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To Sept. 6 at the American Film Institute’s National Film Theater

Light and dark, inside and outside, life and death—all these are presented in the first few shots of The War Zone, a film that quickly establishes the severity of its tone. Pregnant Mum (Tilda Swinton) goes into labor, and the whole family—Dad (Ray Winstone) and teenagers Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) and Jessie (Lara Belmont)—piles into the car to rush to the hospital. On a dark rural road, Tom clowns around, Dad loses control, and the car crashes. In the hospital a few hours later, new baby Alice is the only member of the family who isn’t bruised, scraped, and cut. The car wreck is a metaphor, of course, but it’s also an example of the film’s matter-of-factness about domestic cataclysm.

The War Zone is the first film directed by actor Tim Roth, and it can be seen as the companion piece to Nil by Mouth, the 1997 directorial debut of Roth’s frequent co-star, Gary Oldman. Both movies star Winstone as an overpowering, abusive, self-deluding man, but whereas Oldman’s film is the loud, explosive tale of a brutal drunk, Roth’s is dark, hushed, and secretive. The subject is revealed in an early exchange between Tom and his mother, who are discussing the people of Devon, the coastal region that has recently become—to Tom’s regret—the family’s new home. When the boy suggests that local residents are misshapen because of incest, his mother calls that “a sick remark.” “It’s a sick world,” he replies.

In a more manipulative context, that foreshadowing would seem blatant. But The War Zone isn’t trying to hide its subject. Alexander Stuart’s script (from his novel) builds to a series of unsavory revelations, but the movie’s fundamental issue is not a shock. The film’s power is in its candor, its naturalism, and its use of young, confused Tom as its shifting moral center. What the viewer is quite prepared to believe, Tom must see with his own eyes. After all, it’s his father and his sister. And Tom’s feelings about this relationship—which Jessie stops denying midway through the film—are complicated by his own erotic stirrings and his (slightly older) sister’s sexual teasing. Indeed, for a time Jessie treats Tom as a problem that will go away if she can only get him laid.

The War Zone is distinguished from more coy treatments of incest by both its frankness and the intensity of the performances of Cunliffe and Belmont, who never acted until this film, and veterans Winstone and Swinton. Just as striking, however, is the film’s look, which manages to be both rough and elegant. Shot in widescreen by Seamus McGarvey, it is often beautiful and distant, like a series of impeccably composed landscape paintings. The interiors, in contrast, are warm and richly shadowed. Yet the film’s depiction of human flesh is raw and unglamorized; with their smeary, flushed faces, Tom and Jessie look as if they’re on the verge of melting into one of Francis Bacon’s painterly depictions of humanity as meat. The effect is not merely arresting and distinctive—it’s also optimal for a movie that is bluntly carnal yet resolutely unsexy.

Tony le Stéphanois is a principled man. Above all, the worn-out, possibly tubercular Parisian gangster (Jean Servais) believes in loyalty. He’s fresh out of prison, where he went rather than squeal on his protégé, Jo le Suédois (Carl Möhner), who has a wife and a young son. When Tony learns that his lover, Mado (Marie Sabouret), spent time with other men while he was behind bars, he takes her back to his low-rent room, commands her to strip—offscreen; this is the ’50s, after all—and whips her with his belt. He doesn’t want to hurt Mado so much as leave marks that he hopes will be discovered by her new lover, nightclub owner and crime boss Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici).

So Tony’s principles are harsh, macho, and even a bit ridiculous. That’s what happens when you combine the American tough-guy tradition with its French counterpart. Created by the uneasy alliance of blacklisted American expatriate director Jules Dassin and French pulp novelist Auguste le Breton, 1955’s widely influential Rififi marks the beginning of French film noir. The movie seems eminently French, in part because Dassin took a near-documentary approach to filming the streets and buildings of Paris. Yet its sensibility is mostly that of the New York-born director. Dassin hated le Breton’s novel—for one thing, he considered its treatment of North African immigrants racist—and used little of it beyond the basic plot. Dassin even cast himself (under the alias Perlo Vita) as one of Tony’s associates, safecracker César le Milanais.

Still, Rififi retains some of le Breton’s trademarks, including his preference for nicknames derived from geographical origins: Tony le Stéphanois is from Saint-Etienne, Jo le Suédois from Sweden, and César le Milanais from Milan. (Le Breton, whose real surname was Montfort, was from Brittany.) The film’s title is an example of the novelist’s manufactured slang: “All it means is rough and tumble,” sings a showgirl at L’Age d’Or, Grutter’s nightclub, in a number that contains the film’s only actual use of the word “rififi.” Ironically, the song was not subtitled when the movie was originally released in the United States; “rififi” nonetheless became universally understood shorthand for gangster intrigue.

Now reissued in a crisp new 35-mm print featuring improved subtitles, the film is best known for its extended burglary sequence: Tony and his cohorts break into a prominent jewelry store through the apartment above and crack the safe. This half-hour operation unfolds with neither dialogue nor music, showing an attention to procedural detail that presages not only the films of Jean-Pierre Melville (whose Bob le Flambeur was also adapted from a le Breton novel) but also Bresson’s Pickpocket. Composer Georges Auric insisted on writing music for the scene, but after Dassin showed it to him both with and without the score, Auric agreed that it was better without.

The heist scene alone is enough to have made Rififi’s reputation, but when the criminal protagonists make away with a fortune in jewels, half the movie remains. With Paris buzzing about the immense score, Grutter quickly deduces who’s responsible. He kidnaps Jo’s son, Tonio (Dominique Maurin), giving Mado a chance to redeem herself and Tony another opportunity—you can safely assume it’s his last—to demonstrate his proto-New Wave cool and steely allegiance to his friends.

In the wake of Godard and Tarantino, Rififi’s mix of postwar existential stoicism and Warner Bros. B-movie swagger will seem a little familiar. Still, Dassin distinguishes his vision with some playful touches—notably the ominousness of little Tonio’s toys—and a palpable sense of place of the sort that’s still rare in American filmmaking. Although the film’s ethos is a hardboiled fancy, its streetscapes are beguilingly real.

Each one of Olivier Assayas’ features up to and including his 1996 U.S. breakthrough, Irma Vep, features a scene of ecstatic music and dancing. Late August, Early September, which was released in France in 1998 and in New York 14 months ago, is the first without such a moment of liberation. Shot mostly with a graceful handheld camera, the film is anything but dowdy. Still, it does depict a circle of friends who, closing in on middle age, can no longer reasonably pretend to be footloose.

Most of these acquaintances connect through Adrien (François Cluzet), a respected but financially unsuccessful novelist who turns 40 early in the film’s deceptively episodic chronology. One of the novelist’s friends and most ardent admirers is underemployed Gabriel (Mathieu Amalric), who is tentatively fighting to overcome Adrien’s influence. Like the other characters, Gabriel has entanglements: He’s introduced showing the apartment that he and his ex-girlfriend, Jenny (Jeanne Balibar), are trying to sell. Once both are out of his life, Gabriel can concentrate on his new lover, Anne (Virginie Ledoyen), a beautiful but moody fashion designer. Gabriel is not sure he wants to live with Anne, however, and he can never completely avoid Jenny, because she is also one of Adrien’s friends. In this newly settled demimonde, the volatile Anne—who whirls through the film in a cloud of rage, blood, and kinky sex—personifies both the delights and dangers of youthful abandon.

Offered a chance to appear on a high-toned French TV series, Places of the Pen, Adrien insists that Gabriel be hired as the interviewer. When the show’s producer confides to Gabriel that he fears Adrien will be as “muddled” as his books, Gabriel defends the writer: Adrien doesn’t write mere stories, his supporter says, because that’s not the only way to convey the texture of life.

This may be the closest Assayas has come to a manifesto; the writer-director isn’t much interested in stories, either. Late August, Early September does have a dramatic arc, as Adrien’s health deteriorates under the influence of a never-named disease and Gabriel tries to achieve psychic independence. (In one moment of offhand treachery, Gabriel coolly tells two young literary types who’ve just been converted to Adrien’s greatness that the novelist’s work is “minor.”) Yet Assayas is in fact an adroit, highly efficient storyteller; Adrien’s decision to stand up his androgynous, underage girlfriend, Véra (Mia Hansen-Løve), on her 16th birthday, for example, is conveyed by just a few seconds of Véra pacing outside a Stereolab concert. (Contrasting such fleeting epiphanies with extended takes is also the key to the movie’s characteristic rhythm.)

If the film is more story-oriented than it openly declares, it is nonetheless just as concerned with the commonplaces of cafe life as it is with narrative: Assayas’ contemplation of Adrien’s failed quest for a cold beer in a train’s bistro car, Jenny’s inability to decide what drink to order in a cafe, Anne’s compulsive scratching of lottery tickets, and a thousand different ways and places and reasons to smoke a cigarette. Underscoring the multitextured everydayness is a resonant fingerpicking score by Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure.

Late August, Early September has been widely dismissed as a transition piece, and indeed Assayas’ latest film, Les Destinées Sentimentales, takes him even farther from his original mode: It’s a period costume drama. Yet Late August, Early September is fully realized and utterly absorbing, with assured ensemble acting and Ledoyen’s most vivid performance yet. As an example of contemporary French crypto-vérité filmmaking, it’s both richer and less contrived than André Téchiné’s Alice and Martin (which Assayas helped write), itself one of the most captivating films of the past couple of months.

Like The War Zone, Titanic Town is about a family that has recently relocated, but hasn’t traveled far enough to escape its scourge. For the McPhelimys, however, the war zone is not inside the home, but just outside. The family has moved into a new housing development, Andersontown, but still lives within what an opening title tersely identifies as “Belfast, 1972.” Long known as the frontline of the Troubles, Belfast is also the city where—metaphorically or not—the Titanic was built. For Bernie McPhelimy (Julie Walters) and her clan, it’s a place where you might find a sharpshooter in the flower bed.

Made for the BBC and shown in the American Film Institute’s 1998 European Union Showcase, Titanic Town now inaugurates the second Shooting Gallery Film Series at Cineplex Odeon Foundry. This program, whose first installment featured such acclaimed indie and foreign films as Orphans, Such a Long Journey, and Croupier—the last of which is still playing five months later—will present six films for runs of at least two weeks.

Titanic Town was derived from a novelization by Mary Costello—her mother is the basis for Bernie—and adapted for the screen by Andersontown native Anne Devlin. It shows how a simple plea for the safety of noncombatants can be complicated if the warring factions have a bigger stake in victory than in peace. Scandalized when an old friend is shot dead in the street—and her young son is a witness—Bernie goes on TV to ask both the British troops and the IRA partisans to stop killing innocent people. Neither side considers this a reasonable request.

Bernie is saying something that must be said, but her IRA-sympathizer neighbors—and her cautious, ulcer-stricken husband, Aidan (Ciaran Hinds), as well as her oldest child, Annie (Nuala O’Neill)—just want her to shut up. Director Roger (Persuasion, Notting Hill) Michell’s film treats this hopelessly ideological fracas with outrage, black humor, and nuanced characterization. If the concerns of her family are not entirely noble—16-year-old Annie is worried that her mom’s notoriety will mess up her new romance—Bernie herself is naive, garrulous, and overly impressed with her new fame. Flattered by the attention of TV interviewers and English bureaucrats, she often says too much on subjects about which she knows too little.

I first saw Titanic Town on video, and it doesn’t look much better on a bigger screen. In fact, the larger image emphasizes the dinkyness of some of the film’s elements, notably Annie’s relationship with the mysterious Owen (Ciaran McMenamin), conducted partially to the accompaniment of dated folkie ballads. Still, the London-area locations convincingly evoke Belfast, and the film’s blend of humor and drama is suitably explosive. Although many films have addressed the Troubles, Michell’s treatment is fresh and compelling. CP