Emmanuel Mouret has been called the most “Rohmerian” (as in Eric) French filmmaker of his generation, which is basically a euphemistic way of saying that the 36-year-old writer-director-actor makes movies about attractive young people falling in and out of love and talking up a storm about their foibles and feelings. But watching Mouret’s third feature, Change of Address (Changement d’Adresse), which receives its Los Angeles premiere as part of the 11th annual City of Lights, City of Angels film festival, I was more often reminded of those classic Hollywood romantic comedies in which two lovelorn lonely hearts take the better part of the running time to figure out what the audience knows from the start — namely, that they’re perfect for one another.
Stepping into those time-honored roles here are Mouret himself as David, a sheepish, floppy-haired French-horn player newly arrived in Paris, and the sublimely wacky Frédérique Bel (who’s like a Gallic Lisa Kudrow) as Julia, the motor-mouthed proprietress of a local copy shop. They meet-cute in the street: He needs a room and she has one to let. Before long, they’re sharing late-night champagne (him sipping, her guzzling) while commiserating about their unrequited yearnings — his for a 19-year-old student, hers for a regular customer whose name she hasn’t yet mustered up the courage to ask.
You may well think you’ve seen this all before, and maybe you have, especially if you’ve been watching a lot of Ernst Lubitsch movies lately. But Change of Address is nothing if not proof that any moth-eaten movie formula is worth pulling from the wardrobe if it is to be worn with this much simplicity and charm. Like a potent antidote to the Hollywood studios’ poisonous high-concept rom-coms, Mouret’s movie gives us two made-for-each-others who are kept apart not by comas or space-time wormholes or other Sandra Bullock–instigated catastrophes, but simply by a series of wonderfully human hang-ups and hesitations. It’s a movie that says the mysteries of the heart are as vast and complex as those of the universe itself, and who that has ever been in love would fight Mouret on that?
Not even the French, alas, get this sort of thing right every time, as evidenced by Pierre Jolivet’s Could This Be Love? (Je Crois Que Je l’Aime), in which the appealing pairing of actors Vincent Lindon (as a globetrotting CEO) and Sandrine Bonnaire (as the artist he hires to create a fresco for his office lobby) is weighed down by a convoluted storyline that has Lindon enlisting his ace in-house detective (Francois Berléand) to tail Bonnaire on suspicion that she may be a corporate spy.
Whether by coincidence or design, couples in crisis are everywhere in this year’s COLCOA lineup, from comedies like those mentioned above to more ostensibly serious fare. Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One (Ne Le Dis à Personne), for example, concerns a doctor (François Cluzet) suspected of murdering his wife who begins receiving cryptic e-mail messages from the supposedly dead woman, while Roschdy Zem’s Bad Faith (Mauvaise Foi) follows a Jewish physical therapist (Cécile de France, in one of her three COLCOA appearances) and an Arab musician (Zem) who decide to make their four-year union — and her new pregnancy — known to their respective parents.
Those two films are the work of actor-directors — Canet may be most familiar to American audiences as one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s traveling companions in The Beach, while Zem was recently seen to powerful effect in Rachid Bouchareb’s Days of Glory (Indigènes) — and are, not surprisingly, stronger on performance than on story. Based on the novel by American crime-fiction writer Harlan Coben, Tell No One registers as a particular disappointment coming on the heels of Canet’s sharp debut feature, the media satire Mon Idole, which screened at COLCOA in 2003. Using Vertigo as an obvious model, Canet tries his best to perfume the air of a rather rudimentary wronged-man thriller with the scent of wounded romance, but the results are curiously uninvolving, save for one hair-raising foot chase and the generally good work of the film’s starry ensemble (which includes Kristin Scott Thomas, Nathalie Baye and Jean Rochefort). Likewise, Bad Faith provides a fine showcase for the dramatic chops of de France (heretofore Audrey Tautou’s chief rival in French cinema’s who-is-the-gaminest-of-them-all competition), though that’s not quite enough to overcome the movie’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner–style sense of its own social import.
Since its inception, COLCOA has offered local moviegoers a rare opportunity to don honorary French citizenship for a week and see movies the way the French public does — that is, the same mix of highbrow and lowbrow, mainstream and off-the-beaten-path, that can regularly be found playing in any decent Paris cinema, as opposed to the rather narrow selection of haute-bourgeois comedies, lavish period epics and other ready-for-export offerings of le cinéma français that make their annual pilgrimage to American art-house screens. That very diversity is key to the French cinema’s survival at a time when national film industries have caved beneath the weight of so many Hollywood blockbusters. And under the stewardship of longtime festival programmer (and now festival director) François Truffart, COLCOA has become increasingly ambitious in its efforts to reflect the full spectrum of contemporary French moviemaking.
Recently, that mandate has seen the inclusion of several remarkable nonfiction works in the festival program, of which Chantal Briet’s exquisite The General Store (Alimentation Générale) is this year’s discovery. Over the course of four years, Briet filmed the residents of a dilapidated, multiethnic housing project in the Parisian banlieue of Épinay-sur-Seine as they passed through the doors of the neighborhood grocery and through the life of its owner, an Algerian immigrant named Ali who also serves as his customers’ banker, legal adviser and confidant. Épinay, we’re told at the film’s start, was once heralded as the utopian “city of tomorrow,” but the reality of The General Store is that tomorrow looks an awful lot like today — façades may change, but ordinary people are still living, dying and searching for a sense of community. In Épinay, they find it at the supermarket, where, as with COLCOA itself, there truly is something for everyone.
CITY OF LIGHTS, CITY OF ANGELS | Directors Guild of America | Mon-Sun., April 16-22 | www.colcoa.org
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