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Time Out New York Project: Issue #785, October 14-20, 2010
Dir. Angela Christlieb. 2009. N/R. 82mins. Documentary.
Inspired by the legend of a utopian metropolis called Urville (you can supposedly see it as a mirage off the Mediterranean coast), director Angela Christlieb visits three Gallic villages that all go by that name. At each stop, she interviews several of the locals, chosen for unique and/or oddball characteristics. There’s François Grossi, a political candidate who considers himself Amerindian and lives in a tepee; the wealthy heirs to the Drappier champagne fortune; and an impoverished circus family that lives in a run-down mansion with numerous farm animals.
It’s an eclectic grab bag of personalities, but the film doesn’t weave the disparate stories together so much as jump, whiplash-like, between them. And the idea of contrasting the Eden-esque Urville of the mind (something Christlieb ineffectually visualizes by superimposing various cityscapes over each other) with its actual, more complicated counterparts always seems like a put-upon contrivance. There’s just the name and little else.
Though no cohesive themes emerge, individual moments — like Grossi’s recollection of bias attacks, or the matriarch of the circus clan tearing up over a marriage that never happened — are still deeply moving. At its best, the film recalls several of Agnès Varda’s sublime nonfiction efforts, which examine the eccentric branches of French life with incisive curiosity. Christlieb has a similarly good eye for human idiosyncrasy; hopefully, she’ll give it a stronger showcase next time.—Keith Uhlich
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