Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Cannes 2005: French cinema

Today, French cinema is grappling with not just competition from Hollywood but also a desire to be different. Many French films that one sees these days are no longer chamber pieces with lengthy dialogues and boring theatricality that used to put me to sleep. Admittedly, they had a lot of humour, but this was often very French in flavour that international audiences found it hard to follow or appreciate.

Several French directors – and even those who are not French but make their cinema in that language – have begun to experiment with motion and movement, keeping dialogues to the essential minimum while relying on slick scripts and editing, both of which have begun to give their movies not just a new look and feel, but are also getting audiences hooked. French cinema is rediscovering the craft of pure cinema that men like Francois Truffaut mastered through their New Wave some four-odd decades ago.

Here is a sample of a few recent French films that are immensely engaging. All of them were screened at Cannes in the main Competition section.

The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, who make movies in French, have just directed a masterly work, “The Child” (L’Enfant), a harrowing story of a petty thief, his girlfriend and their newborn baby. Bruno (played beautifully by Jeremie Renier) uses schoolchildren to rob men and women on the streets. Of course, Bruno pockets the major share. When his girlfriend, Sonia, (also played wonderfully by Deborah Francois) delivers their child, their relationship loses its innocence. Clearly, Bruno is not pleased with this addition, and when he finds himself broke, he sells the child.

Renier and Francois in "The Child"
“The Child” at this point takes a sharp turn to show us the tension that builds up between Bruno and Sonia, who is so shocked by this loss of both her faith and baby, that she lands in hospital. Bruno loves Sonia and makes a valiant effort to make her happy once again. There is great scene at the end of the film, where the directors show Sonia meeting a repentant Bruno in jail, and when their hands meet across the table it is sheer cinema.

Moving and even grim as this scene may seem, the Dardennes brothers never stoop to sensationalism, and unlike a majority of Indian directors, they do not believe in manipulating the emotions of their audiences. Yet, they articulate with unbelievable authenticity through their frames the pressures that drive young Bruno to such a reckless act. By the end of the movie, the young man whom we have perceived as callous and almost brutal appears to be changing. At least, he has begun to question his own motives and action.

Like the brothers’ earlier works -- “The Promise”, “Rosetta” and “The Father” -- “The Child” is often set in drab places, and the handheld camera makes the film seem like a quasi-documentary. But these are its plus points, because they enable us to understand characterisations, and follow the dramatic events in the story without unnecessary distractions. Shorn of the glitz that we in India have come to associate our cinema with, “The Child” impressed me with it neat narrative style and no-nonsense approach. At the end, this work stood out as one of the most gripping pictures I have seen.

"To Paint or Make Love"
Another French work, which I found delightful, was “To Paint or Make Love” (Peindre Ou Faire L’Amour) by Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu, also brothers. This movie traces the story of a couple who live in the countryside. When they decide to swing, they find the delights in it and also likeminded couples. Daniel Auteuil plays William, who has just retired from a career in the weather service. His wife, Sabine Azema, who is Madeleine on the screen, runs a successful business and paints landscapes, and they live with a view of the French Alps.

There is not much of a story here, except for a certain twist where we see a bind man and his wife – who become William’s and Madeleine’s friends -- providing a whole lot of meat that is at once sexually provocating. The Larrieus brothers liven up their film considerably by using blindness as a clever ploy to kick-start a sexual romp that William and Madeleine are clearly unfamiliar with in the beginning. In fact, we see a confused looking William as he sees the blind man, Adam, escort Madeleine to the bedroom.

After watching “To Paint or Make Love”, I asked a French journalist whether this was even vaguely representative of French society. He shot back, “No way”. Although, this movie appeared rather shallow to him, I could not help appreciating its rich visuals and a certain disarming manner of story telling. On the whole, I would like to conclude that it was entertaining without being even remotely silly.

Yet another recent work that held my attention right through is Michael Haneke’s “Hidden” (Cache). This movie may remind one of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, a voyeuristic study of the neighbourhood. In “Hidden”, a thriller by all means, Haneke places a camera outside a wealthy couple’s home, and examines the dilemma the family undergoes when it finds that it is being watched.

Auteuil and Binoche in "Hidden"
Daniel Auteuil plays Georges, the host of a television literary review, and Juliette Binoche his wife, Anne, a busy book editor. A certain smugness of the family, which includes their 12-year-old son, is broken when Georges begins to receive tapes from an unknown sender. The tapes contain shots of their home taken from the street corner. Georges and Anne feel uncomfortable and scared at being watched, and as the story meanders along, we realise the emergence of a certain guilt that Georges harbours, the guilt of having done a childish wrong when he was six to an Algerian boy.

“Hidden” obviously takes a look at France’s guilt over its former colony, Algeria. Haneke also confronts issues such as the unfair treatment of Algerians living in France.

The main stars’ sensitive performances make up for “Hidden’s” rather slow pace. There are times when I felt that the film was not moving. Static shots of the home or the deserted street corner can be trying for an impatient viewer. But the movie picks up in the latter half, and although it is not as gripping or disturbing as some other Haneke works (“The Pianist”, “Funny Games”), “Hidden” is, all said and done, interesting, and conveys an important message. French cinema is beginning to get increasingly fascinating.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated November 13 2005)

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