Invited to conduct an actors’ workshop in Toulouse, Romanian helmer Cristi Puiu (“The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”) opted to put his fledgling Gallic thesps through their paces in a 157-minute cinematic triptych, “Three Exercises of Interpretation.” Though based on arcane 19th-century “conversations” about the gospels, morality and the Antichrist, the film paradoxically achieves remarkable levels of naturalness: The pre-existent text frees Puiu to explore, through compelling shifts in composition, various subtexts implied by the actors’ delivery, their occasional awkward silences and surrounding chitchat. Not initially intended for public viewing, “Interpretation” is a brilliant, albeit supremely uncommercial, fest entry.
The film is divided into three parts, each consisting of four different characters whose discussion, at some point, channels the writings of Russian philosopher/poet Vladimir Solovyov on which the exercises are based. With assorted minor variations, the conversations pit an atheistic disciple of peace and progress against a cynic who sees civilization as going from bad to worse; a Christian who believes in adherence to the catechism; and an outsider/observer rarely drawn into the fray.
The hourlong first segment, titled “The Mouse Is Under the Table,” transpires in the backyard garden of married university professors Marion and Patrick (the characters share names with their interpreters, Marion Bottolier and Patrick Vaillant), who have invited colleague Ugo (Ugo Broussot) for lunch. Ugo arrives with old childhood chum Jean-Benoit (Jean-Benoit Poirier), now a soldier.
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A surprising amount of class hostility surfaces. Peacenik wife Marion plays the “progressive” part in Solovyov’s paradigm, while cynical hubby Patrick barely disguises his contempt for the invading philistine, avoiding eye contact with Jean-Benoit and referring to him in the third person. Jean-Benoit, unhappy at having to listen to the pet theories aired by these “bourgeois,” grows steadily angrier in his role as impotent observer. Jesuit defender Ugo, meanwhile, seems to derive perverse pleasure from forcing him to stay.
If “Mouse” ignites a bellicose clash between ivory-tower ideals and battlefield realities, the second, shorter section, “The Cat Is in the Chair,” features a generational divide, its atmosphere not confrontational but rife with nervous dissatisfaction. Mother Anne-Marie (Anne-Marie Charles) and daughter Ludovine (Anberree) welcome Diana (Diana Sakalauskaite) and her filmmaker boyfriend, Barnabe (Barnabe Perrotey), into their living room. They debate morality, death and the Antichrist in less abstract, more contemporary terms than the characters did in the previous exercise, and with different emphases. In contrast to the all-inclusive Marion, Diana, here cast in the “peace and progress” slot, comes off as uptight and judgmental. Anne-Marie’s religious beliefs, unlike Ugo’s, remain essentially private, while Patrick’s condescending cynicism becomes mischievous impudence in Ludovine’s youthful reading. Barnabe, a filmmaker, transforms Jean-Benoit’s unhappy-observer role into a chosen profession.
The third installment, “The Monkey Is on the Branch” (these chapter headings are taken from idiotically unhelpful sentences used to teach French), unfolds in a many-roomed studio. Four women — played by Hillary Keegin, Perrine Guffroy, Anne Courpron and Nathalie Meunier — move around clearing tables and shuttering windows, in preparation for a seance. Throughout the ensuing, now-familiar conversation, a measure of female solidarity reigns; though all participate in the requisite Sololyov-dictated disagreements, the mood is thoughtful rather than argumentative.
Puiu’s potentially dry experiment proves by turns sobering, ironic, absurd and cathartic, the repeated text registering differently every time thanks to niceties of staging, camera placement and a guiding visual aesthetic that loosely evokes the cinema of Eric Rohmer (Puiu has even confessed to thinking of “Interpretation” as his “Moral Tales”). The first segment’s sedentary setup exposes the fragile nature of academic complacency, its lengthy static group shots artfully transforming into emotionally charged closeups. The one-room location of the second segment, however, lends the characters space to wander as Luchian Ciobanu’s lensing expresses the same vague restlessness that affects the characters. The film’s extraordinarily nuanced mise-en-scene concludes with the third installment’s two-tiered space and interconnected rooms, where players navigate freely and purposefully.