Review by Anna Bak-Kvapil
Posted on 25 March 2011
Source 35mm print
Boasting a robust slate of films already approved by Sundance, Cannes, Rotterdam and Toronto, the 2011 New Directors/New Films festival sets expectations high for its 40th anniversary. Some choices, like director Dennis Villeneuve’s tricky, politically opaque Incendies (Canada’s entry for the 2011 Academy Awards) and Daniel and Diego Vega’s Peruvian character study Octubre (Cannes 2010 Un Certain Regard winner), live up to their reputations. Others, like Anne Sewitsky’s Norwegian comedy of re-marriage, Happy Happy (Sundance 2011 Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema winner) and opening night film Margin Call, a hokey drama about the 2008 market crash, starring heavyweights Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, fall disappointingly flat. There isn’t much in the way of levity or eye candy to be found, favored themes being the melancholy dreariness of daily life and the horrors of political unrest. (With so many selections sharing the same brownish gray color palette, I began to wonder if the projector simply hadn’t been cleaned in a while.) The most high profile films have imminent theatrical release dates, but some of the best entries in the festival are among the least heralded, including the Japanese comedy Hospitalité, and the French coming of age tale Belle Epine. Accordingly, the focus of reviews here will be on the good - and the not so good - in New Directors/New Films selections currently lacking U.S. distribution.
Sixteen-year old Prudence is a rebel with a cause—her mother died sixteen days ago. She is left alone in the family home, with a father away on business and an older sister finding solace with a boyfriend. Prudence, still in shock, can do whatever she likes. She uses her liberty to begin going to the Rungis circuit, a motorcycle racing course on the outskirts of Paris, frequented by rowdy delinquents. Inviting bad girl Marilyne to her house, they throw a party packed with older guys drinking beer. An awkwardly sensual film that brims with nervous adolescent sexuality, Belle Épine relies on the intense presence of rising star Léa Seydoux, who, with her elongated eyelids and defiant jawline, can look boyish and seductive, ferocious and tender. She has a hypnotic visual magnetism, and allows Prudence’s emotional struggle to make sense even with a minimum of dialogue and expression.
Short, impressionistic, and free of narrative fireworks, the film follows an intuitive path, and is set in no specific time but recalling the late 70s. Lingering on small details like wallpaper, stacks of records, and unkempt hair, the film is like a William Eggleston photo in motion. Colors are saturated and resonant, as when Prudence rides on the back of a motorcycle at night, bathed in blue light, the camera picking out her red high heels.
Sheltered Prudence is fascinated by the dangerous life the kids who hang around Rungis lead, as racers fly off of their bikes on sharp turns. Their group has the exciting allure of being entirely different than anything encountered in her protective Jewish family circle. In a shot that recalls Kenneth Anger’s fetishistic biker-themed Scorpio Rising, the boys, in black leather jackets and tight jeans, form a provocative tableau as they work on their motorcycles. They’re a 50s style of bad boy, with vices that include sitting around in diners drinking Coca Cola, and getting tattoos of deceased sisters.
An intensely female story, Belle Épine is comfortable with physicality. Beginning with the opening scene, nearly all the girls disrobe in the film, but their exposure does more than emphasize their encroaching physical maturity. It reveals the vulnerability that lies behind their defensive and sullen posturing. Zlotowski doesn’t have the leering, Pretty Baby gaze of an aging director; here, the fleeting glory of young bodies is tinged with a sense of waste and sadness.
Prudence seems to be living in a liminal netherworld. Her mother (played by Seydoux’s real mother, Valérie Schlumberger) appears to her in a way that manages to avoid the preciousness of magical realism. When Prudence apologizes to her mother for not realizing she was dying, her mother tells her “young girls should not concern themselves with such things.” Colette wrote in her Claudine series, “There is always a moment in the life of young persons when dying is just as normal and seductive to them as living.” Belle Épine traces the arc of this youthful fascination with mortality accompanied by a failure to comprehend its gravity. When the moment passes, Prudence realizes she doesn’t need to pursue death, or even concern herself with it.