SFIFF 54 Day Five: Time Travel, from Cave of Forgotten Dreams to Children of the Princess of Cleves

by Meredith Brody
April 27, 2011 3:02 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood
Meredith Brody reports on the latest festival screenings from San Francisco:

The Frenchwoman who introduced Children of the Princess of Cleves gave us an invaluable bit of information that cast the film in an interesting light. President Nicolas Sarkozy said that reading the required “Princess of Cleves,” published in 1678, made no sense for a high school student who would be working as a cashier in two years. Many in France were incensed by the comment, big surprise -- as am I – wasn’t Sarkozy, despite a wealthy background, posited as “l’homme du people” when he ran for President? Here’s real-time news: when I Google Sarkozy, the news pops up that he and Carla Bruni are expecting their first child together – posted 13 minutes ago! I also learn that Sarkozy was a mediocre student, and had to go to a crammer to pass his baccalaureate, the exam that determines whether or not you can go on to college.

Anyway, the idea for Children of the Princess of Cleves was suggested to documentarian Régis Sauder by his girlfriend, who just happens to teach in a Marseilles high school in the poor immigrant quarter of North Marseilles. He films the students and their parents – in elegant close-ups – discussing the book and their lives. And, again, big surprise, it turns out that the overheated emotions of romance and intrigue running wild in the court of Henry II of France in the 17th century have their parallels and applications in the lives of the teenagers coping with raging hormones and parental concerns in the 21st century. You get the point within a very few minutes. There is pleasure to be had in hearing the articulate insights of Sauder’s subject: idiomatic French is erudite, graceful, charming – and these children of immigrants speak it beautifully. Sarkozy should also remember this from his youth (from Wikipedia): “He also has said that, in his early years, he felt inferior in relation to his wealthier and taller classmates. ‘What made me who I am now is the sum of all the humiliations suffered in childhood.’ “

The underwhelming German film The City Below places a not-very-compelling extramarital affair against the backdrop of a high-finance bank merger in Frankfurt. The city's WW II ruins have been replaced with rows of skyscrapers that look uncannily like New York’s Sixth Avenue, but nothing like any other city in Europe. Director Christoph Hochhäusler is a member of the Berlin School of filmmaking, which we are told partakes of a cold aesthetic, visible here not only in the grim pervasive blue light but the coldness of the characters. He’s not here for the Q & A, but his attractive leading actress Nicolette Krebitz turns her questioner, programmer Sean Uyehara, quite giddy (“You’re so different than your character!”). Also a director, she tells us that now she understands that the actors are supposed only to carry out the director’s vision – “and I want my actors to do that, too!” She responds gamely to the audience’s questions about interpretation, especially concerning the last scene of the movie, which seems to come out of nowhere to lend a philosophical importance whose groundwork was not laid during the previous 109 minutes of its 110-minute running time.

I make my escape and stand in line to see Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one of the most-anticipated films of the festival for me. There’s a capacity crowd – I see Bay Area documentary filmmaker Les Blank, whose marvelous Burden of Dreams chronicled Herzog’s travails during the filming of Fitzcarraldo, across the aisle, and the San Francisco Chronicle’s star columnist Leah Garchik has interrupted her peripatetic rounds of parties and culture and is sitting in front of me. And I’m joined by French film critic Jean-Michel Frodon.

For once 3-D operates as more than a gimmick: since the mistakes of allowing the warm breath of the public to flake and mold the paint of the cave drawings at Lascaux will not be repeated, Herzog’s dreamlike yet pragmatic images are as close as we’ll come to these 32,000-year-old images in the Chauvet caves discovered in 1994. Herzog being Herzog, he’s also fascinated with the oddities of the archeologists and functionaries he discovers along the way. And, Herzog being Herzog, he ends with mysterious images of albino alligators supposedly populating the warm tropical environs only a few miles away, made possible by the radioactive effluent of a nearby nuclear power plant. (The shots of the power plant have taken on a whole new resonance since the Japanese earthquake.) The images remind me of the lizards in The Bad Lieutenant, personally shot by Herzog himself. I am not surprised when I learn later that the segment is largely invented. (I am surprised that the Judith Thurman listed in the credits is the Judith Thurman, whose New Yorker article about the caves inspired Herzog in his making of the film.)

Afterwards I drive Jean-Michel Frodon back to Stanford, where he’s been teaching for a month. When we catch up, I learn that he’s just written a book about Edward Yang, once a film festival favorite and member of the Taiwanese New Wave (along with Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming Liang), whose untimely death in 2007 at the age of 59, combined with the unavailalibilty of his films on DVD, almost erased him from current film consciousness.

“I was amazed at how many people at World on a Wire said it was their first Fassbinder film,” I said. “I wonder how they can see Yang’s.” It turns out that Frodon curated a complete retrospective at the Paris Cinematheque, which has subsequently traveled to Singapore and New Zealand and in currently unspooling in Montreal. I can only hope that the Pacific Film Archive has its sights on it. I plan to buttonhole its curators ASAP. Or email them – it is, after all, the 21st century, though I spent part of it in the 17th, and another chunk prehistorically. Time travel via the magic of the movies…

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