| || ||Since Amélie Left |
SINCE OTAR LEFT
Dir. Julie Bertuccelli, France/Belgium,
However ungenerous and highbrow, some of the diffident rhetoric surrounding the critical reception of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001) did rely on a correct premise. The film traveled well, got seamlessly and transnationally assimilated in virtue of its capacity to push to the limit the privileged reputation of Frenchness in the world’s collective imagination (Parisian streets, cafes and marketplaces, the view from Montmartre, the pleasing sound of the French language, and so forth). As the argument ran, however, Jeunet’s film paved the way for French cinema to go from national to nationalistic, covering up the evidence of social malaise, excluding from its adulterated mise-en-scPne of Paris the struggle of the unemployed and the “sans-papiers,” even digitally erasing the belligerent graffiti that voice France’s discontents. Left-wing critics, in France and elsewhere, described Amélie as virtual propaganda for the FN, the right-wing nationalist party headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose principal doctrine revolves around isolationism and autarchy in an effort to disown the EU and seal the borders. In effect, many complained, Jeunet had been culpable of espousing a rather chauvinist approach to the “national,” neither acknowledging nor de-legitimizing the notions of nation and other, let alone voicing the suppressed internal others of the nation.
I suspect that some of Amélie’s many detractors will welcome Julie Bertuccelli’s debut feature Since Otar Left as the perfect antidote to the alleged ideological flaws of Jeunet’s hit. As reported by the press kit, Bertuccelli’s film is “all about lying for love,” a rather diminishing statement for a film that ponders a much grander humanist illusion, that which grants the individual enough agency to change the course of historical dialectic. Set in post-Soviet Georgia, Otar follows Eka (Esther Gorintin), her daughter Marina (Nina Khomassouridze), and granddaughter Ada (Dinara Droukarova), as they struggle in falling-apart Tbilisi, their hearts forever with Eka’s beloved son Otar, who left Georgia to immigrate to France.When news of Otar’s death reaches Georgia, Ada decides to protect her grandmother from the truth. But Eka’s firm resolution to reunite with her son eventually brings all three women to Paris, where the truth will surface, and Ada will perpetuate the family’s history by opting herself for illegal immigration to France.
France, however, is virtually absent from this peculiar French production, thereby betraying an effort to denationalize the nation’s cinema, do away with its conventions and landscapes, in sardonic homage to a pan-European identity that, while some dream to construct, may never come about. At best a tenuous challenge to Bertuccelli’s ambition to demythologize the “national,” the glamour of Paris is distant and ephemeral in Otar, the mere cultural illusion of a francophilic family. We do see the Moulin Rouge, but only as captured in a doctored photograph that serves to perpetuate the illusion of Otar’s existence, further evidence of a strategy that associates national identity with lying, the myth of cultural integration (a European melting pot?) with fabrication. The scenographic star of Amélie, Montmartre is but the virtual place where Otar pretends to live (as he actually inhabits a squalid apartment building populated by illegal immigrants). In the film’s last section, Paris appears rainy and grim, made of cemeteries and cheap hotels, paradigm of a Europe seen as inhospitable (in the film’s most political shot, Eka is seen walking in a marketplace, her figure shrinking, oppressed below the signs listing prices in Euros). Even the French language loses prominence, as Bertuccelli blends it democratically with Georgian and Russian, its deliverance entrusted exclusively with the foreign accent of Eastern European actors, light years past the soothing effect of Audrey Tautou’s voice in Amélie.
While disowning some of French cinema’s defining conventions, Bertuccelli appropriates those typical of Eastern European cinemas, from the commonplaces of an aesthetics of rubbles (intermittent electricity and telephone connection, a mammoth state bureaucracy, crowded apartments, and so forth) to the foregrounding of historical consciousness, particularly of the assumption that individuals merely endure, rather participate in, the dialectics of history. It is worth having recourse, in this respect, to the Russian word smuta, commonly translated as “the time of troubles” but referred to by historians in connection with a sense of historicist resignation, the dominant conviction, in Eastern Europe, that populations shall cyclically go through transitional crises, each one punctually resulting in a new binding of classes to the compulsory service of various autocracies. If one could ever construct an imperialist pattern going from the forcible Sovietization of Georgia in 1921 to its assumed absorption into the sphere of influence of the European Union, one could begin to make sense, at least philosophically, out of Eka voicing her instinctive sympathy towards Stalin, the revolutionary from above, the individual capable of bringing the dialectics of history to its synthesis, a synthesis violent and “premature” (to use the chillingly detached lingo of the Western Marxists), but a kind of closure nonetheless. I would like to predict that if left-wing objections do come Bertuccelli’s way, they will be likely to tackle the film’s incapacity to carry until the end its promised discardment of Franco(Euro)-centrism. Within the climactic Paris section of the film, I believe, one could trace an ideological trajectory, from the Euro-skepticism informing the shot of Eka in the marketplace to the Euro-enthusiasm betrayed by the closing image of Ada inside the airport’s newsstand after she has decided to remain in Paris rather than accompany her mother and grandmother back to Georgia: perfectly blended, invisible, no longer Georgian, French.