Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Movie Reviews: "Hors Satan," "Nana" at Anthology Film Archives

Hors Satan
Directed and written by Bruno Dumont
January 18-27, 2013

Directed and written by Valerie Massadian
January 25-January 31, 2013

Anthology Film Archives
32 Second Avenue, New York, NY

Two dramatically economical French films have their New York premieres at Anthology Film Archives: provocateur extraordinaire Bruno Dumont’s latest, Hors Satan; and writer-director Valerie Massadian’s debut feature, Nana.

Bruno Dumont's Hors Satan
Dumont has made a career of making alternately hypnotic and infuriating dramas about individuals approaching states of grace in their singular ways; in that sense, he’s a legitimate successor to Robert Bresson. Dumont’s best films—Ma Vie de Jesus, Humanite, Hadewijch—find specific locales and situations in which to play out his dissections of spiritual malaise, while his unsuccessful films—Twenty-nine Palms, Flanders, now Hors Satan—find themselves between the Scylla of dime-store psychology and the Charybdis of absurdity.

Satan plays like a straight-faced parody of a Dumont film: I’d say it’s self-parody but Dumont seems incapable of humor. Set in the rough-hewn seaside of northern France—the magnificent, captivating Cinemascope photography is by Yves Cape—the movie follows The Guy (David Dewaele), a mysterious stranger, and The Girl (Alexandre Lematre), who follows him around the countryside as he arbitrarily alternates between Good and Evil: he both heals and kills. He also meets a hitchhiker, with whom—in the most unsettling sequence in a movie filled with them—he has a weird sexual encounter.

Dumont might be saying that The Guy is The Girl’s guardian angel—but then again, he might not. Even in his bizarro-world moments, however—and Hors Satan is packed with them—Dumont makes movies that provoke responses. Despite this confused and inscrutable jumble, one looks forward to his next move: a biography of sculptor Camille Claudel with Juliette Binoche.

Lecomte in Massadian's Nana
Nana is set on a rural French farm, where a grandfather, his daughter and her young daughter Nana live their everyday existence. For 68 minutes, we watch the goings-on in their lives: a pig is slaughtered, granddad and Nana play with piglets in a barn (she presciently calls them “little roasts”), daughter gathers sticks for firewood and later reads a bedtime story to Nana. Then one day, Mommy is gone and Nana is suddenly alone: and nothing much is made of it.

The young girl—survival instincts already firmly in hand—very matter of factly goes about her own business of changing her clothes, starting a fire, bringing home a captured rabbit (she watched her grandfather set the trap in the nearby woods), having milk and cookies, and reading to herself. Red flags go off when she curses like a trucker while re-reading a story her mother earlier read sans expletives: could the swear words she tosses off be her simply parroting exchanges she heard between the adults in her life? The director tantalizingly never obliges us with an explanation.

Massadian’s visual and narrative rhythms are impeccable—the lustrous camerawork comprises long, static, confident takes. But Nana is mainly memorable for the appearance of little Kelyna Lecomte, with whom the director worked for nearly two years: with a lot of improvisation, the barebones of a script giving an broad outline of the story. Young Lecomte responds with a miraculous performance that is less acting than simply existing: and she’s riveting throughout this remarkably honest and stark portrayal of a young girl in a violent and difficult world.

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