If Beale Street Could Talk
Jenkins’ decision to let the original storyteller live and breathe throughout If Beale Street Can Talk is a wise one.
CANNES, FRANCE—Navigating alterna-Cannes is no simple proposition. Torn between the opening-night films of Directors' Fortnight and Critics' Week, I opted for the latter, using two shaky premises. First, because Critics' Week was taking a risk by kicking off its program with an unknown 168-minute feature, the movie had to be something special. Second, because of the running time, relatively few people would bother going. That meant the prospect of being on the vanguard should the picture turn out to be a secret masterpiece. Plus I'd heard good things about the director's previous film, "Donoma."
Djinn Carrenard's "FLA" neither tried my patience nor completely rewarded it. The title stands for "faire l'amour" ("to make love")—a bit of a tease, since the film consists almost exclusively of talking. A far-removed, mood-swing-prone cousin of "The Mother and the Whore," it's a film of free-wheeling digressions and endless arguments. It centers on two lovers in France: a flight attendant, Laure (Laurette Lalande), and an aspiring rap musician, Oussmane (actual rapper Azu), who's just entered into a recording deal but at the same time suffers a hearing loss. About a third of the way through this nearly three-hour film, Laure's sister, Kahina (Maha), a convict who has a child in foster care, returns home. Her sudden presence in the house threatens to cause Laure and Oussmane's relationship to combust.
All of this makes the movie sound far more straightforward than it is, but in fact it's built out of long chunks of conversations, with little apparent narrative shape. It even opens abruptly, sans credits, as Oussmane discusses his contract before visiting Laure in the hospital, where she's about to procure an abortion. Individual scenes are assembled oddly, alternating standard shots with masked ones that create a contact-sheet effect. Although the film could clearly stand to be edited down to a less unwieldy running time, there's no shortage of cutting; the rapid-fire montage, and Carrenard's habit of eliding expected payoffs, gives the film a bouncy, Godardian vibe. A smeary, messy palette—the credits suggest the film was shot with several different cameras—churns through varied levels of color saturation. (In a sense, "FLA" is more of a true impressionist project than another Cannes title, Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner"—a biopic that finds Leigh less interested in the techniques that made J.M.W. Turner a revolutionary painter than in the type of bullish personality that would allow a man to depart from accepted standards without fear or shame.)
A late revelation clarifies Oussmane's past while at the same time abruptly changing the focus of the film. "FLA" doesn't hang together—the same arguments seem to happen over and over, the tangents (Kahina and Oussmane take a trip to Paris) feel like garden-variety meandering, and there's the general sense that Carrenard, who's reportedly self-taught as a filmmaker, is making up both his narrative and his shooting style as he goes along. It's sort of movie in which you can't tell if the director is a hopeless amateur or a gonzo original. But although that can be exasperating, it's just as often energizing, and occasionally—as in a lengthy, vividly shot proposal scene—it can be thrilling.
Down the street from Critics' Week, the Fortnight program honored French New Wave lion Alain Resnais, who died in March, with a screening of his English-language "Providence" (1977), probably the only movie in which John Gielgud is allowed to expound at length about defecation. A wild metafiction in which Dirk Bogarde puts David Warner on trial for killing a werewolf, Ellen Burstyn has a revenge "affair" with the accused (an affair that somehow never seems to involve sleeping with him), and Elaine Stritch turns up as Bogarde's dying mother, it's confounding and disarming even by Resnais standards. Thanks to a phantom football star who appears throughout the film, the festival has its first official trend: imaginary soccer.
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