Sundance 2010: French Spotlight | Buzz Blog

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sundance 2010: French Spotlight

Posted By on January 25, 2010, 7:25 PM

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Contributed by Jeremy Mathews

Every so often, Sundance juggles its non-essential categories to keep everyone on their toes. This year, they eliminated Spectrum to make way for Spotlight and the low-budget-centered NEXT. Like its predecessor, Spotlight is still a collection of odds and ends—films that didn’t fit into the competition or other sidebars. But it also provides a workaround to the festival's preference to premiere films. In the selection are several works that have already pleased previous festival audiences, including three from France. French cinema has been on a roll lately, and all three films show why. ---

Jacques Audiard's A Prophet is the best of the bunch, and its buzz from Cannes was no anomaly. Audiard's smart, visceral film depicts a correctional system that breeds more crime and violence. The hero, Malik, uses his brains to adapt to this hostile environment. The prison is divided between Corsicans and Arabs, and while Malik is Arab, he's forced into doing the Corsicans' bidding. However, he is extremely smart, and slowly finds a way to gain rank and build a name for himself in an entertainingly complex scheme. It's hard to guess whether he's in over his head or knows exactly what he's doing.

Next, French director Gaspar Noé is typically a source of festival controversy, and Enter the Void will likely be no exception. Depending on who's talking, you'll hear words like daring, brilliant, frustrating, voyeuristic, obscene, stylistically virtuosic, exploitative and/or interminable. And they'll all be correct.

Those familiar with Noé's past films like Irreversible will expect something that defies expectations and sends the weak-hearted viewer home crying. But no one could prepare for the film's achievements in style and mood. Inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the film exists entirely from the point of view of an American who lives in Japan and gets by as a low-level drug dealer. The first-person POV camera gimmick has been done before, but was never so immersive. Noé uses experimental animation and clever editing as his character sees the world first through his own eyes, then from above in an out of body experience, and finally in a bizarre collage of memories, during which the camera is always at the character's back while his life flashes before his eyes with free association.

At 90 minutes, I was about ready to declare the film a masterpiece, but it turned out there was another hour left. Noé loses track of the film's strongest characters and repeat the same transition trick over and over until we're left with a frustrating mess.

On a much quieter, less show-offy note, Jessica Hausner's Lourdes studies the touristic pilgrimage process with a sly, muted sense of humor and a genuine interest in the experience of Christine (Sylvie Testud), a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic on a group trip, conducted by Catholic volunteers.

We get the impression that Christine is less interested in miracles than in getting out of the house. She repeatedly comments that she prefers cultural trips, like the one to Rome, over the one she's on now, and it isn't hard to see why—this isn't the most exciting vacation. Her caretakers wheel her about about from miracle rock to bath to cafeteria, going through the motions more than genuinely expecting a miracle. Director Hausner uses long takes, stationary or with slow push-ins, to reflect the stationary essence of her heroine's life. She rewards attentive viewing, working toward a jaw-dropping scene that wows with its simple power.

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