Green Acres, the French Way: A Parisienne Takes up Farming

Christian Carion’s The Girl from Paris ( Une Hirondelle a fait le Printemps ), from a screenplay by Mr. Carion and Eric Assous, is an exquisitely crafted and acted tale of a city mouse who turns away from a successful academic career in computer science to become an isolated farm owner in the beautiful but harsh Rhône-Alpes region of France. It’s a life choice that few, if any, of the urbanized sophisticates frequenting the Paris Theatre can easily identify with. But, somewhat surprisingly, this radically city-centric reviewer found himself deeply moved-though not entirely persuaded-by this return-to-the-soil fable.

Sandrine (Mathilde Seigner) is a single, 30-year-old Parisienne who signs up for a government program that trains young people for a career in agriculture. Her mother (Françoise Bette) is horrified by what she perceives as an incomprehensible career change for Sandrine, whom we later learn is the only child of a broken, largely fatherless home. The few scenes that show mother and daughter together suggest a lack of deep emotional commitment on either side. But Mr. Carion, who himself grew up on a farm, avoids presenting a handy psychological motive to explain his heroine’s behavior. What he stresses, even in the title sequences, is the sheer beauty of the landscape that Sandrine has chosen.

An excellent student in the agriculture program, Sandrine is asked to take over a farm from its aging owner, Adrien (Michel Serrault), who wishes to sell and retire. But during the negotiations, the farmer insists on staying on until his retirement accommodations are finalized (he also wants to tend to his beloved colony of rabbits). Sandrine accepts the deal, though Adrien is openly skeptical of her ability to endure the hardships of life on a farm. But almost immediately, Sandrine displays a flair for money-making innovations, such as making goat cheese and selling it on the Internet. She also promotes children’s tours for fruit-picking, and horse-back riding for adults in the open countryside. Still, Adrien remains skeptical. Tourists are all very well when the weather’s good, but once winter sets in, the farm becomes virtually snowbound.

Sure enough, after some grueling experiences in the dead of winter, a discouraged Sandrine takes a short vacation back to Paris, where she’s tempted by a former colleague and sometime lover to resume her successful teaching career. News of a death on the farm makes her return-she fears the worst for Adrien. But to her surprise, she finds that she’s returned to the farm for good.

The frequently stormy rapport established by Sandrine and Adrien never oversteps any boundaries, the crossing of which would jeopardize their dignity and feelings of independence. Adrien plays a dirty trick on Sandrine at one point, and I was relieved that she never discovers it; this would have made hackneyed recriminations and misunderstandings inevitable. The film scrupulously avoids the temptation to get cheap laughs out of the pratfalls of an uppity and inexperienced woman in an unfamiliar setting. Even at the very end, the director avoids spelling out what is overpoweringly clear in the eloquent silences of the two players. Nor is there any demeaning of Paris and its inhabitants, as there was of New York and its denizens in Sweet Home Alabama (2002), to which Reese Witherspoon lent her considerable talents, and which peddled the familiar Hollywood hokum about simply wonderful country people. There’s no glorification of Adrien’s farmer neighbors in The Girl from Paris -quite the contrary. And Adrien’s belated appreciation of Sandrine is genuinely endearing.

The only American movie with a country milieu that comes to mind as comparable to The Girl from Paris is David Lynch’s almost incredible The Straight Stor y, with Richard Farnsworth and Sissy Spacek-who, like Mr. Serrault and Ms. Seigner, projected emotional generosity and good-heartedness without pretense or affectation. In cynical and contentious times like these, it’s always good to be reminded now and then, in a few select films from other countries, that it may be too soon to give up on humanity.

His Brother’s Keeper

Steve James’ Stevie emerges painfully but profoundly as one of the most unusual, if not absolutely unique, efforts in the field of nonfiction filmmaking. The cinematic contemplation of a real person almost invariably implies a bond of affection, respect and admiration between the filmmaker and his or her subject. In the case of Stevie, the filmmaker makes it abundantly clear that he is as often exasperated by his subject as inspired by him.

In his production notes, Mr. James introduces Stevie and his place in the filmmaker’s life thusly: “I was attending Southern Illinois University when at the urging of my wife Judy, I became Stevie Fielding’s Advocate Big Brother. Stevie was born illegitimately to a father he had never known and a mother who had never wanted him and beat him ‘black and blue’ as an infant. When Stevie was just a toddler, his mother married and gave her new mother-in-law the responsibility of raising him, stating that she did not want Stevie. Consequently, Stevie grew up in his step-grandmother’s home-right next door to his mother.

“The experience proved to be one of the most challenging of my life,” Mr. James continues. “Eleven-year-old Stevie was a difficult hyperactive kid, living a sad troubled life in Pomona, a rural hamlet set in the bucolic rolling hills and rocky bluffs of Southern Illinois. I ended my formal duties in 1985 when I moved to Chicago to begin my film career …. I lost complete contact with him for ten years.”

Mr. James, meanwhile, had become a celebrated and much-honored filmmaker with the enthusiastic critical reception for his real-life inner-city saga of basketball yearnings, Hoop Dreams (1994). In 1995, he returned to Southern Illinois to promote the film; still feeling guilty about having lost contact with Stevie for a decade, Mr. James proposed making a film about his life: “[A]t the time I thought Stevie could be an ‘oblique film mystery’-a search to discover not only what had happened to him over the past ten years, but to understand the forces that had shaped his entire life.”

Mr. James got more than he bargained for: After a long career of petty crimes and short incarcerations, Stevie was arrested for a sexual assault (graphically described) on a small child, who reportedly remains traumatized by the experience. Now, of course, Mr. James couldn’t let go.

Stevie is much longer-over two hours-than it perhaps should be. Mr. James clearly felt compelled to follow the dismal story to its sorry conclusion; his troubled conscience would not allow him to look away from Stevie a second time. In the process, he found himself also unable to avert his gaze from the lower-caste rural people around Stevie, particularly his grandma, his sister Brenda and his seemingly slightly retarded fiancée Tonya-the three loving exceptions to Stevie’s abused, loveless and unhappy existence.

There is no closure here, nor is there really redemption, despite an overwrought Baptist dunking that gives Stevie a glimmer of hope that he can be reborn in the image of Christ. By facing up to all his very mixed feelings, Mr. James makes us think of all the complications that can arise when one asks the supposedly simple question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

At the very least, Mr. James has brought Stevie and the moral dilemmas he incarnates to the world at large. Little Stevie was raped by older boys at some of the foster homes where he was supposed to find shelter. He never really recovered from the abuse, neglect and abandonment that were his lot in life. But he has served to make a filmmaker use his camera as an instrument of atonement for the rest of us, who feel a vague guilt for all the human suffering we’re powerless to alleviate.

Down and Out In Tehran

Rakhshan Bani Etemad’s Under the Skin of the City , from a screenplay by the director and Farid Mostafavi, was honored by Iranian film critics as the best film of 2001, and one can understand why without finding the film itself entirely satisfying in its voluble bleakness and expressionist despair.

The action, such as it is, is divided between an economically and emotionally struggling family at home, and the chaotically indifferent metropolis of Tehran, which squashes human aspirations with brutal efficiency. Tuba (Golab Adineh) is the larger-than-life matriarch who makes Brecht’s Mother Courage look like a snooty dilettante. With her voluminous chador flapping in the breeze like the wings of an avenging bird, she strives unsuccessfully to save her family from its own frailties and the failures of the society. Be warned: This is a film of unbearable ideological ferocity.

Oscar Chatter

The Screen Actors Guild Awards to Renée Zellweger as Best Actress, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Best Supporting Actress and the entire cast of Chicago as Best Movie Ensemble Cast-added to the previous selection of Chicago’s Rob Marshall as Best Director by the Screen Directors Guild-pretty well blows the lid off the Oscar competition. I still would have chosen either Adaptation or Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk To Her as Best Picture, though neither was nominated. Curiously, Mr. Almodóvar was nominated for Best Director, whereas Peter Jackson (whos e Lord of the Rings: The Two Tower s did get nominated for Best Picture) was shut out of that category.

I still like Daniel Day-Lewis as Best Actor, though I found it a bit strange that he never mentioned Martin Scorsese in accepting his Screen Actors Guild Award, while the Chicago acting winners gushed endlessly over their director, Rob Marshall. The boat seems to have sailed for Mr. Scorsese. Nicole Kidman in The Hours , Diane Lane in Unfaithful and Salma Hayek in Frida are all performances I preferred to Ms. Zellweger’s (whom I have hitherto admired beyond measure). As for Roman Polanski, he seems to have been fatally savaged by the suspiciously ill-timed and grossly detailed Internet recycling of revelations about his seduction of a minor. Too bad for The Pianist and Adrien Brody.

Chicago is certainly not the greatest musical ever made, but the Academy has a terrible track record where musicals are concerned. No awards for Lubitsch, for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for Bandwagon , for Singin’ in the Rain . Think of such illustrious “losers” as George Stevens’ Swing Time, with Fred and Ginger, and James Whale’s Show Boat , with Helen Morgan, Paul Robeson and Irene Dunne-both movies with memorable scores by Jerome Kern. Gigi is not the best Minnelli (think Meet Me in St. Louis ); My Fair Lady is not the best Cukor (think Judy Garland in A Star Is Born ). Chicago joins the ranks of the Broadway-mimicking West Side Story and The Sound of Music . And lest I forget, the Academy never picked a Busby Berkeley musical, either. I rest my case.

Green Acres, the French Way: A Parisienne Takes up Farming