Sunday, April 19, 2009

The French Academy Awards, the Césars

French Cinema in 2008, at the César awards.

My expectations for the 2008 César awards were high. If the French made better films, dressed better and spoke a better language, then surely their Academy Awards would be superior. What’s more I was suffering from cinema depression; a week earlier I had watched the Oscars; grimacing at Hugh Jackman’s song and dance numbers and feigning surprise when "Slumdog Millionaire" slam-dunked a year of mediocre Hollywood. I needed cinema affirmation.
Initially, I thought my expectations were met when 2008 president of the César Awards, Charlotte Gainsbourg, pencil-thin in black glitter with a luscious pout and long disheveled bangs, introduced the ceremony with all the style and elegance of her model mom and rock-star dad. However as soon as the epitome of chic left the stage her foil appeared, Antoine de Caunes, comedian and TV personality, speaking in a high-pitched Muppet voice—you know the French love Jerry Lewis! Unfortunately, though I had survived the Hugh Jackman and Béyoncé butchering of the musical into a Oscar medley the week before, I now found myself watching a budget-cut French version of the same routine; de Caunes cockled “Singin’ in the Rain” with his strangled-chicken voice, while gleefully splashing in puddles of stage-rain.
Why sing a song from an American musical in English at a French film award ceremony? France prides itself on inventing film, n’est-ce pas? Perhaps the answer could be found in the camera constantly panning the American stars Dustin Hoffman and Sean Penn. In fact, as soon as de Caunes took his raincoat off and yelled in English “the musical is back!” he informed the audience that The Sean Penn was present. The audience then applauded even more than they had for his wet chicken song when de Caunes interrupted in English again to say “Yooo air so fucking grrrate man!” Yes, Hollywood and its Oscars were never far away from the César award ceremony, and as Gertrude Stein once said, “An award ceremony is an award ceremony is an award ceremony…”
And is Hollywood far enough away from contemporary French film? French cinema in 2008 was dominated by gender types: the gangster film ("Public Enemy no. 1" and "the Death Instinct") and the fragile female sanity ("Sassarine"). That is to say, the year’s most celebrated films did not break any formal rules and primarily repeated clichés established across the pond. In fact the most original French film of 2008, came from a director of yester-year. Founding New-Wave left-bank director, Agnès Varda, made "Les plages de Agnès" ("The Beaches of Agnès") to celebrate her life, loves, and career at 80 years of age.

"Les Plages d'Agnès" ("The Beaches of Agnès")

Les Plages d’Agnès

"Les Plages d’Agnès" won the César for best documentary, though the film defies categorization. While Varda revisits nearly all of her films in the 110-minute feature with clips and commentary, she also reflects on her life’s pleasures, sorrows, dreams and fantasies. Several times she makes old photographs new on film by finding actors to play herself as a child and as a young woman. She then interacts and poses with them in New Wave style—never shying away from showing the director directing, or revealing the camera to the camera. This approach is not a jarring demystification of cinema as it was in the 60s. In this autobiographical film that traces the mind of Varda, the mise-en-abyme welcomes the audience and then holds them deep inside a rich imagination. In this way, "Les Plages d’Agnès" liberates cinema from common formulas and paradigms, and offers Varda the ultimate expression. Mortality is especially present in several of the film’s most poignant moments; while Varda throws single red roses at photographs she took in the 50s of great actors from the National Theater, she sobs that although the photographs give others happiness, they bring her a sense of sorrow because these great actors once young and beautiful are now dead and gone. The death of her late husband, Jacques Demy, from AIDS is a returning source of sadness in the film, and the viewer feels the stark loneliness of turning 80 alone. However, "Les Plages d’Agnès" spirals and circles through reality and art, past work and celebrity encounters, never dwelling on death or its proximity. Agnès Varda, the wise fairy, guides us through a self-portrait of her creativity, celebrating the joy of life and its pains in equal measure.

"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).