nobody, not even Charles de Gaulle, has ever taken more pleasure in the French language. He’s relishing every minute of Molière, and when the picture succeeds, it’s usually because of something he’s said or done. (Happily, his funniest bit isn’t a speech, it’s a silent reaction shot.)

His costar is Romain Duris, a scruffy, menacing presence in most of his pictures — and few American critics were persuaded by his foray into period comedy. I daresay the real Molière would have had more fun if he’d been called upon to disguise himself, enter the household of a wealthy man, and engage in intricate romantic machinations. But Tirard is striving for less bravado and more discomfort, and that’s what Duris gives him — and it’s often very funny. American critics seem to think Molière is his first comedy, but apparently they’ve forgotten his adorable bumbling in Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls: it’s not as if the guy doesn’t know how to do pratfalls.

Duris is one of several French actors who try to stretch themselves by taking on a variety of projects. The movie business in this country is fiercely cliquish, and leading parts are assigned always to the same few dozen artists, with the result that a popular star can, and usually does, make four or five pictures a year. It’s almost like Hollywood under the studio system: you could be certain to see Sydney Greenstreet in a Warner Brothers picture, and you can be sure to see Emmanuelle Béart or Catherine Deneuve in a French picture. (Béart consistently plays “angry girl,” and at this rate of exposure, she’s tedious; Deneuve stretches herself as an artist, but she also stretches her flesh, undergoing so much plastic surgery that it’s become unnerving to watch her.)

But some French actors stand outside the system, sometimes by choice, sometimes because they got pushed out. It’s not clear which was the case with Julie Delpy, and it’s probable that she’s too smart to have permitted herself to turn into another Emmanuelle Béart or Natacha Régnier — but she never had the opportunity. Instead, Delpy has developed her talents as a writer and musician, and with 2 Days in Paris she makes her debut as director. She also wrote the screenplay, edited the film, and provided most of the music.

Yes, you're eating Thumper: Delpy and Goldberg in 2 Days

The result is a whimsical, immensely appealing, very personal story of a Franco-American couple confronting clashing cultures and their own communications breakdown. The movie is laced with clever observations about the differences between French and Americans, and the differences between men and women, and it’s great witty, sometimes farcical fun — right up until the finale, when the two lovers (Delpy and Adam Goldberg, her real-life ex-boyfriend) decide whether to stick together or break up. It’s the rare French screenplay that doesn’t peter out in the third act. Delpy keeps her camera close and active, and she elicits terrific performances from a cast that also includes her real-life parents and several close friends. I’m eager to see more movies from her.

The singer Edith Piaf is something like a saint in France, one grade shy of Joan of Arc status, and with so many musical biographies coming out of the U.S. these days, it was a matter of time before the French made another Piaf movie: La Môme (The Kid), or as it’s known in the States, La Vie en Rose, after Piaf’s most famous song. Director/screenwriter Olivier Dahan tried to avoid a few biopic conventions, mostly by shattering chronological structure: this will be confusing to Americans and indeed to anybody who doesn’t know Piaf’s story by heart. Though the camerawork is spectacular, the editing seldom clarifies the plot.

Cotillard as Saint Edith, Our Lady of Paris

La Môme gives us an inkling, if only a tiny one, of why Piaf’s songs remain so compelling, but you also get a lot of melodrama and substance abuse, just like Ray, just like Walk the Line, just like What’s Love Got to Do with It?, just like….

Marion Cotillard’s portrayal of Piaf is rangy, furious and vivid (though she wears so much prosthetic makeup that I’ve taken to calling the movie La Momie — the mummy). She’s backed up by fleet, intelligent performances from the wonderful Sylvie Testud and Catherine Allegret (Simone Signoret’s daughter), among others.

Yesterday I finally got around to seeing Paris, je t’aime, an anthology picture with contributions from a brace of French and American directors, depicting each of the capital’s twenty arrondissements. Most of the directors offer skimpy, even threadbare vignettes, and the movie is mostly unsatisfying. Although you get plenty of atmospheric scenery and performances from terrific actors (including several of my favorites: Gena Rowlands, Juliette Binoche, Fanny Ardant, Bob Hoskins, Yolande Moreau and Steve Buscemi), you have to wait until the end of the movie before you get anything you can really sink your teeth into — not withstanding Vincenzo Natali’s artsy vampire sequence starring Elijah Wood.

Elle n'a pas la plume de sa tante:
Martindale in
Paris, je t'aime

In “14th Arrondissement,” Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) gives us a beautifully crafted snapshot of what it’s like to be alone and middle-aged and American in this big, noisy, extravagantly romantic city. Margo Martindale plays a postal worker from Denver who’s dreamed all her life of coming to Paris. She saves up her money, learns French (fluidly, though with a shaky accent), and eschews group tours in favor of an adventure on her own. In a voice-over narration, presumably Martindale reading an assignment for French class back home, she tells of her discoveries. Much of this is great fun, but Martindale’s solitude becomes more and more urgent, as when she realizes that she’s got no one to turn to and say, “Isn’t this beautiful?” Baby, I've been there. By the end, she experiences an epiphany — I won’t tell you what it is, but it brought tears in my eyes. It's a helluva performance.

The Parisian cinemas are where I discovered Gena Rowlands, but as of yesterday, they're also where I discovered Margo Martindale, and it's saying something that I recommend Paris, je t'aime more for Martindale's work than for Rowlands'. (For one thing, it's saying that Payne's direction is superior to that of Frédéric Auburtin and Gérard Depardieu, who guided Rowlands.)

If any of these pictures come your way, it's worth your while to see them. At the very least, it beats standing outside in the heat.