03 October 2009

Desperate Characters

The Terror and the Pity:
Tahar Rahim, in Un prophète

Because for the next several weeks it will be more difficult for me to see French movies without subtitles, I have taken refuge at the cinéma a few times lately, and I’m quite pleased with what I’ve seen.

Most impressive is Un prophète, a frankly harrowing account of a young man’s career path from petty urchin to hardened criminal — all the while in prison. Upon his release, Malik (Tahar Rahim) is a fully-formed gangleader in the classic style, with visual reference to Michael Corleone and the musical reference of “Mack the Knife.” This is, in its way, a success story, as Malik exploits his ingenuity to achieve power. (He even teaches himself to speak Corsican so that he can eavesdrop on other prisoners.) But it’s a grim story, too, and we are meant to ask whether a fellow of his potential and his determination couldn’t have found a more constructive métier.

Arestrup and Rahim

French pundits waxed ecstatic over this incisive analysis of the failures of the French penal system (surely the furlough policy will come in for review soon, and recidivism is the hot topic now*), yet director Jacques Audiard isn’t making a polemic — or a documentary — and he doesn’t stint on the drama. He makes brilliant use of the frankly scary actor Niels Arestrup, who was so memorable in Audiard’s De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (The Beat My Heart Skipped, 2005), and who exudes rot and violence from every gaping pore. And Rahim, as the visionary (literally — that’s where the title comes from) Malik, is a revelation, pitiable and terrifying in equal measure.

Arestrup has a smaller role as the head of a French intelligence agency in Christian Carion’s L’Affaire Farewell (Farewell), a gripping espionage drama that brilliantly skirts most of the genre’s clichés. It is, after all, the story of two engineers, so why would we suppose they’d behave like James Bond?

Think of it as a buddy picture ... with espionage, torture, and executions.
Kusturica and Canet, in Farewell

Based on a true story, the film shows Sergueï Grigoriev (played by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica), a KGB officer who, disillusioned with the Soviet regime, begins to collect evidence of a vast network of moles in the West, then funnels it through a French intermediary (Guillaume Canet) to the Western powers. Not only did this leak prompt the exposure of dozens of double agents — who had kept the Soviets fully informed about every aspect of Western security and technology — but it meant that, when Ronald Reagan (the uncanny Fred Ward) proposed his “Star Wars” campaign, Mikhail Gorbachev was stranded, unable to assess the seriousness of the threat or how long it would take his regime to match it.

There’s only the mildest chauvinism at work here (You see, it was the French who ended the Cold War!), while the political perceptions are often more personal and psychological than didactic. Grigoriev, for instance, dreams of exactly the sort of USSR that Gorbachev hopes to build — yet his actions undo the whole Perestroika experiment.

In the main, L’Affaire Farewell concentrates on the personal relationship between Grigoriev and his contact, Pierre Froment (Canet), two ordinary guys in extraordinary circumstances.

It’s noteworthy that both Farewell and Prophète feature French actors speaking abundant quantities of foreign languages. Canet’s Russian is fluid but forced; his English is impeccable. Both Arestrup and Rahim speak Corsican, and Rahim speaks Arabic, as well. In the recently released L’ultimatum, dishy young Gaspard Ulliel plays an Israeli and speaks fluent Hebrew. Several, perhaps all of these guys received language coaching, but it’s an interesting indicator of the state of American education and filmmaking: we may expect that Meryl Streep will speak Polish or Danish or French in a movie, but can you imagine Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, or Keanu Reeves doing anything like this?

Chiara, daughter of Deneuve and Mastroianni
(As if you couldn’t tell)

Christophe Honoré’s Non, ma fille, tu n’iras pas danser (No, my daughter, you won’t go dancing) is — according to the director himself — a depiction of the violence that society does to women, yet in the playing, it’s the central character, Léna (Chiara Mastroianni), who does most of the damage. She has no idea what she wants from life, and she bruises everyone around her. The exception to this pattern is important, however: without warning, her mother (Marie-Christine Barrault) invites Léna’s ex-husband (Jean-Marc Barr) to a family retreat in the country. That would be enough to throw anybody off-track, I expect, and it helps to build sympathy for Léna.

The movie is most interesting in its acting. Mastroianni’s character, as written, doesn’t amount to a coherent statement, but she delivers a helluva performance, seething beneath that fascinating surface. (How she resembles both her parents!) Barrault comes up with a fully realized characterization, intelligent, tender, and wonderfully sexy. She actually gets a couple of sexagenarian sex scenes, and I’m here to tell you, you’ll regret that there aren’t more. As Léna’s quirky, overbearing sister, Marina Foïs manages to be funny, irritating, and lovable. The precocious Donatien Suner plays Léna’s son, Anton, by far the most sensible person in the movie — and therefore doomed to no good end.

Honoré (who also made Dans Paris and Les chansons d’amour) is at his surest in an extended sequence that enacts a folktale Anton tells Léna, of a country lass who dances her suitors to death. The scene is more interesting than anything else in the movie, and I expect it’s because Honoré didn’t really understand the larger story he was telling. That’s a shame, because he had so many promising ingredients.

So often that’s the case with French filmmakers: they crank out one picture a year, and their plots always fall apart in the third act. Eventually, you think, they’d figure out that they need to spend an extra month or two on the script.

Better luck next time: Suner, Mastroianni, and Foïs

*NOTE: This week’s headlines have been absorbed with the story of the rape and murder of a French woman by a man with a record of sex crimes and prison time.

UPDATE, 28 February 2010: At last night’s César Awards presentation (French equivalent of the Oscars), Un Prophète carried off nine wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Tahar Rahim won not only the Best Actor award but also the Meilleur Espoir Masculin, a newcomer prize; he’s the first actor to win both. Niels Arestrup won Best Supporting Actor.

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