21 July 2006

current cinema: Les Poupées russes


starring: Romain Duris, Kelly Reilly, Audrey Tautou, Kevin Bishop, and Cécile De France
written and directed by: Cédric Klapisch
NR, 125 min, 2006, France

When last we saw Xavier, he was fresh from a year studying abroad in Barcelona and running full-speed from a cushy job with the realization that he didn’t want to spend his life as a corporate drone killing time until retirement. Instead, he wanted to be a writer who said profound things and positively affected the world around him. Five years later, his novel is unpublished, he’s ghostwriting memoirs for celebrities who “can’t put two words together” and harboring an unrequited love for his ex, Martine (Audrey Tautou). Not exactly the sort of success he envisioned, but as far as aspiring writer’s go, he’s somewhat ahead of the curve.

The first chapter in Xavier’s story, L’Auberge espagnole (2003), was essentially Friends as a European film. Needed a place to stay in Barcelona, he moves into an apartment occupied by six people from six different countries. They all become fast friends despite their differences, but when the year is over, they all lose touch. Xavier’s first novel recounted this story to us, and his next novel, Les Poupées russes, written largely in the bathroom of a train, covers the events leading up to William’s (Kevin Bishop) marriage to Natacha (Evguenya Obraztsova), a Russian dancer.

Several members of the Barcelona crew make only token appearances in Les Poupées russes, as the story largely revolves around Xavier and Wendy (Kelly Reilly), who have teamed up to write a English language sequel to a sappy French TV movie. In the process, they fall for each other, but not before Xavier, in his fractured methods of storytelling, tells us of romances with sales clerks, supermodels, and everything in-between.

Actually, it’s that fractured storytelling that elevates Les Poupées russes above the plethora of French films about young love. Xavier has a habit of writing the same scene several times, trying it out the way every writer does, and director Cédric Klapisch seems to delight in showing us as many of the drafts as he can. So, when John Edward, the French TV protagonist, runs into the always difficult situation of his lovers discovering each other, we see John Edward’s explanation. Then, we see different ones. He has a twin brother. He has amnesia. The women change. He changes. Mostly, it’s effectively played for comic effect, but later the technique proves some dramatic worth as Xavier attempts to reconcile with Wendy.

In my opinion, one of the major flaws with L’Auberge espagnole was that it had a tendency to be unfocused and trite. Klapisch had a penchant for throwing in cinematic flourishes that did little but “look cool” and served no real purpose in the film. Like many young filmmakers[1], he seemed to be in love with style over substance. Call it the Guy Ritchie influence, if you will. But this time around, Klapisch shows a much better grasp of his medium. The flourishes aren’t nearly so gimmicky. The effects, for the most part, serve to advance the story. It’s easy to see a Jean-Pierre Jeunet influence at several points, and his storytelling has moved from Ritchie toward something more like Bergman or Paul Thomas Anderson. Essentially what we’re seeing is a filmmaker mature before our very eyes.

It seems clear enough that Klapisch’s goal with the character of Xavier is to turn him into the second coming of François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel–an ambitious feat, to be sure. But what might be interesting is if he uses the rest of the Barcelona crew to branch out into their stories, to explore love through the eyes of all Europe, in a way. Regardless, the potential is there for Klapisch to have, in twenty years, series of films vaults him into the discussion of great filmmakers. The individual films themselves may not be masterpieces, but something tells me the Xavier story, seen as a whole, could become great cinema. The state of film in the world indicates that the next twenty years or so could have some interesting, character-driven multi-film sagas that serve as a wonderful contrast to Hollywood’s penchant for superhero franchises. Here’s hoping Klapisch is up to the task.

[1] The problem being that he isn’t exactly a young filmmaker, per se. He’s old enough and smart enough to know better.


Levi said...

"Klapisch had a penchant for throwing in cinematic flourishes that did little but “look cool” and served no real purpose in the film. Like many young filmmakers[1], he seemed to be in love with style over substance. Call it the Guy Ritchie influence, if you will."

There is certainly a delicate relationship in a film between style and substance, and it's a debate that peaks my interest.

A film shouldn't be pure "substance." At this point I guess I should lay out my definitions: Style - Camera moves (or lack of), shot composition, use of color, use of light, use of music, film speed, sound effects, etc. Substance - elements of the story itself, the characters, acting performances, the plot, etc. Resuming, if you want pure substance, you should go see a play. A play has little or no influence on how we experience the story or our physical point of view. We focus on what we want to focus on: this actor, that actor, a chair, whatever.

Conversely, a film cannot be pure style (and be good). Blockbusters and Michael Bay films (ha ha) tend to be fat on style and slim on substance.

Style and substance are interwoven. A film that is pure "substance" would a stationary, medium-shot camera filming each scene, and that in itself would be style.

If a film uses super-slow motion to depict an attack with a sword (Jet Li in Hero), showing us almost stationary rain, the sword slicing through each raindrop, and each footfall as the swordsman moves, it tells us how fast he is. It tells us he is a master of the sword, adding to his character, adding a facet to his act, and therefore adding to the substance of the film.

So where is the line? Is Guy Ritchie's style adding to the substance of his characters as hip young Londoners?

lucas said...

see, i think of guy ritchie's "style" as just being cool shots he thought of in the shower, or whatever. very rarely do they actually add to the film the way they do in Hero (or Crouching Tiger, for that matter)

a lot of the flourishes in The Spanish Apartment, for example, were just gimmicky. they didn't advance the plot or the characters or anything, really (i can show you the DVD, if you want). but here, they do the opposite. Compare, if you will, "Snatch" and the "cool camera tricks" that, honestly, are mostly flash, to something like "Amelie", where the cool shit often shows her fantasy or an alternate world, or something else that advances the story or the character.

the line, i think, is precisely what you mentioned. does it add to the substance? if not, it's dumb.

take, for example, "Annie Hall", a film with lots of odd things that few associate with being stylistic. why? because they all fit really well into the story. they serve a purpose.