Wednesday, January 14, 2009

NYJFF: Two Lives Plus One

Juggling work and family obligations, Eliane Weiss finds it difficult to find time to write. A lot of us can relate to that, even if we’re single. However, Weiss’s frustrated compulsion to write causes enormous disruptions in her personal and professional lives in Idit Cebula’s Two Lives Plus One, which screens tonight at the New York Jewish Film Festival.

Start by forgetting the confusing title, Deux Vies Plus Une, in the original French. The two lives evidently refer to the simultaneous domestic and professional demands placed on Weiss and the one life is the literary career she aspires two. The film is really about trading one existence, as the dutiful teacher and mother who does everything expected of her, for the prospective freedom of artistic self-expression. Needless to say, she meets some resistance in this transformation from her punctilious colleagues and her self-satisfied, somewhat older husband Sylvain. The only person who understands and encourages Weiss is her father, or at least his spirit, whom she occasionally communes with at his grave site. Indeed, he is the catalyst for her creative outpouring, since it was his stories of life in the Polish shtetl which first sparked her imagination.

Her late father might be supportive, but her ailing mother is difficult to handle. Shabbat dinners at her flat become increasingly insufferable for Weiss, but her husband seems to take great pleasure in them, perhaps as an opportunity to adopt the patriarchal mantle. It is a role his wife’s new life threatens to undermine, as she spends more and more time with her earnest young editor.

The frantic pace of modern life can be dizzying, causing people to make stupid decisions every day. However, Weiss often seems to deliberately or carelessly exacerbate her family tensions, which can be frustrating to watch. Certainly, anyone who has ever tried to multi-task can empathize with Weiss, but the Virginia Woolf Room of One’s Own themes feel a bit shop-worn here.

Ironically, even though Lives is Elaine Weiss’s story, the most memorable performance comes from Gerard Darmon as her husband Sylvain. Looking world-weary, but retaining a spark of charm, Darmon elicits sympathy for his character, despite being quite the insensitive husband. In the lead role, Emmanuelle Devos can be charming and convincingly frazzled. However, maybe as a publishing semi-professional, her dramatic angst regarding the book business seemed over-done. (After all, what does she expect sending unsolicited manuscripts?).

Making her feature film directorial debut, French actress Cebula also appropriately appears as Jeanne Sfez, a successful novelist whose example inspires Weiss. In Lives she keeps the family drama from getting too heavy and elicits some nuanced performances, particularly from the men in her cast. While maybe not a cinematic revelation, Cebula brings a sophisticated sensibility to material that might uncharitably sound a bit like a number of films from the 1970’s. It screens tonight, Saturday, and Sunday at the NY Jewish Film Festival. Co-sponsored by the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, most festival screenings, including Lives, take place at the Walter Reade Theater.