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Berlinale 2008: "Le Premier venu" (Doillon, France)

Jacques Doillon arrests a strange, almost uncanny kind of intimacy from his new film.
Le Premier venu

Above: Costa (Gérald Thomassin) gazes off into the distance and sees mystery.

Jacques Doillon arrests a strange, almost uncanny kind of intimacy from his new film, the almost-masterpiece Le Premier venu (Just Anybody). A drama made up of confused, uncertain characters—perhaps ones confusedly written—dogging after one another, pacing around, confronting and then turning their backs against one another, they present themselves and their preoccupations and refuse to compromise. Not very often has so much intensity and self-possession come through just letting actors throb inside and out, absorbing their characters into themselves. With such secure, almost mysterious characters each prowling around one another, pursuing their own oblique ends, and with Doillon’s fantastic arrangement of mise-en-scène, it is no wonder the first director I thought of while watching the picture was Jacques Rivette.

The scenario, spread over four days, goes something like this: Costa (Gérald Thomassin) and Camille (Clémentine Beaugrand) have an ungainly relationship, awkwardly built on complicit affection, but fundamentally unclear and undefined on nearly every level, be it from the of sexuality, their lopsided devotion, and intimacy (a potential rape is continually alluded to), to something as clear and simple what one thinks of or sees in the other. Yet Doillon, with his long takes and expressive compositions, blocking his actors with hung heads thinking and considering themselves, builds from these often frustrating question marks—inconsistent or mysterious, call them what you will—a space of solemn self-possession and frustrated interaction that has a tone so unusual and evocative it really has to be seen to be believed.

Doillon’s DV photography—giving the look a transparent kind of intimacy, a closeness not to characters but to their consideration, their thoughtfulness—and the utterly remarkable performances by his actors make even a long take of Costa and Camille compulsively pacing around each other on a beach in total incommunication thrillingly expressive of the flummoxed impasse at which these two have arrived. Complicating matters is the introduction of a local cop, Cyril (Guillaume Saurrel) the same age as Costa, who takes an unusual interest in the couple. Like the other two characters, Cyril is both sore on and sore at the others, and his obsession is not well defined, but like the way the mysteriousness of the connection between Camille and Costa makes their intimacy all the more alluring and compelling, so does Cyril’s vague motivations make him all the more threatening. Just so—the tenderness, devotion, and almost bi-polar moods that flow through Costa and Camille are far from rational, and whether one embraces Doillon’s constructions as human may rely on how much the audience can invest in their peculiar emotional sensibilities.

But, coming back to the exemplary and the masterful (or, perhaps, feeding the flaws back into the film to find their power, meaning, and feeling), Doillon gazes with a raw kind of wonder at the wholeness of his actors, and their steady sense of themselves, the way the director can stand back and see behavior so inexplicable but done so completely, with such interior consistency (and none on the exterior), that simply the so-called “dance” of these people around their hinderences is a bitter, but rich and incredibly beautiful expressive experience.

Le Premier venu is the kind of film where you learn how the characters walk, become familiar with their glances, habits, and gestures, an invitation for the audience to share a certain kind of knowledge and emotional tenor—rather than a conventional or even satisfying psychological understanding—with these fictional characters and their fictional world. It creates a belief in them and their inner vitality, and from that belief comes meaning and feelings, however abstract. Jacques Doillon may be criticized for the irrational aspects of his new film, but its greatest and rare joy comes from the invisible lines of thought and feeling that connect its solemn, whole characters, characters who are consumed by themselves, what to do with these selves, and how to relate these interior thoughts to those around them.

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