Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movies filmed with lightweight, cheap Digital Video cameras were supposed to revolutionize filmmaking as we know it, democratizing the art form by removing the obstacle of costly technical resources. We've instead been inundated with seeming thousands of DV productions. Twenty years ago aspiring filmmakers wrote scripts that nobody read. Today, they make DV movies that few people see.
A trend has also emerged of established filmmakers making major DV features, with big talent. Following the trend toward reality-based entertainment, we've seen a number of DV feature films that purposely downgrade their visuals, eliminating the beautiful images we love to see in 35mm on big screens. Sifting through directors' explanations for leeching most of the color from an image and 'grunging up' the look has become an unpleasant chore. So far, I've only seen one director successfully use levels of film quality as an artistic tool ... Stephen Soderbergh.
À tout de suite (Right Now), a compelling small-scale story of lovers on the run, minimizes the impact of its lower-grade visuals. French director Benoît Jacquot elicits a terrific performance from his star and life-partner Isild Le Besco, who might be described as a strongly appealing European version of Scarlett Johansson. The absorbing drama looks presentable on Home Vision Entertainment's quality DVD.
1975. Parisian teen Lili (Isild Le Besco) is disenchanted with her broken home. She meets two young men in a bar and is immediately attracted to Bada (Ouassini Embarek), a Moroccan who buys her gifts. After they become lovers, Bada calls to say that he and two confederates, Alain and Joelle (Nicholas Duvauchelle and Laurence Cordier) have robbed a bank. A hostage and one of their own have been killed. Lili agrees to give Bada a place to sleep for the night, and in the morning he carefully asks her if she wants to accompany him on the run from the law. Lili immediately agrees. The foursome successfully cross borders with their loot and are able to behave as if on vacation. Then, in Morocco, the two men are identified in the papers. Lili despairs that her joy is about to end, especially after a grilling by customs when they fly to Greece. Her confederates disappear, leaving Lili to fend for herself without money or even her suitcases.
À tout de suite makes a good case for the unobtrusive DV format enabling a talented director to become more intimate with his subject material. Videographer Caroline Champetier shows both flexibility and control in her B&W images, with none of the blooming whites and video artifacts we're used to seeing in less carefully 'filmed' video shows. But frankly, the main reason for our interest is the compelling actress Isild Le Besco, whose eyes and manner would communicate something special even in Super-8.
We don't argue that every subject needs the David Lean 70mm treatment, but consider the low-budget films of Jean-Luc Godard: When Godard entered his video phase, interest for his work took a plunge. Even an experimental film benefits from a rich image; Raoul Coutard's 35mm cinematography is beautiful in and of itself. What will a DV-originated feature look like forty years from now, when it must be re-constituted in some unknown new digital format? Engineers already encounter difficulties playing back obsolete video formats as recent as the 1970s.
Young criminals on the run have been a cinema staple since Fritz Lang and You Only Live Once. The small-scale À tout de suite reduces the formula to its tragic basics. Lili has apparently fallen in love with Bada simply by drawing his picture in art class. Sensitive and intense, she has already had sex with boys and appears to be in an informal lesbian relationship with a girlfriend. She sleeps with Bada almost immediately. They have barely had a full conversation when he reveals his unlawful profession. But Lili doesn't do things by half measures; she is fully prepared to plunge into an unknown life right now. As far as she is concerned, her old life is over and she's starting another.
Bada is only a year older than Lili and not much more worldly. The simple tricks they use to cross borders work only through luck, and because they don't behave like criminals. Lili's blind faith in the future is at first rewarded with a fugitives' honeymoon. They stay in fancy hotel rooms and rent cars for sightseeing.
Based on the true story of a woman named Elisabeth Fanger, À tout de suite moves toward a realistic conclusion as opposed to a dramatic climax. Separated from her confederates, Lili weathers a grilling by the Greek police and soon thereafter must escape the clutches of an Athenian businessman who thinks he's found himself a cheap sex consort. A Greek girl is attracted to Lili in the street and invites her to work in a tourist shop. Lili knows full well that the girl wants her as a lover. In frustration, Lili picks up two boys at a dance and gives herself to them in sexual abandon. Will Bada fulfill his promise and come back to find her? Lili's hopes begin to fade.
Back in Paris, Lili's now-attentive mother proposes the idea that each person experiences several compartmentalized, separate lives. Men, she theorizes, live them at the same time but women live them one after another. Lili wonders which of her lives is the real one. Is it already all over for her, or does the future hold something new?
Benoît Jacquot displays an excellent directorial instinct for his intimate story. By staying within Lili's point of reference, À tout de suite maintains a strong dramatic focus. The film's several sex scenes are frank and direct and Ms. Le Besco's commitment to them is total. Somewhat of a failing is the attempt to elicit the year 1975 simply by cutting to frequently blurry stock shots of period automobiles. Newly-filmed street action is limited, using many up-angles to avoid modern signage and mailboxes at street level.
Director Jacquot has Lili attend a bullfight in Madrid, perhaps the only time when Àtout de suite offers a conventional 'psychological' interpretation of events. She stares blankly at the wounded bull, and we naturally conclude that the germ of fear is growing within her ... will Bada, as he fears, be gunned down 'like a dog?' Jacquot's bullfight imagery isn't as original as the specter of broken Christmas ornaments in Nicholas Ray's They Live by Night or the suddenly oppressive presence of a mortician in Arthur Penn's Bonnie & Clyde. But the women in those earlier films have poverty and a poor environment as excuses for choosing the fugitive life. Lili embraces her "new life" as another irrepressible expression of personal freedom.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of À tout de suite looks fine; when carefully recorded, the DV format can be very handsome in the enhanced DVD format. It's entirely possible that Jacquot's movie was distributed and projected in a video format, especially at festivals.
The audio is clear. Accounts from festival showings refer to a temporary soundtrack featuring old Pink Floyd recordings, but this presentation utilizes cues from Tangerine Dream. Except for the blasts of music heard in nightclubs, the soundtrack plays a secondary role; we're too intent on watching Ms. Le Besco's face to notice.
The extras include a trailer and several extended scenes. They appear to be identical to what's in the feature proper. Presented in flat-letterbox, these clips demonstrate what happens when a DV film is indifferently formatted -- the blah images lose much of their interest.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
À tout de suite rates:
Sound: Vert Good
Supplements: Extended scenes, trailer, DVD-Rom press kit
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 15, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson