Another week, another solid French movie hits Chicago | Bleader

Another week, another solid French movie hits Chicago

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Guillaume Canet, right, stars in A Better Life.
  • Guillaume Canet, right, stars in A Better Life.
For the past few weeks I've felt as if I've discovered a significant French filmmaker every time I've turned my head. This feeling derives in part from the recent Chicago runs of Philippe Garrel's A Burning Hot Summer and Benoît Jacquot's Farewell, My Queen (which I wrote about on Friday); the Music Box Theatre's upcoming French film series is another factor. Screening in this series are A Better Life and 38 Witnesses, whose accomplished directors—Cédric Kahn and Lucas Belvaux, respectively—have even less of an American following than Garrel or Jacquot. Both filmmakers belong to a generation of actor-directors that became active around the early 1990s and who often act in each other's movies. This loose-knit group would also include Xavier Beauvois (who directed Of Gods and Men and Le Petit Lieutenant and acted for Garrel and Jacquot, among others), Noémie Lvovsky (who appears in two films in the Music Box series, 17 Girls and Guilty, along with Farewell, My Queen), and Guillaume Canet (who stars in Better Life and directed Tell No One).

The team spirit recalls that of the early French New Wave movies, but the similarities would seem to end there. In my exposure to their work (which is, I'll admit, minimal; none of Lvovsky's directorial efforts are available here, nor are many of Kahn's), I haven't detected a singular authorial style comparable to Godard's or Rivette's. The films owe as much to mainstream filmmaking as to art movies: they tend to center, unsurprisingly, on strong performances and straight-ahead storytelling. (Indeed, Belvaux's major work, The Trilogy, is a series of three genre exercises featuring the same characters.) Their formal confidence emerges in subtler ways—consistently thoughtful compositions, unpredictable leaps forward in narrative time, casual frankness about working life and sex.

A Better Life displays all of these virtues and tells a solid story to boot. It's the sort of unblemished good movie that would approach greatness if not for its inherent modesty. Yann, the hero played by Canet, is a relatable everyman, a former foster child working as a short-order cook and aspiring to move up in society. He meets the right woman—a gorgeous single mom (Leila Bekhti, of A Prophet) who's also had her share of trouble—and decides that she's the one with whom he can take on the world. The first 20 minutes relates their low-budget, illusion-free courtship, and this passage would make a fine little film in its own right—a tale of compromised happiness that recalls some of Raymond Carver's short fiction (or Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels, a high-water mark for this type of realist French cinema). The remainder of Better Life concerns the couple's losing battle with adult life. They try to open a bed and breakfast, but find themselves drowning in debts before they can even open the place. Eventually, the mother leaves for Canada because she's offered a decent-paying job that could help ease the financial burden.

Leila Bekhti and director Cedric Kahn
  • Leila Bekhti and director Cedric Kahn
Kahn is perceptive to how small businesses work and to how they're undone. A visit from the fire inspector is an unexpectedly suspenseful scene, as is the couple's loan application process. A series of installations will cost 20,000 euros more than what the bank will give them: do they cut corners or borrow money through less reputable sources? The drama accumulates through facts and figures, until they overwhelm the characters entirely. Kahn's camerawork is fleet and unobtrusive, the better to take in these details as they emerge. It also allows for fluid shifts in tone—a hallmark of films by Kahn as well as Beauvois and Jacquot. Despite the melodramatic arc of its story, A Better Life is filled with moments of levity. There's a wonderful scene in a nightclub about halfway into the film. At this point, Yann has lost just about everything—his money, his prospective business, his woman—and to make matters more difficult, he has to take care of a nine-year-old boy whose mother's in Canada. For a few minutes of the movie, he drinks, dances, and fucks with believable abandon, as he has little left to lose.

What fascinates me about Kahn's film is how it always seems to be catching up with its story, rather than parceling it out from above. Implicit in this strategy is the assertion that real life is just as compelling as movies—a position that would seem to run counter to expectations of both escapism and high art. This might explain why Kahn (or, for that matter, Jacquot, who's more psychological in his approach but no less self-effacing in his style) remains so little-known here. You can't categorize life into a marketable genre.

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