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NYFF: Jardins en automne

October 3rd, 2006 (11:58 pm)

© D. Gordon 2006

Jardins en automne (Gardens in Autumn)
Dir: Otar Iosseliani

Vincent (Séverin Blanchet) is a government minister in a country that looks suspiciously like France. He meets with foreign dignitaries and town councils; he gives and receives – oh, how he receives – gifts; he's driven around in a big stretch limousine. In his office, which looks like Versailles, everyone defers to him; he strides past the guards, the secretary is his right hand, a man in livery follows him around with documents to be signed - although Vincent tends close the door to drink and play cards with a trusted aide. He lives in a huge mansion with a girlfriend who's made an art of being beautiful and spending money – but not much else. Some would be jealous.

One day, there are mass demonstrations in the streets. It's not important why; it's just important that they happened. Because they happened, Vincent is forced to resign from his position and his career. He loses the meetings, rejects all but one of the gifts, moves out of the office and the mansion, and is dumped by the girlfriend. And that's when he gets the chance to become human again...

I have mixed feelings about this film. It comes across as a plea to know and rediscover oneself, to live life simply and get rid of the fancy trappings. There's definitely something to be said for that; but there's also no recognition that Vincent is partly to blame for his predicament. He wasn't forced to go into government, to hook up with a golddigger, to completely lose touch with his background; and even on the other side of it all he's still taking advantage of what's on offer – the help of his mother (Michel Piccoli!), not to mention his four concurrent girlfriends – rather than taking responsibility as he regains his footing in life. It's also hard to imagine that a government minister, even under a cloud, would leave service with no money, no prospects, no place to stay, and no belongings. It's a form of rebirth, but doesn't quite make it to the level of divine (re)birth.

Some of Iosseliani's characters could have slid into quite unpleasant things, but the director manages to dodge that bullet. The African immigrant squatters in Vincent's old apartment come really, really uncomfortably close to caricature: too many crammed into the apartment like bugs, untidy, sloppy, and implicitly smelly; jury-rigging light fixtures and setting up junky furnishings; led by a Very Large Black Woman With Attitude (okay, that's not specifically French). What balances this out is one of Vincent's many girlfriends, who happens to be of African descent but is also French: tall and svelte, a good dresser, who owns her own car and is clearly able to navigate through French society. Maybe it's a case of vive l'intégration.
Again looking at the characters, Piccoli's turn as Vincent's mother isn't sure what it wants to be. The character may represent an archetypal French "mother", but the part isn't that big and he doesn't have much to do. Iosseliani explains Piccolini's casting as "I couldn't find a woman good enough to play the part." Yeah, whatever.
So I guess this isn't going to be my festival favorite. It left me feeling a little empty, and the comedy brought faint smiles but no real laughs. Iosseliani, during the Q and A, came across as an eccentric old man – which in effect he probably is and perhaps has to be in order to be a good director. But as a Georgian filmmaker who migrated to France 15-20 years ago, he also comes across as an observer interpreting a France that may not have anything to do with much at all.