Tuesday, April 19, 2011

French Connections

If there's one thing I enjoy, it's a film that exceeds my expectations. Such films are not as plentiful as one might imagine. In today's entertainment industry, the movies that gain the public's attention often feature major stars. The release of such films is usually accompanied by massive publicity campaigns.

Sometimes, however, one encounters a foreign film with limited funds for American distribution (Vitus), an indie film of exceptional merit (The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle), a surprisingly well-made documentary (Pianomania), or a full-length animated feature (Sita Sings The Blues) that could never hope to compete with the economic clout and marketing engines that support PixarDisney, and DreamWorks Animation releases.

Where does one find such films?
Bay area audiences will soon be introduced to two wonderful French films that seem to be flying under the radar. One is being released in art houses, the other will be shown at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival during a screening aimed at families and children. Both films are cinematic treasures that should be added to your Netflix queue.

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Historical dramas hold a special place in my heart. For one thing, they offer a wonderful chance to explore historical periods that have long since passed. Many also take us into foreign cultures whose customs and costumes have an exotic appeal. From Lawrence of ArabiaBecket and Russian Ark to Red Cliff, Jodhaa Akbar and The Lion In Winter, historical dramas can be thrilling cinematic adventures. Or they can become bloated, expensive turds like 1963's Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Rex Harrison) or Ridley Scott's appalling 2010 reimagining of Robin Hood (with Russell Crowe in the title role).

A new film directed by Bertrand Tavernier, however, presents a rare treat. Because The Princess of Montpensier is based on a little known novel by Madame de La Fayette from a largely undocumented period of French history, audiences can approach this film -- which has no major Hollywood celebrities in the cast -- with a clean slate. As Didier Le Fur (the recipient of the 2009 Pierre Gaxotte Award who specializes in 16th century history) explains in the film's lengthy production notes:
"La Princesse de Montpensier was originally published anonymously in 1662 -- probably because informed observers recognized in this tale of passion the story of another liaison, between Henrietta of England (the wife of Louis XIV’s brother) and the Comte de Guiche. Nonetheless, in her first novel, Madame de la Fayette took care to cover her tracks. She set the story not at the court of the Sun King but a century earlier in the reign of Charles IX, against the backdrop of a country torn apart by the French Wars of Religion. All the characters had truly existed, even if the author changed some of their names. All that she made up was the love story: a very young woman, Marie de Mézières, who has only respect for her husband Philippe de Montpensier, but secretly loves another man, Henri, Duc de Guise. For a time, she believes that the distance between them and the company of the loyal Comte de Chabannes will remove temptation. But fate brings Guise to her door and her virtue is powerless to resist.
Betrayal by the man she loves and the disaffection of her husband are her punishments. As for Chabannes, the discreet confidant and perfect friend, he eventually sacrifices himself for the woman with whom he, too, has fallen passionately in love. Although Madame de la Fayette’s La Princesse de Clèves has often been adapted for the screen, the same is not true of La Princesse de Montpensier. It straggled in the wake of La Princesse de Clèves in terms of book sales and impact on the collective imagination. When 19th century readers rediscovered a period, which under Bourbon rule had been renowned for its moral depravity, the court of Henri II (the focal point of the action in La Princesse de Clèves) seemed more glorious and more representative of the image they had of the 16th century than that of his second son, Charles IX, which recalled recent wounds that had not yet healed. By capturing the splendor and prosperity of a country at the peak of its glory, illuminated by renaissance talents, Clèves represented the objective to aim for. Set in a time of division, intolerance and massacres, Montpensier depicted a past to be forgotten and a future to be avoided. In the 19th century, La Princesse de Clèves was reprinted 28 times, La Princesse de Montpensier not at all."

Poster art for The Princess of Montpensier

"Although the 20th century went some way to repairing this injustice, it did so very late. Even so, Bertrand Tavernier and Jean Cosmos’s decision to adapt this short novel did not stem from the desire to restore a forgotten minor masterpiece to its rightful place, and even less from the idea of using a historical setting to deal with contemporary issues, as Madame de la Fayette undoubtedly had to avoid censure. By choosing this text, they sought first and foremost to tell a story of passion and love in both its most personal and universal forms. To make things easy, or artificially modern, they could have set the story in the present day. They chose not to adulterate it, but this choice implied depicting a relatively unknown period without the film becoming a history lesson.
La Princesse de Montpensier is anything but a history lesson. Tavernier and Cosmos deliberately shied away from dates and political events that contributed little or nothing to the story. Charles IX never appears and Catherine de Medici, his mother, has only one scene. The film does not set out with the wild and self-defeating ambition of retelling The Wars of Religion. Although there are skirmishes and battles, they are there to illustrate the characters’ personalities and reflect on their passions. Nor is The Princess of Montpensier a costume drama, with all the negative images associated with that genre -- lavish sets and ornate costumes failing to hide the weaknesses of the script. The strength of Madame de la Fayette’s story, to which Tavernier and Cosmos remain very faithful, speaks for itself.
Nonetheless, the period had to be reconstructed and made visible. Tavernier and Cosmos achieved this by writing several scenes which discreetly, without interfering with the story, help create the impression of making contact with a way of life, a daily reality. Scenes like Marie de Mézières’ wedding banquet and wedding night, the death of the wild boar, the Duc d’Anjou’s bedtime ceremony at Champigny, the hawker passing through and Marie learning to write, efficiently underpin the portrayal of a society with its habits, pleasures, constraints, curiosities and violence. The weight of the sets never obstructs our view, the hose and farthingales don’t handicap the characters, but they offer us the spectacle of a world that the history books often hesitate to reconstitute and that Madame de la Fayette does not extensively describe, either. A color here, a hint of a scent there, a noise farther away, a gesture or a posture somewhere else -- a swathe of subtle, multi-faceted messages which, beyond the strength of the characters, story and production, strangely and satisfyingly convince us that it’s possible to capture on film the essence of a period dating back over four centuries."
What makes The Princess of Montpensier so fascinating is that, even in a time of war, the film is not about endless battle but about people who must use their intelligence in order to survive the brutal instincts of less sophisticated rivals. Throughout the film, Marie de Mézières (Mélanie Thierry) must subdue her personal doubts and fears while wrestling with her attraction to three rich and handsome men:
  • Her childhood love, de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel), is all bullying brawn but is not particularly strong in the brains department.
  • Although basically a warrior, the man she is forced to marry, Prince Philippe de Montpensier (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet), is virtuous and true.
  • Played by Raphaël Personnaz, the Duc d'Anjou (the future King Henri III) is a man of greater intellectual strength than either de Montpensier or de Guise (who are quick to draw their swords when challenged). As Tavernier notes, "Anjou was a brilliant general with an inquiring, intelligent mind. Somebody once said he would have been a great king if he had lived in a better period."
The Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz) amd Henri de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel )

However, it is Philippe's mentor, the Comte de Chabannes, whom Tavernier considers to be the spine of the film.
"He’s the emotional catalyst and allows us to glimpse the different aspects of Marie. He reminds me of the great heroes of some of the literature of the time: he’s simultaneously a teacher and warrior, mathematician and philosopher, fighting intolerance in all its forms. To understand his humanism and commitment to peace, we need to see him confronted with the brutality of war. Lambert Wilson possesses every facet of the character and it is through his eyes that we understand the heartrending decisions facing Marie. I clearly take Marie’s side. She is torn between her education and what is expected of her on the one hand, and her passion and desire on the other. She refuses to be the submissive wife. She wants to educate herself and embrace the world. Her desire to learn empowers her and allows her to resist."

Princesse Marie (Mélanie Thierry) and Chabannes (Lambert Wilson)

Tavernier's co-screenwriter, Jean Cosmos recalls that:
"My only ally, an intermediary between the periods, theirs and ours, was François de Chabannes, twice the age of the others, more enlightened in the modern sense since he betrayed both fundamentalisms, and, in terms of reading and thought, on a higher plane although of lower rank. It was through him that Bertrand and I, following on from François Rousseau, who blazed the trail, found the linguistic and behavioral equivalents. It was through him that we adapted ourselves to the story, especially as his hopeless love brought us unerringly back to Marie, a prisoner of her caste, education, and codes of respectability, and of her appetite for light and liberty."
Mélanie Thierry as The Princess of Montpensier

Although The Princess de Montpensier has a running time of nearly 140 minutes, there is never a dull moment. This is partly due to the skill with which Tavernier has avoided many of the standard clichés of historical costume dramas.  The film's musical score is an added blessing. As Tavernier explains:
"I didn’t want to reconstruct a period, just capture its soul. For example, I didn’t want any pseudo 16th century music. Although Philippe Sarde drew his inspiration from composers of the time, such as Roland de Lassus, we ensured the arrangements and harmonies were very modern by using a lot of percussion. In fact, we ended up with a completely original formation made up of three baroque musicians, four trombones, seven double basses and cellos, and five percussionists. And no violins!"
There is so much to enjoy and appreciate in this film, from the costumes and wall tapestries to the sword fights and romance (not to mention all those magnificent horses). Here's the trailer:



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On a much lighter note (and set in modern times), is a full-length hand-drawn animation feature by Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol which will steal your heart in minutes. A Cat In Paris has it all: intrigue, a six-year-old girl whose father was killed by a mobster, the Colossus of Nairobi come to life, and a visit to the zoo. There's also a cat burglar named Nico who, unbeknownst to Zoe, shares a close relationship with her cat, Dino.

Zoe gives Dino a hug in A Cat In Paris

Ever since her father was murdered, Zoe has stopped talking. At night, when Dino goes out on the prowl,  he likes to tease the local dog, join his friend Nico on some wild adventures, and return home with a dead lizard to present to Zoe as a gift. One day, Dino brings home a valuable bracelet that was recently stolen from a jewelry collection.

When Zoe attempts to follow Dino on his nightly adventures, she lands in a heap of trouble that draws her mother (a police commissioner) into the clutches of the evil Victor Costa (who murdered Zoe's father).

Dino perches atop a gargoyle in A Cat In Paris

A Cat in Paris is blessed with a great story, sublime animation, a delightful sense of humor, and a magnificent score by Serge Besset.  You won't want to miss it. Here's the trailer:
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