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America Seen on Edge of Darkness at Deauville Fest

Movies: The films at the French celebration of American cinema present a bleak picture of U.S. life.

September 12, 1997|RICHARD COVINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

DEAUVILLE, France — Betrayal, incest, corrupt cops, AIDS, sexual abuse and serial killers--all these usual suspects and an inspired new twist on the phrase "saving face" make the 23rd Deauville festival of American film an unsettling place to be. French audiences, for the most part, adore this year's offerings, even if some mine scarce humor where none is intended.

Despite Harrison Ford's thunderous reception, the commando-in-chief of "Air Force One" stirred as much ironic amusement as thrills among audiences smiling at this spectacle of patriotic Yankee triumphalism.

Elsewhere, humor is in distinctly short supply, with Mike Myers in "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" and Brendan Fraser in "George of the Jungle" providing about the only comic relief. In person, the self-deprecating Myers made a hit, even if his movie left audiences wondering why Jay Roach's sendup of the swinging '60s and James Bond went on long after the joke had played itself out.

While lust may be alive and well at the festival, romance is nearly as rare as comedy, with Jonathan Nossiter's "Sunday" and P.J. Hogan's "My Best Friend's Wedding" the only close contenders.

Standing in line for two hours for some films, audiences left behind clear blue skies and the brisk breezes of this seaside resort on the Normandy coast to plunge into a murky cinematic sea of pessimism. If the festival succeeds in its attempt to bring to France a portrait of current American films--from blockbuster hits by the major studios to first-time efforts by fledgling independent directors--there's much darkness on the edge of the American dream. The little guy may still triumph for the most part, but only until the next conspiracy or dysfunctional family blows up in his face.

Tellingly, the meanest-spirited film has so far drawn the biggest applause, in part because its cynical portrait of a misogyny as brutish as it is casual and the wages of killer capitalism fit in neatly with stereotypical French fears of "les Anglo-Saxons."

"In the Company of Men" demonstrates that an old-fashioned stab in the corporate, oxford-shirted back can be far more violent and amoral than a dozen speedboat crashes a la John Woo's "Face/Off," "Air Force One's" shootouts at the flying presidential corral or "Pink Flamingos' " unstill sex life with chickens--all films being screened at the festival.

This nasty tragedy subjects everyone, including the audience, to an equal opportunity con, not least the Machiavellian cad, Chad, whose only life is ruining other lives.

"Women want to slap me, then date me," says a grinning Aaron Eckhart, who revels in his role as narcissistic corporate conqueror.

Out of 40 new films at the festival, including 10 in jury competition, only a handful make their points without resorting to guns or violence. Mike Figgis' "One-Night Stand," a hip, achingly honest parable about AIDS, adultery and mortality that won Wesley Snipes the award for best actor last week at the Venice Film Festival, was among the gun-less few. Instead, there's an interracial affair and an unflinching portrait of Robert Downey Jr. wasting away in an AIDS ward, aspects the director worries may cause more of an outcry in the United States than in Europe.

"One sees interracial marriages all the time in Los Angeles and no one raises an eyebrow," says Figgis, a British director working both in the United States and Europe. "It's only in films where the eyebrows are raised. I'm not trying to crusade here, but when you have to consider racial stereotypes, it becomes crashingly evident how retarded film is in the U.S."

Nudity, even the full frontal male variety in "Love! Valour! Compassion!" that whipped up a storm of controversy in the United States, is greeted here with a blase Gallic shrug.

What does set many French audiences on edge is the rising level of violence in American films.

Says jury member Alain Finkielkraut: "I don't see any end in sight to action films and, in fact, each new action film has to surpass the level of violence and spectacle of the one before it. It's hard to see where this will stop. I realize it's an unpopular view, but I believe violence in films does create violence in society.

"Ultimately perhaps, there will be a segmentation of the audience--action films for the young and literary adaptations for the older crowd. But there has to be a place for films in which the filmmaker isn't thinking of how it will play to the public at all."

The worst-case scenario would be for European films to imitate American movies, warns Finkielkraut, censuring Luc Besson's "The Fifth Element" and Jan Kounen's "Dobermann" as recent flagrant offenders.

Finkielkraut's concern may have come too late. In festival seminars, emerging French filmmakers kept asking "Contact" scriptwriter Jim Hart the secret behind making American-style films.

"No, no, no, I told them. You need to write films in your own style that will have an international appeal," Hart explains.

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