Monday, March 05, 2018

Rendez-Vous ’18: The Lion Sleeps Tonight

Jean-Pierre Léaud is probably the most recognizable French actor—maybe ever—thanks to his performances in classic Truffaut and Goddard films, as well as The Last Tango in Paris, which people keep watching assuming it will be something it isn’t. This time around, he follows in John Malkovich’s footsteps playing a meta version of himself, who plays a meta version of himself in an amateur film produced by a group of school children on vacation. They do not recognize old “Jean,” but the creaky house he is staying in certainly looks haunted to them, because it really is haunted by his former lover in Nobuhiro Suwa’s The Lion Sleeps Tonight (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

Léaud was supposed to be reuniting with a celebrated co-star, but her diva behavior put the production on hold. Frankly, that is fine by him. He had been struggling with an upcoming scene would have forced him to confront his mortality. However, he will do exactly that, in a more oblique way when he takes advantage of the hiatus to visit the mothballed home of a deceased lover, Juliette de Garron. It is not clear whether it was an accident or suicide, but either way, the net result was her premature death in the early 1970s. Yet Jean finds that she has been waiting for him in that house, all that time.

In a twist of fate, a group of local children had been drawn to the house as the setting for their scrappy haunted house film. At first, Jean scares them away, but he welcomes them in soon thereafter. They rather amuse him and their youth is a healthy influence for someone regularly conversing with the dead.

If Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper had been reconceived as a children’s film halfway through production, it might have a vibe similar to Lion Sleeps Tonight. There really are not any scary moments in the film, but the scenes in which Jean faces de Garron’s ghost have a breathlessness that is quite arresting.

Frankly, Suwa struggles to marry up the evocative stillness of the haunted passages with the spirited interactions with the Goonie-style children. It is a bit frustrating, because they both have their merits. The one constant is a world-weary but still rather game Léaud. He is definitely a good sport and he has moments that would do his old mentor Truffaut proud. Many of those come opposite the ethereal-looking and altogether extraordinary Pauline Etinene, as the ghostly de Garron.

Lion Sleeps Tonight is an uneven film, particularly in terms of tonal shifts, but it is just too interesting to miss. It will be impossible to survey his storied career without substantially analyzing this film. Cinematographer Tom Harari makes it one of the sunniest ghost movies ever, but he nicely differentiates the twilight meetings shared by Jean and de Garron. Recommended for patrons of French cinema, who will appreciate Léaud’s legacy, The Lion Sleeps Tonight screens this Friday (3/9) and the following Thursday (3/15), as part of French Rendez-Vous ’18, at the Walter Reade.