Fanny Continues Daniel Auteuil’s Stagy Revival of the Marcel Pagnol Trilogy

Picking up where Marius left off, actor-director Daniel Auteuil’s Fanny — the second entry in his planned adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s Marseilles trilogy — offers both the same pleasures (bighearted performances, an engaging maritime setting) and drawbacks (unabashedly dated values, a rigid theatricality) as its predecessor.

But the narrative circumstances make for an overall tone that is less sprightly: Alexandre Desplat’s score does a lot of heavy melodramatic lifting as Fanny (Victoire Bélézy) and César (Auteuil) mourn the sudden departure of their beloved Marius (Raphaël Personnaz), who has hopped aboard the Malaisie for a five-year voyage. With Marius gone, the port’s wealthy sailmaker, Panisse (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), rekindles his pursuit of the young Fanny, even requesting marital permission from the girl’s mother (Marie-Anne Chazel).

But César, protective of his absent son’s feelings for Fanny, disapproves of the potential union; moreover, there’s a development that neither he nor Panisse knows about: Marius has left Fanny with child. In a terrifically drawn-out scene set in Panisse’s workshop — the production design peppered with ladders, fabrics, and crates — these three negotiate the terms of the pregnancy, and the language equates Fanny’s pending decision with a business transaction, suggesting a critique Marius never quite offered.

Fanny has a stagy sensibility, but Auteuil displays flashes of genuine, old-school craft. In an early scene, Panisse and two other locals share a table in César’s bar, discussing how Marius’s desertion has left the old man depressed. As they converse, César can be seen through the bar’s stained window, sitting in the distance outside. Such visual economy — Auteuil making himself observable while he’s being discussed — helps bring this material to life.


Two Harvard Grads, Two WWII Stories, in A Twentieth Century Tale

A brief, loose, and rather meager addition to the swaying pile of WWII-ephemera documentaries, Richard Kaplan’s A 20th Century Tale parallels the respective fates of two Harvard graduates during wartime. One, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, was deemed qualifiedwby his part–American heritage and Ivy League education to act as Adolf Hitler’s Foreign Press Bureau chief but fell out with Nazi brass, defecting in 1937 to spend the war years telling what he knew to American intelligence. The other, Varian Fry, was a classics scholar-turned-foreign correspondent who reported on anti-Semitic violence in Hitler’s Germany well ahead of the pack. Tale concentrates mostly on Fry’s 1940-41 stay in Marseilles, during which he arranged for the escape of refugees from occupied Vichy France, often in the teeth of state department resistance. Kaplan’s biographical diptych is made up of recited excerpts from letters and memoirs, stock footage, and talking heads who recount, among other things, the period in which Fry’s headquarters became a bohemian salon. While emphasizing his subjects’ shared alma mater and single professional meeting, Kaplan doesn’t locate any telling contrasts by pairing these personalities. This is what comes of dumping material on a viewer, rather than arranging it.


Crimes by the Sea

With Solea, the third and final volume of his groundbreaking “Marseilles Trilogy,” out this month in English, Jean-Claude Izzo’s dark, revelatory portrait of the city of his birth is complete. Izzo died of cancer in 2000, but his strategically multiracial and pop-culture-savvy French crime novels spearheaded a Mediterranean noir movement that has since spread to Italy, Spain, Belgium, Algeria, and beyond. Although full of picturesque seasides, beautiful women, gourmet foods, and thriving rai and reggae nightclubs, Izzo’s town isn’t exactly the southern France of glossy tourist brochures or President Sarkozy’s conservative agenda. This is the young, disenfranchised, and disgruntled Marseilles that ultimately exploded in 2005’s nationwide race riots, provoked by National Front agitation and years of institutionalized oppression.

Izzo—the working-class kid of a Spanish mother and an Italian father—not only sympathizes with the children of immigrants, he fills the pages of Total Chaos (1995), Chourmo (1996) and Solea (1998) with smart, tragic teens and twentysomethings of every race and color, who deserve better treatment from French society than they get. Izzo sees this seething cauldron of multiculturalism as a potential paradise ruined by the illogic of racism and the greed of class warfare. He skillfully encapsulates all the distinctive beauty and wasted potential of Marseilles within a handful of memorable characters and locations that reappear in each volume of the trilogy. Climaxing the increasingly complex and hectic action of the first two books, Solea triangulates the fate of Marseilles among three oddly philosophic and iconic female characters: an investigative journalist, a police chief, and the motherly widow whose unshakable, primeval benevolence serves as the moral compass for Detective Fabio Montale, Izzo’s cynical male protagonist.

When we first meet Montale in Total Chaos, the “suicide by cop” of a childhood friend has him remembering all the devious things he did when he and his pals worked as stickup kids. Full of self-doubt and grim fatalism, Montale is trying to redeem his life. Using the guilty pleasure of crime fiction, Izzo’s trilogy gives us beach reading that provokes and inspires: The desperate struggles of one anarchic cop against police corruption, mafias, and the racist National Front are no road map to global liberation, but these novels manage to illustrate—epiphany by gritty epiphany—the thought processes we must use to get there. Izzo’s main point, especially in Solea, is that we are all in the same multicultural boat: galley slaves on the ship of global capitalism. And without a loving sense of brotherhood, the collateral ideals of liberty and equality cannot be sustained by today’s nation states.

Solea opens with a brief meditation on the political uprisings of 1968, when students, workers, and anarchists shut down schools and factories from Paris to Rio. Writing 30 years after this tumult to complete his trilogy, Izzo asks whatever became of all those young rebels and militants. Up to now, we have followed Detective Montale—the most unlikely of revolutionaries—through a series of events and inner realizations that would radicalize a stone. After painstakingly solving the murders of three close friends in the first book, Montale quits his position with the local police force. After uncovering the web of intrigue that leads to the accidental death of his cousin’s son in the second, this
über-Mediterranean male actually cries. Solea—with its chatty cast of political exiles and existential refugees—repeatedly echoes Bob Marley’s lyrical injunction to erstwhile revolutionaries to “rise and take their stance” again.

As the series progresses, it’s the abuse of innocents that repeatedly pulls Montale out of his retirement, away from his fishing bark and cottage by the sea. Leila, a brilliant and beautiful Algerian university student, is raped and murdered by bigots in Total Chaos. Montale’s 16-year-old second cousin loses his virginity and his life in Chourmo
by following an Arab girlfriend into the wrong neighborhood. In Solea, Babette, a Franco-Italian journalist, is on the run from vicious mob hit men for helping expose global crime lords. Montale seeks the meaning behind each fresh horror, becoming more defiantly anarchic with each new revelation. Like the runaway rebels of ’68, he’d rather fish and cook and make love, not war. But when his friends find trouble, that trouble finds Montale—usually after a failed seduction or too much single malt.

Haunted by his own checkered past, and desperate to save both himself and those he loves, Montale briefly reconnects with official police work, but invariably discovers a legal system so dysfunctional that only oblique guerrilla resistance might make a difference. Thus, as his final episode speeds to its conclusion in Solea, this reluctant martyr drafts a loyal band of friends and sympathizers in a last-ditch attempt to turn the tables on local corruption. But like all tragic noir heroes, Montale treads a dangerously narrow line between triumphant savior and doomed avenger.


‘The Memory of a Killer’

We live in the twilight of film genres, and our cinematic hit men have aged with us. The Memory of a Killer, by Belgian director Erik Van Looy, stars veteran actor Jan Declair as Angelo Ledda, a Melville-style assassin who, 50 years down the road, is suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s. Based in Marseilles, Ledda travels back to his native Antwerp (a city he loathes) on assignment; though still a capable assassin, he has trouble remembering his hotel room number. But the job stirs up past demons and soon spins out of control.

Flemish hunk Koen De Bouw plays a detective who stumbles across Ledda’s clues while investigating a series of murders; policeman and killer are drawn to each other like two halves of a single equation. Their long, teasing tango provides the one love story. With a debt to Christopher Nolan’s
Memento (and with recent Belgian political and pedophilic scandals in the background), Van Looy has created a fast-paced and stylish thriller. Declair’s Ledda, marvelously suave and vulnerable, provides most of the pathos. But once his character’s motives are revealed, the story’s latter half feels mechanically worked out.


‘Lila Says’

Lila Says

Directed by Ziad Doueiri

Samuel Goldwyn, opens June 24

A misguided tale of sentimental education, Ziad Doueiri’s sophomore effort (after 1998’s pleasant coming-of-ager West Beirut) makes . . . And God Created Woman look like far-out feminism by comparison. Based on a 1996 book, Doueiri’s film transports the Paris banlieue setting to a predominantly Arab neighborhood in Marseilles, adding a few throwaway post-9-11 references. Blonde 16-year-old nymphet Lila (Vahina Giocante) offers to show 19-year-old Chimo (Mohammed Khouas) her delta of Venus (celebrated by her loony obese aunt as “Jesus’s lantern”), the first in a torrent of ridiculous sexual provocations. Although actual carnal contact is limited to a hand job on a moped, the shy Muslim teen finds his muse (“A dam burst inside me,” he says in voice-over), filling several Clairefontaine notebooks with Lila’s XXX chat. And the young lady’s reward for her erotic yarns? Getting raped by the thuggish Mouloud (Karim Ben Haddou), a pal of Chimo’s.

In one of Lila’s smutty tales, she boasts of orally servicing Satan; in the confused sexual politics of Doueiri’s movie, it’s clear the devil is a woman. Rather than a heroic libertine, Lila is an inscrutable temptress. Her dirty talk rings not as an expression of her own desire but as an almost autistic recitation of passages from stroke mags—a vagina monologue scripted by a ventriloquist. MELISSA ANDERSON


Tripping the Video Fantastic in the Tracks of an Ageless Sprite

Yves Musard has performed in New York since 1979, but in silhouette he can be mistaken for a child, so winsome are his carriage and aura. In Galaxie Pearl, he flitted through the St. Mark’s sanctuary, tracing circles and diamond shapes in a stiff-legged prance, arranging himself in poses with a yogic intensity. He toyed shadow puppet-style with a cobbled street, one of Kimberly Simpson’s many projected videoscapes of Paris, New York, and Marseilles. David Watson’s intriguing sound ranged from distant rumblings and blips to the aural assault of a live bagpipe. Guests performed solos in a final section that capped a long program in need of editing. Sally Silvers made daredevil maneuvers confined in a cone of light. Musard began and ended the concert by wiggling a red rope, one end in each hand, implying that every action has a consequence to be considered.


Be My Quest

Not the animated cat’s big-screen debut the title implies, Adventures of Felix is instead a wafer-thin, sweetly sentimental picaresque with semiserious overtones. Recently laid-off ferryman and soap-opera addict Felix (Sami Bouajila), who is HIV-positive, travels from northern France to Marseilles to visit the father he’s never met. Along the way, he collects insights into his pilgrimage via an assortment of characters he christens his “family”: a randy little brother, a grandmother (played by cabaret star Patachou), a cousin (of the kissing variety), a high-strung sister, and even a father. His filial needs thus met, Felix forgoes a get-together with biological Dad once he reunites with his lover, Daniel, in the south.

Cocreators Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau milk quite a bit of charm out of this slight scenario. For the most part, Felix is as airy as the Blossom Dearie tune it opens with, and the lush French countryside through which Felix passes—the movie’s real star—is almost as sumptuously shot as Bouajila’s frequently exposed anatomy. The filmmakers go off-track only when they emphasize the existential ambivalence of Felix’s quest. Such aspirations are at odds with the hero’s buoyantly contrived encounters with his found-family and the soggy life lessons they offer, particularly since these characters are deliberately overdrawn. Why have Felix gradually divest himself of his television-inspired sensibilities only to land him in these people’s movies of the week? This shortcoming doesn’t detract much from the lightweight goings-on, thanks mostly to Bouajila (whom you may remember from Edward Zwick’s lamentable 1998 programmer The Siege). The gangly actor’s quietly forceful performance rises miles above the melodrama while somehow keeping the movie firmly on the ground.

Dominique Deruddere’s Everybody’s Famous!, a weirdly compelling caper comedy from Belgium, isn’t earthbound to begin with. Unemployed would-be songwriter Jean (Josse De Pauw) improvises a kidnapping to wangle a singing career for his talented but unmotivated teenage daughter, Marva (Eva Van der Gucht). A cuckolded coworker, a manipulative talent agent (Victor Löw, whose spot-on, ’70s-casualty persona nearly steals the show), and the Low Countries version of Christina Aguilera figure into Jean’s hugely unlikely scheme.

Despite its corniness, predictability, and offhand sexism (picture The King of Comedy as a skit on The Benny Hill Show), as well as its disproportionate notoriety (it was nominated for last year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar), Everybody’s Famous! is too brisk and plucky to dislike. By the umpteenth performance of the song that makes improbable stars of Jean and Marva—a grating pseudo-bolero that lingers in the mind like a bad hangover—you may be forced to agree with an onscreen newscaster who sums up the film’s events as “a high day for Flemish showbiz.” Truly.


Sound and Fury

Brainchild of Kamel Saleh and Akhenaton, leader of celebrated rap group IAM, The Magnet (Comme un Aimant) is more than another tale of B-boys en français. An engaging quasi documentary on Marseilles’s racially diverse and economically struggling quarter Le Panier, the film follows the ups and spiraling downs of a group of chums aged 30 going on 16, trying to carve out an identity for themselves other than as human targets for the National Front; “This is our home too!” becomes something of a mantra. Based on improvisations among the actors and rolled in a sun-dried French Mediterranean flavor, The Magnet avoids the sensationally doomed aura of Mathieu Kassowitz’s La Haine. Award-winning composer Bruno Calais and Akhenaton’s bewitching score—soul and hip-hop originals sung by American legends like Millie Jackson and rising local stars—is attuned to the mood swings of the characters, and the looseness of the handheld camera counteracts the looming fatalism: Some of these boys will rise from the pyre that razes the town to become grown men, but it might not be soon.


Gimme a Pigfoot

There’s magic in pied de cochon ($13)— flesh scraped from boiled bones and chopped fine, merged with bits of onion, celery, and carrot, then formed into a patty and fried like hash. Unless you identified the peculiar interplay of solid and glutinous elements, you’d never know it was pig’s feet. Sided with three fingers of rich mashed potatoes that grope toward the edge of the plate, this culinary transformation is typical of the clever and aggressive cooking techniques of Casimir, yet another Alphabet City bistro.

The decor is less exciting, composed of the same rickety bent-cane chairs, beveled mirrors, antique advertising placards, and general brownness of all the other joints seeking to re-create the ambience of the Gallic prototype. Led onto the premises blindfolded, you’d be hard-pressed to tell whether you were in Lucien, Les Deux Gamins, Jules, or Casimir. The service, too, is not particularly good— attentive yet ineffective. Ask for the check, and the waiter is likely to wander off thunderstruck. But I’d go there if I had to fetch the food myself, because it’s killer— at least some of it.

The menu is divided into four main areas and four smaller ones based on the size and content of the offerings. Consistent pricing within most sections allows you to choose without the pressure of price, a great idea. The salads ($7.50) are unexpectedly generous, suitable for a light meal. Best is Parisienne, an impressive spread matching tomatoes and roast beets with a delicious lentil salad and a mayonnaisey mound of celeriac, both bistro staples in France. The sole failure is Benjamin, a shivered heap of sesame-anointed endive freakishly topped with sugary Malaysian jerky. But the soup of the day ($4) is often the best starter. My vegetarian asparagus was scrumptious, a generous bowl mellowed with cream, sprinkled with flat-leaf parsley, and hiding a good quantity of tender young stems in the depths. Leading me to wonder— is some guy in the kitchen gobbling tips?

The conventional appetizers of “Paysan Bites” ($6.75) also turn out to be mini mains. Reeking-of-garlic rounds of Lyonnaise sausage straddle vinegary potato salad; plump and perfectly sautéed— meaning crisp but still pink in the middle— chicken livers push well-dressed mesclun toward the center of the plate; and salmon tartare sparkles on its toast platform. But Casimir falters badly attempting American food. The chicken pot pie ($13), heralded by a puffy top crust concealing poultry and vegetables, is unpleasantly scented with clove in a too-thin broth, with a huge bowl of horseradish crème fraîche provided as thickener— an absurd solution. “And no bottom crust,” a friend griped. Equally lugubrious is hamburger New Orleans ($10), a nice puck of ground sirloin topped with a gloppy caper relish like a zapped version of Big Mac special sauce and situated on a tough bun that squirts meat out the sides when you chomp down.

Stick with bistro classics, however, and you can’t go wrong. To my surprise, the bouillabaisse ($16) was the best I’ve ever tasted. Fragrant with fennel and bolstered with a touch of Pernod, this fisher’s potage was massed with mussels, cod, and scallops, the latter imparting a pleasant sweetness to the broth. A stunningly large shell-on shrimp sprawled across the top, but even more appealing were the croutons, slopped with a rouille radiant with garlic and cayenne that sloughed into the soup like lava from an erupting volcano. Eat it blindfolded and you’ll think you’re in Marseilles after all.


The Players

Bisected by an open kitchen, the long dining room is pleasantly underdecorated—the red-faced Laughing Cow glued to one wall, a few shelves of old glassware up near the tin ceiling, and a blue mural at the end of the room showing three homburged peasants seated at a table while a standing figure watches, smoking a pipe. It’s a knockoff of Cézanne’s The Card Players, but indistinct hand movements and the complete absence of cards make it seem like the men are abusing themselves.

Lucien is a new French bistro just north of Houston—yawn-worthy news except that this joint adds a welcome Provençale twist to the bistro formula. First there’s lapin moutarde ($16), a big bunny split down the middle (you get half), roasted, smeared with Dijon, and deposited on an undulating bed of fresh fettucini. The sharp mustard has been mellowed with crème fraîche, making the sauce absurdly rich, and the noodles gradually absorb every last bit. Set your pacemaker on stun.

Another stretch for a bistro is the marvelous duck ($16), served two ways on the same plate. The magret, or breast meat, is pan roasted and sliced thick, each piece discretely ringed with fat and presented medium rare, rather than the bloody “sanguiné” the French prefer. The other half, equally as good, is duck confit—the leg and thigh portion cooked in its own fat and scented with star anise, more Chinatown than Champs Élysées. There’s a vegetable mélange underneath and some lovely split-and-grilled fresh figs on the side, which must be why the guys in the painting are so excited.

Less successful is the Amish chicken ($12), a half bird spectacular in its moistness, but not herby enough, upstaged by the garlic mashed potatoes. Just so you don’t forget you’re in a bistro, three steaks are offered—filet mignon, sirloin, and bavette, the latter a coarse and flavorful skirt that, at $13, is the cheapest, and plenty good enough for me. Skinny, scraggly fries add to the excitement.

The greatest challenge of the Provençale menu is, of course, bouillabaisse ($19), the fish stew that has flummoxed many local restaurants. The seafood array at Lucien is novel but effective: snapper, monkfish, clams, and a bundle of king-crab legs that sit atop the bowl like discarded props from Alien 3. The swarming broth is dark and viscid, thrust with rouille-smeared toasts—just the kind of lavish tuck-in intended by the Marseilles fisherfolk who invented it.

More Mediterranean victories are scored among the appetizers, like the pair of ample sardines ($8) grilled by the chef in plain view. They’re served with a squiggle of dark sauce for those who can’t imagine a meal without balsamic. Mussels ($12) are steamed in the usual white wine and shallots, improved significantly by cilantro. That yeoman of bar food, calamari ($8), is heroically crisp, and rescued from normalcy by its North African dipping sauce.

Outside of the pricey Payard Patisserie, I can’t think of a single bistro with really distinguished desserts, although the spectacle of crème brûlée being browned with a blowtorch is a good reason to order it anywhere. Nevertheless, Lucien has hit the bull’s-eye with its tarte Tatin ($5)—not the usual insignificant mouthful, but a substantial wedge of a big pie. Cooked upside down, the caramelized apples retain their juiciness and zip, while the flaky pastry stays crisp. It’s a specialty of the Loire Valley rather than Provence. But, hey, it’s just a bistro—purism not required.