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Free Radicals: Serge Bozon and the New French Cinema

Back in February, Dmitry Martov and Larysa Smirnova spoke with Serge Bozon and Pascale Bodet about, among many other things, Beaubourg: la dernière major!, a series of presentations they staged at the Centre Pompidou in November looking back on 100 years of French cinema. Now, as Bozon arrives in New York for a gaggle of events — Free Radicals: Serge Bozon and the New French Cinema, a series of screenings beginning tonight at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and running through Monday, a panel discussion on Friday and Serge Bozon Presents, an evening of three films at Anthology Film Archives — there's an eagerness to draw parallels between this New French Cinema and the New Wave that broke in the late 50s and early 60s. Just as Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer, Chabrol and all had begun writing criticism for Cahiers du cinéma before picking up a camera, so, too, are these "Free Radicals" associated to varying degrees with La letter du cinéma, a magazine with a relatively brief run from 1997 to 2005, and, as Scott Foundas argues in Film Comment, they "have since gone on to create a series of films as highly original and formally innovative as any of the more celebrated 'new' national cinemas (Argentina, Romania, South Korea) that have dominated the conversation over the last decade."

Such comparisons can be taken only so far, for all the obvious reasons, and new New Waves have supposedly been cited in France in recent years; they tend to subside. Foundas: "In the case of Bozon and company, however, the 'New Wave' analogy is arguably more apt, not only because they are a group of cinephile critics turned filmmakers, but because their work has been produced and distributed completely outside of the French studio system, under the auspices of a few maverick producers (in particular David Thion and Philippe Martin of the company Les Films Pelléas), and in at least one case (Jean-Charles Fitoussi's 2008 magnum opus Je ne suis pas morte) entirely self-financed."

Cinespect's Ryan Wells interviews Bozon and Miriam Bale, "a New York-based critic and programmer who was heavily involved in coordinating Bozon's visit and program," who tells him, "The Lettre du cinéma group is not another 'New Wave' but rather directly related to the original French New Wave. These are critic-filmmakers, most obviously, but they also have a very similar relationship to classic films, to classic American films especially, as those original Young Turks. Serge's group is bringing films back to a simplicity, primacy and strangeness, also a group dynamic (in production and theme) of classic film that was lost, a little, with French directors since the 70s and 80s."

"Almost all of the 13 titles in Walter Reade's celebration of these cinephile writers–turned-auteurs are receiving their New York premieres," notes Melissa Anderson in the Voice. "Free Radicals serves as a much-needed corrective to the increasingly staid, mediocre fare the Film Society fetes every year in its high-profile Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, which, with one exception, has overlooked all the movies in this series. Made in a collective spirit, nearly every film in the retrospective features a performance by tireless multi-hyphenate Serge Bozon, a writer-director-actor (and DJ; he's spinning at the Walter Reade's Furman Gallery this Friday and Sunday night)… Though it never had a proper theatrical release in the US, Bozon's La France is the best known of the titles in Free Radicals; this singular war movie/musical hybrid was the revelation of the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes in 2007, where it premiered. Written by frequent Bozon collaborator Axelle Ropert, the former editor-in-chief of La lettre du cinéma, La France unfolds as a drama about the horrors, loneliness, and camaraderie of World War I, in which soldiers intermittently break out into delirious song. Picking up their handmade string instruments, made from tin cans and other everyday detritus, the fighters croon creamy, harmonious ditties (written by Bozon) that suggest outtakes from Pet Sounds and other mid-60s pop manna while lamenting the folly of nationalism. (La France was beautifully lensed by another influential Bozon: Céline, Serge's sister, the cinematographer for many of the films in the program)."

James van Maanen considers La France, Bozon's second feature, Mods (2002, image above), Axelle Ropert's The Wolberg Family (2009) and her 44-minute Étoile violette (2005) and, for the Washington Square News, Rose Marie Walano has brief takes on films by Jean-Paul Civeyrac, Pierre Léon and Jean-Charles Fitoussi. In the New York Times, Mike Hale chooses to highlight Mods, "in which two soldiers from the provinces are summoned to a university to help their brother, who has lapsed into a catatonic state for unknown reasons. Confronted by the mysteries of liberal academia and the irritants of intellectual posturing, they discover that the brother they considered a weakling was a hero in his own realm, not to mention a prodigious lady killer. As in La France, the slightly surreal goings-on are punctuated by pop songs, in this case American garage-rock numbers from the mid-1960s."

Update: Miriam Bale at Fandor: "'I've seen Objective Burma! only once (like all the movies I know) years ago, so I've sometimes got the feeling that I almost dreamed it and finally woke up by directing La France.' That's how French critic/director Serge Bozon describes the influence of Raoul Walsh's haunting, consummate WWII film on his own  2007 WWI musical. In the peculiarly French tradition of critic-as-auteur, Bozon created a film, made of equal parts precision and dreaminess, that illuminates the grammar of the war film genre. It maps a terrain somewhere between the hopeless wandering of a Walsh and the peculiar non-sequitur banter of a Fuller. Bozon explores the rules of this genre's game in the same way that Godard and Rivette had done in previous decades for the musical, the noir, the pirate film."

Update, 4/15: Miriam Bale not only interviews Bozon for Moving Image Source but also gets him to put together "a 'mixtape' with YouTube clips for The L, on a theme of his choice. Not surprisingly, he concentrated on the overlap of rock and performance."

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