Summer Media: My Gallic Season

July 17, 2010
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While it should not be surprising to anyone that New Yorkers tend to like their French movies, this summer has afforded a particularly apt opportunity to examine recent trends in the work of our fois gras-loving brothers and sisters across the pond. There is the old, and there is the new. On one side, we have late, great works by two of the founders of the nouvelle vague, Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais; on the other, upstart whippersnappers Mia Hansen-Löve and Agnes Jaoui offer up their latest for discerning audiences. The dastardly limits of space prevent me from making any coherent arguments or justifications for my flights of fancy, but allow me to proffer some initial thoughts for discussion. Finally, allow for this piece to be an exercise in reviewing—the pithy, incisive form of criticism practiced by those hallowed men and women, past and present, like Bosley Crowther, Vincent Canby, Janet Maslin, V.A. Musetto, David Denby, Anthony Lane, and oh so many more.

Jaoui has always been a tough nut to crack. Her latest, Let it Rain (the original translates as the more evocative, Speak to Me About the Rain), is a comedy of manners that is supposed to illuminate the rampant class divisions in modern France, with an ethnic twist. The only problem is that no character is particularly stimulating or interesting. Not even Jaoui herself, the ostensible protagonist, whose lack of many sympathetic qualities I suppose we’re supposed to read as self-critique. I can’t say that I’m convinced. What’s more, the movie is so blandly filmed without any sparkle to its images that it’s difficult to see the profundity in Jaoui’s wit.

Hansen-Löve, meanwhile, may have a bit more to offer. A bit. Her newest is The Father of My Children, a narrative bifurcation that depicts a movie producer (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) at the end of his financial rope, and then how his family copes with grief. Hansen-Löve is clearly the product of her mentor (now-husband), Olivier Assayas, in the way in which she sensitively depicts the dynamics of a family, and in how she keeps her camera constantly roving, searching and exploring space. However, she doesn’t transcend the sum of her influences. Colleagues have told me that the manner in which each family member copes with death is the true meat of the film, but all I see are cliches re-hashed. Although I will admit that some imagery is quite breathtaking. Her Assayas-isms allow for the film to breathe, but I’d take Summer Hours and Late August, Early September over this any day of the week.

I wouldn’t try to claim that this new generation of Frenchie cinéastes has no purchase on their country’s movie legacy; Assayas, Claire Denis, Serge Bozon, Philippe Garrel, Arnaud Desplechin, and others are all post-New Wavers still making great work. (I am aware that most of these directors are over the age of 50, but I digress.) For the purposes of this New York summer, though, the old guns ruled the day. Exhibit A: Resnais’s best film in god knows how long, Wild Grass. Resnais company players Andrè Dussolier and Sabine Azèma are on hand as potential lovers whose paths continually cross, and the balance of whose passions continually exchange. Forming continuity with Resnais’s favorite new-generation filmmaker,  along with fleshing out his cast, are Desplechin regulars Anne Consigny, Emmanuelle Devos and Mathieu Amalric. Borders between reality and fantasy, especially as to how they relate to desire, quickly dissolve thanks to Resnais’s elegant, balletic editing, using past inserts and slow-motion images of the future to suggest violent, cinematic passions roiling inside Dussolier’s smitten stalker and AzÈma’s flighty dentist. A beautifully systematic color design along with allusive dialogue suggest even further temporal breakdowns, but with an effortless glee that defines a certain strand of late film: the “I can get away with anything, so I will” type. Or perhaps the little girl who just wants to be a cat dreamed the whole thing up. Who knows? Does something so lithely beautiful require such answers? Christopher Nolan had better take note.

Finally, we turn to Rivette. While the Americans are calling his newest Around a Small Mountain, I prefer the original French, translated as 36 Views of Saint Wolf Mountain. It’s Rivette’s shortest film by about 45 minutes, and for a guy who once made a 12 -hour opus, that’s no small thing. There are few directors who know how to capture the texture of space, and Rivette achieves this once again. How is this achieved, you might ask? It’s done via slow tracking shots that examine and reveal new spaces, sound design that makes dialogue and bird songs part of the same landscape, and natural light that has physical weight to it. This is pure filmmaking. The Rivettian thematic tropes are all there too: performance as identity, mysteries that must be unraveled, sheer joy from using performance as play. Jane Birkin, Sergio Castellito, and the rest of the circus troupe seem to be having great fun with what they do. Maybe it’s slight or minor, as a friend said to me over post-screening drinks, but it sure ain’t no “abortion,” as one old woman said as she exited the theater.

No trends, no grand speculations, no in-depth analyses; just some whimsical, subjective ideas from a man who will be sorry to see his Gallic summer end. Here’s to hoping all four of these movies show up outside major metropolitan centers; sadly, I am much less convinced of that little thought.


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3 Responses to “ Summer Media: My Gallic Season ”

  1. Eric on July 17, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    Nice post! A few thoughts though…

    Was Alain Resnais really a nouvelle vague filmmaker? Perhaps the distinction lacks any useful significance, but conflating Resnais with Godard or Truffaut disregards important differences between them. Artistically Resnais was heavily influenced by Proust, Modernist fine arts, and his nouvelle roman friends. We can see his documentaries and feature films as attempts to incorporate these aesthetic and and political trends into cinema. We should thus consider understanding Resnais as making films in what Bazin classifies as the illusionist art tradition. The early films of Godard and Truffaut were instead in the realist tradition. Influenced almost entirely by other filmmakers in history, they directed films as a reaction to the popular and supposedly “awful” French films made after WWII. Further, there are striking formal and aesthetic differences between the staging and gloss found within the early features of Resnais and the neo-realist look of the concurrent Truffaut and Godard features. Are these differences enough to warrant Resnais’s exclusion from the nouvelle vague? I say yes.

    We seem to also disagree on Rivette’s stamp on 36 Views from the Pic Saint-Loup. Yes, aesthetically late Rivette films are a pleasure to sit through but we should attribute most of what you define as ‘spatial texture’ to the cinematography as all films shot by the Lubchanskys (or others like Harris Savides or Eric Gautier to name a few) share in this look. Similarly, the sound design and camera movement that you mention are equally prevalent in other contemporary art-house cinema. I also disagree with your assessment of Rivette’s thematic tropes to be “performance as identity, mysteries that must be unraveled, sheer joy from using performance as play.” This non-descript and empty list of topics misses his films’ attention to the act of narrative construction, which his overt focus on secrets, fantasy, and theater help to support. His better films like Pont du Nord or La Belle Noiseuse emphasize both the characters’ and the audience’s suspension of disbelief as the film unfolds. His weaker films, like 36 Views or Hurlevent, lack this type of ludic interaction. Yes there’s probably a reason to enjoy watching any film, but 36 Views offers very little of Rivette’s stamp for what makes him a terrific filmmaker. But I agree, far from an abortion.

  2. Evan Davis on July 19, 2010 at 11:02 AM

    But of course you’re quite right, dear boy. This is what happens when one allows the vapors of the humid summer nights to cloud the precision of his descriptions.

  3. Eric on July 19, 2010 at 5:05 PM

    Ah but the libations are always worth the cost!