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Wednesday, March 28, 2007 06:41 am

Sacre bleu!

French filmmakers are spilling blood and guts on the silver screen

Untitled Document The French cinema certainly looks a lot      different today than it used to. The country that many Americans have deluded themselves into believing is a nation of wimps and cowards has been producing a steady stream of action and violent movies. The turning point may have been the success of Luc Besson’s government assassination saga La Femme Nikita (1990). Besson’s virtuosity with action rivaled the best Hollywood could offer. Even with this trend, the last thing  anyone would expect from France is a great martial-arts film, but District 13 (2004) should please any fan of the genre. Paris in the year 2010 is overrun with crime, and two men must infiltrate the criminal underworld to defuse a stolen neutron bomb. The two stars did their own stunts, and they could easily keep pace with the masters from Asia. 13 Tzameti (2005) is a gem of a thriller featuring a bizarre game of group Russian roulette. A roofer assumes the identity of a recently deceased client to take his spot in a secretive game. By the time he realizes that the contestants are eliminated by death, it’s too late for him to back out. The sight of the contestants as they form a circle and each raises a pistol to his or her neighbor’s head is one you will never forget. Those who are troubled by subtitles can wait for the planned American remake. Irreversible (2002) ranks among the most shocking and controversial films ever made. This study of rape and revenge contains two of the most painful scenes ever filmed. The backwards structure places the rape scene later in the film after a scene of violent retribution that reportedly sent many people fleeing from theaters. The film is as dark and ugly as its subject matter. If one’s preference is for older classic French cinema, Alain Resnais’ Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963), which has finally been released on DVD, is an excellent choice. Resnais came to prominence during the French New Wave, although some nitpickers like to exclude him from the group. Muriel boasts Resnais’ favorite theme, people haunted by the past, which the director explored obliquely in his greatest film, Last Year at Marienbad (1961). His films can be quite difficult, and the fractured structure of Muriel is likely to infuriate the viewer. France has not produced a better director, and the 84-year-old master has a new film, to be released in the United States next month. Irreversible and Muriel are available from Internet mail-order companies.

New on DVD this Tuesday (April 3): The Good Shepherd, Charlotte’s Web, and Volver
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