Six characters in search of a laugh

Absurdism, funny; self-absorption, not.


directed by Jacques Rivette with Jeanne Balibar and Sergio Castellitto opens Oct. 19 at Harvard Exit

FRENCH COMEDY—go figure. In the last year we've been treated to Gallic imports that are sardonically amusing (With a Friend Like Harry), stridently funny (The Closet), intelligently droll (The Taste of Others), and wretchedly laughless (Just Visiting). Just ahead, opening Nov. 9, there's the fabulously whimsical Am鬩e, which will quickly relegate Va Savoir to mirthless memory and the dusty video store shelves where it rightfully belongs.

How could such a dismally dull movie make the jump across the Atlantic? How could any film purporting to be a comedy be two and a half hours long? ("Who knows?" the translated title replies with an indifferent shrug.) Dramas, war flicks, stage adaptations, historical epics—those we can understand at such length. But a comedy? Savoir certainly has the ingredients for a funny little study of romantic entanglements, but that movie would be 90 minutes long, have music, and depict characters we actually care about.

Instead, starting slow and getting slower, Savoir concerns a slim, elegant, whiny French actress on tour in Paris with her Italian director-actor boyfriend. Their production of Pirandello's As You Desire Me, which we're forced to endure in regular, excruciating, unilluminating installments, concerns an amnesiac whose identity hinges on which man she chooses to love. Off stage, actress Camille (Jeanne Balibar) is stuck on her old boyfriend, a professor now shacked up with a dancer. Rightly irked by Camille's fickleness, the director (Sergio Castellitto) starts flirting with a beautiful student during his search for a lost manuscript. Meanwhile, the student's half brother, a thief, is after the dancer. All the while, Camille can't be sure whom she loves, and her instability creates chaos around her.

Again, that's more than enough material for a decent farce, with bed-hopping lovers and slamming doors, but Savoir contains—by the most generous estimate—two good laughs, and they both come in the last half-hour. (So does Camille's long overdue slap from the dancer for trying to steal her man.) How did such a profoundly annoying, unfunny film find its way to major festivals and earn respectful reviews? It's the residual respect felt for 73-year-old nouvelle vague figure Jacques Rivette, whose last release here was 1998's Secret Defense (adapted from Sophocles' Oresteia).

Rivette's juxtaposition of neat theatrical artifice and messy real life is a long-standing and now exhausted device. Savoir begins and ends within the proscenium, which provides a kind of unity, but Pirandello's buoyant absurdism isn't enough to lift this comedy beyond obvious themes of jealousy and misplaced obsession. Contrasted with the work of a genuine New Wave master, Eric Rohmer, whose wonderful 1972 comedy Chlo頩n the Afternoon runs at the Grand Illusion this week, Savoir fails in an even more damningly French regard—it doesn't even seem serious.

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