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European Union Film Showcase

At the American Film Institute National Film Theater Oct. 29 to Nov. 11

To the people in a Jacques Rivette film, all the world’s a stage—including the stage. Many of his movies involve the theater, although the two that are best-known in the United States emphasize other arts: In Celine and Julie Go Boating, a magician and a librarian become amateur detectives to investigate a house where the same events occur every day, as if in a film; in La Belle Noiseuse, a burned-out painter returns to his brushes when he meets a beautiful woman he feels compelled to portray. Rivette’s characters pose, rehearse, study, and pretend, blurring the distinction between playing and living.

The director’s latest, Va Savoir (“Who Knows?”), opens with an actress in a spotlight, taking direction in (unsubtitled) Italian. The woman is Camille (Jeanne Balibar), who is French but has been working for three years in Italy, where she fled the anguish of splitting from Pierre (Jacques Bonnaffé), a philosophy professor who seems a rather drab object of desire. Camille is now living with Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), an actor and the troupe’s artistic director, although upon the company’s arrival in Paris, the two take separate hotel rooms. Camille both dreads and desires a meeting with Pierre and soon goes to see him. At first, she encounters instead Pierre’s new lover, Sonia (Marianne Basler), a ballet teacher with a mysterious (and apparently criminal) past.

Ugo also has a quest, although his is artistic. He’s seeking an unpublished Goldoni manuscript that the 18th-century Italian playwright supposedly gave to a friend in Paris. Canvassing private libraries and rare-book dealers in search of the play, he meets flirtatious university student Do (Hélène De Fougerolles), who seems eager to help him. It soon develops that Do’s mother inherited a library that might include the elusive text. It’s also possible, however, that Do’s half-brother Arthur (Bruno Todeschini) has already sold the manuscript to pay gambling debts. A philanderer who sometimes attempts to seduce women for financial gain, Arthur is currently pursuing Sonia, who happens to wear an expensive ring as a token of her former life. Not so incidentally, Arthur isn’t the only one of the six who needs money; Ugo’s theater company is also in financial peril.

These are the narrative makings of that quintessentially French genre, the cerebral sex farce. Eric Rohmer has been doing something similar for decades, although Va Savoir is closer to recent films by younger directors, such as Arnaud Desplechin’s 1997 My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument (which also featured Balibar). What’s surprising is how seriously Rivette takes the unserious elements of the tale. His films have always been witty and playful, but usually on an intellectual plane; even 1994’s Up, Down, Fragile, which tempered the director’s customary themes with an homage to the ’50s Hollywood musical, didn’t build to as boisterous a finale as Va Savoir’s. This may be Rivette’s easiest, airiest movie, in part because the director—whose longest film runs nearly 13 hours and who rarely makes ones that last fewer than four—brings the six characters’ explorations to resolution in a mere 150 minutes.

The film’s structure isn’t as direct as the character’s motivations. Rivette intersperses the offstage antics with scenes from the play Ugo’s company is performing, Pirandello’s As You Desire Me, and Camille’s interpretation of her role—an amnesiac cabaret performer—seems based in part on Greta Garbo’s version of it in the 1932 film of the play. There are also references to the history of the Italian theater, with the lithe, angular Camille suggesting Harlequin, one of the stock characters in commedia dell’arte, the theatrical tradition undermined by Goldoni’s talkier, more realistic work. Other academic citations include Heidegger, the subject of Pierre’s dissertation; the fibula, the “Roman safety pin” that’s the subject of Do’s thesis; and the inscription on Sonia’s ring: Tempus fugit, amor manet.

“Love endures” may not seem the proper motto for a movie in which most of the characters at least consider taking new partners, but it turns out to be apt. In the film’s last half-hour, Rivette and co-scripters Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent assemble the six central players—plus Do’s mother, whose contribution is not insignificant—for confrontations, revelations, and reconciliations. Refreshingly comic and impeccably poised, the final scenes reveal that Va Savoir is not merely a movie about theater. This elegant film is also a dance about love.

To judge from a partial survey of this year’s European Union Film Showcase, the continent’s contemporary mood is dark but not somber: This program of recent film-fest award winners from EU countries features an unusually large number of black comedies. The lineup includes enough gangsters to fill a penitentiary, but novelists, smugglers, psychoanalysts, and alienated teens also find themselves teetering between horror and hilarity.

The series’ wildest attraction is Mortal Transfer (Nov. 7 and 8), the first film in eight years from Diva director Jean-Jacques Beineix. A comically kinky reminder of the French enthusiasm for Hitchcock, it’s a bit like The Trouble With Harry relocated to the realm of Gallic Freudianism. Laconic shrink Michel (Jean-Hugues Anglade) can’t help falling asleep while his seductive patient Olga (Va Savoir’s De Fougerolles) recounts her kleptomania and S&M relationship with her criminal husband, Max (Yves Rénier). After one session, Michel wakes to discover Olga dead, and he fears that he killed her while in a dream state. His attempts to hide the body complicate his relationships with high-strung artist Hélène (Valentina Sauca), his own shrink, an old friend who happens to be a cop, a homeless pyromaniac, a techno DJ with a taste for necrophilia, and Max, who shows up looking not for Olga but for the 7 million francs he says she took from his safe. Visually elegant and sexually explicit, this black-hearted widescreen romp is Beineix’s most cogent film since 1986’s Betty Blue.

Don Boyd’s My Kingdom (Nov. 4 and 5) has some humorous moments, but this stylish tale of an aging Liverpool gang lord and his ungrateful daughters is characterized primarily by energy, sweep, and baroque violence—it’s like Goodfellas on The Long Good Friday. The tale is brutal enough for the Elizabethan stage, as is only reasonable, because the basic scenario—if not the ending—comes from King Lear. After his wife, Mandy (Lynn Redgrave), is killed, the devastated Sandeman (Richard Harris) decides to divide his crime empire between Jo (Emma Catherwood), Tracy (Lorraine Pilkington), and Kath (Louise Lombard); the first won’t have it, and the latter two quickly turn on dear old Dad. Even under this cruel assault, however, the soft-spoken patriarch doesn’t crumble the way Lear did.

Generational strife also animates The State I Am In (Nov. 3 and 4), the subtly nuanced tale of a teenager who’s unusually alienated from her surroundings. Fifteen-year-old Jeanne (Julia Hummer) is at that age when she’d like some distance from her parents. That’s impossible, however, because Mom and Dad are fugitives from the German police—which makes every contact with a stranger a potential trap. On the verge of a family getaway to Brazil, Jeanne complicates matters by falling in love; she manages to lead her parents, Hans (Richy Müller) and Clara (Barbara Auer), from Portugal to the more dangerous terrain of Germany to be closer to the surfer boy she met on a Portuguese beach. Christian Petzold’s film shares its premise with Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty but is less Hollywoodish, which is to say more cryptic: We’re never told why Jeanne’s parents are on the run, although given German cinema’s fascination with the ’70s Red Army Faction, it’s easy to imagine Hans and Clara’s past—and their future.

Christos Georgiou’s Under the Stars (Oct. 30 and 31) shares The State I Am In’s interest in parents and politics. Twenty-six years after losing his mother, father, and home village in the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, bitter Greek Cypriot Luka (Akis Sakellariou) hires sexy smuggler Phoebe (Murto Alikaki) to take him across the Green Line to see the remains of his former life. Although they share similar backgrounds, Luka and Phoebe couldn’t be more different: Open-minded and opportunistic Phoebe makes friends easily on both sides of the frontier, whereas Luka can barely restrain himself from attacking every Turk he sees. The film neatly sketches the everyday concerns that link the two populations: When some Turks are excited to find that Luka has a Greek coin, he thinks that his cover is blown—but it turns out that they just want to be able to play a pinball machine that takes only Greek money. The final magical epiphany is clichéd, but most of the film is sharp and fresh.

Like My Kingdom, Flickering Lights (Nov. 2, 4, and 5) opens on the docks. This time the country is Denmark and the genre is bloody farce. Gangster Torkild (Søren Pilmark) is chagrined to find that a truckload of smuggled cigarettes is the wrong brand; then his food-critic girlfriend hands him a copy of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and tells him she’s got a new beau. With a gang boss called the Eskimo demanding cash for the screwed-up cigarette deal, Torkild decides to make a quick score and head for Barcelona with his three longtime cohorts. But one of them gets shot, so the foursome can’t travel far. They take shelter in a long-abandoned rural restaurant, and as time passes Torkild becomes interested in staying put and reopening the eatery. His colleagues aren’t so keen on this idea, though, the neighbors are kind of wacky, and the Eskimo will eventually find them, but Torkild is sure that a place called Flickering Lights will redeem his life. The first feature directed by Mifune scripter Anders Thomas Jensen has a wavering tone, and one sequence that is definitely not for PETA members, but much of it works.

The protagonist of Kari Väänänen’s Classic (Nov. 9 and 11) is not a gangster—which eventually becomes a problem for him. Kari Hotakainen (the actual name of the author whose novel is the film’s source) is a Finnish writer who’s just been told that henceforth his publisher will release only autobiographical work. This means that, in order to have something to write about, the introverted Kari (Martti Suosalo) needs to get a life. The life he decides to get is that of Pertti (Janne Hyytiäinen), a low-life rockabilly fan and fast-car buff. The two get into a tussle over an Alfa Romeo, a battle that eventually involves a TV newscaster, an obsessive used-car salesman, and an eccentric traffic cop who extols the manliness of maniacal speeders. With a style derived partially from silent films, this bleak comedy is visually interesting. But its commentary on the mass-media culture of confession and notoriety is mostly predictable.

The opening-night film, Pauline and Paulette (Oct. 29), is also short on surprises. The vivid floral color scheme is the most interesting aspect of this Belgian tale of retarded 66-year-old Pauline (Dora van der Groen), who lives with her sister Martha (Julienne de Bruyn) but is fascinated by another sister, Paulette (Ann Petersen), a shopkeeper and amateur operetta diva. When Martha dies, Paulette and a fourth sister, Cecile (Rosemarie Bergmans), fight over Pauline—neither wants her, but one must take her or forgo Martha’s inheritance. Not as poignant as it means to be, this simple film is a short struggling to be a feature; at 78 minutes, it feels too long.

Of the previewed films, the dog is Disco Pigs (Nov. 3 and 4), director Kirsten Sheridan’s tale of two troubled teens who have been inseparable since they were born on the same day and taken from the hospital to adjacent houses in working-class Cork. In their stalwart alliance, Darren (“Pig”) and Sinead (“Runt”) can be cruel to all others, and Darren’s violence and bullying become a problem even before Sinead’s parents decide the duo must be separated. When they send Sinead (Elaine Cassidy) to a boarding school, Darren (Cilian Murphy) goes to rescue her, but his arrival is not a release; it just leads the couple further into an antisocial abyss, until Sinead is forced to take drastic (if easily foreseeable) action. Viewers in A Clockwork Orange frame of mind may find this bracing, but others will just want Darren and Sinead to take their private patois and shove it.

The festival also includes Jean-Pierre (The City of Lost Children) Jeunet’s crowd-pleasing Amelie (Nov. 2 and 3), which is scheduled to open commercially Nov. 9; Goran (Cabaret Balkan) Paskaljevic’s How Harry Became a Tree (Nov. 9 and 10), which transplants a Chinese parable to Ireland; Luís Filipe Rocha’s Camarate (Nov. 3 and 6), a docudrama about the 1980 incident that killed Portugal’s prime minister; and Bille (The Best Intentions) August’s A Song for Martin (Nov. 10 and 11), a tale of new but older lovers. CP