September 8, 2006

Catching Up With Cornell Cinema

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Parlez-vouz francais? No matter, both of these French films — representing opposite poles of French sensibility — have subtitles in English. Futuristic action flick District B13 will be showing on Sept. 7-10 and the 13th. Russian Dolls is playing on Sept. 1-3 and 8-9.

District B13 (2004)
District B13 opens by informing us through blinking green, CIA-copyrighted typescript that the story takes place in 2010, when the government has constructed walls around “high-risk projects” in the banlieues of Paris as “crime spirals out of control.” (Who knew Paris could be so badass?) Crime boss Taha (Bibi Naceri) and his cronies, led by pit-bullish K-2 (Tony D’Amario), rule the roost in B13, pedaling in, what else, drugs and arms. The government has forsaken B13, having given up on education years ago and just recently closing the last police station, leaving the innocents at the mercy of the crime lords.

B13 resident and veritable babyface Leito (David Belle) is fed up with the tyranny of Taha and his gang, and he feels betrayed by the French government. When his sister Lola (Dany Verissimo) gets kidnapped by K-2 in retaliation for his having stolen and destroyed cocaine from Taha, well, the shit hits the fan, and some skulls are going to get bashed. Later, he teams up with a play-it-by-the-rules cop, Damien (Cyril Raffaelli), who is sent on one last mission: Deactivate the bomb that Taha had stolen from the French government, which will explode on District B13 in 24 hours. I hate it when that happens.

The movie is virtually a platform for the showcasing of Belle and Raffaelli’s parkour skills, of which Belle is the founder, and a platform for virtual butt-kicking. Truly, District B13 is nothing more than a Double Dragon-esque video game with some neat stunts highlighted by funky techno beats.

Sure, Damien spews some robotic political babble about liberty and the law, but, come on, who are they kidding? The fight scenes are a little too stylized and the ending hopelessly pat, but still, if you go to see it, you may be able to beat my score of a measly 10,000 spin kicks.

Russian Dolls (2005)
It is not often that a film deals in such a manner and manipulates the viewer so that he or she is forced — even if subconsciously — to re-examine and question something so basic that it’s like a state of nature. But I believe that Russian Dolls does just that — and I left the film with new thoughts about the idea of happiness.

Still, happiness may not be the subject for Mary, and if it is for Tom, he may have felt the opposite as I. And that’s the beauty of Russian Dolls — it’s fluid and mineralized enough to have an invisible value that works its magic only in the hidden processes of our being.

Russian Dolls is the follow-up to the 2002 film L’auberge Espagnole, by the same director (Cédric Klapisch) and featuring the same cast. I’d like to see the first one but haven’t, and I don’t think it’s necessary in order to enjoy Russian Dolls. This film follows the fortunes of 30-year-old bachelor Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris) — an aspiring writer who shifts from one dead-end gig to another. He’s frustrated with his career and his fledgling romances, and when it seems he’s finally settled on someone who can make him happy, something (usually him) invariably botches it up.

The film features French, Russian, English, Spanish and a little bit of German, and its moods and characters are just as varied. At once whimsical and plaintive, callow and wise, the film stirs up its people and places with the virtuosity of Fellini. Duris and his beaus (among them, the indispensable Audrey Tautou) are so engaging and interesting in their own ways that you never really feel stretched or puttied by their sometimes ridiculous actions and situations.

Most importantly, the film always maintains a sense of truth to it. I think the highest mark of a film is when you can see some part of yourself in it, and Russian Dolls, through sadness and farce, the quotidian and the bizarre, captures us all.