UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE: Asia Argento’s La Vellini is a kind of a cross between Goya’s Naked Maja and Carmen Miranda.
Women have always dominated French cinema — just not from behind the camera. Until recently, the French rivaled Hollywood in their scarcity of female directors. There were, of course, a few greats — Agnès Varda, Marguerite Duras, Claire Denis — but for the most part, French film has meant men mooning over some misconceived image of womanhood. So this year’s Boston French Film Festival, in which eight of the 21 entries (all of them from the past three years) are by women, comes as something of a shock. What’s more, many of these women are actresses making their feature directing debut. Are the prisoners of the male gaze finally breaking free and asserting their independence?
|The 13th Annual French Film Festival | Museum Of Fine Arts: July 10-27|
Stylistically, not so much. At least not in Mia Hansen-Løve’s TOUT EST PARDONNÉ|ALL IS FORGIVEN (July 11 at 6 pm; July 12 at 6:15 pm), which resembles the calculated kitchen-sink formlessness of Olivier Assayas’s 1998 multi-character melodrama Fin août, début septembre (in which Hansen-Løve, now Assayas’s fiancée, played a part). Victor (Paul Blain), an aspiring writer much like the protagonist in Louis Malle’s 1963 Le fou follet, can’t kick his addictions to booze, smack, and self-pity — despite the long-suffering loyalty of his wife, Annette (Marie-Christine Friedrich), and the resilient innocence of his six-year-old daughter, Pamela (Victoire Rousseau). Annette gives him the heave-ho, 11 years pass, and the now-teenage Pamela (Constance Rousseau) must come to grips with her long estranged dad. A simple tale told simply, allowing the characters and the commonplaces of life to come to the fore, and thus affording a glimpse into their mystery.
More formally ambitious and certainly more self-conscious is Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s ACTRICES|ACTRESSES (July 13 at 5:30 pm; July 18 at 6 pm). Bruni-Tedeschi plays Marcelline, a diva-esque actress who in turn is playing Natalya Petrovna in a production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Her inability to connect with the part might be attributed to her need to have a baby before her biological clock ticks out. Meanwhile, her old drama schoolmate Nathalie (Noémie Lvovsky) is assisting the director, Denis (Mathieu Amalric), and wishing she could dump her husband and kid and have Denis and the glamorous theater life to herself. Bruni-Tedeschi achieves some wry, Fellini-esque moments, such as a scene in which Marcelline’s dotty aunt and mother watch their grand piano get hoisted into a window like a wounded elephant. More such moments instead of fanciful visitations by ghosts or by the spirit of Natalya Petrovna might have brought this artifice to life.
By far the most original and successful debut comes not from an actress but from photographer and video artist Delphine Kreuter. Her 57000 KM ENTRE NOUS|57,000 KILOMETERS BETWEEN US (July 11 at 4:20 pm; July 12 at 2:30 pm; July 19 at 2:50 pm) opens with a family driving through a modular suburban development. They are following the errant injunctions of their PS guidance system and looking for Gran’s house within a maze of identical structures. A trite commentary on the mass homogenization of society, perhaps, until they find the house and Gran pops out tarted up like a Las Vegas showgirl.
That’s just one of the surprises in a film that takes the commonplace notion of appearances versus realities to uncommon places. Starting with cyberspace, which is where Nat (Marie Burgun), a scrawny 14-year-old, connects via Webcam with Simon (Mathieu Amalric, the hardest-working man in French cinema). His “trip,” as Nat puts it, is wearing a diaper and calling her “Princess.” Meanwhile, Nat’s stepfather, Michel (Pascal Bongard), broadcasts images of their loving “normal” family life on the Internet, with one of the site’s biggest fans being Nat’s biological father — himself not what he seems. When an unpleasant confrontation erases Simon from Nat’s favorites list, she resumes an on-line role-playing game with Adrien (Hadrien Bouvier), who lies terminally ill in an isolation ward. With its offputting subject matter, its jarring handheld photography, and its garish but washed-out palette, 57,000 KM entre nous resembles Michael Haneke at his most misanthropic, until innocence and tenderness prevail in the film’s biggest surprise of all.
Catherine Breillat also surprises with UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE|THE LAST MISTRESS (July 19 at 8 pm), an adaptation of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 19th-century novel and perhaps her first film that doesn’t transform sex and cinema into punishment. Maybe the period setting makes the difference, or the unwitting comedy of casting the buffoonish Asia Argento as La Vellini, a notorious courtesan in post-Napoleonic France. Adorned with gaudy mantillas and piled-up coiffures and puffing on a cigar, she’s kind of a cross between Goya’s Naked Maja and Carmen Miranda. No wonder jaded nobleman Ryno (petal-lipped boy toy Fu’ad Ait Aattou) can’t resist, even when their liaison threatens his marriage with the icy, rich Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). (Maîtresse is like Jacques Rivette’s Ne touchez pas la hache|The Duchess of Langeais remade as softcore S&M porn.) “Good old Vellini,” Ryno chuckles as she slashes his face and licks his blood off the blade. Good old Breillat.