Sunday, April 19, 2009

"Versailles" by Pierre Schöeller


Though Varda speaks of her sejours in Cuba and China shortly after their revolutions in "Les Plages" (see review above), she hardly mentions the Algerian War in which France was directly involved during one of her most celebrated periods (1954-1962). In general, directors in the French cinema of 2008 were political, but less than recent years ("Caché" (2005), "Les Indigènes" (2006), "L’ennemi intime" (2008). This year directors allowed viewers to make associations without forcing an ideology. "Versailles", Pierre Schöeller’s first film, did discuss poverty in France, but primarily received attention due to the surprise death of its starring protagonist, Guillame Depardieu. (Guillame, son of Gérard, had a motorcycle crash in October and could not recover due to drug and alcohol abuse.) In fact, French reviews discussed Depardieu’s performance, which won a César nomination and the film’s subtle cinematography, but did not contemplate the film’s social commentary.
The first half of the narrative of "Versailles" centers on the destitute taking shelter in the woods surrounding the palace of Louis XIV. Homeless Nina (Judith Chemla) wanders aimlessly through the Versailles forest with her young son (Max Baissette de Malglaive) when she finds Damien (Depardieu) dressed poor but Calvin Kleinish—in all black with greasy hair—who welcomes the mom to his shack to shack up. However, when Damien awakes from post-coital slumber he finds Nina has left him alone with her excessively cute pre-verbal son. After the boy’s adorableness wears Damien down, he figuratively becomes the boy’s father and decides to leave the squatter camping lifestyle for a prodigal return. It is thereby revealed that Damien had upper middle-class beginnings and opportunities and the homeless romp was a rebellious angst phase.
Although other homeless campers are featured in the film’s first half, Damien’s middle-class roots prompt a larger question: Is squatting simply a way to challenge the capitalist system? Or is it in fact endemic in a society with a 10% unemployment rate? When Nina abandons her son, she easily finds a respectable job caring for the elderly, suggesting that homelessness and unemployment are a choice—at least for the young attractive white French characters that represent the homeless in "Versailles". Schöeller enforces this understanding of poverty as rebelliousness by casting Guillame Depardieu, who was rumored to have a temper and drug problems long before his death. The actor has the intimating presence of his father, with a much slighter frame, and his anger and frustration at parenting the foundling and at his own parents’ bourgeois lifestyle, demonstrate the predictable but believable acting style characteristic of the Depardieu family. It is the sublime cinematography of nature in the first half of the film that is more interesting than the acting or the storyline. The Versailles grounds offer cinematographer Julien Hirsh plenty of opportunities to boast his understanding of natural light, also demonstrated in Pascale Ferran's "Lady Chatterley" (2006).

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