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This week also marks the start of Doc Films's three-month tribute to Jacques Doillon, a French writer-director who's made 35 features (and received steady acclaim from French critics) since the early 70s but has been perennially overlooked in the United States. (It's the first Chicago retrospective of his work since 1987, which happened to be the first of its kind in this country.) The closest he came to making a splash in the U.S. was in 1997, when his feature Ponette opened in general release. That film, which begins the series on Monday at 7 PM, centers on one of the most astonishing feats of characterization in contemporary movies. Victoire Thivisol was only four years old when the movie was shot, yet her performance is not only naturalistic, but psychologically nuanced. Thivisol plays a little girl coming to terms with her mother's death, and Doillon worked with her for six months so that they could develop the character on her terms. Patrick Z. McGavin wrote at length about the process in a superb essay for the Reader, which I strongly recommend even if you don't plan on checking out this revival. (For further reading on Doillon, check out this piece by critic and filmmaker Dan Sallitt and these excerpts from Gilles Deleuze's Cinema 2: The Time-Image.)
Ponette showcases two of Doillon's most celebrated qualities: his uncommon facility with untrained child performers (most of the films in this series, in fact, revolve around children) and his care in depicting complex psychological states. "He is fascinated by human nature in all its contradictions and can't fathom reducing it to a set of rigidly defined traits," writes Doc programmer Ivan Albertson, who organized the series with the help of the France Chicago Center, the Institut Francais, and the French Embassy of the United States (which should give you an idea of how difficult it is to bring prints of Doillon's films to this country). He continues:
His films view love as a unifying force fraught with conflict and tragedy. In this sense he resembles a more Oedipal, understated John Cassavetes, an influence he acknowledges. They share a compassion for troubled characters with a particular focus on the ramifications of love. . . . To avoid distraction from the drama, Doillon uses anonymous, confined locations that function primarily as psychological spaces. Even his exteriors have a claustrophobic quality to them. Establishing and traditional shots are notably absent, conflating disparate areas and enabling characters to suddenly appear in a scene.
This lack of context has allowed Doillon to take an evenhanded approach to characters in conflict. The Hussy (1979), which screens on January 26, is a "disarmingly tender kidnapping fable" (per Albertson) about the relationship between a 12-year-old girl and the mentally ill man who locks her in his parents' attic. Raja (2003), playing February 23, grants equal sympathy to a middle-aged French bachelor (Pascal Greggory) and the Moroccan gardener with whom he falls in love. "Because I failed high school, I have always been on the fringe," Fred Camper quotes the director as saying in his Reader capsule for Petit Frères (1999), which plays on February 16. Albertson also explained to me in a recent e-mail that Doillon grew up in a working-class, Protestant background, which the director claims to have inspired his disregard for "superfluous detail."
One of the most distinctive things about Doillon might be the way he blurs the distinctions between outsider and professional filmmaking—his accomplished work with actors has inspired comparisons with such great directors as Cassavetes and Bergman, while his confined, nonjudgmental perspective evokes home movies. In my list of my favorite movies of 2014, I noted that one of the most encouraging trends in independent filmmaking is the repurposing of—and elaboration on—devices traditionally associated with home movies. Doillon seems to have anticipated this trend decades ago, making him a worthy subject of study today.