2007 Carte Noire French Film Festival

| January 12, 2009

Carte Noire 2007

Carte Noire 2007

The aim of the French Film Festival (13–22 November, IFI) is to provide cinephiles with a wide sampling of films not available on general release, with a scope that gives a balanced genre offering and covers recent releases as well as classics. As this means there is no one guiding theme, every year the organisers select and celebrate one filmmaker’s work. At the centre of this year’s festival was the oeuvre of Nicolas Philibert, France’s noted documentary maker. Audiences here will most likely know him from the breakout international success of Être et avoir (To Be and to Have), the touching account of a school teacher’s experience in rural France. Apart from showcasing Philibert’s work, the festival organised, in conjunction with FÁS and Screen Training Ireland, a Director’s Masterclass with the filmmaker. Philibert was also in attendance for Q&A following the screening of his most recent documentary, Retour en Normandie (Back to Normandy).

This latest offering places a cyclical stamp on this selection of Philibert’s work as it is ostensibly a return to Moi, Pierre Rivière, ayant égorgé ma mère, ma soeur et mon frère… on which he was assistant director to René Allio. This chilling true account of a multiple murder in a Normandy village in 1835 was screened on the same day as Philibert’s film. In Retour en Normandie the director revisits the area and meets with the locals who acted in the film, charting the changes in their lives, some of which turn out to be linked to their short-lived film career.

Moi, Pierre Rivière… conjures up a mixture of reference points, from Rossellini’s neorealist approach of picking locals as his actors to Capote’s In Cold Blood. The rural setting plays a huge part in the perception of Pierre Rivière’s murders of his mother, sister and brother. Violence as a phenomenon is always more acceptable and even expected in an urban, depersonalised space, but in a close-knit countryside village where nothing much happens, it strikes a discordant and unsettling note. Adding to the malaise is the accompanying voiceover by the killer himself, which is both articulate and logical. Rivière felt perfectly justified in disposing of his mother, given the pain she caused his father and the sister and brother had to go as Rivière perceived them as siding with the mother. In the wake of the Finnish high school murders, the latest killing spree to be featured in the media, Allio’s film serves as a powerful reminder that it’s naïve to witch-hunt videogames or Internet chatrooms and blame them for creating murderous monsters. For that is to refuse to accept that some individuals are psychologically deranged and regardless of their apparent composure or intelligence are capable of committing horrific acts of violence that no reigning in or censuring of stimuli will curtail.

Thirty years after this Normandy village was called upon to recreate a grim piece of their region’s history, Philibert brings back the camera crew for Retour en Normandie. (This interest and attraction to his filmmaking past brings to mind Abbas Kiarostami who returned to the village where he shot Where is the Friend’s House? and immediately found a new story.) What is striking from juxtaposing the two French films is how some things have not changed. The hardships are not the same, but in some places the simplicity of the agricultural lifestyle still persists. The daily proximity to life and death is potently visualised by showing us in great detail a farmer slaughtering his pigs. Philibert’s knack is the rapport he establishes with his subjects; he endows them with warmth, humanity and dignity and just when you stop expecting any big dramatic development, along comes a fascinating tale. Most interesting was the tracking down of Claude Hébert, the actor who played Rivière. This young man uncannily fitted the profile with his lonesome character, intensity, and proclivity for writing. After the film wrapped, Hébert was taken under Allio’s wing, who mentored his budding acting career. But after a number of roles, he abruptly abandoned what looked like a promising career and disappeared. A mysterious figure, he finally comes back for the reunion Philibert organises, now a priest. By his acknowledgment, the almost accidental landing of the role of Rivière opened up the world to a young man who no doubt otherwise would have stayed in the same village, like the rest of the participants. As such, the film quite literally changed his life, and Philibert’s fascination with Hébert hints that this man alone would make an intriguing subject of a documentary.

This contemplative mood of revisiting the past and questioning memory was apparent in a few of the other films on offer. For the faithful festival goers, Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle toujours would have meant a revisiting in more than one sense. Apart from the film being a paean to Buñuel’s Belle de jour, last year’s festival had also screened this classic in honour of screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière’s visit, whose credits include The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and the more recent Birth. Set in the present, the film features the same protagonists, albeit older and changed. Catherine Deneuve does not reprise her role; Bulle Ogier takes the place of the beautiful but sexually perverse blonde. Unfortunately, however, the projected froideur ends up looking like botoxed waxiness. Michel Piccoli plays the devil’s advocate, trying to chase her down to reminisce and examine those heady days. Sadly, the film fails to deliver. While de Oliveira’s affection for the characters is undeniable, he seems stymied in regard to evolving any ideas on Buñuel’s masterpiece and produces underwhelming visuals. With unexciting and far too long shots of the Paris cityscape intersecting the film, de Oliveira structures the story as a sort of chase, with Piccoli pursuing Ogier in a fairly passive way – he spends most of the film explaining the plot of Belle de jour in a way that reduces it to both a ridiculous and banal level. Some homage! Finally, when the two meet, it is empty of any meaning and completely pointless, except for a weak disavowing of her past on Séverine’s part, which is a surprising move for a supposed homage, as it comes across as a disavowing of the daring character. A fledgling attempt at surrealism in the form of a wandering cockerel in a sumptuous apartment completes this fiasco of a film.

It is unfortunate that the recently deceased Michel Piccoli is represented not just by one dud, but two – he is again rejoined by Bulle Ogier in Ne touchez pas la hache (Don’t Touch the Axe), a reworking of Balzac’s novel of the same title by film veteran Jacques Rivette of the Nouvelle Vague generation. Although a period drama, this is not a sumptuous costume affair in the Patrice Leconte mould, but a more pared-down would-be psychological love story of two characters playing mind-games with each other, in a fashion similar to Dangerous Liaisons. Harsh as it may sound, this film would serve as a good workshop piece for film students in learning how not to make a film. From the compositions, the acting, and the linking of the sequences to the story structure and narrative logic, there was barely a redeeming feature.

La question humaine (Heartbeat Detector) by Nicolas Klotz, the last instalment of a loose trilogy, is another film that brings up the question of the past, namely the sins of the past and how they affect the present. Drawing a parallel with the recent Poliakoff drama Joe’s Palace, it’s the Nazi past that hovers over the narrative. Set in a faceless multinational corporation, the film follows Simon (Mathieu Amalric), the company’s psychologist, charged with assessing the mental health of the CEO. Klotz creates a world that is both oppressively familiar and intriguingly strange by using unexpected editing and digressing into narrative offshoots. This universe is complex and it is to the screenwriter Elisabeth Perceval’s credit that she shies away from neat plot points and tidy character arcs. The visuals are practically drained of colour and it is noteworthy that there are no exterior indicators that the location is Paris. Klotz provokes the viewer intellectually: for instance, a rave party is filmed in a way that echoes the Holocaust conditions that are recounted later on in the story. The film has a mesmerising hold over you and makes some insightful points on the dehumanising breakdown occurring in the use of language today, but fails to truly evoke the horrors of the Jews. The moral disquiet doesn’t convince nor does it appear to serve as a metaphor for the current political situation in Iraq, in view of which such a fixation on the past can even appear as blindsided. History should serve as a lesson for rather than an escape from the present.

From the land that makes judicial allowances for the crime passionel, come two films of obsession and voyeurism: Lo que sé de Lola (What I Know About Lola) and Michel Spinosa’s Anna M. Spinosa’s film is a perfect study of an unbalanced woman’s growing obsession with a married man, whom she pursues with a tenacity and frightening absence of scruples. The actress Isabelle Carré resembles a heroine from a different era with her Titian hair and alabaster skin, and the lighting conspires to underline this point – it frequently mirrors the darkness threatening to envelop the striking shots of colour at the centre of the composition, which marked the old Baroque Masters that Anna is so drawn towards. Her delusional and shocking behaviour is tempered by moments of humour; however, the events progress towards an inexorable finale. Ultimately, the film manages to exalt the power of love in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, albeit from a very skewed point of view.

The most eagerly anticipated film of the festival was undoubtedly the festival’s opener Persepolis; unfortunately this film wasn’t available for review. Considering it has been selected as France’s official entry to the Academy Awards, chances are high that it will eventually be released on a wider scale, so be sure to look out for it.

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