All is Forgiven: Well, Almost


all_3.jpgOne of the true highlights of the annual film calendar is the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema held at Lincoln Center in conjunction with the French Film Office/uniFrance USA. Each year Rendez-Vous spotlights some of the more challenging, beguiling, innovative, and/or gloriously oh-so-French offerings from across the sea. And along with the films come the directors and stars.

So between March 10 and 19, if you're by West 66th Street, get ready to run into Elsa Zylberstein, Claude Miller, Cédric Klapisch, Claude Lelouch, Sandrine Bonnaire, and a dozen more of French cinema's most dynamic talents. As for the films themselves, take a chance and you'll be justly rewarded, except possibly by Mia Hansen-Love's All is Forgiven. As one puzzled critic from a New York daily asked aloud upon leaving a screening, "What was that all about?"

Yes, Ms. Hansen-Love has constructed the type of movie that can cause the most die-hard cinephile to ponder the merits of mall fare.

The year is 1995. It's springtime in Vienna, and French would-be poet Victor (Paul Blain) cavorts with his six-year old daughter Pamela (Victoire Rousseau) while his Austrian wife Annette (Marie-Christine Friedrich) is off working. It's Pamela's birthday, and the girl's playing with her two new dolls she's named "Doll." You can't do that, Victor admonishes, "They'll get confused."

He certainly seems the perfect, doting father until Annette arrives on the scene. Then it's time for the drinking to begin, and it's only 11. Yes, the dissolute Victor seldom writes, couldn't hold a job down if he wanted to, and is less than affectionate to his spouse.

Maybe if the family moves back to Paris, Victor will get a hold of himself, Annette suggests. Ah, non! Mother doesn't know best. Paris is not the cure. The hard-drinking, lazy sod only adds drug taking to his other despicable habits.

As for his relationship with Annette, the following chat might get the point across:

Annette: I hate you.

Victor: You hate me but I despise you, you fuckin' German bitch.

Then, of course, he starts slapping Annette around, too.

Victor: I'm ruining your life and I don't care.

Eventually Annette realizes no man is ever worth your tears, and Victor gets kicked out. Immediately, he moves in with Martine (Carole Franck), a lovely heroin addict. The two shoot up together and . . .

Annette takes Pamela to live in Caracas.

Annette: I don't want to ever see you again.

Jump ahead eleven years. Pamela (now played by Constance Rousseau) is back in Paris and has transformed into a lovely teen living with her mom, a loving stepfather, a contentious stepbrother, and a sprightly half-brother.

All is indeed peachily normal until the phone rings. Pamela's aunt, Victor's sister, has called. Victor wants to see his daughter after a decade of invisibility. A little more occurs, but not really enough to fill up two Eiffel Tower postcards. What makes the film watchable, when it is watchable, is the cast.

Blain, a low-rent Jean-Paul Belmondo, plays Victor as an aging adolescent. When he drapes himself over a chair in his lover's bedroom, his Victor seems a blasé 15-year-old's spirit mistakenly encased in an adult's body.

Countering his every quirk with a sad, complacent compliance, the seemly Friedrich's Annette is a fragile Venus: too much in love, too much in woe.

As for the sibling actresses portraying the young and older Pamelas, they are letter perfect, especially Constance Rousseau, who has star quality.

The main missteps occur in the screenplay, which is at times contrived and disjointed, especially the highly dissatisfying finale, which seems the result of a last-minute decision worked out at an angst-filled sidewalk café meeting. The direction also lacks at times a tidal pull. That the lead character is inert is no reason for the film to follow suit.

Yet there's no doubt Hansen-Love is a talent to watch. This debut feature showcases her ability to pull out understated performances, and numerous scenes are Rohmer-esque in the best sense, but they do not build into any cohesive whole. Consequently, Hansen-Love will have to wait until her next offering before there's a possibility of audiences pronouncing, "All is forgiven." – Brandon Judell

brandon.jpgMr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.