A few years ago, a commercial for Blockbuster videos spoofed foreign film by depicting it as bleak and indecipherable. Un-American. The ad would have been funny if American yahooism weren‘t being championed as a form of lowest-common-denominator movie love. This year’s “City of Lights, City of Angels” festival attempts to strike a balance between stereotyped notions of French film and fare seemingly intended to woo the suburban-mall crowd, with work that ranges from Robert Guediguian‘s whip-smart social protest The Town Is Quiet to Francis Veber’s broad identity farce The Closet. Viewers are still treated to the tres chic femme (Isabelle Huppert in Claude Chabrol‘s Nightcap, impeccably clad in designer threads), harsh and ambiguous endings (Anna Villaceque’s Petite Cherie) and frank depictions of sexuality (throughout), but there‘s levity mixed in with the brooding politics and relationship angst.
The Closet, in fact, could well be a Hollywood-studio film, so determined is it for you to really, really like it. Pignon (Daniel Auteuil), the lead character, is an amiable sad sack. Divorced from his wife and alienated from his teenage son, he is about to be “downsized” out of employment. Getting wind of his future, he nervously confides in a neighbor who concocts a scheme that will let Pignon hold on to his job by pretending to be gay, thereby exploiting his company’s anti-bias policy. Veber spoofs homophobia in both its explicit and insidious forms, and with a breezy touch. To that end, we get a bouncy score circa Disney‘s late-’60searly-‘70s live-action comedies, reaction shots of kittens and lots of broad humor — the latter mostly courtesy of Gerard Depardieu, as a racist homophobe. The film grates. Recent French queer-themed movies such as Patrice Chereau’s Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train and the work of Francois Ozon (Sitcom, Water Drops on Burning Rocks) have been urbane, witty, incisive; The Closet is a throwback to La Cage aux Folles, but without the novelty to make it bearable.
Both Nightcap and Petite Cherie are considerably darker in tone and execution. The former is about an heiress, Mika (Huppert), whose picture-perfect family life is threatened by the sudden appearance of a young woman who may or may not have been switched at birth with Mika‘s moody stepson. For a while, bone-dry humor and leisurely pacing mask the fact that this is a thriller; revelations and accusations at the climax ratchet the tension up to a fine pitch, with Huppert’s aloof Mika as the cool eye of the storm. Petite Cherie follows the perverse wooing of 30-year-old Sybille (Corrine Debonniere), a withdrawn plain-Jane who lives with her parents and reads romance novels to pass the time. When a handsome stranger catches her eye, the two begin a twisted affair that evolves into marriage, carried along by the cruelty he directs toward her. Alternately moving and darkly humorous (often both at once), Cherie posits that the expectation of a happy ending is ludicrous when the world has marked you as one of its undesirables.
The highlight of the festival, The Town Is Quiet, may also be one of the best movies of the year. Set in Marseilles, it tackles globalization and class privilege by focusing on a black ex-con trying to go legit, a woman whose teen daughter is a junkie prostitute, and a pseudo-liberal architect whose wife despises him because of his political hypocrisy. With his spare, unobtrusive, almost documentary style, director–co-writer Guediguian weaves together the characters‘ lives so that each is part of the backdrop for the other. The film — a stinging critique of capitalism — is filled with poignant moments, from the subtle back and forth between the powder of a baby’s formula and the smack that her mother shoots up, to the rap elegy that a teenager composes for his murdered friend, to a scene in which the architect‘s wife rips her husband’s hypocrisy in language that also serves to delineate the breakdown of their marriage. The personal and political are poetically, empathetically intertwined here, as throughout the film, and the effect is wrenching. Most striking, though, is Guediguian‘s refusal to sentimentalize his subjects. He has a blunt and compassionate understanding of the fact that sometimes the poor don’t want to challenge the status quo — they simply want their piece of it.#