Never before have so many women directors been successful within France and exportable to America. This has been the year of Coline Serreau's "Three Men and a Cradle," Agnes Varda's "Vagabond," Caroline Huppert's "Sincerely, Charlotte" and Nadine Trintignant's "Next Summer," to name a few. And "Rouge Baiser" (Red Kiss), at the Los Feliz, marks the auspicious directing debut of veteran producer Vera Belmont.
Not unlike Diane Kurys, whose personal films--"Peppermint Soda," "Cocktail Molotov" and "Entre Nous"--earned her international acclaim, Belmont has delved into her own past. As in "Entre Nous," the period is the early 1950s and the focus is on females and Jewish immigrants. Nadia (Charlotte Valandrey) is a beautiful 15-year-old Stalinist whose romantic coming-of-age coincides with political disenchantment.
Nadia apparently grew up to become a film maker, namely Belmont, who produced, directed and co-wrote "Rouge Baiser": "Everything happened to me exactly like the film shows," admitted the 47-year-old director during an interview, "even my 'excommunication' from the Communist party."
This autobiographical, female and Jewish focus is almost a new genre in French cinema (and includes Charlotte Silvera's "Louise, the Rebel," shown at San Francisco's Jewish Film Festival in August). There is a specificity about these films, seen in Belmont's title: "Rouge Baiser" is not just a potentially leftist embrace, but the name of a lipstick popular in France during the early 1950s--probably the same color worn by Isabelle Huppert playing Kurys' mother in "Entre Nous."
Asked whether "Rouge Baiser" was directly connected to Kurys' film, Belmont replied, "No. 'Entre Nous' is essentially about two women, and the period could have been later. In my film, the period is crucial--the same period as McCarthyism in America.
"My parents wanted to change the world, and I was in protests against Eisenhower, against Ridgway, against everyone except Stalin," she continued. "I was beaten by the police. The main difference is that I spent three days in the photographer's house (one night in the film) while my father searched for me in hospitals."
Belmont's father worked for the Yiddish-Communist newspaper, and according to the director, "he discovered Israel and the dilemma: He fell in love with Israel but didn't dare say it."
Although "Rouge Baiser" is Belmont's first fiction feature, her directing debut was actually a documentary in 1979, "Prisoners of Mao." Like her new film, it criticized Communist dogmatism--specifically, totalitarianism in China during the 1950s.
Before that, Belmont had an impressive career as a producer. Among her credits are such important films about women as Andre Techine's "French Provincial," starring Jeanne Moreau, and Joyce Bunuel's "Dirty Dishes," starring Carole Laure; "Quest for Fire," Jean-Jacques Annaud's epic about the origins of civilization; and "Why Israel?" (1972), Claude Lanzman's first and only film before "Shoah."
The petite film maker acknowledged the importance of casting when moving from documentaries to dramatic features. Alternating between French and English, Belmont explained that she selected the 15-year-old Valandrey despite the fact that she "never saw a camera before. She had sent a photo of herself and a girlfriend to a different director for another film. The director then sent me the tape of Charlotte's screen test--a tape that had 45 hours with many young actresses.
"What attracted me were her eyes," Belmont recalled. "Her blue eyes seized me. All these bourgeois girls came into my office, but she had a certain violence." Looking like a cross between Amy Irving and Isabelle Adjani--and often like Helena Bonham Carter, star of "Room With a View"--Valandrey has been called a Brigitte Bardot who can act. Since "Rouge Baiser," she has been cast in two major films, as well as a rock video with David Bowie.
In "Rouge Baiser," her character is drawn not only to a political cause but to such heady postwar temptations as smoky jazz clubs and Rita Hayworth in "Gilda." Indeed, when Valandrey dresses up like the actress performing "Put the Blame on Mame," she hardly looks like a teen-ager.
Were there any problems directing a 15-year-old in fairly explicit love scenes? "Charlotte's parents are religious Catholics," Belmont said with a smile, "and they objected to what they thought were pornographic scenes in the film. They even got a lawyer. But finally things were ironed out to everyone's satisfaction."
For the crucial part of Stephane--who both saves and exploits Nadia--Belmont cast Lambert Wilson, a bilingual actor based in France. With about 20 films to his credit, including "Julia" and Fred Zinneman's "Five Days One Summer," he was Brooke Shields' co-star in "Sahara" and Jodie Foster's in Chabrol's "The Blood of Others."
Their abrasive but tender relationship clearly touched a chord among French youth for, as Belmont pointed out, "it was a surprise for me that so many young people went to see 'Rouge Baiser.' After all, if you want to make money, you don't make this kind of picture! We organized debats (question-and-answer periods after screenings) so that audiences could really discuss the film's issues."
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After speaking with many viewers under the age of 25, Belmont claimed, "Young women today are less strong, more protected than men or women in my time." Politically, however, they are perhaps less naive than Nadia and her comrades were in the '50s.
"Now I believe only in individual conscience," said Belmont when asked to define her political stance. "Otherwise you change dictatorships all the time. If individuals don't know themselves, they can be led into any tragedy."