Tuesday, September 30, 2008

New York Film Festival 2008- A Rendevous with French Cinema

I was going to write an opening to talk about the 46th Annual New York Film Festival and to put it in some sort of framework. How the festival runs from September 26- October 12 and how the screening schedule and tickets can be found online. How Lincoln Center is under construction and how awesome seeing these films at a gigantic, classic theater like the Ziegfeld will be. (Most of the press screenings are at the Walter Reade Theater which is damn good in my book. Luckily, we got to see Che at Ziegfeld, so I can say first hand that the Ziegfeld owns.) How 16 of the 28 films selected come from the Cannes Film Festival, and ponder why so many people see this as a bad thing. How the press screenings are a totally different festival experience, and how lucky I am to be a part of the experience to begin with. Alas, it seems like most of the coverage is saying the same thing and since I am late in writing about some of these films (a few have already shown at the festival and are not showing again), I figure I might as well just write about the movies and save my ruminations on the festival for my festival wrap up entry. Let’s do that, eh?

As I am late into writing, I’m not going to go through the films in the order I saw them, which was my original plan. This first entry has a film I saw on the first day of screenings, nearly two weeks ago, and a film I literally saw today. While these films do have a common characteristic, don’t expect it from future entries. At four films, France has the most films of any country at the festival this year, so when I started writing it seemed appropriate to write about them together. I’ll try and create a flow between the films in future entries, but the broad taste in world cinema that the New York Film Festival displays it becomes increasingly difficult. So, let’s just talk about the movies. There are some good ones, maybe some great ones, and, sure enough, some films that I didn’t/won’t respond to. Still, it’s a lot of fun to stumble into a theater at 10 AM trying to remember which films it is I am about to see. (Seriously. I went into a screening last week knowing that there was something I meant to see. I thought it was Hong Sang Soo’s Night and Day. Then starts the Mexican teen crime-ish film I’m Gonna Explode. Not exactly the same thing. Everything is a blur!) Anyways, I promised not to blab and now I’m doing just that. On with the movies!

Laurent Cantet’s The Class, the Opening Night Selection of the 46th New York Film Festival and winner of the Palm d’Or at this years Cannes Film Festival, reworks the typical classroom drama in a very refined way yet remains just as crowd pleasing as the ever popular, sentimental American classroom film. Starring a real teacher with his actual students all from the same school in France, teachers, students, and administration all play fictionalized versions of themselves that is enhanced by Cantet’s handheld digital camerawork. Although The Class creates an insane amount of nervously excitable classroom energy, a truly magnificent achievement, it is safe and breezy even in the most dire of situations. While the film’s inspired fact/fiction hybrid makes everything more authentic, even in the film’s most heavily scripted situations, The Class is a little too self-satisfied to be as affective in really analyzing the never-changing problems of globalization, cultural diversity, and power “between the walls” (the original French title of the film and the autobiography on which it is based) of a school. This makes it sound like I didn’t like The Class very much, which, believe it or not, is far from the truth. There is just a difference between the inciting and provocative foreign films that I tend to prefer and ones that are a little more standard are are highly likely to be Best Foreign Film Oscar nominees. The Class is France’s Official Entry for the Oscars with good reason. Still, I wish it would have taken more risks given its subject matter and willingness to experiment with this genre.

The same could be said for Arnuad Desplechin’s latest film A Christmas Tale, a showcase of top notch filmmaking and acting, but ultimately disappointing in that it isn’t nearly as interesting or complex (at least on first viewing) as the other Desplechin films I have seen. Junon (Catherine Deneuve) is the family matriarch whose comically separated family is forced to reunite when she announces her life threatening illness. Inevitably, this event conjures up unhappy memories of the death of their young brother Joseph who died of leukemia when he was six. Fear not, French comedy lovers! This sweeping 150 minute film is full of life, spunk, and Bravura that crowds will eat up. Despite all it has going for it, A Christmas Tale is relatively slight. One character asks the question “Who has time to take life experience seriously?” With it playful mood and wild shifts in tone, addressed directly in its oftentimes brilliant score, A Christmas Tale wants to lighten the aura of death and enjoy the memories and experiences that each of us has. It is all too typical material for Desplechin to take on and is less focused in its fancy-free attitude to sustain itself for the lengthy running time. A Christmas Tale features, without a doubt, great filmmaking and acting. It’s just that when you expect gold and get myrhh, it can be a little disappointing.

Still, Desplechin’s film is a masterpiece compared to Agnes Jaoui’s Let It Rain, a film that desperately wants to be funny, only in the most human of ways. Let It Rain, as well as Jaoui’s 2005 feature Talk To Me (that, for the record, I also found vastly overrated), will satisfy the 50+ crowd, but I think most everyone else will find it inane. I don’t want to be too snarky here, but I think if you close your eyes and imagine a typical, petty French family comedy then you would likely imagine everything that happens in Let It Rain. The film does have some very honest, well done moments, most of which involve Mimouna Hadji, the only non-professional actress in the cast who plays the family’s maid and is Jaoui’s family’s maid in real life. Still, Let It Rain confronts many issues in this very tactical screenplay, but is mostly dull and rarely comes across as authentic.

So, is all lost for French cinema at this year’s film festival? Just when it looked like there would be no great French film this year, Olivier Assayas sweeps in to save the day with his magnificent Summer Hours, another French family film (can there ever be too many???) but the only full-fledged drama of the bunch. Assayas, ever the modernist, penned the script shortly before the death of his mother and admits that the film probably wouldn’t have been written post-her death. Although this extratextual bit of information doesn’t necessarily give the film more emotional weight, Summer Hours still seems more significant given that fact. Evaluating the value and worth of historical family objects, Assayas says that he wanted to reformulate the family genre by changing the focus from how to acquire certain things from family histories into how we let go and get rid of these objects. Ravishing filmmaking and cinematography aside, Summer Hours is quietly devastating and extraordinarily powerful in the way it shapes each character and highlights the difficult problems each has with family in a globalized modern world. However, Summer Hours makes clear that no matter how far you are away from where you come from, the separated loneliness can be felt just as strongly at home. Moreover, the film reflects the changing moods, attitudes, and memories of different eras and generations within given spaces. Just like a gallery space (Summer Hours was commissioned by the Musee d’Orsay), the space of the home can shift just as dramatically depending on who and what is in it. Summer Hours is not to be missed.

by James Hansen


Unknown said...

Summer Hours sounds like an odd follow-up to Boarding Gate.

And I don't think Look at Me was overrated. I recall it as being a touching film.

Let's hear about Che!

James Hansen said...

BOARDING GATE was an odd choice for Assayas to begin with. SUMMER HOURS is more his "turf", I think.

"Look At Me" is all yours! Keep it...away from me. I just don't see very much drive behind either of Jaoui's films that I've seen. It's all so extremely formulated (not that other films aren't, but you can just feel them coming up with this stuff) that everything seems forced and inauthentic to me. I think I'm in the minority in that opinion though...anyone else seen Jaoui's films? Thoughts?

A mini-review of "Che" is forthcoming, but I'll keep with smaller festival reviews for it (and everything else) to anticipate larger reviews when they open publicly. I look forward to writing a larger piece on "Che" in the future. You must wait on my opinion with baited breath! (Or just ask Brandon...I talked to him about it a little.)


i'm sad i missed summer hours... but i loved a christmas tale. more than you obviously though i'll readily admit that it's no Kings and Queen

James Hansen said...

Thanks for dropping by the site, Nathaniel! I think if I went into Christmas Tale a second time with ont such soaring expectations, I'd probably like it more. I still enjoyed it...I just wasn't blown away. I'll likely see it again and do a bigger write up at some point once it is released. SUMMER HOURS is getting released by IFC, so you'll get to see it sooner or later. You'll have to let us know what you think when that happens (March, I think...)