L`ennui (1998 / France, Portugal / Cdric Kahn)
After having seen this film my belief that french cinema of the last ten years is a s alive as ever has again been reassured. Many claims have been made, that french films aren`t what they used to be (which they of course aren`t, as time changes), even that the quality of french film production has fallen into mediocrity. But as Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out already during the 90s in his essay on Les Voleurs (1996 / Andre Techine), a film I thoroughly recommend, is that most critics only consider what they get to see from french films, whixh is very little. If they were really interested and would dig a bit deeper into every years production on their own, they would find many rough diamonds along with some polished ones.
Cedric kahn is a young director, and according to this film a most promising one. We have the Story of a middle-aged philosophy teacher who falls for a 17 year old girl (Haven't I read this somewhere before? ), but this isn`t your typical older man falls for a Lolita femme-fatale type of film. In fact I got so bored after about 15 minutes, because of the lurid but seemingly empty pace of the movie and the contrived dialogue, that I started switching channels on my TV, but when I returned to the same scene I had left a few seconds later, I knew I was finally onto something.
The film begins with a rapid pace showing a disturbed Charles Berling (who had one year earlier starred in Anne Fontaines brilliant social study Nettoyage a sec, but may be best known for the leading role in Patrice Leconte's Ridicule) who has entered a cocktail party of his ex-wife Sophie, with the intention to speak to her (they seem to be separated for a short time only), but doesnt succeed as she seems to be more concerned with making the impression that she has her life under control, though we see that shes very far away from this goal. It is never explicitely mentioned in the film, but
there are numerous great scenes that indicate that the marriage has left deep wounds in Sophie's heart and mind, and probably also in Berling's character, though he isn't for analizing situations, when it comes to himself. At the party he is "offered" a young student who admires him for the night, but he shows not a hint of interest. He even explains to Sophie, that he hasn't had sex for the last six months, and intends to go on this way, in order to write a new book. After having left, he wonders aimlessly through the night when he encounters a painter who gives him his adress after a rescue by Berling from a difficult situation. When he visits the painters house the next day, he discovers that he has died during sexual intercourse with his 17 year old student he was obsessed with. After meeting her, Berling steps in the same "trap". he starts a sexual relationship with her, that gets more and more dramatic until end of the film, and the final climax.
The theme of the film is obssession, and it reminded me at times of Zulawskis movie of the same name, though it isn`t as notorious or deliric. A case study of the protagonists neuroses getting the best of him, and his entanglement into an illusion of his own making. The fascinating object of desire is Cecilia (debut by Sophie Guillemin), who in no way corresponds with a young femme fatale. Quite on the contrary. She is a bit fat, small, is aware of her sexuality but doesn`t use it as a tool, she is rather introverted and makes no real attempt at seducing anybody. More than anything else she is like an object waiting to be used, though only if it pleases her (which it seems to do quite often though). And that becomes the crucial point. No active relationship develops between the two besides a sexual one, which is neither demanding nor boring. Just plain ordinary sex, which is shown several times, and is over fast. Cecilia seems to be oblivious to ambition, the need to small-talk with people, or communicate on any other level than sexually. She seems to have no real needs nor desires, living in the moment, and with a day to day time-table, that`s pretty schematic.
The protagonist now starts to interpret this blank canvas, and instead of writing his book, he begins to wonder what`s going on in Cecilia`s mind, begins projecting his own fears on her. He thinks she is cheating, she`s lying, she doesn`t love him, etc. as he becomes more and more possessive. As his desparate attempts to possess her even sexually don`t find a satisfiying conclusion his paranoia takes on a clinical state.
More and more he turns into a victim to his desire for love and closeness, which he can`t possibly find in Cecilia, but instead of letting it go, he degrades himself even more.
The strength of the film lies in its director`s ability to carry things to the extreme, to let its protagonist go not just to the borders, but clearly over everything socially acceptible. He shows the utter ridiculousness of the protagonists behaviour, without ridiculing him, and even in the most degrading and unbelievable scenes the direction never falters on what is a very small line between seriousness and absurdity, maintaining the films credibility, and most of all its sincerity, through which every character of the film is primarily his own, keeping his dignity. This rare accomplishment by Cdric Kahn is most promising for a young director more interested in the process of self-discovery and redemption of his characters, than in any bleak nihilism or apocalyptic vision of mankind and relationships.. The ending beautifully underscores his humanist standpoint.
The film is available on DVD in North America and Great Britain. The UK release is by Artificial Eye, from which the above screencap has been taken.