Thursday, August 18, 2011

Point Blank '10, and what "French Film" means today.

Taking a bit of a break from the Fantasia stuff for something that's currently playing Boston (and expands a bit on Friday, grabbing a screen at the Coolidge along with the Kendall) and is worth seeing: À bout portant, which (somewhat to my surprise), appears to actually literally translate to Point Blank, making me wonder what the 1967 adaptation of The Hunter that starred Lee Marvin is called in France, or if it's not widely enough known there for the ambiguity to be worth mentioning.

(Aside: Point Blank '67 needs to come out on Blu-ray; I love that movie and want to hear Lee Marvin's footsteps echoing around my living room. Besides, that way I could have five versions of that story in five different formats.)

One thing that struck me after watching this movie was that while the French haven't necessarily cornered the market on the mid-budget genre movie, I'm having a hard time thinking of anyone who does it better these days. Hong Kong is right up there, although it's worth noting that when HK's foremost director of films like these, Johnnie To, started looking to expand to a more Western audience, he didn't look to Hollywood - he cast a French star in Vengeance and signed on to a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville classic Le Cercle Rouge. There's Korea, obviously. The UK has Neil Marshall and does good work at a smaller scale, and the Hollywood does the blockbuster better than anybody, but nobody hits the middle ground like France.

Of course, what the UK and USA do well overlaps with France's area of expertise, and "mid-budget" is an amorphous term, so let's put it this way: A human-scale movie with decent production values. It's still something non-specific, but you get the gist, right? Something where the filmmakers are not obviously cutting corners, but not trying to sell spectacle.

Hollywood makes some of these movies, but many of the best have French DNA in them somewhere - Taken and the Transporter movies come from Luc Besson's EuropaCorp, and a fair number of English-language horror films either have French directors or are remakes of French originals. It almost seems as if Hollywood lacks the structure and/or will to make movies that cost twenty million dollars instead of a hundred million, and I'm not sure why - is it fear that five mid-range movies don't get an ambitious executive noticed as much as one big one, or not wanting to open a small action movie the same weekend as a big one? I'm as guilty of digging spectacle as anyone else, so I can see myself passing one of these movies up for a "tentpole", but if you can find enough good scripts, it seems like a good way to limit risk.

France is a smaller country, with a somewhat smaller film industry. Point Blank isn't quite a blockbuster there, but there's a good chance that it was the biggest home-grown film the come out hte week of its release. It's makers seem to know that they're not going to compete with Hollywood releases on scale - there's the occasional Asterix or Brotherhood of the Wolf, but even those aren't Hollywood-big - so they've got to do it on quality. That means making thrillers tight, making horror movies vicious, and making action movies fast.

You'd think that at a smaller scale, the same factors which push American movies toward a bland PG-13 would be in effect, but it doesn't seem to work that way. Maybe they've got American imports for that; there's also a somewhat less puritanical streak that insists everything be suitable for a ten-year-old, and maybe there's less turnover at the cinemas from a week-to-week basis so word of mouth becomes more important than just the opening weekend. When that's the case, "you've got to see this" means more than just getting lots of people in on the basis of a vague trailer and moving them on to the next thing a week later.

I also suspect that the success of Luc Besson internationally has something to do with it. Previous generations of French filmmakers have had the likes of Godard and Truffant as role models, with even genre films tending toward the restrained cool of Chabrol and Melville. They made great movies, but their imitators weren't always quite so good, and even when they were, it led to French film being respected, but not enjoyed viscerally. Besson not only showed that one could make fun action with a reasonable budget and a European sensibility, but wound up mentoring and shepherding young filmmakers (though not, it should be noted, the makers of this film).

No matter what reasons are behind it, there's been a shift in what seeing that a movie hails from France means to the discerning moviegoer. The arty, pretentious stereotype cannot be entirely put away, but the French film industry is now also a reliable source of some of the best (and most uncompromising) crime, action, and horror films in the world.

À bout portant (Point Blank)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 August 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

Point Blank is not a French remake of the classic 1967 John Boorman flick that starred Lee Marvin; that would require being mean down to its very bones, and this one is a shade or two warmer than that - although that's a double edged sword; letting us like these characters means we can get hurt along with them.

Take Samuel Pierret (Gilles Lellouche); he's a good guy: He pampers his pregnant wife Nadia (Elena Anaya), looks the other way when the other nurse's aide is goofing off, and responds quickly when somebody cuts the respirator one of the patients is attached to. He's just arrived home from that eventful day when someone breaks into his house, kidnaps Nadia, and tells him to get the unconscious man, one Hugo Sartet (Roschdy Zem) out of the hospital by noon. That puts him in a heap of a mess, not only from two different groups of criminals, but two competing detectives (Gérard Lanvin and Mireille Perrier).

There's an impressive efficiency to the script by director Fred Cavayé and co-writer Guillaume Lemans; they've got three or four chase scenes in mind and everything in between is meant to get the characters running again. They're not obvious in their intent; they put some work into making sure that actions are almost never motivated by people being unreasonably stupid and there are enough surprises and plot twists to engage the audience's curiosity. Cavayé and company just don't go overboard; they don't give every cop a subplot or delve into the motivations behind the crime that Sartet is fleeing at the start beyond what's satisfactory. Many thrillers will pile masterminds and reversals ever-higher to keep the audience in a state of unbalanced shock; Point Blank prefers to quite literally cut to the chase.

Full review at EFC.

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