Cinematic accents

Our chief cinema critic looks at 2002’s best foreign films now available locally on video

18TH-CENTURY CONFIDENCES Lady Elliott (Lucy Russell) conducts brilliant conversations with the Duc d’Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) against the rich and troubled tapestry of revolutionary France, in octogenarian director Eric Rohmer’s four-star period piece, <i>The Lady and the Duke</i>, currently available to rent locally.

18TH-CENTURY CONFIDENCES Lady Elliott (Lucy Russell) conducts brilliant conversations with the Duc d’Orleans (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) against the rich and troubled tapestry of revolutionary France, in octogenarian director Eric Rohmer’s four-star period piece, The Lady and the Duke, currently available to rent locally.

The new Eric Rohmer film, The Lady and the Duke, was shown at the San Francisco Film Festival back in April, 2002. It was then released to theaters in major cities in May and received a fair amount of favorable attention in the national press. By early autumn, it was already available on both VHS and DVD in Chico.

Until recently, a film that went so quickly from theaters to video was almost always deemed a failure and a flop. But The Lady and the Duke is a first-rate film, crafted by one of the most esteemed European directors. Its rapid transition to the video rental shelves is just part of a growing trend toward accelerated video releases of new films, including a good many prestigious foreign films.

Michael Haneke’s excellent The Piano Teacher took longer than the Rohmer film to get an American release, but once Kino International put it into circulation here, it followed the same rapid path from theaters to video rentals. Haneke’s previous film, the estimable Code Unknown, has followed an even stranger path into the United States: it premiered on the Sundance Channel a year ago, then got a belated theatrical release earlier this year, and now it’s available locally on video.

And there’s an even more radical pattern with some recent American films: Abel Ferrara’s R Xmas got simultaneous release on video and in theaters, and Chris Eyre’s Skinwalkers entered the video stores the same week that it premiered on PBS.

WILDERNESS EXERCISES Melville’s classic tale Billy Budd is transposed into a modern French Legionnaire tale set in the desert, in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (left). The combination of dance, ritual and military exercises creates a “brilliantly caustic movie-poem,” according to CN&R film critic Selznick.

The good news in all this for Chico moviegoers is that, even though we still don’t get to see some of the best films of the year in an actual movie theater, we do have increasingly quick access to many of those films on DVD and VHS. And, if anything, the flow of outstanding new films to Chico video stores seems to be increasing dramatically.

Recent arrivals that didn’t make it into Chico movie houses include the following:

Beau Travail (5 stars) Claire Denis has transposed Melville’s Billy Budd to the Foreign Legion of the 20th Century, and the results are a brilliantly caustic movie-poem about the plight of Legionnaires in the post-colonial era. Gregoire Colin is wiry and weird as the equivalent of Billy Budd, but it is the gnarled Denis Lavant, playing his ranking tormentor Sgt. Galoup, who most memorably embodies the film’s astonishing combinations of dance, ritual, and military exercises. A blazingly original accomplishment.

The Lady and the Duke (4 stars) Rohmer, now in his 80s, has made an elegant, innovative period piece based on the diaries of Grace Elliott, an English aristocrat living in Paris during the French Revolution. Lady Elliott’s witty and gracious friendship with the Duc d’Orleans provides much of the brilliant conversation, which is a Rohmer specialty of long standing. But the film’s use of digitally enhanced paintings and drawings to recreate 18th-century Paris proves an ingenious means of placing the action in the special realm of historical memory.

Place Vendôme (4 stars) This smart, low-key thriller from France features Catherine Deneuve and Jacques Dutronc in a weirdly convoluted tale of double-dealing in the European diamond trade. Nicole Garcia’s skillful direction invests the proceedings with a wily sense of wariness and ambiguity, and Deneuve’s performance as an aggrieved widow trying to scam the scammers is one of her very best.

A TEIPEI ACTOR IN PARIS Actor Chen Shiang-Chyi encounters French New Waver Jean-Pierre Leaud on a park bench in Paris, in director Tsai Ming-Liang’s poetic meditation on time, memory and imagination, What Time Is It There?

The Wind Will Carry Us (5 stars) Another deceptively simple masterpiece from Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami. Less inspired but more ingratiating than his superb Taste of Cherry, this little tale of a TV producer waiting to film the funeral of a villager who is not yet dead has the tawny landscapes and the minimalist road-movie tendencies of the previous film and an array of tender ironies worthy of a Chekhov.

What Time Is It There? (4 stars) Celebrated Taipei auteur Tsai Ming-Liang uses long takes and a minimum of dialogue to create this astonishingly poetic meditation on time, memory, imagination, and a seemingly impossible trans-oceanic romance. Lee Kang Sheng plays a street vendor who sells his favorite watch to a comely young woman who is leaving for Paris. A bittersweet cameo by French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud is a high point of the film’s intermittent Paris scenes.

Faithless (4 stars) The Swedish master Ingmar Bergman has long since retired from filmmaking, but he wrote the screenplay for this brooding, Nordic-Pirandellian tale of a tragic love triangle among artists. The impressive results (directed by longtime Bergman actress Liv Ullman) have the feel and the impact of Bergman cinema of the first order. Lena Endre gives an exceptionally strong performance as the woman in the story, and Bergman veteran Erland Josephson is a haunting presence as the aging filmmaker/storyteller whose name, the credits tell us, is simply “Bergman.”

Les Destinees (3 stars) A sprawling yet weirdly subdued chronicle of a porcelain-making family in Limoges during the first three decades of the 20th century. Reticent Charles Berling plays the somewhat opaque family scion, who leaves the priesthood to take charge of the faltering porcelain business. Emmanuelle Beart is pertly sharp as his second wife, and Isabelle Huppert is spookily stoical as the rejected first wife. Olivier Assayas’ graceful direction gives this account of decline a dignified air of elegy.

Beijing Bicycle (3 stars) Two teenagers, a raw country kid and a stylish city boy, run afoul over a much-wanted and -needed bicycle, which is stolen first from one, then from the other. As a late-modern variation on the Italian classic Bicycle Thieves, this vivid Chinese film errs on the side of glossy stylishness. But its street-side account of tangled destinies has a remarkable intensity to it.

WINDSWEPT ABANDON A young woman leaves her home village, in Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s deceptively simple masterpiece, The Wind Will Carry Us, available currently for home-viewing from Chico’s finer rental establishments.

The Son’s Room (3 stars) Nanni Moretti stars in and directs a gentle, sweet-natured tale of a family grieving over the sudden death of a teenage son. Smartly understated acting and a tenderly reassuring musical score are counterpointed against oddball glimpses of the patients with whom the mourning psychiatrist (Moretti) must contend.

Storytelling (3 stars) For a while, the new Todd Solondz gloomfest looks like it might be the most original American movie of the year, but this fractured juxtaposition of stories about creative-writing students and a TV documentarian wanting to film a kid whose parents are played by John Goodman and Julie Hagerty begins losing steam about half-way through.

Lovely and Amazing (3 stars) A surprisingly sharp and abrasive romantic comedy about the travails and self-deceptions of three middle-class women—two sisters (Catherine Keeler and Emily Mortimer) and their mother (Brenda Blethyn). Keeler is especially good, and little Raven Goodwin is wonderful as the tiny but dynamically adapted step-sister (who is also an African-American crack baby). Nicole Holofcener wrote and directed.

The Triumph of Love (3 stars) A Bernardo Bertoloucci production, with his wife Clare Peploe directing a friskily stylized version of the classic play by Marivaux. Mira Sorvino is erratic as the impossibly sly heroine, and Fiona Shaw, perhaps for the first time ever, seems slightly at a loss. But Ben Kingsley is superbly funny as an unraveling philosopher-king.

Festival in Cannes (3 stars) Henry Jaglom and friends cavorting, semi-satirically, at the Cannes Film Festival. Anouk Aimee and Maximilian Schell struggle mightily to rise above the general aura of whimsical self-indulgence.

The Gleaners and I (5 stars) The new DVD edition of Agnes Varda’s transcendently funky documentary includes a one-hour follow-up, which is a little gem in its own right.