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Family Life/La pirate

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In its latest act of trail blazing, the Film Center is offering the first U.S. retrospective devoted to Jacques Doillon, a post-New Wave French director whose singular movies have received next to no attention here. Emotionally unbridled and extreme in their depictions of passion and familial tensions, they are not for every taste, but it's hard to think of many other films like them. La pirate (1984), probably the wildest in the bunch, centers on the amour fou of an anguished lesbian couple (Jane Birkin and Maruschka Detmers) reigniting their affair, with the former's husband (perversely played by Birkin's brother), a mysterious little girl, and an eccentric friend named Number Five (Philippe Leotard) all in tow. Family Life (1985), which begins with a comparable amount of screaming and thrashing around, eventually settles down into a quieter study--this time of a broken family and the efforts of an estranged father (Sami Frey) to establish rapport with his ten-year-old daughter (Maro Goyet) during an extended car trip to Spain. Aiming for the intensity of a Racinian tragedy, La pirate sticks so closely to the hothouse atmosphere generated by its five characters that we're made to feel like intruders on a cryptic, brutal psychodrama; the more naturalistic Family Life allows us and the characters to breathe more freely, but a sense of emotional impasse is equally present. Doillon's characters display at times the volatility of John Cassavetes's and the impulsiveness of Bertrand Blier's; his theme of children absorbing and redirecting the violence of their elders recalls Claude Chabrol; and his uses of indirect means of communication--go-betweens in La pirate, a video camera in Family Life--suggest the broken dialogues in films by Wim Wenders. But Doillon's way with actors is all his own, and his sense of pain is no less distinctive. (Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson; Family Life: Friday, November 13, 6:00, and Sunday, November 15, 8:00; La pirate: Saturday, November 14, 8:00, and Sunday, November 15, 6:00; 443-3737)

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