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Music, Madness, and Memory at Cannes, Part Two: “Cold War,” “Sorry Angel,” and the Mysteries of Love

Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War begins with close-ups of folk musicians loudly playing for the camera — a curiously in-your-face way to start such a carefully modulated film of shimmering, classical precision; it’s as if Casablanca had kicked things off with a raucous gypsy band. But this opening also presents a subtle clue to reading the rest of Pawlikowski’s picture. Narratively, the music in Cold War is a means to an end; emotionally, however, it’s everything, often expressing what the characters cannot say themselves.

Something similar could be said for a number of films to premiere in the first half of this year’s festival. As I noted in my review of Gaspar Noe’s remarkable Climax, over and over on Cannes screens, it seems, we’re watching the elaborate dance between music and memory, between emotion and containment, between personal desire and social transformation. One film from the opening days that I missed, Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto (Summer), is a straight-up musical biopic about Viktor Tsoi, the underground Soviet rock icon who had a seismic impact on the country’s youth culture in the early 1980s. (Serebrennikov himself isn’t here; he’s still under house arrest in Russia. His previous film, The Student, which is excellent, is currently available on iTunes; you should see it.)

Pawlikowski’s film also looks at the tension between artists and the state under Communism, though it reaches back a bit further. Cold War begins in 1949, as Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an urbane, educated musician, travels the Polish countryside with colleagues, putting together a folk ensemble. During auditions, he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a provincial girl with a striking voice and a no-bullshit attitude. We’re told that she was imprisoned for stabbing her father; as she explains it, “He mistook me for my mother, and I used a knife to show him the difference.”

Soon, Wiktor and Zula are entangled with each other. But there’s a sublimated quality to their passion: She is preternaturally calm in his presence, while his intent, seductive glances rarely edge into outward emotion. This is, after all, Communist Poland, and sincere feelings, one suspects, are best kept under the surface. As the years pass, and their relationship becomes ever more complicated, music becomes Wiktor and Zula’s bond — an emotional space they’ve created in which they’re able, to some extent, to be themselves. (Late in the film, Wiktor refers to an album they’ve recorded as their “child.”)

The music does the feeling for them — and the music, like their relationship, changes. We have folk chorals that speak of lost loves, sweetly wounded jazz twinkling in French cafés, and the furious, overpowering charge of rock ’n’ roll. The one point in the film where both the camera and the characters let loose, in a frenzy of whipsawing, handheld close-ups, is a sequence in a nightclub playing “Rock Around the Clock” — as a drunken, embittered Zula, frustrated that Wiktor has lost interest in her, throws herself at other men on the dance floor.

The “cold war” of the title may refer to more than the geopolitical struggles of the twentieth century. Wiktor and Zula’s relationship is a war of sorts as well — one in which they battle each other and the world. Pawlikowski refuses to establish the couple’s passion early on, the way a more typical love story might. Instead, he lets us discover it, gradually. In fact, this may be something more than mere love: It’s a compulsion, a codependence, a mutual assured self-destruction. The more we see this relationship, the more its mystery grows. That is the profound, beguiling truth with which Cold War ultimately leaves us.

That kind of romantic ambiguity works wonders in Cold War. It is less successful in Christophe Honoré’s Sorry Angel, a decidedly more mixed bag. In previous films like Love Songs and Beloved, Honoré found a way to pay homage to the classic French musical while pushing it in new directions — creating moody, understated romantic roundelays in which the songs served not as showstopping numbers but as recitativo connections between the stories’ emotional peaks. Sorry Angel is not a musical, but at times it feels like it wants to be; I was ready at several moments for characters to burst into song. They do, however, play songs to express themselves, and at times a casual dance might crystallize a relationship dynamic. Honoré still has the soul of a maker of musicals, even if he does seem to be trying to break free of his former style.

Sorry Angel takes place in the early 1990s, and follows the burgeoning romance between Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), a 36-year-old gay author fond of meaningless sexual encounters, who falls for Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), a young, idealistic student living in Brittany. As in Cold War, the relationship unfolds casually; it’s not a great, passionate love affair, at least not at first. Jacques may be in his late thirties, but he’s got the soul of a child — irresponsible, petulant, fragile. Arthur, by contrast, mixes a young man’s wide-eyed wonder about the world beyond with a refined wariness: Early on, a girlfriend asks him to spend the night with her; he replies that she doesn’t have any books. This young man has standards.

Honoré’s scenes feel at once composed and curiously mundane, as if he’s trying to take the precision of his earlier work and mix it with a more realist impulse — or, if we’re being less charitable, as if he’s trying to will his aesthetic into something more “mature.” This occasionally does pay dividends: Sorry Angel is filled with moments of genuine, lived-in tenderness. Ironically, they often involve secondary characters in the film: Jacques’s upstairs neighbor Mathieu (Denis Podalydès), a newspaper journalist whose relationship with him seems to alternate between avuncular concern and domestic ease, or Thierry, a former flame of Jacques’s with AIDS who has nowhere to go, and whose grim, dying presence serves as an existential warning sign for Jacques.

This uneasy stylistic blend lends a disjointed quality to the film that prevents it from fully coming alive as we lurch from incident to incident. As a result, the main relationship between Jacques and Arthur feels curiously inert. In some ways, I’m happy to see Honoré trying to move out of his comfort zone and expand his palette. But it’s also hard not to feel like something has been lost. Watching Sorry Angel, I found myself longing for the dreamy melancholy of Beloved, Love Songs, or Dans Paris.

 

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Let My People Go!

With his fluttery falsetto and haughty gaze, Ruben, the flamboyantly gay, ambivalently Jewish twentysomething hero of the new French comedy Let My People Go!, is the kind of big-screen character usually relegated to the sidelines. It’s refreshing to see him front and center, gamely played by Nicolas Maury, gangly limbs flailing as he simmers and seethes melodramatically. (His fed-up Finnish boyfriend accuses him of behaving like a French actress.) Too bad the movie gives him so little to work with. Covering a few days in Ruben’s life, as he visits his family in Paris for Passover, Mikael Buch’s debut feature is silly and sweet, but also paper thin and mostly unimaginative: a series of cartoonish vignettes during which a generically eccentric Jewish clan confronts movie-family problems (adultery, divorce, health scares, tense sibling relationships). Stereotypes about money, love of Israel, and pushy mothers abound. The matriarch here is played by Pedro Almodóvar muse Carmen Maura, a casting choice echoed in Buch’s strained attempts to emulate the chaos and color of the Spanish director’s early work. Maura gets the one inspired bit, a dream sequence in which she stars in a TV ad for a spray that turns goyim into Jews, full beard and long payos included. Co-written by the talented—and uneven—filmmaker Christophe Honoré, Let My People Go! offers little else to savor; there are lots of cutesy stylistic touches (iris shots, deadpan framing), but few insights into how the protagonist’s various identities (queer, Jewish, French) clash and come together.

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Beloved

Writer-director Christophe Honoré revisits the musical—the genre of his biggest stateside hit, Love Songs (2007)—in Beloved, a sprawling mess of multiple romantic triangles in which all the angles are obtuse. Era-spanning (the film opens in 1963 and closes in 2007) and globe-hopping (scenes take place in Paris, Prague, London, and Montreal), Beloved boils down to the love lives of two women: Madeleine (played in her youth by Love Songs alum Ludivine Sagnier and in her prime by Catherine Deneuve) and her daughter, Vera (Honoré regular Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s real-life offspring). “If it weren’t for those Roger Vivier pumps, Mom would never have become a whore,” Vera proudly recalls of her mother’s early part-time profession in voiceover, freelance work that led to her parents’ initial meeting. The remark typifies the film’s lazy, dumb nostalgia and lands with the same thud as most of the songs’ lyrics (a typical line: “London calling—but who I can’t say”). Honoré saves his worst decisions for Beloved‘s second half, as Vera, unable to shake her ex Clément (Louis Garrel, whose now-beyond-unbearable presence is mandatory in all of the director’s films), falls for the gay Henderson (Paul Schneider)—a masochistic arrangement that culminates in jaw-dropping 9/11-sploitation.

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Dysfunctional Family Drama Done Right in Making Plans for Lena

Christophe Honoré trades the whimsy of his quasi-musical “Paris Trilogy” for structurally ambitious psychodrama in Making Plans for Lena. Chiara Mastroianni is the 34-year-old title character, a single mom with the wardrobe of a college student and a responsibility allergy to match. Lena takes her two kids on a train trip to join her unhappily pregnant sister and blinded-by-young-love brother at the family’s country estate: Worn thin by familial expectations, Lena is already close to a meltdown when she’s forced to shoulder unexpected, unrelated visits from two men. Nigel (Jean-Marc Barr), the older husband Lena abruptly left upon discovering his mistress, makes it clear he’s there to see their kids and not her; Simon (Honoré mainstay Louis Garrel) is the lusty dreamboat who Lena once led on and then failed to follow through with. As soon as this contrast is set (Nigel representing the adult world Lena can’t hack; Simon, a temptation to slink farther away from it), Honoré takes a major stylistic leap, inserting a period film within the film, a brief fairy-tale interlude in which a girl with a bad reputation takes a suitor “to the local fete [because] before she married him, she wanted to see if he could make her dance for hours.” Honoré then follows Lena back to Paris, where she finds it no easier to keep time. After early similarities to current French films (particularly Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale), Lena settles into a ’70s American groove, with Mastroianni making an all-in, glam-free performance look easy.

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“Focus on IFC Films” at BAM

Storied 44-year-old distributor New Yorker Films defaulted into dust this week. The passing was announced on their website—seemingly designed in the Prodigy dial-up era.

Call it innovation or compromise, but IFC Films moves with the times, shepherding the quaint arthouse designation into the 21st century. At its worst, it’ll throw a big-screen baby shower for properties that deserve abortion to the straight-to-DVD dumpster. At its best, IFC will find a screen for something like Philippe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn—among the slate of its upcoming releases previewing at BAM in “Focus on IFC Films.” A film in overlapping halves, Frontier has scion Louis Garrel segueing between two affairs and hesitating on the edge of a supportable future (a/k/a “bourgeoisie happiness”). For those that love them, Garrel’s romances offer a luxuriantly cool bower, so singular we’ll forgive his latest film’s lopsidedness in pitting sweet twit Clémentine Poidatz against lioness Laura Smet.

Garrel the Younger’s Apollonian ‘fro also appears in the execrable La belle personne, where he models the latest heartsick poses from Christophe Honoré’s Winter line. The credits claim inspiration from Madame de La Fayette, but that’s base namedropping—this roundelay of lycée love is a Frenchified Archie, with the corner café replacing Pop’s Chok’lit Shop, plus poncey scarves and blasé-amoral teacher-student affairs for the sophistos. Some of the love patter is interchangeable with Frontier‘s, but for Honoré, despair is a wardrobe of postures—see Romain Duris’s window-display mope in Dans Paris—where Garrel’s excavating close-ups suggest the far-off rush of subterranean oceans.

Turner Prize–winner Steve McQueen brings white-box gallery decontextualization to his subject: imprisoned IRA agitator Bobby Sands, who died in ’81. Ambivalence restrains the politics. Sands (Michael Fassbender) is cast as a Starvation Artist; he and his fellow inmates performance-art protest with all that’s available—their bodies—in reservoirs of piss, fecal murals, and suicide-brave ferality. McQueen purports to find the point when mortified flesh exhales the human spirit, which must have been what drew Golgotha fetishist Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions to the project. Sands’s deathtrip is kept earthbound by Hunger‘s structure, a guided tour from one isolated transgressive exhibit to the next.

Less stultifyingly curated is Quiet Chaos, with Nanni Moretti in stoic retreat after a death in the family—the running joke is that everyone he knows seems less reconciled to life than him. Too long in settling in and sabotaged by non-sequitur pop cues, it does have a bracing way of swerving out of scenes, offroading into one surprise sex bout with more ugly-hot veracity than any in memory.

Olivier Assayas (Demonlover, Clean) is one of the few apostles still faithful of narrative drama’s ability to support more than one idea at a time. Touching on the subjective value of things (as transmitted from people), the opiate of nostalgia, and the aura of legacy before its big intergenerational cast even comes into focus, Summer Hours details the auction of a family estate and its objets d’art. After one of Assayas’s spooling party-panoramas, there’s a pause to breathe and a half-glimpse of what’s gone—”The house is sold”—which stands for whatever you’ll just have to live without.

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Bed-Hopping Love Songs Wilts in the Shadow of Godard

If the great movie musicals of yesteryear put a song in your heart, Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs leaves you with a funny taste in your mouth. How else to describe Honoré’s orally fixated post-postmodern operetta, whose libretto includes lyrics like “Keep your saliva as an antidote/Let it trickle like sweet venom down my throat”? Those bon mots are sung by Alice (Clotilde Hesme), a sprightly Parisian newspaper worker, to her colleague and sometimes bedmate Ismaël (Louis Garrel), shortly after the third member of their ménage-à-trois, Ismaël’s girlfriend Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), drops dead of a blood clot outside the famed Les Étoiles nightclub. The dirt on Julie’s grave has barely settled when Alice drifts into the arms of yet another lover, Gwendal (Yannick Renier), while Ismaël beds down with Gwendal’s teenage brother, Erwann (Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet). “But a true love that lasts leaves lovers exhausted/And their overripe kisses rot on our tongues,” beckons the barely legal stripling as he woos the ostensibly hetero Ismaël. Talk about your romance languages!

Lerner and Lowe this isn’t. Or Comden and Green. But we’re not too far away from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1961 bed-hopping meta-musical, A Woman Is a Woman, which followed an impulsive young stripper (played by Anna Karina) as she twirled two men around her little finger—her commitment-phobic boyfriend (Jean-Claude Brialy) and a potential surrogate father (Jean-Paul Belmondo) for her yet-to-be-conceived baby. In a review of The Pajama Game, written for the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma, Godard had declared the movie musical to be, “in a way, the idealization of cinema.” And Woman, with its throwaway choreography and orchestra that swells in anticipation of nonexistent songs, was Godard’s doffing of his beret at those splashy Hollywood tunefests whose self-reflexive storylines and frequent narrative interruptions fit with his own sense of movies as an ongoing critique of themselves.

In the process, Godard effectively launched a distinctly French subgenre of minimalist song-and-dance anti-spectaculars that would come to include work by Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), Chantal Akerman (Window Shopping), and Jacques Rivette (Up/Down/Fragile). Even Honoré, who also began his career as a Cahiers contributor, is no stranger at this table, having placed impromptu musical numbers at the end of two previous films—his 2002 debut feature 17 Times Cécile Cassard (itself a riff on Demy’s 1961 demi-musical Lola) and the recent Dans Paris, whose climax had two estranged spouses patching things up by serenading one another over the telephone.

Love Songs, however, is Honoré’s first full-tilt genre outing, and while his earlier films were hardly devoid of their own show-offy cinephilia (Dans Paris aped Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films in the way Love Songs apes Godard), this one has been stripped of everything but its pastiche; it’s as if Pulp Fiction had wandered into Jack Rabbit Slim’s and never left. Perhaps the 37-year-old filmmaker has been paying a little too much attention to his own reviews. Although, in America, he’s barely a blip on the radar for most moviegoers and critics, in France, Honoré has been built up by a coterie of influential film critics into a nearly messianic figure—the Second Coming of the Nouvelle Vague. That was already apparent in 2006, when the Cannes Film Festival was roundly criticized in the local press for failing to include Dans Paris in the Official Selection (it ended up at the rival Directors Fortnight instead), all but guaranteeing that Love Songs would be offered a Cannes competition slot in 2007. It was, where it met with rapturous paeans from the Honoré faithful (including the major French-film magazines Studio, Telerama, and Les Inrockuptibles) and head-scratching from just about everyone else.

Honoré is not without talent, but Love Songs adds up to considerably less than the sum of its references. What the director seems to have forgotten is that even the original New Wave movies he’s so taken to heart were themselves more than collections of moods, poses, and literary/cinematic quotations; they were creating a new cinematic language by deconstructing the old one, and they often managed to involve us in the lives of their characters, despite their au courant penchant for Brechtian distancing effects.

Here, though, we’re left with little more than a pile of celluloid naval lint. The actors—especially Garrel, who has now done his preening, neo–Jean-Pierre Léaud routine at least one too many times for anyone’s good—wink and nod at the audience when they’re not sulking about in cooler-than-thou ennui, nulling any investment we might feel in their assorted couplings and triplings. In what may be the ultimate film-buff circle-jerk, a lyric from another of Love Songs‘ distinctly annoying ditties pays homage to Martin Scorsese’s own quotation-heavy 1977 musical New York, New York, the sort of critical and commercial Waterloo the French like to call un film maudit. That Honoré knows a lot about movies is beyond question—but from first frame to last, Love Songs stays as icy to the touch as Julie’s premature corpse.

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Talking with Christopher Honoré and Louis Garrel

Christophe Honoré is wondering if there’s an English word for “older than old.” The French director (Ma Mère, Dans Paris) is trying to describe the audience for the previous day’s Walter Reade screening of Love Songs, a musical set in Paris starring Louis Garrel and Ludivine Sagnier. The aged cohort’s reaction was—typically, Honoré implied—not what he’d hoped, and while the appeal of a film about a youthful love triangle and its tragic fallout is hardly limited, Honoré’s sensibility is distinctively à la mode, even as it reaches back to pluck a curve or two from the French New Wave. Garrel arrived about halfway through my morning interview with the director, a cold and perhaps the after-effects of a last night in New York hanging heavy on his brow.

There’s singing in Love Songs but no dancing, although the camera occasionally functions as a sort of dance partner.

HONORÉ: I think that’s why the movie is not what you would expect—it’s less a musical comedy than a film with song. I would have loved to incorporate dance, but that would have made the film more expensive and might have detracted from the intimate and personal quality that we were seeking.

Directors like Wes and P.T. Anderson have talked about growing a film from the seed that a song provides, essentially beginning with the soundtrack.

HONORÉ: Well, Wes Anderson is definitely my favorite American filmmaker right now. It’s never been exactly that my films started with a song, but there was always a song that sort of summarized the film succinctly.

And what was it about Alex Beaupain’s music or these particular songs that inspired this film?

HONORÉ: Alex and I have a long-term friendship, and his songs touch me particularly because I recognize a lot of elements from my own life in them. Starting from his songs does several things—it creates a certain Romanesque distance for me in the work, and also allows me to talk about myself while going through him.

[Addressing GARREL:] Another critic has referred to the film as A Man Is a Man, a play on Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman.

HONORÉ: Wait—someone said this? That’s very strange, because the Godard film is one [of my favorites], and I hesitated for a few days—I nearly called this movie A Man Is a Man! Louis really tried to convince me not to. He said, “People will say you are a disciple of Godard and stop with all the Nouvelle Vague stuff, blah, blah, blah.”

But you couldn’t have been too concerned about that if you considered the title in the first place—you make the connections pretty clear.

HONORÉ: Yes, you know A Woman Is a Woman was shot in the same neighborhood in Paris as we shot, and at the beginning of that film, Anna Karina walks in the same street that Ludivine Sagnier walks down. There are things like that.

And Louis? How did you feel about your character as a sort of archetype—he seems plagued by indecision.

GARREL: Actually, Ismaël is not at all confused, although he’s very capricious. In A Woman Is a Woman, the leading character is capricious as well. But in the beginning, Ismaël knows exactly what he wants: He wants two women in his bed. And then things change [because of a death], and that alters the course he is on. I hear a lot about how Ismaël is not likable, and I have to ask myself why.

I wouldn’t say he’s unlikable, necessarily, but he does frustrate most of the people around him. Which is not the same thing, I suppose.

[Both men laugh.]

Did you and Beaupain compromise on a happy, tonal medium to make the transition between song and dialogue a smooth one?

HONORÉ: I’m quite wary of screenplays that put things on a grid, but I did work a lot on this film with the nature of the dialogue. Alex has a poetic register, so although the film is very realistic, the language is fairly literary. The only words in a song that I feel responsible for—because Alex is extremely ashamed of them—is the line when [boyish lover] Erwann says, “I am young, beautiful, and from Brittany, and I smell like lemon crêpes.”

That’s all you?

HONORÉ: Yes! I admit it.

The last line of the film is beautiful but very sad—”Love me less, but love me for a long time.”

HONORÉ: It’s Louis who found this sentence, in a book about Jewish thought, when we were conceiving the film. We both thought there was something essential there, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I had Louis record that line, and during the editing process it went from scene to scene until it ended up where it is now. It was important to me not to have a happy ending—I have them kissing, but they’re on a ledge. And Ismaël has the foresight to see that the boy who loves him is 17, and at 17 you could be madly in love, but only for a week.

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Thanks, IFC

At some point at the last Cannes Film Festival, it became apparent that IFC Films was targeting many of the least obviously commercial (but most cinephile-friendly) films. The distributor’s latest release, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, has already established itself as a critical smash and an audience hit; its next, Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais, opens this Friday. Next week, BAM’s “Tribute to IFC Films” previews several other impressive pick-ups: Gus Van Sant’s exceedingly excellent teen-skater drama Paranoid Park; veteran Claude Chabrol’s latest comedy of nastiness, A Girl Cut in Two; and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s fantastically idiosyncratic riff on a classic French kids’ film, Flight of the Red Balloon. There are also two movies by Christophe Honoré: his 2006 Dans Paris and last year’s Love Songs. Anchoring the week-long series is Ken Loach’s latest tract, It’s a Free World—the title is ironic—which is scheduled to show at least once a day during the series. February 29 through March 6, BAM.

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Not Without My Brother

Christophe Honoré’s Dans Paris is both a floppy, joyful tribute to the French New Wave and an inspired retelling of Franny and Zooey, echoing Salinger’s pair of novellas cannily and effortlessly. Franny Glass has become a young French guy named Paul (an awesomely hairy Romain Duris), and her existential crisis is now a failed love affair (hey, c’est Paris). But in many other particulars—the benefits of constant prayer, the absence of a beloved elder sibling, the endless phone conversations—the story is the same.

Paul has moved back in with his father in Paris after an extended stint in the countryside with his lovely girlfriend Anna (Joana Preiss), who likes to dance around in her underwear. In an intense, disjointed prologue, Honoré relays the disintegration of Paul’s relationship with an Eternal Sunshine–y stream of flashbacks. Perhaps they’re also meant to show us that Paul was a player, because once he gets home and the film starts in earnest, the man is so depressed that he can hardly move. His doting dad (Guy Marchand) is totally out of his element dealing with such darkness; the best he can do is cook up a sole and beg his son to eat.

Paul’s brother Jonathan (Louis Garrel) is the Grand High Goofball of the family. He, too, tries to help without really knowing how, suggesting to Paul that they go admire the Christmas windows of the Bon Marche. When his brother refuses, Jonathan optimistically sets out on his own, marking his progress by sleeping with various women along the way. (Yes, it’s a short trek.) As conceived by Honoré, Jonathan is both archetypal trickster, cavorting impishly around the city, and the personification of the New Wave: He introduces the film by opening a curtain and addressing the audience.

Unlike most other movies inspired by Salinger—The Royal Tenenbaums, Igby Goes DownDans Paris is set in Paris (well, duh), and so instead of trading on a superficial vision of Life in Quirky Old New York, Honoré is perhaps freer to dig into the source material. What he comes up with is a belief in the transcendence of sibling relationships. Paul and Jonathan look nothing alike. (Duris, here, is a fuzzy little animal, while Garrel has a magnificent, classical head: When he tosses his hair and smirks into the camera, he looks just like one of David’s Horatii). They fight, sometimes viciously. But they’ve read all the same children’s books, they’ve mourned their dead sister together, and they conduct themselves as if they shared a soul.

Honoré, who last directed Ma Mere, wrote this script with Duris and Garrel in mind, and shot the whole movie within the span of a month: “We have everything to gain by shortening the length of time between the desire to make a film and the pleasure of making it,” he has said. That might not be entirely true—Dans Paris occasionally drags, and Honoré’s reverence for classic French cinema can get cloying—but for the most part, efficiency has worked in his favor here. The film is a domestic love story of the first order, but it is also a semi-abstract series of quiet, intense moments—a slap, a phone call, a hug in the bathtub—that tiptoe up to a climax both spectacularly and subtly emotional.

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Dirty Dancing

Like so many films that target a gay male audience, Three Dancing Slaves transpires in an abstract parallel universe where half the population has mysteriously disappeared and the other half works out a lot and often goes unclothed. The only female presence
to speak of in French actor-turned-director Gael Morel’s latest feature is the dead mother of the titular fraternal trio. Exactly one flesh-and-blood woman is allowed to interrupt the beefcake reverie (in a single measly scene at that), and when even the most macho of the brothers has sex, it’s with a bewigged pre-op transsexual (whose biological status is of course full-frontally corroborated). Unfocused and vaguely arty, Three Dancing Slaves is a Bruce Weber shoot come to life, a tone poem on masculinity that doesn’t concern its pretty little head with very much besides the photogenic ways in which men bond, bicker, brawl, and practice capoeira (the unfortunate English title derives from the martial art’s slave culture origins; the movie was released in France as Le Clan).

Co-written by Morel and Christophe Honoré (who authored the similarly blank and pouty Girls Can’t Swim and Ma Mére),
Slaves
devotes a third to each brother’s dead-end provincial existence. Marc (Nicolas Cazalé), a loose-cannon skinhead, is caught up in a vicious cycle of clumsy drug deals and angry vendettas (between visits to the gym). He hangs out with a bunch of ostensibly straight guys who jerk off communally to porn (with the help of a vibrating cell phone) and is such a carnal fellow that when he steps into the shower with his beloved dog, the movie for a few alarming moments threatens to redefine heavy petting. Marc’s near zoophilic attachment to the poor pooch naturally leads to its brutal demise, setting in motion a sputtering revenge subplot.

In part two, eldest brother Christophe (Stéphane Rideau, Morel’s co-star in André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds), newly released from jail and committed to straight-and-narrow rehabilitation, distances himself from Marc and takes an upstanding job at the local ham factory, where his rapid ascent infuriates Marc and somewhat placates their dour father. The youngest sibling, Olivier (Thomas Dumerchez), whose segment is the sweetest and shortest, grieves the loss of their Algerian-born mother and slowly settles into a
sexual relationship with Marc’s friend Hicham (Salim Kechiouche). Morel idealizes the erotic hunger of new lovers—sending the boys on a hang-gliding adventure and eavesdropping on their idyllic dirty-talk comedown.

Morel is obviously up on his gay art films: Fran Ozon’s influence is palpable, not least in the matter-of-fact sexuality and evocative use of water; the meat factory pointedly echoes the abattoir in Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons. Most of all, the director, who has appeared in several Téchiné films, strives to emulate his mentor’s suggestive use of ellipses and poetic detail. But the unpredictable emotional turmoil that animates Téchiné’s work is almost entirely missing. Morel spells out his blood-ties theme in an archly symbolic shot of the three brothers sleeping in the nude, limbs entwined, watched over by their helpless father. The actors make the most of their severely underwritten roles (though there’s only so much you can do with pube-trimming and ass-shaving scenes). For those so inclined, this lulling, banal, and rather pleasant film cultivates a mood of zone-out voyeurism. In the absence of a larger purpose, Morel is content to ogle, perhaps rightly assuming that his viewers will be too.