Films give portraits of French life on a large and small canvas

September 16, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

The two contrary spirits of the French cinema are on display at the Charles this week, where Claude Berri's big and loud "Germinal" alternates with Eric Rohmer's small and intimate "A Tale of Winter."

The Berri film derives from the muckraking Emile Zola labor novel, an expose of the vicious conditions in the French coal mining industry in the 1870s. Conceived as a pure radical epic, it arrives painted in the bright primary colors of class struggle. Some critics have decried its simplicity and overtness, but from my point of view, it would make no sense to bring more sophistication or irony to the materials.

The movie, after Zola, is constructed around the crudest of story mechanisms: the arrival of an outsider to a closed community and our introduction to it through his increasingly enraged eyes. Renaud (Etienne Lantier) is the stranger who signs on at the Voreux Mine. He is quickly absorbed into the mining unit and family of Maheu (the protean Gerard Depardieu), father to miners, son of miners, husband of miners and hero miner himself.

With Renaud we see and learn, possibly more than we care to, about terrible conditions and the techniques of exploitation. The miners have no contract, of course: They are paid merely by the pound for what they bring out of the earth. Since they are paid less for timbering -- that is, shoring up -- than for the coal itself, they tend to rush through the timbering, and the timbering, in its place, tends to fall down and go boom.

So exploited are the miners that they see their own progeny as resources. The families desperately cling to their children, not of love (who can love so far down the food chain?) but because, to survive, they need the children's wages, too. When a daughter goes off to marry a worker at another mine, it's an economic calamity, not an emotional one.

It's also clear at this early date that the workers have only the vaguest theory around which to arrange their grievances: Over in London, Karl Marx is busy hacking out what will be the "Communist Manifesto," and an "International" has already begun to recruit members, but mainly they just grouse and suffer. When management decides to lower yet again the pay scale for shoring and the pound rate, the miners spontaneously rebel.

As crude as a poster from 1917, the film possesses the power of that crudity. The capitalist managers, for example, live lives of grotesque luxury and assuage their guilt with silly charities that fail to approach the systemic injustice for which they are responsible. The mine work has the intensity and drama of World War I combat (the helmets and the dirty faces and uniforms further amplify this metaphor), and the workers are beautiful and heroic. Whatever it lacks in refinement, "Germinal" certainly makes up for in primal energy.

By contrast, "A Tale of Winter" is so miniaturized and hermeti it seems to exist on the head of a pin. The second in Eric Rohmer's new series, called "Tales of the Four Seasons," it also bears certain thematic connections to Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale," for both are stories of bright loves lost, of the dreary grip of winter on the soul, and of the soul's reawakening in spring as it recovers that lost love. In Shakespeare, a statue awakened; in Rohmer, a fortuitous bus ride intervenes.

Rohmer is in some sense and forever a victim of a wisecrack. Like Tom Dewey, who never recovered from being compared to the little man on the wedding cake by Alice Longworth Roosevelt, Rohmer is saddled with Gene Hackman's observation, in an Arthur Penn film, that watching a Rohmer film is like watching paint dry. "A Tale of Winter" won't do much to change that.

The story centers on Felicie (Charlotte Very), a pretty but empty-headed young woman, who one summer met the man of her dreams and let it ruin her life. After a romp at the beach with Charles, she writes down her address on a piece of paper; after six months of misery when he doesn't call, she realizes that out of some strange self-destructive impulse she gave him the wrong city. From that mistake, she apotheosizes him and lets the illusion of their lost love be the haunting specter of her life.

But it's not as if Rohmer is interested in illusion; in fact, the thrust of the film is not to pierce the illusion but to sustain it. Felicie is unsatisfied with either of her two lovers -- a hairdresser and a librarian -- and isn't shy about expressing her disappointment with them for not being the fabulous Charles. Most of the time, she's in a dither as to which of these two un-Charles to settle on, knowing that each is really a loser.

Yet for all the slightness of its materials, "A Tale of Winter" feels longer than winter itself. Whatever Rohmer's virtues -- a penchant for dramatizing real life, an insouciant charm -- incisiveness is not one of them. He even runs a scene from a production of Shakespeare's "A Winter's Tale" and lets it go on for about seven minutes! When he finally cuts back to the movie, you forget which movie it is.

"A Tale of Winter"

Starring Charlotte Very and Michel Voletti

Directed by Eric Rohmer

Released by MK2



Starring Gerard Depardieu and Etienne Lantier

Directed by Claude Berri

Released by Sony Pictures


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