Friday, June 03, 2005

What Is It About French Chicks?

Listless. Stupid. Disappointing.

At one point in tonight's 6-3 loss to the Twins, there was a shot of Joe Torre on the bench. He was holding a bat, which is something I haven't seen before, but it was the look in his eyes that seemed utterly out of place.

He looked like he wanted to knock someone's teeth out.

We're not going to dwell on this. Instead, I'm writing about French, I mean, flicks. Actually, I mean both.

A Tout de Suite

Going to the Angelika in New York on a whim is a hit-or-miss proposition. The place is usually packed to the gills with arthouse film-wannabes (all, La Chiquita insists I add, on dates), and the lobby is plastered with propaganda for the films that are currently playing. Last weekend, with my first choice not playing for a few hours, La Chiquita and I wound up selecting our film based on these touts, which were among the strongest I've ever seen. Kevin Thomas of the L.A. Times was calling it "as flawless as a film gets." Stephen Holden's New York Times review called the film "nearly perfect." That's a lot of perfection that people are talking about, so we figured this film was worth a gander.

"A Tout de Suite" means "right away" in French; the title projects an urgency that I hope is intended ironically. It's the story of Lili, a bored art student from a well-to-do family whose parents are divorced and detached from her. The setting is Paris in 1976, and as Lili drifts through life--arriving at her classes an hour late, if at all--she finds the proverbial tall, dark stranger, who is portrayed by Ouassini Embarek (the character's name, according to IMDB, is Bada; I don't recall this ever being mentioned in the movie).

Since this is 1976, Lili and Bada segue quickly from disco dancing to taking a collective nap with one of Lili's girlfriends, to bumping uglies (sans girlfriend, as the French would say) in the morning. Almost as quickly as the couple meets and mates, Lili receives a phone call from her new love: he's robbed a bank, there are hostages, someone is dead.

Sure enough, soon Lili and Bada are on the run, along with Bada's violent accomplice, Alain, and his own bourgeois gangster moll (again, don't sweat the names, because no-one uses them in the film). The "on the run" portion is handled more realistically than in any film I've ever seen. The Bandits' (and Bandettes') pursuers are never seen, the pursuit itself is more an inchoate sense of dread than a series of shootouts and escapes.

While this approach is realistic (the film is based on a true story) it makes for one slow, boring picture, because nothing is happening while the foursome are dreading capture. That's not good for a film whose own website calls it "an erotically-charged thriller". That's maybe half-right.

Isild Le Besco, who does a fine job of portraying Lili, looks and acts like Scarlett Johansson, just with a generous side order of nudity thrown in (Lili gets unclothed a number of times in the film, which provides about 90% of the entertainment value). Like Johansson's break-out film, Lost in Translation, A Tout de Suite is very sparing on dialogue and extremely dependent on Le Besco's expression in repeated closeups.

The cinematography--which is in black and white--reminds you that film is still a photographic process. Many of the shots recall art gallery stills. Nonetheless, I can't really rave about the film's look--but that may have more to do with the projectors at the Angelika than with the film itself.

Can't really recommend this to anyone unless you're a big fan of the French New Wave, or of the film's director, Benoit Jacquot.

Look at Me

In the United States, the French are more an abstraction than an actual flesh-and-blood people. Francophobic Americans regard them as an embodiment of everything that is anti-American in the world: annoying, haughty, intellectually vain "surrender monkeys," hypocrites that are disdainful of the U.S.'s commercialism, but are always willing to whore themselves out for a dollar (or Euro). Francophiles, on the other hand ascribe magical powers to the French: they are pro-art, anti-bigotry sophisticates, amazing lovers and sensualists who are more appreciative of a full-figured woman, yet who themselves never seem to put on weight, despite each eating half a ton of butter and cheese per year.

Of course, neither side is "right". People are just more complicated than any series of narrow stereotypes. Nonetheless, Agnes Jaoui's Look at Me (en francais, "Comme une Image") takes the stereotypes for a spin.

It is the story of Lolita, a full-figured girl studying to be an opera singer. Despite the stereotypes, men don't seem to give Lolita the time of day, until they find out her dad is Etienne, the famous author. Etienne--more skilled than any other member of the gender at ignoring his daughter--is the stereotypical French intellectual. Bossy and mean, he is ready to dress down any of his perceived inferiors at the slightest provocation.

Just to make Etienne even more of a peach of a guy, he has a hot, fitness-conscious trophy wife, not much older than Lolita herself, and a young daughter Lolita is often asked to babysit.

As Lolita struggles to get her father's attention and approval, she enlists the aid of one of her voice teachers (played by the director) to help her amateur singing troup put on a show. The teacher balks at first--she bitterly complains to her husband, Pierre, that if she doesn't learn to say no "they'll have me working 50 hours a week!"--but her attitude changes when she realizes that Lolita is the daughter of her favorite novelist.

To make the whole thing even more incestuous, Pierre's a writer, also. He has all of Etienne's intellectual pretensions without any of his success. But when Pierre's novel draws Etienne's attention, Pierre is vaulted into the big time, and his artistic principles are put to the test.

There isn't a lot of suspense in this film, as questions like "will Pierre sell out" or "is Sebastien (the arabic aspiring journalist with whom Lolita meets cute in the first reel) the right guy for Lolita" tend to have predictable answers. The fun of the movie is in a character study, in which every character (excluding Sebastien, but surprisingly including Lolita) is a somewhat unattractive hypocrite. Recommended.

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