Rendez-Vous 2017: French film series offers an attractive bouquet

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Manhattan’s Film Society of Lincoln Center and France’s promotional arm UniFrance again hooked up for their annual love affair—“Rendez-Vous With French Cinema,” a showcase this year featuring 23 new French features that again vary in quality and commercial potential. Many a rendezvous of the human kind comes with a bouquet, and the 2017 cinematic iteration, running through March 12 at Lincoln Center theatres, brings a good handful of films that should blossom on the big screen or at least delight viewers however savored.

Among the outstanding selections in this year’s bouquet is François Ozon’s seductive, finely crafted period mystery Frantz, the versatile and esteemed filmmaker’s complex post-World War I mystery that also works as an engaging melodrama. It teases with romance as a kind of triangular love story involving a young French war veteran (rising star Pierre Niney, who shone as and in Yves St. Laurent), a fatally wounded young German he claims as a best friend, and the German’s fiancée (Paula Beer, a revelation in her debut). Moving between France and Germany, past and present and black-and-white and color, the film, which Music Box Films releases on March 15, is a visual triumph that earned it this year’s César for Best Cinematography. Rich in atmosphere, deceptions and promises of l’amour, Frantz also simmers with undercurrents of the growing German malaise that allowed the subsequent war and its horrors to follow.

Still without a U.S. distributor (at least at press time), yet stateside acquisition bait for sure is Jérôme Salle’s Closing Night selection The Odyssey, a thrilling and lush entertainment, especially robust in its storytelling, performances and cross-continent land and water visuals, although it was for sound that it won this year’s César. It’s the story of famed naval officer-turned oceanographer, undersea explorer and multi-Oscar-winning documentarian Jacques-Yves Cousteau and his son. Beyond his dedication to undersea exploration and adventure, Cousteau was a dynamic showman who also knew a thing or two about pitching a project. The wonderful Lambert Wilson (also catch his screen magic in the recent Bicycling with Molière) brings him to life, conveying Cousteau’s remarkable drive (both professional and sexual—he loved the ladies) and fundamental if unconventional loyalty to family, including wife Simone (Audrey Tautou), who, with difficulty, endures his long absences and infidelities. More significant in the film is Cousteau’s environmentally inclined son Philippe (Pierre Niney delivers another outstanding performance here, speaking some lines in nearly unaccented American English, suggesting that Hollywood is already dialing). A celebration of man and nature, a mix of soaring triumph and deep tragedy on land and sea, this classy biopic delivers the kind of viewing experience that lingers.

Another Rendez-Vous must-see is another biopic that awaits acquisition. Étienne Comar's Django, the Opening Night selection, follows the World War II experiences of France’s celebrated Paris-based gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (an impressive Reda Kateb), who was forced to flee the city following Nazi pressure to work in Germany. Largely set in the thick of wartime, the story follows Reinhardt from music-hall sensation through his flight with wife to the provinces near the Swiss border as he struggles to build a new life, plot his escape to Switzerland, and keep steps ahead of the Nazis. But they are rarely far behind and scenes intercut of their murderous treatment of gypsy communities scattered about France and Belgium ramp up the suspense. The rich period detail, whether evoking the smoky jazz haunts or wartime provincial hideaways, and the presence of French star Cécile de France playing Django’s louche muse (a suspicious hottie also cozy with the occupying Nazis) add to the menacing wartime atmosphere that permeates the film. Music-wise, le jazz hot, heard in the many scenes of the guitarist and his band performing, also heats up Django, which is Of Gods and Men screenwriter Comar’s feature debut. Kateb’s Django is that kind of character who sends viewers to Wikipedia and the film’s great soundtrack stirs interest in the artist’s cool music that is still heard on jazz radio.

France’s royalty was toppled centuries ago, but the performing and fine arts remain king in this culture-worshipping country. Its palace is the subject of Jean-Stéphane Bron’s magnificent doc, Paris Opera. Providing a thrilling inside look (upstairs, backstage, onstage) at the workings of the city’s venerable and magnificent cultural hub for opera and dance, the film catches the pulse of this vast operation, including the executive, artistic and logistical crises and the habitual strikes that halt operations. Thanks to generous access, the doc reveals management’s dilemma with budget constraints and artists who bow out suddenly and need to be replaced presto. There are also labor disputes and other challenges related to bringing a huge live bull on stage for the performance of Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron (no, the bull doesn’t have to sing) and PR crises of the familiar kind.

Especially notable is the utterly charming and adorable 21-year-old Russian singing prodigy Mischa, given his opera debut but urged to learn French. Also winning is the close-up of a good-sport opera pro merrily chatting with his colleagues and stepping in for a lead singer who bolted. Paris Opera also delivers fascinating close-ups of performers and gifted conductors at work and huge choruses acclimating to what is required of them. Instincts for diversity also have the doc looking into those who do more of the grunt work (costumes, cleaning, etc.), but it is, of course, the snippets of stage performances—whether vocal or dance—in one of the world’s foremost performing-arts institutions that thrill. Film Movement recently stepped in to license this gem, which gloriously fills the big screen.

Two exceptional medical dramas also fill out the bouquet of Rendez-Vous standouts. Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living, which Cohen Media Group releases on April 14, is the gripping, intricately woven story of what unfolds after a vibrant 17-year-old is left brain-dead following a car accident and his grieving parents (Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen) allow medical teams to carry out a heart transplant to a relatively young mother (Anne Dorval. The close-ups of actual surgery won’t please the, well, faint of heart.

Another prescribed film on the medical front is renowned actor-director Emmanuelle Bercot’s Erin Brockovich-like 150 Milligrams, which, like the Julia Roberts hit, is based on a true scandal and focuses on a woman crusading against big business damaging public health and the government bureaucracy that gets in her way. Here, the heroine is a tough-talking lung doctor (Sidse Babett Knudsen) at a provincial teaching hospital who discovers that a weight-loss drug also for diabetics is resulting in breathing difficulties, heart valve complications, and too many seemingly related deaths. Outraged, determined and working with a reluctant doctor colleague (French star Benoît Magimel), she galvanizes an anonymous insider and the media to help expose the pharmaceutical scandal.

Rendez-Vous also offered a number of other superb dramas, these with seemingly lesser budgets and star power but no less worthy of attention. Proving the French can still reliably deliver edgy, smart kids who will surprise us (going back to The 400 Blows, Zazie dans le métro, etc.) is Marc Fitoussi’s Mum’s Wrong, in which idealistic 14-year-old Anouk (Jeanne Jestin) spends a school week interning at her executive mother’s (Émilie Dequenne) insurance company and accidentally learns that a struggling immigrant widow has unfairly lost the mortgage on her home due to her mother’s shameful finagling. As Anouk prowls the company corridors and interfaces with the bureaucratic busybodies who thwart fairness and efficiency, she becomes a crusader on behalf of the client and exposes the idiocies of workers the malfeasance of corporations. The film, which often works as spot-on satire, is also a touching study of the mother-daughter relationship and a disturbing reminder of what people and big business continue to get away with.

Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s The Stopover, which First Run Features will release, may be a little light on plot (the French government treats some French soldiers who have been fighting in Afghanistan to a brief vacation at a five-star seaside resort in the Greek part of Cyprus on their return home). But the film is a well-done character study on the effects of battle on soldiers, notably two young French women Marine (Soko) and Aurore (Ariane Labed), the former more psychologically wounded. Performances from all talent—whether soldiers or natives—are fine and the Cyprus scenery is more than adequate eye candy. Partying hotel life, army debriefing sessions and cavorting, and even some canoodling with the natives on a trip outside the hotel compound add interest to this convincing tale.

Two dramas take us far, far away from warm Cyprus climes. In the Forest of Siberia, which deservedly won the 2017 César award for Best Score (Ibrahim Maalouf’s jazzy, moody music), delivers a fresh take on friendship and survival and maybe the most provocative, poetic look at the bleak Siberian wilds and its vast stretches of snow-covered ice and piney forests. The setting is Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest, a no-man’s-land where Teddy (the always wonderful Raphaël Personnaz, who could be dubbed France’s Casey Affleck), flees from some bad times in Paris to a remote cabin lacking water and electricity in the hopes of clearing his mind and getting away from it all. He almost does, except for a chance encounter with a wayward, menacing old poacher even more angst-ridden than he is. A friendship slowly develops between the needy men, in addition to some intriguing drama and inevitable life lessons too easily forgotten.

A lighter trip is Journey to Greenland, in which two slobby, dull but sweet thirty-something pals from Paris (Thomas Blanchard and Thomas Scimeca) visit one of their fathers, who years ago retreated to Greenland. They experience a small native village of tiny pastel houses and a trailer or two and plenty of snow. Adding to a blizzard of local color are the likable Inuits and their quaint customs. One Thomas futilely hits on one of the girls, and via flashbacks to France the two men are revealed as struggling actors flailing in some of their pathetic gigs. This Netflix release from director Sébastien Betbeder is not just a picture of life in the wild but, worse, one without reliable Internet.

Other characters in other films of interest, including tortured neurotics and sociopaths, bring more serious personal problems and, yes, sometimes more fun as they tap our voyeuristic instincts. The zingers here include Victoria (Virginie Efira) in Justine Triet’s In Bed with Victoria, a human pile-up of misery and neuroses with battles on many fronts. On her professional ride to nowhere, this working mother of two carries tons of metaphorical baggage. She’s a short-fused, foul-mouthed lawyer charged with defending her loser friend Vincent (French favorite Melvil Poupaud), ensnared in an amour fou and being sued by his on/off-again lover. A court temporarily suspends Victoria from practice, leaving her to vegetate in her filthy apartment. She’s hounded by a vicious ex-husband who fancies himself a writer and defames her on the Internet, and her dating attempts online end disastrously. But charming young Sam (the busy Vincent Lacoste), a former client who seeks an internship, comes into her life, as do a Dalmatian and a monkey who serve as her witnesses for her defense of Vincent. But such levity is welcome.

Actor-director Nicole Garcia’s From the Land of the Moon, a Sundance Selects release, features Oscar winner Marion Cotillard in the role Gabrielle, a psychologically challenged dreamer and misfit of the post-World War II years living with her farm family in a small Provence village. As she becomes more difficult and solitary, her parents force her into an arranged marriage with handsome Spanish farmhand José (Àlex Brendemühl). Gabrielle denies him sexual relations, but he becomes professionally successful as a builder. Sent off to a Swiss hospital for a kidney ailment, she meets André (the ubiquitous Louis Garrel), a wounded young Indochinese War veteran with whom she falls obsessively in love. although he seems nearing the end of his life. The film is nicely structured via flash-forwards and flashbacks. Some nice twists at the end satisfy, as do the performances and fine scenery. Cotillard, as a disturbed, delusional obsessive, chews on a role that is more presentation than meaty.

Pascal Bonitzer’s Right Here Right Now is another peek into the workplace jungle and a machete-wielding terror trying to work her way through it. Suggesting the robotic big-business heroines of Toni Erdmann and Jessica Chastain’s Miss Sloane, stone-faced Nora (Agathe Bonitzer, the director’s daughter) is the ice-cold new hire at a soulless, big-deal wheeling-and-dealing financial company whose obnoxious feuding bosses (Pascal Greggory and Lambert Wilson) have a mysterious connection to Nora’s mysterious and seemingly downtrodden mathematician father (vet actor Jean-Pierre Bacri). Also popping up is the amazing Isabelle Huppert, who hasn’t met a role she doesn’t like, including this one as the mysteriously named Solveig, the mysterious wife of company boss Barsac, who has a mysterious past with Nora’s father. Thankfully, less mystery comes by way of Xavier (Vincent Lacoste), the colleague Nora pummels with her business expertise and maybe the prince she didn’t know she was waiting for.

Perhaps the craziest and most dangerous of Rendez-Vous’ coven of messed-up screen gals is 40-year-old Constance (well-played by Marina Foïs in an ugly role), the lowlife protagonist of Sébastien Marnier’s nasty drama Faultless. You know from frame one that here is the Bad Seed all grown up. The suspense that builds is all about when she’ll snap and how (and does she ever!). Constance first emerges at loose ends, both out of money and losing her Paris real estate job. Chased from her apartment with suitcases in hand, she hops a train back to the provinces. On the train, she has a quickie with a wealthy married businessman, then they share that they’re in neighboring towns and both have hospitalized mothers. Arrived in her provincial hometown and settled into her mother’s dreary house, she heads for her former real estate office, begging her boss to take her back. After he equivocates, Constance renews her friendship with former colleague and lover Philippe (Benjamin Biolay), who soon tells her that attractive, young Audrey (Joséphine Japy) has been hired to take her place. Constance, assuming a new name and pretending to be seeking a rental, contacts Audrey, stalks her in her vacationing parents’ gorgeous home, and forges a friendship with the young woman. It all goes downhill from there (especially for poor Audrey). The film offers a nifty surprise past halftime, but the ending is where a big reveal was needed.

Gone from this year’s lineup are films reflecting France’s concern with challenging immigrant problems, be they the influx of illegals or new settlers in the crime-ridden suburbs (les banlieux). Also MIA at Rendez-Vous was the familiar sprinkling of historic costumers, perversely skewed romances, and lighter soufflés focusing on eccentrics and rebels across demographics. Perhaps most missed from the films was beloved megastar Catherine Deneuve, a staple of art-house screens for decades.

With the exception of two lackluster works, also missing were films of a political nature (beyond the office variety), a curious lack considering today’s highly charged political climate and uncertainty as impulses of the Right and nationalism rear their heads.

Rebecca Zlotowski’s period curiosity Planetarium, which Swen Group is releasing, features Natalie Portman, who curiously took the role of a psychic who tours with her sister (Lily-Rose Depp) in 1930s Paris as a performing team who also hold séances. For some reason they captivate a Jewish movie producer (Emmanuel Salinger), who invites them to live in his spacious Art Deco digs. The 30s become a bad decade for Jews and the producer runs into trouble. But exposition giving sense to what transpires is lost in too much attention afforded the visual busyness that the oddball milieus of decades past require. 

Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, too, takes a stab at politics and comes up completely empty. Netflix has a citron (French for lemon) with this lazy, empty film about an apparently disaffected, motley group of Parisian Millennials who stage catastrophic terrorist acts (multiple skyscraper explosions) throughout Paris, then improbably reunite in an upscale department store not to shop but to hide out. They run around the store, poking at the luxury products and catching the latest news of their attacks on the large TV panels. In a reminder of the economic gap, the point is made that the store’s upscale inventory is beyond the means of most but certainly not all of these twisted multi-ethnic perps. But there’s no effort to expose their motives, how they built their bombs and planted them or what the heck the consequences—for the perps, the city, the world—might be. Or do we wait for Nocturama 2?

While The Dancer and Planetarium seem cautiously experimental, Caroline Deruas’ fanciful eyeful Daydreams emits a more authentic experimental spirit. Deruas takes risks as she delivers what could have been a conventional story of young artists selected to spend a year at the French Academy, headquartered in Rome’s magnificent Villa Medici. At first, the film threatens to take a familiar “junior year abroad” approach to the experiences of the newcomers, but then it swings unexpectedly, depicting their marital, romantic, psychological and creative problems. The filmmaker resorts to narrative detours (some of the ancient villa’s historical characters and legends are brought to life) and visual trickery (tinted sequences, ghostly imagery). And she exploits the access she was given to the villa as she shows off the expansive gardens and the villa’s many frescoes, statues and grand interiors.

A few Rendez-Vous films took aim at comedy, and whether they hit their target lies squarely in the eyes of beholders. As an unabashed homage to low-grade jungle adventures and the slapstick excesses of Abbott and Costello, The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis at his wackiest and too many French mainstream comedies to mention, Antonin Peretjatko’s Struggle for Life will be for many a struggle to laugh. But there’s no struggle to have some fun in this immensely silly, sight-gag-infested (along with bugs and snakes) send-up about a bumbling French intern (busy actor Vincent Macaigne, who is clearly committed here) sent to French Guiana to assure that a planned government-sponsored ski resort (snow and all) in this hot, humid territorial outpost is up to standards. The plot essentially has the intern getting stranded in the jungle and teaming up with another lost intern, this one sassy and cute and ripe for the hero’s pickings as the love interest. These brave souls eventually make it and “make” it, but the film’s bravest participant might be French star Mathieu Amalric, who, as the ski project’s mastermind, goes silly with the rest of them. The occasional satiric jabs at outdated colonialism and at government, big business and fundraising machinations poisoning new opportunities provide some relief. The film also gets points for its lush Guiana Amazon locations, although a tourism boost is far from assured.

A stab at comedy with cannibalism came by way of bad-boy director Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay, a strange, unfunny mash-up of inscrutable intentions set near the northern French seaside. In this sparsely populated area of sand, sea and inlets are a wildly eccentric bourgeois family vacationing in their musty villa near a settlement of impoverished fishermen locals and their families who prefer meat on their plates. So bodies of visiting tourists have been disappearing and it’s up to a grotesquely overweight local police inspector to solve the case. Of note in this absurd concoction is the recreation of the early 1900s and the generous participation of wonderful talents like Fabrice Luchini and Juliette Binoche, who are overkill as pretentious, precious members of the degenerate upper-class family with no class at all. Missing persons aside, the real mystery to solve here is: What’s the point? Kino Lorber releases.

A more serious but no less confounding take on cannibalism comes by way of Julia Ducournau’s Focus Features pick-up Raw, which, aspiring more to the horror genre, follows a proper innocent and vegetarian as she begins at the veterinarian school where her sister is an upperclassman. The grotesque hazing ritual foreshadows the bizarre events and depictions to follow as the freshman turns to fresh flesh. Some hot sex provided by a hunky roommate able to go both ways spices things up as the heroine gets down, decadent and devouring. Filmgoers with a taste for different won’t go home hungry.

But such excessive gross-outs these days can whet more filmgoer appetites than expected, now that social media has come to the table. Already some traditional media has taken the bait.