400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.

Filmmaker Jean Renoir, the son of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, is inarguably one of the great cinematic poets. He established a fluid, almost unobtrusive style that allowed him to burrow directly into the souls of his characters. In his most acclaimed film, The Rules of the Game (1939), he appears as a kind of buffoonish party guest, and speaks a line of dialogue that has come to be associated with the real-life filmmaker and all his films: "Everyone has his reasons."

Just this week I caught up with Philippe Claudel's directorial debut I've Loved You So Long (52 screens), which some critics have compared to Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married (216 screens). Both films feature contenders for Best Actress, both try to concentrate on human emotions and behavior rather than a forward-thrusting plot, and at least one film has been compared to Renoir. However, one film succeeds and the other fails, and it comes down to the issue of trust. One filmmaker steps back and lets his characters evolve within the film, and the other constructs the characters as specific types to drive the story (he tells rather than shows).

In I've Loved You So Long, Kristen Scott Thomas plays Juliette, a woman who is released from prison after a 15 year sentence, served for murdering her own son. Characters constantly behave erratically and illogically -- saying stupid things in mixed company -- simply to impart more information or more plot; in other words, this is not as much of a character study as it appears. In one scene, Juliette and her schoolteacher sister Lea (Elsa Zylberstein) visit the hospital to see their mother, whose behavior is clumsily designed more to affect Juliette's development than to reflect that of a real Alzheimer's patient. In another, a social worker blunders pathetically in talking to Juliette about her issues -- merely so we can see Juliette respond. I could provide more examples, but it would just turn into a long list. Suffice to say that these characters are always subservient to the furthering of the story; the story itself squashes them.

Rachel Getting Married on the other hand is more like something Renoir would have made, a movie fascinated with observing human nature, and a movie in which "everyone has his reasons." The main character, Kym (Anne Hathaway), is a spoiled, wounded girl selfish and in desperate need of attention. In one long, remarkable scene -- a rehearsal dinner -- we listen as characters give all kinds of toasts and speeches, all sounding uncomfortably real. Kym also listens, and eventually decides to give a toast, which starts earnestly but winds up being all about herself. In any other movie, she would be the bad guy, but Demme, and screenwriter Jenny Lumet, root her pain in some genuine place. (She's very much like the emotionally distressed airplane pilot at the center of The Rules of the Game.)

Simply by allowing the film to breathe and move like an organic thing, Kym comes to life. We learn to love her in spite of, and because of, her severe flaws. I find it much harder to describe the success of this film than to describe the failure of the other one. I can only say that it's honest and brave. And it trusts us.
CATEGORIES Columns, Cinematical