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Good French Movies (2000-05): Strange Love

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GJ Cole itcherFor the uninitiated, French cinema conjures images of Parisian trysts, romantic strolls and just maybe the odd bit of tasteful adultery. But Gallic filmmakers have evolved far more complex and painful understandings of love, and it manifests on our screens in a variety of weird and wonderful ways. Cruel, obsessive, incestuous, perverse or impossible, the early noughties saw many categories of love charted by French directors. Here are a few more unusual takes on the hot topic. ~ GJ Cole

Foolish Hearts

From ‘La Règle du jeu’ (1939) through ‘Jules et Jim’ (1962) to ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ (1990), French filmmakers have made a point of exploring the complicated circumstances of lovers both bold and coquettish. Known as a nation in touch with its emotions, however, the issue of love in French cinema expands into a universe of overlapping relationships, desires, and categories of love – romantic, familial, platonic, and so on.

In Catherine Breillat’s ‘Fat Girl’, for example, the story’s apparent focus on the two girls’ desire (and repulsion) towards men becomes more of an issue of lust and sexuality; the real love story here, though rocky and ambiguous, is between the sisters. In ‘Trouble Every Day’, obsessive love is a disease that brings down not just its victims, but those who love them in turn.

‘Twentynine Palms’ explores how the dangerous power of love betrays a wellspring of hatred – and ‘Aaltra’ posits the equal and opposite hypothesis, that hatred is a gateway drug to love (in this case, fraternal love between two straight men who detest each other).

Finally, ‘Regular Lovers’ draws analogies between the troubled love affair of a young couple, and their feelings for their country in the wake of May ’68. Both seem impossible but compulsive prospects.

***

Twisted French Movie Recommendations

‘À ma sœur!’ / ‘Fat Girl’ (Catherine Breillat, 2001)

When I hate you, I look at you and then I can’t…

Echoing Breillat’s earlier movie ‘36 Fillette’, ‘For My Sister’ (aka ‘Fat Girl) follows a frustrated teen on holiday with her family, where her burgeoning sexuality becomes a pressing issue in the new environment. But where ‘36 Fillette’s’ beautiful protagonist was preyed upon by local men, here, plump Anaïs is forced to watch the grooming of her prettier older sister by another teen – with feelings of disgust and jealousy blooming inside the younger girl.

More accessible yet more brutal than her earlier take on the subject, Breillat’s tale of innocence rages against the raw drives and cruelty of the human soul. The director gives power to her characters and to women by listening and telling the story without judgement, but ‘For My Sister’ comes loaded with the fear that listening may not be enough.

***
‘Trouble Every Day’ (Claire Denis, 2001)

Denis’ tricky quasi-vampire flick is closer to Michael Haneke than Joss Whedon: a stand-offish camera, deadpan portrayal of everyday events, and the integration of the vampire element (the result of a neurological condition) with a dull concrete reality that you or I could walk into, make for a matter-of-fact rendering.

Vincent Gallo plays a brooding American (hey, he’s Vincent Gallo) who lands in Paris on honeymoon, but soon sets out to search for his old research colleagues – a scandalized doctor and his wife, with whom Gallo was once obsessed, and who he finds locked up in an old house for the safety of others.

The infectiousness of feelings and ideas are analogized by the strain of blood violence that seems to lay barely dormant in Gallo’s system. Refusing to favour one character over another, we variously watch – and it is a very voyeuristic movie – the characters go about their lives, fundamentally alone even as they are condemned by the actions of others in their micro-community. 

Gallo, his wife, Béatrice Dalle as the vampire, her tragic husband, and a frustrated hotel maid, are each portrayed as sexual, frustrated, modern animals struggling for satisfaction in an absurdly sophisticated twenty-first century world.

***
‘Twentynine Palms’ (Bruno Dumont, 2003)

Dumont’s only film to be set in America situates itself in the peculiar post-9/11 atmosphere of chaos and anger. A local man and his Russian lover – broken French is their only shared language – breeze around the Californian desert on perpetual vacation, hiking, shagging, and driving through the dust. They’re both petulant, passionate types and they frequently break into futile arguments and misunderstandings, but are somehow drawn to remain together anyway – until, at least, an act of random violence changes things irreparably.

It’s a ponderous watch which, although billed by former philosophy student Dumont as a ‘horror’, saves its physical violence for the final reel. But the juxtaposition of raw affection and emotional violence make for an engaging study of a bizarre and doomed relationship and a glimpse at the latent cruelty that resides within each of us.

***
‘Aaltra’ (Gustave de Kervern & Benoît Delépine, 2004)

It’s people like you that give fucking people in wheelchairs a bad fucking name!

As odd couple comedies go, this obscure Belgian-French co-production should be listed among the best. The directors themselves star as two utter unmentionables, whose petty squabbles in a small rural town (one is a lazy farmer, the other a frustrated commuter) escalate towards violence until they find themselves both in wheelchairs.

Setting off together on a misjudged revenge mission to Finland, ‘Aaltra’ (it’s a brand name) quickly evolves into an absurdist road movie. Rather than find humility in their condition, the two men take their disabilities as licence to do what they like. Hopelessly ill-equipped (and under-funded) to make their trip, they’re prepared to go to bizarre and selfish lengths to travel in the comfort to which they feel due.

In stark black and white, wide, flat framing situates the characters in an inhospitable universe where each morsel of generosity is to be leapt upon and devoured. ‘Aaltra’ is as silly as it is stylish. Cruelty compounds cruelty and perhaps not until the final scene does either character seem worthy of – or likely to find – an ounce of redemption.

***
‘Les Amants Réguliers’ / ‘Regular Lovers’ (Phillipe Garrel, 2005)

You see. We communicate without words. You’d never have believed it…

Director Garrel casts his son Louis as François in this double-edged coming-of-age movie: rather than the end of adolescence, ‘Regular Lovers’ traces the transition to maturity of its characters as a synecdoche for France around them, struggling to re-establish its identity in the echoes of May ’68.

François himself takes to the front line, among the hurled Molotov cocktails of disillusioned students and workers, but the film is really about what comes next. Falling in love with sculptor Lilie (Clotilde Hesme), the couple struggle to deal with the demands of adult life – how to make ends meet without selling out – and with François unwilling to compromise, tensions soon arise between the couple. At the same time, the grand ideals and hopes of the May ’68 generation have lost their momentum and the effects of the near-revolution begin to feel stunted.

Elegant staging and silky black and white photography present the leads in a society that is culturally rich even as harsh political realities suppress freedom and creativity. ‘Regular Lovers’ is less about romance than it is about romanticism.

***

Heartbreaking

So, it seems love ain’t always easy. But affection for French cinema will see anyone through the complexities and weirdness of love… whoever it’s for.

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