On French Films of a Certain Age

by by Gillian Brassil, Belle Cushing, Sarah Denaci & Caroline Sagalchik

Les derniers jours du monde [Happy Ends], (2009)

dir. Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu

How would the apocalypse happen in France? It would happen slowly, and everyone would be irritated and arguing and taking their shirts off and having orgies in abandoned hotels. Train passengers would be sprayed with disinfectant by men in yellow hazmat suits, and they would sleep with their estranged fathers or their fathers’ ex-lovers. Waitstaff would poison wealthy douchebags with blue martinis and an annoying siren would never quit wailing in the background. A man named Robinson (Mathieu Amalric) would his family and hometown on what initially seems to be a search for safety, but what is actually a search for his lost Spanish mistress, Lae, who once caused him to lose his right arm and fuck up his life. Everything would be exploding—especially in one very red, very startling scene at The Running of the Bulls—and every person and thing would be trying to have sex with Robinson, but it wouldn’t matter because Robinson really needs to find Lae. She might be kind of a whore (in fact, she is; that is her job), but she is all Robinson cares about. And of course none of Robinson’s friends understand, because it is a little hard to understand or to sympathize with, this flabby middle aged man obsessed with a woman his friends call that “charming little whore” while the world falls to pieces around him. But in this movie, everyone is desperate and horny: love—or lust—is all anyone really cares about, especially when the world is ending. Or so this well-filmed, carefully plotted, sort of scary movie suggests. —SD

Les derniers jours du monde screens Friday, March 2, at 9 p.m.

Le jour d’avant [The Day Before], (2009)

dir. Loïc Prigent

In the first few minutes of Le jour d’avant, a narrator buoyantly describes Fendi, a fashion house known for its furs: “It’s about luxury; it’s about money; it’s about Italy.” Pictures of expensive handbags flash onscreen. Watching this, I was baffled; I had been expecting a documentary about high fashion, but what I was watching bore a strange resemblance to VH1’s The Fabulous Life. As it turned out, the movie’s roots lay somewhere in between.

Le jour d’avant was originally shown on the Sundance Channel in 2009 as four one-hour episodes, each documenting the backstage preparations for a different major fashion show. In its film version, the episodes featuring Karl Lagerfeld (for Fendi) and Jean Paul Gaultier are played back-to-back. So there’s a good explanation for why this movie feels like a reality TV show; what makes less sense is why anyone thought this material belonged in theaters. Event planning is boring, y’all.

Prigent’s main problem is that he has mistaken activity for interest: people run around and talk tensely and cut fabric, all to the strains of extremely dramatic music, but the stakes just don’t feel high. You always know that the show will go on, that the result will be ten minutes of models strutting down a catwalk (of which you only get to see a minute or two). To make up for this lack of intrigue, in some places Prigent has added snarky, all-caps captions: “KARL LAGERFELD IS LATE TO HIS OWN SHOW.” But neither Lagerfeld nor Gaultier is as compelling onscreen as they apparently imagine themselves to be, and Prigent’s vague attempts at deeper commentary—These models are really young and skinny! These old Italian ladies sew a lot and Lagerfeld gets all the credit!—are half-assed and quickly forgotten. Prigent should have stuck to the juicier side of fashion: the Fabulous Lives of people buying €100,000 sable coats. —GB

Le jour d’avant screens Sunday, March 4, at 4:30 p.m.

Les petits ruisseaux [Wandering Streams], (2010) & Mammuth, (2010)

dir. Pascal Rabaté

France is in a late-life crisis: when old-manhood hits, how to reconnect with the passion in sex and art that French films hold dear? The answer will be found on the road, cruising below the speed limit in a bizarre vehicle, and fraternizing—preferably while naked, preferably with a joint—with members of the younger alternative generation.

That is, according to two films, Les petits ruisseaux (Wandering Streams) and Mammuth, which arrive at remarkably similar conclusions to this same question. In Les petits ruisseaux, Émile (Daniel Prévost) comes to question his own sterile retirement when he discovers his late fishing buddy’s active sex life and extensive oeuvre of pornographic paintings.  Prompted by a sudden tendency to mentally disrobe all clothed women, Émile sets out in his bright orange oversized toy car to “re-learn happiness.” The graphic novelist Pascal Rabaté has, in his directorial debut, adapted his own book of the same name. Each shot seems a panel from a comic reproduced in real life, so that any qualms over watching septuagenarians being seduced by dreadlocked teenagers are quickly calmed by sheer delight at the composition.

If Les petits ruisseaux is a graphic novel in film form, Mammuth is a mixed-media painting. The camera switches from grainy Super 16 reversal to a hi-def handheld in the same scene, following Serge, (a corpulent Gerard Dépardieu, with a lot of curly blond locks and a little bit of intelligence), as he tracks down old employers to ensure his retirement pension. Traveling through the countryside on his motor bike (Mammuth is the bike’s model, and also Serge’s nickname), he shakes off insults, relives a tragic memory with a dead ex (Isabelle Adjani, reappearing intermittently to chat in bloodied splendor), and reconnects with his niece, who makes sculptures out of dilapidated dolls, considers writing her resume on toilet paper in menstrual blood, and eventually teaches Serge to see love. The writing/directing duo, Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern, may get carried away at some points—a session of male bonding masturbation between two geriatric cousins provides more shock value than thematic importance—but they have managed to create an eerie and endearing surrealism within a tired life. The journey is oddly static. There is no epiphanic climax at the summit of the narrative arc to show exactly when and how the transformation occurred, but by the time Serge and his niece are floating in a bean-shaped swimming pool on the sea, it is clear that that Serge has discovered the poetry of an existence previously considered idiotic.

Both films elicit cringes and heartstring twinges, and throughout their saturated absurdity celebrate unbridled, nude joy at any time in life. The films reinforce the life motto upheld by Émile’s randy pal: “The present does not exist. Only the future passes.”

Which, of course, means nothing at all. BC

Les petits ruisseaux screens Sunday, March 4, at noon.
Mammuth is no longer showing.

Bus Palladium, (2010)

dir. Christopher Thompson

"It felt like I was high,” one audience member exclaimed at the Q&A that followed the screening of Bus Palladium, the directorial debut of Christopher Thompson B’88, which opened the French Film Festival last Wednesday. Bus Palladium is a movie about sex, drugs, and rock & roll, accompanied by all the clichés you would expect. The sensation of being high that the audience member felt probably stemmed from the intoxicating filming style, which contrasted vivid and blurry cinematography, as much as from the subject matter. Five young guys are striving to make it in the music business. Their band name is “Lust” and their music, while solid, is as conventional as their name. Yet, they dream of being contemporary Beatles or Rolling Stones and describe themselves as “little white guys with a black soul grounded in the Delta mud.”

Bandmates and best friends, Lucas (Marc-André Grondin) is the guitarist, and Manu (Arthur Dupont) is the singer and frontman. Lucas, the good, sensitive, hard-worker, advises Manu to get down from dangerous heights, while Manu, the daredevil, womanizing heartthrob, urges Lucas to get up there with him. Their harmonized relationship is threatened by the arrival of the archetypal dream-girl—the sexy, free-loving Laura (Elisa Sednaoui). Not appreciative of "groupie" or "muse" labels, she sees herself as an icon for the band, comparable to Penny Lane in Almost Famous. At the Q&A, Thompson himself said, “I didn’t try to avoid the stereotypes. Many kids have this dream.”

The film brings up questions that young people often ask themselves at this age. At one point, Manu asks Lucas, “Have you ever felt that you’re important—that you’re meant to do something special?” Lucas says, “No, not really,” and throws the question back at Manu, who responds, “All the time.” At another point Manu gets asked, “Do you feel satisfied?” Manu counter-questions: “Sexually? Financially? Intellectually?”

Beyond being a story about making it as musicians Bus Palladium is a story about the difficulties in friendship, parenthood, love, and lust. Unexpectedly, in not trying to avoid clichés it manages to captivate and elevate—without the residual munchies. —CS

Bus Palladium is no longer showing.