At Alliance Française on Fridays at 8 pm
At Alliance Française on Friday, October 3: Les Mauvais joueurs / Gamblers (2005) by Frédéric Balekdjian – 85 mins – France, Crime/ Drama. English subtitles.
With Pascal Elbé, Simon Abkarian, Isaac Sharry.
Vahé, Sahak, and Toros run a bonneteau game on the streets of Paris. They're Lebanese French. Vahé also works with his father, a cloth merchant, and is in love with Lu Ann, Chinese French, who's broken off their affair. Vahé wants to make things right: with Lu Ann, with his father's business, and with Yuen, Lu Ann's younger brother, who's on the edge of delinquency and owes money to the gang who arranged his passage from China. Vahé tries to be like a father to Yuen, teaching him a work ethic. When Yuen impetuosity puts his own life in jeopardy, Vahé tries to save him. Are Vahé's impulses and hopes to die on the streets of Paris?
– Alliance description
The setting is the Paris garment district, where low-end French criminals rub elbows with the teeming masses of illegal Chinese immigrants. One such "illegal," a snot-nosed and lazy kid called Yuen, wants nothing to do with his French "protectors," and will stop at nothing to escape their influence. Unfortunately, those thugs have a financial interest in Yuen remaining complacent, so it's only a matter of time before someone gets shot. Vahé is the one kindhearted crook who tries to keep the peace between his French colleagues and the Chinese youth, but his influence is minimal.
The last time a French film exploded with such raw energy was when Mathieu Kassovitz debuted with La Haine in 1995. This is writer/director Frederic Balekdijan's first feature, also, and it uses the same neo-realistic style, with handheld cameras close in and on the streets. There isn't a whiff of falsehood, or evidence of a set designer's duster. Even the script has the rough-cut unpredictability of real life.
It deals with card sharks, street scams, petty crime, backed by an uglier, darker crowd of Armenian thugs. This is the Paris of immigrants, sweatshops, cafes, and illegals. Chinese, North Africans, Eastern European gangsters coexist in a barely sustainable truce. Sooner or later a spark will ignite the tinderbox and someone will be killed. Followed by revenge attacks. Followed by God knows what else. In this no-go, gendarmes are noticeable by their absence.
Stories and characters move swiftly. There is no conventional plot, only the time it takes to rip the lid off the powder keg and somehow survive. Or not.
At Alliance Française on Friday, October 10: Travaux, on sait quand ça commence... / Housewarming (2005) by Brigitte Roüan – 95 mins – France/UK, Comedy. English subtitles.
With Carole Bouquet, Jean-Pierre Castaldi, Aldo Maccione, Didier Flamand.
Chantal Letellier is a “wonderful woman.” She's a lawyer and she always wins her cases. In her professional life she's a heavyweight, but in her private life she's a pushover. She's divorced - and didn't even litigate - and is saddled with two teenage kids who are very well brought up in a bad kind of way. When it comes to love, think “desert” - she's got no time. But flesh is weak and one night she lets loose with a client. He falls madly in love with her and settles in. To get rid of him, she undertakes major renovations with the intention of making the house unlivable. To top it all, she employs a young Colombian architect, an immigrant worker whose illegal status she's just rectified. Eternally grateful, and taking advantage of the situation to spruce up his press-book, the architect gives her house an entire makeover with the help of illegal workers. She didn't request that much!
– Alliance description
Variety: Anyone who has ever had workmen over to remodel their home will instantly identify with Housewarming, a madcap, mile-a-minute French comedy starring Carole Bouquet as a liberal lawyer and single mom who hires Colombian immigrants to do the job. Good social intentions and high-spirited direction widen the appeal of this infectious, rather silly comedy. Brigitte Rouan certainly rolls out the laughs in a breezy, ironic film.
The lovely Chantal (Bouquet), who is introduced in her black counselor's robe literally dancing around the judges, is unbeatable in court. She marches in pro-immigrant demonstrations and takes on social cases, while cheerfully running a household with two teenagers. Everyone is in love with her, even her ex-husband. The only thing is, her upstairs apartment needs to be joined to a downstairs apartment with a staircase.
Choosing from her immigrant contacts, Chantal hires a motley crew of Colombians lead by a mad architect to do the work. They proceed to demolish the place. Through it all, Chantal remains optimistic -- until they accidentally set the building on fire. She fires them and rehires them and, surprisingly, all ends splendidly. Until the police come.
Rouan directs the unruly ensemble cast like a lion tamer, keeping the level of chaos high.
Original title quotes the wise old adage, "Remodeling: You know when it starts but not when it'll be over."
At Alliance Française on Friday, October 17: Coup de torchon / Clean Up / Clean Slate (1981) by Bertrand Tavernier – 128 mins – France, Comedy/ Crime/ Drama. English subtitles. Generally favorable reviews: 72 out of 100.
With Philippe Noiret, Isabelle Huppert, Guy Marchand, Jean-Pierre Marielle, Stéphane Audran.
“A bid for survival” located in Bourkassa, a small village in French Eastern Africa, Lucien is a policeman embroiled in a series of murders. Ridiculed by his fellow whites, he is going to take revenge… in his own way.
– Alliance description
Roger Ebert / April 6, 1983:
Bertrand Tavernier's Coup de Torchon is a cruel intellectual joke played on its characters -- who endure boredom, self-contempt, hate, dust, flies, and sometimes even death without being allowed to know they're only part of an existential parable. Tavernier's film is about poor white trash in Africa in 1938, and there are times when they seem almost real -- but they're never allowed the pulse or the stubborn indomitability of their slovenly cousins, William Faulkner's Snopes family.
The movie is set in a small Senegalese village, on the eve of World War II. Tavernier shot on the actual location, and he achieves an absolutely convincing reality, right down to the reddish mud that has been splashed by the rain onto the yellowing stucco walls of the village sheds. His village is populated by lazy, corrupt French colonials, and by a supporting cast of Africans who drift through the background, unconcerned with the lives of the whites except when they have the misfortune to incur their wrath.
Lucien Cordier is the police chief here. Played by Philippe Noiret, he is a shambling, sloppy bureaucrat who keeps his intelligence well hidden. He holds the crushing boredom of his life somewhat at bay by practical jokes (like dumping a provincial officer through the outhouse floor) and sexual confusion (while Cordier's wife caresses the man who may or may not be her brother, Cordier has an affair with the local schoolteacher). All the colonials in this village have long since lost all self-respect, and none more than Cordier, who is openly taunted even by the village pimps.
One day, Cordier quite simply decides to start killing his enemies. He wants to start over with a clean slate (the title's English translation). He shoots the pimps, spreads false rumors about their fate, and then begins to kill, or arrange the deaths of those who offend him. On those rare occasions when he talks about what he has done, he strays precariously close to the hero of Albert Camus' "The Stranger," who found killing to be an assertion of his own existence. This story, which sounds so absorbing, is told by Tavernier in such a strange, distancing way that there's hardly a moment when we really believe we're observing plausible human beings. It's all just the manipulation of events and ideas.
Tavernier is one of the very best of the new French directors, and when he does choose to observe the daily lives of deeply felt characters (as in his movies The Clockmaker and A Week's Vacation), we feel an immediate empathy. But Coup de Torchon left me cold, unmoved, and uninvolved. All I could find to admire was the craftsmanship.
That was after two viewings. I saw the film first at last November's Chicago Film Festival, and was not quite sure I had really engaged with the film. Was I missing something? I saw it again recently and had the same strange feeling that the events on the screen, even though they were so firmly grounded in a real location, were insubstantial. Despite the dust, despite the slow-moving muddy river, despite the dirty housedresses and the 5 o'clock shadow and the yawns and sudden fights and bawdy practical jokes, this movie never quite breathes. It's an exercise. You can admire an exercise, but it's hard to really care about one.
Coup de torchon plays like the proverbial auto wreck in slow motion - it's ugly, it's something you'd rather not know about, but you can't take your eyes off of it. The cynicism is neither cheap nor exploitative but a compelling world view that makes you think. Lucien Cordier is a Harry Lime without good looks, charisma, or even ambition, a soulless killer in a Godless world.
This is a deceptively well-made thriller: most of the scenes seem wilted with the heat and boredom of the tropics, yet the story moves along at a brisk pace until you find you can't look away. Phillipe Noiret is simply excellent as Lucien, and the well-known actresses Audran and Huppert are very credible as the low women in his low-life. In most crime dramas, the killer keeps killing because it's a requirement of a genre completely given over to exploitation; here you really get the feeling that Lucien is himself astounded at the utter lack of justice or retribution in the world. His reaction to his own crimes is both amusement and despair.
A unique and superior murder thriller, with a truly exotic location and some of the most believable lowlife characters ever to sleaze-up a film noir.