Rendez-Vous 19: Deneuve, Tavernier and Ozon highlight annual fest of new French films
Like March’s weather, Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, the annual showcase of new French films which unfolds in New York in March, is dependably uneven and unpredictable. Again, Lincoln Center partnered with French government-sponsored Unifrance Films for this 19th installment of 24 new features, each getting either New York, United States or North American premieres.
Weather aside, the stars were out as the event again brought to New York some of the brightest talent and filmmakers associated with the selections, including Catherine Deneuve (On My Way), François Ozon (Young and Beautiful), Michel Gondry (Mood Indigo) and Bertrand Tavernier (The French Minister). Additionally, other familiar artists were on the screen, including Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou in Mood Indigo, Isabelle Huppert in Tip Top, and Charlotte Gainsbourg in My Wife.
Highlights included performances from Deneuve, who magnificently dominates the road pic On My Way, and Thierry Lhermitte and Niels Arestrup, who go yin-and-yang in the hilarious skewering of government malfunction and frenzy in The French Minister.
Theoretically, at least, the handful of Rendez-Vous films already with domestic distributors attached are the most promising. Surely Cohen Media Group’s Rendez-Vous opener On My Way will fill seats and find plenty of fans. It’s an irresistible showcase for French superstar Deneuve, who plays a distraught provincial restaurant owner and former beauty queen who impulsively takes to the road upon learning that her lover has cheated. Deneuve is at her best and director Emmanuelle Bercot has the good sense to catch her in close-ups and in just about every frame.
Also immensely entertaining is the closing night’s madcap political comedy The French Minister, Sundance Selects’ farcical French take à la In the Loop of upper-echelon politics in the French Ministry and an innocent but competent speechwriter (Raphaël Personnaz) thrown into the frantic midst (plenty of flying papers replace the farce trope of slamming doors). He does battle with Thierry Lhermitte as the demanding, arrogant French Foreign Minister, a roaring motor-mouth master of the one-way conversation who is forever in motion. Playing Lhermitte’s opposite is the always brilliant Niels Arestrup, as the wise policy wonk and know-it-all, know-’em-all adviser and insider who, as stylistic counterpoint, puts across his high-level advice in careful whispers.
Fast and furious and requiring attention, the film is also noteworthy as veteran filmmaker Tavernier’s first comedy and for its performance from Julie Gayet, the current French Prime Minister’s alleged mistress who’s also close to politics here playing a ruthless Ministry advisor.
Sundance Selects has François Ozon's Young and Beautiful, another interesting and original Ozon foray into sex and the single female. Here, a 17-year-old middle-class Parisian, convincingly played by newcomer Marine Vacth, plays a teen who launches her own after-school prostitution business by attracting older men and servicing them at nice hotels. All goes smoothly until one of her tricks does a Nelson Rockefeller and dies while they are making love. The young heroine, from a nice family, is nice to look at and does her extracurricular sideline convincingly. But Ozon provides no insight into why she engages in such radical, transgressive work. Or, given that it’s France, maybe prostitution isn’t so radical.
Drafthouse Films’ special-effects explosion Mood Indigo, also a triumph of kinky production and sound design, is Michel Gondry’s impossibly eccentric and original take on courtship, the music idiom, and a fantastical Paris. A name cast ups the ante but can’t dilute the nonsense. Romain Duris, living in elevated digs resembling a car, plays a kind of mad man about town and Audrey Tautou becomes his romantic interest. Gad Elmaleh is Duris’ sidekick and Omar Sy his chef. In their weird gadget-endowed world, a cocktail-making piano is just one of the glossy film’s concrete manifestations of a love for goofiness and for music old and new. It’s all very showy but makes no sense whatsoever because the show (SFX, animation, visual and aural flourishes) is the thing. Extreme and idiosyncratic, the film both enthralls and alienates. Hipsters and young arty types may find all this awesome, but plenty will go AWOL.
Adopt Films will tempt the marketplace with Jacques Doillon’s Love Battles, a too close-up but not deep enough, claustrophobic and superficial study of a tiresome couple in the countryside struggling to connect, putting on their S&M gloves, and wholly deserving each other’s if not anyone else’s attention. Charlie Chaplin’s grandson James Thiérrée plays Lui (French for him) and Sara Forestier is Elle. The film is meant to be a psychosexual exploration of love and violence but comes up empty. Heterosexuals worldwide might want to band together and file a class-action suit against a film that gives their orientation a bad name.
Kino Lorber’s Tip Top is an embarrassing attempt at crime comedy that goes over the top. Even Isabelle Huppert, as a bizarre undercover agent in internal affairs, can’t elevate this effort. That she’s in a violent S&M relationship with her husband and has a strange rapport with her mousy assistant (the wonderful Sandrine Kiberlain, wasted in a dumb role) is no help. Kino Lorber has its hands full with this one.
Finally, among the Rendez-Vous batch with distributors is 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, a messy mix of inconsequential characters, gratuitous cinephilia, dreary monologues and indulgent stylistic meanderings. Grasping unsuccessfully at the romance genre, the film, which played at last fall’s Hamptons Festival, has since been bravely embraced by Film Movement. This choppy story features a number of characters who address the camera and, for some unknown reason, needlessly digresses into film references. Ultimately, the movie seems to have no purpose and boasts no one nor one issue worthy of interest.
Several Rendez-Vous entries without distribution are definitely worth a bid. Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central, a convincing drama of a secret love affair, boasts a unique working-class milieu and a marquee-value female lead. The story takes place at a French nuclear reactor plant. There, the young laborer hero (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim) begins work in the plant’s most dangerous area, where radiation poisoning is a constant threat. But he and his buddies compensate for their grueling routine by making the most of their leisure time. Soon, the hero has begun an affair with Karole, played by a sexy Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color), another dangerous undertaking considering she is the fiancée of an older and seasoned plant worker. The fine acting and access contribute to a realistic look at lust and the gritty, scary rigors of working in the belly of a nuclear plant. Deal-breaking possibilities include the fact that the film needs an ending and that no one seems to be able to explain the meaning of the title.
The politically propelled, uplifting drama The Marchers is an enthralling, genuinely moving variation of the road pic based on an actual march across France from Marseilles to Paris in support of equality and against racism during the early-’80s Mitterand era of socialism. Filmmaker Nabil Ben Yadir effectively brings together a wonderful and varied cast to portray a cross-section of demonstrators who, moved by increasing acts of violence and harassment against the country’s North Africans, immigrants and others of ethnic heritage, make the historic journey as they evoke Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. No surprise that they must deal with the internal conflicts and external antagonism expected by a group on such a challenging mission in challenging conditions. The activism on screen will touch many who knew and know today the price and rewards of such commitment. Yes, the film could have been tighter, but the production is lavish, the characters all appealing even when not behaving, and its do-good story of triumph truly is tear-inducing.
Also distributor bait was another uplifting film with lighter sociopolitical overtones and in the Latino spirit of the glorious but underappreciated The Women on the Sixth Floor. This was first-time filmmaker Ruben Alves’ comedy The Gilded Cage, a sunny French/Portuguese production about the good luck and family complications that befall a Portuguese couple who have been working successfully in Paris for years—the wife as concierge of their upscale apartment building and the husband in construction and on the rise career-wise. Classes and generations clash here ever so realistically but ever so gently as an unexpected inheritance, requiring a return to Portugal, gets the ball rolling through all kinds of family and professional complications. Only one misguided twist, a matter of revenge, briefly puts this one jarringly off-track.
Another possible pick-up might be Eastern Boys, a “hooky” story of the consequences emanating from a hook-up at a Paris train station when an upper-middle-class, middle-aged gay guy propositions a young Ukrainian street kid who hangs with his buddies at the station. The home invasion and deepening relationship that ensue are just some of the twists in a film of fine acting and engaging storytelling.
Other Rendez-Vous selections were less satisfying. Miss and the Doctors is an odd drama about sibling doctors (filmmaker Cédric Kahn plays the more assured of the two; the other is still reliant on AA) who fall in love with the same woman, the mother of one of their patients. Taking place in a bland neighborhood of boxy apartment buildings and more colorful Chinese restaurants, the film moves through not-so-compelling complications to its not-so-original life-must-go-on ending. Lacking that oomph factor, viewers may yearn for the kind of medical edge provided by David Cronenberg’s sibling doctors in Dead Ringers.
His Wife, with Charlotte Gainsbourg and partner Yvan Attal as husband and wife, has Attal traveling to India, where his drug-addicted wife has died, to find another woman there who claims she’s possessed by the wife’s spirit. Shot mostly in India, the film offers lots of wonderful local color but not much more.
A Castle in Italy is a semi-autobiographical vanity production from filmmaker Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who also stars. She tells the story of her family’s sale of their Italian estate, her brother’s battle with AIDS, and her own battle with a lover, played by Louis Garrel. Bruni Tedeschi’s mother, an accomplished pianist, is on hand to play piano and herself. That the filmmaker’s sister is Carla Bruni, former model and First Lady of France, adds little interest.
Les Apaches, about a gang of restless young Corsicans of Arab and North African descent working and playing among the wealthy who come to vacation on the island, blows a good premise. They get into serious trouble with a house invasion, but the opportunity for a story of considerable suspense and social tension is lost. None of the characters comes to life nor do insights into the eternal class struggle separating the haves and have-nots.
Age of Panic appropriates much actual footage shot on the Paris streets of 2012 as the French awaited presidential election results and grafts on the story of an unconvincing cable-news reporter who plies her trade among the crowds. All the while, she must deal with problems back in her apartment with an ineffective babysitter who tries to protect her ever-screaming and crying children from her nut-job ex-husband who seeks entry to visit his kids. Ultimately, the couple and a lawyer end up in the apartment, never clarifying if this film is drama or comedy.
Nicole Garcia’s Going Away is a nice enough drama about a substitute teacher who hides his privileged background until he returns home with one of his neglected students in tow. The boy is from a broken home that includes a financially challenged mother too busy with her seasonal beachfront restaurant work to care for the boy. Eventually, the hero bonds with the mother after returning to his own mom, which introduces veteran art-house favorite Dominique Sanda as a wonderful addition to this mix.
The gimmick of Playing Dead, a silly crime comedy, has an unemployed actor desperately accepting work portraying the dead victim in a real-life crime so that a French investigative judge can re-enact the crime in her effort to solve it. (Judges in France can also be investigators.) The actor is that familiar difficult kind who insists on details and control and the judge too decides she’s Cecile B. DeMille. Mystery and romance ensue to little effect.
Suzanne is a working-class drama unfolding over decades and involving a truck driver’s troubled daughter who becomes a mother at 15 and ends up in prison. So much here is random and disconnected that there’s no flow to what little story there is. That we can’t care about any of the characters doesn’t help.
Tonnerre, a Rendez-Vous low point, is a grim working-class drama about a supposed musician, back living with his father in the small Burgundy town of Tonnerre, who begins a love affair with a much younger woman. After she dumps him for her previous soccer-playing boyfriend, he goes berserk. What he does to his father’s sweet mutt may have viewers leaving their seats, if they haven’t already.
Disappointments aside, this year’s Rendez-Vous was significant for the number of female filmmakers represented (about half of the 24 directors) and for serving as a kind of showcase within a showcase for new-to-American eyes talent like Vincent Macaigne, Vincent Rottiers and François Damiens, who each turned up in several of the films. While their performances displayed skill and serious commitment to the work (although in not-so-worthy works), France’s next Jean Gabin, Alain Delon or even Michel Blanc is yet to be discovered.
Rendez-Vous this year also impressed as a step away from the more bourgeois, escapist films it has traditionally favored and beyond Paris and deeper into the provinces. There, many of the films have been able, successfully or not, to explore new problems through less familiar characters. Call it a kind of cinematic uprising against the establishment.
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema ends this Sunday, March 16.