January 26, 2008

Le Cinéma Français

The ongoing writers' strike and the cold of winter make this the perfect time to explore what's available on DVD in the warmth and comfort of your own home!

I recently went on a French film binge by renting three relatively recent movies that, despite the best of intentions, I did not catch in the theater but were perfectly suited to the small screen. Each was charming and well worth seeing and made me a little nostalgic to go back to Paris!

First up "Avenue Montaigne ", or, as it is called in French, "Fauteuils d'orchestre [Orchestra Seats]". It tells the story of a pretty young woman (Cécile de France) who leaves her small town and goes to Paris to experience the big city and the luxurious world that her grandmother has told her about since childhood. Jessica finds a job in a small café on the Avenue Montaigne (a very smart street in Paris between the Champs Elysée and the Seine River) that caters to the local theater, concert hall and auction house. As it happens, all three are holding major events at the same time, and our heroine comes in contact with a famous actress, concert pianist, and great art collector who all patronize the café. The story is honest and touching as each is at a crossroads and is confronting fears and longings that expose their humanity beneath the public persona. Our young waitress discovers that the worlds of fame and luxury have their own pitfalls and the greatest lesson in life is to be true to oneself.

For a whirlwind cinematic tour of Paris, check out "Paris, je t'aime", a marvelous collaborative effort comprising 18 short films, by 21 directors, each looking at a different district of the city. From "Tour Eiffel" where a young boy tells how his parents, both mimes (Paul Putner and Yolande Moreau) met in prison and fell in love, to "Place des Victoires" where a mother (Juliette Binoche) grieving over the death of her young son is comforted by a fantasy cowboy (Willem Dafoe), the stories are both realistic and magical. Consider the poignancy of "Bastille" where a husband (Sergio Castellitto) is preparing to leave his wife (Miranda Richardson) for a much younger woman, when she announces that she is dying and he falls back in love with her. Or, the humor of "Parc Monceau" where an older man (Nick Nolte) and a younger woman (Ludivine Sagnier) meet for an arrangement that a third person ("Gaspard") will not approve of. It turns out that the young woman is his daughter and he will be babysitting his young grandson, Gaspard! Each film had its own message and charm, but my favorite was the last one, entitled "14e Arrondissement". It tells the story of an American tourist (Margo Martindale), a postal worker from Colorado, who is visiting Paris for the first time and recounts her tale in a very primitive French. She is lonely and scared and not enjoying herself, but she keeps going. All of a sudden she understands that chasing a dream doesn't always work, sometimes you have to let the dream come to you, and while sitting on a park bench having a sandwich she realizes that she does indeed love Paris, and she believes Paris loves her too!

Finally, we go back to the early 20th Century and a very moving biography of Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose". Called "La Môme" in France after Piaf's nickname "The Kid", this film was nominated for 3 Academy Awards and Marion Cotillard won the Golden Globe Award for her portrayal of this iconic singer.

The story of Edith Piaf's rise to fame is certainly film-worthy, as was her subsequent decline and untimely death. Born into abject poverty in 1918, she was raised by her paternal grandmother in a bordello in Normandy until she was taken on the circus circuit with her father, a contortionist. By the age of 14 she was performing on the streets of the Pigalle until 1935 when was discovered by Louis Leplée who owned the nightclub "Gerny's". Under his guidance Piaf's natural talent was molded into an accomplished singer and performer and her career took off. The film chronicles her love affair with the married boxer Marcel Cerdan, her 1951 car crash that left her addicted to morphine, her American singing tours, her struggles with alcohol and drugs and her sad demise and death of cancer in 1963. All punctuated with her amazing performances and those unforgettable songs.

So don't let the bad weather get you down! Open up a nice Bordeaux and import a little bit of France, right on to your television screen, without getting up off the couch!

P.S. Click on each film's title for a short preview!

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