Never a blind date: Annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema offers an alluring slate of new films
As the French saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Latest proof was the recent 18th edition of the Rendez-Vous showcase event, which ran Feb. 28 through March 10 and showcased a solid lineup of new French films (and a few cherished oldies) for New York’s ever-loyal movie Francophiles and other cinephiles. Again, The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance Films were savvy matchmakers.
As usually happens, there was a mélange of the truly wonderful and surprising with the middle-of-the-road and a few disappointments. A number of films were escorted to the event’s screens with domestic distributors; others (those surprises) are likely candidates for theatrical pick-up and VOD exposure, followed by that now-familiar short-tail of other windows. A few duds are always inevitable.
Rendez-Vous host venues included Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater and Elinor Bunim Monroe Film Center, midtown’s tony French stronghold the Paris Theatre for opening night, Greenwich Village’s IFC Center and Brooklyn’s BAMcinématek.
Much on view was bright and fresh. You could catch France’s fictitious speed-typing national competition in The Weinstein Company’s opening-night film Populaire, a directorial debut from Régis Roinsard. This newbie lucked out pulling in French star Romain Duris for an effusive rom-com homage to fluffy, color-drenched, light Hollywood fare of the late ’50s/early ’60s. Viewers reminded of the Doris Day-Rock Hudson films back then will have plenty of company, as will those detecting similar ingredients that powered 2011’s Weinstein Company sensation The Artist. Both bestow a cinematic kiss to old Hollywood and Americans, have feverish feel-good motives, and provide an original spin on a revered genre. (Populaire lacks the cute dog, which could have meant more tickets sold.)
The serviceable and oft-entertaining story has attractive, young Rose (Deborah François), stuck in the French provinces, dreaming of a secretarial job in Paris and teaching herself to type. She lands a position in the city with a handsome insurance exec (Duris), who, after discovering her extraordinary typing skills, becomes her coach in local and national competitions. This splashy bon-bon, with its highly stylized and saturated period look a few notches more aggressive than that of “Mad Men,” is loaded with pre-feminist iconic images and notions. The charm is as thick as the cigarette smoke, and the presence of vet French star Miou Miou and Yé Yé pop tunes of the period are plusses. But, in spite of the film’s determination to please, so much silliness will not be everyone’s cup of café. And Duris is more Tony Randall than Rock Hudson, which isn’t half bad considering the film’s bid for nostalgia.
One of the very best films that Rendez-Vous offered was François Ozon’s intriguing and addictive In the House, which Cohen Media Group will soon have in theatres. Part mystery, part satire, and most cleverly an exposé of the creative writing process, In the House centers on precocious 16-year-old high-school student Claude (Ernst Umhauer). He’s determined to write about and infiltrate the home of the seemingly ordinary middle-class family of a fellow student, who conveniently needs Claude’s math tutoring. Claude’s obsession with the family and need to create an ever more penetrating narrative about them also becomes that of his mentor, a dutiful teacher and failed author (the always amazing Fabrice Luchini). Like his gallery-owner wife (Kristin Scott Thomas), the teacher grows more and more impressed with his student’s writing skills and the story he builds. As the protégé’s ardor and plotting grow (nicely conveyed via his voiceovers), so do the obsessions of Luchini and Scott Thomas with his story. Thus, In the House is also a window into story elements and strategies that captivate readers. Emmanuelle Seigner is notable as the seductive wife and mother in the scrutinized household, as is the film’s overall teasing tone. A final and not so subtle homage to a Hitchcock classic surprises and informs.
Cohen Media also had what was perhaps the most gripping and intense drama in the series, You Will Be My Son, an unexpected mystery about a troubled father-son relationship set within an expansive, highly successful Bordeaux wine estate. Niels Arestrup again puts in a magnificent performance as the star vintner whose dissatisfaction with his eager-to-please but inept offspring (just short of a fumbling princeling caricature like that recently inhabiting Oscar nominee A Royal Affair) grows as robustly as his grapes. Matters come to a head when the wine mogul must find a replacement for his ailing vineyard manager and chooses the manager’s highly competent son rather than his own. The film and its bottled jealousy and anger forge ahead as a taut family drama, as rivalries, resentments and secrets intensify. Then matters turn to a crime that surprises. The film enriches its gripping story and authenticity with numerous scenes set amid the sprawling, sloping vine fields, in the huge winery where the grapes are processed, and deep in the cavernous cellar where the wines age. No Smell-O-Vision presentation here, but the bouquet of wine does almost waft from the screen.
Another Rendez-Vous gem en route to theatres was Gilles Bourdos’ atmospheric drama Renoir, the story of the great artist in 1915, aged but still painting peacefully in his spacious and nature-enshrouded Riviera villa until the disruptive arrivals of his latest young model and muse and his wounded 21-year-old son Jean from the Great War. Longtime French star Michel Bouquet, perhaps best known as a Claude Chabrol favorite, beautifully inhabits the role of Pierre-Auguste. Newcomer Christa Théret, comfortably baring all and effortlessly conveying the carefree enthusiasm and nonchalance of an ideal muse, takes easily to the Renoir household of scurrying females serving the aged artist in various capacities. Vincent Rottiers is surprisingly bland as Jean, who betrays no creative tendencies or signs he’ll go on to become one of France’s’ greatest film directors. (Several Renoir classics were included in the Rendez-Vous line-up.) What he does do is embark on a relationship with his father’s new model (who in real life will become Jean’s first wife and film collaborator). But central to the film is the deeply creative Pierre-Auguste and the exquisite scenery on view that was no doubt his other muse. Besides these splendid natural canvases are the painter’s own—some real and some recreated for the screen. Matters of love, lust, creativity and most certainly mortality enter this quiet, seductive picture, but all is as gently applied as daubs of paint.
Another winner with distribution attached was Film Movement’s Three Worlds, a surprisingly engrossing crime drama that begins with a hit-and-run accident. An ambitious and newly promoted young executive at a car dealership is the panicked driver fleeing the event with two underling passengers (a smooth-tongued showroom salesman and the dealership’s scheming car mechanic). Left on the street to die is a gravely injured Moldavian illegal. From an apartment above, a female medical student sees the accident and comes to his rescue. In a Crash-like unraveling of details and unlikely crossed paths, filmmaker Catherine Corsini’s accident set-up ignites plenty of intrigue and twists to follow, just as it provides a fortuitous collision of different character types: the newly flush with cash, undocumented immigrants, striving middle-class academics, and morally suspect working-class stiffs.
Performances and production values, including a great score, are top-notch. Overall, Three Worlds, whose suspense never lets up, impresses as a consummate example of smart and unrelenting pacing that also makes room for fully realized characters.
One of the series’ big surprises that arrived without a distribution partner was Patrice Leconte’s delicious and unexpected The Suicide Shop, a 3D animated musical that addresses (hold on for real surprises) suicide, depression and desperation. There’s not a whit of probing analysis here, but there’s redemption and tons of fun. How could such a wild concoction work? Let us count the ways (and, yes, leave the kids at home because, apart from its theme, this is a dark comedy with abundant send-ups of familiar French types and attitudes that the young won’t get). Foremost, the film abounds in charm and attention-grabbing animation as it explodes with originality from that potentially morbid suicide twist.
The story takes place in a soulless megalopolis more evocative of Blade Runner than Paris. But in a familiar-looking Parisian courtyard, a couple run what looks on the outside like a typically tasteful boutique, except that this establishment provides tortured customers—young, old, rich, poor—with a wide array of suicide paraphernalia (guns, poisons, ropes, knives, etc.). Also typical and oh-so-French are the mom and pop shopkeepers, always polite but ingratiating and condescending when need be. An older daughter is a dutiful assistant, but it’s the youngest boy—a lad born only with happy genes—who turns things around as the perpetually upbeat reformer. The film’s wicked send-up of French types, manners and angst amounts to brilliant satire and the musical numbers and animation delight. Maybe lurking beneath are clues to how subversion, especially when witty and tasteful, is a handmaiden to art.
Rendez-Vous buyers should also speed-date Ilmar Raag’s A Lady in Paris for its astonishing performance from Jeanne Moreau as Frida, a wealthy, irritable widow with a wild past who emigrated from Estonia to Paris, where she lived a promiscuous life before landing a rich older husband. Now in a funk in her luxe 16th Arrondissement apartment, she longs to rekindle things with younger ex-lover Stéphane (Patrick Pineau), who runs the nearby café. Frida bought him the business and now he’s obliged to care for her on an informal basis. But Frida being a handful, Stéphane finds through an Estonian agency a young caretaker named Anne (Laine Magi). A simple woman from the stark East newly arrived in the fancy dwelling of the impossible Frida presents challenges. A nasty chill between harsh mistress and vulnerable helper eventually turns warmer, but amidst the predictability are nice surprises and insights into who Frida is and was. Moreau’s portrait is as impressive as anything she’s done in her long career and, like Emmanuelle Riva in Amour, astonishes as a true artist defying age.
Another Rendez-Vous possibility for acquisition is Jappeloup, a beautifully realized if familiar true sports tale about the eponymous horse that made it all the way to the Korean Olympic equestrian jump competition decades ago. The hero rider (well-played as an adult by French actor/director and real-life rider Guillaume Canet, who does not direct here) first meets the small horse when it’s bought by his indulgent father (Daniel Auteuil), who’s gently determined to make the son a champion rider. The spoiled hero turns to a yuppie life as a successful lawyer and finds a lovely wife. But he returns to jumping competition, and a long ride with Jappeloup takes hold. Of course, there are hurdles to overcome beyond the high bars and broad pools of the equestrian rings (Donald Sutherland puts in a turn as a wealthy Californian who threatens to buy the horse), but, foremost, this is easy-to-digest entertainment. A big production at over two hours but too slow out of the gate, the film would benefit from cuts off the top that, unimportant to the story, convey the hero’s riding skills as a boy. Also problematic is the adult hero’s indifference to his horse, a flaw righted a little too late for viewers by the horse’s wise groom who conveys the importance of such bonding. This horse/rider rapport will be all too familiar to fans of The Black Stallion, Seabiscuit and National Velvet.
Another top entry in the line-up that has not been acquired was Journal de France, a documentary self-portrait of renowned photographer/filmmaker Raymond Depardon, made in collaboration with his longtime working partner and sound engineer Claudine Nougaret. Cutting amidst scenes of Depardon today driving on a personal and literal road trip through a France familiar to him and archival material of his many big stories in the world’s hot spots (war, famines, revolutions), personalities encoutered (Jacques Chirac, Alain Delon, et al.), scoops and career milestones, the film also provides thoughtful lessons on the precision and patience central to the photographer’s craft, the digital transformation aside.
MPI Pictures is on board to bring the Audrey Tautou/Gilles Lellouche starrer Thérèse Desqueyroux, the last film from recently deceased director Claude Miller, to U.S. screens. In this beautifully photographed adaptation of the celebrated 1927 François Mauriac novel, Tautou’s titlular heroine (a literary cousin to the also stifled lady from the provinces Madame Bovary) marries into a landed bourgeois family for business, not love, and pays the consequences. Her stuffy husband Bernard (Lellouche) is severe, charmless and everything else that goes with an avid hunter and conservative businessman. For the heroine, her large, musty country house becomes as oppressive and empty as its surrounding pine forests, providing the perfect setting for Thérèse’s descent into anomie, despair and mental illness. The many dead animals on view don’t help matters for either heroine or audiences. Lellouche can almost call in his role as the bland hubby, but Tautou has the harder job with so complex a character. (The original 1962 Georges Franju version of the film, starring Amour Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva and French great Philippe Noiret as the starchy husband, was another “oldie” shown in the Rendez-Vous series.)
Haunting, poetic and memorable, if not a big-screen slam-dunk, was Héléna Klotz’s impressive debut, The Atomic Age. This TLA Releasing pick-up is a minimalistic evocation of youthful angst by way of two ordinary guys, one a self-proclaimed poet and both astray, who travel from the suburbs to Paris for a night of clubbing among the hipsters. But as hours pass and new encounters disappoint, the pair ride some emotional roller-coasters. Performances (most seemingly improvised), hip music and eye-pleasing camerawork and editing contribute to an immersive experience into some despairing people crying for help. There’s not much dialogue here, but the line “I feel empty, nothing interests me” speaks for the whole movie, as does its take on friendship.
Music Box Films has the oddity Augustine, based on the true 19th-century case of a doctor specializing in hysteria and the simple peasant girl who is the patient he induces with seizures and often treats in front of a large audience of his medical colleagues. The film’s dark look adds to the authenticity of the period and milieu and suits its subject. But too much goes unsaid and unexplained amidst characters who are far from captivating.
My Blue-Eyed Girl, about an 18-year-old on a summer vacation with her extended family and pining for the prisoner with whom she has been having an intimate correspondence might have been a promising film if only a story had kicked in. What viewers do get, thanks to the intoxicating location shooting, is a sense of almost being on vacation by the sea.
A second animation work in the Rendez-Vous line-up, The Day of the Crows, was, unlike The Suicide Shop, nothing to crow about. This curiosity, adapted from Jean-François Beauchemin’s novel, tells the story of the son of a monstrous forest ogre who escapes to a nearby village and becomes civilized. Perhaps most curious was the decision to visualize so much unsavory material (lots of kid-inappropriate hunting, killing and vulgar behavior). There’s little charm here and only so-so animation. A big plus is the voice of Jean Reno and that of late director Claude Chabrol in his final film credit, providing the major character voice of the village’s kindly doctor who helps the ogre’s son.
Patrick Mille’s Bad Girl is a contemporary drama of dueling arcs that has 25-year-old Louise going through pregnancy just as her cancer-ridden mother (Carole Bouquet) goes slowly to the Grim Reaper. Both mother and daughter have been bad girls (mother was a dissolute, druggy mom and daughter is a serial liar). Flashbacks reveal much of the bad behavior and neither character is really worth anyone’s time. Musician/activist Bob Geldof puts in a nice performance as the rock star who begat the daughter as a result of a one-night stand with her model/groupie/druggie mom.
Giving himself a starring vehicle, director Jean-Claude Brisseau jumps in front of his camera in the driver’s seat of The Girl From Nowhere, a two-hander about an aging, retired teacher turned blocked writer and the strange young lady he finds at his Paris doorstep who becomes his muse and in-house ghost. It’s an odd, low-budget mixture of genres and themes, but there is that tease of where it could all possibly lead.
Also in the Cinéma Vanité vein but a D.O.A. bet for U.S. theatres was Granny’s Funeral, a light bonbon about a pharmacist and the deceased granny he ignored and has big problems burying, from the Podalydès brothers.
Worse in the vanity vein was Damien Odoul’s Rich Is The Wolf, about a woman who, in hopes of gaining clues about her missing partner, obsessively pores through his boring videos. Nothing interests here, assuring its status at the top of the Rendez-Vous “Huh?” list.
“Huh?” is also the response to Jacques Doillon’s You, Me and Us, in which two middle-class couples try to make sense of lust and romance amidst way too much noise and interference from an annoying young daughter. With so much meaningless talk and analysis that is devoid of real emotions and at well over two hours, You, Me and Us requires audiences to spend way to much time with them.
Them and a few others aside, Rendez-Vous had another really strong year.