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Cherchez les femmes

By PETER KEOUGH  |  July 1, 2008

That’s just one of the surprises in a film that takes the commonplace notion of appearances versus realities to uncommon places. Starting with cyberspace, which is where Nat (Marie Burgun), a scrawny 14-year-old, connects via Webcam with Simon (Mathieu Amalric, the hardest-working man in French cinema). His “trip,” as Nat puts it, is wearing a diaper and calling her “Princess.” Meanwhile, Nat’s stepfather, Michel (Pascal Bongard), broadcasts images of their loving “normal” family life on the Internet, with one of the site’s biggest fans being Nat’s biological father — himself not what he seems. When an unpleasant confrontation erases Simon from Nat’s favorites list, she resumes an on-line role-playing game with Adrien (Hadrien Bouvier), who lies terminally ill in an isolation ward. With its offputting subject matter, its jarring handheld photography, and its garish but washed-out palette, 57,000 KM entre nous resembles Michael Haneke at his most misanthropic, until innocence and tenderness prevail in the film’s biggest surprise of all.

Catherine Breillat also surprises with UNE VIEILLE MAÎTRESSE|THE LAST MISTRESS (July 19 at 8 pm), an adaptation of Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s 19th-century novel and perhaps her first film that doesn’t transform sex and cinema into punishment. Maybe the period setting makes the difference, or the unwitting comedy of casting the buffoonish Asia Argento as La Vellini, a notorious courtesan in post-Napoleonic France. Adorned with gaudy mantillas and piled-up coiffures and puffing on a cigar, she’s kind of a cross between Goya’s Naked Maja and Carmen Miranda. No wonder jaded nobleman Ryno (petal-lipped boy toy Fu’ad Ait Aattou) can’t resist, even when their liaison threatens his marriage with the icy, rich Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). (Maîtresse is like Jacques Rivette’s Ne touchez pas la hache|The Duchess of Langeais remade as softcore S&M porn.) “Good old Vellini,” Ryno chuckles as she slashes his face and licks his blood off the blade. Good old Breillat.

Neither is Breillat the only veteran represented here (though she’s the only female veteran). What would a year in French cinema be without a film from Claude Chabrol? His LA FILLE COUPÉE EN DEUX|A GIRL CUT IN TWO (July 18 at 8 pm) is a reminder of the role women usually play in Gallic moviedom when they’re not behind the camera. Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier) makes a fetching eyeful as she does the weather reports on a provincial TV station, an attraction not lost on crapulous roué Charles Saint-Denis (François Berléand), famous novelist and habitué of the inevitable local S&M club. Rich-boy pervert Paul Gaudens (Benoît Magimel) also wants a piece of the action, so of course Gabrielle gets badly used (what does she see in these guys?), though in his typically sardonic manner Chabrol accords her rueful vindication.

Chabrol, it seems, can grind out these perverse entertainments at will, but some of the other festival entries suggest it’s not as easy as it looks. Actor Guillaume Canet’s NE LE DIS À PERSONNE|TELL NO ONE (July 13 at 3 pm; July 26 at 1 pm) shows why not many filmmakers other than Chabrol can get away with imitating Hitchcock. And in Claude Miller’s artless UN SECRET|A SECRET (July 17 at 8 pm; July 30 at 3 pm), a neurotic psychologist (Mathieu Amalric de nouveau!) has flashbacks to his childhood, flashbacks in which his parents have their own flashbacks to the Nazi occupation. Très gauche!

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