Surrender Yourself To France's Charms

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 24, 2005

Just when the bloody excess called "High Tension," with its chain saw-waving madman chasing a chick through the woods, had convinced us the French no longer knew how to make French movies, along comes "Kings and Queen" and "A Tout de Suite." They are two very French movies, made by authentic French people, full of French food, clothes, cigarettes and issues.

One can only say " vive la difference " a week can make!

The films have extreme similarities and are about as far from "High Tension" as can be: Both are about women in crisis, both feature powerhouse performances by the lead actresses, both are made by men of unusual empathy for women, both are full of intelligence and craft, both are without pretension. Both, moreover, throb with life and there isn't a chain saw to be seen.

"Kings and Queen," directed by Arnaud Desplechin, tells the story of Nora (Emmanuelle Devos), who seems to have everything. When first seen, she's a handsome, middle-aged woman, sunny and confident, who manages an art gallery in Paris, where all the help scurries to assist her in any way. She has a splendid son and is about to marry a millionaire. We think: There's someone who's got it all.

When you see that much stable prosperity, you know where it's going -- toward her awareness that she's got nothing.

What she does have is a nutcase ex; a cold, asexual fiance; a despondent child; a mean-spirited, screwball sister; and a dying, embittered father. It is his approaching death that's the galvanizing factor of the two weeks in her life that Desplechin covers, as she labors earnestly to be a good daughter while learning various unpleasant truths about herself and everyone she loves. It's not that she's broken down by the experience, it's that at last a screen is removed from her eyes and she sees all things, and most particularly herself, for what they are.

Nora's story is played against that of her manic-depressive ex-common law husband, a viola player named Ismael (Mathieu Amalric) who, like many of his pathology, can be incredibly charming when high but monstrous when low. He's been writing bad checks, his life is out of control and the others in his classical quartet have plotted to have him committed. The film largely cuts between his time in the hospital and Nora's struggle with her father and his approaching death, and the memories it stirs.

From an American standpoint, the flaw in the film may be its pacing, which is somewhat laggard, and the movie feels even longer than its 2 1/2 -hour running time. But it's part of Desplechin's technique: He gives these characters the time to develop, to display their nuances, to establish their relationships with each other, to talk out their destinies. It's all done without a lot of self-indulgence or stylization: natural lighting, no theatrical or film-schooly compositions, shot always in the real world. The whole thing has an anti-dramatic or anti-theatrical aesthetic that's so common in French films.

"A Tout de Suite," directed by Benoit Jacquot, is more sprightly if more impenetrable. It's one of those rich girl/bad boy things that defy understanding and leave you on the outside. Fascinated, but on the outside.

Supposedly suggested by a true story, it follows as a young Parisian bourgeois woman happens to casually meet a young man in a bar and in short order throws her life away to be with him. His chosen career path: bank robbery.

Set in flashback, it takes off from a now in which Lili recalls her young and tender self as an art student in Paris in 1975, sleeping in the same bed with a sister, dissatisfied with friends, family and most of all self. Lili (the ethereal and fabulous Isild Le Besco) meets Bada through the confluence of generally meaningless events. It's not that Bada (Ouassini Embarek) even comes on to her, is sexually aggressive, tries to seduce her. He's a generally passive young North African who seems to just want to hang out. The first time he spends the night, they don't even have sex.

In any event, he calls the next afternoon to ask for a date. His idea of a date would be a getaway, as he calls from inside a bank he's robbing, where he and some others have been trapped by the cops and are now holding hostages.

In many ways, the movie has a vague similarity to the picture that launched the new wave, Godard's "Breathless." It's casual, about a young woman of propriety who takes up with an extremely sexy criminal. It's shot in black and white with a largely hand-held camera on the real streets of Paris (and other spots).

But it's also completely different, mainly in the kind of disassociating behavior of the two young lovers, whose passion seems more something given than dramatized. Her reason for leaving home and school, escaping with him and a buddy to Spain, Morocco and ultimately Athens, are never given in any meaningful way, as if they're beyond explanation. And, of course, Embarek as Bada doesn't have the charisma that Jean-Paul Belmondo did -- but no one else on Earth does either. (On the other hand, Le Besco is a lot more commanding, and should have a lot longer and more fruitful career, than poor, doomed Jean Seberg.) Still, the dynamic of their relationship remains undissected by the movie; we simply accept it because the level of the performance and the craft is so high. She herself is not articulate enough to express them: It simply feels right to her and she never questions it, though the way, as they say, is fraught.

Even after the adventure is over she cannot yield her obsession, and the director Jacquot is at his most powerful in depicting her sense of loss when she has returned to life in Paris.

Neither of these small films will change hearts, minds or the world; but they remind us how much fun movies about real people in real lives can be, and how the best special effect is the human imagination.

A Tout de Suite (95 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) and Kings and Queen (150 minutes, at the Avalon), are in French with subtitles and not rated. Both contain nudity and sexual scenes.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company