Sunday, March 04, 2012

French Rendezvous ’12: The Screen Illusion

Hotel concierges pride themselves on their resourcefulness. However, one rather dodgy operator promises to show an estranged father the life of the son he disowned. Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique (a.k.a. The Theatrical Illusion) is reset in the present day rather shrewdly and faithfully in Mathieu Almaric’s The Screen Illusion, which screens today as part of the 2012 Rendezvous with French Cinema.

In the original Corneille, Alcandre is a magician who shows Pridamant images of his son on the wall of his Platonic grotto. Alcandre the concierge takes the remorseful parent to the nerve center of the hotel’s closed circuit television network. He has quite a story cued up for the man.

Clindor (as his father knew him) is now the hired muscle for Matamore, a blow hard special ops video game developer. Matamore is in love with Isabelle, whose mobbed up father has promised her to the well heeled Adraste. Finding them both sorry excuses for masculinity, Isabelle has been having an affair with Clindor. Unfortunately, their secret really isn’t one. Lyse, Adraste’s ambiguous security consultant, knows all about them. She also loved Clindor, but her ardor has soured into resentment.

Corneille’s Illusion is surprisingly hip for its time, self-consciously toying with distinctions between comedy and tragedy before ending with a fifth act twist that is still widely ripped off in contemporary film and television. While the rhyming couplets proved a bridge too far for the subtitlers (and fair enough), English speaking audiences still get a sense of the rhythms and cadences of Almaric’s adaptation, apparently simplifying Corneille’s language, but keeping its character.

His cast certainly enjoys chewing on it, especially Julie Sicard, who is a scene-stealing standout as the sort of scorned Lyse. Loïc Corbery’s Clindor might seem a bit bland, but that is just how it is with young prodigal stage heroes. However, Suliane Brahim shows considerable dramatic presence and chops, holding her own with Sicard in a key scene. As Alcandre, Hervé Pierre’s knowing roguishness holds it all together quite nicely.

Conceived as part of a series of Comedie Française television movies updating classic French stage dramas, Almaric’s Illusion is definitely worthy of the big screen. The modernizations are quite clever, yet Almaric maintains a romantic fable-like atmosphere throughout. Smart and completely satisfying, it is one of the highlights of this year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema. Enthusiastically recommended, it screens today (3/4) and Tuesday (3/6) at the Walter Reade, at BAM also today, and at the IFC Center tomorrow (3/5).