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Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2001

'Victor . . . pendant qu'il est trop tard'

Rating: * * * *Japanese title: Victor -- Chiisana Koibito Director: Sandrine Veysset Running time: 88 minutes Language: FrenchNow showing

Realist cinema, even at its best, tends to have a very flat view of reality, one that involves merely capturing the world around us as we perceive it. But there's also the world inside us, tinged by memories, sensations, thoughts and desires. For some filmmakers, reality as seen through a character's eyes can't be "real" without the distortions that arise inside the head and heart -- perception filtered through a mind-set.

Lydia Andrei and Jeremy Chaix in "Victor . . . pendant qu'il est trop tard"

This year has already seen a couple of excellent works in this "lyrical-realist" vein, which mix well-observed social reality with a twist of the subconscious. Joining Lynn Ramsay's "Ratcatcher" and Abolfazl Jalili's "Dance of Dust" is up-and-coming French director Sandrine Veysset's "Victor . . . pendant qu'il est trop tard," a film that floats somewhere between documentary and fantasy.

Set in Provence, the film follows Victor (Jeremy Chaix), a dreamy little 10-year-old with a less than dreamy home-life. After witnessing his parents involved in some kinky sex, Victor flees his home late at night. With a bit of money in his pocket, he goes to an amusement park, where he rides a merry-go-round over and over until he dozes off.

He's woken by Mick (Mathieu Lane), a quiet young guy who works at the fairground. Seeing Victor has nowhere to go, he takes him to the apartment of his sometime-girlfriend Triche (Lydia Andrei). She's none too pleased at the imposition, but Mick pretty much dumps the boy there.

Triche works as a streetwalker, and it's clear that this has caused her to erect some pretty formidable emotional walls of her own. She offers to take Victor home, but he refuses to go. She lets him stay, and slowly warms to the boy, sensing some hurt in him that isn't far removed from her own memories of an abusive father.

Veysset handles this delicately in a scene where Victor brings Triche breakfast in bed. Used to being naked around men, she hardly notices when her robe falls open and her breasts are exposed. Victor turns away and buries himself in a pillow. Triche looks confused, and then a sort of realization dawns. It's to Andrei's credit as an actress that she can play this key moment on her face, saying nothing but telling us everything.

It's a compelling contrast, the little boy who holds on to his dreams and the woman who has lost all illusions. While Triche's life is defined by sexuality, Victor is running from it. They're both damaged goods, but it is Victor's childlike belief in the possibility of change -- of dreams -- that gradually begins to thaw Triche.

In other hands, this material could have been horrendously trite: the hooker with the heart of gold, the young child able to melt hardened adult hearts. But Veysset -- as she's shown in all three of her films -- has a knack for eliciting raw performances that seemingly transcend acting. The technique is invisible, the characters real.

Part of this is due also to her excellent cast: Andrei combines a solid physical presence with the possibility of something behind it, a mask that drops only occasionally. Chaix is an amateur, and again proves that the best child actors don't "play" roles, they merely conform to them for a while.

By giving her characters room to breathe -- watching how they cook a meal or walk down the street -- Veysset enables the more emotional scenes to arise naturally, without a hint of phony melodrama. She also clearly draws the world her characters inhabit. Prostitution is probably the most misrepresented occupation on the big screen (next to being a cop), but Veysset gets it right with little details like the camaraderie and competition of the streetwalkers, the showers Triche unfailingly takes upon arriving home, or the way her neighbors glare at her behind her back.

In an age of family dysfunction, fragmentation and breakdown, Veysset is saying that the need for connection, for love and affection, is greater than ever. The question is whether you can remain open to the possibility of finding it elsewhere -- remain open to the world, and to fate. If you can, this modern fairy tale suggests, you might just get what you need.

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