A Williams student asks him or herself many questions on a regular basis. For instance, what classes should I take next semester? Should I take a second helping of lemon crusted chicken? Do I go to bed now, or rush off to the Snack Bar to redeem my dinner points? Many of these queries are fleeting and, in the grand scheme of things, of little significance. But one of the most persistent questions a student here can ask is simply this: who are those francophones and francophiles and what are they doing Wednesday evenings in Weston? The answer is simple: they are watching French films. Good French films. With English subtitles.
This past week the selection, made by French TA Benjamin Deslus, was the 1996 film “Un Heros Tres Discret” (in English: “A Self-Made Hero”), the award winner for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. It is the story of young and wide-eyed Albert Dehousse, played by Mathieu Kassovitz (co-star of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s much talked-about 2001 film “Amelie”), during and just after the Second World War. Oblivious to the state of the world throughout most of the war years, his slow realization of the atrocities that have been taking place at times right in his own backyard leads him to desert his home and marriage in hopes of new understanding and a new beginning.
As a beggar on the rainy street one night, Albert starts his life anew. Under the new influence of a suave con artist called only “the Captain,” who teaches him about deception and creation, and a prostitute who teaches him the art of love, he develops the makings of a brand new Albert: war hero, comrade, lover. He begins attending the reunions of a circle of French lieutenants who had been stationed in London in 1945, and by his attentive observing, obsessive research and ever-surprising cunning, he pieces together the lies necessary to fabricate a role for himself among these people. He is so credible and so lovable that all of those around him formulate memories of him that never occurred, turning him into a trusted confidante and eventually assigning him a station in Germany as an actual lieutenant colonel. The deception is a complete success.
Kassovitz is as charming in the role of timid and determined Albert as he was as the quiet, quirky soulmate of AmÃ©lie. He convinces the audience, along with the other characters, that he really is becoming Albert Dehousse, wounded commander and trustworthy supplier of information.
The film relies on a very creative cinematographic vocabulary to add new dimensions to the viewer’s perception of the grand deception taking place. This vocabulary ranges from flashbacks, to private moments between the camera and individual characters, to the use of “recent” documentary footage as characters reminisce on the war years from the present day (in the nineties). A pervasive theme is a camera shot which begins in darkness with string music and then pans the orchestra, like the visual and audible leitmotif for the magic of Dehousse’s grand deception.
The film is held together well both by its winning leading man and its eye-pleasing sequences, but the tour de force is the story itself. There is something irresistible in the concept of a man reinventing himself so convincingly that people start seeing war wounds on his flesh and his face in their memories, and so seamlessly that his deceit will only be unveiled in the end by his own heavy heart.
The French Club, composed of Francophones (French speakers) and Francophiles (lovers of the French language), hosts a film showing once weekly. It is always something different, chosen with the overall intent of providing both a window into French culture and the opportunity to revel in the beauty of the language. Films shown since the beginning of fall semester include “La Rupture,” a disturbing 1970 film by master Claude Chabrol, “Romuald et Juliette,” a delightful comedy from 1991 about love which touches upon issues of race and class in French society, and “Bleu,” a gem of artistry and humanity from the Kieslowski trilogy, starring Juliette Binoche. These examples show on the big screen a small section of the wide array of cinema happening for the enjoyment of francophiles and cinephiles alike.
Films are usually shown at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays in Weston. Information about upcoming showings can be found in the Daily Messages or in Your Daily Art.