Cinema brut

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Early on in A Parting Shot, Isild Le Besco’s character curls up at a bar, crowded by two leering men ordering her the hard liquor with which she courts abnegation. A couple cuts later, she’s teasing one of her throwaway lovers for asking her to be tender, warning the next in line that she’s "pas douce," or "not soft." Pas Douce is the original title of Jeanne Waltz’s finely calibrated debut, though it could pass for several French offerings with similarly bruising and bruised heroines at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival.

French art cinema has been rife with sex of the pas douce sort for years now: a diverse group of filmmakers (Gaspar Noe, Catherine Breillat, Francois Ozon, and more recently, Jean-Claude Brisseau, of Exterminating Angels infamy) has coalesced, marked by the provocative blend of hyperrealism and hardcore. The French have never shied away from showing a little skin – it would be silly to think the original new wave didn’t owe some of its cachet to it – but these latter-day sexual misadventures represent something pointedly unpleasant in form and content. Critic James Quandt dubbed it new French extremism, though cinema brut works just as well.

In SFIFF films such as On Fire, 7 Years, and Flanders, this tendency is toned down but still embedded in narrative and character. Being French, all three feature some manner of love triangle: in Claire Simon’s On Fire, teenage Livia (Camille Varenne) plays like Lolita, teasing a boy her age while imagining herself the object of a swarthy fireman’s desire (hello metaphor!); in 7 Years, Jean (Valerie Donzelli) has sex with her prisoner husband’s warden on tape, nominally for hubby’s benefit; and in Flanders, sad-eyed Barbe (Adelaide Leroux) opens her legs to two neighbors going off to fight an unnamed war in the Middle East.

They are all Mouchette’s daughters, these women. Mouchette, the title character of Robert Bresson’s stark 1967 film, is perhaps French cinema’s gold standard of female suffering (with all due respect to Maria Falconetti in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc). She’s there in the shots of Barbe on her back, staring skyward in full surrender to a man’s grunting weight; in the way Livia sighs while putting a cup of coffee on for her father; and certainly when Le Besco’s Frederique rides her bike into a lake in a fit of ecstatic despair (Mouchette ends her own life rolling into a bog).

Bresson’s content was indivisible from his unadorned film style, and here too these new directors toe the line, shooting in long takes, often on location, with a handheld camera and a resourceful approach to sound. As far as formulas go, this one’s a pretty safe bet in film festival circles (see: the Dardenne brothers and Abbas Kiarostami). Flanders director Bruno Dumont (The Life of Jesus, Humanite) is already well established in this regard, and while On Fire, 7 Years, and A Parting Shot all have their good points, his latest film is the clear standout among the SFIFF’s cinema brut. It strikes me as Dumont’s version of (and perhaps, improvement on) Michael Cimino’s 1978 The Deer Hunter in the way it mediates battleground and home front as two complementary parts of one continuous, damaged landscape. The Flanders segments work better than the ones in the desert, both for Leroux’s unnerving performance and for Dumont’s painterly compositions (the director grew up in this part of northern France). Flanders occasionally breaks down in its long silences, but it’s a beautifully wrought film, full of carefully plotted mirroring and harrowing disruptions. It’s also unremittingly physical – the sound design of boots squashing and sucking the Flanders mud is all the exposition we could ever need.

Flanders possesses a formidable style indeed, but the closing lines of Quandt’s essay still demand satisfaction: "The authentic, liberating outrage – political, social, sexual – that fueled such apocalyptic visions as Salo and Weekend now seems impossible, replaced by aggressiveness that is really a grandiose form of passivity." Or maybe there are simply too many of these films and scenes piling up, diluting the resonance of any one effort. An uncomfortable question: how would we respond to Mouchette if it were released in this deluge?

It’s impossible to say, but I have little doubt that burnout had something to do with the pleasure I took in Christophe Honore’s new wave-meets-J.D. Salinger yarn, Dans Paris. Honore’s film is steeped in Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Eric Rohmer, and while individual bits feel too cutesy (e.g., Louis Garrel skipping down a Paris street in fast-motion), most of this nervy technique has retained its bite, thanks to the staid but lurid minimalism of new French extremism. Honore’s characterizations are tenderly muted rather than brutishly absent; he’s more concerned, in proper new wave fashion, with the talk before and after sex than the act itself. Rather than aiming for extremism (and let it be said that 2001’s Amelie represents, in its own way, as extreme a vision as that year’s Fat Girl), Honore charges Dans Paris with eclecticism: of tone and thought and most likely meaning too. *

DANS PARIS (Christophe Honore, France, 2006). May 4, 9:15 p.m., Kabuki. Also May 7, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki

FLANDERS (Bruno Dumont, France, 2006). May 6, 5:15 p.m., PFA. Also May 8, 9 p.m., Kabuki; May 9, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki

ON FIRE (Claire Simon, France/Switzerland, 2006). May 5, 1:45 p.m., Clay. Also May 7, 7 p.m., PFA

A PARTING SHOT (Jeanne Waltz, France, 2006). May 5, 7 p.m., Clay. Also May 7, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki; May 8, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki; May 10, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki

7 YEARS (Jean-Pascal Hattu, France, 2006). May 5, 9:30 p.m., Clay. Also May 7, 7 p.m., Kabuki; May 9, 1 p.m., Kabuki