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For the eighth consecutive July, the MFA Film Program and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in Boston presents the Boston French Film Festival. One of the world's most extensive showcases of French cinema, it runs from July 10 through July 27 and marks the Boston premier of 27 feature films. Here's a sampling.
L'Adversaire (The Adversary)
"For 15 years, everyone believed Jean-Marc Fuare. His wife, his parents, his friends." So reads the epigraph of Nicole Garcia's "L'Adversaire," adapted from the book by Emmanuel Carrere, and based on actual events. Daniel Auteuil stars as Jean-Marc Fuare, who arrives home one wintry day to his dark, empty house, calling for his wife Christine and sorting out his mail. Something seems off, however. His suit is muddy and disheveled, a broken cereal bowl lies shattered on the floor, and he seems to move as in a daze. Indeed, it doesn't take long for us to realize something is indeed very wrong here -- what that is, exactly, is hard to tell for sure.
It turns out that nothing about Fuare is as it seems, and the remainder of the film gradually reveals the origin, scope, and tragic consequences of his life-long charade. Garcia is careful never to show too much, forcing the viewer to slowly peel away the layers of deceit Fuare has wrapped around himself. Her camera patiently lingers on Auteuil, allowing his malaise to dictate the pace of the film. The most mundane scenes -- Fuare reading a paper in a convention hall cafeteria, Fuare driving his daily commute from France to the World Health Organization (WHO) in Switzerland, Fuare sitting in a hotel room -- become fraught with meaning, suspenseful in their utter emptiness and the lies they conceal.
"L'Adversaire" is hardly a film for those who want quick answers and easy results -- rather, it's a film of quiet repression and deception, one that asks the viewer to pick apart subtleties like an expert detective. Only by witnessing all of Fuare's interactions can we begin to see what his wife (Geraldine Pailhas), parents (Michel Cassagne and Josephine Derenne), father-in-law (Bernard Fresson), best friend Luc (Francois Cluzet), and mistress Marianne (Emmanuelle Devos) cannot see for themselves.
Garcia has crafted a haunting, delicate portrait of a man's life as it slowly crumbles to pieces, and the horrible results when he stops trying to hold it together. It's a film that is not easily forgotten. "L'Adversaire" received three Cesar nominations -- Auteuil for Best Actor, Cluzet for Best Supporting Actor, and Devos for Best Supporting Actress.
24 Heures de la Vie d'une Femme (24 Hours in the Life of a Woman)
Directed and co-written by Laurent Bouhnik, "24 Hours in the Life of a Woman" depicts a worn out, elderly ambassador's encounter with a playful young woman. The film, based on the novel by Stefan Zweig, depicts events in three separate time periods. And until the very end, when it fails to meaningfully come together, the film captivates with its lush romanticism and skillful blending of past and present.
Louis (Michel Serrault) meets Olivia (Berenice Bejo) at a resort on the French Mediterranean coast, where he has returned after a long absence to the scene a pivotal moment in his life. Present day scenes trigger long-forgotten memories, and Bouhnik deftly handles the flashbacks with a Proustian mystery and elegance. She floods Louis' recollections with brilliant white light, as if those days were the purest, most heavenly, of his entire life. (If only the white subtitles had been shifted to yellow here, so that they might be seen.)
Indeed, this long-ago moment is perhaps the last innocent time of his life, the last time he can live without knowledge of human sin and passion -- even though the sin and passion are not his entirely own. Louis looks back on a devastating family tragedy, the day his mother ran off with a man she had met only hours before, abandoning her husband and son without any warning whatsoever. In the present day, Louis and Olivia spend a night together, Louis telling her about the event that changed and shaped his life irrevocably.
The first third of the film or so proves a compelling meditation on memory and the passage of time. But it loses focus when teenage Louis (Clement van den Bergh) falls under the spell of a mysterious widow, Marie Collins Brown (Agnes Jaoui), who, trying to help him understand his mother's sudden passion, tells him of her earlier, one-day obsession with a distraught gambler (Nikolai Coster-Waldau).
The woman of the film's title, then, becomes two women -- both Olivia and Marie. Louis tells Olivia of his own life, in much the same way that Marie once told him hers, and Marie's tale becomes a part of his own. Bouhnik bathes Marie's story with warm, romantic color, foregoing the delicate chronological juggling act for a mostly linear melodrama. He provides plenty of overwhelming passion here, and it's easy to get swept up in it.
If only Bouhnik could merge the three storylines into a thematically coherent whole. The similarity between Marie's tale and the plight of Louis' mother works on some level, but why Louis himself is so taken with the story is not entirely clear. And we never find out enough about Olivia to understand how Louis's tale -- and Marie's tale within it -- have a significant impact on her. Marie's tale, then, eventually takes center stage, overwhelming the film. The resolution, if Olivia is meant to be the title character of the film (or one of them), seems forced, flat and ineffective. And in retrospect, without that glue at the end to hold everything together, all the flashbacks and tales within tales add up to mere pretentious trickery -- rich, luxuriant frosting without any cake to hold it up.
But if "24 Hours" becomes a mess, it's a lush, gloriously filmed one. To heck with cake -- a nice helping of frosting is a treat every once in a while. Serrault gives a subtle, moving performance, playing the morose straight man to Bejo's buoyant irreverence. And Jaoui has just the right touch of fin-de-siecle moodiness to portray Marie's recklessness. If anything, the film stands as a testament to the power of story to change lives. "24 Hours" is an exquisite, beautiful film, one that unfortunately tries to carry more weight than its substance warrants.
Se Souvenir des Belles Choses (Try to Remember)
Memory plays a central role in another festival offering, "Se Souvenir des Belles Choses," directed and co-written by Zabou Breitman. With this film, however, memory is elusive, lost perhaps forever. The lack of memory becomes haunting, not the other way around.
Claire Poussin (Isabelle Carre) is taken to a mental health care facility by her nagging sister (Anne Le Ny) when she loses her memory in a freak lightning accident. She worries she suffers from Alzheimer's, the disease that took her mother, but she is far too young for that. Her psychiatrist Dr. Licht (Bernard Le Coq) assures her she has nothing to fear -- that her memories will return over time with the help of some elementary exercises. She begins her rehabilitation, spending her days at the facility shuffling about in a near-catatonic state, finding solace in the misfits she encounters.
She soon forms a strong bond with Philippe (Bernard Campan), who has lost his own memory in the car accident that killed his wife and child. Alone together, two people without pasts, they strike up a romance, encouraged by Licht, who expects their renewed interest in life to help spark their recovery. The stakes are raised when the couple moves out of the facility to forge a life together, away from the support of Dr. Licht and his staff. For Philippe, at least, the romance therapy seems to work, as he gradually regains control of his life. Claire, however, seems to slowly spiral into oblivion.
What follows is a harrowing depiction of the disintegration of a mind. Carre brilliantly portrays Claire's initial detached amusement, the eventual horror that consumes her as she struggles to regain control of her memory, and the innocent glee of someone without any past or future, living completely in the moment. "Se Souvenir" is a fine film, although not one for happy-ending lovers. Bring plenty of tissues. The film won three Cesar awards -- Carre for Best Actress, Le Coq for Best Supporting Actor, and director Zabou Breitman for Best First Film. In addition, Campan received a Best Actor nomination.