Stereotypes in cinema, as elsewhere, tend to endure for a reason. Take the British: They are, so we’re told, prone to dour social-realism, you know, the sort of flicks where kids are screaming around the breakfast table, Dad’s missing, Mom’s rushing off late to work and Granddad’s pottering about in the garden. (Think Ken Loach, Alan Clark, Lynne Ramsay.) Or take the French: They are, as some love to point out, very good at making films where people talk and talk, particularly when it’s about sex. (Think Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard, Patrice Chereau, even Catherine Breillat.)
This month’s releases will hardly break the mold: “Kiss of Life,” the debut from 34-year-old British director Emily Young, contains all the bits described above, while Anne Fontaine’s “Nathalie . . .” spends much of its time with Fanny Ardant puffing on cigarettes while listening to Emmanuelle Beart’s call girl give detailed descriptions of sex with her client, Ardant’s husband. Plus ca change.
“Kiss of Life” appears to be one of those films where you know which direction it’s heading. Harried working-mom Helen (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) has her hands more than full taking care of two squabbling kids and a grumpy father-in-law while her husband John (Peter Mullan) is off in Bosnia delivering aid to refugees for the U.N. (The film is set, presumably, during the mid-’90s conflict.) He’s supposed to be home for Helen’s birthday, but instead has to call her to say he’s been delayed. “There are people counting on me here. They need me,” explains John, to which Helen replies, exasperated, “They need you?” Cue a phone hanging up in Bosnia.
Young seems to be setting up a left-leaning tale of the tensions between political and personal commitment, between serving humanity or your own family, a direction that seems to be signposted by the casting of Ken Loach-lead Peter Mullan (from “My Name Is Joe”). But, to her credit, Young takes the tale in an unexpected direction; On her way to work, Helen is suddenly killed by a car. The rest of the film relates her post-death experiences, a series of dreams mingled with reality in which she tries to fix her relationships before passing to the next world.
This is a premise that was handled with vapidity by that Robin Williams flick in which heaven is a gooey oil painting, but thankfully Young never resorts to the insincere smile of Cuba Gooding Jr. as a feelgood tonic for death. Rather, we see the influence of Polish cinema on the director with the seeping through of the kind of everyday mysticism that Kieslowski used to such effect in films like “Blue” and “The Double Life of Veronica.”
With an intangible presence in her home Helen first goes through a period of incomprehension that she’s dead, before passing through memories and dream-encounters with her children and husband. Finally, in a devastatingly effective rain-of-tears final scene, she comes to some sort of acceptance that the love she has created in her life will endure after her passing.
Mullan is an actor’s actor who can play the simplest scenes with a gruff casualness without ever revealing a hint of technique. This pays off when the time comes for him to up the intensity for the climax. Dapkunaite, however, is incredible. So much of the film plays out on her face, on her reactions to things, and she never strikes a false note. As a director, Young needs some time to more fully command the pacing and scoring of a film, but there’s much promise in her knack for coaxing out great performances.
Director Anne Fontaine has a strong track record but “Nathalie . . .” is a bit of a slip-up. Despite its strong cast, literate script and the not-inconsiderable attraction of Beart at her most sultry, many people will find it hard to get their head around the plot’s central conceit. Namely, that when Catherine (Ardant) discovers her husband, Bernard (Gerard Depardieu), has been having an affair, her reaction is to go out and hire a hooker named Marlene (Beart) to seduce and sleep with him.
Now, if the idea was to make him fall for this younger woman and then cruelly dump him in revenge, perhaps it would have been more plausible. But when Catherine’s aim is to have Marlene report back to her on her husband’s sexual performance and desires, credulity is strained. Surely most women wouldn’t react to a partner’s infidelity by going out and paying good money to hand him another go, least of all with Beart. But then again, the point of this film — as with so many French films that deal with the vagaries of sex and passion — is not to tell us what we already know, but to demonstrate how much we don’t.
Once past the hump of the plot, it’s a fairly smooth coast downhill: Depardieu and Ardant bring a lot of baggage as a screen couple — from Truffaut’s “The Woman Next Door” way back in 1981 — and they do a tidy job of capturing the distance and humdrum routine that can creep into a relationship over the years. Ardant brings a lot of ambiguity to her tete-a-tete with Beart, suggesting there’s more going on here than simply spying on her man. It’s an interesting older-woman-younger woman relationship to hold up against Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Segnier in “Swimming Pool.”
It’s the promise of sex, though, Beart’s gartered thighs and coolly confident gaze of seduction, that will really sell this film. Interestingly, all the bedroom bits are kept off the screen, related only in Marlene’s reports to her patron. But if the idea of Beart talking dirty is something that makes your embers glow, then by all means indulge yourself — it’s the holiday season after all.
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