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Finding One’s Self

Mandarin Cinéma

The French director-writer François Ozon once made a memorable film called Swimming Pool, in which a parched writer was strengthened by contact with another person. Now he makes In the House, where an encounter with imagination again enlivens a writer, and entails danger. Adapted from a play by Juan Mayorga, the film treats imagination—and talent—in certain hands as an almost mystical force.

Germain, a fiftyish middle-school teacher of writing, is correcting papers one day and complaining to his wife about their quality when he discovers one that is extraordinary. The boy, Claude, writes that he has succeeded in making his way into the house of another boy, Rapha, by helping him with his math. Claude has wanted to see that house and is now only partly satisfied. At the end, he writes “To be continued.” Germain’s wife agrees that the boy shows writing promise. Next day Germain finds Claude quietly resolute about continuing. Germain, who has a deeply literary mind but has not written successfully, encourages Claude to return to Rapha’s house—to continue. Claude finds himself writing and reporting it to Germain, fascinated by this ordinary family just because he can observe it. Germain is not consciously using Claude—he considers that he is teaching—but the whole school notices how much time they are spending together. At last Germain even steals a math exam to give Claude a chance to expedite his time with Rapha.

The effects of this union go on to further developments, including encounters with Rapha’s mother and Claude’s wife, which involve touches of the quasi unreal. Eventually the situation is headed for a block, which it reaches. The results are unhappy, especially for Germain, but even then he doesn’t realize exactly what has been happening.

As Germain, the ever-welcome Fabrice Luchini is taking—quite able to conceal his private interests within his magisterial aplomb. Ernst Umhauer conveys the hungry innocence that renders Claude exact as the unknowing accomplice. Ozon uses just enough oddity to make the mystical scenes hold. At bottom the film conveys the danger and responsibility of ravenous, enabled talent.

But there is a quite different, straitlaced France—one where tradition itself is a tradition. This is the locus of You Will Be My Son, which takes place almost entirely on a great vineyard that has been in a certain family for hundreds of years. The very first scene takes place in a crematorium, because the deceased was the head of the family and his ashes occur in the story.

The next in line, his son Paul, white-bearded, vigorous, has taken over as ward of the vineyard’s quality and procedures, glorying in the fact that some may consider them old-fashioned. The whole film is meant to dramatize old fashions, and to that end the writer-director Gilles Legrand has built a screenplay that might have been taken from an old-fashioned drama—a generational struggle with the future in the balance.

Sharmill Films
Niels Arestrup as Paul and Lorànt Deutsch as Martin.

Paul has a young son, Martin, married and living in another house on the estate, who wants very much to succeed his father, but Martin shows little gift. When he launches what he thinks is a good business deal, Paul quickly corrects him. When he assays new equipment, Paul nixes it. Martin presumably has one essential for the trade, a “nose”—the ability to judge and analyze wine by sniffing—but that is not enough.

Just at this time, Paul’s estate manager is diagnosed with severe cancer and his son Philippe comes home from California (where he has managed Francis Coppola’s vineyards). Paul is attracted to him, which only increases his difficulty with Martin. Matters aggravate, particularly since Martin and his wife are not pleasing Paul by failing to bring forth a future heir for this storied place. Things get worse between father and son until there is a figurative explosion.

Legrand has directed with belief in what he is doing, and Niels Arestrup as Paul manages to be both strong and subtly humorous. What is strangely endearing about the film is how quickly one accepts its tradition-bound nature. In a world awash in chaos, here is something like a small isle that is orderly, clear about why it exists and what it wants to be. Devotion to fine wine may not be supreme in human ideals, but it matters to many and it provides attainable ideals to some.

Shannon Plumb, well-known for experimental film, has written, directed and plays the lead in Towheads, a picture that seems to be of one kind but changes being. Craftily. Twice. 

Penelope, a personable young blonde mother, is pushing a pram vigorously along the street in a quiet section of what turns out to be New York. At home she meets her children, two lively and likable small boys, and takes over their care and her home’s duties. Eventually her husband comes home and Penelope presents dinner, and we hope for something more than what this film promises to be. We get it.

Firstly, we notice that the picture concentrates on Penelope. We get a glimpse or two of her husband’s elbow, a remark or two from him, but we are watching Penelope and her equally blonde boys. Next we are, next day I guess, in a woman’s dress shop, Penelope is working there as an assistant. She bungles a few things she is asked to do. We see her at home again, with her peripheral but busy husband and her engaging boys. Then we see her entering a stage door to audition for a show of some kind. She obeys the orders from the director out front, without pleasing him. Then there is more at home, then more attempts to find work, first as a model, more home, then more work attempts, then home, then an attempt even as a street Santa Claus at Christmas—not happily—then after more attempts, taking lessons at pole dancing for possible strip club work. There is no suggestion that her family needs the money. There is every suggestion that Penelope wants to do more with herself than housewifeliness. She makes no pronouncements about it: she simply keeps trying. Merely by concentrating on Penelope, who is in an ordinary situation, Plumb has launched the struggle of a woman, who is a loving mother and congenial enough wife, struggling to have, in some form or other, a life of her own.

But Plumb has more than this by-now familiar struggle in mind for her Penelope. Her protagonist is apparently not equipped for other life. In a wide range of trials, she never succeeds. There is a wistful irony in the air. Whoever the Fate is that endows us with gifts has counted Penelope short; has given her the impulse to a fuller life but not the ability to fulfill it. The film ends with what might be called an accommodating confrontation.

Artists Public Domain
Shannon Plumb as Penelope.

Thus Towheads begins as some sort of domestic tale, then becomes a familiar drama of feminist social struggle. Then it slowly metamorphoses into an account of a woman who would like to to do more but who, without being in the least incapable of more than the housewife life, is apparently unable to expand. The film is not a satire on feminism. It is an attempt to point out that there must be well-meaning exceptions.

Plumb, though not herself a sparkling personality, is completely competent as Penelope. Her own two boys play her sons, irresistibly, and Derek Cianfrance, her own husband, plays her vestigial mate who is always in a hurry to get somewhere else. Plumb directs with imagination and marked agility. It is not quite explicable, but Towheads, in its relatively small means and large compass, had for me a touching overtone of bravery.