To call the narrative shambling and the acting amateurish is not wholly an insult, because Be Kind Rewind is determinedly unslick. Gondry, like many French-born filmmakers, has the Big Deconstructionist Idea. He’s exploring the gulf between the democratization of moviemaking and the daunting amount of money, technical resources, and personnel it takes to make anything that the mainstream audience will want to see. He’s also showing how far a little bit of wit and humanity can go. In The Science of Sleep and many of his music videos, Gondry’s designs are right on the border between CGI-miraculous and handmade—manufactured realities that draw attention to their childish surrealism. The funniest things in Be Kind Rewind are not the many moments in which Mike and Jerry look like Ed Wood’s worst nightmare, but when the pair finds expedient ways to do for pennies what would take Brett Ratner millions and be less expressive to boot.
A little slickness would not have been misplaced, though. Mos Def, a gifted actor, is on simpleton autopilot, and Black would be a better clown if he were physically more inventive. A narrative this outlandish requires the characters to act like borderline mental defectives, which reins in both Glover and Mia Farrow, who plays a kind of child-woman neighbor. Gondry might think he’s parodying dumb comedies in which poor people rally to save beloved institutions from foreclosure—but too often Be Kind Rewind just resembles them.
Fats Waller holds this ramshackle picture together. He’s Mr. Fletcher’s idol—the source of the old man’s dreams and civic pride, and the subject of the movie’s final act. It’s a soft ending, a little woozy (or, at least, it made me woozy). But it radiates the kind of optimism you don’t see in films about how new media is turning us all into passive voyeurs in our own hermetically sealed bubbles. This bubble is warm and inclusive.
With the simplest of means, the director Jacques Rivette has cut a path to the heart of Balzac’s The Duchess of Langeais, one of the author’s less transgressive studies in sexual obsession but dizzyingly potent in charting the pendulum swings of power between willful lovers. Rivette has pared the story down so that there isn’t a wasted frame. The Duchess, Antoinette (Jeanne Balibar), estranged from her husband, brings a battered military hero, General Armand de Montriveau (Guillaume Depardieu), into her orbit: She converses with him while wriggling on her settee; uses him to escort her nightly to extravagant functions; and preserves her “virtue” by airily withholding her sexual favors. (“She had so pretty an art of revoking the grant of yesterday,” writes Balzac.)
Balibar isn’t conventionally beautiful, but her face is pert, provocatively forward—you can see why Montriveau wants to seize her. Depardieu (Gérard’s son) is too stolid to capture the full range of the general’s emotions: What’s missing is the adolescent delight in the early scenes, when he’s giddy from the novelty of not holding the reins—a contrast with the Napoleonic near madman who emerges after months of denial. But Depardieu certainly evokes Montriveau’s masculine sense of entitlement and ease in commanding a secret male society with no checks on its power. No wonder Antoinette can only find (temporary) refuge in an order of Carmelite nuns.
Rivette has aged into one of cinema’s most ingenious minimalists. In The Duchess of Langeais he uses intertitles—bits of literary exposition—with cheeky understatement. It’s as if he’s reminding us that he doesn’t need pages of characters’ thoughts to show the fullness of their inner worlds. Even when the camera is still, the crosscurrents are electric.