Friday, July 30, 2004

French Friday

Today I saw two wildly different French films, Jacques Tati's 1967 masterpiece PLAYTIME and Yann Samuell's new, oddball romance LOVE ME IF YOU DARE. The titles are especially apt. The Tati film is a glorious romp. Samuell's pic rebuffs the attempts to embrace it, which I wasn' t eager to do after 93 minutes with the characters.


The twisted romantic comedy LOVE ME IF YOU DARE (JEUX D'ENFANTS) borrows the whimsical and fanciful nature of AMELIE in order to use and abuse it. Part melodramatic love story, part wicked subversion of such a thing, the film follows Julien (Guillaume Canet) and Sophie (Marion Cotillard) from childhood to their mid-30s as they play their game of dares.

Whoever possesses a tin box decorated as a carousel dares the other to do something often outrageous. Upon the task's completion, the box and the power change hands. The game progresses from grade school mischief, such as saying naughty words in class, to risktaking with serious stakes, like standing in front of an oncoming train and leaving a prospective bride at the altar).

These grand gestures are supposed to convince us of their great destined romance, but more often than not it signifies behavior ranging from perversely cruel to grossly immature. It's JACKASS rendered as a French romantic comedy. As children Julien and Sophie come across as a couple of brats. As adults they're world-class, self-absorbed jerks at best. Truthfully, stronger words than "jerks" come to mind.

Director Yann Samuell's anti-AMELIE echoes the distinctive look of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film. Here, though, the saturated colors serve as an ironic gloss on an ugly little story. Unlike Amélie, who selflessly spread joy to the community, Julien and Sophie dredge up misery in one another and everyone they encounter. AMELIE'S fairy tale was prime material for being reworked as a cynic's account of obsessive love, but LOVE ME IF YOU DARE is not that film. Rather it is Laetitia Colombani's HE LOVES ME...HE LOVES ME NOT (À LA FOLIE...PAS DU TOUT), with Audrey Tautou putting a counterspin on her best-known role and film, that provides a palatable sourness to AMELIE'S sugary buzz.

Grade: D+

PLAYTIME (Jacques Tati, 1967)

I first saw Jacques Tati's PLAYTIME last summer as part of watching all the Monsieur Hulot films released as Criterion DVDs. M. HULOT'S HOLIDAY and MON ONCLE delighted me, but PLAYTIME was a tougher nut to crack. With much of the action taking place in large spaces, it is not well-suited for being viewed on television, especially on a 27" set. Seeing it projected in 70mm tonight at the Wexner Center was nothing short of a revelation.

Tati reprises his Hulot character, a genial fellow with a loping walk. (Rowan Atkinson's Mr. Bean could have descended from Hulot, although he's prone to mean-spirited outbursts that are unfathomable for Tati's kind soul.) Yet the film isn't about Hulot, or anyone in particular, for that matter. Instead PLAYTIME observes a day of the ordinary moments in modern life. People mill about a large airport terminal and various undistinguished buildings in the film's first half. Then they congregate for a raucous time at a Parisian restaurant's error-plagued opening night.

The bland, massive architectural structures dominate, blocking out the sun and the city landmarks. In one of PLAYTIME'S funniest recurring gags, travel posters to London, Mexico, Brazil, and Hawaii feature the same anonymous office building and a cultural appropriate symbol. 37 years later the joke is all too accurate.

Tati pokes fun at technology and its supposed efficiency. A security guard punches a series of buttons to inform someone that Hulot is there for an appointment. The man walks down a long hallway to usher Hulot into the room right behind where he had been sitting. In a masterful shot laying out a large office full of cubicles, two men communicate by telephone. One walks from his office to just outside the other's to retrieve account information. Then returns to his office and passes along the requested data.

Yet in spite of the implicit criticism Tati points toward bureaucracy, confusion, and the needless complexity in modern life, he is hopeful that people will adapt. Order and beauty can be found in the chaos. What is the film's joyful second half but an absurdist wink at technology's limitations and a joyful celebration of humanity's ability to make the best of a bad situation. Hulot accidentally tears part of the wall and ceiling, yet an American executive turns the damaged decorations into a gateway for a cozy party. A waiter with torn pants gives the good pieces of his uniform to the co-workers who come to him with a torn jacket and a sauce-drenched bowtie. The doorman perpetuates the illusion that one of the entrance doors remains.

If any doubt remains as to where Tati stands on contemporary society and construction, one of the final images compares the soft curves of flower stems and streetlights. Beauty is still being created, even if it is in concrete and glass.

PLAYTIME is one of the most complex visual feasts ever put on screen. Tati's orchestration of jokes in different areas of the frame is virtuoso work. This film demands multiple viewings, preferably of a 70mm print, to spot everything. Whether he's giving a priest an inadvertent halo or showing the unappetizing effect a green neon light has at a food counter, Tati's humor doesn't call attention to itself but asks the viewer to look closer.

Grade: A

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