Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Une vielle Maitresse (2007)

(Directed by Catherine Breillat, France, 2007)
(New York Film Festival Notes, Part 2 of 2)

"Une vielle Maitresse" is a wonderful period piece directed by Catherine Breillat, who had a modest success here some years ago with the films "36 Fillette" and "Fat Girl".

Based on a novel by the 19th century French writer Barbey d'Aurevilly (best known for "Les Diaboliques" among other works that remain untranslated), the film starts with the legend "A story from the ancien regime" then proceeds to depict a story set in the height of French Romanticism, around 1830's - 1840's. Disconnect starts early in this film. "Une vielle Maitresse" tells of the romantic affair between a dissolute rake, Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou)and the wilful Vellini (Asia Argento) that creates problems when Marigny decides to marry Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), from a wealthy family. Vellini just keeps popping up during the newlyweds' Normandy home and inadvertently creates devastating consequences for all concerned.

First of all, I liked the period detail in this movie: the two leads are strikingly androgynous: Argento, with her handsome allure is very George Sand-ish and Aattou looks younger, very feminine in features to her character's mannish boldness. The affair is told through a flashback that Marigny narrates to the Marquise de Fler (Claude Saurraute, daughter of the novelist Nathalie Saurraute) and Hermengarde's relative. The witty dialogue throughout this scene is a delight, as well as the sumptuous visual decor and narrative. The two leads have some rather odd sex scenes, but Asia Argento is rather sexy, at times she reminded me of a prettier Anna Magnani; and seems to outshine every scene she's in. The actor playing Marigny, while being overpowered, smiles obligingly.

Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (2007)

(Directed by Cristian Mungiu, Rumania, 2007)
(Winner of the Palme d'Or, Cannes Film Festival, 2007)

New York Film Festival Notes Part 1

At the last minute, an enterprising friend of mine took me to the 45th New York Film Festival. Getting past the unfortunate choice of venue (Rose Theater), we saw "Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days", a Rumanian film that won the Palme d'Or this year at Cannes.

Mungiu's film is set in Bucharest during the waning years of the Ceasescu Regime. Ottila (Anamaria Marinca) is a young student constantly negotiating for things on the black market, especially a treasured pack of Kent cigarettes. The camera relentlessly follows her around in long shot, while she runs around negotiating with a hotel clerk who is rather rude to her; another hotel clerk and a shady businessman. The director spoke before the screening about how he wanted to show everyday life in Rumania during the late 1980's: this is a Rumania where you need to use your i.d. for everything, where you are questioned after dark (especially if you are a woman), and where the bureaucratic order is mind-numbingly enforced.

It gradually becomes apparent what Ottila is really negotiating for: without trying to give too much away, she is attempting to obtain an abortion for her friend Gabita (Laura Vasilu). Since abortions were illegal in the years that this film depicts, it is an act of brave desperation that Ottila performs, involving a shady 'doctor' inappropriately named 'Dr.' Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). The so-called Dr. insults the women when they have failed to comply with his implicit instructions, has a melt-down when it is revealed that the self-involved Gabita is late in term: (hence, the film's title) and then becomes a bit fatherly once the deed is done. Ivanov's performance is rather a short, knock-out performance, equal to Marinca's performance.

Mungiu's film is full of long-shots meant to evoke real-time and becomes a bit more revealing with Ottila's running around, until the last devastating half-hour. I would like to recommend this film, but can't really find the words to describe its simple shocking power. The female friend I saw it with was just as disturbed as I was after the conclusion. Writing about it a few days after viewing it, it's still hard to grasp the apparent simplicity of Mungiu's filmmaking, an apparent simplicity that is devastating to watch in its cumulative effect.