Saturday, February 18, 2006

Paris: Take One

They’re long, strange, filled with nudity and usually end on a beach. I’m not talking about Spring Break trips, I’m referring of course, to French movies. Films “à la française” are definitely an acquired taste, especially for American audiences accustomed to flashy, theatrical spectacles that require little to no brain activity to enjoy and comprehend. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left the theater with friends after seeing the latest offering in francophone cinema trying to convince them that the film they just labeled “the worst movie I’ve ever seen” was really a work of genial creativity. I might just be the only American to ever have three simultaneous subscriptions to French-language movie magazines sent to a US address. When my parents finally cut me off from my myriad subscriptions due to the fact that I was paying more in shipping fees than in subscription costs, I knew it was time to move to Paris. (The fact that Dartmouth was providing me with $12,000 to travel to France also played a small part in this decision.)
Most people have heard of Godard, Truffaut and Tavernier. Many have heard of Chabrol, Leconte and Jeunet. A few have even heard of Rohmer, Lelouch and Annaud. But most Americans I talk to become incredibly perplexed when I mention Kassovitz, Ozon or Assayas. Most Americans tend to associate French film with the classic black-and-white love stories of the 40s and 50s or the controversial and “bizarre” products of the 60s “New Wave” movement. A few modern French films have slipped through the cracks in recent years – think: Amélie – but, for the majority of American cinephiles, modern French movies are strange alien life forms that seem to be lost in translation. But what is modern French cinema? Better yet, who is modern French cinema? While Hollywood’s obsession with youth has taken over movie screens and television monitors everywhere, today’s French theaters are filled with both the latest from the greatest and the newest rung from the young. In other words, world-renowned older directors such as Tavernier, Chabrol and Godard are still going strong with new films currently in theaters, and a new crop of young, ingenuous directors such as Kassovitz, Ozon and Klapisch has also arisen with both formulaic copies of their cinematic forefathers and a “new new wave” approach to modern film. By seeing as many new French films as I can squeeze into nine months and interviewing both young and old French directors, producers and actors, I hope to be able to draw conclusions about the state of modern French cinema, and the personalities that characterize what I will call this “new new wave” of le cinéma français. Along the way, I will also provide musings and observations of Parisian life. It all seems too good to be true: a grant to go to Paris to watch new French movies and interview young directors, live in the ritziest neighborhood in the city and eat unlimited quantities of bread, cheese and pastry. If this is a dream, please don’t wake me up. I need my beauty rest.


Upon arrival in the city of lights, I was in desperate need of the following:
1. A Shower. (Though my Air India flight was mostly enjoyable, it left me smelling like a mélange of curry and French body odor.)
2. A French pastry. (After nothing but “kwasants” and viscous clotted cream posing as “crème brûlée” in New York’s “French” restaurants, I was in dire need of an artery-clogging gift from the gods of dessert.)
3. A ticket to see François Ozon’s latest movie. (After Swimming Pool and Huit Femmes, I couldn’t wait to see what this unpredictable young director had to say these days.)

directed by François Ozon

5x2 chronicles five stages in the romance between a woman and a man, Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss). The film starts with divorce proceedings, then, backwards through time, highlights five moments in Marion and Gilles’ relationship that reveals their secrets and clues to where the relationship went wrong. Wonderful performances by Bruni-Tedeschi and Freiss who seem to effortlessly de-age throughout this intimate portrait of an average couple with not-so-average secrets that exposes the truths behind ostensibly happy marriages. This movie tells the story of Marion and Gilles but it is sadly also the story that constitutes most love stories; all love stories are not “happily-ever-after.” I love François Ozon because all of his films are so different/unique but still have the “Ozon” signature.
Les Amants Criminels (1999) takes place in a small French provincial town where two teenagers, Luc and Alice, decide to commit a murder and assassinate a classmate, Saïd. When they run away to bury the corpse in a forest, they meet a woodsman leading a cloistered life who lures them into his masochistic, bizarre world. Ozon’s shocking exploration of adolescence, murder, and sexual anxiety is a cinematic thriller that epitomizes art house cinema.
Sous le Sable (2000) starts off like so many French movies I’ve seen in the past year or so (more specifically Cédric Kahn’s recent Feux Rouges): a middle-aged couple sets out from Paris for a vacation in the country. Though the dialogue is ostensibly trivial and far from expository, Ozon introduces the spectator to the familiar intricacies and banal civilities of this long-married couple. Just as in 5x2, Ozon is interested in the “hows” and “whys” of intimate relationships and the reasons “eternal love” often turns sour. Later in the film, on a trip to the beach, the husband vanishes, and this film, which had incipiently begun as an observation of domestic contentment takes a dramatic turn and becomes more of a psychological inquiry into death and loss. Charlotte Rampling gives a stunning performance as a woman who begins to mentally disintegrate as her denial of her husband’s disappearance becomes delusional.

2002’s Huit Femmes is Ozon’s musical comedy featuring the who’s who of French female actresses – Fanny Ardant, Ludivine Sagnier, Emanuelle Béart, Virginie LeDoyen, Catherine Deneuve, Firmine Richard, Isabelle Huppert and Danielle Darrieux (I mean, really, can you get any better than that?) – where a wealthy industrialist is found dead in his room and these eight women all have mutual suspicions and common motives. In Huit Femmes, Ozon reminds the spectator of the primary purpose of film: to entertain. It is hard not to completely enjoy this mélange of murder mystery, comedy and musical theater that walks a fine line between melodrama and parody. This film also features the young Ludivine Sagnier who would later make a “splash” in Ozon’s more recent Swimming Pool and has since become an international French sex symbol and acting force.

In Swimming Pool (2003), Ozon unites two of his previous starring actresses, Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier. Rampling plays a rigid and conservative, yet successful English mystery writer whose life and new novel take a dramatic twist when she meets her publisher's sexy, free-spirited daughter played by Sagnier. Swimming Pool combines Ozon’s fascination with the sexual exploration of youth with his affinity for murder mysteries. Most Americans who have seen Swimming Pool are perplexed and often disappointed by the “And???” ending that leaves the spectator to rethink and question everything he or she has just watched, but I found Swimming Pool to be nothing short of Ozon’s unique, genial approach to contemporary filmmaking.

*** *** ***
Thoughts upon arrival
So here I find myself living in a country where it is socially acceptable to cheat on your spouse but totally reprehensible to flick someone off…
… where it’s considered normal to passionately make out in public on the metro but freakishly weird to wear shorts…
… where it’s “healthy” to drink 17 cups of coffee and smoke 41 packs of cigarettes per day, but unhealthy to eat a portion larger that that appropriate to feeding a Lilliputian ant…
… where the subways close at 12:30 am, but taxis are impossible to find after 12:30 am…
… where Gérard Depardieu is a sex symbol and, well, what more can I say about that?

I live on a street where the dogs are richer than I, where an appetizer at the corner bistro would cost me a month’s salary and where the maxim of “look both ways before you cross the street” becomes “look both ways before you cross the street, but still watch out for the mini motorcycles that never seem to obey traffic laws and will, incontestably, run you over even when you have the right of way.” It’s called the Avenue Foch, one of the long streets that jut out of Charles de Gaulle Etoile away from the Arc de Triomphe. I can see the Eiffel Tower from my window, and, whenever I tell people where I am living, either assume I am the long-lost heir to the Hilton fortune, or have become the mistress of a Middle Eastern diplomat. (I assure you that none of the above theories are true; in fact, a Dartmouth alum has been kind enough to rent it to us.) The streets are guarded at night by the French army and “gendarmerie” (police force) due to the myriad foreign embassies on the surrounding streets and the important people who, thus, live next door to us. The superintendents have become our little French grandparents and they have a big bulldog named Timothé who, I suppose, protects us from sketchy French men with gelled hair and tight pants.

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