Movie Review - French twist

High celebrates contemporary French films with stellar series

A superb collection of Gallic films featuring some of the cinema's most important voices make the High Museum's "French Film Today" program of four films one of the best series yet offered by curator Linda Dubler.

Rififi (April 27), a contemporary of Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur (1955) in grit and attitude and a great granddaddy to American retro-criminel pieces like Reservoir Dogs, is a vintage heist picture from 1954. Two-fisted Hollywood expat Jules Dassin (Brute Force, The Naked City), who fled to Europe after being pegged a pinko during the House Un-American Activities Committee debacle, brings his flair for criminal cool to the streets of Paris.

The crooks in Rififi break into a jewelry store with an alarm so sound-sensitive that every act, from the drilling to the burglar-creeping, must be performed with a diamond-cutter's cool. In addition to its petal-soft thieving, Rififi's other novelty is its fatalistically hard-boiled attitude established in an early scene where crime boss Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) forces his philandering former girlfriend to undress before he gives her a vengeful beating — as close to a graphic rape as audiences of the time could expect. Paris has never looked so scurvy and base as it does in this hurly-burly crime drama thick with hopheads and sex-for-sale nightclubs.

Stalwart French director Bertrand Tavernier ('Round Midnight) revisits his more socially committed filmmaking and indulges his sentimental side in It All Starts Today (April 20), a heartbreaking film that often feels like a call to arms as much as engaging reality-based storytelling. In this far more sophisticated and heartfelt answer to the American school dayz cornpone of Mr. Holland's Opus, Daniel (Philippe Torreton) is the director of a kindergarten in an economically depressed former coal mining town where he sees the devastating effects of unemployment, abuse, alcoholism, hopelessness and neglect on the region's schoolchildren.

Presented as poverty's ultimate victims, children are the tragic prisoners of the system and Daniel — himself a victim of childhood abuse — their impassioned freedom fighter. Tavernier's film shows a rare sensitivity to the human toll behind social policy, and thus indicts a Communist mayor who cuts funding for children's lunches and holds the parents accountable for the harm that's done. Tavernier has a social activist's anger and a poet's heart in It All Starts Today (a title that speaks to the film's message that children are the building blocks of our society), saving his most devastating, moving observations for the latter.

Part of Tavernier's aim is to show how clearly children thrive with the kind of affection Daniel lavishes upon his students, and how damaged and hopeless they become without it. As if sensing that material this depressing and true to life requires some respite, Tavernier ends the film on an uplifting note. But the portrait he presents, of a society crumbling at its foundations and a generation whose most basic needs are not being met, is often wrenching to see, even dramatized. Tavernier's moving film shows how the world is unfortunately becoming global and interconnected in its experience of social decay.

Another bit of social commentary of a more lighthearted sort, about people who honor the credo "waste not, want not," Agnes Varda's documentary The Gleaners and I (April 28) examines the peasant tradition illustrated in Jean-Francois Millet's 1857 painting "Les Glaneuses" of salvaging the remains of a harvest. Varda looks at individuals who not only continue this endeavor, collecting discarded, less than grocery-store perfect potatoes for the poor, but also more modern equivalents of the rural gleaner, like Parisian trash pickers and a remarkable, eccentric scholar who forages for his breakfast, lunch and dinner amongst the leavings at a Paris farmer's market.

Varda's is a remarkably creative, intellectual and quirky approach to the subject, surveying gleaning as a literal, but also an intellectual endeavor in which her style of filmmaking is also a process of "gleaning." This shrewd, quiet little film is dedicated to people who dwell on the fringes of society and make a noble life out of what others would deem scraps. The Gleaners and I is an ultimately radical, personal film about a more solitary world, where today's gleaner gleans alone.

And finally, what would a French film series be without a dose of the country's other notorious cultural currency: erotica. But erotica of a wholly different stripe. Beau Travail (April 21), the filmic equivalent of heatstroke, leaves one dizzy and unsure if what one has seen is actual or some desire-induced mirage.

Based on Herman Melville's Billy Budd, the film centers on a group of Foreign Legion soldiers stationed in Djibouti who exercise, spar, dance and mingle with a taint of eros always in the air. The obstacle courses are grueling, the African sun relentless, but there is also a blissful camaraderie amongst the men. They snorkel in a seafoam ocean and their exercises are reminiscent of the ritualistic warrior dances of the Maori. There's is a forgotten world of men on the knife's edge between hell and paradise, where their affection for each other is allowed to thrive.

But amidst this often intoxicating parade of male-on-male flesh lies a rotten rivalry, like the serpent that interfered in paradise. The unit's Sgt. Galoup (Denis Lavant) is a short, acne-scarred powerhouse with G.I. Joe's stamina and Judas' ethics who develops an intense dislike for the guileless, likable new recruit Gilles Sentain (Gregoire Colin). Denis never completely explains (beyond the sudden attention Galoup's hero and commander Forestier shows for the boy) what lies at the heart of Galoup's growing hatred for the kid: jealousy? A warped form of love? Some unspoken homosexual desire? An inexplicable, sadistic black mood?

Beau Travail is a beautifully realized, unshakable, indescribably moody portrait of male companionship, as a kind of Eden of bonding that requires uniforms, discipline, sadism and hardship to exist. Sexual tension never comes to some fruition but only festers in Beau Travail, unleashed in bizarre moments of male-upon-male intimacy or the solitary, frenzied dancing of Galoup in an African discotheque at the film's conclusion. Like all of the films in "French Film Today," it is also absolutely not to be missed.

"French Film Today" screenings will be held at 8 p.m. at the High Museum's Rich Auditorium, 1280 Peachtree St. Call 404-733-HIGH.??