Once Upon a Time in a Midlife Crisis


 

Yvan Attal huddles on a velvet couch in a corner of the cavernous Chateau Marmont lobby, a study in nervous energy. The Israeli-born French actor-director, who is charming if energetic, furrows his brow and runs his fingers through his tousled black hair. It’s not hard to believe that one of his film idols is Woody Allen (“I identify with his neuroses”) or that he makes films that serve as personal therapy.

Consider his new dark comedy, the frenetically paced “Happily Ever After,” which explores his midlife crisis. He got the idea in 2003 when he dropped his son off at preschool and noticed most of the other parents were divorced.

“I began thinking about my own life and the choices I have made, and they felt enormous and scary,” he said.

Not that anything was amiss in his own household. Since the 1990s, Attal has lived with the French movie star, Charlotte Gainsbourgh, daughter of the late Jewish pop icon, Serge Gainsbourgh. They have two children, ages 7 and 2, and thriving careers. Gainsbourgh, 33, is a popular actress who has appeared in approximately two dozen films, including Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jane Eyre.” Attal, 40, is less renowned as an actor, but he has won the Cesar, the French equivalent of the Oscar, for 1989’s “Un Monde Sans Pitie,” and since 2002 he has made a name for himself as the director of romantic comedies starring himself and Gainsbourgh.

Despite his own domestic harmony, those single parents spooked the director at preschool.

“The love was still there,” he said of his relationship. “But you realize you can meet somebody else; that maybe it can be difficult to stay together. Then you realize that you are not free, and not only with other women; you cannot make a [snap] decision because it engages other people. So I got really frightened and I just started writing.”

“Happily Ever After,” follows three male friends and the women in their lives as they navigate midlife crises and ponder the pros and cons of commitment. Attal portrays Vincent, a car salesman who takes a mistress when his marital routine becomes blasé, while his wife, played by Gainsbourgh, fantasizes about a stranger. The narrative shifts from everyday scenes to dream sequences and poses the question: Can a relationship survive infidelity? Is it unrealistic to remain faithful? As one character puts it, “I can choose my wife, or all other women.”

If “Happily Ever After,” according to The New York Times, suggests a Parisian answer to Mike Binder’s short-lived HBO series, “The Mind of the Married Man,” Attal’s 2002 debut film, “My Wife Is an Actress,” is more reminiscent of the jealousy comedies of Allen. The film stars Attal as a sportswriter married to a sexy actress (Gainsbourgh) who is desired by every man in France.

The movie wasn’t only prompted by Attal’s amusement (and annoyance) at his own wife’s star treatment: the restaurant tables that suddenly became available for Gainsbourgh and not for Attal, for example, or the nightclub bouncers who rejected him until she showed up.

As a performer, Attal had become obsessed with the realization that an onscreen kiss perhaps isn’t just a kiss, and a nude scene isn’t simply another day at the office. “Actors like to say, ‘Oh, we’re just doing a job, but when you spend all day in bed with an attractive person there is bound to be some desire,” he says. “Look at all the romances that begin on the set. And if you’re doing that job and your wife is doing that job … it’s a risk every time.”

In a “Wife” subplot, the protagonist’s pregnant sister is married to a Catholic who cannot understand her preoccupation with circumcising their son; her shrill obsession evokes the pressure Attal feels being Jewish in the hostile French body politic. “Since 9/11 the anti-Semitism has increased, and for the first time in my life I don’t feel like the other French,” says the director, whose next film will excoriate French anti-Semitism.

“Happily Ever After” focuses on more personal than societal concerns, although the prickly subject matter initially caused tension on his home front.

“When Yvan [first] spoke to me about … some scenes, I was very uneasy with the subject,” Gainsbourgh said. “The idea obviously came from something in his life, and I’m part of that. I had a right to be worried. A couple falling apart — that scared me and I was trying to find the reality in it.”

The resolution of the onscreen couple helped to assuage her fears — as did discussions with the director.

So is Attal’s midlife crisis over? Is he still worried about his relationship falling apart?

“I don’t know,” he says. “But maybe I feel more free. It’s like I realize we don’t have to be frightened of what happens in our lives because we can’t escape. If your wife meets somebody and she falls in love, what can you do? Also you can’t be scared by what could happen to yourself either.”

And then there is always cinema as therapy. One of Attal’s next films will be based on a short story, “Les Sabines,” about a woman “who has the gift of ubiquity,” he says. “She can be in many places at the same time.”

Does that mean she could tryst with her lover at the same time as with her husband?

“Exactly,” he says.

The film opens this month in Los Angeles.

 

Lessons From a Film Festival


Three Jews, four opinions — right? Of course right. Now mix in something as subjective as one’s taste in movies. Now imagine the folly of putting together a committee to organize a short Jewish film festival. Crazy. No?

From the plumber to the U.S. Court of Appeals justice, everyone’s a movie pundit ready, willing and able to debate the acting style of Sean Penn vs. those Hilton girls with Ebert and Roper.

Nevertheless, and forsaking all rational argument, we decide that what our small Ventura County Temple Beth Torah — 400 plus families — really needs is it’s very own Jewish Film Festival.

Maybe it was all the ballyhoo over “The Passion,” maybe it was that we spend our life writing about movies that are very often antithetical to Jewish values. Or maybe we just ate something that didn’t agree with us.

But saying you want a festival and actually pulling it off is a whole different kettle of gefilte fish. When word gets out — as word is wont to do in our still comparatively small community — the congregation’s movie fans start calling. Everyone has their favorites, and everybody knows exactly what constitutes a Jewish movie, which is more than we do. And everybody wants to put in his or her two cents worth.

We decide we don’t want to stage our festival in the local movie palace. We want a state-of-the-art big screen and projector in our very own Meister Hall. The bar and bat mitzvahs, the lady’s luncheons and the brotherhood brunch will have to wait as for one glorious weekend only, our social hall becomes The Bijou or The Majestic.

Everyone responds and donations for the new system are swiftly rounded up. Ventura folks support their temple and the Jewish Federation — bless ’em — kicks in a small grant.

And then a small problem.

Jews know all about movies, but when it comes to technology — electronic or otherwise — we somehow missed those classes in high school.

So when the new projector needs to be lowered, the focus checked and the screen creases removed, who you gonna call? Somehow, with a little help from our friends, we, too, get by.

Now comes the hardest part: Picking the flicks.

This brings up a philosophical question comparable in weight to the nature of matter and the strength of the double helix: Namely, what constitutes a Jewish movie.

Herewith some selected opinions:

\n

• Anything that has at least one Nazi in or out of uniform.

\n

• Anything where somebody wears a kippah or sings “Havah Nagilah.”

\n

• Anything set in Israel.

\n

• Anything with an old bubbe — it could be a zayde but bubbes are better, particularly if they have a smattering of Yiddish.

\n

• Anything that shows us how well we lived in Europe before the Holocaust. (In these films all the Jews lived in grand estates and had concert violinists in the family — could be a pianist but violins are better — or learned professors, preferably in the medical field and several extremely competent servants who’ve been with the family for several generations.)

So everybody lobbies hard, resulting in this dialogue from the film committee archives:

“Haven’t we seen enough Holocaust movies already?”

“The Federation gave us money so we’d better show some Israeli films.”

“A documentary on the Rosenbergs! Who wants to dig up all that painful stuff again?”

“I loved ‘Gloomy Sunday’ but the actress is naked and having relationships with two men at the same time. How can we show that in a house of worship?” (Well, strictly speaking the house of worship is across the hall. This is our social hall and people do all sorts of things socially that they wouldn’t — let us hope — do in front of the Aron Kodesh.)

“I can’t sit on those hard seats for two hours.” (Of course we sit on them all day every Yom Kippur, but you’re supposed to suffer then.)

“What food are we going to serve?”

“For opening night how about a ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ sing-along?”

Instead, we’re opening on Saturday, March 27 with “Fiddler” director Norman Jewison’s new thriller, “The Statement,” starring Oscar-winner Michael Caine (definitely not Jewish ) — based on the late Brian Moore’s superb short novel (He was also not Jewish but he was practically local since he lived just down the road in Malibu). The subject, however, couldn’t be timelier. Caine plays Pierre Brossard, loosely based on the real live Vichy collaborator Paul Touvier, who was responsible for killing French Jews and sending scores to the gas chambers. Before his final capture, decades after his foul deeds, he was hidden in abbeys all over France by ultraconservative elements in the Catholic Church. (See what we mean by timely?)

On Sunday morning we’re screening “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary” a provocative documentary about the last hours of Hitler’s life as observed by Traudl Junge, one of the Fuhrer’s private secretaries. Provocative stuff. And to put it in context we’ve got a “film scholar in residence”: The Journal’s own contributing editor, Tom Tugend, who will be with us for the entire weekend, and a visiting scholar, Michael Meyer, professor of history at California State University, Northridge, an expert on Nazi-era Germany, who will participate in a panel discussion following the Hitler documentary. Midday we have a short program for our Torah school teens with titles like “Today, You Are a Fountain Pen” from L.A. filmmaker Dan Katzir and “Bat Mitzvah Blues” by Shira Sergant.

The festival finishes with an Israeli film, “Yana’s Friends,” which won 10 Israeli awards and is a sad-funny tale of Russian emigrants, gas masks and falling missiles during the first Iraq war.

In the end it was tough, but it was fun.

OK, Mr. De Mille, Ventura is ready for its close-up. Lights, cameras, action — oh yes, and food, of course.

The festival runs from March 27-28. Tickets are $18 for
a festival pass or $10 per film at the door. Call Ventura’s Temple Beth Torah at
(805) 647-4181 or check out the festival on www.templebethtorah.com .

A Man Without Fear


When Marvel Comics founding father Stan Lee createdDaredevil in 1964, he tagged his blind superhero: “Man Without Fear.” Thenickname also applies to Avi Arad, head of Marvel Studios, Marvel Enterprises’film/television division. Israeli-born Arad rescued Marvel from Chapter 11 inthe ’90s, turning it into a major film provider with “Spider-Man” and now”Daredevil.”

“Daredevil,” starring Ben Affleck as Matt Murdock, thelawyer-turned-vigilante with heightened senses, symbolizes Marvel’s catch-up torival D.C. Comics, which for decades had the Hollywood edge with billion-dollargrossing franchises “Superman” and “Batman.”

“Prior [Marvel] management was really afraid of the moviebusiness,” Arad said. “They were run by financial people who had no interest inentertainment.”

That changed when Arad put Marvel on the Hollywood map.Marvel’s first smash in 1998 came with only a minor character, Blade. “X-Men”followed in 2000, and “Spider-Man,” which took in more than $403.7 milliondomestically, became the fifth-highest grossing film of all time.

Raised near Tel Aviv, Arad served in the Israeli army beforemoving to America, where a job driving a Nabisco truck connected him with a toycompany.

“I got a job in research and development and found out I hada knack for inventing toys,” said Arad, 55. “So I went on my own.”

“If you had a successful toy,” said Arad — the creator of”My Pretty Ballerina” — “you turned it into a cartoon. It was a naturaltransition for me to expand into animation.”

Since coming aboard as Marvel Studios’ chief in 1993, Aradplayed a key role in saving Marvel Enterprises from bankruptcy and untangled anearly two-decade web of courtroom battles over “Spider-Man’s” film rights, asdetailed in Dan Raviv’s 2002 book “Comic Wars.” Over that time, movie specialeffects have come a long way.

“I don’t know if we could’ve made the ‘Spider-Man’ that wehave today even five years ago,” Arad said. 

After “Daredevil,” 2003 will bring “X-Men 2,” “Hulk” and theshooting of Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” sequel — with a Michael Chabon screenplay — for 2004. “Ghost Rider” (starring Nicolas Cage) and “Fantastic Four” will follow.

“He really cares about these characters,” Stan Lee saidabout Arad. “He gets the best writers and the best directors.”

So, will “Daredevil” attract a mass audience on a”Spider-Man” level while placating some diehard fans who feel that the movie’scasting choices and costumes stray too far from the comic?

As Arad told a reporter, “Ben Affleck looks good in even apaper bag.”

“Daredevil” opens in theaters Feb. 14.