A Memorable Rendez-Vous: Annual French film series offers a good vintage

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Happily, the 21st annual “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” showcase of new French films, which opened on March 3 and runs through March 13 and is again presented by New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance, is not another rendezvous with too many disappointments. Instead, the event comprises 21 mostly impressive features that provide compelling, relevant cross-border entertainment that should galvanize stateside audiences in an era in much need of such galvanization.

There are the usual sidebars (photo exhibit, educational screenings, free talks, in-person star appearances, etc.) but Rendez-Vous will always be about the films. Whether this year’s higher quality has anything to do with arecord number of eight films in the lineup directed by women and a high number in the selection tapped for César nominations and awards is anyone’s guess. (This year’s slate garnered 34 César nominations and six wins in a variety of categories.)

Star power again shows its staying power with Rendez-Vous’ delicious, eye-popping opener Valley of Love, a contemporary drama from Strand Releasing directed by Guillaume Nicloux. Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu co-star as a long-divorced couple reunited in California’s Death Valley when beckoned via letter from their deceased son, who promises he will appear to them if they follow his itinerary through the valley. The proposition may sound preposterous, but the film is mostly down to earth (below sea level, in fact). As a pitch, this project had to sound like a slam-dunk: put Huppert and Depardieu together in what is essentially a two-hander in one exotic, visually stunning, storied California location for a low-budget easy shoot and throw in plenty of English and some intrigue regarding the gay son, dorky fellow tourists and a possible rapprochement. With hundreds of starring credits between them, Huppert and Depardieu again carry the weight (Depardieu, literally), as do the often scene-stealing Death Valley exteriors, captured by cinematographer Christophe Offenstein, who just bagged a César for his work on the film.

Other top Rendez-Vous grabbers include a handful of gripping, beautifully acted dramas focusing on the problems of immigrants in France or nearby (as in Much Loved).

Jacques Audiard’s Cannes 2015 Palme d’Or-winning Dheepan, Rendez-Vous’ closing-night selection, is a harrowing look at an unrelated trio caught up in the violent civil war of Sri Lanka, who form a pseudo-family of husband (the titular Dheepan), wife and child in order to escape their ravaged country for France. But once granted asylum, they land in a rundown, crime-ridden housing project near Paris where violence and bad behavior are rampant and they must maintain their roles. Dheepan becomes a project caretaker and the others adapt until another project resident, Brahim (established young French actor Vincent Rottiers), and Dheepan’s murky past fighting with the violent Tamil Tigers in his homeland bring turmoil and horrific violence. A not entirely believable and quite sudden turn of events informs the unexpected epilogue. Another problem is that alleged hero Dheepan is a man of many close-ups but very few words. And from a country obsessed with politics, the film, which Sundance Selects handles, doesn’t clarify the right or wrong of the notorious Tiger rebels or Dheepan’s affiliation with them. But strong performances and a painful look inside the depressing projects and their challenged lives resonate.

Taking place in Marrakech, Morocco, where the film was banned, Nabil Ayouch’s Much Loved serves up a realistic, disturbing but fascinating look at four young female sex workers who ply their trade in the streets and discos and at posh Saudi parties. Ayouch goes beyond a sordid portrait of this subculture by digging deeper into her characters to humanize them and suggest how they arrived at so depraved a profession. Even their johns—whether losers picked up on the streets or well-heeled, obnoxious tourists or dissipated Arab oil rich looking for fun—are also given their enlivening brush (and brush-off) strokes. The performances, including some transgender actors in the workers’ clique, couldn’t be better and the bonding of the women warms the heart in so cold a story, occasionally heated up by some fairly graphic sex. The many shots of the sad Marrakech streets at night add a documentary feel to all that transpires.

Taking this year’s César for Best Film and two other top honors was Philippe Faucon’s Fatima, another in-depth look at immigrant life inside France, this time in Lyon, where the eponymous middle-aged single mother and cleaning lady Fatima (Soria Zeroual) struggles to assimilate as she raises two daughters. These are rebellious teen Soouad (Kenza Noah-Aïche) and older medical student Nesrina (Zita Hanrot), who took the César for Best Female Newcomer). Additionally, the film received Césars for Best Film and Faucon’s Adapted Screenplay.

Acquired just prior to Rendez-Vous by Kino Lorber, Fatima moves slowly and with few conflicts and tensions beyond the mother’s familiar struggles with language, her two offspring, and a minor health issue. Nesrina’s challenge to pass her exams also becomes an engaging thread. Fatima is a slow burn but with many precious small moments that command attention and embed like poetry.

Another close-up of the immigrant experience is Parisienne, centered on a young Lebanese student who flees to Paris following advances from her sexually aggressive uncle in a nearby banlieue where she has been staying. The time (for some reason) is the mid-’90s, as a near-penniless Lina (an impressively assured Manal Issa) confronts a number of problems, the least of which is choosing a major (economics or art?). Through guile, she finds lodging and part-time work and embarks on a series of relationships (a married rich pleasure-seeker, a working-class waiter who loves pop). Her journey is made all the more watchable thanks to the young heroine’s admirable gumption and fearlessness.

Emmanuel Finkiel’s well-paced and involving A Decent Man takes a much more oblique but also poignant look at France’s immigrant and minority plight. His main character is Eddy (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a young Frenchman in northern France with marital and employment problems who envisions himself a salesman. After a disheartening session at a workshop to learn sales and watching the also aspiring Ahmed (Driss Ramdi) ace an exercise in salesmanship, Eddy, a drinker and layabout estranged from his wife and kid, takes to a local bar. There, he picks up a young woman and, hoping for a score, offers to walk her home. On the way, he’s violently beaten up and lands in the hospital. He works with the police to find the culprits and during a lineup takes the opportunity to implicate the innocent Ahmed in the crime. Much happens thereafter that leads to an explosive ending that is more a reflection of bad character than bad conditions in France. It’s Duvauchelle’s inhabitation of so messed-up a character that makes A Decent Man one of Rendez-Vous’ more interesting entries and as much a primer on mediocrity as it is on sociopolitical reality.

Alice Winocour’s tension-filled Sundance Selects release Disorder, starring the deservedly ever-busy Matthias Schoenaerts and Diane Kruger, offers another tangential approach to immigrants, this one involving a very rich Lebanese arms dealer living in the south of France. Kruger plays the wife who presides over the lush estate where her husband’s lavish birthday party is taking place with government and financial VIPs among the guests. Schoenaerts is Vincent, the damaged Afghan war veteran who serves inside the house on the event’s large security team. He’d rather return to work as a soldier, but his PTSD-fueled symptoms preclude it. Once the story gets going after the mogul is unexpectedly called away from his party on supposed business, the film grows inexorably into a thriller and Vincent again finds himself in battle. Disorder is especially notable in the way it builds menace and conveys, via camerawork and sound design, Vincent’s damaged state of mind.

In a more traditional vein, French cinema has long been preoccupied with themes of kids and family (The 400 Blows, Zazie dans le métro, The Red Balloon, among many others). One of the better Rendez-Vous films is debuting director Rudi Rosenberg’s energetic and utterly charming The New Kid, a thoroughly convincing close-up of 14-year-old schoolmates and the titular new kid Benoît (Réphaël Ghrenassia)who arrives from the sticks after his father relocates for a new job in Paris. Benoït has a rough time making friends at first, but a genuine triumph follows before a crushing disappointment looms. All the kids in his sphere are all right, whether funny-looking, funny-feeling outcasts or apparent “winners” even of the hectoring kind. And they are all uncannily believable, even though the roles are all played by first-timers. It’s a meet-up of freaks, geeks and cool kids, all magnetic. Their alliances, bullying and soft landings will ring familiar with all audiences without destroying the distinct French DNA they carry. For other roles, Rosenberg has chosen his few adults wisely and makes good use of the American pop that helps propel the never-flagging momentum.

A violent and angry older teen commands attention in Emmanuelle Bercot’s emotionally pummeling Standing Tall, which Cohen Media is handling. Impressively graced with eight César noms and two wins, the film moves into much darker kid territory in a drama pitting vicious delinquent Malony (Rod Paradot, in a breakout role that just won him the César for Best Male Newcomer) against everything in his path to rehabilitation. His staunchest, almost saint-like supporters are a social worker (Benoît Magimel, receiving the César’s Best Supporting Actor honors) and a dedicated juvenile court judge portrayed by an again terrific Catherine Deneuve, evincing respect for the law while managing compassion for its violators. But at the film’s constant and noisy center is the bullying brute Malony, sent off several times to a pastoral rehab facility that may or may not turn him. That Malony comes from a horrible background (poverty and a mother from hell) fuels his extreme behavior. Might the fact that he becomes a father turn the toxic tide? Viewers who may long for the gentler kid delinquents of films like The 400 Blows or Blackboard Jungle will hold onto their seat belts to find out.

And then there’s the post-teen/early-20s toxic man-child Lolo, the anti-hero of co-writer/director/star Julie Delpy’s dramatic comedy Lolo, in which Delpy plays Violette, a Paris fashion director who overindulges her spoiled, sinister son. A single mother, she soon falls for the sweet Jean-René (warmly played by French star Dany Boon), recently  arrived in Paris for a new IT gig at an important bank. An affair ensues and Lolo, to put it mildly, is not happy. He goes to work as a covert saboteur to destroy the relationship and administers a constant slow drip of complications. There’s an ending that, with a cleverer set-up, could have been a zinger, but the jaunty film is zingy enough. It also benefits from a Karl Lagerfeld cameo and Karin Viard’s role as Violette’s somewhat trashy, man-hopping pal who makes this black comedy a little blue.

The kids are older teens in Eva Husson’s Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story), an unapologetically explicit anthology of the sexual experiments amongst a gaggle of partyers during a lost summer of debauchery in sunny Biarritz, until nasty reality kicks in. Mostly naughty but with a little nice, Husson, in this Samuel Goldwyn Films release, has it both ways. There’s a big bulk of nonstop, pretty outrageous sexual activity and porn-watching among the teens at the beginning and middle of the film. Abstinence in the group is almost as rare as a book. Much later in what passes for plot, when the teens are returning to their homes and school, a syphilis outbreak becomes quite the fun-spoiler. There’s a lot of sobering up but little redeeming social value within this avalanche of raunchy behavior and pervasive pleasuring, often graphically depicted.

Of course, sex and love have always been pervasive in French cinema, and both fuel Catherine Corsini’s moving lesbian drama Summertime, which Strand Releasing acquired. The gay love depicted plays counterpoint to the prejudice that permeates this 1971-set drama that largely takes place in a close-minded provincial farm community. The film’s beginning has Parisian Carole (Cécile de France)and the younger Delphine (Izïa Higelin), who has just left the family farm near Limoges, meet as feminist activists in Paris. They soon realize there’s a mutual attraction and begin a relationship that continues when Delphine, after the death of her father, returns to work the farm. Carole makes the tough decision to follow her. In the bucolic beauty of farm county, their affair must be hidden: Delphine’s now-widowed mother, like the entire community, is conservative and hostile to homosexuality. The strain forces a separation that may or may not destroy the love the two women have found together.

It’s sex outré and de trop in Jean-Marie and Arnaud Larrieu’s strange comedy/magical-realism mélange 21 Nights with Pattie, in which Pattie (Karin Viard playing lower-class bawdy this time), the happy-go-lucky tramp in a small Pyrénées village, shares in graphic detail her trashy stories of screwing around with the somewhat prim Caroline ((Isabelle Carré), newly arrived at her recently deceased estranged mother’s house in the village to oversee the funeral. Caroline’s mom was apparently a kind of Peggy Guggenheim bohemian somehow attracted to the village’s beauty and the loose living epitomized by Pattie. Inhabiting the house where her mother’s body awaits burial, Caroline bumps into mysteries, not least of which is the apparent kidnapping of that body and an encounter with a mysterious visitor from afar (French star André Dussolier) who may or may not be famous writer J.M.G. Le Clézio. Maybe he’s her mother’s former lover or maybe he’s even the kidnapper of her body. In addition to Pattie’s naughty and recurring confessionals, other villagers, including the local riffraff and even the police inspector, add color. The gorgeous, bucolic scenery, a visiting ghost and utter weirdness add up to an oddball time.

It’s love of the amour fou variety that frenetically drives (in jerky forward and reverse) filmmaker Maïwenn’s My King and the film’s love-stricken couple—lawyer Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) and bistro owner Giorgio (a wonderful Vincent Cassel)—over the ten years of their rocky relationship. The romance begins prosaically enough when the two meet at a club and the coup de foudre strikes. But their drama skids into melodrama with marriage, cheating, break-up, make-up, etc. The plot moves furiously, often in snippets, between past and present, the latter having Tony hospitalized with a serious ski injury. Bercot copped the Cannes Best Actress Award for her role, but it’s again Cassel who steers and steals the show. For better and worse, the film has “Made in France” stamped all over it. The journey is too long and conveys nothing new in the evolution and devolution of a relationship. Louis Garrel, always a pleasure onscreen, plays Tony’s cautioning brother.

And what’s a Rendez-Vous series without a few “film festival” entries, meaning works like Nicolas Pariser’s debut The Great Game and French-Algerian director-actor Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Story of Judas, films that are worthy but loom iffy beyond the protective cinephile hug of a festival.

The Great Game is another example of French cinema taking deep bites into and thoughtful chewing over politics and philosophy. The dense but interesting plot has Pierre (Melvil Poupaud), a one-time novelist du jour, in a severe dry spell and taking the bait that a slippery government insider/master manipulator/fixer (André Dussollier) offers him. The gig has Pierre ghostwriting a tendentious manifesto that viewers will suspect is a sure path to trouble. The job takes the writer into the belly of leftist activism at a remote commune and an ultimate run for his life while hiding in Belgium. In between, there’s enough love, theoretical discussions, invocations of Mao, etc. to spur nostalgia for the New Wave and beyond.

Shot in North Africa, Story of Judas is at times a mesmerizing, haunting take on the Biblical story, but it’s the locations and amazing cinematography by Irina Lubtchanskythat steal this slow-burning show of intrigue and Roman menace surrounding Jesus and his followers.

Rendez-Vous again served up some favored home-team players in the lineup, thereby reminding that in the birthplace where the more things change, the more they stay the same, indeed they do. The perp here is France’s government and industry-supported film community that, so different from stateside, continues to feverishly coddle its own. Among the benefactors this year were Louis Garrel’s debut Two Friends, a mishmash of a love-triangle tale among a working-class threesome, and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Mischa-mash modernization of the Chekhov classic The Three Sisters.