Francophilia: 'Lads and Jockeys,' Benjamin Marquet's handheld portrait of three boys training to become riders accrues small slights and quips with the same careful clarity as Nicolas Philibert's surprise hit, 'To Be and to Have' (2002). (Photo courtesy SFFS)

SFFS's Inaugural French Cinema Now

Max Goldberg October 7, 2008

The French still fare pretty well as far as American foreign film distribution goes, but with the whole business model in such disarray, one wonders how much longer the big-screen soirée can go on. When American directors like David Lynch, Abel Ferrara and Gus Van Sant have to go to France for funding, how much longer can we expect theatrical distribution for top-shelf auteurs like Olivier Assayas and Claire Denis? Since being a cinephile is, in many cases, the same thing as being a Francophile, it’s good news that the San Francisco Film Society has added a Gallic counterpart to its long-running New Italian Cinema series. The inaugural French Cinema Now features a couple of obvious ringers—an early look at Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or-winner The Class and a visit from director Arnaud Desplechin—but part of the charm of a short series like this is that we’re more likely to alight on something unexpected when we don’t have to tote around a telephone book’s worth of programs. [ editor’s note: SFFS is the publisher of and is the presenter of French Cinema Now in association with the French-American Cultural Society and the French Consulate of San Francisco.]

To wit: I would never have imagined myself a sympathetic target for a film about French jockey culture, but Lads and Jockeys is so closely observed that it scarcely mattered. Benjamin Marquet’s handheld portrait of three boys training to become riders accrues small slights and quips with the same careful clarity as Nicolas Philibert’s surprise hit, To Be and to Have (2002). Though scenes of half-asleep breakfasts and girl-crazy catcalling are shorn to their quotidian kernels, the pace still feels leisurely—except, of course, for the ecstatic motion of the riding shots.

Johnny Ray Huston has written elsewhere on this site in appreciation of the particular thrill of aesthetically endowed sports-watching, and I can only add that Marquet’s long tracking shots of the young jockeys in action give a piquant sense of horseracing’s interwoven beauty and terror. Crucially in these shots, the fantastic stomp of the horse’s gallop doesn’t entirely drown out the shivery voices of the boys, crying out to their trainer about tired shoulders and the horse’s pressing speed. Marquet comments on the dangerous romance of the sport by cutting back archival footage, creating a wheel of perennially unrequited apprenticeship, but Eadweard Muybridge would have been the first tell him that the camera loves a horse in motion.

Majestic speed is a surefire pleaser, but Franck Vestiel’s dystopian midnight movie Eden Log dares to open with a crawl. A slime-encased man regains consciousness in a miasma of muck; a quickening pulse of light and his gasping breath establish the tone for this brave new world in which, much like the Alien films, there is an uncomfortable externalization of the body. A tribe of bulb-headed mutants race through later scenes, but Eden Log is for the most part resolutely slow. As our amenesiac wanders this subterranean world, remnants of an apocalyptic befouling inspire worried gurgles on the soundtrack and quizzical frowns from lead actor Clovis Cornillac—who must have been pretty game to wade through this much slime. Its set design, which is imaginative and genuinely nightmarish, gets more emphasis than plot—and, as such, creates a cinema-as-video game feel. It’s a film as indebted to Myst and Doom as it is to Blade Runner (1982) and Soylent Green (1973).

Cinema traditionalists can take umbrage in some tasty nibbles of nouvelle vague courtesy of Six in Paris (1965), an omnibus document of mid-‘60s Paris as seen by Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer and others. Jacques Rivette isn’t one of those featured, but one imagines he in particular would find much to love in Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s dizzying play with theater in her Un Certain Regard-winner, Actresses. Bruni-Tedeschi, who directed and co-wrote the film, stars as Marcelline, a 40-year-old actress preparing for a production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Her difficulty with the role becomes the locus point for private insecurities and failures, distorted in a classic comic wheel of gay directors and overbearing mothers. "I want bodies, not psychology," the pathological director (Mathieu Amalric) cries out in rehearsal, but there are no such divisions in this brave film. Those scenes in which Marcelline misreads her situation—swimming laps when the pool is for children, breastfeeding another woman’s baby—catch the razor’s edge of neurotic comedy better than the last dozen Woody Allen pictures. We’ve seen plenty of women on the verge of a nervous breakdown since Gena Rowlands’ original, but few with the resilient complexity of Bruni-Tedeschi’s character.

French Cinema Now reaches back into the past to screen two of Arnaud Desplechin’s early films (1991’s Life of the Dead and 1996’s My Sex Life . . . Or How I Got Into an Argument), though the featured event here is a sneak-peek at the director’s new opus, A Christmas Tale. The film features the same kind of lateral, polyphonic approach to family as Kings and Queens (2004), though it can’t help seem more classical tucked as it is in the cozy confines of the home-for-the holiday’s genre. Desplechin distinguishes himself from the usual Hollywood rites, however, by being too enamored with his characters to stop dangling threads of narration.

An opening shadow-puppet play lays the groundwork for the singularly complex Vuillard clan, along with re-establishing Desplechin’s taste for theatrical motifs. Junon (an especially imperial Catherine Deneuve) and Abel’s (Jean-Paul Roussillion) first son dies a child, and their daughter Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) carries this sorrow into adulthood. Her son, Paul (Emile Berling), floats in and out of psychiatric wards, an Ian Curtis suicidal dreamer. He gets friendly advice from his uncle Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), who, relating his own childhood traumas, says "It was scary but beautiful." Poupaud is too roguish for Ivan to develop much past this, but his wife Sylvia (Chiara Mastroianni) uncovers a shunted romance with Ivan’s cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto) over the holidays. Add into this already boiling pot a grim prognosis, and the return of Henri (Mathieu Amalric), the brash middle son previously excommunicated from the family by Elizabeth, who always says what he means whether he’s been drinking or not (he usually has been), and you begin to see how this Christmas Story needs all eight days.

A blood transfusion provides the film with its central metaphor for the discomfiting inextricability of family, though the theme is sublimated in the loose-knit, centrifugal narration itself. Errant scenes veer from bone-dry comedy to Vertigo-inflected obsession, but we’re inevitably reeled back into the Vuillard townhouse, an echo chamber of past and present lives. The resemblance to The Magnificent Ambersons and The Royal Tenenbaums is evident, though Desplechin’s microbial sense of detail has its own quirks. The director, like his Six in Paris predecessors, is a master of digressive narration; far from being pastiche, his is the rare film style which might properly be called novelistic.

For a complete schedule and tickets, see SFFS on the web.

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