Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
CANNES, FRANCE — One of many enticements to attend the Cannes Film Festival is the opportunity to bask in the presence of living legends. Today, Directors' Fortnight brought us documentarian Marcel Ophüls ("The Sorrow and the Pity"), who appeared at the Théâtre Croisette to present his new memoir film, "Ain't Misbehavin (Un Voyageur)." It's not exactly a full-fledged movie — more of a scattered reminiscence, frequently carried on the strength of its subject's personality and the personalities of the famous figures he encountered.
Despite being the son of master director Max Ophüls, the younger Ophüls credits François Truffaut with helping to launch his career as a filmmaker. In "Ain't Misbehavin," he recalls how Truffaut made him promise to write his memoirs. But at a Q&A following the screening, the genial 85-year-old (pictured) confessed to having a "terrible fear in front of the white page." He noted that as he got older, it somehow seemed easier to make a documentary than to assemble an autobiography.
"Ain't Misbehavin" is a generally engaging (if unstructured) series of anecdotes from a man who lived in Germany, California, and France, and whose sensibility as a filmmaker has been marked both by a love of the Golden Age of Hollywood (from the Marx Brothers to Billy Wilder) and a relentless insistence on reckoning with the horrors of war and genocide.
The dishy Tinseltown anecdotes are what's most fun about the film. Ophüls recalls being invited to Preston Sturges's house, where the egotistical screwball director would insist on screening "The Great McGinty" for an audience that had seen it multiple times. Ophüls remembers getting advice from "Bert Brecht" and having lunch in New York with "Uncle Otto" (Preminger, that is), who discussed his affection for striptease legend Gypsy Rose Lee but didn't talk about any of his movies.
Offering interesting perspective on his father's work ("La Ronde" was shot in six weeks to keep food on the table; the Robert Ryan character in the underseen noir "Caught" was intended as a jab at Howard Hughes), Ophüls is bearish on his own oeuvre. Of his acclaim from critics, he wonders, "Were they always being sincere, or just being nice to Ophüls's son?" The documentary maker was paid perhaps his most famous tribute by Woody Allen, who featured "The Sorrow and the Pity" prominently in "Annie Hall." In "Ain't Misbehavin," Ophüls reads a letter from Allen extolling "Sorrow" as an exemplar of film artistry. The moment may be self-indulgent, but there are times when indulgence can feel earned.
The last feature from Clio Barnard, the experimental documentary "The Arbor," was also a reminiscence of sorts. Its boldest conceptual gambit was the unusual way in which it fused documentary and reenactment, melding audio testimony from people who knew and worked with the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar to scenes of actors lip-synching their words.
Very, very loosely inspired by Oscar Wilde's short story of the same title, "The Selfish Giant" shares its industrial, impoverished Northern English milieu with "The Arbor," but not much else. A decidedly more commercial effort, the movie on occasions even feints at combining its muckraking with something mildly inspirational, in the manner of Ken Loach's recent "The Angels' Share." (When one of the two child protagonists reveals a talent for wrangling horses, you can be forgiven for expecting a big race at the end.)
Expelled from school, Arbor (compelling newcomer Conner Chapman) and his friend Swifty (Shaun Thomas) turn to the brutish and ironically named Kitten (Sean Gilder), who recruits them for a local racket that involves salvaging scrap metal and copper cable. Given this unflaggingly gray movie's almost tactile atmosphere of decay, neglect, and brutality — Kitten's rough manner with the boys will have you recoiling in horror — there's little chance this can turn out well. Exceedingly well-crafted, the movie sticks disappointingly close to kitchen-sink conventions. One jolt near the end aside, there's little here that matches the formal adventurousness of "The Arbor."
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