Another Rendez-Vous: New French films seek cinephile suitors

More predictable than New York’s fickle March weather is the month’s “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” program of new Gallic features, the annual showcase from Unifrance and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. Again, it’s a banquet of very good, mighty bad and so-so tastings for cinema gourmets.

Anchored at the Center’s Walter Reade Theater but using several venues midtown, downtown and in Brooklyn, the 16th iteration of this program, offering about 20 new French features and several oldies, began March 3 and runs through March13.

Once again, there’s a range of quality that turns Rendez-Vous into something akin to cinematic speed-dating, as not a lot is predictable and luck matters. From triumphs to stinkers and too much mediocrity in between, the line-up this year seemed to have a preponderance of weaker films, prompting the question: Why can’t a country that produces hundreds of films a year (and with so much government-ordained help) not harvest better cinematic produce for this high-profile showcase?

While a significant majority of Rendez-Vous films are up for grabs, those already licensed reflect the new world of specialized distribution. Gone are the bigger indie distribution houses, as relative newcomer Music Box Films (Mozart’s Sister, Rendez-Vous’ opening night Potiche) and new label Sundance Selects (Love Crime, The Princess of Montpensier), an unclear cousin of IFC Films, have stepped up to the plate with two features each. Stalwart Strand Releasing has The Sleeping Beauty.

But look for a few of the better films to get picked up, especially the unfortunately titled but deliciously satiric Service Entrance from director Philippe Le Guay. “The French, they are a funny race” (as the saying goes) and so proves this Fabrice Lucchini-starrer, largely set in 1962 Paris in the upper-class townhouse of a wealthy bourgeois couple, initially comfortable with their ritualized routines and the stuffy political climate emanating from rulers like De Gaulle and Franco who helped birth the historic upheavals at the end of the decade.

As a comedy of class and culture clashes, this often hilarious and always wise film pits stockbroker Lucchini, too rich and comfortable running his late father’s firm, and snobby socialite wife (impeccably played by Sandrine Kiberlain, so memorable for her role in last year Rendez-Vous highlight Mademoiselle Chambon) against a gaggle of oh-so-lively upstairs Spanish maids (including Carmen Maura and Lola Dueñas) who teach them lessons of love and living.

Reporting from another class-war frontline, that of the late ’70s as women make giant steps towards equality in the workplace, and taking a frothier approach is Music Box’s comedy Potiche, fired by its feminist thrust and the star power of Catherine Deneuve (never better as the soon-to-be empowered potiche or trophy wife who becomes a woman of action). Co-stars are Gérard Depardieu as the town’s big-deal politico and working-class activist who was her long-ago lover, and Lucchini as her husband, again doing a comedic spin on the successful businessman. But here he’s a shamelessly philandering one who will lose control of his factory to his go-getter wife, the revitalized Deneuve. François Ozon directed this utterly delightful comedy, maybe a bit too kitschy for some, but, dipped in extra sprinkles, Potiche explodes with vibrant colors, period pop hits and infectious charm.

Music Box also has René Féret’s Mozart’s Sister, a gorgeous rendering of the story of little Wolfgang’s older, talented sister whom father Leopold sidelined in favor of his genius son. Perhaps more adagio than the andante or allegro that stirs audiences, the film nevertheless is a gorgeous evocation of privileged, pampered late-1700s court life at Versailles, where Louis XV summoned the Mozart family, little Wolfgang especially, to perform. A treat for both classical music fans and French history buffs, Mozart’s Sister is richly atmospheric (candle-lit, amber-colored rooms, magnificent palace halls, wonderful music, etc.) and absorbing. The drama of it all—how prodigy daughter lost out to her little bro, no thanks to the pampering Leopold—is almost beside the point as a love angle, the sister’s bonding with both Louis’ son and daughter, and period costumes and music steal the show.

A much-anticipated offering that offered less than anticipated was the late Alain Corneau’s corporate-crime melodrama Love Crime, starring Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier as dueling, fired-up execs at a multinational agro giant. Part soft-core tease (Scott Thomas hits persuasively on Sagnier, who utters “I love you,” but it’s all gratuitous), part executive-suite close-up of Machiavellian scheming, and part murder intrigue, the film—slick, ballsy, silly—fails to deliver one frame of authenticity or emotional tug. But, hats off to the cast, it does entertain. Reportedly, Brian De Palma has remake rights for a U.K. shoot.

Strand’s The Sleeping Beauty delivers another of the predictably unpredictable Catherine Breillat’s (Bluebeard, Fat Girl, Romance, etc.) twists on a fabled story. In this quirky work, a wicked fairy curses Anastasia at birth to die at 16. But a trio of other magical ladies commute the sentence to a hundred-year sleep, after which she’ll awaken an adolescent. Through this long snooze (the film’s weirdness keeps viewers more awake), Anastasia has myriad dreams peopled by princes and dwarves who charm her, gypsies who abduct her, and other unusual creatures. One episode is a kind of pastoral where she lands at a remote cottage whose mother-and-son owners guard a railroad barrier. Another is a Discovery Channel-like interlude where she rides a doe across a snowy arctic plain. And lest Breillat not surprise us enough, Anastasia’s journey is also one to her deflowering and into very modern Parisian melodrama, all putting a real-world tail on this otherworldly tale.

The costumer The Princess of Montpensier, alternately billed an IFC or Sundance Selects release, is a lavish cinematic canvas from vet filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, perhaps more familiar for his politically themed or contemporary dramas. Set in the 1500s in France during the religious wars when Catholic forces were fiercely battling anti-Pope Protestants, the story of court intrigue follows the irresistible young beauty Marie de Montpensier, daughter of a wimpy, wealthy social-climber who pressures his daughter to marry royal. So while Marie fancies the dashing rogue De Guise, the union is made with the Prince of Montpensier. When he’s summoned to battle the Huguenots, he sends his new wife into isolation, where she is protected by the prince’s pacifist friend and tutor (vet actor Lambert Wilson), who becomes her confidant. Eventually, religious differences give way to the war waged for Marie’s heart. If the story rings most poignantly as female romantic fantasy and period shoot-’em-up, it’s the magnificent settings, music and finery that command interest.

Awaiting a distributor and not a bad bet for pick-up is the crime drama/actioner The Big Picture, which has well-known star Romain Duris, again in manic drive, as a successful Parisian yuppie on the rise. But this comfortably suburban family man is about to lose it all after he accidentally murders his wife’s struggling photographer lover and decides to cover it up by stealing the guy’s identity. Morphing from nifty intrigue, the film makes an acute turn into Eastern Europe where the hero, also an amateur photographer, picks up his camera to pose as the photojournalist alter ego he killed. His pictures are strong enough to win him patronage from a large publication’s photo editor and some prominent gallery owners who want to exhibit his work. Well, there’s this thing called the Internet which gives us more than 15 minutes in the limelight and allows for, er, more exposure than photo darling Duris would like and the vise tightens on his fake identity. In a sloppy third act, he jumps from terra firma to mayhem at sea to a nutsy ending that nearly sinks Eric Lartigau’s film.

Niels Arestrup is perfectly cast as a cynical expat journo who may become Duris’ undoing. In an entirely superfluous and brief role, Catherine Deneuve pops in early to put across a minor plot point.

Several films—mildly engaging and at least worthy of home viewing—reflect some of France’s (and beyond) important sociopolitical and environmental concerns, such as the influx of undocumented immigrants and their treatment, all of which are the stuff of headlines and headaches.

The strongest among these films is Audrey Estrougo’s Leila, an often delightful spin on West Side Story that tells via a splashy style of bright colors and musical numbers a love story involving a young North African law student and an upper-class Parisian who meet awkward when the guy’s convertible nips her little brother. A bumpy romance follows, as does an integrated thread involving the plight of an African mother and her daughter threatened with deportation. This is an upbeat, inspirational film that oozes with charm and confidence as it unabashedly celebrates the power of song and dance and the ethnic diversity of the city’s working-class neighborhoods and haunts.

At least Romain Goupil’s Hands Up, an otherwise undistinguished effort, is a full-frontal assault on the treatment of immigrants without papers. A curious structure begins the story decades into the future, as an elderly Chechen woman, mostly via flashback and voiceover, remembers her life as a little girl today in Paris when, undocumented like her parents, she had to be separated from them and hidden with a French family. There’s much about kids here (how they scheme, play, hide, etc.), but although these kids are all right, the attention to their shenanigans is at the expense of plot.

In Angelo Clanci’s droll hostage drama Top Floor, Left Wing, Hippolyte Girardot plays a functionary sent to evict tenants from a depressing project apartment. Tables turn and are overturned as the foul-mouthed, drug-dealing son in the immigrant family at Girardot’s mercy takes him hostage. The film, largely comic and good-natured amidst the flood of really vile obscenities pouring from the young guy’s mouth, follows the stand-off between the son and the authorities as his gentle father and even Girardot prove useless. The finale is an explosive visual expression of the frustrations and grimness of hopeless life in the projects, where immigrants are bullied by insensitive government flunkies.

Certainly bearing a social message about today’s dreary job market and the anomie that accompanies the petty jobs to be had, Living on Love Alone is a slight but convincing drama of a 23-year-old college grad, portrayed by newcomer Anais Demoustier, trying to establish a professional life in Paris. After she fails at a hip PR firm where her chores get no better than fetching lunches for the higher-ups, she endures even more humiliation as a door-to-door sales trainee for a low-end publisher. Bored, discouraged and lost, she does get traction picking up men, going to bed with them and leaving them to their respective wives. But when she makes the mistake of cozying up to a louche layabout who makes mysterious trips across the Spanish border, life turns dangerous. Isabelle Czajka’s film does excel in presenting the dilemma of young people today who confront an overpopulated and unaccommodating work world of limited, boring jobs.

Flirting with some kind of social relevance is the unconvincing drama Free Hands, about a filmmaker who, after curiously being given permission to make a re-enacted documentary about Parisian prisoners with the actual inmates, falls in love with one of them. After she illegally helps him move money owed into the outside world, the pair get into real trouble. The inmates are a varied ethnic bunch who seem harmless enough, so what’s the point of Brigitte Sy’s film? It certainly isn’t prison or judicial reform, as the men, who are instructed to deliver lines derived from actual interviews, move around as freely as if they were on the Warner Bros. lot. In fact, prison never looked so good in what resembles more an Actors Studio workshop than incarceration.

On the documentary side was the yin of From One Film to Another, a frenetic, star-packed, indulgent look at the nonstop film career of Claude Lelouch, courtesy of the immodest Lelouch, and the yang of Coline Serreau’s ultra-serious Think Global, Act Rural, a straightforward and angering examination from a multitude of knowledgeable talking heads about how the multinational agricultural giants are ruining our food, soil, air and the lives of so many small farmers with noxious fertilizers and pesticides. The doc, screened unfinished, could use a voiceover throughout and more titles to identify the academics, farmers, scientists, et al. who weigh in on this sorry state of affairs. But the importance of the subject warrants such attention.

Serreau’s film is galaxies away from From One Film to Another, a guilty pleasure of a self-congratulatory, exhausting survey of Lelouch’s 50 years of filmmaking and scores of films as a sentimental, conventional bulwark against the New Wave flood of anti-establishment directors. His voiceover adds a personal touch and the miles of clips from his oeuvre deliver scores of major French stars and a few of our own. Also forking over heaps of nostalgia via its soundtrack, the doc kicks off eccentrically with a kinetically pleasing, very long take from the front of a car as it careens through the Paris streets, a pungent metaphor for Lelouch’s love of the camera. There are snippets of his biography, his philosophy of filmmaking, his influences (music-videos, soft-core fare, The Cranes are Flying, etc.), and his admirable acceptance that, in spite of some Oscars, the failures in his career far outnumber the hits (A Man and a Woman being the most significant).

The Long Falling largely disappoints, as it reteams the wonderful actress Yolande Moreau with her Seraphine director Martin Provost in a strange, lame drama about a long-abused wife (Moreau) who kills her husband and, believing she has gotten away with the crime, moves in with her gay son who lives in Brussels. This is a flimsy and discursive tale that fails to be the detective yarn needed. Moreau’s character is maddeningly colorless and mute, so that even a twist on the banality of evil is lost.

Antony Cordier’s Happy Few brings Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice to the present and into Parisian bedrooms, as two young couples willingly, knowingly, often satisfyingly swap partners. The problem is that no one—literally, metaphorically—would want to get into bed with any of them. They are dull, dull, dull and the film humorless and pointless.

Among the other Rendez-Vous disappointments—the “Huh?” pictures at the bottom of the heap—were Deep in the Woods from Benoît Jacquot. Familiar young star Isild Le Besco (of the pouty lips, high forehead, and ease with disrobing on camera) plays a 19th-century country girl who inexplicably falls for a filthy, inarticulate scoundrel of a vagabond who arrives at her kindly father’s cottage. The creep puts her in a trance, escapes with her and repeatedly rapes her during their journey through the forest. He doesn’t bathe and she’s not enjoying the violations. What is going on here?

Lelouch’s latest, What Love May Bring, brings barrelfuls of hooey to the wide screen. It is simply filmmaking gone wild and so out of control it almost fascinates. It bears many of the director’s hallmarks—romance, melodrama, an obsession with le cinema, corn as high as the viewer’s eye, show-offy camerawork, excess by the pound, self-indulgence and music, music, music, especially of a nostalgic bent. The story spans several generations caught up in the two World Wars, but focuses on the younger generation during and just after the Occupation. Most prominent of these characters are a movie theare usherette who turns collaborator and a young Jewish lawyer who survives Auschwitz. Can a flat-out traitor who takes on a Nazi lover and the Jewish lawyer who defends her in court for collaboration become a couple? Only Lelouch could provide an answer and elicit a “What?” heard around the moviegoing world, assuming this movie goes that journey.

But hats off to Rendez-Vous for giving these films a chance to find buyers and audiences. Tastes, in fact, are about as unpredictable as the annual Rendez-Vous offerings.