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Promeneur du Champ de Mars

Montpellier - February 2005

UPDATE: Women in the French cinema

 

Two important movies came on screens in France these two last months; so important they make the others completely forgettable. Both were impatiently awaited by the admirers of their directors – many of these admirers being part of the Parisian and local intelligentsias…

 

Rois et Reine (Kings and Queen) is a remarkable opus in the career of Arnaud Desplechin. Probably his most personal movie since Depuis que je me suis disputé… ma vie sexuelle” (literally translated: since I argued… my sexual life”). The actors of the former play similar characters: artists, intellectuals, with a troubled, affective life; facing their neurosis and progressing in life with the essential help of analysis and humor… Desplechin, who--belongs to the generation of Olivier Assayas-- could be considered close to Woody Allen on some points. But his scenarii are much more complex, his characters less caricatured – he’s nothing like an entertainer, and prefers classical music to jazz.

 

The Queen of Rois et Reine is a woman in her 30’s played by Emmanuelle Devos. She’s about to get married, and while her father is dying, she asks her former companion to adopt the boy she had with her first lover. Ismaël, played by Mathieu Amalric with a communicative pleasure, is a musician suffering from nervous breakdown who some ill-intentioned relations try to send to a psychiatric hospital. Ismaël is of course named after the Melvillian hero of Moby Dick, so all “adrift” metaphors apply. Like his namesake, Ismael knows how to love and smile without avoiding a major dose of angst, longing, and suffering. Everyone in the cast has this gift, the queen included… men die around her, accuse her, fight her. Desplechin tells the story of the eternal fight between men and women, complicated by the fight of an abusive father with his independent daughter. There are many kings, and only one queen, because she survives, equal to herself, in all cases. Selfish? Indifferent? No… just irreducible to their concepts and ideals.

 

Women are secondary characters in the Promeneur du Champ de Mars, de Robert Guediguian, but they are the main preoccupations of the male characters – wives, lovers, friends, daughters and also feminine representations. Death and life are feminine words in French, and are represented with female features – a legacy from Greek mythology, and this goddess of fertility who lets nature die in winter, when her daughter Persephone leaves her to stay in the kingdom of death with her husband, Hadès. And France is traditionally represented by a woman: Marianne, or the sower maid – an avatar again of the goddess of fertility. The walker (promeneur) of Guediguian is the former French president Mitterrand. His well-known love for women contributes still to his popularity, ten years after his death. Syllogism: the president loved beautiful, clever and sophisticated women. Marianne is proud and grateful of being wanted, courted and loved by this man. Some say he was sly, Machiavellian – others figure him for a Ulysses killing the stupid and pretentious pretenders to Penelope.

 

Guediguian has been a long-time militant of the French communist party, a party Mitterrand helped make look totally ridiculous over the years. After several movies dedicated to Marseilles and its inhabitants with their musical accent and their familial, sexual and political concerns, he decided to the general surprise of everyone to adapt a book written by a young journalist (Georges-Alain Benhamou) who was very close of Mitterrand during the last years of his life. Moreau, played by Jalil Lespert, is an idealist, almost obsessed by a quest: finding the truth about the activities of the president during the German occupation of WWII. How could one be successively a war prisoner, minister in the government of Vichy, and resistant? How could one at the same time work for Vichy and fight it? How could one ignore what was happening, how could one not look for the truth? The truth, one more feminine word and representation in French – la vérité – while a lie, un mensonge, is masculine… The president can’t answer, and doesn’t bother to try. He’s busy facing another truth, the only one that matters now: death coming. No other urge for him than to face it and to abandon vain regrets and worries. Guediguian spreads references to Napoleon Ier and to the Austrian last emperor Franz-Joseph in their last days. It’s like it was more than a man that was disappearing, but also an idea of Europe. Europe… the feminine word and concept once more. Europe was a young girl kidnapped by the Greek god Zeus; after her, all continents received feminine names.

 

Michel Bouquet is astonishing in the role of the president. Physically he’s very different, and he doesn’t imitate Mitterrand through behaviors, expressions or clothes – no red scarf here. No actor would have served better the will of the director: rather than reconstituting history in large features, privileging human truth and questioning our present society.

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