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Va Savoir
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by Andrew Howe

"Spends too much time in the freezer."
3 stars

Is comedy a serious business? Jacques Rivette and Pascal Bonitzer certainly think so, and with Va Savoir they spend the better part of 154 minutes proving it. It’s an intelligent, sophisticated hymn to modern-day relationships, featuring finely tuned performances and a script which would not be out of place in the literature section of your local bookstore. However, the glacial pace and clinical atmosphere undermine our involvement, leaving us with a film you’ll have little difficulty respecting but be hard-pressed to cherish.

When the film opens Camille (Jeanne Balibar) and her partner Ugo (Sergio Castellitto) have returned to Paris after an extended absence. Ugo divides his time between fretting about the poor returns on his latest play (which shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since it’s a turgid undertaking that he inexplicably elected to script in Italian) and conducting a search for a lost manuscript by a famous 18th century playwright. Since Camille’s at a loose end she looks up her old boyfriend Pierre (Jacques Bonaffe), who’s engaged in a live-in relationship with Sonia (Marianne Basler). Pierre falls for Camille all over again, which ensures he’s too busy to notice that Sonia’s having an affair with Arthur (Bruno Todeschini). Arthur’s sister Do (Helene De Fougerolles) has other things on her mind than her brother’s flirtations, since she’s become infatuated with Ugo, who believes a library in her house might hold the key to his literary obsession.

You could be forgiven for wondering whether scriptwriter Bonitzer has unearthed a lost manuscript of his own (Will Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors Division) – it’s not as labyrinthine as the above summary suggests, but you can bet there’ll be a few uncomfortable moments before it’s through. Provided you can accept the improbable coincidences that underpin the set-up it hangs together surprisingly well, and there’s plenty of scope for Bonitzer to place the various relationships under a microscope and report back with his findings.

All of the characters obviously spent way too much time in Bohemian coffee shops during their misspent youth, but nobody’s trying to impress anyone with their intelligence – it’s just the way people with excessive amounts of schooling converse, and the absence of arrogance and obvious affectation allows us to enjoy the sparkling dialogue without dismissing them as a bunch of pretentious windbags. Their interactions are enhanced by Bonitzer’s decision to eschew lengthy exposition, leaving us to draw our own conclusions from the intriguing clues he scatters throughout the narrative (Camille and Ugo sleeping in separate rooms, the suspicious level of intimacy enjoyed by Arthur and Do, and many others).

When it comes to comedy the French aren’t known for their restraint, which makes Va Savoir something of an aberration. It’s more interested in raising a knowing smile than bringing the house down, and several scenes are artfully conceived (a dinner at Pierre’s will have most viewers squirming in sympathetic embarrassment, and an inventive showdown between Camille’s suitors is a pure delight). In reality, however, it’s not the script’s sense of humour that defines the film as a comedy, but the fact that the characters never experience sufficient suffering to see it classified as a drama.

And therein lies the problem. The film has no heart – it’s so busy trying to impress us with its sophistication that it forgets to inject any emotion into the proceedings, and the jaded characters resist any attempt to become invested in their lives. None of them are particularly likeable, since they appear to be engaged in a competition to see who can adopt the most dispassionate approach to interpersonal relations, leaving us to enjoy the film on a purely intellectual level.

The film’s other flaw is its pacing – Bonitzer tries our patience with a surfeit of superfluous scenes, most notably the excerpts from Ugo’s mind-numbing play which regularly derail whatever momentum the narrative manages to achieve (it’s designed to kick-start a round of “spot the symbolism”, however, so if that’s what rocks your world you can ignore my objections). I enjoy extended running times as much as the next man, but there has to be a valid reason for the extra room to move, and I would suggest a little more discipline in the editing suite would have improved the film immeasurably.

Which brings us back to my original assertion that Va Savoir is easy to like but difficult to love. It’s akin to reading an acknowledged classic of times gone by – you know you’re in the presence of greatness, but you can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when its over. See it so you can say you’ve seen it, retire to the local café for an intelligent discussion on art vs entertainment, and drop Bonitzer a postcard wishing him a long life, critical acclaim and newfound self-restraint.

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originally posted: 03/30/02 12:41:21
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User Comments

4/17/07 Hanspeter Bertschy beautiful slow and thoughtful film. 5 stars
12/02/02 Buddha Found it slooooooooooow. 2 stars
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  28-Sep-2001 (PG-13)



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