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Friday, Aug. 11, 2006

Beauty at the end of a dirt track

Patrice Leconte has often been described as the French Woody Allen, a filmmaker who can be relied upon to deliver a new film every year, invariably love stories between attractive social misfits set against some gorgeous French backdrop.

Dogora Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Cambodian children in Patrice Leconte's "Dogora"

Director: Patrice Leconte
Running time: 80 minutes
Language: Dogorian
Opens Aug. 26, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

This time, however, Leconte has pulled an exotic lizard out of his sleeve, from which in the past he has pulled nothing but doves. According to the many interviews he gave to the French press, this is a film he had "always wanted to make," and a project that's "truly close" to his heart.

Called "Dogora," it's an experimental documentary inspired by a trip to Cambodia that the filmmaker made earlier to visit his youngest brother working on a rubber plantation. "Dogora" contains no dialogue and no narrative -- just a powerful and completely nonethnic score penned and orchestrated by French composer Etienne Perruchon. Much of the music contains songs belted out by Perruchon's choir, but the lyrics are all in "Dogorian," a language invented by the composer that has absolutely no meaning.

As it is, Dogorian is an extremely fitting accompaniment for the movie: "Dogora" doesn't exactly defy interpretation and analysis, but it does suggest that such activities are futile. The only reaction Leconte seems to wish to draw here is simple, no-strings-attached enthrallment -- at the music, the incredibly beautiful visuals, the poetry injected into each frame.

Divorced from the usual subtexts of poverty, the Khmer Rouge and wartime atrocities of Pol Pot's regime, "Dogora" is a stunning film that conveys exactly what it wants to: Leconte's unwavering love and enthusiasm for the undeveloped side of Cambodia. Which comes as a surprise, considering the filmmaker's track record defined by urbane sophistication, blended with masochistic undertones of unrequited love.

Away from his familiar material, Leconte's gaze is charged with a passion that's wholly disinterested, lingering with equal indiscriminating ardor on schoolgirls pedaling rusty bicycles twice their size and an infamous garbage dumpster on the outskirts of Phnom Penh where hungry children scavenge for food.

That said, there's a strain of guilt than runs like an undercurrent, subtle but still palpable. Coming from a nation which had once colonized Cambodia, Leconte's lens occasionally falters under what the writer Graham Greene once called "the white man's burden," but he never once attempts to approach this dilemma. Rather, he concentrates on the here-and-now of a nation whose populace is young, vibrant and bursting with energy, where families of five and six all pile up on a single motor scooter to go careening about town. Clearly, Leconte is infatuated with this energy just as he practically swoons over the soft, buttery light -- he had left Paris in mid-November where it was dreary, gray and cold, to go to Phnom Penh, where frenzied colors splashed against perpetual sunlight. In this setting, everything looks artistic, if not always beautiful; even the ramshackle houses standing in the river and the steam (and, you can imagine, stench) rising from the garbage dump and curling into the air in thin white strips.

To Leconte's credit there are no guidebook shots of Angkor Wat or colorful market scenes. On the other hand, there's nothing in "Dogora" that say, an experienced backpacker hasn't seen before. Leconte's eye isn't that of a privileged Westerner, submerged in the particular five-star luxury available in Southeast Asia, but it's also clear that Leconte has never known what it's like to be hungry, or to share two tiny rooms with 10 other people. How else can he film toddlers thrusting their tiny hands in trash and still manage to extract some charm? And in refusing to make a statement, Leconte deprives "Dogora" of political importance. A filmmaker of his caliber could easily have turned this into something much more compelling.

But the very fact that he didn't perhaps attests to his integrity as a filmmaker. Wim Wenders once said that his mission as a director was to "make the world a better place" -- in that sense, Leconte's "Dogora" makes no attempt to reach so far and doesn't apologize for its lack of ambition.

It's an intensely personal film, revealing more about Leconte, perhaps, than about Cambodia. Jadedness is the filmmaker's greatest enemy and it's easy to see how, after years of dissecting love relationships on-screen, Leconte received the adrenaline jolt of all time when he first laid eyes on Phnom Penh. "The people here are just so alive and they love the state of being alive!" he said in an interview. In the end credits he dedicates the film to his just-born granddaughter, not as a tribute to her but simply because he wanted to let her know that in some parts of the world, people live each day with all their might, and every last fiber of their being. Which when you think about it, is a message as strong as any political statement.

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