Good Gaully! – two new French films

Good Gaully! – two new French films – Brief Article

Rex Roberts

Films from France remind American viewers that movies can be for grown-ups, too.

While the French aren’t as condescending as their reputation suggests, they are famously haughty when it comes to food, fashion and film — to list some of their enthusiasms alliteratively. Americans are willing to put up with a bit of haute cuisine and haute couture, but we remain suspicious of their cinema, with all its angst and ambiguity, its endless introspection.

And yet, the French do routinely what Americans do rarely — make films about grown-up men and women struggling with moral dilemmas and complicated emotions. Often, these movies revolve around relationships: an unconsummated menage a trois in A Heart in Winter, the older man and younger woman in La Belle Noiseuse, obsessive love in The Hairdresser’s Husband. Other times, they tackle broader themes: man against nature in Jean de Florette, or history and politics in the recently released East-West. Whatever the subject, the French explore adult situations with a quiet subtlety that escapes Hollywood.

There are, of course, superb American films about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, such as A Simple Plan, Sam Raimi’s chilling fable of greed pitting brother against brother, and Affliction, Paul Schrader’s icy tale of vengeance with father against son. Both of these outstanding movies, however, tote along the usual Hollywood baggage — graphic violence, brutal murders and big finishes — which doesn’t apply to most folks’ lives. All too often, when it comes to drama and romance, American producers and audiences opt for high-concept, well-made, 90-minute sitcoms, preferably with a supply of one-liners and a happy ending — that’s As Good as It Gets.

Two new films from France certainly play into this admittedly broad generalization. Venus Beauty Institute, written and directed by newcomer Tonie Marshall, follows a woman struggling with her fear of commitment — a role reversal that toys with conventional feminist assumptions. The Bridge, written by Francois Dupeyron and codirected by Gerard Depardieu and Fred Auburtin, contemplates adultery and its consequences — a subject as retro as the movie’s sixties setting. Different in mood and style but tres cinematographique in spirit, the films are wonderful to watch — poignant and elegant, to employ anglicized adjectives — with recognizable characters who address their problems without resort to fisticuffs or gunplay

Well, almost without gunplay. Venus Beauty Institute, which won Cesars for best picture, best director and best screenplay, strikes one false note, but it’s a shrill one at the picture’s climax — cynics could point to it as an example of the pernicious spread of American culture and its insistence on bang-bang happy endings. Otherwise, the film is surprisingly honest, considering its mise-en-scene — a Parisian beauty salon and the women who work there.

Angele (Nathalie Baye, one of France’s leading actresses), an attractive but cold woman in her forties, works with two younger colleagues — Samantha (Mathilde Seigner, sister of Emmanuelle) and Marie (Audrey Tautou, awarded a Cesar for best young actress) — at the Venus Beaute Institut, owned by Nadine (Bulle Ogier, still another of France’s many notable actresses). When not catering to the complaining clientele, Angele flirts from affair to affair, a consequence of her past behavior — a few years earlier, she shot her lover, Jacques (Jacques Bonnaffe), in a jealous rage. Angele, however, is being courted by the persistent Antoine (Samuel Le Bihan), an idealistic young man who has fallen in love with her at first sight. Cynical Samantha and ingenue Marie have suitors as well, each of whom bring their own ironies to the passionate fires. In short, romance and her handmaidens — lust and desire, heartache and despair — are a sport in the City of Light.

Venus Beauty Institute benefits from Marshall’s intelligent script and direction as well as appealing art direction. But the film’s emphasis on human foibles and aspirations, and its surprising wit, lend it that certain je ne sais quoi. Most refreshing of all, Marshall dispenses with the usual feminist finger-pointing in the portraits she paints on screen. While the film confronts contemporary issues, it lets viewers make up their own mind as events unfold.

The Bridge, in contrast, is a simple story told in a straightforward manner, discounting the references to New Wave cinema. Mina (Carole Bouquet, still one more talented and seductive French actress) and Georges (Gerard Depardieu, the charismatic, if rotund, sex symbol) have been married for 15 years, which happens to be the age of their son. Life in their Normandy village is banal: Mina escapes by watching movies at the local theater (Jules and Jim is showing); Georges, temporarily unemployed, plays cards at the cafe and tends to his garden. When Mina accepts work as housekeeper for a wealthy acquaintance and Georges finds a job helping to construct a span across the Seine, their marriage becomes a bridge over troubled waters. Mina falls in love with the chief engineer, Matthias (Charles Berling), and finds herself playing the role of Emma Bovary circa 1962.

With restrained but moving performances by Depardieu and Bouquet, The Bridge manages, in its felicitous French way, to present a picture of two decent people coming to terms with life gone awry. No fulmination, no forced climax. True, there’s an arty subtext that quotes from Truffaut, but not too intrusively. Here’s a film that reminds viewers that cinema can confront moral issues in an entertaining fashion without resorting to histrionics. Americans complaining about Hollywood schlock should take note.

COPYRIGHT 2000 News World Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group