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Of Two Minds 

Only a week ago I was reflecting in this space on Sidewalks of New York and its daisy chain of love affairs among contemporary New Yorkers. So now if we hop on the Concorde, we can get to France in time for Va Savoir, this week's look at the same story among contemporary Parisians.

Va Savoir was directed by Jacques Rivette who -- like his contemporaries Truffaut, Resnais, Godard and Chabrol -- began his career as a critic at the seminally influential Cahiers du Cinema. The film is bright and supremely literary. The characters suffer from the predictable existential angst all the while they worry about understanding Heidegger and whether or not Carlo Goldoni authored a play that was never published.

The narrative involves intertwined romantic complications among six people. Camille (Jeanne Balibar) is an accomplished actress who has been working in Italy for the last three years. But she's just returned to Paris to star in a play, directed by and co-starring her Italian lover, Ugo (Sergio Castellitto). Shortly after arriving, Camille looks up her old boyfriend, Pierre (Jacques Bonaffe), a philosophy professor still struggling with the same book he was writing when last they saw each other. Pierre is now married to the ravishingly beautiful Sonia (Marianne Basler), a ballet teacher who also reads, edits and assists with Pierre's book. Upon their reacquaintance, Pierre declares that he's completely over his relationship with Camille, but we will discover that he isn't, and though we haven't a clue why, Camille obviously isn't over Pierre either.

Ugo seems the perfect partner for Camille. They share their work and a mutual regard for one another's talent. Moreover, Ugo seems emotionally suited to deal with Camille's moody personality. He knows how to give her space; they even sleep in different rooms. Nonetheless, Ugo is European, and he still has an eye for lovely females. So while Camille mopes about in conflict over Pierre, Ugo engages in a sexy flirtation with Dominque (Helene de Fougerolles), a saucy blonde graduate student who volunteers to help him on a research project. I'm not sure we're supposed to, but at the outset, because their depressive personalities seem to deserve each other, we hope Camille and Pierre will reattach. That way Ugo can rebound to Dominque, who seems much the livelier companion. Alas, Dominque proves flighty, too. And more distressingly, she has an uncomfortable physical intimacy with her grifter half brother Arthur (Bruno Todeschini). The last time I checked, touching your sibling the way Arthur does Dominque is generally frowned upon. Meanwhile, to complete the circle, when Arthur isn't nuzzling his sister, he's making out with Sonia. The film doesn't begin to make clear how Sonia and Arthur know each other, but we do learn that Sonia once spent nine months in jail. So perhaps they got acquainted in the slammer.

Not a whole lot happens in Va Savoir as it often doesn't in French comedies. Everybody is looking two ways at once, like a bored grocery shopper with only a faint appetite, pawing the produce while stifling a yawn. Do I want this zucchini or do I want that one? Or do I want zucchini at all? Mostly the characters talk and talk some more. Eventually, Rivette and his script collaborators Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent try to spice things up a bit when Pierre becomes ever so un-Pierre-like and locks Camille in a storeroom. If Woody Allen had made this movie, Pierre would have put Camille into a hypnotic trance by talking to her endlessly about Weltanschuang and Zeitgeist. Here, with considerably less imagination and a lot less humor, he just strong arms her. Her subsequent escape by climbing out a skylight probably has some symbolic significance, but I couldn't figure it out.

The two other instances of plot fizz, neither of which rings true, come when Arthur steals Sonia's ring, a souvenir of her days as a bad girl, and when Ugo challenges Pierre to a duel. The latter event involves the two men chugging liter bottles of vodka while standing on a plank of stage scaffolding 40 feet in the air. I guess the premise is that at least the loser gets to die happy when he goes toppling to his doom. As Arte Johnson remarked a time or two on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, "Very interesting, but not very funny." Which is how I'd summarize the whole picture. The film is at its best in scenes of great subtlety, like the one in which Ugo skewers Pierre with a comment so stealthy the victim doesn't even know he's been humiliated. In sum, Va Savoir is a movie for very select audiences. Americans like decisive action and big laughs. The French are attracted to stasis and the arched eyebrow. Va Savoir recalls anything by Eric Rohmer, or outside the French oeuvre, for instance, Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, which I mean as a compliment -- and not.

click to enlarge Camille (Jeanne Balibar) and Ugo (Sergio Castellitto) seem perfect for each other in Va Savoir.
  • Camille (Jeanne Balibar) and Ugo (Sergio Castellitto) seem perfect for each other in Va Savoir.


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