Rendez-Vous 17: New York remains true to French cinephiles


The 17th edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema brings a thrilling round of new French films, rolling into New York by way of The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance Films. This year’s program, another mixed bag of about two-dozen terrific (and not so) new features, hits screens March 1-11 at Lincoln Center, downtown’s IFC Center and Brooklyn’s art-house hub BAMcinématek.

If this year’s series in any indication, French filmmakers reflect ongoing concerns of their country at large by focusing lenses on matters of class and wage divides, an unsure economy, “socio-communistic” politics, France’s rich history and, of course, l’amour.

American distributors may take it or leave it, but many, represented in Rendez-Vous with about nine films already licensed, did the former. May audiences follow, though it won’t always be easy.

Additionally, the event’s new Rendez-Vous + sidebar, exploiting Lincoln Center’s new Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center screens, offers over a dozen documentaries (with subjects as diverse as Holocaust survivors and legendary post-war singer/actor Juliette Greco) and a number of worthy revisits, including Claude Miller’s 1981 taut policier Garde a vue. Perhaps the most exciting must-see revival to catch is the newly restored, exquisite classic Children of Paradise, Rendez-Vous’ Centerpiece offering.

And again, Rendez-Vous has rounded up many of the line-up’s stars for personal appearances throughout the event.

Per usual, most of the event’s strongest debutantes are those bowing with U.S. distributors attached. Opening-night attraction The Intouchables, on the arm of The Weinstein Company, exploits the sturdy buddy/odd-couple formula in a comedy about a quadriplegic Paris millionaire (François Cluzet) who ends up with an aggressive African-born big-mouth bulldog of a caregiver (Omar Sy, who just won the César for his performance), a Senegalese with rap sheet and too much attitude who’s a product of a soulless Paris immigrant neighborhood. The clash of these opposites, their inevitable but affecting bonding and the wonderful pummeling given diversions of the upper class (modern art, long German operas, private chamber music gatherings, etc.), among other qualities (including a visually thrilling paragliding sequence), add up to great fun and wide smiles.

Already a French box office smash (the country’s 2011 top-grosser and third-most-popular in post-war France, falling behind only Titanic and homegrown comedy Welcome to the Sticks), the film, co-written and directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano and based on a true story, makes perfect sense as a winner in its native country but might prove trickier for American audiences. Yanks like their foreign films foreign (less formulaic) and their mainstream films American. Weinstein, maybe thinking of this, reportedly purchased the remake rights.

Kino Lorber, too, has a gem in the romantic drama The Well-Digger’s Daughter (La Fille du puisatier), based on the Marcel Pagnol tale set in, of course, Provence during the late ’30s and early ’40s. This gorgeous film marks the directing debut of its star Daniel Auteuil, who was featured in Columbia/Triumph’s two Pagnol classics Jean de Florette and Manon des sources released stateside decades ago.

Auteuil plays a simple, widowed well-digger with many daughters and one problem: The eldest becomes pregnant after a one-nighter with the handsome son of the town’s prominent businessman (Jean-Pierre Darroussin, who delivers another exceptional Rendez-Vous turn in The Snows of Kilimanjaro). But the lad is shipped off to war, then declared missing, leaving the well-digger with a daughter with child and without husband.

Those familiar with Pagnol tales will recognize some familiar themes and plot points but will hang in for some nice surprises. Auteuil’s evocation of rural Provence is resplendent with authenticity and atmosphere. Only Odorama could make the floral scents of the fields more real.

Distribution newcomer Cohen Media Group, which in just two years has shown an acute eye for quality (My Afternoons with Margueritte, Outside the Law, Luc Besson’s upcoming The Lady and the riveting doc Chasing Madoff), is again in French territory with two Rendez-Vous offerings.

Benoît Jacquot’s deliciously intimate and convincing Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux à la Reine) tracks the last days of French queen Marie Antoinette inside a jaw-droppingly opulent but creepily threatened Versailles palace before revolutionaries close in and make more heads roll, including her majesty’s and that of estranged hubby King Louis XVI. Diane Kruger stars as the disgustingly spoiled, whimsical queen who, with a fawning staff assigned to do everything but brush her teeth, confides in her devoted young reader/lady-in-waiting Sidonie (Léa Seydoux), especially as the enemy approaches.

Kruger’s Marie is not unlike the pleasure-oriented, Euro-trashy and doomed queen in Sofia Coppola’s clubby Marie Antoinette take, except that Jacquot’s creation has a profound passion for also-decadent palace resident Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). With Marie’s Sapphic obsession, which she confesses to the innocent Sidonie, Farewell emerges as the naughtier and more daring film. The impeccable acting and production design and sumptuous costumes abet the story’s historic authenticity. Jacquot’s Upstairs/Downstairs approach to the material may skew sideways and bent, but oh, what fun.

Less promising box-office-wise is Cohen Media’s other Rendez-Vous entry, Closing Night’s Delicacy (La Délicatesse), a quirky romantic comedy about an unlikely boy-girl attraction that may or may not become the real thing. With this impressive first feature, directors David and Stéphane Foenkinos, adapting a script from the latter’s novel, provide star Audrey Tautou with a vehicle custom-made to her chipper talent to amuse. Given another Amélie-like character, Tautou again fills her gamine shoes as she shows off perky, cutesy strengths that threaten to annoy.

Weighted here in more serious matters, Tautou portrays a grieving young Parisian widow who tries to lose herself in an OK job as rising executive in the Paris office of a Scandinavian company. After she forges an unexpected rapport with a nerdy but severely enamored Swedish underling, played by comic star François Damiens, an awkward romance ignites in spite of him being the shlubby antithesis of any female’s notion of a “catch.”

Film Movement’s Free Men (Les Hommes libres), from director Ismael Ferroukhi, is an unusual take on the French Occupation, which here proposes how Muslims in wartime Paris helped Jews. Based on real characters, the film (opening this month) gives us young Algerian black-marketer Younes (Tahar Rahim of A Prophet), whom the German authorities collar and have spy for them at Paris’ Grand Mosque. Compelled to help the Nazis or else, Younes noses around and comes into contact with people on both the good and bad sides of the struggle. Helping turn Younes into a war hero is the powerful Mosque rector (French-English vet Michael Lonsdale), a political big shot courted by the Nazi occupiers but working for the Resistance.

Also anti-Nazi is the hero’s cousin, who puts Younes to work in a clandestine operation to deliver fake IDs to North African Jews. Most important is a handsome, charismatic cabaret artist, who passes as a Muslim performer in order to hide his Jewish heritage.

Unusual in its approach to this tragic chapter in French history and nicely done, this worthy wartime drama nonetheless feels under-populated and minimalist in design (low budgets can do that).

Strand Releasing rendez-voused with two films, one intriguing, another not so. Delphine Coulin and Muriel Coulin’s debut feature 17 Girls (17 Filles) is based on an actual headline-grabbing U.S. incident in which a clique of high-school girls purposely got themselves pregnant, although with no intention of pursuing relationships with the willing donors. The film, shot in a sleepy Breton coastal town, takes its time to get interesting but certainly does. Praise goes mainly to the young stars, whose portrayal of rebellion and boredom convince, and the directors’ efforts to place this tale of transgressing teens in a real milieu and recognizable mindset.

But Strand’s Unforgivable (Impardonnables) from André Téchiné disappoints, especially given some of the vet filmmaker’s previous films (Wild Reeds, The Girl on the Train, etc.) and the participation of always-watchable stars André Dussolier and Carole Bouquet. More unwieldy soap opera than taut narrative, this French/Italian co-production tells the choppy tale of a blocked French mystery writer (Dussolier), who, relocating to Venice to begin a new book, meets and marries fast a mysterious bisexual ex-pat real estate agent (Bouquet).

Eventually her hefty list of past encounters unfolds (an elderly female private investigator, the investigator’s criminal son, a young cash-poor and criminally inclined Venice aristocrat), which motivates her husband to have her tailed. Besides his writer’s block, there’s another problem: the disappearance of his former drug-addict daughter.

A terminal illness, imprisonments, reconciliation, gay-bashing, a murdered dog, etc. pile up as disconnected shards of random anecdotes with no regard to tone or atmosphere. The only flow here is in the Venice canals and gulfs. But the yummy scenic locations almost help save the day and a recent positive New York Times write-up may save the film.

Venice, California figures in MPI’s Americano, a drama from Mathieu Demy (son of Agnès Varda and late filmmaker Jacques Demy) about a French guy (Demy) who travels to Los Angeles to sell his late mother’s shabby Venice condo. Long estranged from her, the hero uncovers mysteries in her troubled life that lead him to also-shabby Mexico, where he encounters the strip-club performer/hooker (Salma Hayek) his mom knew. Hayek is just too attractive to convince as this lowlife, Chiara Mastroianni is not given enough to do as the hero’s girlfriend left behind in Paris, and Geraldine Chaplin serves no purpose as the late mother’s obnoxious friend. Much else in this dark drama challenges credibility and especially its raison d’etre could use a little light.

Several of the Rendez-Vous films without distributors impress as good bets for acquisition. François Laguionie’s smart and delightful animated The Painting (Le Tableau) is an often visually inventive allegory about class war, discrimination, and the mystery of creativity. Cleverly, the action takes place in a painting where classes clash: Those fully drawn characters are the “Alldun” aristos who live lavishly as they oppress the “Halfies,” only half-complete; the most unfortunate are the “Sketchies,” mere sketches.

A treat for adults and kids alike, the film delivers some Romeo and Juliet-like lovers separated by class, Wizard of Oz-like adventurers on a mission, and pitched battles as underlings fight the upper class. As a primer about painting, the film also evokes masters like Picasso and Van Gogh and the mystery of artistic inspiration and realization. The only blotch on this wonderful canvas is its final stroke, an ending that should have enchanted.

Also promising are two films, Robert Guédiguian’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Les Neiges du Kilimanjaro) and Fred Louf’s 18 Years Old and Rising (J’aime regarder les filles), both reminding that politics, history and l’amour persist as French cinema’s holy trinity of recurring themes haunting filmmakers. The films return to the country’s obsessions with socialism and communism so entrenched in the fabric that these movements, whether triggers for nostalgia or serious consideration in light of today’s ills, continue to get their close-ups.

Guédiguian, a politically and regionally oriented filmmaker seeing things from the Left and on Marseilles’ stressed streets, delivers a gentle meditation on the working class, current economic pressures afflicting them and the CGT (France’s traditional Communist union). After union rep and leader Jean-Pierre Darroussin, in another beautiful Rendez-Vous performance, willingly adds his name to a lottery of those who lose their jobs on the Marseilles docks, he retreats to an early retirement with his beloved wife and family. When the prospect of the couple’s imminent vacation to Africa is ruined by a brutal home invasion, the former union honcho, whose hero is Socialist icon Jean Jaures (a name that graces many a French street), hunts down the culprit. Politics and the economy fuel so much, but Snows engages emotionally on more abstract matters like love, devotion, forgiveness and redemption.

On the surface, Louf’s 18 Years Old and Rising looks like any other coming-of-age story about a working-class, 18-year-old Paris student from the provinces preparing—until first romance sets up obstacles—for the all-important “bac” exam that will get him into university and on to a better life. Because 18 Years is really about class wars (the hero falls in with a snobby clique of Parisian youths from whom he hides his working-class roots) and a historic modern French political transition, the film works more originally and wittily as allegory.

Taking place in 1981, the hero’s struggles and problems reflect what was happening that momentous year when French voters brought Socialist François Mitterand into power after his defeat of seemingly entrenched French president Giscard d’Estaing’s conservative government. Like the hero, Mitterand may conquer but not without in-fighting among Leftists and resentments burning on the Right.

A nice surprise (for cinephiles at least) is seeing late New Wave master Claude Chabrol’s son Thomas in the role of the hero’s doubting professor. While food and mystery are not on this film’s menu, father Claude would have applauded the film’s political meat.

The story of Rabah Ameur-Zaïméche’ Smugglers’ Songs (Les Chants de Mandrin) spins on the followers of little-known 18th-century folk hero and bandit Louis Mandrin, martyred in southern France by torture and murder. His disciples, renegades at odds with the French royals in power, work the countryside to help the poor and get Mandrin’s songs and poetry published and distributed. These renegades (smugglers who rob the rich to give to the poor and allied with a noble of Jacobin sympathies) are an interesting precursor to the populist rebels who will forge the French Revolution. After a deadly start, the film picks up nicely as a beautiful pastorale of lovely landscapes, authentic costumes and locations (most notably an old printing factory) and period music on period instruments. And Mandrin’s material, heard in performance, is often moving.

Lucas Belvaux, whose recent Rapt (producer John Hart grabbed the remake rights) was such an exceptional kidnapping thriller, disappoints with 38 Witnesses (38 Témoins), inspired by the famous Kitty Genovese case in which witnesses to her Queens, New York murder stayed quiet. Belvaux here does dare a gimmick, which is to present a murder case in detail without revealing any culprit. Rather, the action is all about the 38 witnesses who refuse to come forth until one of them (played by Rapt’s Yvan Attal) blows the whistle. Loaded with atmosphere as it depicts a dark vision of the big port city of Le Havre, the film needed more of what the genre requires.

Actor Mathieu Amalric takes a chance as director of The Screen Illusion (L’Illusion comique), an attempt to update into the present a Pierre Corneille 17th-century play, with original rhymes and meters intact. This time-traveled rendering takes place largely in a Parisian hotel where the hero’s spoiled son seems to have disappeared and where the hotel’s simple concierge may be the key to his discovery.

Beyond the sad laggards among so strong a line-up come some real duds, the kind that are so stunningly dull and self-indulgent that they provoke considerations of mortality. In other words, these films spur in their viewer-victims a nagging (rhetorical) question: Why can’t some filmmakers understand that they are stealing two irretrievable hours in a viewer’s finite life and are thereby obligated to pay back with anything of value, maybe a few seconds of entertainment, escape, intellectual enrichment or emotional connection?

Less egregious in such disdain for filmgoers, by virtue of an attempt to entertain, but a dud nevertheless is Laurent Achard’s The Last Screening (La Derniere séance), a claustrophobic mix of Psycho meets Peeping Tom meets Roger Corman and a film viewers won’t want to meet again. Comic-book-sketchy, the story takes place largely in the bowels of a tiny movie theatre about to close. The cinema’s creepy young manager/projectionist, a diehard film buff living there, is a serial killer who brings corpses to a hidden basement room near where he sleeps. A lame attempt at backstory doesn’t come close to giving any credibility to the demented hero’s extreme pathology. Even the blood doesn’t look real. Or is that the point?

And what could possibly be the point of Pater? What is clear is that some important French film guys—including director Alain Cavalier and star Vincent Lindon—got together to hang out in front of indifferent cameras for lots of meals and bull sessions about politics and the economy. It’s an improvised, sloppy, self-indulgent effort that manages to (actually wants to?) break every rule of filmmaking.

The two create a faux plot: Cavalier is the French president who will bring Lindon on board as his prime minister. This latter will exploit a platform calling for an end to the wage gap separating executives and workers and proposes some radical cures. But the notion loses importance as the film meanders and discussions turn to other matters—love, of course, being one of them.

For reasons unknown, the “cast” is often captured through doorways, windows, or as reflections in mirrors; there are scenes suggesting solidarity with the working class but it all adds up to a big nothing for audiences, though clearly it was a whole lot of fun for the cast.

Apparently shot in Cavalier’s digs, this is DIY filmmaking at its most inappropriate. At least there’s some interest when the camera is on the ubiquitous food the cast enjoys. Like the unsteady camera that captures this nonsense in what is obviously a tripod-free zone, this is also filmmaking at its most unnecessary.

Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval’s Low Life depicts a bunch of rebellious university students fighting the system but using words more poetic than practical. All is played out in a dark, empty neighborhood (maybe Lyons) in depressing spaces that suggest nothing of these characters beyond their dissatisfaction. They dance, make out, fight the cops, muse, argue and profess love, but nothing makes sense. Do they at least study? One couple, a French girl and Afghan poet, begin a relationship, but what’s this film all about beyond anger at the system? How about a few scenes about solutions?

Some may argue that the more challenging films offer a different, original, unexpected experience. But so does walking barefoot on burning coals.