Beyond the Multiplex

A wise, whimsical and totally romantic French hit. An absorbing look at women in the Israeli army. Plus: An award-winning film from Bosnia.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 15, 2007 12:00PM (EST)

There's something essentially contradictory about the world of independent film. I suspect this doesn't qualify as a revelation. It's more like the big hole in the front yard that I finally fell into on my way out the door, or the proverbial gorilla in the living room whom everybody politely ignores.

On one hand, nobody who works in this cute little corner of show business -- not the filmmakers and actors, not the producers and executives, not the exhibitors or the critics -- got into it for cynical or venal reasons. Whatever vestigial coolness and fading aroma of rebellion still clings to indie-ness, the money involved is contemptible by Hollywood standards. (The entire reported box office returns for independent movies last week came to about $13.8 million, most of that accounted for by Oscar-nominated pictures like "Pan's Labyrinth," "Venus" and "The Queen." An average Hollywood action film in wide release can earn that much in a single weekend.)

For all their posturing, these are movie people. I haven't met anybody in this business who doesn't hope to nurture film as an art form, according to his or her own peculiar taste. That said, we're all chasing movies in overpriced hotel bars around the world, from the ski slopes of Utah to the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin to the Croisette in Cannes, in hopes of the validation that only marketplace success can bring.

Movies like "Little Miss Sunshine" and "An Inconvenient Truth" and, now, "Pan's Labyrinth" -- at $26.6 million and counting, the most successful Spanish-language film ever released in the United States -- are of course the things that keep the indie business afloat, economically speaking. Each hit like that can support at least a dozen of the ambitious and difficult little films that are sighed over by a handful of insiders but mostly remain invisible to the general public. At Sundance, I got used to having conversations that ended with the "Sunshine shrug," generally signifying that the speaker didn't personally think "Little Miss Sunshine" was the second coming of "Wild Strawberries" or anything, but people loved it and, hey, what can you do? These conversations tended to go like this:

Me: Hey, [name deleted]! How the hell are you? How's business in your wonderful but struggling little theater in Anytown, USA?

Name Deleted: Oh, you know. Up and down. Not so bad, I guess.

Me: Cool. So what did people like in Anytown? What was your No. 1 film last year?

ND: Hmm, let me think. ["Sunshine shrug."] Do you mean besides "Little Miss Sunshine"?

One important distribution executive told me that her mom had dragged her dad off the sofa (apparently a task of some difficulty) to go see "LMS," based on a neighbor's recommendation, and then called her up to rave about their discovery. "I've heard of it, Mom," the executive said. "I tried to buy it at Sundance last year, and got outbid."

What everybody understands, and nobody can do anything about, is that the market is flooded every week with so many would-be "Sunshine"-size hits, and so many difficult and beloved little films, that most of them are never noticed by anyone. This week alone we've got a big-hearted, old-fashioned French comedy, of the kind that might have been a major hit 15 or 20 years ago, along with a terrific debut by a Bosnian director and a low-budget Israeli film that's been a festival favorite. All three are likable, accessible films, but they'd need careful feeding and watering to build an audience. With the movie world focused on the Berlin Film Festival this week and the Oscars next week, that's not likely to happen. But let's do our part right now.

"Avenue Montaigne": Art, theater and music collide -- with one doggone cute chick -- in fashionable Paree

"In France they say that my films are not completely French," muses Danièle Thompson. "I don't know. There is some sense of humor that is more Anglo-Saxon, perhaps."

This is a curious thing to say, on the face of it. A vigorous, handsome blonde who could pass for 10 years younger than her age (which is 65), Thompson has been an important behind-the-scenes figure in French film since the late 1960s, writing or co-writing screenplays for international hits like "Cousin, Cousine," "Queen Margot" and "Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train" before turning to directing in 1999 with "La Bûche." Her new picture, "Avenue Montaigne," is a delicious French pastry, tart and sweet, steeped in Parisian glamour.

On the other hand, Thompson knows whereof she speaks. "Avenue Montaigne" has been a big hit in France (under its original title, "Fauteuils d'orchestre," or "Orchestra Seats"), but that may be because it's so drastically out of step with the mode of downbeat, gritty realism prevalent in so much contemporary French cinema. Thompson's taste is clearly transatlantic. Her most obvious models are the sophisticated Hollywood comedies made by European transplants like Billy Wilder, Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Capra, along with the urban ensemble pieces of Woody Allen (who remains better loved in Europe than at home).

Logically, then, "Avenue Montaigne" ought to be exactly the kind of wise, whimsical, glossy and romantic French film upscale American viewers will adore. But savvier people than me have gone broke trying to predict this stuff. Let's just say that while film buffs yearning for ever-edgier material may find this irredeemably sunny and sugary, I couldn't resist it and didn't try. I certainly couldn't resist gamine star Cécile de France as Jessica, a spritelike new arrival in Paris who finds herself drifting from high to low on the eponymous Avenue Montaigne, a nosebleed-snooty address where the worlds of theater, classical music, haute couture and art auctions all come together.

"Avenue Montaigne" presents a classic upstairs-downstairs social world loaded with color and incident, with Jessica as its pivot point. Working as the first female waiter in the Bar des Théâtres (a real, and legendary, cafe), Jessica bounces like a pinball off a roster of characters, all facing moments of high drama. She becomes pals with the famous soap star (Valérie Lemercier, a household name in France) who yearns to play Simone de Beauvoir in a serious-minded art film made by a famous American director (an amusing bit part for Sydney Pollack). The concert pianist (Albert Dupontel) who wants to chuck away his stellar career and head for the woods confides in her. The self-made modern art collector (Claude Brasseur) who's selling it all becomes her benefactor; and his estranged, divorced son (Christopher Thompson, the director's real-life son and co-writer) just might be the frog prince who needs kissing.

That's not even half the characters, or half the well-loved French character actors. Jessica also encounters the retiring theater usher and former sexpot (Claudie Dani) who's always listening to classic '60s French pop music; her grumpy, pompous but of course softhearted boss (François Rollin); and the Gucci-clad hotsy-totsy (Annelise Hesme) who's playing art collector and son against each other.

Despite its theatrical pileup of incidents and characters, "Avenue Montaigne" is largely shot on location, and was rooted in Thompson's desire to capture one of the last authentic and diverse ecosystems in central Paris. "Every city has these places that maybe used to have more color and less uniformity, but are slowly getting eaten by haute couture, by luxurious shops," she says. "The little cafe in our film is a real place, and it's really threatened. It's the last place left in the Avenue Montaigne where someone in a doorman's uniform can order coffee and sit next to a famous actor or a millionaire. It's a story that is true of big cities everywhere -- New York or London or Tokyo. As these areas grow more glamorous, more fashionable, sometimes they lose a little bit of their soul.

"I was coming out of the theater on Avenue Montaigne one night -- and it's a beautiful 1913 theater with Lalique lamps and all the original furnishings -- and I realized that this one street had three theaters and an auction room, all around this one little cafe. I go there often, and you will see someone rehearsing their lines at a table, and then there are musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic or something, and then there's a guy who's been delivering fish to the expensive restaurant upstairs. That was the starting place. I thought: There's something there to dig."

"Avenue Montaigne" opens Feb. 16 at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York; and March 2 in Boston, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Calif., and Washington, with more cities to follow.

"Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams": So-called normal life in postwar Sarajevo
Geez, here we have a really good little movie laboring under a tongue-twisting title that's meant to be ironic (in ways I have to explain to you, as they have been explained to me). It's a hopeless case, marketing-wise, but let's rise above such banal considerations as I tell you that "Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams" -- that's pronounced, roughly, grr-BOV-itch -- is the sharp-cornered, tightly constructed debut from a young Bosnian filmmaker named Jasmila Zbanic, which won several awards at Berlin last year.

Grbavica, I gather, is a rundown suburban neighborhood of Sarajevo where a single mom named Esma (Mirjana Karanovic) lives with her moody teenage daughter Sara (Luna Mijovic). It was besieged by the Serbs during the Bosnian war, and many of its residents were apparently tortured and killed (although we never directly learn this in the film). In any case, it's a pretty dreary place, and associating it with the phrase "land of my dreams" -- title of a patriotic song about Bosnia that Sara and her classmates sing -- is intentionally sardonic. Esma's dreams, as you may guess pretty early in this film, are not good ones.

Followers of Eastern European cinema will recognize Karanovic from her roles in Emir Kusturica's movies, and this is a guarded, haunting, memorable performance. Esma is just getting through the days and nights. She spends the latter working in a dicey nightclub where war veterans conduct various shadowy lines of business over expensive bottles of liquor. She doesn't ask questions, and we don't need to know much more than that. She attends the tiresome self-help meetings for women who were victimized during the war. She's a decent mother to Sara, a spirited, tempestuous tomboy type. But the official story -- that Sara's missing dad was a "shaheed," a Muslim martyr who died for Bosnia -- is beginning to wear thin.

There's not much more to the story than that, and in fairness there isn't much suspense surrounding its central revelation. (Nor is there meant to be, I suspect.) But Zbanic is such an acute observer of women's lives in their intimate details, and constructs such fine scenes, that I think this might be the best film to emerge from the aftermath of the Balkan conflict. (Despite the fact, as Zbanic reports in the press notes, that Bosnia-Herzegovina is the only country in Europe with no 35mm cameras and no film labs.)

Esma launches on a tentative romance with Pelda (Leon Lucev), a thuggish-looking guy from the club who's carrying around painful losses of his own, and Sara begins one with Samir (Kenan Catic), another war orphan in her class. Zbanic captures these halting attempts to connect beautifully, but the only real possibility for love and reconciliation in "Grbavica" will come when Esma and Sara face the truth about their past and the realities of their future.

"Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams" opens Feb. 16 at Film Forum in New York; March 2 in Los Angeles; March 16 in Chicago; March 30 in San Francisco; April 13 in Boston, Seattle and Washington; and April 20 in Dallas and Philadelphia, with more cities to follow.

"Close to Home": Hair, makeup, boyfriends -- oh, and suicide bombers
No one has made a narrative feature before, apparently, about the women serving in the Israeli military, although service has been compulsory for young women since the nation was created in 1948. That pretty much sums up the appeal and value of "Close to Home," which was shot fast and cheap on the streets of Jerusalem and has been bouncing around the international film-festival circuit for two years.

Shot on consumer-grade video by Vidi Bilu and Dalia Hager, two young women with experience in Israeli television, "Close to Home" looks a lot more like an inexpensive TV production than a feature film. It's a series of static close and medium shots, often awkwardly and inconsistently lit, and some of the acting has the fake intensity of soap opera. But simply for the world it presents, and for the young actresses Smadar Sayar and Naama Schendar, it makes compelling viewing.

Mirit (Schendar) is a good girl, quiet at home and respectful of her army superiors. Smadar (Sayar) is a post-adolescent rebel, eager to flout the rules and ignore their mind-deadening task, which is to stop Arab passersby on the street and register their ID cards. (This may or may not be intentional, but the filmmakers vividly capture the routine of petty daily humiliations visited on Arabs in Israel.) Forced to work together, their relationship takes a familiar course: They quarrel, are drawn together by discord and tragedy, and then drift apart again.

There is no evident political agenda in "Close to Home" (which, in this context, can only be a good thing). Bilu and Hager simply portray Mirit and Smadar as ordinary 18-year-old girls, more interested in debates over haircuts, or cute boys on the street (be they Arab or Jewish), or a particular plaid hat whose price has just been reduced, than in the very real threat that somebody may blow himself up in the neighborhood they've been assigned to monitor. I won't argue for the cinematic virtues of this film; they don't exist. But as a pseudo-documentary portrait of real life behind the explosive headlines, it's absorbing.

"Close to Home" opens Feb. 16 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York, March 7 in Boston, March 9 in Portland, Ore., and March 23 in Los Angeles. Also available on-demand via certain cable TV systems.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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