ART AND INDUSTRY
By Amy Taubin on May 23, 2006
MoMA’s “Prix Jean Vigo” series traffics in the some of the biggest names in foreign-film history. So who is Xavier Beauvois?
With foreign theatrical film distribution in the U.S. on its way to oblivion (the dismemberment of Wellspring by the Weinstein Company, which kept the DVD distribution division for its own tawdry product and tossed the theatrical division in the trash, is the latest small but lethal cut), almost all foreign-language art-film exhibition is in the hands of festivals, mini-festivals, and various series devised or sponsored by museums and repertory theaters. J. Hoberman has a rule that only films screened at least three times in New York are eligible for his best-of-the-year list in The Village Voice. Pretty soon he won’t have any films to choose from, or for that matter, a paper to write for (the Voice is going down the tubes as fast as the culture it once supported). Thus, the only thing for a dedicated art-film lover to do these days is peruse monthly film calendars and obsessively make schedules, because most of the great contemporary foreign-language films will turn up on big screens only once or twice, if that. The other route is to pool resources with friends and shop online for foreign DVDs. (Multi-region DVD players sell for less than $100.)
One series well worth following is MoMA’s “Prix Jean Vigo,” which began in February and continues through December 2006. A project of MoMA’s Jytte Jensen and Prix Jean Vigo jury member Véronique Godard, the series comprises a selection of about 40 French features and shorts that have won the Vigo prize since its inception in 1951. The prize is usually given early in a filmmaker’s career and is awarded to “filmmakers whose work demonstrates an intuitive comprehension and mastery of the cinematic medium,” criteria very different from those that inform the French Cesars or the U.S. Independent Spirit Awards. In any event, the Vigo prizewinners are a remarkably eclectic bunch. Many have gone on to make brilliant careers: Godard, Chabrol, Sembène, Marker, Resnais, Pialat, Desplechin, Assayas, and Garrel, whose ethereal, perverse love story L’Enfant Secret (82) led off the MOMA series last month, along with Xavier Beauvois’s even more remarkable Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die (95). Some, such as Laurent Cantet, Alain Guiraudie, Cédric Kahn, and Noémie Lvovsky, are off to promising starts, and some simply have not had the recognition in the U.S. that they deserve. Among this last group is William Klein—still best known for his fashion photography, although his filmmaking spans three decades. Among his strongest films are the documentary Muhammad Ali, the Greatest and the surrealist fashion industry send-up Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (65), which screens on March 9 and 11. If you didn’t catch it at the Klein retro a few years ago, and you have a taste for wacky Sixties time capsules, seize this opportunity. You’re unlikely to get another.
Just as unlikely to be seen on this side of the Atlantic again is Beauvois’s Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die, which for this writer was a revelation since I’d never been more than lukewarm on any of his other films. But his new Le Petit Lieutenant, showing March 17, 18, and 19 in the “Rendezvous with French Cinema” series at the Walter Reade, is a tough, spare policier with a great performance by Nathalie Baye, but its narrative structure doesn’t have the amazing narrative turns of the earlier film.
Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die concerns an art-history graduate student (played by Beauvois himself) who freaks out when he receives his army draft notice. His attempts to win a medical discharge by pretending to be a gay drug addict are laughable, and finding himself condemned to spending 10 months in a barracks with men whose lives could not be further from the sheltered middle-class existence of his friends and family, he slits his wrists. This failed suicide attempt sends him to an army hospital where routine blood tests reveal that he is HIV-positive. Discharged and even more freaked out (the film is set in 1992, before cocktail medications made living decades with HIV possible) he tries to steal his own car from the garage where it’s impounded and lands in a jail cell with an Algerian drug dealer, who becomes his new best friend when he introduces him to “Helene and Catherine” (heroin and coke to you). Using his middle-class veneer and the cool that comes to some who live with the knowledge of their own mortality, our protagonist does a big drug deal and takes off for Italy where he finds Baudelairian beauty (“luxe, calme, et volupté”) in the Umbrian landscape, Piero della Francesca’s paintings, and Chiara Mastroianni. But with a not-so-chance visit to the local train station, he’s drawn back to drugs and taking a darker route to fulfillment, winds up in the former Yugoslavia where he enlists with a militia, and dies in battle. Thus, in the space of a few months, this young man lives out everything he feared and desired in fantasy. Beauvois pulls off something more difficult than an existential fable. He gives every frame of Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die the sensory immediacy and ambivalence of real life.