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2015年11月21日 星期六

La Duchesse de Varsovie (The Duchess of Warsaw) (華沙公爵夫人)

My second film at the French film festival is a jewel hidden in dark hall of the HK Film Archive. It's one of the sparest films I've seen: just two live characters who move about and had some brief conversations amidst painted cardboard figures with voice overs and static painted scenarios of Paris plus readings at the end of the book sometimes by one and sometimes by the other from a book which had not been published and an excerpt from a black and white film. Yet there was never a dull moment. We were kept on tenterhooks because of two dark secrets: why one young painter couldn't paint and why one old lady, his grandmother, was completely silent about her past.


The film La Duchesse de Varsovie (The Duchess of Warsaw) (華沙公爵夫人) of Joseph Morder who co-scripted the screen with Cécile Vargaftig with dialogue done by Harold Manning tells the story of the reunion of Valentin (Andy Gillet) and his beloved paternal grandmother Nina (Alexandra Stewart) in a painted Paris mostly at the home of the grandson. As the story unfolds, we see the two meet at the Gare de L'Est, exchange embraces and ask about how each had been doing since they last met, had a café at her favourite bistro, visit the grandson's favorite street, Rue du Futur and talk about their memories there. The Gare de l'Est is where Nina, a Jew from Poland first met her husband Gaston who had since died, learned to speak her first word in French. We learned how she gradually lost her Yiddish accent and also her memory of her past in Poland. The Rue du Futur was where Valentin first brought Gaston to when he was 15, where she encouraged him to paint and where he met his first love, René, whose later departure with his family took all color away from Valentin's paintings and whose surrogate he could never again find his occasional hunt for one at the local disco. As the film develops, we learn why Nina was called the Duchess of Warsaw: it was a nickname others gave her when she was in a concentration camp: she lost all members of her family one by one in various episodes during WWII at the hands of the Nazis, we learn how her father who went out to have a breath of fresh air in the family balcony in the morning was shot because of the curfew and  how her mother who went out to support her wounded was also shot, how his brother was gunned down in another massacre, how she had to work as a cleaning lady at a German hospital, with just one close friend, how she narrowly escaped being  killed as one in ten selected to be decimated in a roulette of death, how one inmate who stepped out on a window on the concentration camp was thought to want to make an escape and shot instantly right in front of her eyes and how eventually, how she was offered a drink by a stranger when she was dying of thirst in the last days of the war and how when she lifted her eyes, she saw the face of Gaston, her future husband. When Nina was asked to accompany Valentin to meet his dad and mom for dinner, she declined but in the middle of the night, she had a dream of flying over Paris in red dress and telephoned Valentin, who earlier had abruptly left his parents once his father suggested that he should think seriously about having an exhibition soon and drowned himself in drink and was then resting against a street lamp post. When Valentin was with Nina, she told him about her dream and took out a book which she had written and starting reading it to Valentin: it explained how she was got her nickname The Duchess of Warsaw, how she never lived in Warsaw, but instead in a small village in Poland, how her true name was not Nina and why she never talked about her past and forbade anyone to ask about it. Her past, was as she said, "simple and horrible": she was a survivor of the unspeakable horrors of the holocaust and of Krakow.

It was a film of reconciliation with life, of salvation, of healing, no matter how horrible one's life had been by facing up to it and to appreciate the simple joy and the miracle that one is still alive. Survival is never guaranteed to any one. By telling Valentin those painful secrets which she had buried in the depths of her memory and which she had kept even from her son and by asking Valentin to read parts of it, she taught Valentin the value of the gift of life. Earlier she told Valentin that he is still young and Paris is still the centre of the world of art. That is not just a statement about Paris. It's a declaration of her faith in Valentin. In the end, that's is what counts as far as she and Valentin is concerned. At the end of the film, we see Valentin  finally emerging into the sunlight again. The color had returned to his paintings and for the first time, we see the real blue sky, instead of the blue of the painted background. He has exorcised his past, his hell, through Nina's cathartic secrets.

I like the way Joseph Morder tells his story: like a classical drama, with just a few carefully selected tableaux wonderfully done by Chloé Cambournac and Juliette Schwarz, just sufficient dialogue to keep the action moving, with a haunting melody which Nina always associated with the best time of her life, her time with Gaston with whom she found true contentment and could not ask for more. I like the various moods suggested by the colors and lines of the paintings which form the oneiric background to the film and the use of light flashing during the disco scene and the flickering ight in the fountain to suggest life, especially with the music playing. I like the scene where grandmother and grandson went to see a silent movie of love. Words are not really necessary. I love too the image of Nina flying over a painted Paris in a red gown in a real blue sky over painted houses: at once vital, real, joyous and dreamy. I like especially the performance of Alexandra Stewart, whose grace, both distant and warm, her far away looks whenever she starts recounting her past to her favourite grandson and her affection and hope for him, pure encouragement, motivated by nothing but genuine care and concern, never a hint of the slightest pressure: her words meant only to elicit from her melancholic looking grandson, boxed in by the hell of an unforgettable yet irrecoverable past, a little of the joy that she still finds in life. Andy Gillet too was convincing too as the sensitive, lost and melancholic Valentin.