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Review: French 'Western' deceivingly casual

Web posted on: Wednesday, September 02, 1998 9:49:21 AM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I wrote about this last year when I covered a wonderful French comedy called "When the Cat's Away," but Manuel Poirier's "Western" (also a French import) has reminded me once again of the difference between an artfully "aimless" European film and the mess you usually get when Americans attempt something so deceivingly casual.

"Western" -- which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1997, but is only now getting a stateside release -- is another nod to that tried-and-tired genre known as the road movie.

You're familiar with this kind of trip. Two people who don't seem to have all that much in common take to the road, usually with little money nor any real place to go. They argue a lot, but slowly begin to bond despite their differences.

In this case, the fellow travelers are Paco (Sergi Lopez), a Spanish shoe salesman whose car and goods have been swiped by a hitchhiker, and Nino (Sacha Bourdo), the Russian immigrant who swiped Paco's stuff in the first place. That kind of paradox is central to the movie's charm and message -- sometimes it's better to lie a little in order to get at a clearer truth. And, sometimes, you find the thing you most need when you've pretty much given up looking for it.

Interludes add up

Set in the Brittany region of France, the movie feints in one direction in the first act, then sets out on an altogether different course. This could have been problematic, but the screenplay operates in touching little interludes that ultimately do add up to something substantial, the very thing that American directors (and, especially, American writers) can seldom manage when dealing with similar material.

After spending a few days with, and falling for, a woman who's been kind to him after the theft, Paco sees Nino (at this point, his nemesis) calmly walking down a city street. He chases after the thief and beats him to a pulp, sending him to the hospital with a broken arm. Paco never gets his car back, but, after he visits Nino in the hospital and more or less apologizes for the severity of the beating, the two men start to enjoy each other's company.

Rather spontaneously established friendships lie at the core of the story, but never fear; though they may be based to some degree on wishful thinking, the contemplative stillness of the camera and the actors' amiable personalities manage to smooth over these very minor conceptual rough spots.

Paco and his new girlfriend eventually decide to spend several weeks apart, planning to meet after this short period of freedom and see if they still want to stay together. They'll be allowed to take lovers if they want to experiment during the separation.

Now Paco has nowhere to go (he lost his job when the car was stolen), so he accepts the highly likable Nino's offer to wander the French countryside with him.

Allegiances to women

Though the story seems haphazard at first, both men ultimately start exploring their allegiances to women during the trip. Paco, better-looking than the rather scrawny Nino, draws possible suitors at every stop, like a magnet. Nino, on the other hand, continually finds himself playing second fiddle to his friend (Paco even falls into sleeping with two girls simultaneously, rather than the one-to-one bedding the men were looking for).

After a while, the secretive Nino starts to open up to Paco, and the character takes on a surprisingly Chaplin-esque persona. He's continually touched with sadness while refusing to surrender his eternal sense of optimism.

You need a thematic basis to your musings if stories like this are going to have any cumulative impact. Here in the United States, I think the bigness of the countryside, the scope of the American experience, overwhelms filmmakers. They often forget about their characters' hearts, replacing them instead with obvious pop cultural references and "odd" people who illustrate how "interesting" we all are ... never mind that the oddness separates the characters from the audience's collective experience. In short, the filmmaker gets a movie made, but leaves out the rewarding part.

This might be why people who have a prejudice against current European releases are often pretty vehement about it. An all-embracing sense of humanity (you may recall that the United States was originally based on this concept, if you were in civics class that day) is the last thing the mass audience wants in this country. Now, don't get me wrong, there are a whole lot of crummy films released overseas every year, but most character-based European comedies are vastly superior to their American counterparts.

A tranquil approach

The secret (and it's certainly what's so enjoyable about "Western") is the tranquility with which these exports approach their stories. A lot of information can be discerned solely through the characters' expressions -- and the message hasn't been amped up to reach the balcony seats. There are more than a few scenes in "Western" that are immensely powerful simply because the director isn't forcing the point down your throat.

Foremost among these is an increasingly drunken dinner between Nino, Paco, and two girls that they've met in a bar. The camera sits dead still at the end of the table as the two couples perform their lengthy mating dance. There are a couple of sudden jump-cuts inserted to establish the sense of time passing, but this is otherwise purely a matter of watching intelligent actors bring fresh, realistic dialogue to life.

A world of unspoken emotions is also apparent in the women's faces as they size up the men, and you eventually see the focus of power shifting to the more obviously seductive Paco. Nino's body language alone tells his story, as he sees himself being pushed to the outer edges of the romantic interaction. It's a brave, heartbreaking, brilliant scene, the kind you won't be seeing in an American studio picture in the next million or so years.

The two men's fortunes begin to shift after a while, and it's to the creative team's credit that I consistently had no idea what was coming next. The conclusion is hopeful in completely unexpected ways, with sadness and optimism fighting it out until the very end. That's what makes life interesting. Being reminded of this, smartly and succinctly, is one of the things that can be accomplished at the movies, if anyone can be bothered to give it a go. "Western" may have been released in Europe last year, but its belated American release makes it one of the best films of 1998.

"Western" contains bad language (although most viewers will have to settle for reading it; the movie's in French with subtitles.) There's nudity and sexual discussions. It's a big-hearted movie inhabited by very believable characters. Rated R. A bit long at 134 minutes, but a gem.

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