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Bizarre Love Triangle Splits Claude Chabrol's'Girl'

French auteur Claude Chabrol (“Merci pour le Chocolat,” “La Cérémonie”) has been making Hitchcockian thrillers for half a century, a practice he started after writing a book analyzing Alfred Hitchcock’s work. (He and co-author Eric Rohmer, who also went on to become a French New Wave director, were then editors at the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.) “A Girl Cut in Two” provides plenty of Chabrol’s Hitchcockian trademarks, including black humor, moral debauchery and guilt.

The script is based on the infamous 1906 Manhattan murder of fin-de-siècle architect Stanford White, who was shot by the husband of his former young mistress. Chabrol and co-writer Cécile Maistre (Chabrol’s regular assistant director and stepdaughter) translate the story to modern-day Lyon in France.

Celebrity author Charles (smoothly portrayed by veteran François Berléand from “Tell No One”) has a certain gravitas about him, enabling him to woo Gabrielle, a TV weather girl three decades his junior (Ludivine Sagnier from “Swimming Pool”). Rival suitor Paul (Chabrol regular Benoît Magimel), more Gabrielle’s age, is a dilettante heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. He’s madly (perhaps literally) jealous, having already hated Charles before the love triangle began. After Charles dumps Gabrielle, she’s despondent. On the rebound, she agrees to wed Paul, but he can never get over the fact that she’s been “spoiled” by Charles.

Berléand effortlessly plays Charles as a bored cynic, a dirty old man who’s toying with Gabrielle. Meanwhile, Magimel’s portrayal of the spoiled rich kid Paul, who cries when he doesn’t get what he wants, makes him convincingly annoying. As Paul’s mother, Genevieve, Caroline Sihol’s memorable performance as an elitist snob is chilling. Her condescending words and mannerisms make it clear what Genevieve thinks of her daughter-in-law.

Under Chabrol’s direction, the society’s decadence fills the air, which the camera captures palpably when moving around. “A Girl Cut in Two” is more of a psychological thriller, not so much a whodunit. It may not be the prolific Chabrol at the very top of his game, but it would still be the best work of almost any other director.

A Girl Cut in Two (La Fille Coupée en Deux) (French with subtitles; 115 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema

4.5 out of 5 stars

Oedipal ‘Mister Foe’

In “Mister Foe,” Scottish director David Mackenzie (“Asylum,” “Young Adam”) creates a unique antihero in Hallam Foe (Jamie Bell from “Billy Elliot” in a quiet tour-de-force performance) — a very troubled 17-year-old with an Oedipal fixation that makes him a creepy peeping Tom.

What’s unique is how much the audience comes to like and empathize with this antihero — a credit to fine direction, plot, character development and acting. The story of “Mister Foe” is also very cinematic in the hands of Mackenzie and his regular director of photography, Giles Nuttgens, whose encapsulating widescreen camerawork helps fully thrust the audience into Hallam’s world, one in which darkness alternates with light.

And what a world it is. Hallam wears a badger skin on his head, paints his face, and spies on people — even when they’re having sex. He is still mourning his mother’s death while other family members have moved on with their lives. Hallam keeps a shrine for her in the tree house in which he lives, and he’s convinced she was murdered by his new stepmother (Claire Forlani), his father’s former secretary.

But then a confrontation leads to him sleeping with his stepmother, precipitating his departure to Edinburgh. In the streets, he stumbles upon Kate (Sophia Myles), a doppelgänger for his mother. Of course, he spies on her, which leads him to land a job in the hotel in which she works. In time, they develop a sort of improbable relationship.

The ensemble acting is convincing enough to overcome some implausible character actions. Adapted from Peter Jinks’s novel, the taut script by Mackenzie and Ed Whitmore moves the story along. It even feels like an action flick during the scenes following Hallam’s journey around the streets and rooftops of Edinburgh to spy on Kate. Despite Hallam’s outrageous behavior, the audience realizes he means no harm and is fundamentally a good kid trying to sort out his life.

Mister Foe (English; 95 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Oct. 10

4 out of 5 stars

Ephemeral ‘Thousand Years’

“A Thousand Years of Good Prayers” is not much of a film. That’s meant as a compliment. It’s an ephemeral, barely there, very simple film that’s well executed. Director Wayne Wang has had a diverse career moving between indie films (“Chan Is Missing,” “Smoke”) and mainstream Hollywood movies (“The Joy Luck Club,” “Maid in Manhattan”). Here, he’s going small — back to his Asian-American indie roots — and he gets it right with nuanced direction and performances, with help from Yiyun Li’s screenplay adapted from her own short story.

After 12 years apart, Mr. Shi (Henry O), a widowed retiree in Beijing, pays a visit to his divorced daughter Yilan (Faye Yu from “The Joy Luck Club”) in Spokane, Washington. But his mission to “save” her from her presumed unhappiness isn’t entirely welcome, and she avoids him during the day working as a librarian, while at night, she sees a Russian man.

Left mostly on his own, Mr. Shi ventures out to get the lay of the land. Despite limited English, he manages all right by himself. In particular, he befriends an elderly Iranian woman in the park. They speak to each other in Mandarin and Farsi, respectively — which ends up working quite well for the pair despite their lack of understanding each other’s language.

Their ease in communicating contrasts with the stilted conversations between Mr. Shi and his daughter in Mandarin. Yilan reveals that she feels emotionally constrained speaking Mandarin as she wasn’t raised to express feelings growing up, whereas in English, and in the rest of her life, she has freedom.

But at what price is this freedom? From Mr. Shi’s perspective, Yilan’s existence is devoid of life, as evidenced by her apartment’s sterility and lack of friends. Her life has its secrets, which don’t add up for him. And Mr. Shi has his own secrets, too. The tension grows, but they eventually manage to resolve their differences.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Mandarin, English and Farsi with some subtitles; 83 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Oct. 3

4 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International FilmClips for detailed listings available at press time.

AFI Silver Theatre Through Oct. 7, the popular Latin American Film Festival, programmed by cultural officers from area embassies, continues at the AFI Silver Theatre. Director Mitch Teplitsky and dancer Cynthia Paniagua appear live at the Oct. 5 screening of “I’m from the Andes.” From Oct. 9 to 14, catch the return of the DC Labor FilmFest, including a sidebar on Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani. (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver

Arabian Sights Film Festival The 13th annual Arabian Sights Film Festival (Oct. 24-Nov. 2) offers a selection of films from the Arab world, including the award-winning Jordanian film “Captain Abu Raed,” with director Amin Matalqa and producer Matalqa in person, and “Slingshot Hip Hop” from Palestine, the official selection at Sundance 2008. All screenings will be held at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. (202) 724-5613, www.filmfestdc.org/arabiansights/index.cfm

DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival The 9th annual DC APA Film Festival continues through Oct. 4 with screenings at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the U.S. Navy Memorial. The closing night documentary, “The Killing of a Chinese Cookie” (a presumed pun on John Cassavetes’s “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”), is followed by a reception at the Civilian Art Projects gallery. www.apafilm.org

Freer Gallery of Art “United by Contrasts: Southeast Asian Cinema Today,” the theme of the fifth annual US-ASEAN Film Festival, continues through Oct. 12. From Oct. 24 to Nov. 2, the Freer presents four films by Indian filmmaker Kumar Shahani, in tandem with the Arthur M. Sackler exhibition “Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur.” (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp

Goethe Institut “Between Fiction and Reality: Films by Rainer Simon” (Oct. 27-Nov. 10) presents the acclaimed German Democratic Republic’s director’s work. Most films are recently subtitled and thereby receiving U.S. premieres. Simon will be on hand to present “Till Eulenspiegel” (Oct. 30) and “The Ascent of the Chimborazo” (Oct. 31). (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm

National Gallery of Art “Qualité Suisse: New Swiss Cinema” runs from Oct. 10 to 12. According to the National Gallery: “Discovering art in diverse and incongruous places is the pretext behind this stellar presentation of documentaries and fictional works from Swiss directors Thomas Imbach, Peter Liechti, Georges Gachot, Christoph Schaub and Michael Schindhelm, all members of Switzerland’s rising independent film community.” On Oct. 18 and 26, “Jules Dassin, American Abroad” screens the Greek myth update “Phaedra” and the French heist flick “Rififi.” (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999

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