Films of the Week: Two from Rendez-Vous
Beauty is not something that English-language film critics tend to talk about that often, at least not with any seriousness. We might note in passing the splendor of a film’s cinematography or design, but beauty—as an integral part of a film’s makeup—doesn’t always concern us that deeply. French criticism, on the other hand, will constantly refer to un beau film or un bel article, and I remember once snorting impatiently at a Cahiers du Cinéma review that ended by lauding its subject as “a film which teaches us what beauty is in cinema,” or words to that effect.
It’s easy to caricature a certain type of French criticism as the preserve of exquisites who swoon at the elegance of a camera move, latterday Mallarmés venerating a rarefied cult of the Beautiful. In fact, to say in French that a film is beau is simply a common form of praise, meaning nothing more specific than that it’s a fine film, nicely executed. But French film culture does also entertain a genuine regard for beauty, for a sort of aesthetic transcendence, that might seem alien to us. (This preoccupation isn’t uniquely French. Think of Paolo Sorrentino’s title The Great Beauty—La Grande Bellezza—in which, to my ears at least, bellezza suggests a dynamic, earthy radiance, whereas the French beauté is more stately and abstract.)
This week’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center features two films that have at their core a serious regard for beauty as both a spiritual quality and a specifically filmic one. One is My Friend Victoria by Jean Paul Civeyrac, one of French cinema’s best-kept secrets (here’s a recommended box set of his earlier work, and a recent book of his elegant, thought-provoking writings on film and music, plus his fiction). Civeyrac’s languorous films have an intriguing undertone of fin de siècle decadent sensibility, with their frequent equal focus on love and death—as in his two films prior to Victoria. Through the Trees (05)—starring Savages singer Jehnny Beth, then named Camille Berthomier—is an eerie, graceful contemplation of grief and the survival of love beyond the grave, while Young Girls in Black (10) depicts a morbidly passionate folie à deux friendship between two teenage Goth girls.
If Young Girls represented a tentative shift towards a familiar everyday realism, Civeyrac takes that move further in My Friend Victoria, but without losing his very distinctive tone. The film is based on a story by Doris Lessing, “Victoria and the Staveneys,” here relocated from London to Paris, and it’s about two young black women growing up in that city. That in itself is striking, since it’s remarkable how rarely we see black characters center-screen in French cinema, female especially; that’s why Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood made such an impact in Cannes last year. Impressive as it is, Girlhood, with its classic socio-documentary drive, shows us certain things we might expect to see in a realistic fiction about teenage African-French girls in the banlieue—gang culture, dancing to Rihanna… Civeyrac, however, goes somewhere quite unexpected—taking his heroine to the very heartland of white French bourgeois drama.
My Friend Victoria begins with two young women, Fanny (Nadia Moussa) and Victoria (Guslagie Malanga), taking their children for a walk in one of those stately, orderly parks dotted around inner Paris, to the lush, melancholy sweep of Copland’s Clarinet Concerto. In voiceover, Fanny, who narrates throughout, muses on her friendship with Victoria and the question of why the latter’s life never quite turned out as it might have.
Flashback two decades to Victoria’s childhood. Because of the illness of the elderly aunt she lives with, young Victoria (Keylia Achie Beguie) is to be picked up from school by a white schoolfriend’s older brother and taken to stay the night with his family. The boy, Édouard, initially doesn’t realise that he’s looking for Victoria, because she’s black—and Fanny tells us that the boy is kicking himself for this gaffe because he’s from a socialist family that prides itself on its anti-racist values. Édouard’s home turns out to be the quintessential elegant apartment of so many Parisian bourgeois dramas. On meeting his mother, actress Elena Savinet (Catherine Mouchet), and seeing the apartment’s vastness, Victoria falls in love both with teenage Édouard and with a lifestyle that’s quite unknown to her. It’s from this moment on, the film suggests, that her life is fatefully skewed.
When her aunt dies, Victoria is taken in by single mother Diouma (Elise Akaba)—and Victoria becomes best friend and adoptive sister to Diouma’s daughter Fanny. The two girls grow up very differently. Fanny, a book-loving intellectual, embraces the Western literary tradition and ends up working for an upmarket publisher; her enduring identity, however, is never in doubt, as betokened by her preference for African hair- and dress styles. Victoria, meanwhile, seems unambitious as well as undecided in her identity, taking a series of unpromising jobs, the best of which is working in a jazz and soul record store. It’s there that she meets her old schoolmate, Édouard’s now college-age brother Thomas (Pierre Andrau); he and Victoria spend a summer together, after which he leaves to study in the U.S., and she gives birth to a daughter, Marie. After later having a son with musician Sam (Tony Harrisson), Victoria eventually—part of the film’s dreamlike quality lies in its temporal leaps—makes contact with Thomas. And at this point the Savinet family’s contradictory attitudes to Victoria, and to their own political principles, comes under quietly biting scrutiny.
Presented from the viewpoint of Victoria, who’s almost invariably on screen, and filtered through Fanny’s voiceover, Civeyrac’s film unusually posits the white family’s lifestyle—the more or less unproblematic starting point of so much French cinema—as the unfamiliar Other. Desperately self-conscious about their liberal values and their cultural heritage—both Elena and her ex, Lionel (Pascal Greggory), are actors—the Savinets unwittingly but complacently appropriate their granddaughter Marie (Maylina Diagne) as a lifestyle accessory that confirms their self-esteem as liberals, at the expense of Victoria and her other child. As played by mainstream stalwarts Mouchet and Greggory, the Savinet parents are likeable, but sometimes make you squirm; Greggory hams it up to deliciously excruciating effect, notably when Lionel acts in the sort of preciously facetious stage show that reminds me why I’ve so rarely enjoyed watching French theater.
Civeyrac, a white filmmaker, doesn’t presume to speak for his black heroines, but presents Victoria’s experience through her encounter with a specific, somewhat exclusive white Parisian milieu, which is precisely the milieu we still most commonly associate with French film. My Friend Victoria thus offers a ruefully witty auto-critique of the limitations of bourgeois French cinema, which either cannot see other races, or absorbs them till they disappear—as the Savinets consume Marie, leaving her mother stranded on the outside.
The film ends with Victoria and her son in the pouring rain, with that Copland theme again, to heartbreaking effect. One reason that My Friend Victoria is so poignant and (say it again) so beautiful is the way that Civeyrac mixes poetic grace with detachment—a detachment that finds its echo in the seeming impassivity of the beautiful, mesmerizingly opaque Guslagie Malanga as Victoria. Civreyrac’s use of music and his trademark slow camera drifts (the DP here is David Chambille) give the film a measured formality teasingly at odds with its otherwise everyday inner-Paris realism—all of this filtered through Fanny’s seemingly omniscient narration. But since Fanny isn’t present during most of the action, this is a very unreliable narrative: what we learn about Victoria’s experience is tinged by Fanny’s ideas about the friend/sister who holds up a deforming mirror to her own cultural and racial identity. If this all makes My Friend Victoria sound theoretical or polemical, it’s not: this is an intensely beguiling film, and an altogether surprising one, from a director whose signature is entirely his own.
A very different efflorescence of beauty comes from the prolific Christophe Honoré, one of France’s more unpredictable auteurs. Some of his films I like enormously (the Bataille adaptation Ma Mère, the bustling Nouvelle Vague homage Dans Paris), others fairly set my teeth on edge. In Metamorphoses, however, he’s come up with something audacious, faintly preposterous, and utterly entrancing. It’s a modern-day setting (somehow “setting,” with its musical connotations, seems a more appropriate term than “adaptation”) of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the anthology of classical myths in which mortals are changed into animal and vegetable forms by cruel, capricious, or merciful gods.
Comprising a selection of transmutation tales, the film takes as its central figure Europa, seduced by the father of the gods, Jupiter. Honoré’s Europa is initiated into the divine world by her encounters with assorted deities, who tell her stories that slip into other stories, and stories within stories, Saragossa Manuscript style. The founding conceit is to set these tales in a version of the present day—a device fashionable in French 20th-century modernism, as practiced in cinema and theater by artists such as Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, and Jean Giraudoux.
What’s fresh about Honoré’s approach is its no-nonsense degree of polysexual raunchiness. The film begins with the myth of Actaeon, transformed into a stag by the goddess Diana after he witnesses her bathing; Actaeon is a lunkish young hunter who encounters a naked transsexual, showering from a plastic jerry can. Europa is a sulky, stocky teenager (Amira Akili) intrigued by a huge articulated truck that looms menacingly past her school; the truck itself is Jupiter, in a guise apparently inspired by Spielberg’s Duel, and so is the human form he later takes, a bearded and often naked young man (Sébastien Hirel). This drifts into the story of Jupiter’s seduction of Io, transformed into a heifer by a jealous Juno, which then shades into the story of Mercury’s encounter with the all-seeing Argus (the film’s only overt piece of CGI illusionism, and a knowingly silly one: Argus’s body is covered in blinking eyes).
So we drift on: Tirésias is a medical specialist on comparative sexual response who later predicts the fate of Narcissus, a sullenly self-adoring hero of the school basketball court. The latter, appropriately, is the only figure who directly addresses the camera, his “mirror”; he tells us there is no mystery behind his beauty, but “just me.” Indeed most of these characters, played by an almost entirely unknown cast, are “just themselves”: modern everyday figures, sometimes naked (or wearing only trainers), sometimes in jeans like the medieval knight in Eugène Green’s comparably anachronistic fantasia The Living World.* Honoré’s living world is not a million miles from Green’s, with its suggestion of animism, of divinity present in all things.
Typically of Honoré, Metamorphoses is hypercharged with sexuality: not least in the story of Atalante and her lover Hippomène who, cursed by Venus, can’t get enough of each other, and end up as lions. It’s polysexual, too, as that trans Diana suggests: Mercury kills Argos after what appears to be a gay postcoital reverie. It’s multiethnic, with an Asian actor as Hippomène, and a plethora of North African faces; it displays a gamut of body types, from the classically willowy and athletic to the very fleshy water nymph Salmacis; and it embraces old age in the moving treatment of lifelong partners Baucis and Philemon. Honoré’s film aspires to be inclusive, even encyclopedic—through myth, to speak about the whole of the human condition today as Ovid spoke about it in his time.
Bringing these myths’ eroticism, cruelty, and violence startlingly to life, Metamorphoses is also a remarkably beautiful film for many reasons: one being, again, Honoré’s use of music to underpin a sense of unearthly dread and rapture, from Mozart, through Webern and Schönberg (Transfigured Night, what else?) to Baxter Dury’s pop. Honoré chooses Southern French settings that, with their reeds, poplars, and pools luminously photographed by DP André Chemetoff, are richly evocative of the Hellenic world. But he also goes for urban settings, like the housing project where Orpheus and his followers are pursued by riot police. The most telling shot shows a vast field of grass that could easily be classical Arcadia, if not for the warehouse in the background, bearing the logo of the supermarket chain Carrefour (carrefour means “crossroads,” and there’s no more archetypal a mythic spot). The wonder of Metamorphoses lies in its vivid evocation of an eternal mythical sphere coexisting with ours, lying on the very edge of the everyday world we know. That, if you like, is not a bad working description of magic.
* Green’s latest film, La Sapienza, is also in the Rendez-Vous selection; I highly recommend it, and its own idiosyncratic, Greenian concern with beauty.