Agnes Varda, who has been making movies for 40 of the 100 years that motion pictures have existed, has put everything she knows about filmmaking and much of what she loves about the cinema into “A Hundred and One Nights.” But despite a star-decked cast and manifest good intentions, Varda’s self-described “divertimento” soars in only a few spots.
Celebrity watchers and cinephiles will enjoy the overall spirit of this idiosyncratic tribute to the movies as both collective memory and living art form. But general auds beyond France and the fest circuit will likely be more baffled than charmed by a cascade of fleeting refs stitched into the reminiscences of a 100-year-old man named Mr. Cinema.
Simon Cinema (Michel Piccoli), a wheelchair-bound gent, lives in a splendid chateau whose every inch overflows with cinemabilia. He hires attractive young film student Camille (Julie Gayet) to visit once a day for 101 days in order to hash over his sometimes muddled recollections of an illustrious career in every aspect of the film biz since movies began.
As he reminisces, film clips, strategically placed photos and live visitors illustrate his flights of fancy. Mr. Cinema insists that all films cited be referred to by their original title in their original language — apart from that, anything goes.
As the photographic contents of two oval picture frames on his headboard slyly change as the subject changes, Mr. Cinema speaks of Orson Welles, segues from Yoko Ono’s work with flies to Fay Wray’s work with King Kong, and does a decent impression of David O. Selznick. The poster on display at the top of the central staircase also changes from shot to shot.
Dozens of homages to classic films range from brief and casual (“The Bicycle Thief”) to lengthy and elaborate (“L’Age d’Or”). At its best, pic explores visual connections that even non-initiates can follow: The sliced eyeball in “Un Chien Andalou” segues into a tomato being sliced; a freshly unwrapped condom segues into Douglas Fairbanks on his flying carpet in “The Thief of Bagdad”; a windstorm on the chateau’s patio is intercut with blustery excerpts from Sjostrom’s “The Wind” and Cocteau’s “Orphee.” On a few occasions, contemporary characters “accidentally” echo the movements of a film clip on a nearby TV monitor with comic results.
But many of the references are just that, without any deeper resonance: The estate gardener mentions that he was the crew member who did the “300-meter traveling shot in Godard’s ‘Weekend.'” River Phoenix is seen nodding off on the open road in “My Own Private Idaho” as a weak excuse for Camille to crumple to the floor.
Parallel to Mr. Cinema’s cogitations runs the somewhat forced story of Camille’s romance with Mica (Mathieu Demy), a production assistant who dreams of directing his own pix. When Camille discovers that Mr. Cinema’s lone heir, a great-great grandson, vanished 10 years ago, she hatches a plot to have a friend (Emmanuel Salinger) pose as the missing young man in hopes of getting the loot.
Meanwhile, Mr. Cinema’s “Italian friend” (Marcello Mastroianni) pays frequent visits in hopes of securing the rights to the geezer’s film catalogue. Romane Bohringer limns Death lurking on the perimeter.
Gerard Depardieu and Piccoli, as themselves, pursue an interesting discussion about all the ways they’ve been put to death in various screen incarnations. (Depardieu confesses that the authentic guillotine blade in “Danton” made him very nervous.)
Catherine Deneuve and Robert De Niro (each speaking both French and English) make the most of a comic expedition in a small boat on a pond that veers toward an abrupt conclusion. Jean-Paul Belmondo attacks his role as a memory specialist with gusto, whereas Alain Delon, arriving via helicopter, looks bored and put upon. More often than not, one has the impression that performers were plugged into the pic because they were available and willing rather than because they were needed to make an essential narrative contribution.
One of pic’s most amusing features is the list of film excerpts in the closing credits, in which each clip is tallied by exact length, down to the frame. Viewers can marvel at the amount of information communicated in “eight seconds and 13 frames” worth of “Citizen Kane,””13 seconds and three frames” of “Singin’ in the Rain” or “15 seconds even” of Buster Keaton in “The General.” This may also be taken as a subtle editorial on the fact that image makers must routinely pay elevated fees to “quote” the images that buffs already carry around in their heads free of charge.
Excerpts of evocative movie themes, particularly Nino Rota’s work for Fellini , will keep most viewers in a good mood by default.
Although Luis Bunuel himself voiced a healthy dislike for celebrations such as the current centennial of cinema, Varda has taken the amusing step of having a gifted colleague do a dead-on impersonation of Bunuel’s voice, which issues forth from a cow’s lips, Mr. Ed-style, as the cow, seated on a bed a la “L’Age d’Or,” converses with Mr. Cinema.
Shots grabbed with the cast on the red-carpeted steps at Cannes, on Hollywood Boulevard and at a celebrity-strewn shindig in Los Angeles feel tacked on.
Scattered in execution and more than a little insular in content, pic explores a few too many ideas that don’t quite come off. Despite abundant talent and good will, result proves how hard it can be to make a movie about the cinema that holds up as a film in its own right.