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 (Bj¯rn 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?
Her father's rage only incites the girl into flirting with reckless behavior, which provides the film with scenes that are both amusing and touching. In a Hollywood teen flick, it would be hard to imagine a moment like the one in which Maria, alternately embarrassed and excited, allows a young man to see her breasts.
But Sunday is not content to stick with the uncluttered story of a young girl's sexual awakening. The authors introduce Maria's shocked discovery of her father's clandestine infidelity with his assistant at the church and the ultimate tragedy that befalls the woman (Hildegunn Riise). Both performances are splendid, and the subplot is a well-meant intrusion that humanizes the priest and softens what could have been a one-tracked oppressiveness. Still, it nearly overloads the film. And Sundquist needs no assistance. For most of the film he makes us believe in his fervent righteousness.
The surprise twist adds further justification for Maria's activism, but it also diminishes the tension of her revolt. The stakes drop as soon as we find out the priest is not the model of virtue he insists that others be. The film's conflict ought to have been between two opposing but equally powerful views -- the time-honored duel between the immovable object and the irresistible force. One suspects that Nesheim, who coauthored the screenplay with Lasse Glom, may have taken the path of least resistance, betting that audiences wouldn't accept Maria unless her father were a hypocrite and a sinner.
Until taking its questionable turn toward a flawed resolution, Sunday was headed in very much the right direction. (Most films run off the road long before that.) There are other, hugely compensating factors as well, such as the haunting, low-key chamber music background and cinematography that rivals Bergman at his best. This movie is well worth careful attention.
Olivier Schatzky's L'Eleve (The Pupil) is closer in style to Scandinavia than to its native France, possibly because this lesser-known but highly promising director may have been influenced by Bergman, as have many, many others. Or maybe because the film is an adaption of a Henry James short story; and James, who always longed to be a successful dramatist but lacked the ability -- or the willingness -- to create stage tension or to highlight the dramatic moment, forces his adapters into a slow-paced, moody rhythm that invites torpor unless one is primed to concentrate on each subtle minute. L'leve challenges its audience but offers rewards to those willing to look and listen carefully.
The theme may be somewhat related to that of The Other Side of Sunday. It may have undertones (quite far under) of repressed sexuality, but if it's supposed to be there, it would in this instance be an older man's repressed interest in a young boy, but not so clearly stated as in the film version of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, for example. Henry James's stock-in-trade, after all, is ambiguity.
Julien (Vincent Cassel), a sensitive, erudite scholar in his thirties, is hired by the parents of a gifted but neurotic child named Morgan (Caspar Salmon) to tutor the boy because their numerous trips make it impossible for him to attend school. Julien quickly discovers that Morgan is gifted, bordering on genius, but also perhaps flirting with madness. He is arrogant about his abilities, which, in addition to an aptitude for practically any subject, include gourmet cooking. Despite the age difference, Julien treats Morgan as an intellectual equal, an approach that is much appreciated by the nervous child, who has been starved for parental affection; the two develop a close but ambiguous relationship. Julien begins to realize that the parents are adventurers, living life in the high style but hopelessly in debt and continually moving to escape the consequences. They promise to pay him eventually. He keeps threatening to leave but has a difficult time of it because he and his charge have by now become inseparable.
Regardless of whether the parents are the characteristic Jamesian Europeans, too artful for an innocent idealist, the results are the same. Reduced to poverty (they say) and unable to care for their son, they beg Julien to stay with him, to become his true parent. The film's final moment is resplendent with possibilities that can be spiritual or sexual, or both. Henry James was no sexual Puritan, but he was reluctant to be understood as dealing overtly with subject matter that was taboo in the late Victorian era (which existed on both sides of the Atlantic and provided the perfect launching pad for Sigmund Freud).
L'Eleve is lightweight compared to The Turn of the Screw, James's masterpiece of ambiguity, but it serves the master better than did the television version of the latter work. Like so many directors in this festival, Schatzky wrote his own screenplay, and we must applaud his detailed effort to reproduce an intriguing study in a medium for which it is not really suited. It was a courageous choice.
If film festivals give you nothing else, they're guaranteed to provide a healthy dose of culture shock, as I experienced in moving from the understatements of L'Eleve to the muddled statements of Paul Chart's American Perfekt. Not only was the screening oversold, causing people to sit or stand in the aisles, but announcements and introductions delayed the start by 45 minutes: We learned that Amanda Plummer had been scheduled to appear but couldn't make it, and that costar Robert Forster was indeed present, as was the writer/director. From the bottom of their hearts, they thanked all kinds of people we never heard of; Chart, who hails from Great Britain, wanted everyone to know how wonderful it was to be in the United States and how it took five years for his film to reach the screen. Produced by nine people at a cost of multiple dollars, it is likely to disappear from the screen in a few weeks.
Forster plays Jake Nyman, a forensic psychiatrist whose ostensibly brilliant intellect has short-circuited and left him with a cynical amorality. In his eyes, each of us is abandoned in a meaningless universe governed by chance, and so he decides to base all of his actions on a flip of a coin, a game he goes so far as to employ to determine whether he will allow people to live.
Paul Chart obviously didn't toss a coin in considering elements of his plot: He never does make up his mind whether he wants to make cinema of the absurd, without a clear story line and understandable characters, or an avant-garde version of an old-fashioned thriller. Consequently, American Perfekt belongs to no genre.
Its most glaring weakness is the omission of a character whose fortunes we care about. In Psycho -- still the champion horror film of all time -- Hitchcock had Janet Leigh; to our utter disbelief, our heroine was murdered. Enter the sister, intent on finding out what really happened, and we transferred our sympathies to her. Young Mr. Chart seems to have studied Psycho and, like so many other novice filmmakers, he'd love to reproduce the shower scene. Thus there's a reliance on unexpected images and loud sounds -- especially the sudden appearance of out-of-control cars crashing to some of the most ear-splitting music you ever did not want to hear. There's just no focal point of interest.
Though Janet Leigh was an embezzler on the run, she was intelligent, civilized, and driven by a guilty conscience. We could make sense out of her problems. What do you do when your sociopath's first victim is Amanda Plummer, who always delivers an identical screen persona and always seems much weirder than anyone else? Chart may have cast her so we wouldn't know who was really crazy in this film. Nor is his cause helped by a third character, played by David Thewlis, who's stalking the first two. We can't bite our nails for them because we don't know who or what they are.
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When we realize Amanda may not really be dead, another Psycho borrowing -- the sudden appearance of a sister (Gen X idolette Fairuza Balk) who wants to get to the bottom of the mystery -- misses its target. Chart obviously intends for her to be the heroine, but unfortunately half the film is over before her appearance. (And predictably, she is also plenty strange.)
This film should have been called Endless Ambiguity. Like the locale, which appears to be Arizona (or some similar place with miles of roads and few towns), Perfekt has too many possibilities and just keeps driving. Chart should have remembered the Bates Motel and that house behind it. Confined spaces make for tension. The open road makes for boredom.
The Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival continues through November 16. For more information see the special "Calendar Listings" section beginning on page 37 or call 954-564-7373.