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“New From France”
At the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center and AFI Theater Kennedy Center Jan. 31 to Feb. 12
Veteran screenwriter and playwright Ronald Harwood doesn’t write exclusively about the Holocaust, but after the third Harwood-scripted Holocaust film in little more than a year, it does seem as if he’s conducting an exercise, treating the same subject in multiple genres: First came the horror as a solitary existential drama in The Pianist, then the postwar guilt as a two-man theatrical discourse in Taking Sides, and now the lingering corruption as a Costa-Gavras–style thriller in The Statement.
In fact, Costa-Gavras made a similarly themed film, Amen, based on the Vatican’s refusal to save Jews from Hitler. Harwood’s story is set 50 years later, but the issue has barely changed: A right-wing cabal within the French Catholic clergy is still sheltering Pierre Brossard, a former officer of Vichy France’s secret police. Introduced in a black-and-white prologue, in which he supervises the execution of seven Jews in 1944, Brossard is based on real-life Nazi collaborator Paul Touvier, who was pardoned of murder in 1971 but remained on the run because he could still be arrested for crimes against humanity. Hidden by a network of Catholic priests, he was finally captured in 1989 and died in prison seven years later.
Harwood and director Norman Jewison, making his first film since the equally issue-driven Hurricane, have something sexier in mind: While impulsive French magistrate Annemarie Livi (Tilda Swinton) and crisp Army investigator Colonel Roux (Jeremy Northam) track Brossard (Michael Caine) through the south of France, a web of assassins headed by Pochon (Ciarán Hinds) strives to execute the pious old fascist. (The killer is supposed to leave a “statement” of Brossard’s crime on his corpse.) Livi must get to Brossard before the killers do, while unraveling the conspiracy of the clandestine right-wing Catholic order that’s protecting her quarry—and rebuffing the warnings of such smarmy top French bureaucrats as Armand Bertier (Alan Bates), an old family friend. The film is clearly meant to be both lively and profound, but is willing to settle merely for being well-intentioned.
The locations are authentically French, but—as you may have noticed—the actors are all British and Irish. Aside from a jarring Gallicism here and there, the dialogue is in English. This doesn’t just make the film more marketable to subtitle-phobic Americans and English-language TV throughout the world. It also sustains the otherwise unworkable plot. We’re meant to believe that Pochon is an agent of an international Jewish vigilante group, perhaps based in Canada. That he’s not would be immediately obvious if everyone else didn’t also speak either in the plummy tones of the London stage or a light version of that city’s working-class vernacular. (Most hilarious is the Cockney-accented woman who helps runs a small cafe somewhere between Marseilles and Nice.)
Perhaps unintentionally, The Statement echoes The Pianist. Both follow increasingly desperate men through a world turned hostile, relying on a small and beleaguered network of benefactors. In his latest turn as a vigorous old scoundrel, Caine swings between extremes: He can outshoot potential assassins and coldly threaten his estranged wife (Charlotte Rampling), yet the next moment he may be on his knees, blubbering to some priest or fervently kissing his St. Christopher medal. Not exactly a characterization, it’s more like a expedition for the outer limits of a personality. But at least there’s more to Brossard than to Livi (impassioned), Roux (professional), or the various Catholic and government authorities (imperious, the lot of them). Simplistic portrayals are also a weakness of Costa-Gavras’ films, but his work usually compensates with outrage and locomotion, both of which are lacking here. Although it’s the tale of a man on the run, The Statement rarely accelerates past a stroll as it moves through routine plot complications and oft-considered historical
André Téchiné, Benoît Jacquot, Claude Miller, and Arnaud Desplechin are well-known contemporary French directors, but don’t be embarrassed if you’ve never seen any of their films. In this country, well-known contemporary French director just isn’t as prominent a gig as it was a generation ago; none of the filmmakers represented in the American Film Institute’s “New From France” series routinely have their work screened in American commercial venues, as Truffaut, Godard, and many of their peers once did. Still, stateside distributors apparently have plans for three of these eight films. Desplechin’s Leo Playing in the Company of Men, which opens the series with a single screening (at noon Saturday, Jan. 31; see Showtimes for other screenings) at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, wasn’t made available for review; neither was Téchiné’s Far Away or Miller’s La Petite Lili. The other five were previewed, though only on video.
The latest from Desplechin, who made the fascinating My Sex Life…or How I Got into an Argument and the intriguing but miscast Esther Kahn, certainly sounds promising. Derived from an Edward Bond play, it’s the tale of a battle between corporate princes, with a Paul Weller score. In Far Away, which comes highly recommended, a French truck driver visits Tangier, where his ex is contemplating a new life. La Petite Lili is an update of Chekhov’s The Seagull, starring Nicole Garcia and Swimming Pool’s Ludivine Sagnier.
Because Jacquot’s Keep It Quiet is 5 years old, it’s probably already been rejected by any potential distributor. Nonetheless, it’s the best of the previewed films, a quintessentially French look at a wealthy Paris family in the days after a business executive (Fabrice Luchini) is released from prison. Transformed by three months behind bars, Grégoire is now a mystery to his composed, distant wife, Agnès (Isabelle Huppert) and his brother, Louis (Vincent Lindon), the host of a Charlie Rose–type TV show. As Grégoire pursues a brief, gentle infatuation with a young hairdresser (Vahina Giocante), the story widens to encompass Louis’ own eccentricities. Although perhaps too inconclusive for American tastes, the film is appealingly loose and yet assured.
Murder—or the possibility of murder—drives three of these movies. The most mysterious is Frédéric Videau’s Variété Française, in which working-class college student Eric (played by the director) returns home from Paris to marry upscale Edith (Hélène Fillières). But Eric is distracted from the wedding plans—and the film’s tone shifts significantly—when his mother and brother disappear. This creepy mood piece would almost certainly be more compelling on a cinema screen than it was on video.
Cédric Kahn’s Roberto Succo is a serial-killer flick, but unlike Hollywood examples of the genre, it’s not a love letter to mutilation. Although there are some grisly scenes, the film is a sober docudrama that sticks to verifiable incidents in the life of its real-life protagonist, an awkward young Italian-bred car thief, seducer, and murderer. Switching between the French police and their prey, Kahn contrasts procedural details with the convincingly unhinged performance of first-time actor Stefano Casseti, who was originally approached because of his Italian-tinged French.
The other murder movie is a brittle whimsy, Bruno Podalydès’ intentionally antique-seeming retelling of Gaston Leroux’s 1907 locked-room story, The Mystery of the Yellow Room. This is the fourth filming of the tale, and rather than update it, the director emphasizes period, artifice, and theatricality. That should delight fans of musty detective yarns almost as much as it perplexes everyone else.
No one will be confounded by Phillipe Muyl’s The Butterfly, another example of the crusty-oldster/ needy-child dramedy. Amateur lepidopterist Julien (Michel Serrault) finds himself saddled with 8-year-old Elsa on a trip to capture the elusive Isabella, a butterfly with special meaning to him. Sweet, tidy, and didactic, Butterfly has none of the unbridled spirit of a Téchiné or Jacquot film, but it is well-crafted. Their movies may not be the U.S. draws they once were, but French filmmakers have lost none of their command of the art form invented in Paris 110 years ago. CP