by Paul Julian Smith
from Film Quarterly Winter 2011, Vol. 65, No. 2
Back to Square One (Lionel Steketee , Fabrice Éboué, Thomas N’Gjol)
The Art of Seduction (Guy Mazarguil)
Corpo celeste (Alice Rohrwacher)
The Student (Santiago Mitre)
Summer in Paris and, so we are told, the city closes down. And indeed the excellent Cinémathèque, with its theater, museum, and archive, is shuttered for the whole of August. But my visit brings a chance to see those seasonal releases that never make it to Cannes (much less to foreign festivals), the genre movies to which locals flock, heedless of awards and international distribution.
Two commercial releases redefine French farce for newly troubled times. And they treat the twin themes of race and gender, central to current national narrative. With over half a million admissions in its first four weeks of release Case départ (whose title translates as Back to Square One) is the surprise hit of the summer. Starring Fabrice Éboué and Thomas N’Gjol, two black comedians who also take co-credits as first-time directors, its edgy premise is time travel with a twist: carefully contrasted half brothers from modern Paris (Joël, a radical wastrel from the banlieue, and Régis, an assimilated council worker with a nice home in the suburbs) are transported back in time to the eighteenth-century Antilles to be taught the (comic) truth about their ancestors’ enslavement.
The modern setup seems schematic. Defiantly dumb, unemployed Joël, who speaks ostentatious urban slang, loudly complains of racism when he is fined for traveling without a ticket on public transit (“It’s just because I’m black”). Overeducated Régis, on the other hand, meekly puts up with humiliation from his patronizing white boss and displays a conspicuous lack of social consciousness. Sent back in time after the death of their estranged father, at first the pair stays true to type. Set to grueling labor in the cane fields, Joël is whipped for laziness (complaining now with good reason: “It’s just because I’m black”). Granted the cushier position of “house negro,” Régis sucks up to his effete colonial masters, astonished at his ability to read the Bible or play the piano (in a nod to the most classic of French comedies the plantation owner here is named Monsieur Jourdain, after Molière’s pretentious “bourgeois gentilhomme”).
But while taking care to show some of the brutality of slavery (both men will be branded on the buttocks), Back to Square One also pushes unexpected buttons. The odd couple is helped to escape the plantation by a Jewish merchant (called “Sale Juif!” by M. Jourdain he responds under his breath with “Pauvre con!”—roughly “dumb jerk”). And black homophobia, loudly voiced by Joël, is (like anti-Semitism) taken to task: at one stressful moment, Joël tearfully admits that, banged up in prison, he enjoyed “just a little penetration” from a fellow inmate.
Back in the present, both have learned predictable life lessons. Work-shy Joël takes on a job at a building site to provide for his neglected daughter; meanwhile Régis stands up to his boss, refusing to go on playing the “house negro” in a French republic that claims to be color-blind. But if such character arcs are too pat, Back to Square One still boasts engaging performances from its novice stars, lush production values (the period sequences were shot on location in Cuba), and some telling sight gags. For example, in one early scene our sniveling antiheroes are sold at auction on the block with their fellow new arrivals, but unlike the latter they are still wearing their modern underwear with its familiar branding (HOM and DIM). Modern consumerism is thus no match for historical horror.
L’Art de séduire (The Art of Seduction) by first-time director Guy Mazarguil, with its familiarly French title, would seem to come from quite another country, set and shot as it is around Paris’s picturesque Canal Saint Martin, formerly industrial and now reassuringly trendy. And the premise would seem to be equally creaky. Heedless of professional ethics, diffident psychoanalyst Jean-François (Mathieu Demy, son of Jacques) has fallen for an attractive patient. Gaining an invitation to her home, he discovers to his surprise that she is obsessed with equestrian paintings, Wagner, and her tennis instructor, whom she has invited to drop by to spoil what Jean-François took to be a first date. Coached in the art of seduction by another patient after this disappointment, Jean-François is repeatedly rejected by the women he approaches on the street. (A typical exchange goes: “Une belle femme!” “Un pauvre con!”)
So far, so formulaic. But Jean-François is also beset by a surreal sight gag: fish flap through the air in his comfortable apartment, the image of his quietly flailing desperation. And (like the half brothers of Back to Square One) Jean-François is taught a life lesson from an unexpected source. After a passing affair with an apparently ditzy redhead (played by Valérie Donzelli, director–star of feted Cannes drama Declaration of War), whom he ditches in favor of the Wagner-lover, Jean-François discovers (she reveals in a lengthy final monologue) that it was she who had carefully crafted the scenario of their encounter. Even when the predatory male appears to score, then, it is only because a smart female has made all the running. Meanwhile Jean-François’s supposed master in the art of seduction reveals his life is desolate because he “has no friends.”
Clearly such a film, however playful, deserves to be reread in the light of the scandal that preceded its production but not its release. As is well known, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair has provoked a debate on relations between the sexes in France. Nebbishy Jean-François could not be further from the former head of the IMF, who could hardly be accused of lack of self-confidence. In spite of its traditionalist title, then, The Art of Seduction is a sex comedy for a newly nervous era that is PC (and PG) in tone. As ever, beautiful women abound on Parisian streets. But now, it would seem, they are immune to even the most strenuously self-improving of Latin Lotharios.
Back to Square One, likewise, offers an audience-friendly take on an even thornier issue, the burden of French colonial history and the tensions of current ethnic conflict. Recent French film is not known for the frequency of its engagement with the social realities of life for the Republic’s black citizens. But by shining a comic light on French ignorance of black history, Back to Square One attempts in its limited way to address what Pierre Bourdieu called “the weight of the world”: the lingering and problematic presence of the past in the present. Likewise, by replaying romantic comedy in a feminine key, The Art of Seduction presents audiences (albeit less provocatively) with evidence of the continuing psychic damage wrought by the battle of the sexes. Featherweight summer releases they may be, but in an oddly cool and cloudy Parisian August both films offer local spectators unexpected food for thought.
Fall in New York and the festival (September 30-October 16) is larger than ever, in line with the handsomely expanded facilities of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In the rich and extensive program, two debut features stand out, putting a new and subtle spin on the theme of adolescent apprenticeship with their protagonists taking their first steps in the twin, contested fields of religion and politics.
Alice Rohrwacher’s Corpo celeste begins with a troubling, disorientating shot. It is night and anonymous traffic roars over a viaduct. Below, lit only by flashlights, a procession makes it hesitant way over trash-strewed rocky ground, singing a hymn to the Virgin Mary. A single girl slowly emerges from the crowd: Marta (newcomer Yle Vianello), just thirteen, will be our focus. This opening scene reveals the complex and contradictory nature of the film’s setting. Marta’s family, we learn, have just returned from Switzerland to a southern Italy that could not be further from tourist stereotype. It is a place of uneven modernization and chilly alienation, where roaring highways cut brutally through ancient cities and the winter damp and drizzle make popular tradition look decidedly unpicturesque.
Holding the camera close (too close) to Marta’s face, her hair and eyes so pale that she seems to disappear into the background, her skin so transparent that you can see the feelings flicker over its surface, Rohrwacher draws us in delicately into her growing disaffection: the cruel sister, the family dinners to an accompaniment of TV and cellphones, and the little disappointments of domestic life (when Marta bakes a disastrous cake only her kindly mother will try a taste). It is in this context that the adolescent, mortified by budding breasts, wanders into catechism class. There is some gentle humor here. Well-meaning, tubby teacher Santa lectures the sullen blue-jeaned teenagers and obliges the long suffering priest Don Mario (Gomorrah’s Salvatore Cantalupo) to listen to the execrable pop song she has schooled them in (“I’m in tune with God”). This half-hearted attempt at modernity is echoed in a single telling image: the abstract crucifix of buzzing fluorescents in the church which the priest promises will be replaced by a “figurative” version in traditional style.
A rare trip by girl and priest to the countryside in search of that crucifix offers them (and us) some visual pleasure. Concrete blocks and stagnant canals give way to winding roads and pretty villages that cling to steep hillsides, worthy of touristic pilgrimage. A sun-drenched lunch in a restaurant overlooking the sea reminds us that this is the Mediterranean, even though Marta (who is getting her first period) refuses to eat. But the ancient village proves to be in ruins, peopled only by a crazy old priest who tells Marta that Christ was not benevolent but rather “angry.” And the figurative crucifix retrieved by young priest and girl will fall from the roof of their car and end up floating on the surface of the sea (surely a sly reference to the flying Christ statue that opens La Dolce Vita, another surreal symbol of Italy’s failed modernization). The final Confirmation ceremony, the girls now exquisite in their fancy gowns, will take place with an emblematically empty space on the wall behind the altar.
But, to her great credit, Rohrwacher avoids the easy option of anticlericalism. This may now be a secular society, but the Church (and most especially such devoted servants as Santa, pining hopelessly for the priest) seems to be the only source of sociability in a faded, rootless world. And, rejecting miserabilism, Rohrwacher suggests that this world, our world, is itself the “heavenly body,” a place where little miracles of kindness (between mother and daughter, priest and teenager) can still take place. Refusing the final ceremony, however, Marta, in her prim white dress, will descend into the black water of a muddy canal, a final act of rebellion that is hard indeed to interpret.
Santiago Mitre’s The Student also ends with an ambiguous moment of defiance: the eponymous antihero Roque (theater-trained Esteban Lamothe) will just say “no” to his mentor, a big professor who has his eyes on the prize of the university rectorship and the major league of national politics beyond. And Mitre’s grungy setting and pseudo-documentary camerawork (tight, buzzing close-ups once more) are all of a piece with Rohrwacher’s. Thus when Roque arrives at the huge public school of Buenos Aires we see through his eyes the endless graffiti-scarred corridors and ramshackle classrooms. Surely the Argentine capital, the socalled Paris of the South, has rarely looked so unattractive on screen. Hooking up and settling in, the provincial Roque, who shows no interest whatsoever in his studies, blunders into student militancy, just as Marta gets drawn into religion. Indeed Leftist catechism, with its endless recitation of class war and bourgeois exploitation, seems as empty as the Catholic ritual in Rohrwacher’s film. Mitre next follows a high-risk strategy: while we (and perhaps the protagonists) are allowed no knowledge of the real-world effects of political choices, we (and they) are caught up in the labyrinthine and Machiavellian intricacies of those same choices. Pure politics would thus seem to be its own justification.
Yet Mitre, like Rohrwacher, rejects easy options. Roque discards his first modest girlfriend for a second, more glamorous teacher–activist, who is also the lover of that big professor. But there will be no grand scenes here of jealousy or infidelity. And if politics, like religion in Corpo celeste, may now have no transcendent meaning (one would-be militant student who disrupts his class is revealed to be wholly ignorant of indigenous struggles in Latin America), still it serves as a (perhaps the sole) basis of sociability in this vast and restless community. Hence while The Student’s youngsters may seem stuck in the 1960s (at one point the young radicals replay famous political speeches of that period), Mitre himself stated at the festival that he was heartened by what he saw as growing student activism around the world, even in the U.S.
This seems somewhat contradicted by the film itself. Roque is as indifferent to political policy as he is to academic study, clearly seeing earnest factionalism as a way into a gorgeous girl’s pants. And soon he will be hobnobbing with ministers and lunching in the lush dachas of old-time radicals. Moreover his new girlfriend’s lecture on the history of ethics (Roque, of course, barely pays attention) is pointedly contrasted with double or triple-dealing politicos who, given a chance at real power, will sacrifice their comrades at the drop of a hat. Yet, unlike in the U.S. or U.K., where university presidents or vice-chancellors are not elected by the academic body, the process of election of a Latin American rector (similar in Mexico’s National Autonomous University, even more massive in size than Argentina’s University of Buenos Aires) serves as an unforced metaphor for the state of the nation and, indeed, constitutes a political power base in real life.
It is hardly news that in what has now been a lengthy postmodern era the grand narratives of religion and politics, so different and yet so similar, should have lost the numinous potency that they once had. What Corpo celeste and The Student reveal, however, is that the plot device of adolescent apprenticeship, apparently equally clichéd, still has life in it yet: in these films a final refusal to submit holds out some hope, however qualified, for the disenchanted future of a new and unpredictable generation.
Paul Julian Smith is Distinguished Professor in the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures and Languages Program at the Graduate Center, CUNY.