Vera Belmont's "Rouge Baiser" ("Red Kiss") is a grand romantic autobiography in which the film maker views her screen alter ego affectionately but with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight. Warmth and humor combine with detachment to make a fresh, largely satisfying yet also apparently unintentionally disturbing film (at the Los Feliz and Monica 4-Plex).
A veteran French producer in only her second directorial outing, Belmont couldn't wish for a better backdrop for her tempestuous story of love and politics. It's Paris, 1952, a time of political turmoil in France as well as in the United States. When Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway arrives in May to succeed Dwight D. Eisenhower as Allied Supreme Commander of NATO, the French Communists riot, and in the foreground of the fray is 15-year-old Nadia (Charlotte Valandrey), daughter of Polish-Jewish emigres and longtime leftists.
Nadia can't know it yet, but she has reached the height of her zeal as a Communist. She's rescued from a potentially fatal beating by enraged cops by Stephane (Lambert Wilson), a dashing, successful young free-lance photographer who's apolitical--and who sweeps her off her feet. There's nothing like love, especially a first love, to subvert youthful political beliefs.
Headstrong with vengeance, Nadia is about as humorless as Ninotchka, which is what makes her so amusing. She is virulently anti-American, refusing even to let a Coke pass her lips. She writes frequently to Stalin (who never replies) and has even made him a pair of slippers embroidered with the hammer and the sickle (in red, of course).
Yet, as a movie lover, her favorite heroine is, of all people, Scarlett O'Hara, that champion of ruthless free enterprise. (Nadia doesn't see the contradiction, responding only to Scarlett's willfulness.) As Nadia, Valandrey, in her film debut, has the range and pale intensity of Australia's Judy Davis.
Similarly, Nadia's parents (Marthe Keller, Gunter Lamprecht), although openly grateful to be living in Paris in their small but cozy apartment, are not aware of how petit bourgeois they have actually become. Like their American Communist counterparts, they are largely ignorant of the grimmer realities of Soviet life, especially for Jews, until the return, after 15 years, of the mother's true love (Laurent Terzieff), who's spent years in Siberia.
"Rouge Baiser," which was photographed by Ramon Suarez, is terrific at re-creating a specific time and place. It ranges in settings from lively family gatherings, political meetings and rallies to the jazz joints of Saint-Germain (whose blues music keys Jean-Marie Senia's discreetly effective score).
For all these pluses, which include a briskness of pace and an evenness of performances, "Rouge Baiser" (Times-rated: Mature for adult situations and themes) creates an undercurrent of uneasiness because it doesn't come to terms with the fact that its heroine is having a full-fledged affair at so tender an age. To be sure, Lamprecht reacts violently when he learns about it, but Keller seems not upset. The mother is entitled to her reaction--or lack of same--but we need to know much more about how she feels and why. Does thinking of her own thwarted love for Terzieff cause her to be sympathetic to her daughter? Quite possibly--even probably--but we never know for sure.
'ROUGE BAISER' ('Red Kiss')
A Circle Releasing Corp. presentation of a Stephan Films Production in association with Films A2, Farena Films and C&H Films (Berlin). Producer-director Vera Belmont. Screenplay Belmont, with the collaboration of Guy Konopnicki, David Milhaud. Line producer Nicole Flipo. Camera Ramon Suarez. Music Jean-Marie Senia. Film editor Martine Giordano. With Charlotte Valandrey, Lambert Wilson, Marthe Keller, Gunter Lamprecht, Laurent Terzieff, Laurent Arnal, Audrey Lazzini. In French, with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.