Beyond the Multiplex

Bastille Day bonanza: Three big French films worth your attention -- one starring Deneuve and Depardieu! Plus: Mamet at his most disturbing.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 13, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

Sacre bleu! It's the Francophile egghead logjam! Some version of this pileup occurs every Bastille Day, but this year it's ludicrous: We've got new features from three of France's most important directors, all opening in the United States on the same day. All they need now is a unified marketing campaign that somehow references the Zidane head-butt.

If you ever pause to wonder what has become of the audience for foreign-language films in our fine land, pass some of the blame along to the brilliant distributors who pull stunts like this. Yes, there will be articles like mine discussing this veritable feast of bittersweet Gallic savories, but the reality is that the already modest big-city audience for these movies will be carved into pieces, if not driven away altogether in confusion. None of these three pictures will get the opening weekend it deserves, making exhibitors in smaller cities understandably hesitant to give them a chance. So let's drag out the current mantra of the indie-film business: Oh well, there's always Netflix.

When I told director Patrice Chéreau that his challenging new marriage drama "Gabrielle" wasn't likely to attract a large audience, he received the news with a smile. "I don't need a big audience," he said. "I want a small audience, but a good one." Chéreau has had a major international hit with the early-'90s costume drama "Queen Margot," and a succè de scandale in 2001 with the intensely erotic "Intimacy." With a self-consciously difficult film like "Gabrielle" he's upping the ante, as if making a play for the vacant throne of Greatest European Director. Like most other Continental titles, that isn't quite the honor it used to be; the throne is a bit moth-eaten these days and looks more like an old chair in a closet of memories. But still.

André Téchiné's "Changing Times" looks to the past in quite another way. Film buffs will mostly want to see this sweet if jumbled melodrama of lost love because it reunites Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, who haven't acted together in a quarter century. A generation younger than Téchiné and Chéreau, the prolific François Ozon has turned out perhaps his finest and most intimate work so far, "Time to Leave," which follows the final days of a handsome but not exceptionally likable young man with a terminal illness.

All this exquisite Frenchness won't quite overshadow Stuart Gordon's devastating film version of David Mamet's play "Edmond," which has become one of the summer's most buzzed-over micro-indies. And we'll save a thought for "Excellent Cadavers," Marco Turco's documentary about the recent history of the Sicilian Mafia, which essentially indicts the entire postwar Italian state, up to and including Silvio Berlusconi, for tolerating (if not kissy-facing) the world's most notorious criminal gang.

"Gabrielle": A marriage, and a film, with dangerously jagged edges
Anybody who wanders into "Gabrielle" expecting a good date flick, complete with period costumes, beautiful sets and heaving bosoms, is likely to leave the theater enraged. Based on Joseph Conrad's short story "The Return," Patrice Chéreau's film follows the comfortable, upper-bourgeois marriage of Jean (Pascal Greggory) and Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert), sometime around 1910 in an unidentified French city, as it is torn apart by a sudden, impetuous decision.

None of this is especially hard to follow: Jean comes home from a train journey to find a letter from Gabrielle, saying she is leaving with another man. Just as quickly, she comes back. He berates and humiliates her, and she responds in kind. Not yet ready to end the interlocking business relationship that is their marriage, the two wage open warfare, in front of the servants and the invited guests at their weekly salon. One of those guests, in fact, is the fleshy, dissipated newspaper editor who works for Jean, and whom Gabrielle now loves (even though she didn't stay with him).

It's Chéreau's method for telling this story that will delight some viewers and infuriate others. Throughout "Gabrielle," he tries to stretch the cinematic medium to the breaking point. The film hopscotches between black-and-white and color sequences, without any obvious system. Patches of the film are silent, with huge, intrusive intertitles to convey information and even lines of dialogue. As Chéreau admits, the editing deliberately violates the established grammar of cinema, so that the camera seems to skip around the couple's opulent rooms, and we sometimes see events happen more than once from different points of view. (The terrific cinematography is by Eric Gautier, who shot "Kings and Queen" and "The Motorcycle Diaries," among many other films.)

Instead of the restrained chamber-music score you might expect, Chéreau uses lyrical but defiantly modernist, even discordant, music by Italian composer Fabio Vacchi. Clearly, the idea is to wrest this apparently repressed and antique tale of adultery in a bygone era out of its preconceived niche and render it as a disturbing, timeless fable of human torment. I found it a haunting and riveting work, unlike anything else you can see at the movies and as such an explicit challenge to the unambitious, anesthetic character of most contemporary cinema. But is it easy, or delightful, or fun? It is not.

"There is a danger in the costume drama, the period film," Chéreau tells me over a cup of green tea at his hotel in New York's SoHo neighborhood. "It is the danger that you can say, 'It doesn't interest me, it doesn't touch me, they are so far away. That is a tribe -- you know? -- with unusual laws and unusual rules, that has nothing to do with our own now.'

"I was possessed by two contrary ideas. It is always a pleasure to re-create a beautiful past, probably a more beautiful time for wealthy people, by the way, than today. But at the same time you want to say how modern and timeless this story is, meaning it is a story about a man and a woman, a husband and wife, and it doesn't have anything to do with the time. It could happen today. I was so convinced that it could happen today that I didn't see the necessity of bringing it to today."

Contrary ideas seem to be Chéreau's identifying marks; the handsome 61-year-old Parisian is still best known as a revolutionary stage director, in theater and especially in opera. His 1976 staging of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth Festival -- as a sort of Victorian-Marxist revolutionary struggle -- remains one of the most controversial events in the form's recent history.

Yet Chéreau longs to be remembered as a great filmmaker, the heir to the retired or departed big names of the '60s and '70s. He recently accepted a commission from his friend Pierre Boulez, the esteemed conductor, to direct another opera (Janacek's "In the House of the Dead") in Provence and New York. "It's exactly the opposite of what I want to do," he tells me gloomily. "But I said yes, so I have to do it."

Viewers may detect his theatrical background in "Gabrielle," which has two main characters plus a handful of minor supporting roles, and mostly takes place inside one house. That, insists Chéreau, is "an optical illusion." Yes, he says, we are almost always inside the house. "But in theater you cannot show the whole house as I have shown it. You cannot, in theater, show two bedrooms, two bathrooms, the entire wing, the sitting rooms, the dressing rooms, the kitchen. It seems to be theatrical, but it is exactly what the theater cannot do. The theater cannot give me such proximity to the faces, the glances. The theater cannot give me the movement of the camera. The theater cannot give me the entire house, and the house is important; it's the third character in the piece. The theater cannot give me the voiceover, or the black-and-white, or the intertitles."

When I ask Chéreau to explain the film's switches from black-and-white to color and back again, the staccato editing and the disorienting on-screen titles, he laughs genially. "There is no explanation. Just the pleasure or fun of making it," he says. He began with an idea: The film would begin with an antique black-and-white look, as Jean (wonderfully played by the long, lean, sheepdog-esque Greggory, a Chéreau regular) makes his way home through the crowded streets, reflecting on his life. Then the moment of finding the letter would change everything: The scene would shift to color, and total silence would fall.

"Nothing was enough for me in the editing room to emphasize the shock of the letter," he says. "I have a zoom on the letter, with beautiful music -- I was rediscovering the old cinema of the '40s. Then I have a panoramic shot, moving through all the mirrors in the room, finishing with Jean taking the letter and turning it to see his name. Then I thought that wasn't enough. So I replace black-and-white with color, then I have the music, I have a brandy decanter that falls and breaks. How do you describe such an intimate earthquake in the life of this guy? I tried to invent a way of doing it, without asking the actors to explain too much."

What's so invigorating about "Gabrielle," despite its fusty setting and tried-and-true story, is the sense of an artist who's trying things out, more or less making it up as he goes. Chéreau says he wanted an on-screen title to end the film, but was worried that "alone like that it could be an orphan, so we tried to make some relatives for it." The little jump-cuts, and the unexplained repetition of events? "Well, I don't know why," he laughs. "I think it's just good. I cannot explain everything. The grammar of the cinema is that you have one shot from this side of the door and one shot from the other side of the door, and you avoid slamming the door twice. But I did it twice, despite everything I have learned."

Once the black-and-white, or the silence, or the strange intertitles had become part of the film's vocabulary, he says, they assumed their own logic, one he can't easily explain to outsiders. At times Chéreau borrows the logic of the silent movie; at other times the logic of the comic strip. "Of course now I can look at it and say, maybe there is too much black-and-white, or too many titles," he says. "But to know where the boundary is, you have to cross it. I could choose another route that would be less risky. But I am happy to take some risks."

"Gabrielle" opens July 14 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York, July 28 in Boston, and Aug. 4 in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

"Time to Leave": Coked-out fashionista vs. Grim Reaper yields no clear winner
With a roster of five feature films, all different and distinctive, and his 40th birthday still more than a year away, François Ozon looks an awful lot like the leading French filmmaker of his generation. I'm beginning to get the idea. Much as I've admired, say, Ozon's breakthrough "Under the Sand" (which made Charlotte Rampling an overnight sensation for the second time) or last year's "5x2," with its acerbic dissection of a middle-class marriage, or the international hit "Swimming Pool," I've never been sure I actually liked Ozon. Is he a chilly stylist in the Hitchcock mode, or a sympathetic observer of life's moments, in the mode of Eric Rohmer?

Of course the answer, all along, was that he was a little of both and not quite either. With "Time to Leave," starring French pretty-boy sensation Melvil Poupaud as a gay Parisian fashion photographer who suddenly learns he has only months to live, Ozon reveals himself more than ever before. It's a magnificent miniature, a supremely tender work that's full of emotion and even sentimentality, but that never stoops to fulfill the audience's wishes or tries to make Romain (Poupaud) any more likable on death's door than he was before.

I suppose Ozon's premise here is that impending death does not ennoble us, but it does drive us toward making peace with ourselves, if we can. If that means we make amends to others, within our capacity to do so, then so much the better. As Romain tells a highway rest-stop waitress (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) -- who will become, under strange circumstances, the last person he sleeps with -- he isn't a nice person. He's a shallow fashionista, making tons of money with vapid photographs. He barely speaks to his sister, who loves him to distraction and wants him to be an uncle to her kids. He fends off his pushy mom (Marie Rivière) but has a surprisingly tender relationship with his grizzled, philandering father (Daniel Duris). I don't think I've ever seen that in a movie before -- a gay man who gets along well with his straight dad. There is still hope for the world.

But all these people are in a sense the furniture in Romain's world, as is his lovely, androgynous German boyfriend, Sasha (Christian Sengewald), whom he drives away. He's going to die alone, maybe more alone than most of us, and Romain's journey is mostly into childhood, into memory, into the places where he has betrayed himself. Those betrayals are always so much harder to forgive, after all, than the ones we inflict on others.

At moments Romain does reach out to others, as best he can. There's a heart-rending scene when he calls his sister -- essentially to say goodbye, although no one in his family knows he's dying -- and Ozon shows us, in a shimmering, deep-field shot, that Romain is no more than 100 yards from her, watching from under a tree as she plays with her kids. Ozon's films have all been pictorial, and all obsessed with the seaside, but "Time to Leave," shot by Jeanne Lapoirie in CinemaScope, is his loveliest yet.

At not quite 80 minutes, "Time to Leave" doesn't waste a second of film. You'll be left wishing that Romain had more time, that Ozon did, that we all did. Dialogue is spare but the acting is all marvelous, and despite his pretty-boy look, Poupaud conveys the stages of Romain's journey from all-out, coke-snorting denial to something approaching peace with angelic intensity. It's good, at least in theory, to see the great Jeanne Moreau in an important cameo as Romain's grandmother, although I'm sorry to say you may be shocked by her appearance. I guess this isn't a major movie, but it's profoundly affecting and almost perfectly made.

"Time to Leave" opens July 14 at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York, July 21 in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Sept. 1 in Chicago, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Depardieu and Deneuve, together again; Mamet's terrifying urban fairy tale; how the Mafia ruled Italy for 40 years

Confusion may set in when people try to tell André Téchiné's new "Changing Times" apart from Ozon's "Time to Leave" by title, and if you speak French it's even worse ("Le temps qui reste" vs. "Les temps qui changent"). I'm here to tell you that while Téchiné is an important director who changed the course of contemporary French movies (mostly with "My Favorite Season" and "Wild Reeds" in the early '90s), and while he's got the two most beloved French actors in this one, it's kind of a mess. An agreeable, even lovable mess, but still a mess.

Gérard Depardieu plays Antoine, a stoical French construction engineer on assignment in Tangiers, apparently to build a new TV complex but really to hunt for his lost love of 30 years earlier. She is a Franco-Moroccan radio personality named Cécile (Catherine Deneuve), who is married to a younger doctor (sarcastic heartthrob Gilbert Melki, one of my favorite French actors) and is enmeshed in various other domestic dramas. Her son, Sami (Malik Zidi), is home from France with his girlfriend, Nadia (Lubna Azabal), but Sami is having a not-so-secret love affair with a guy and Nadia has a hyper-Islamic identical twin sister (also played by Azabal) who works at McDonald's.

If this sounds like rather too much story for a film that should be focused on its adored pair of stars, well, it is. There are some great moments in "Changing Times"; Antoine finally tracks Cécile down at the supermarket, where he promptly walks face-first into a glass door and must be tended by her husband. And Téchiné captures life in Tangiers in fascinating detail, as an unstable blend of European, Arab and African cultures.

There's plenty of color, detail and humor. I'm not saying you won't have a good time. But to my taste the whole thing's a mishmash, and Deneuve and Depardieu's scenes together have a rushed, bottled quality, as if it were important to get the fogey romance out of the way so we can move all the other chess pieces on the board. (Opens July 14 at the Paris Theatre in New York, with other cities to follow.)

Whether or not you think you can stand David Mamet, I'm telling you: Give Stuart Gordon's film of "Edmond" a chance. Mamet's 1982 play is one of his darkest and funniest, following a disgraced businessman, actually named Edmond Burke (played here by William H. Macy), who follows a misguided philosophy of human freedom deep into the New York night.

Edmond walks out on his wife, on impulse, and gets into a murky barroom conversation with another suit-wearing guy (Joe Mantegna). "A man has to get out of himself," Mantegna's character suggests. He has an agenda: "Pussy," he says. "Pussy. Power, money, adventure. I think that's it. Self-destruction. I think that's it." Edmond follows this prescription to the letter. He tries to get laid, he gets mugged, he buys a knife and pursues revenge, and he finally commits a horrible crime, seemingly fueled by bottomless reservoirs of racial, sexual and homophobic hatred.

Did I mention that it's hilarious, and contains some of Mamet's best dialogue? And that somehow, by making a racist, murderous, Everycreep his protagonist, Mamet is able to produce some of his most penetrating psychological and spiritual insights. "Every fear hides a wish," Edmond tells his cellmate late in the film (yes, things get that bad), and it finally becomes clear what the wish is that he's been pursuing to its illogical extension.

Gordon, known to horror mavens as the director of "Re-Animator" in the early '80s, has known Mamet since both were working in the Chicago theater. He directs "Edmond" with terrific verve and low-budget intensity, seeing it as both an urban horror film and a story of spiritual transformation. Macy is, unsurprisingly, the perfect choice, and given the ultra-low budget, the cast is full of delights. Bai Ling appears as a peep-show dancer, Denise Richards as a stripper, Rebecca Pidgeon as Edmond's perennially pissed-off wife and Julia Stiles as the waitress he disastrously picks up in a diner. (Opens July 14 at the Quad Cinema in New York, with other cities to follow.)

In the at-last-I-understand-this-a-little category, I can't speak too highly of Marco Turco's "Excellent Cadavers," a film version of American journalist Alexander Stille's definitive history of the Sicilian Mafia and its vampirical relationship to the Italian state since World War II. It's sometimes a strange viewing experience, with footage of Stille trooping around in libraries, archives and other public buildings, but when the historical material kicks in -- especially the crime-scene photographs of Sicilian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia -- it's riveting.

From the late '70s through the early '90s, Sicily -- and much of Italian society -- were torn apart by Mafia wars, with the Cosa Nostra becoming so powerful that any police officers, prosecutors or judges who dared oppose it were almost summarily slaughtered. "Excellent Cadavers" largely tracks the careers of the heroic prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who put literally hundreds of Mafiosi in prison, and successfully tried most of Sicily's criminal leadership in the legendary "maxi-trial" of 1985, which had more than 400 defendants.

But in 1992 both men were themselves murdered by the Mafia, amid the usual protestations that the government could do little to stop it. (Falcone's car was blown up with a military-scale bomb that ripped up 400 meters of highway.) Stille and Turco are cautious in their allegations, but the clear subtext to the film is that many Italian politicians, of all parties, have been directly or indirectly on the Mafia payroll for decades. The people of Sicily rose up in open rebellion after those murders and, for a while, things changed. But just as Italian fascism reinvented itself under Silvio Berlusconi, so did the Mafia adapt to a new era. In the end, Stille suggests, the more things change in Italy, the more they stay the same. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York, with other cities to follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beyond The Multiplex Movies