La Vie Privée

Unknowable Fragments

July 17, 2007By Nick HammondFilm

One of the magical things about Paris is that you can step into the only cinema where a new French film is showing and discover a gem. I remember a few years ago a film, directed by Olivier Jahan, called Faites Comme si Je n’Etais pas Là (Pretend I’m Not Here), whose title prompted the ticket seller to pointedly ignore me when I asked for a ticket, to her great amusement. The film was a delight, but it disappeared after only two weeks in one cinema, never to be seen again.

La Vie Privée (a very loose adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Private Life) is also showing in only one cinema (the Saint-André-des-Arts) and seemed promising. Directed by Zina Modiano (novelist Patrick Modiano’s daughter), it concerns a young man who joins a group of mysterious people in a house in “le pays noir.” Some of the characters retain the names of the Henry James original, notably the master of the house, Mellifont, played with scene-stealing relish by Darry Cowl (he died soon after making the film).

The main message of the film would seem to be how unknowable people are; some of the characters remain as opaque at the end as they were at the beginning of the film, while others refer to the childhood of the central character, understatedly played by Ouassini Embarek, which he himself cannot remember. Others still (like Mellifont) disappear and reappear at will.

Many of the actors are subtle and engaging, and there are some beautifully composed shots of the countryside and the interior of the house, but overall the film simply does not hang together. It is too fragmented, too uncertain to be genuinely experimental (Modiano plays with various technical tricks, like fading characters out of the image, but lacks the necessary boldness to make it effective).

With a proper budget (this film was visibly made on a shoestring), Modiano may well make more successful films in the future, but in the meantime it is still worth seeking out those small films that make cinema-going in Paris such a unique experience.

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