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Foreign flavor on Sundance

Australia's `Nominees' and France's `Signe Chanel' join the channel's diverse lineup.

September 05, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

As in other sorts of international business and relations, the American expectation is that pop culture flows mainly outward, from here to the world, to be repaid with money, respect, adulation, even love. We have long taken it for granted, like any insulated Big Boss, that the world will laugh at our jokes, listen to us pontificate and complain, while we need express only the most cursory half-interest in what anyone else has to say.

TV has been no better than the multiplex or the bookstore in this regard, excepting the old "special relationship" with Britain, which has brought us much high art and low comedy over the years, from "The Prisoner" and "The Singing Detective" to "Benny Hill" and "The Young Ones." Still, while the attitude largely maintains -- there is no Canal Plus America, bringing you the best of French TV and, please, no comment about oxymorons -- the 500-channel world we live in now has made it economically expedient for smaller networks to shop beyond the homeland borders for foreign shows to call their own. Even if it's only to Canada.

Sundance Channel, which styles itself an on-air art house -- it courts an audience that does not fear subtitles -- has run foreign TV fare including Brazil's "City of Men," Australia's "Kath and Kim," and France's "The Staircase." Two worthwhile imports premiere there this week: Tonight we get "The Nominees," a comedy about five semi-semifinalists in the "Australian of the Year" competition. (There is indeed such a thing, but the series is fiction.) Thursday brings "Signe Chanel," a French documentary that follows the creation of a Karl Lagerfeld haute-couture collection, set at the house that Coco built.

Originally titled "We Can Be Heroes" -- possibly that sounded too much like a 9/11 documentary -- "The Nominees" is a semi-improvised, multi-thread mockumentary a la Christopher Guest, though this is somewhat less obviously faux than a typical Guest film. Everyone but writer-star Chris Lilley, a 30-ish former stand-up comic who appears as all five spotlighted nominees (plus a twin brother), plays his or her part absolutely straight -- few of them appear to be acting at all -- and Lilley plays less straight only by virtue of his being in makeup or drag. There aren't really jokes here so much as there are quirky ideas made quirkier by being rendered without a hint of irony or knowingness. Like many of the best comedies of its generation, "The Nominees" doesn't settle for laughs, nor does it care much about them. Comedy does not have to be funny.

Lilley has written for himself a collection of roles that ranges in sex, color, class, type and place -- there is one nominee from each of Australia's five states -- which makes the series somewhat resemble BBC America's "Little Britain."

He goes deeper under the skin of his characters than one might expect and to describe them -- a self-involved high school girl who sponsors Sudanese refugees to bring glory on herself, a policeman who quits his job to become a motivational speaker after saving children from a runaway bouncy castle, a woman with uneven legs who takes up rolling as a sport, a Chinese physics student singing the lead in a pop-musical about aborigines, a teenage boy about to surgically donate an eardrum to his brother -- is to do them no justice. Lilley gives them life, and the series grows strangely bittersweet as it goes on.

"Signe Chanel," by Loic Prigent, is also surprisingly moving. I'm not exactly sure how to account for how it affected me, other than to say that there is something inspiring about seeing high craft and honest work given their due, even when the product of that work is beyond the buying power of the worker. (And it is very beautiful work, indeed, whose elegance far exceeds its usefulness -- which makes it art, I suppose, and its own reward.) I was a wreck by the end.

A record of the astonishingly brief and increasingly tense process of creating a Chanel collection from first sketch to last-popped, post-runway Champagne cork, the five-part film focuses mainly on the formidable women who translate Lagerfeld's energetic drawings and scribbled instructions into wearable clothing. Certainly they are not the usual subject of films on fashion, or the sort of people that television bothers with at all. They are extraordinary, but not glamorous. Yet they are charming company, with their white coats, their bowls of candy for energy on long nights, their easy camaraderie, their traditions and superstitions -- weaving a hair into the embroidery of a wedding gown brings marriage, spitting on a dress means it won't come back to the shop. There is a special fortune, or misfortune, associated with every pricked finger.

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