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La Vie Nouvelle (Philippe Grandrieux, 2002)

   

    The human body is the most often photographed subject in cinema, so when a director manages to find ways to make it look newly erotic, alien, and exciting, itís tough not to stand up and take notice of the achievement. Set primarily in a derelict Eastern European hotel, La Vie Nouvelle (A New Life), the second feature from French director Philippe Grandrieux aims to approximate a state of mind in which an individualís senses become overwhelmed to the point where they begin blanking out. In pushing his characters to such extremes though sexual, emotional, and chemical means, the director creates a style in which his experimental visual and aural flourishes have as much narrative justification as anything else in the film. By switching film stocks, allowing the cameraís focus to lapse, and putting his camera so close to his actors that it becomes wholly complicit with the cast in delivering the emotion in their performances, Grandrieux creates a tactile, inescapably immediate atmosphere. The grim existence eked out by his cast in a busted economy seemingly sustained by prostitution, gangsterism, and the tourism of those looking for a place where money can buy them some wholesale depravity is one where conventionality has no place. Even something as essential to routine life as verbal communication seems out of place when it crops up in this context, and the expressive body language of the actors rises up to fill the gap.

   

    I donít know that my words can do justice to some of the thrills that exist here, because they hit on some twisted nerves. For example, thereís something morbidly beautiful as Grandrieux snuffs out the sound of a rape victimís scream. Itís a morally suspect moment, but the aesthetics are undeniably pleasing, perhaps because itís such a satisfying approximation of the internalized horror that I described above. Similarly, the filmís most stunning set piece, perhaps the best of all filmed rave sequences, internalizes the rhythm of the music and just offers flashes of comprehension amid the rapture and rupture thatís occurring in the dancerís mind as she spins. The shaky camerawork puts the audience next to the characters, and theyíre degraded people, but to spend time in such close proximity to them is illuminating, especially since the director never for a moment makes their life look attractive. Instead, the plot charts a downward spiral that takes the characters into a nearly feral state. A complex and intense relationship exists between viewer and image while they attempt to discern the face of an actor in the absolute darkness as the amount of light in the chiaroscuro composition becomes ever more gradiented or as they puzzle out whether the female protagonist is raccoon-eyed because of her bruises or makeup. Because the subject matter of the film is unremittingly bleak, the majority of the pleasure for most viewers will likely be derived from decoding these beguiling visuals and the thrill of not knowing what Grandrieux will come up with next. There are definite points being made here about human nature and the different forms of physical and mental dislocation, but theyíre about as hard won as they come, and itís up to the sheer, surprising beauty carries the film. The biggest saving grace and artistic defense here is the filmís relative purity of language, composition, and mode of attack. Whatever La Vie Nouvelle might be, itís undeniably representative of a unique vision, and as such a valuable film.

 

* * * 

02-21-03 

Jeremy Heilman