2001 TIFF Festival Update #7: "The French Connection"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
September 14, 2001

With fewer English-language films than usual in this year's festival, some other part of the world had to pick up the slack, and the chosen country was France. The 2001 edition of the TIFF features a very strong line-up of high profile French films. Here's an overview of a few that are either high profile (and, as a result, stand a chance of receiving U.S. distribution) or intriguing (and should receive U.S. distribution).

By far, the most impressive French film I saw at this year's festival is Sur mes levres (Read My Lips), the fourth feature from director Jacques Audiard. Although the movie contains elements of a romantic thriller, it is equally powerful as a drama. The two main characters are effectively developed and fully realized. In fact, it's the protagonists - in particular, the interaction between them - that drives this motion picture forward and keeps us involved. However, unlike in many character studies, the plot is more than just a simple framework. It is complex and unpredictable, and, as a result, provides the perfect means to better get to know the characters and understand the shifting nature of their relationship.

Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is a hearing-impaired 35-year old woman who works as a secretary in a property development company. Her life is ruled by routine - she never goes out and is always available to babysit for her friends. She longs to move forward both in her career and in her personal life, but, encumbered by her hearing deficiency, she is unsure how to do so. One day, when her bosses decide she needs an assistant, she takes on an unskilled but charismatic 25-year old man, Paul (Vincent Cassel). Paul is an ex-con, fresh out of jail, with no place to live. Carla is immediately attracted to Paul, and he recognizes this, and decides to manipulate this for his own purposes. In return for helping her with her career goals, Paul persuades Carla to use her lip-reading abilities to aid him in casing out an apartment he intends to rob.

The acting is at the highest possible level. Emmanuelle Devos gives a flawless, emotionally stirring performance. Devos wears Carla like a second skin; her eyes, face, and body language express as much - or more - than her dialogue. Vincent Cassel is explosive as Paul - a volcanic personality who always seems to be on the verge of erupting. The chemistry and sexual tension between these two, largely sublimated and never vocalized, simmers just beneath the surface as the realist (Paul) and the romantic (Carla) adjust their expectations to meet in the middle.

Audiard does a remarkable job of interweaving forceful drama with thriller elements. Sur mes levres is well paced, and concludes with an unexpected twist. To bring us more into Carla's world, Audiard occasionally gives us her point-of-view, not only visually but audibly. As Carla removes her bulky hearing aid, the film's audio drops off into near-muteness, giving us a sense of what it is like to be in her position. This, like many other details employed by the director, builds strong character sympathy. Sur mes levres is the kind of top notch foreign movies that often cannot be seen outside of film festivals. And, unfortunately, this one does not yet have a North American distributor.

Fortunately, the latest from Andre Techine, Loin, does. True to form, this movie highlights the director's strengths - multi-layered character development and interesting dialogue - while addressing the issues of immigration and racism in a low-key, non-preachy manner. Loin presents us with three characters whose actions and emotions are examined as they interact, break apart, and come back together. The film generates a sense of the unexpected - something that occurs precisely because the protagonists and their circumstances are so real, and, in a fluid situation such as the one in which they are trapped, predictability is not a common characteristic.

Serge (Stephane Rideau) is a truck driver who routinely moves goods across the border between Spain and Morocco. When Serge's relationship with Sarah (Lubna Azabal) falls apart, Serge becomes reckless with his life, and agrees to allow his truck to be used to smuggle illegal contraband into Morocco. Because of the thoroughness of the customs officers, it is a potentially dangerous job, but it also pays well. While in Morocco, Serge makes contact with Said (Mohamed Hamaidi), a teenage boy who is anxious to get out of Morocco. Serge and Said strike a deal: if Said can arrange a meeting between Sarah and Serge, Serge will smuggle him out of the country. Said then contrives for the two lovers to meet, and they reconcile, but Serge goes back on his part of the bargain, enraging the boy.

The strength of the motion picture lies in the precision with which Techine develops the relationships. No member of the prime trio is entirely good or bad, and there are moments of both warmth and acrimony in the ways they interact with each other. Serge and Sarah are two people who love each other deeply, but who continually hurt one another. Said and Serge are wary acquaintances who associate with each other because each has something to offer the other. And Sarah and Said interact because Said was the ward of her recently deceased mother.

It has been five years since Techine's last movie, Les Voleurs, and seven years since he became known in the United States with Wild Reeds. For his most recent outing, Techine has used a different approach, employing digital video. For the most part, the image is almost as good as film, although the colors are not as rich and there's a little more graininess in the way it looks. The best thing about shooting in digital video, however, is that the smaller, lightweight camera allows Techine to develop a more intimate portrait of his three protagonists. And it's those relationships that give Loin its power.

Legendary filmmaker Eric Rohmer has a tradition of making an historical film every time he finishes one of his series of contemporary features. Thus, after completing his Tales of Four Seasons cycle, Rohmer has turned his attention to the 1790s and the French revolution. The result is L'Anglaise et le duc, a tale that tells of the horrors of the times through the eyes of a young Scottish aristocrat, Grace Elliott (Lucy Russell), who found herself stranded in Paris during this turbulent era. Her deep friendship with the Duke of Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) forms the background of the film - the two were once lovers, but, after their romantic relationship ended, they became great friends.

Rohmer has done two unique things in this movie. The first is to tell the story based exclusively upon the memoirs of one person, rather than drawing upon numerous sources. The second is not to do any location shooting, claiming that "the face of Paris has changed so drastically that there is not one line of sight left from revolutionary times." Consequently, most of the movie takes place inside. For outside shots, Rohmer uses matte paintings and computer graphics to re-create the backgrounds. Unfortunately, since Rohmer lacked the budget of a Hollywood blockbuster, his digital work is not perfect. The paintings look like paintings rather than realistic backdrops.

Technical issues like that, however, do not obscure the essential strength of the movie: the two central characters, and the political issues that divide and unite them. While L'Anglaise et le duc is not in any way a thriller, there are moments when Rohmer generates some tension as Grace becomes the target of "patriots" who believe she is harboring a fugitive (she is) and that her sympathies lie with the factions of the British government that oppose the revolution (they don't). As a unique perspective upon a period of time about which much has been written and filmed, this is an effective piece of drama.

One of the characteristics of most Rohmer films - lengthy, compelling dialogue - is largely missing. Characters do a lot of talking, but their verbal exchanges are not as lively or as engrossing as is the case in the filmmaker's contemporary films. Those who are not enraptured by Rohmer's fascination with how individuals converse may find this to be a more intriguing effort than his "typical" productions. Nevertheless, even without the sparkling dialogue, L'Anglaise et le duc is still a worthwhile motion picture, with far more in the way of content than almost anything playing in multiplexes these days.

© 2001 James Berardinelli

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