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Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2003

Between the artist and the wannabe

Sauvage innocence

Rating: * * **
Japanese title: Shiro to Kuro no Koibitotachi
Director: Philipe Garrel
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: French
Currently showing

L'Anglaise et le duc

Rating: * * * *
Japanese title: Grace to Koshaku
Director: Eric Rhomer
Running time: 129 minutes
Language: French/English
Currently showing

Films about filmmakers are rarely an appetizing proposition; like writers who write about writers, these exercises in deep navel-gazing usually reveal little more than how narrow and self-obsessed the director's worldview has become.

Not surprisingly, many of these films are from France, where the cult of the director as a driven, romantic artist is particularly strong. Coming in the footsteps of such yawnathons as "Irma Vep" and "The Pornographer" is Phillipe Garrel's "Sauvage innocence," a semiautobiographical look at the director's younger years in the '70s, and his turbulent relationship with Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico.

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Julia Faure and Mehdi Belhaj Kacem in Phillipe Garrel's "Sauvage innocence"

Garrel, known as the enfant terrible of the nouvelle vague, is working with a more conventional narrative form here, than, say, the Warholian boredom of "Les hautes de silence." He has actors with drop-dead good-looks in the leads: young novelist Mehdi Belhaj Kacem plays Garrel's alter-ego and stage actress Julia Faure is his muse. The story he tells, however, fails to engage.

"Sauvage innocence" begins when two women on the street recognize young radical director Francois (Kacem). Both girls are actresses, and one cup of coffee later, Francois has put the moves on Lucie (Faure), a wide-eyed beauty. Predictably, he decides to cast her in his next film. The screenplay is about a former lover who died from a drug overdose. Francois is committed to showing the horrors of addiction, but this downer topic fails to attract any producers. With his film a nonstarter and Lucie getting offered other work, Francois childishly lays a guilt trip on her, forcing her to equate their relationship with the making of his film.

Desperate to play the artiste, Francois cuts a deal with a smooth-talking lizard named Chas (Michel Subor). Sure, he'll put up the money; all Francois has to do is shuttle a suitcase from Italy to Paris. The contents? Kilograms of pure heroin.

Francois eventually agrees to this deal with the devil and winds up smuggling drugs to finance an antidrug film. Soon his entire cast and crew, Lucie included, are strung out on smack, and history seems doomed to repeat itself.

It's hard to find sympathy for someone so blinded by his own "art" as Francois. As a parable on the dangers of mistakenly valuing art over real life, though, "Sauvage innocence" is not without merit. And Garrel, as he is prone to do, captures the wasted beauty of his leads in exquisite black-and-white compositions. Fans of Leos Carax will swoon.

Eric Rohmer is every bit as much an auteur and nouvelle vague veteran as Garrel, with an instantly recognizable style and about 37 films over a 50-year career. And yet his approach couldn't be more different: Rohmer has largely eschewed self-absorption in favor of observing others and seeking understanding through wide and varied perspectives.

After the triumph of his "Four Seasons" series ("Conte de printemps," etc.), it comes as a surprise to find this resolutely contemporary director doing a period piece. And yet "L'Anglaise et le duc," Rohmer's first stab at historical drama since 1975's "Die Marquise von O," will surely stand as one of his best.

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Lucy Russell in Eric Rohmer's "L'Anglaise et le duc"

Rohmer -- working from the memoirs of Grace Elliott, the English mistress of the Duke of Orleans -- sets his film in the 1790s, as the revolutionary terror in France was hitting its peak. The tension between Elliott (Lucy Russell) and her now former lover, the duke (Jean-Claude Dreyfus), is palpable; her inclination is to help those persecuted by the revolutionary mob, half out of blind allegiance to royalty, but mostly out of basic human decency. The duke, however, is more concerned with avoiding the guillotine, and blithely plays along with the radical forces, even voting for the king's execution. In short, it's a classic rift between idealism and pragmatism, with a failed but still simmering romance thrown in-between.

Rohmer's ear for the natural rhythms of dialogue between lovers is as sharp as ever, even when it's the courtly cadence of an earlier age. He's also a master at drawing out the mix of motivations behind any action when love's involved.

What's radically new here are the visuals: picture-book images dissolve into painted sets and engravings, which are then laced with digital effects. Computer-generated waters of the Seine flow under a painted bridge. For Rohmer, who's always been a naturalist, this is an appropriate departure. The unique look is artificial and theatrical, yet highly evocative of the period, which left its record of history in paintings.

It's Russell's film, though, and the actress brings an inner fire to a character who takes enormous risks in her actions while keeping a stiff-upper-lip reserve in her words. Firm in her opinions but weak in her heart, she makes for a fascinating heroine who -- unlike Garrel's wasted youths -- has the courage to take responsibility for her actions.

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