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Making It Up

A Self Made Man
Rewriting the Resistance: Albert Dehousse (Mathieu Kassovitz) invents his own past in the new French film 'A Self Made Man.'

A collaborator turns himself into a hero in 'A Self Made Man'

By Richard von Busack

IMAGINE A TALE of a confidence man told by the Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona, Fargo)--with a light touch of magical realism and slapstick and with storytelling and camerawork paced like a horse race. That's the style of the superb A Self Made Man. The elderly Jean-Louis Trintignant is our host, playing the older self of one Albert Dehousse, whose life is being profiled in a documentary. As an Actor with a capital "A" pretending to be a character, Trintignant mirrors the subject of the story: a con artist who poses as a hero.

Dehousse (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a French provincial boy of the years between the world wars. Director Jacques Audiard outlines just how provincial Dehousse is in a series of clean, smart strokes. His mother still sets a place at the table for her dead husband, keeping the myth of the elder man's war heroism alive. (The real story is somewhat less heroic.) Even in love with myths of heroism as he is, Dehousse becomes an untroubled collaborator with the Nazi invaders. After the occupation, he travels to Germany to be a guest laborer. He returns to discover that his wife was working in the Resistance. Shocked by her deception, he escapes to Paris and begins a new life of postwar poverty in the red-light district.

Through the tutelage of an old spy on the skids, Dehousse creates a story of his own exploits as a Resistance hero to get the free food at parties and bars. The lie takes on a life of its own. Like that military résumé-padder George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman, Dehousse knows how a studied, manly deference about one's adventures gets a better response than out and out boasting. At this point, director Audiard begins to hint that Dehousse isn't just a renegade but an embodiment of a postwar France eager to rewrite its history. As Audiard has said, "Overnight, we were no longer defeated, we were the conquerors; we were no longer collaborators, we were Resistance fighters."

Kassovitz, who plays the hapless confidence man, was the director and star of Hate, the protest movie about conditions in the Parisian housing projects. Like Kids before it, Hate was one of those wake-up calls to the world that the world could be forgiven for slumbering through. Kassovitz is a surprise here--now that he's not wearing the mask of the gangsta, he shows a face that changes by angles. As homely as John Turturro in the medium shots, he's remarkably handsome in close-ups, with a soft, wounded, llamalike gaze.

Also deserving praise is Anouk Grinberg as a mannish Resistance hero. Grinberg is an exotic love interest built on the specs of Edith Piaf: she's about 90 pounds, 10 of which are hair. The bright, ironic storytelling is whisked along with bogus interviews with experts on the subject of the Dehousse affair. The episodes segue smoothly, thanks to a string quartet that is filmed performing Alexandre Desplat's score. The open ending is the perfect finish for a story of a troubling, irresolvable chapter in French history.

A Self Made Man (Unrated; 105 min.), directed by Jacques Audiard, written by Alain le Henry and Audiard, based on the novel by Jean-François Deniau, photographed by Jean-Marc Fabre and starring Mathieu Kassovitz and Anouk Grinberg.

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From the Dec. 4-10, 1997 issue of Metro.

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