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Road Trips

Lambert Wilson in Alain Resnais' Pas sur la Bouche
by Greg Muskewitz

I had no idea what the contents of an e-mail from the French Consulate about the City of Lights/City of Angels Film Festival had in store for me a few weeks back. The festival itself was not news, although I had only heard about it a year prior in relation to an after-the-fact showing of a film with Agnès Jaoui I would have liked to seen, but following a failed recommendation of mine for the San Diego International Film Festival to program Alain Resnais’ Pas sur la Bouche in their upcoming April showcase (it was too expensive), I held my breath that the COL/COA might have programmed it themselves. Before I turned blue in the face, sure enough, there it was listed under a Friday night showing at the DGA on April 2. The question then became, was I really willing to drive up to Los Angeles on a Friday evening to see the film?

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Road Trips
Resnais is an influencer, not the influenced, and even in making a remake he turns it into his own.

I had no idea what the contents of an e-mail from the French Consulate about the City of Lights/City of Angels Film Festival had in store for me a few weeks back. The festival itself was not news, although I had only heard about it a year prior in relation to an after-the-fact showing of a film with Agnès Jaoui I would have liked to seen, but following a failed recommendation of mine for the San Diego International Film Festival to program Alain Resnais’ Pas sur la Bouche in their upcoming April showcase (it was too expensive), I held my breath that the COL/COA might have programmed it themselves. Before I turned blue in the face, sure enough, there it was listed under a Friday night showing at the DGA on April 2. The question then became, was I really willing to drive up to Los Angeles on a Friday evening to see the film?

While Resnais has continued to make films now as he is into his eighties, the U.S. — notably San Diego — has not had the best track record in the distribution of his work. His last film, Same Old Song, got a small release in 2000, three years after its theatrical debut in France and subsequent honoring at the Césars (racking up seven wins, including Best Picture), but it was booked here for a measly week sharing the bill with Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds. For the previous Resnais film that had shown in San Diego before that, one would have to stretch all the way back to 1981 — the year I was born — to Mon Oncle d’Amerique, having skipped Life Is a Bed of Roses, Love unto Death, Mélo, I Want to Go Home, and the two-films-in-one, Smoking/No Smoking in the interim. Despite being nominated for nine Césars (and winning three), the spotty release record supported a very likely chance that Pas sur la Bouche may never see the darkness of a San Diego theater (or many others, for that matter), and not much else convincing was needed to make the trek to L.A. to see it.

An operetta by André Barde, Pas sur la Bouche (translation: Not on the Lips) was originally made into a film in 1931 by Nicolas Evreinoff and Nicolas Rimsky. Those familiar with Resnais know that he is not new to musicals (though as Lambert Wilson said when introducing this film, it’s not technically a musical because the actors don’t dance while singing), with Life Is a Bed of Roses (which I haven’t seen) and Same Old Song (a hybrid of a musical) under his belt.

The idea of a “whimsical” operetta about a re-married woman who finds out her husband is going into business with an American who turns out to be her ex-husband, when the current mari doesn’t know she was previously wed, isn’t something that sounds along the lines that the director of such cerebral films as Hiroshima, mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and La Guerre est Finie would make. But while labeling Resnais as soft in his age isn’t appropriately fitting either, despite the more playfulness of his last few films, such an expectation of whim here wouldn’t be giving him his due. It becomes quickly apparent (quickly, because the film takes no time in rapidly setting up the scenario, and much so without across the board introductions) that the operetta is a genuine reflection on the deceptiveness — albeit playful deceptiveness — of the human condition that Resnais has so creatively carved out in his long-spanning oeuvre. Just as fast as the introduction to unseen characters and plot motive, is the rate at which the songs are sung, again to the same degree as dropping pieces of information at a fast pace.

As it turns out, Gilberte Valandray (Sabine Azéma) is married to a man who believes in a scientifically-proven theory (his own) of first marriage lasting based on the kiss of two virgin lips together, and that no matter what separation may come between them at any given time, those two lovers are destined to reunite. And while Gilberte has a long line of potential lovers swooning to sweep her away, it’s a mere game to her as she is most happy with her husband (Pierre Arditi). When she learns that her husband is going into business with the American she was once married to (you see, they were married in the States, and if it was not registered with the French Consulate, it doesn’t become officially recognized in France) and that he is coming to stay with them, she fears that if her husband finds out, their marriage will end.

Gilberte enlists the help of her spinster sister (Isabelle Nanty) to ambush her ex, played by the Frenchman Lambert Wilson doing a nasally monotone and phonetic pronunciation of the French language, the latter two of whom have a long-standing feud that suggests a true hidden attraction. The duplicity of games and feelings continues to multiply into the field of unrequited characters with Wilson trying to woo back Azéma, Audrey Tautou falling for Jalil Lespert, a bachelor who is madly pursuing Azéma, and Nanty’s requested assistance to Tautou.

With the territory of duplicitous and hidden agendas, to the characters at least, there are a myriad of confused signals and comedies of error within their actions, but the feeling of comedy itself is always being manipulated to give motion to the magnetic pawns as they attract to or repel away from one another. (To suggest that the comedy was anything less than a manipulation would be to undermine the dualities that Resnais so adeptly incorporates into his characters.) As the initial action of development is attributed to the theory of on-the-lips kissing, or what it signifies, it too gets its mileage as an axiom that many of the characters come to adopt, either to help their own case, or as an attainment for them to get what they wanted. (In the midst of trying to win back Gilberte, the American Eric Thomson fends off seduction from a pack of young socialites: “Just a kiss/Just a kiss/Just a kiss/Not on the lips/Just a kiss/Just a kiss/Just a kiss/My stomach flips/Just a kiss/Just a kiss/Just a kiss/Hands off my hips.”) And as it appears (without specifying exacts), the philosophy holds more than water in its formal application.

The music very much has the authenticity of being a product — in the form of a remake — of its time, the Thirties, and Resnais lavishly captures the production values down to the origins of its original theatrical context (the closing curtain call, replete with a number thanking the audience for having not yet left is a clever hoot). The images are iridescently filmed by Renato Berta, lush with bright hues and textures, using a filter to literally purport a haloed glow from people and objects alike. The fanciness of the cinematography strictly remains in the luster of the image, not carrying on in a flashy or overly ornamented style as the modern musicals (i.e., Chicago, Moulin Rouge) would have it, nor does the editing seek to mince the performance into a Fosse-like rapid cutting of objects. Throughout his expansive career, despite being free enough pay homage, such as to Dennis Potter in Same Old Song, Resnais is an influencer, not the influenced, and even in making a remake he turns it into his own. Pas sur la Bouche is not merely a frolicsome operetta, it’s a complicated meditation on the serpentine psychology of loving another just by being human. That it’s deviously funny and sweetly romantic with clever, toe-tapping song (“It’s the same old song/You’ve got it all wrong”), makes the experience pleasurable on so many different levels. With Daniel Prévost and Darry Cowl.

The other movie that I caught at the festival, mainly an assurance that I would have made it in time for what I was truly interested in, was France Boutique, also the name of the QVC-like retail program of gizmos and gewgaws run by the married pair Karen Viard and François Cluzet, as a wedge is driven between them by a newly partnered internet company that seeks to destroy theirs, and their own wandering attractions, he by a production designer-cum-tortured painter, and she as revenge with an exec at the internet company with whom she has a history, as well as with a supply of gigolos. Directed by Tonie Marshall (Venus Beauty Institute), it’s a flat comedy that tepidly attempts to parody the doldrums of an industry that is as much a parody to itself, more interested in the cheesiness of the products being sold (and their even cheesier names), and never taking a moment to endear the viewer towards the nasty and unpalatable likeliness of the characters. Regardless of the poor material given, only the fact that she accepted it serves as criticism for Viard, who otherwise out-performs everyone else, and pardons her presence in something so beneath her. With Judith Godrèche, Bernard Menez, Noémie Lvovsky, Hélène Fillières, and Nathalie Baye.

Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro’s second outing in the comic book realm, seeks to go for a more obscure choice in material than the daywalker Blade. Hellboy (theme song: “Red Right Hand,” Nick Carter and the Bad Seeds), a demon conjured by the Nazis, but seized and trained for the good by the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, is employed like a Ghostbuster or Man In Black, along with a prescient man-fish and a human torch, to battle your average variety of monsters and ghouls. But he becomes directly targeted by the evil Kroenen, the man who unleashed him during World War II, who in turn is under the instruction of Grigori Rasputin. Hellboy does a fair enough job of playing into the comic book genre rather than away from it (self-reflexive humor acknowledging his comic book, Hellboy sightings on news reports like the abominable snowman), while at the same time not turning him into a joke but rather as an every day, out-of-view, underhanded secret. And the aim to make him more of a person, less of a monster (through what else? familial love, romantic love) is achieved so much more convincingly than Ang Lee’s Hulk. (As real as Hellboy is made to be, whether through serious treatment or humor, Prague is absolutely no substitute for New York, the authenticity of which del Toro nailed in Mimic.) For its type of movie, the action is a bit underwhelming, though what sequences there are, del Toro dexterously blends live action and CGI to the right balance, relying more on what can be done on the set than afterwards with a computer. Ron Perlman as Hellboy is a frighteningly eerie match, well-developed as a character (despite the obscurity of the comic, it isn’t hindered in arcanum) and humorously portrayed. Again, in choosing a big budget, mainstream action film like Blade 2, del Toro still makes his stylistic mark with Hellboy, toying with notions of the supernatural and the inexplicable, cloaked in the darkness of both a hidden existence and the metaphorical caves in which the existence takes place. With John Hurt, Selma Blair, Karel Roden, Jeffrey Tambor, Rupert Evans, and Doug Jones.

Johnson Family Vacation, a self-explanatory cross-country drive from Los Angeles to Caruthersville, Missouri for said group of Johnsons to compete for the “Best Family” trophy at their annual familial reunion. Typical dysfunctional family caricatures — bumbling father, prudish wife, wannabe rap star son, the Lolita older daughter, younger daughter with an imaginary dog — with atypically bad results. The situational comedy is poorly set up and executed, lame results coming from a zany hitchhiker, a maniac truck driver out of Duel (only the truck is for diapers), a jacuzzi of corpulence and a little nudity, and a Lincoln Navigator that’s mistakenly been pimped out, must be returned unscratched, and is guaranteed to end in a wreck. And so on. The first few minutes set up an incorrect notion of how the humor will henceforth flow as Cedric the Entertainer puts on his stand-up chops for a couple of funny jokes about rap (“You gotta wear a condom to listen to some of it,” or, “With rap music, there’s no pension, no dental — that’s why they got all those gold teeth”), but the laughs last as long (if not shorter) as the Navigator remains in top condition. As bad and unfunny as the material is, it’s matched neck-and-neck by bad and unfunny performances from Vanessa Williams, Bow Wow, Solange Knowles, Shannon Elizabeth, and the generally reliable Steve Harvey, who is unconvincingly passed off as Cedric’s ultra-competitive older brother. With Gabby Soleil; directed by Christopher Erskin.

What Alice Found, a low-low-budget indie written and directed by A. Dean Bell, has a teenage girl driving from New Hampshire to Florida in order to join her friend at college, when possible tampering with decommissions her car and she accepts a ride from a nice older couple traveling in their RV. The luxury thrown on her turns out to be too good to be true when she discovers the woman is a truck-stop hooker and the husband her pimp, but it’s not enough to send her hitching elsewhere. Rather, she decides to start hooking too, convinced that she can refill the funds she lost. The digital video image — rubbery, gel-like, flat, drained of life and color — has to be some of the worst in recent memory. The newness of whoever was behind the camera is reflected by the greenness of the writer/director’s inability to instruct how proper use should be applied. Judith Ivey is good as the experienced prostitute, gently assuring the viewer that if based on looks alone, we would be missing out on more than a few unexpected surprises. With Emily Grace and Bill Raymond.

Ella Enchanted, decoratively dressed up as a cute movie for all the little princesses, is a numbly terrible movie about a girl who was given the “gift” of obedience by her fairy godmother (a young girl taunting her with the command “Bite me” literally gets bitten), and who, much later on in life as a teen, endures a hell as her wicked step-sisters (wicked because, after all, they speak with British accents) figure out how to control her by telling her what to do. And in the process of hating the prince who will be king, she naturally falls in love, and along with his help, an elf who refuses to sing, ogres and giants, she helps to overthrow a plot by the prince’s uncle to have him killed. (All without free will.) Apart from the frustrating — and not to mention stupid — idea of the inability to ignore a command, no simple statement that the fairy godmother is dumb suffices how one woman could curse another woman with total subservience. Nor is the “disability” used with particular conviction (when she learns of the diabolical plans, a simple “Don’t tell anyone” is enough to keep her lips on the matter sealed), especially when there are so many loopholes opened to negate an imposition. (And why do people like Ella’s aunt stand around and do nothing to help correct the wrong by not telling her to tell the truth, or whatever?) Then again, what exactly is to be expected from a movie with an evil, talking CGI snake, or the repeated sight of an ogre’s buttcrack for laughs? Directed by Tommy O’Haver; with Anne Hathaway, Hugh Dancy, Minnie Driver, Vivica A. Fox, Jimi Mistry, Cary Elwes, Parminder K. Nagra, and Lucy Punch.

DysEnchanted, on the other hand, is an adorably ingenious short film written and directed by Terri Edda Miller that premiered earlier in the year at the Sundance Film Festival. The premise of the mere eight-minutes has a weekly group therapy session with handful of fairytale characters (Little Red Riding Hood, Alice de Wonderland, Goldilocks, Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Dorothy Gale) and one housewife, all bemoaning the difficulty of leading storybook lives (“A prince is not a silver bullet”) and the hang-ups each overcame (“Till you’ve been grabbed by a flying monkey, you don’t know fear!”). It’s as clever and funny as eight-minutes will allow; tightly scripted, colorfully shot, exquisitely cast. The biggest criticism, or better yet, complaint, is that the film wasn’t longer. This easily has the potential of being an 80 to 90-minute feature length film, and I for one would love to see this continued. Skimming through the press kit, I am honorbound to report that it is being looked into to extend the film (well, not using what was already filmed, but fleshing the idea into a full length movie). Of the fitting cast, special note goes to Alexis Bledel (as Goldilocks), Sarah Wynter (as Sleeping Beauty), Jill Small (as Dorothy), and Jim Belushi (as the shrink). Hitting the festival circuit, keep an eye out for DysEnchanted at the Nashville Film Festival (4/26 and 4/28), the Tribeca Film Festival (5/6 and 5/8), and the Maryland Film Festival (some time early in May). Otherwise, for more information about the film and film festival screenings, check out the equally ingenious website at http://www.dysenchanted.com/ where, among other things, they offer character dossiers with ailments and prescribed treatments (Little Red: post-traumatic stress disorder; Alice: hallucinations treated with Lithium; Goldilocks: kleptomania; Sleeping Beauty: narcolepsy treated with Modafinil and Adderall, etc.) With Amy Pietz, Shiva Rose, K.D. Aubert, Jaime Bergman, and Laura Kightlinger.

http://www.madstonetheaters.com/


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1082
originally posted: 04/09/04 17:18:47
last updated: 04/10/04 16:27:40
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