Film-Forward Review: [CHANGING TIMES]

Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video

Catherine Deneuve as Cécile
Photo: Koch Lorber

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Directed by: André Téchiné.
Produced by: Paulo Branco.
Written by: André Téchiné, Laurent Guyot & Pascal Bonitzer.
Director of Photography: Julien Hirsch.
Edited by: Martine Giordano.
Music by: Juliette Garrigues.
Released by: Koch Lorber.
Language: French & Arabic with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: France. 98 min. Not Rated.
With: Catherine Deneuve, Gérard Depardieu, Gilbert Melki, Lubna Azabal, Malik Zidi & Nadem Rachati.
DVD Features: Interview with Gilbert Melki. Trailer.

At an extremely awkward family reunion, the gangling red-headed Sami (Malik Zidi) introduces his mother, Cécile, to his girlfriend, Nadia, and her shy nine-year-old son (fathered by another man) without warning. The mother puts on a hospitable face, but her son still matter-of-factly diagnosis her as being cold. Because Cécile is played by regal ice queen Catherine Deneuve, he’s on target.

Her costar Gérard Depardieu, however, offers a change of pace from his most recent roles seen here in the U.S. (Nathalie and Bon Voyage) as the vulnerable and bumbling Antoine, a successful engineer made humble in his pursuit of his long lost love, Cécile. He has maneuvered to work in Tangiers in order to be near her, but he has to settle for hearing her voice over the radio. She adamantly insists they have no future, tossing him out of her radio station and his red roses in the wastebasket. On the home front, frosty Cécile remains at odds with her younger husband, Sami’s father, Nathan (Gilbert Melki). Their dialogue consists solely of putdowns and confrontations. In terms of suspense there is none; she would have to be happier with her old fling, Antoine. The question is why have she and the soft-spoken Nathan remained married.

Returning home to Tangiers is an opportunity for her son, Sami, to reunite with his former boyfriend Bilal (Nadem Rachati). For all of these interconnected characters, announced intentions take the place of character details: Bilal declares he wants only respect, and he diagnoses Sami, who is half-French and half-Moroccan, as being confused about his identity. Meanwhile, Nadia knows fully well where Sami goes at night. She’s more concerned with getting her fix of tranquilizers. Instead of imposing on Cécile, she was hoping to stay with her twin sister, the religiously devout Aicha, who offers excuse after excuse not to see her sister. The film verges dangerously close to camp as Lubna Azabal plays both the jittery westernized junkie Nadia and Aicha. (Not even Aicha wearing a head scarf is enough to distinguish the sisters.) The distracting dual casting proves only a few actors, like Jeremy Irons, can truly pull such a performance off.

There are occasional reminders of the world outside this international tax free zone – immigrants on their way to Europe, news of the war in Iraq – but they function mainly as a backdrop. The focus is on the personal entanglements, but the drama is written too understatedly so that emotions remain at a simmer. When characters do take action, it is left off screen, and what is revealed through the dialogue doesn’t fill in the gaps of the underdeveloped relationships, which are too neatly resolved, in two of the drama's storylines, by the end. And director André Téchiné is asking a lot from the audience in believing that two, in particular, contrasting characters have a future together. Only in Hollywood, or Tangiers. Kent Turner
July 14, 2006

DVD Extras: Watching the DVD may allow you to figure out if this is mostly a heavy-handed political allegory about French involvement in North Africa or really two star turns by top-notch actors Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, who almost convince us of the triumph of love.

As in Téchiné’s Strayed and Alice and Martin, love doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is set within family and history. Here it is tangled in issues of French colonialism and its responsibility for the problems of North Africa. Almost everyone is torn in half by internal and external pressures from across the water, in France, and the past. The younger generation particularly seems to represent issues rather than real people, so much so that it was with palpable relief for this viewer when Nathan finally grabbed his son, Sami, by the scruff of the neck and demanded he take responsibility for his actions. The Muslim sisters, Aicha and Nadia, are literally torn asunder into extreme twins, one hounded by her neighbors as not being observant enough, and the other by the French police for her drug addiction.

But just as the theatrical trailer, included on the DVD, pretty much only focuses on the storyline of the former lovers played by Deneuve and Depardieu, you can use the scene selections to zap through the exasperating ancillary characters and settle on a middle-aged love story between two intelligent individuals, even if they have an adolescent idea of true love. Deneuve’s harried character is more sympathetic than many of her ice queen roles. She’s being pushed out her DJ job due to her age and language; her family belittles her career; her husband’s been having affairs; and her son blames her for the problems in his very complicated love life. The film also has several lovely selections by Benin-born and Paris-based singer Angélique Kidjo. The subtitles are always legible, but some of the English translation choices are a bit awkward.

The 18-minute interview with Gilbert Melki, who plays Deneuve’s very sexy husband, covers his interpretation of his role, with insights that are not, unfortunately, actually evident in the film. (Were we supposed to know he’s Jewish just because his character’s name is Nathan?) He also offers some details of working with Téchiné, such as the director’s attention to the written script, even when scenes were penned at the last minute. Nora Lee Mandel
October 3, 2006



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