Review: ‘Saltimbank’

Everyday lives of generally highly cultured people form the thrust deceptively casual and droll pic, final feature from ex-critic Jean-Claude Biette. Influenced greatly by the legit-themed fare of helmer Jacques Rivette, story will limit theatrical biz to key Euro sites, following local run.

The everyday lives of generally highly cultured people form the thrust of “Saltimbank,” a deceptively casual and droll pic, and the final feature from ex-critic Jean-Claude Biette. Influenced greatly by the legit-themed fare of helmer Jacques Rivette, this human comedy circulates around a loosely connected group of Parisians associated with a small, struggling theater. Although pic is couched in the familiar French mode of the camera trained on interesting people in full conversations, the story will limit theatrical biz to key Euro sites, following local mid-September run.

Co-founder (with Serge Daney) of Gallic film journal Trafic and longtime Cahiers du Cinema critic, Biette, who died of a heart attack at age 60 shortly after the film screened in Cannes Directors Fortnight, also enjoyed a modest directorial career. “Saltimbank,” his seventh feature, quietly celebrates the actor’s art, with an ensemble cast of Biette regulars.

Pic matter-of-factly intros a varying group of folks. Bruno Saltim (Jean-Christophe Bouvet) is bedding out-of-work thesp Margot (Yse Tran) while preferring to focus more on the theater he owns than the bank he and his brother Frederic (Jean-Marc Barr) manage — with Fredric by far the dominant player as a ruthless cost-cutter.

Eve and Jim (Maryline Canto, Laurent Cygler) operate a small restaurant that serves as the hangout for the theater people, led by administrator Hans (Frederic Norbert). Florence (Michel Moretti) translates plays for Hans, but is more chummy with Bruno, who seems to spend most of his time taking long lunches.

As in Rivette’s stage films, a crisis in the theater drives the plot: The company has lost its lead for Racine’s “Esther” (being prepped alongside Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”), and the search is on for a replacement.

Although Bruno and Frederic have a not-so-rosy past with niece Vanessa (Jeanne Balibar, star of Rivette’s “Va Savoir”), Bruno recalls her past stage work and decides she’s the new Esther. Vanessa is perfectly happy having left acting for work as a shoemaker with a costumer, but finds herself being pitched by Bruno — and then, in one of a few amusing eatery scenes that pepper the movie, by Frederic, who wants her as his exec secretary.

In ways that recall Altman films, a few sidebars intertwine through the central discussions, including Bruno’s and Frederic’s forgetful mom (Micheline Presle), who enjoys Vanessa reading Voltaire to her even though she continually interrupts her mid-sentence.

Biette displays a confidence with his extremely relaxed style, so that “Saltimbank” easily meanders off in unexpected directions. Pic is at its slyest as an elaborate playing out of the theme that everyone is playing a role, whether it’s in a corporate bank, at a family gathering or on the proscenium.

Despite these ideas, an ease with literary conversations and well-tuned perfs led by those of the alluring Balibar and the very funny Bouvet, pic has the nagging quality of a minor work rather than a major statement.

Technical categories perform modestly, with a classical music soundtrack as its grace note.

Saltimbank

France

Production

A Paolo Branco presentation of a Gemini Films production. (International sales: Gemini Films, Paris.) Produced by Paolo Branco. Directed, written by Jean-Claude Biette.

Crew

Camera (GTC color), Crystel Fournier; editor, Claudine Merlin; production designer, Xavier Lavant; costume designer, Marie-Edith Simonneaux; sound (Dolby Digital), Jerome Ayasse; supervising sound editor, Marie De La Selle; assistant director, Olivier Bouffard. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival, Jan. 9, 2004. (Also in Cannes Film Festival -- Directors Fortnight.) Running time: 93 MIN. (French, German dialogue)

With

Vanessa Bartholomioux - Jeanne Balibar Bruno Saltim - Jean-Christophe Bouvet Frederic Saltim - Jean-Marc Barr Mme. Saltim - Micheline Presle Florence - Michele Moretti Eve La Rochelle - Maryline Canto Margot Wai - Yse Tran Hans Kalender - Frederic Norbert Jim La Rochelle - Laurent Cygler Johann Kreisler - Hanns Zischler
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