Crimes and Punishment By Gerald Peary

in 50th San Francisco International Film Festival

by Gerald Peary

Under the shadow, perhaps, of Agnes Varda’s classic, Vagabond? Two French films played in the FIPRESCI competition at the San Francisco Film Festival, both directed by women, both about an alluring adolescent lost in her soul, wandering unhappily about in the Gallic countryside. The first, Claire Simon’s On Fire (Ca Brule), is set in the Var region of Southern France. The more effective film, Jeanne Waltz’ A Parting Shot (Pas Douce), situated in a small mountain town on the French-Swiss border, won our FIPRESCI prize for “Best Emerging Film.” Our citation described it as “a well-executed, meticulously controlled story of a young woman in trouble.”

The lesser picture, On Fire, concerns an aimless 15-year-old, Livia (sultry Camille Varenne). She’s caught somewhere in the separation between her agriculture worker dad and her newly lesbian British yuppie mother, who has taken up with a voluptuous French woman. Livia doesn’t have much to say about being squeezed by her estranged parents. Is she jealous of her mother’s new love? Bored with her stifling rural life, she rides a black stallion between villages. She’s a Lady Godiva in tight-blue-jeans, provoking the local Arab boys with her sullen good looks, yet having no interest in giving them a tumble.

But one day, she falls off her horse on a road, and is awakened from unconsciousness by Jean (Gilbert Melki), a dark and handsome fireman. Imagining him a Prince Charming, Livia is smitten by a feverish desire. She follows with longing in Jean’s tracks, even though she knows nothing of his life. When she discovers he’s married with a child, she schemes to become his babysitter. Then she scurries to the local fire station, where she queries Jean’s co-workers. Maybe she can be hired on to work alongside of him?

It occurs to neither Livia nor the filmmaker, Simon, that Jean, the object of Livia’s obsession, is a pretty dull, very ordinary guy. Livia’s chasing of him gets extremely tedious, as the movie plods on and on, 111 minutes in all. Still, there’s potential for a wild ending as salvation, but Simon botches it. Livia starts a fire in the woods which quickly spreads out of control. In the middle of it, she realizes that if she wanders into the most dangerous area, she can get Jean’s attention. That’s her solipsist view of the damage: to hell with the animals, the trees, the ravaged environment!

Should we expect a finale of perverse, amoral, l’amour fou? Fucking among the flames? Alas, not from Claire Simon, who denies any surrealist inclinations to give us a flat, plodding, made-for-TV movie ending. Some consolation: the fire ignited is a good one.Outside of Hollywood: grand special effects!

Whereas On Fire is sprawling, undisciplined, annoyingly overlong, A Parting Shot is a tight, properly tuned, 84 minutes. That’s all we need for the young nurse, “Fred” to move from a life of seething anger, melancholy, loneliness, and to return, convincingly, to the human race. Filmmaker Waltz is blessed with the radiant Isild Le Besco in the lead as Fred, who plunges herself into the deep unhappiness of her character. The scenes are minimal, but we are buried persuasively in Fred’s depression.

Her father sneers at her when they meet. Apparently, he with his rifle had a mission for her which she failed to accomplish: to devote herself to being a champion female marksman. Her ex-boyfriend is vague with her, until he blurts out that he’s moved past her, has a new woman in his life. Fred, who still wants him, is devastated. She tries to save face by insisting she’s moving to another town. Instead, she wanders somnolent around her own environment, disinterested in her work as a nurse, and showing her self-hate by sleeping at once with two pickups from a local bar.

Finally, Fred has one solid thought: suicide. A strange thing happens. As she is about to shoot herself in the woods, she turns her rifle on another. Below her on a pathway, she sees a nasty, hateful schoolboy aiming a slingshot at another lad and wounding his companion’s eye. Horrified, Fred fires a bullet into the boy’s leg. And runs off. The scene above sets up, perhaps a bit too predictably, the next chapter of A Parting Shot. Cut to the hospital, where Fred is assigned to be the recovering boy’s nurse. He’s angry too, maybe even more than she, at his divorced parents, especially his mother, who has moved to another country. Slowly, slowly, they bond, though the boy (Steven de Almeida) doesn’t realize she was the mysterious person who shot him. This is a rather new French film, which premiered at this years’s Berlin Film Festival, so I won’t give away the ending. I can say that it’s an exhilarating finish, and owes something essential, I believe, to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

The filmmaker, Jeanne Waltz, spoke after the San Francisco screening, and was asked about directing the many scenes at the hospital between Le Besco and the youngster, de Almeida. “He was 14 or 15 at the time, she was just 22,” Waltz said. “They were very different. Isild has been an actress for maybe ten years, with lots of experience. I found him through a newspaper ad. Paradoxically, because he was terribly insecure, he acted more like ‘the professional,’ wanting to practice and practice everything. Isild is, by choice, not a great technician. She doesn’t want to rehearse, she doesn’t really want to know the words of the text, she just wants to jump into it.” The only exception for Le Besco was that she really needed to learn how to shoot a rifle. “She was very good at it,” said Waltz. “It was a heavy gun, with a lot of recoil. But from the very beginning, she hit the target.”