Did you think I was going to write about James Franco? I have zero opinions about him, other than that his Oscar-hosting gig may turn out to be iconic. Has anyone summed up the disconnected, self-consciously weary, mostly humorless and irony-free self-absorption of his generation in one performance so succinctly? I understand he’s wonderful in the arm-sawing off movie, and a swell guy in general, and also heard from an insider who was backstage that he was quite annoyed with Ann Hathaway’s giddy grandstanding.
But enough about him. Nor will I attempt to say anything eloquent about Elizabeth Taylor; James Wolcott has already assembled a terrific roundup of fine tributes, and naturally writes a few beautifully-turned phrases about the Divine Beauty himself. No, dear ones, the title here refers to the real thing, my own fascination with and fondness for the French. If I had to choose a country to exile myself to, Italy would win in a tarantella, but partly because it’s close enough for me to hop up to Paris on occasion and lose myself in one of their comfy cinema seats.
Whenever I hear folks grouse about the state of filmmaking in general, I simply point them to everywhere but the U.S. Absolutely wonderful movies are emerging from everywhere these days, and France has never stopped turning out great stuff – at least, what gets exported this direction. I have no illusions; the French are capable of cranking out merde that does Yanks proud, and we just don’t see it. In the 80s, I had a boyfriend with a fellowship to study film in France, and he earned couscous money by working with the screenwriter of an insanely popular franchise with “Superflic!” in the title. It was never subtitled in English; it didn’t need to as it raked in the francs domestically. But my theory is that the US is so brilliant at churning out crap and shipping it overseas that it frees up the artists to just make the movies they want instead of being forced to make money. Great movies result.
Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass (I like the French title better, Les herbes folles, because “folles” means both wild and crazy) is breathtaking as expected, shot by the superb Eric Gautier of The Motorcycle Diaries and Ang Lee’s lovely Taking Woodstock. Primary colors rarely look this pure: a yellow handbag, shown frequently as it sails away from its owner and into a thief’s hand, a red wallet with creases in the leather you can practically feel, a deep blue vintage airplane against a cloudless bright blue sky. The simplicity and joy in color seduces you into the strange, obsessive world of the protagonist played by André Dusollier, who fuses imbalance with obstinacy as he loops you into his seemingly pointless quest to meet with the wildly hennaed Sabine Azéma. Stephen Holden makes a great point in his review: Don’t take the movie literally or you’re sunk.
This was my first Resnais – I am always willing to expose the gaps in my education. But I’m going to guess that both Olivier Assayas and Woody Allen hold him in high regard. One of my favorite moments in Annie Hall – pointed out to me by the filmmaker boyfriend mentioned above – is when Woody Allen says, “I miss Annie. I’m going to go see her.” Cut to a plane for a few seconds, then cut to Woody Allen in L.A. It’s an efficient, purely cinematic way to propel the story as well as comment on the character’s commitment, his folly in love. Wild Grass is rife with such leaps, which never feel contrived, so invested do we become in this odd man and woman who behave with such eccentric abandon.
For some reason, the wonderful Magritte-inspired poster seen above is not the DVD cover; instead you have Dusollier and Azéma staring bleakly out from a photo of …. grass. Don’t let it put you off. This is no dour, moody meditation, but a movie that is exuberant as it is measured, and quirky in the great, organic way of the best French film, as opposed to the self-conscious quirkiness that is responsible for the unfortunate phrase “Sundance darling.”
Welcome is another quiet beauty, one that deals carefully with France’s immigration woes and the ambivalence that surrounds them. In it, Vincent Lindon plays Simon, a stoic swimming instructor who takes an illegal Kurdish refugee under his wing. Unable to get papers or permits, the kid decides he will swim the English channel to rescue his girlfriend from an arranged marriage in London. Since he’s already walked from Kurdistan to France, the journey doesn’t seem quite so preposterous.
In the hands of a Hollywood-financed director, this story would feel like yet another Go, Underdog, Go! chronicle of uplift, another Little Movie That Could chug its way to Oscar glory. The French just quietly tell their stories, understanding that writing and performances that capture the ambiguity, poignancy, and absurdity of the issues that we have to face daily are the best kind of compelling. The plight of immigrants is woven into the story as a major thread, but it is a thread, and not the entire tapestry. It’s the contrast of the boy’s all-consuming love for a woman across a surmountable sea with Simon’s own crumbling marriage that gives the story its tranquil and tragic balance. In fact, I’ve never seen a movie that captured so perfectly the peculiar and lacerating pain of an amicable divorce. When Simon and his wife exchange glances, so much is said in silence; love, hurt, frustration too weary to develop into anger. Simon says to his ex-wife at one point, with bitter, self-directed invective, “He walked across half of Asia and all of Europe and is going to swim across the English channel for her. I couldn’t even cross the street for you.” It’s a declaration at once shamelessly romantic and shamefully self-aware.
Interestingly, Welcome was a huge hit in France. There are no explosions, graphic sex scenes, big stars, bombastic music cues. I love any country that would make this movie a box office success.
It’s one of life’s little (or big) ironies that I, a pacifist who can’t stand violence, love gangster movies, and Goodfellas is, weirdly, my go-to when depressed; as I watch it, I think, see, it could be so much worse. No one’s garroting you in your car or stuffing you in a trunk. A Prophet made a ton of best lists last year, and deserved to be on every single one. It would never be made here. For one thing, the young star, Tahar Rahim, isn’t handsome. What he is is the embodiment of innocence, his eyes taking in everything, his young body seemingly bristling with antenna that allow him to pick up every nearby sensation and respond to it with an animal’s alternate grace and clumsiness.
Rahim’s character, Malik, is an areligious blank slate, imprisoned for a petty crime and at least in part because it’s clearly one way to deal with unwanted riffraff without much hope of a future. César (the magnificent Neils Arestrup), the head of the Corsican gang that runs the joint, sees the kid as fresh meat, and Malik has no choice but to become the low man on the gang’s totem pole.
It’s Malik’s innocence, his inability to lie, and his eagerness to learn anything that make him enormously likable and fascinating. He quickly becomes fluent in Corsican, despite the fact that he was chosen precisely because he couldn’t understand the language. Displaying the agnostic opportunism of the class A1 criminal, César just as quickly figures out how to use this unwanted development to his advantage. The movie morphs gracefully between a survival story, a father/son/coming of age saga, and a game between a battle-scarred tomcat and an agile wide-eyed bird who not only learns to use his wings but discovers, joyfully, the power in his talons. And it’s all one beautiful, seamless piece thanks to Jacques Audiard, who directed and co-wrote with Thomas Bidegain, Stéphane Fontaine’s shooting, Juliette Welfling’s editing, and perhaps especially the superb casting by Richard Rousseau.
So if, while in your Elizabeth Taylor marathon you run into The Last Time I Saw Paris (and this clip of her at the time of that movie on What’s My Line is delightful), by all means, keep watching. But try to check out the real Paris and the rest of France via any of the movies above when you can. And of course, they’re just a sampling. Movies matter in France, still. That is, as they say, a merci.