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Pushing the Borderline

AFS Essential Cinema: Auteurs Sans Frontières

By Kimberley Jones, June 3, 2011, Screens

"I have a strange feeling. I feel like I'm not alone – like I'm not alone in the world."

– The Double Life of Veronique

In the Austin Film Society's latest series in cross-cultural studies, Auteurs Sans Frontières: Directors Without Borders, there is the expressed common theme of filmmakers traveling to foreign lands to make movies. But the commonality goes deeper: So many of the films hook into the idea of otherness, then question and confound that premise.

To wit: A Spanish film crew journeys to Bolivia for the cheap labor in Even the Rain, only to have the easy us-and-them delineation between the Spanish "invaders" and the Andean locals blurred by violent protest. A white woman in civil war-ravaged Africa doggedly refuses to leave her adopted homeland, even as she's branded "white material" in the same-titled film. A French woman expatriated to Tuscany and a traveling British author cross paths in Certified Copy, only to have the nature of their relationship enigmatically slide from that of strangers to intimates in the course of a day. These are films that begin with sharp borders that blear almost instantly in what is certainly a reflection of their gnarled ancestry. (In Even the Rain, they include Spanish director Icíar Bollaín, an Indian-born Scottish screenwriter, and a Bolivian cast of hundreds; in White Material, there is French filmmaker Claire Denis, returning to the French colonial landscape of her childhood; and in Certified Copy, exiled Iranian Abbas Kiarostami, corralling multinationals in the service of something like a postcard romance.)

Of all the films playing in the AFS series, The Double Life of Veronique, from late, great Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski (the Three Colors trilogy), baffles the distinction between, well, our differences. It begins with a Krakow-set interlude as a choral student named Weronika (played by the luminous, fleshly Irène Jacob) gets her first career break only to be felled by a heart condition midconcert. Kie´slowski then shifts the action to Paris and to Veronique (also played by Jacob), a music teacher sunk by an inexplicable grief. Inexplicable to her, at least – the audience understands that she is subconsciously mourning her spiritual and physical, if not biological, twin. The movie is at once bewildering and intoxicating (even as one smirks at certain behaviors – stalking, for instance – that can only be gotten away with in a French film). Even with the central (if oversimplified) everything-is-connected philosophy, Kie´slowski intriguingly tends to present the double Veronicas from behind windows and scrims or in a projected image, as if to remind us, always, of an inescapable distance.

And on the subject of French behaviors: If the midlevel hoods named Jo and Tony and Teddy who populate Rififi weren't speaking le Français, you'd swear this was all-American noir. The Connecticut-born first-generation son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, director Jules Dassin was spit out of Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee machine and wound up in France circa 1953. Two years later, he made Rififi (and co-starred as an Italian scamp named Cesar le Milanais). The film, a prototype for the heist picture, is most famous for its 35-minute-long, entirely wordless robbery sequence, but it's the final reel that proves most gut-clutchingly tense as our nominal hero, a hardened criminal who undresses his ex-girl without lifting a finger then whips her with his belt (wait, maybe this is a French film ...), tries to stay conscious long enough to return a kidnapped child to his mother. The child, I should point out, is decked out in cowboy hat and with a tiny holster – a kid playing at being cowboy in a mirror of a French production playing at being a U.S.-grade film noir, and succeeding but good.

The quite recent Farewell, which screened in Austin theatres last summer, comfortably fits the mold of another classic genre: the spy movie. Set in Mother Russia at the tail end of Communist rule, Farewell pairs seeming opposites: a French engineer stationed in the USSR (played by French filmmaker of Tell No One, Guillaume Canet) and a company-man member of Soviet intelligence who leaks secrets abroad in an effort to clean house (played by Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica). The film suffers from some inelegant metaphors (a literal tightrope, the Borg-McEnroe rivalry), and its English-language stretches are just plain buffoony, but when it limits its scope to the two men – the accidental French spy and the Soviet traitor-patriot sitting on a park bench and talking over their marital problems – Farewell achieves a sort of universal-language lyricism.

If these films are, at least in part, about finding connection in unlikely places, Marcel Camus' French-funded, Brazil-shot Black Orpheus certainly fits the bill. In its opening moments, the lovely Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), a country girl, arrives in the big city for Carnaval. The audience is as disoriented as she is by colorful, percussive Rio de Janeiro, but as soon as she sets eyes on the charmer Orfeu (Breno Mello), she's a goner. Eurydice and Orfeu, who start on opposite ends, mellow their way into a center harmony – he grows more serious and steadfast; she lightens up about maintaining her, er, virtue. But Camus hasn't just inserted on a lark the recurring image of a bird in a cage. It's manifest again with Eurydice holding the bars of a wall of bamboo before she gives herself to Orfeu, and tragically culminates, cage be gone, with a helpless Eurydice perched like a bird on a high electrical wire. Raucous and deeply romantic, Black Orpheus makes a compelling case that love knows no bounds, but it can't put up a fight against another fundamental truth: that everyone dies alone.

Auteurs Sans Frontières: Directors Without Borders

The AFS series runs Tuesdays at 7pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South (1120 S. Lamar). Tickets are free for AFS members and $8 for the general public. For more info, see www.austinfilm.org.

June 7: White Material (D: Claire Denis, France/Cameroon, 2009)

June 14: Rififi (D: Jules Dassin, France, 1955)

June 21: Farewell (D: Christian Carion, France, 2009)

June 28: Black Orpheus (D: Marcel Camus, France/Brazil, 1959)

July 5: Even the Rain (D: Icíar Bollaín, Spain/France/Mexico/Bolivia, 2011)

July 12: Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno (D: Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea, France, 2009/1964)

July 19: The Double Life of Veronique (D: Krzysztof Kieslowski, France/Poland, 1991)

July 26: Certified Copy (D: Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium, 2010)

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