Thursday, November 12, 2009

A night at the movies

Last night I went to a special screening of Le Petit Nicolas, a new movie based on a series of well-loved children’s books. I read a few of the stories in high school French class and love lit/films that try for a child’s perspective on the world, so I had already been planning to see the film before I heard about the opportunity. As it turns out, director Laurent Tirard is a NYU film school alum, so all of the NYU students were invited to a free screening of the film followed by a question and answer session in a cute little theater just off the Champs Elysées.

The movie was perfect, using a cast of unknown child actors (including the director’s son) and a few cartoony adults to bring a child’s view of 1950’s Paris to life. The French audience members seemed pleased with the faithfulness to the book, but as someone with only a vague sense of the characters I still fell in love with them (in particular Clotaire, the adorable class dunce, and the 50’s pre-feminist housewife mother). It reminded me a lot of a less-twisted rendition of Roald Dahl’s stories, with the schoolboy antics and their mean headmaster coming straight from Boy and the kind maîtresse a reflection of Ms. Honey in Matilda. The director himself was laid back and down-to-earth, and if it wasn’t for the microphone he would have blended in easy with the casual college crowd. I also appreciated his honesty—when asked how it was to film with children he gave the obligatory “well, children can be inspiring” response but said it was more frequently comparable to the hell of trying to plan a birthday party for a ten year old. Except for six hours at a time. Every day. For five months of filming. (Understandably, he doesn’t foresee a sequel.)

The main thing that I took away from this experience is an appreciation for France’s cinema scene. France is big enough to have a rich cultural/literary/film history to draw on, but small enough that it’s easy for an inspired writer/director to get in contact with the people he needs to realize his dream…in this case, an illustrator from the original books for the opening credits and Renée Goscinny’s family (the writer who wrote Petit Nicolas, as well as Asterix, Lucky Luke and others) for permission, blessing, and advice. France is small enough to produce art for art’s sake, but its budget is big enough (the government helps fund a lot of film projects) to make sure they don’t suck. It’s big enough to produce 800 boys trying out for the role of Nicolas, but small enough that the chosen actors all remain friends post-filming and come over to the director’s house once a month to play video games with his son.

Well except the little girl actor, of course, who's not invited: “I mean, we only have video games at my house, not dolls.”

Cultured but sexist. Oh France.

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