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Reel Ville 

My slasher-movie moment, on the first day of the Montréal World Film Festival, took place when the hotel elevator stopped on the fourth floor en route to the lobby. I stepped in and discovered that the only other occupant was Brian DePalma. This is the man who made Dressed to Kill, mind you. Remember what happens to actress Angie Dickinson in that 1980 thriller? Put it this way: What Hitchcock was to the shower stall, DePalma is to the lift.

The bearded director was not dressed to kill in Montréal; he was wearing his standard attire — a khaki bush jacket. Since the mid-1980s, DePalma has been regularly attending the fest, which ends on Labor Day this year. In all that time, I’ve never seen him alter his apparel or crack a smile. He has a big, hulking, scowling presence. Don’t even bother saying a polite hello to him the way you might to any other stranger in close quarters.

I emerged unscathed, how-ever, and went on to see my next scheduled film. Before the feature, a six-minute short from France, Undercover, began like a slick coming attraction for an American noir detective story. As the requisite femme fatale was about to consummate an affair with the requisite chump, a man in the fourth row suddenly stood up and started yelling en francais. I couldn’t decipher what he was saying. People in the audience looked alarmed. Someone got up to summon an usher.

But laughter rippled through the crowd when the large celluloid characters launched into a heated conversation with the Lilliputian-like “deranged” guy. A supposed jealous lover, he was now standing right below the screen and brandishing a gun. We’d all been fooled by the clever ruse. Going one step further than Woody Allen did in Purple Rose of Cairo, director Olivier Ayache-Vidal leaps the barrier between cinematic fiction and live make-believe disguised as reality.

Although hilarious, it was rather disorienting — especially following my DePalma encounter. Moving images exert such power over our perceptions. Ever find yourself unable to shake the mood that’s been established during two hours in the dark with a particularly vivid picture? That’s when the experience has worked on two levels — as both entertainment and subliminal suggestion.

Unfortunately, the undertow of subconscious persuasion is missing from La Turbulence des Fluides, which came on after the Vidal short. Manon Briand’s overwrought drama leaves little to the imagination, despite its intriguing premise: Alice, a Canadian seismologist, is assigned to investigate why the tides have stopped flowing in the St. Lawrence Seaway bay at a small northern Québec town, which is sweltering with an atypically oppressive humidity. An impending major earthquake? A side-effect of global warming?

Ecological intrigue soon gives way to romantic hokum, once Alice learns that love can change the rules of geology, meteorology and astrophysics. Even worse, an annoying subtext about faith includes nuns singing “Ave Maria” and the supernatural tug of a dead woman named Marie. The cast fails to rise above the script’s limitations, except for the wise waitress portrayed by Genevieve Bujold. She remains as enchanting as she was 36 years ago in the cult favorite, King of Hearts.

Similarly, Guillaume Dépar-dieu is the sole reason to sit through Peau d’Ange, which also dabbles in spiritual hocus-pocus. He’s the son of Gérard, but seems more like a softer-looking Julian Sands, from A Room with a View. The French lad’s charismatic presence distinguishes a contrived tale about a young man who has reluctantly returned home to bury his mother. While there, he seduces a local teen-ager, Angele; like the title itself, this is a not-so-subtle hint that she’s a celestial creature in human form. One of the nuns in this flick also sings, though thankfully not “Ave Maria.”

Peau is the messy directorial debut of Vincent Perez, whose first American flick as an actor in 1996 was Crow 2: City of Angels — how’s that for synchronicity? He’s due at the festival this week, as is Gérard Dépardieu, to promote his co-starring role with Guillaume in Honor Your Father. Jean-Luc Godard, a living legend, canceled due to ill health. But Robert De Niro is slated to be on hand for City by the Sea.

If I get on an elevator with Travis Bickle, I won’t say a word, for fear he’ll respond with that infamous Taxi Driver question: “You talkin’ to me?”

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