La Vie Nouvelle



aka New Life aka A New Life : France 2002 : Philippe GRANDRIEUX : 102 mins

According to the Kendall Movie Awards, 2002’s top five “guilty pleasures” were Blade 2, Catch Me If You Can, Barbershop, Blue Crush and Spider-Man. Leaving aside the issue of whether or not the latter pair are deserving of such a backhanded compliment, it wouldn’t be too far wide of the mark to add La Vie Nouvelle to the list – though Grandrieux’s film is about as far from Hollywood multiplex-fodder as cinema can presently offer. In fact, it’s so deliriously, wildly pretentious, so aggressively challenging to prospective viewers, that it tips over into the realms of the perversely enjoyable.

Think of it as a less-accessible Irreversible and you won’t be too far off. Like his compatriot Gaspar Noe, Grandrieux delights in putting his audiences and characters through his movies (and also through the innards of nightmarish nightclubs), daring us to look away or walk out in offended bourgeois disgust. The assault on the eyes and ears is often extreme – though never quite as deafening as the unforgettably loud “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” party sequence in the middle of his 1998 debut Sombre.

In fact, the matter of volume is far from the only way in which La Vie Nouvelle falls slightly short of Sombre: though often diverting and original, none of the scenes linger in the mind quite like, say, the puppet-show opening or Tour de France finale from the previous film. But Grandrieux is capable of delivering powerful stuff: early scenes of a misty Bulgarian rural dawn have something of a painterly Caspar David Friedrich quality (courtesy of cinematographer Stephane Fontaine), and Grandrieux’s handling of a savage dog attack once again shows his affinity for extreme, in-your-face material.

Elsewhere, Grandrieux’s ‘experimentalism’ is often of a distinctly over-familiar kind: wobbly/blurry images, wild zooms, cacophonous sound, characters who seldom speak and then only emit gnomic utterances in – a – very – slow – voice. And it’s all laid at the service of what is, essentially, a cobweb-laden old plot (script by Grandrieux with Eric Vuillard): a debauchery-hungry young American (Zach Knighton) stuck for unspecified reasons in Sofia, falls for a prostitute (Anna Mouglalis) and tries to wrench her away from the vicious grasp of the local Mafia. with very bad consequences for all concerned.

In other, less grandiose hands, this could be the set-up for a pulsating thriller – Grandrieux, however, has more rarefied fish to fry, as indicated by his choice of leading man (the refreshingly doughy and inexpressive Knighton) and ‘exotic’, frontier-of-new-Europe locale. And while tedium is very much part of Grandrieux’s game-plan, he delivers enough ‘set-pieces’ of startling, brutal ‘action’ to just about keep audiences awake. Perhaps on second or third viewings, La Vie Nouvelle could indeed emerge as a brilliantly daring thesis on the state of Europe, America, men, women, the world and current cinema – all of which are presumably part of Grandrieux’s intentions. But even he must realise that, for all but the most dedicated viewers, a second helping of La Vie Nouvelle will be as appetising as a bowl of last week’s snezhanka.

1st April, 2003
(seen 29th January, [Old] Luxor, Rotterdam – Rotterdam Film Festival)

For all the reviews from the Rotterdam Film Festival click here.

by Neil Young