Cinefile: An audience disengages

Amos Gitai's botched film manages to make even beautiful Juliette Binoche look unattractive.

October 4, 2007 13:37
3 minute read.
Cinefile: An audience disengages

Marceau Lambert 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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There was actually a red carpet at the opening of the 23rd Haifa International Film Festival last week, and two movie stars - Sophie Marceau and Christopher Lambert - paraded across it to get to the auditorium. Images of the couple arriving were projected onto a screen and the audience clapped as actress/director Marceau, stunning in a simple black dress, and her co-star and life partner Lambert took their seats. The atmosphere was genuinely festive as President Shimon Peres arrived and received a standing ovation. Director Jiri Menzel, a soft-spoken man who was a leader of the Czech New Wave in the Sixties, was given a lifetime achievement award. He spoke briefly, saying, "I am a happy man." Israeli actor/director Salim Daw, best known for his performances in Avanti Popolo and, more recently, James' Journey to Jerusalem, accepted an award for Special Contribution to Israeli Cinema. Danish director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) was in the audience as a member of the Israeli feature films and dramas jury. Finally, Amos Gitai, director of the evening's opening film, Disengagement, was introduced. Gitai, born and raised in Haifa, spoke of how he decided to switch from his first career choice, architecture, to filmmaking after his experiences in the Yom Kippur War. "So I am an Israeli director after all," he said, referring to a recent Israeli television report that said he should not be considered Israeli since his films are received so much more warmly abroad (particularly in France) than at home. Liron Levo, one of the stars of Disengagement, was in the audience, but the film's international star, Oscar winner Juliette Binoche, was not in attendance. Gitai then introduced a video message from legendary French actress Jeanne Moreau, who has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it part in the film. She spoke glowingly of how she had hoped for years to work with Gitai and praised him for "what he's done for this country." And then the movie began. The walkouts started after about 10 minutes and continued throughout the screening. I don't think anyone was offended by this story of an Israeli son (Liron Levo) of a French father, and his half-sister (Juliette Binoche), who go to the Gaza Strip during the disengagement in 2005 to track down the daughter she gave up for adoption more than 20 years ago. Watching the film, it seemed long ago that the withdrawal from Gaza was a hotly debated issue which topped the national agenda. It's to the director's credit, though, that he tempered the knee-jerk leftism that has characterized many of his films and showed the protesting settlers in a sympathetic light, particularly the character of Binoche's daughter, played by Dana Ivgy. Of course, there is a scene in which Binoche wanders close to a fence and is treated to a tirade by a peaceful Palestinian protestor who makes cryptic remarks such as, "You will never know what you don't know" and not-so-cryptic ones like, "You bear the arms and we bear the blood." What inspired the walkouts, I suspect, was not the politics but the fact that the film was put together so sloppily that every scene was filled with grating missteps. The lovely Binoche was almost unattractive as a shrewish woman who shrieks, complains incessantly about her estranged husband and flashes her half-brother, trying to seduce him. The early part of the film, set in the Paris apartment where their father has just died, seemed like outtakes from an ill-conceived attempt to remake Jean Cocteau's story of a borderline incestuous brother-sister relationship, Les Enfants Terrible. The clumsy exposition comes so late that there were many incomprehensible scenes, such as one in which the Levo character sleeps in a basement crowded with people who appear to be foreign workers. Isn't there a spare bedroom in his wealthy late father's apartment? Is he trying to show his solidarity with the oppressed? It's impossible to know, and the audience members who stayed to the end clearly didn't care. They stampeded out to the reception, instead of staying to see Gitai introduce the cast and say a few words (no one was going to miss a fried mushroom or a glass of wine for that). Organizers at the film festivals in Toronto (where his film was in the Masters section along with movies by such directors as Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol) and Venice chose to present this mess of a film, which held so little interest for the audience most knowledgeable about its political background, in their very competitive programs. Go figure.

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