As is his wont, Rivette can't get enough of prosceniums and curtains and the interrelationship of art and theater and real life. But in this case, when it comes to profundity and beauty, the mountain has it all over the artifice, which seems a bit labored, programmatic, and old — sadly so, because some suggest that this film might be the master's last.
But innovative auteurship did not end with the generation of the New Wave. Some of the younger bright lights in French cinema have new films in the festival. François Ozon's HIDEAWAY (2009; July 22 at 8:10 pm + July 24 at 2:40 pm) might not be an actual noir, but visually it's one of the darkest pictures I've seen in a while, with most of the scenes taking place at night, or in sealed rooms with dim blades of light barely cutting the shadows. That's where we first find the unfortunately named Mousse (Isabel Carré), shortly before she ODs on heroin with her boyfriend, Louis (Melvil Poupaud). Only Mousse survives, and she's found to be pregnant with Louis's child. His upper-class family aren't exactly thrilled, but despite the pressure they exert, she decides to keep the baby, and she finds refuge during her pregnancy at the seaside cottage of the title. There, Louis's gay brother Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy) is drawn to visit her, and what follows is an unlikely but genuinely moving affirmation of love and parenthood.
Another difficult woman and another kind of difficult love illuminate and darken Bruno Dumont's HADEWIJCH (2009; July 11 at 7:40 pm + July 17 at 3:30 pm). The title refers to a 13th-century Flemish saint, and it's the name chosen by Céline (newcomer Julie Sokolowski) while she is in a convent — perhaps because her own namesake, the notorious novelist, was such a sinner. Whatever the reason, Céline must abandon the name and the convent, because her love of God is deemed to be too uncompromising by the mother superior — she's in the tradition of mystic, vaguely masochistic female characters that includes Carl Dreyer's Joan, Robert Bresson's Mouchette, and Alain Cavalier's Thérèse. The mother superior hopes that Céline will find opportunities in the outside world to fulfill her passion for Christ, and this Céline does with distressing consequences when she befriends a disaffected Arab boy and his Islamist brother. For the most part wrenchingly convincing in its spirituality, Hadewijch goes astray when it aspires to contrived relevance.
Claire Denis also finds new uses for old material — her recurrent themes of the legacy of colonialism and the intricacy of racial relationships — in WHITE MATERIAL (2009; July 17 at 8:20 pm), the title of which refers both to the cheap metal substituted for gold and to the French property owners in an unnamed African country convulsed by civil war. Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert) is a coffee-plantation owner determined not to lose her crop (not unlike Huppert's equally monomaniacal colonialist in Rithy Panh's 2008 film The Sea Wall). Stranded on the roadside like Kate in Around a Small Mountain, she gets a lift from strangers — in this case a busload of refugees fleeing the conflict. From there, events unfold kaleidoscopically in flashback and flashforward, mirroring the ongoing chaos, as Denis builds tension, pathos, and irony (it's more like a traditional horror story than her creepy 2001 vampire film, Trouble Every Day) in this allegory of the continent's tragic past and the present-day consequences.