The Wild, Wild Fest, Part 3

This final dispatch from the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival begins with a pair of French imports, the first of which, Pour Rire! (translated as Just for Laughs), could have been nicely paired with last week's Love, Etc. on a double bill titled "What Is This Thing Called Love?" In reviewing Love, Etc., I noted that the impossibility of defining love does not inhibit the French from pursuing it. Such a paradox must inevitably tickle those with a keen sense of humor, and humor has been a mainstay in French theater and film. What other country has a national theater with the word comedy, but not tragedy, in its name?

France has given the world its greatest comic genius, Moliere; and the descendants of Moliere well know that the essence of the comic is a single-minded obsession with something that causes those afflicted with it to utterly lose their perspective. Thus, when Harpagon, the central character in The Miser, is informed that his treasure has been stolen, he immediately assumes the messenger is referring to his money and has a nervous breakdown. (In reality it is his daughter, who has eloped.) Actor-turned-director Lucas Belvaux's Pour Rire! provides us with an updated version of the single-minded Moliere hero -- in this case a hapless creature named Nicolas (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who simply cannot believe he has the good fortune to live with a beautiful attorney named Alice (Ornella Muti) and that she could possibly be in love with him.

While clearly neurotic and lacking the rock-solid dependability of Benoit in Love, Etc., Nicolas provides Alice with what the stuffy legal profession requires: marriage and the outward appearance of stability. But very much like Love, Etc.'s Marie, Alice has Dionysian longings, which are satisfied by the more dashing (and younger) Gaspard (Antoine Chappey), with whom she shares the pleasure so often identified with romance in Paris: l'amour dans l'apres-midi. In fact, so strong is her attraction to Gaspard that she is willing to risk ending what she regards as a sham relationship with Nicolas. She announces she is leaving him because he has been unfaithful to her. The hapless creature, already beleaguered with doubts about his sexual prowess, argues pathetically that his "rambles" were limited to one pitiful affair six years ago. But the confrontation gives Alice license to do a bit more roaming herself, which triggers a Moliere-esque single-mindedness in Nicolas, who takes to following her everywhere she goes. In total despair, he attempts suicide by jumping into the Seine, only to be rescued (and this can happen only in comedy) by none other than Gaspard.

The two become pals, with Gaspard serving as the older man's mentor in affairs of the heart. He even enlists the aid of Alice, who delights in planning a match for the unseen friend of her lover. All roads lead to the inevitable meeting, when Alice has Gaspard invite the friend to dinner. The sight of Alice causes Nicolas to go bonkers, precipitating the Parisian version of a moral dilemma: She can return to the man whose life she has messed up considerably, or stay with the man who truly excites her. In either case, the film's title warns us not to take any of this very seriously. Moral dilemmas by now are just for casual entertainment. Perhaps I'm resistant to that notion, or perhaps I've just got a touch of festivalitis -- the malady sometimes caused by exposure to too many films with similar themes.

If the French make films in which people have trouble deciding which kind of love will be more satisfying, Scandinavia has a history of films about whether love of any kind is possible or morally acceptable. Ingmar Bergman, of course, made famous the slow-moving film in which shadowy figures struggle with their passions amid dimly lit interiors. Many of us in the writing profession have often envied the Scandinavians for their culture of legitimate repressiveness, dominated by an austere religion preoccupied with the sinfulness of humanity. If it caused unhappiness to those who grew up in its grip, it has also given dramatists and filmmakers a weighty theme. Years ago film reviewer Andrew Sarris made the astute observation that "where everything is possible, nothing matters."

In The Other Side of Sunday, Norwegian director Berit Nesheim's Best Foreign Film Oscar nominee this year, the simple act of drinking a Coke with her fellow teenagers in a remote village causes untold anguish for the youthful heroine Maria (played by a luminous Marie Theisen), who is the daughter of an evangelical Lutheran priest with definite Calvinist leanings (BjĮrn Sundquist). With their mother very ill in the hospital, the priest's three children lead a joyless existence from which the usual teenage activities are barred. Maria, the eldest, has a rebellious nature and isn't afraid to shock her father with radical views regarding the so-called absolute truths of Scripture. At the dinner table, for example, she comments that since humanity is said to be hopelessly wicked, God must have done a bad job of creation. And if everything in the Bible is supposed to be sacred and uplifting, how does one explain the erotic Song of Solomon?

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