Friday, April 27, 2007

Reviews in Brief - French Cinema

Pola X
Taking the great undiscovered masterpiece of 19th-century American literature as its source, Leos Carax's 2002 film can't help but disappoint. Herman Melville's Pierre remains so baffling a work with its hodgepodge of literary styles, its dry humor, and its plot compounded of incest and madness that it still awaits admission to the literary cannon. Carax's film, despite its deft camerawork and impressive visuals fails to capture either the mystery or offhand inclusiveness of its source and turns endlessly inventive and fascinating material into a tedious cinematic exercise. Only one added element, the experiemental communal orchestra with whom Pierre lives, arouses any interest on the viewer's part, but cannot replace such elements from the novel as Plotinus Plinlimmon and his pamphlet that add both metaphysical weight and narrative pull to the original work. In addition, the film features one of the worst performances in recent memory. Katerina Golubeva, so natural in Bruno Dumont's Twentynine Palms, contributes a dreadfully mannered performance as the "mysterious" Isabel, compounded of nearly incomprehensible speech and self-consciously distressed facial expressions. Carax deserves praise for attempting to bring Melville's masterpiece to the screen, but his film neither does justice to the source material nor uses it as a basis for creating a new work of art.

La Haine
Roughly two-thirds of the way through Mathieu Kossovitz's 1995 film, the three leads, poor kids from the housing projects surrounding Paris, encounter a bizarre old man in a public bathroom. In town to collect payment from an acquantainance known as Asterix, the three kids stop off in the bathroom, where the man regales them with an unsolicited story of his trip to a Siberian labor camp. Crammed into cattle cars, the prisoners were only allowed to use the bathroom when the train came to one of its infrequent stops. One of the man's friends, self-concious about defecating in front of others, went off into the woods. The train left without him and he froze to death. As the man finishes his story, he wishes his interlocutors a good day and leaves. "Why is he telling us this?" the kids wonder.

This story, whose depiction of a brutal existance parallels the young men's, casts a spell over the remaining third of the film, as the kids fail to get their money from a drug-addled Asterix, get arrested and abused by the police, miss their train, and finally engage in a deadly encounter with skinheads. Despite these parallels, however, the old man's story's essential significance remains difficult to pin down. It is one of those mysterious elements that cannot be easily assimilated but adds to the overall texture of the film.

The film itself, shot in gritty black and white, is one of the most arresting portraits of urban angst commited to celluloid. From the opening footage of erupting riots set to Bob Marley's "Burnin' and Lootin'" to the devastating finale, Kossovitz's film is unrelentingly savage, but also refreshingly human, particularly in its depiction of the three leads, who, thanks to sensitive performances from Vincent Cassel, Hubert Kounde and Said Taghmaoui, give potent expression to the plight of France's disenfranchised youth. At the end of the film, Kossovitz's narrative has led to its inevitable outcome, but the image of the old man remains apart, something that cannot be contained by the film's conclusion.

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