The fires that fuel foreign conflicts and those that burn in the hearts of adolescent girls light up the screen at the final weekend of the 11th annual City of Lights, City of Angels film festival. In Flanders, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and will open commercially in Los Angeles in June, writer-director Bruno Dumont (L’Humanité, Twentynine Palms) follows a trio of young men from a farm town as they are drafted into an unnamed military action in some faraway place. “So, where’s the war you’re off to?” a friend asks of the hulking, soft-spoken Demester (Samuel Boidin) as he prepares to ship out. There comes no reply.
It is through Demester’s heavy, inexpressive eyes that we then witness the barbarity of the battlefield and the savage instincts of men (and women) under fire. And if the movie’s modern military technology, desert setting and dark-skinned insurgents have led many to see Flanders as an analogue for the war in Iraq, it’s to the credit of Dumont, who began his career as a philosophy professor, that he reduces everything (from location to character motivation) to an abstraction, so that we might just as soon be in Afghanistan, Algeria or the African theater of World War II. Flanders arrives at a familiar conclusion — that war is hell — but the getting there is made uniquely unsettling by Dumont’s relentlessly anti-psychological disposition. In his best films, of which this is one, he views mankind the way an alien race might: with great curiosity, from a cautious distance, and ultimately as one more species in the vast animal kingdom.
Psychology — particularly the way that soldiers can come to rationalize otherwise unconscionable behavior — is everywhere in director Laurent Herbiet’s Mon Colonel, in which the present-day investigation into the murder of an elderly French army vet (Olivier Gourmet) unleashes a Pandora’s box of revelations about the atrocities of the Algerian War. Adapted by Costa-Gavras and Jean-Claude Grumberg from the novel by Francis Zamponi, the movie suffers from an awkward (and ultimately unnecessary) flashback structure, but the period scenes crackle with Gourmet’s commanding performance and a sharp ear for all-too-familiar military doublespeak (“special powers” and “tough interrogations” as euphemisms for torture). Even sharper are the movie’s insights into the muddy ironies of the combat zone: Algerians on the side of the colonials; colonists sympathetic to the National Liberation Front revolutionaries; and conscripts and officers alike attempting to reconcile front-office politics with frontline realities.
Though it doesn’t take place in a nation at war, Claire Simon’s coming-of-age drama On Fire (Ça Brûle) may be the most brutal, harshly beautiful film in this year’s COLCOA program. Set in Provence over a few days of summer, it is about a 15-year-old girl, Livia (Camille Varenne), who falls from her horse and falls harder for the handsome fireman, Jean (Gilbert Melki), who comes to her rescue — no matter that Jean is happily married and close to three times Livia’s age. But the heart knows not of such impediments, and as Livia’s obsession deepens, it is not just her insides that threaten to burst into flame. Simon, who hails from the world of documentaries, is a ravishing sensualist, whether filming bodies human or equine, or a Provence countryside so arid that your skin chaps just from looking at it. But like another French filmmaking Claire — Claire Denis — she is no less adventurous an explorer of emotional landscapes, and with On Fire, she has made one of the great movies about the strange passions that can erupt when the air turns dry and the blood runs hot.
For those seeking lighter entertainments as COLCOA draws to a close, fret not. For you, there’s Claude Berri’s perfectly inoffensive and instantly forgettable Hunting and Gathering (Ensemble, C’est Tout), starring Audrey Tautou as the cinema’s least likely cleaning lady since Jennifer Aniston picked up a duster in Friends With Money. Better yet, for those who may have missed it earlier in the festival — or who didn’t and merely wish to bask in its breezy pleasures yet again — there’s an encore screening of Emmanuel Mouret’s delightful Change of Address (Changement D’adresse), with its Lubitsch-worthy pair of mismatched lovebirds.
Finally, COLCOA offers the local premiere of the omnibus project Paris Je T’aime, in which 21 filmmakers (including three filmmaker teams) spanning nearly a dozen nationalities send short-film valentines to 18 of Paris’ 20 districts, or arrondissements. (What exactly happened to the two missing arrondissements — the 11th and 15th, for those keeping count — is anyone’s guess.) As with most such hydra-headed hodgepodges in the history of the cinema, the concept here holds more promise than the execution, as most of the recruited directors (among them the Coen brothers, Alfonso Cuarón, Walter Salles and Tom Tykwer) seem to have plunged into their assignment without first reading the directions. While Paris’ incredibly varied neighborhoods certainly don’t lack for local color, the stories that most of the Paris Je T’aime filmmakers elect to tell bear so little connection to their surroundings that they might be taking place in any city, anywhere in the world. Which, admittedly, would be less of a problem if the stories themselves weren’t so devoid of interest. (I think it was around the time Juliette Binoche showed up as a grieving mother fleetingly reunited with her dead child in Nobuhiro Suwa’s overwrought “Place des Victoires” that I started to tally how many segments remained.)
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As it happens, it’s the freedom-fries-loving Yanks who emerge from Paris Je T’aime the least scathed, in the delicate act of youthful seduction that comprises Gus Van Sant’s “Le Marais” and in the wacky sparring match between two married acting divas (Bob Hoskins and Fanny Ardant) staged by Richard LaGravanese in the red-light district of “Pigalle.” Best of all — and, fittingly, saved for last — is Alexander Payne’s “14th Arrondissement,” in which a Denver letter carrier (the wonderful Margo Martindale) reports, in disarmingly awkward schoolgirl French, on her six-day Paris vacation. Overflowing with Payne’s signature dry wit and the potent je ne sais quoi that seduces so many foreign visitors to the City of Lights, this miniature masterpiece is the most unapologetically American segment of Paris Je T’aime, yet also the one that comes the closest to the small-scale humanism of the most French of French filmmakers — Jean Renoir. Presented with such a contradiction, what else can one say except the obvious: “C’est la vie!”
CITY OF LIGHTS, CITY OF ANGELS | Directors Guild of America | Through April 22 | www.colcoa.org
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