Wondering what's happening this weekend at the Dryden Theatre? It's so strange that you would ask, because that's exactly what we're going to discuss. First, however, you might want to get comfy for a little history lesson...
Madame de Maintenon was the second wife of Louis XIV, a.k.a. the Sun King. Born in prison to a disgraced family of noble origin, her low social status prevented her from a public marriage and acknowledgement as Queen of France. In an effort to help other well-bred daughters whose families had fallen on hard times, Madame de Maintenonfounded a rather radical school designed to make women intellectual equals to men. The Dryden's Friday presentation, Patricia Mazuy's accomplished Saint-Cyr, follows the fortunes of two young ladies in yet further confirmation that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Saint-Cyr opens in the late 17th century as the 250 girls who have been chosen to attend the titular institution are descending upon it. Madame de Maintenon (played by the inimitable Isabelle Huppert) is eager to begin her experiment, which will encourage the girls to think beyond an advantageous marriage, perhaps even lead them to aspire to become judges or doctors. A quick bond forms between two students --- the confident Anne and the insecure Lucie --- and once the film flashes forward five years, it looks as though Saint-Cyr is a success.
It's during Anne and Lucie's passionate interpretation of some Racine that the ardently Catholic Madame becomes concerned that all this free-thinking may be leading the girls into temptation. But once Lucie implores Madame for guidance, a heartbreaking struggle ensues between the de facto Queen and the furious Anne, who once trusted in Madame's revolutionary vision but now watches helplessly as her teenage classmates become brides of either the moneyed elderly or Christ.
Both MorganeMoré as Anne and Nina Meurisse as Lucie make astonishing film debuts, but it no doubt helps to learn opposite the best. Huppert makes it look easy with a typically virtuoso performance as a powerful woman who uses her hard-earned nepotism to achieve good, but who also sees a chance for her own vicarious redemption through the salvation of a sadly malleable young lady.
No one does the frock flick better than the French --- witness The Horseman on the Roof, Queen Margot, Ridicule, A Very Long Engagement--- and Saint-Cyr is but one more stellar entry into the pantheon of heaving-bosom period drama. In the running for a palaceful of Césars in 2001, Saint-Cyr justifiably won for its elaborate costume design (composer John Cale, ex-Velvet Underground, was also nominated for his gorgeous score).
But it's not surprising that Saint-Cyr didn't get a proper U.S. release. Distributors most likely assumed that more than a passing knowledge of French history would be required to appreciate Saint-Cyr (playwright Jean Racine and architect Jules Hardouin-Mansart pop up as well) but its universal conflict --- that of gaining knowledge while maintaining virtue --- echoes well beyond the borders of any one country.
Like zombies or vampires, Canadians look like us and sound like us (for the most part, eh?), but they are not us, a fact we both sometimes forget, doubtless due to one of us being an enormous, ill-mannered bully. So during the months of May and June the Dryden is honoring our deserving neighbors to the north with a series called "Bright Northern Lights," which spotlights the best in Canadian cinema. Filmmaker Don McKellar, who wrote 1992's Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould and 1998's The Red Violin (he also appeared in both films as well as a ton of other stuff) stops by the Dryden this Saturday, and he's bringing along his second feature film, a film industry satire called Childstar.
McKellar stars in Childstar as a struggling auteur who learns the intricacies of the movie game while at the beck and call of spoiled celebri-tween Taylor Brandon Burns (Mark Rendall) and his she-wolf mother (a somnolent Jennifer Jason Leigh). Using a cast ostensibly selected from Who's Who in the Great White North (Kids in the Hall's Dave Foley, Ally McBeal's Gil Bellows, Growing Pains' Alan Thicke), McKellar skewers both the American and Canadian film industries and takes a surprisingly serious look at a lucrative business that claims to have the best interests of its littlest cash cows at heart but which is actually sucking the appeal right out of them.
Saint-Cyr (NR), directed by Patricia Mazuy, shows Friday, May 19, and Childstar (R), directed by visiting guest artist Don McKellar, shows Saturday, May 20, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre, 8 p.m.