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Featured DVD Review: The French Art of Seduction

May 11th, 2011

The French Art of Seduction - Buy from Amazon

The French Art of Seduction is a four-disc box set from First Run Features featuring four films from France about...well given the name you would think they are about romance, or at least sex. We'll see.

La Vie Promise, a.k.a. The Promised Life, a.k.a. Ghost River

Isabelle Huppert stars as Sylvia, a French prostitute, but this is not the usual movie prostitute with a heart of gold just trying to do what it takes to look after her daughter, Laurence (played by Maud Forget from Frontière(s). No, she's a rather nasty woman who seems annoyed that she has to give her daughter food. When Sylvia's pimp demands money and gets rough doing so, Laurence stabs him and the two go on the run. But before they get to the destination Sylvia has chosen for the pair, they get into a fight and split up.

Afterward, Sylvia starts looking for her younger son and the family she left behind, while Laurence meets a car thief who helps her try to find her mother.

The film features some strong performances from the leads, but it too bleak to be as engaging as it needs to be. It's hard to care for Sylvia and her plight, which is mostly trying to recover from self-inflicted wounds. The performances by the three lead actors makes it worth watching, but the rest of the movie doesn't live up to the acting.

The Extras

There are no extras on this DVD. In fact, the film's not even anamorphic widescreen.

La Petite Lili

The film starts with a family vacationing in the French countryside. The head of this family is Mordo (Nicole Garcia), an aging movie star, who is with her lover, Brice (Bernard Giraudeau), a famous director. Her son, Julien (Robinson Stévenin), wants to follow in Brice's footsteps and is preparing to show his first film. The family includes Simon, Mordo's brother and Julien's uncle, who does his best to act curmudgeonly and complain to whoever will listen. Also along for the vacation is Julien's lover, Lili, who wants to be an actress and sees Julien as her ticket to fame. She even stars in his avant-garde film he is planning to show to his family. The family is staying in a rented cottage and the daughter of the caretakers, Jeanne-Marie, is central to their day-to-day life. She's an admirer of Julien's work as well as a convenient target of Uncle Simon's complaints, but she takes it in stride.

When the screening of the film doesn't go well Julien is dejected, and even worse, Mordo and Lili don't even understand why he's taking it so hard. Only Jeanne-Marie understands what the film means to him. His reaction drives Lili away, and into the arms of Brice, much to the horror of both Julien and his mother.

We then cut to several years later and Lili is a successful actress and Julien is a successful director. His latest film is based on the events of that summer several years ago, with some of the real-life people playing the parts based on them. Lili is looking to get a part in the film, but how will their reunion play out? And how will it effect Julien's marriage to Jeanne-Marie?

La Petite Lili is more compelling to watch than the first film, with characters that are far more appealing, although we don't get to know them well enough. The acting is excellent while writer / director Claude Miller does enough new with the Anton Chekov play, The Seagul, to feel like a new story while still being recognizable as an adaptation. That's a hard balancing act to maintain.

The Extras

There are a couple text based interviews, a text-based bio of the director, and an image gallery.

The Disenchanted

Judith Godreche plays Beth, a 17-year old French girl on the verge of graduating high school. She lives with her bed-ridden mother and her much younger brother. They live in poverty and are dependent on money from their "Uncle" they call Sugardad. Her boyfriend, whom she refers to as Whatshisname, is cruel to her and her life is essentially one trial after another. The film starts with Whatshisname staring at Beth as she sleeps, but not in a romantic way, in a super creepy way. When she awakes, they have an argument that ends when he tells her to sleep with someone ugly to test whether or not she truly loves him. Her mother later prostitutes her to Sugardad for money. Whatshisname beats her up after she and her friend paint his picture with the word "Bastard" on his building.

At this point in the box set, I'm beginning to wonder if "Seduction" means something different in France. You watch the film waiting for a glimmer of hope in Beth's life. Judith Godreche is able to give a strong enough performance to make you want to continue watching. And I don't just mean strong and in high quality, but she gives Beth an underlying strength necessary to get through the ordeals. A weak central performance would have made the film unbearable, almost exploitative.

The Extras

This DVD has no extras and the film is in non-anamorphic widescreen.

Seaside, a.k.a., Bord de Mer, a.k.a., Pebbles

The film is set in a resort town in France where every summer tourists flock to the beaches. Maybe "flock" is too strong a word. As the French title suggests, the beach isn't covered in white sands, but is filled with pebbles, making it a decidedly second-tier vacation spot. The film centers on Marie (Helene Fillieres), a full-time resident of the town who works at the pebble sorting factory, which is the town's biggest employer during the off season. (Although after recent financial trouble it was bought out.) Her boyfriend, Paul (Jonathan Zaccai), works as a lifeguard during tourist season and packs groceries the rest of the time.

The film opens in summer and Paul and Marie bump into one of the regular tourists, Pierre (Jauris Casanova), who grew up in the small town, and his girlfriend Lilas (Audrey Bonnet). Pierre and Marie used to be an item, but he left to go to Paris and is now a famous fashion photographer. Paul is jealous because he gets to hang around models. Marie is jealous because he got out of town. That is something she desperately wants to do, but her options are limited. Her relationship with Paul is going nowhere, and when Paul's mother, Rose (Bulle Ogier), has to move in with them (she lost her house to her gambling addiction) it just gets worse. Her boss, Albert (Patrick Lizana), seems interested in her, but she doesn't want to go that route. At least not at first. Plus, it wouldn't be the first time a pebble sorter married the boss, as Albert's mother, Odette (Liliane Rovere), was also a sorter before she married her boss. When Odette was working the line, she was working with Rose. Odette wants to help Rose with her money situation, but Rose refuses to talk to her at first. Just one more complicated relationship is a town full of them.

It's a crowded film full of small moments, but ones that add up to something bigger than just the sum of their parts. Uniformly strong performances bring fully fleshed-out characters to life and we get to sit back and observe without worrying about the movie waltzing into soap opera territory.

The Extras

The only extras are a biography, director's notes, and an image gallery, but at least the movie is in proper widescreen.

The Verdict

For a box set called The French Art of Seduction, there's not a lot of sensuality. La Vie Promise is about a highly dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that gets a chance to finally heal after they are forced on the run. La Petite Lili is about a tortured artist and the relationship with his muse. The Disenchanted is a coming-of-age story about a girl trying to escape poverty and a unfit mother. Finally, Seaside is a year in the life of a failing resort town and the inter-interconnected lives of the people who live there. All four films are worth checking out, while I would argue Seaside is the best, but it is a close tie with La Petite Lili. The extras are nearly non-existent, while the price is a third less than buying the films separately.

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Filed under: Video Review, La vie promise, La petite Lili, Bord de Mer