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With a Friend Like This...

Friends forever: Daniel Auteuil and Julie Gayet in My Best Friend

By Eric Kohn

So much of the festival environment relies on finding new talent that the presence of established artists practically seems like an afterthought. The tenuous relationship between career success and festival recognition doesn’t apply to filmmakers whose name alone attracts a crowd. This year, Tribeca held a spot for Patrice Leconte, one of the finest contemporary French filmmakers, for his sizably budgeted comedy My Best Friend. The movie arrived at the festival with a distribution deal through IFC Films in place (it hits theaters July 13), meaning that its inclusion in the festival primarily serves to guarantee that some quality offerings that only a veteran can provide.

But what’s in a name? Not everything, unfortunately. I’ve admired Leconte’s inquisitive character studies for years; his magnificent reworking of The Prince and the Pauper in 2002’s The Man on the Train transcended the simple concept of a switcheroo to arrive at a simultaneously touching and engaging thriller; Intimate Strangers magnificently interrogated the relationship between a therapist and his patient without laying down too much psychobabble. My Best Friend shows Leconte’s fondness for personalities wrapped up in quixotic conflicts, but the premise is too incredulous even by his own standards: A heartless art dealer (Daniel Auteuil) learns from his colleagues that he has no friends (business partners don’t count). Fiercely intent on proving them wrong, he sets out to find a perfect candidate to fill in the blank. He eventually settles on an affable taxi driver (Dany Boon), whom he attempts to cajole into friendship. Naturally, the poor guy finds out, they have a few arguments, and a major reconciliation scene takes place on a French version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Really.

I get the sense that Leconte got too ambitious with the material. Rather than trusting the round-up highly amusing personalities, he allows them to fall into highly incredulous situations that diminish the potential for believable humor and the possibility that the movie contains any real message other than “friends are good.” For a more intricate study of character relationships, check out Fiestapatria, a sensationally moving drama centered on family dynamics across generations in Chile. Director Luis Vera shoots his story on with the tried-and-true shaky cam aesthetic, recalling successful Dogme entries like The Celebration, where the viewer gets treated to clandestine secrets that stretch across the secretive boundaries of parents and children. In this case, a teenager struggles to uncover her father’s dark past from the bloody time of the Pinochean dictatorship, culminating in a shocking confrontation more chilling than any typical squabbling over curfew. Fiestapatria is about family, but it’s also about mortality.

Death offers easy access for creating drama, but it doesn’t ensure quality in the execution. Nanking, a documentary about the bloody 1937-1938 Japanese occupation of China’s formerly flourishing establishment, certainly hits a nerve: Women were raped and families were torn apart before a resident Nazi and a few stray American missionaries were able to kickstart a means of restoring order. The photos and brief film clips included in Nanking aren’t for the squeamish, but the strange technique that directors Bill Guttentag, Dan Sturman and Elisabeth Bentley use for their storytelling is questionably disingenuous. They hired several actors (including Woody Harrelson) to sit on a stage and read from letters written by the people who were in China and observing the massacres at the time. It’s an earnest attempt to let the realism levitate to a theatrical plane, but there’s something troubling about watching the dude from Cheers when you’re trying to take the images seriously.

A more conventional -- and satisfying -- approach to the study of death and disorder can be found in Lillie and Leander: A Legacy of Violence. Starting with the shocking legend of a black man hanged in the late 1800s for supposedly slitting the throat of a woman in a small American town. Years later, the woman’s great-great niece set out to make a documentary of the event, quickly discovering that it was only a small part of a largely horrifying story. That lynching set off a slew of violent, murderous attacks against the local African-American population, turning the forest into a virtual burial ground. Jeffrey Morgan, the movie’s director, stumbled upon this story as it was developing and caught the process of discovering human remains as it took place. Although the pace occasionally lags, Lillie and Leander gives an essential portrait of the role the past plays in understanding the present.

With such unsettling material, it’s hard to imagine switching gears for a tamer documentary, but at least the festival provides some variety. Music Inn tells the story of an annual gathering of legendary jazz musicians in Lennox, Massachusetts. What began as a few impressive jam sessions eventually developed into a functional hotel, school and festival host. Music junkies will find the role of the Music Inn in the history of America’s most diverse music genre to be instantly compelling; the inn essentially functioned as an artists’ haven, which makes its eventual fate as a collection of condominiums especially revealing.

In the East Village, another area slowly vanishing in the face of skyrocketing real estate, Samuel R. Delany lives a messy writer’s life. The remarkably talented prose composer and sci-fi scribe, who sports a Ginsbergian mustache and rambles enthusiastically about his '60s sexual exploits, serves as the subject for Fred Barney Taylor’s enlightening The Polymath or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman. Following Delany from book readings to writer conferences and into the claustrophobic confines of his home, Taylor lets his subject guide the piece, and the result is all across the board, and consistently fascinating. Delany is a contradictory figure, at once self-depricating and self-absorbed. Striding along a dense Manhattan street, he claims to be a “boring, dull, black faggot.” As if.

Discuss these and other Tribeca titles at Spout:

My Best Friend
Fiestapatria
Nanking
Lillie and Leander: A Legacy of Violence
Music Inn
The Polymath or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman

Posted at May 4, 2007 7:10 AM

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