NYC's 'Rendez-Vous' series offers diverse encounters with today’s French cinema


"The French, they are a funny race” is a familiar expression popularized by the 1955 Preston Sturges film of that title. The “funny,” as reflected in the recent 23rd “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema” series, isn’t the ha-ha kind but funny as in quirky, odd, original. A look at most of the 24 features showcased in the annual Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance co-venture, again at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, provided very few laughs but a good measure of beautiful, original or surprising films to cheer about.

Of course, France has already given us a good share of funny/ha-ha screen personalities (Fernandel, Jacques Tati, Jean Dujardin, Fabrice Luchini and Dany Boon are some who come to mind). But film humor doesn’t easily cross borders and, relevant here, France itself is feeling a bit of the blahs (matters of politics, the economy and migration weigh heavy). So it’s no surprise that Rendez-Vous 2018 often conveyed this national funk or unease.

Mercifully and in the spirit of many rendezvous meet-ups, the lineup again offered a variety of relationship prospects, including a handful of hugely attractive films that deserve love and distributor partners. Again, the series had a larger middle range of good to so-so works, often too quirky or just speaking to the natives. And a few selections, which won’t be discussed here, were doomed wallflowers. This year’s series, which included some panels and Q&As for the public, also offered a large number of works directed by women, but, oddly, several films came with unappealing heroines.

What follows are some considerations of the many films caught in the 24-feature lineup. As happens these days of plenitude, no doubt some gems were missed.

Xavier Legrand’s Custody, a triumph of the kind of long-gone raw realism the Brits delivered in the ’50s/early ’60s, is a brilliantly acted and directed, harrowing contemporary drama of spousal abuse that captures a feuding middle-class couple’s 11-year-old, Julien (Thomas Gioria, in a breakthrough role), in the ugly, violent middle. The story begins with the custody fight before a judge that has the mother (Léa Drucker as Miriam) and abusive father (Denis Ménochet as Antoine) arguing for control of Julien. Antoine (also at war with his own elderly parents) uses Julien as a way to learn more about his ex’s life and get closer to her, a strategy that rightfully has Miriam growing more and more fearful and secretive. The story is claustrophobic. but such confines bring us almost too close to these sad, besieged people. Credit filmmaker Legrand’s background as a drama student and performer for the startling performances. Suspense emanates from the fierce, tragically flawed father who unnerves his family (and us) on his relentless descent into hell and what deed will assure his ticket there. Come June, Kino Lorber will bring this Venice Silver Lion winner to theatres, where strong critical support and positive word of mouth should give Custody the big-screen life it deserves. The drama is also an inspiration to filmmakers working on shorts, as Legrand developed his feature from his Oscar-nominated short.

In contrast to the terrifying, cramped confines of Custody, director Xavier Beauvois, whose 2010 Oscar winning Of Gods and Men raised his profile stateside, goes magnificently expansive and rustic in his World War I saga The Guardians, to be released by Music Box Films. The drama unravels in a farm household where village men have gone off to war and left women to cope with their many hardships on the homefront. It’s mid-war, so food and helpers are scarce. Tough farmer Hortense (Nathalie Baye) hires teen orphan Francine (Iris Bry), as Hortense’s daughter Solange (Laura Smet, Baye’s real-life daughter with the late French rock legend Johnny Hallyday) doesn’t do the hard labor of farm work and cleaning. Hortense’s son Georges (Cyril Descours), like so many others, works the battlefields, as does Solange’s teacher husband.

When Georges returns home on leave, sparks of the romantic kind fly between him and the innocent Francine. But complications ensue as other characters end up in POW camps, dead, or return mentally damaged (now known as PTSD). And the village locals, prone to gossip, behave as expected, especially when Francine finds herself pregnant and Hortense fires her, leaving her homeless. With war’s end comes the family’s battle at home over land and the possibility that Georges will learn that his estranged young lover bears his child. Beyond its sinewy, nicely detailed story, Beauvois’ film is exquisitely shot, recalling the deceptively quiet pastoral world that Claude Berri delivered in his 1980s Pagnol films.

Number One by Tonie Marshall (Venus Beauty Institute) stars Emmanuelle Devos as a gifted “suit” (Emmanuelle is also her character’s name) on the rise in her giant corporation that, although a government-owned utility, presents many of the big problems for high-level female executives that the heroines of Ms. Sloane or Equity faced. While tending to the men in her life (a hospitalized father and a doubting homebody husband), she takes on the challenge, albeit reluctantly, that a women’s lobbying group of female business heavyweights offers her—namely, winning the utility’s top position of CEO (président-directeur général or P-DG, as the French have it).

Emmanuelle is a born leader, schmoozes well with foreign clients (wholly fluent in Chinese, she even put across jokes and songs in the language), commands respect and crunches numbers. Her battle to be number one has her in the midst of a phalanx of established male executives, some supportive, some formidable, some evil. Intrigue, backstabbing, attempted suicide and blackmail also power this corporate assault. Making Number One a chilly but interesting ride into these top rungs, Marshall resorts to many exterior skyscraper shots to further put across a notion of stone-cold and hard corporate life where ambition and talent may or may not get you. The feminist angle comes across here, but less so the inner workings of France’s government-run giants.

Endangered Species, Gilles Bourdos’ adaptation of some Richard Bausch short stories, is a contemporary ensemble piece similar to but far more captivating and nuanced than Paul Haggis’ overrated 2004 Oscar-winner Crash. It crosscuts among a variety of characters inhabiting three families—largely unknown to one another but whose conflicted lives may eventually converge. Beautifully portrayed, these characters are exquisitely real and often even likeable, given demons lying within and sometimes taking over. There are the young working-class newlyweds who fall victim to the tattooed tree-pruner husband’s (Vincent Rottiers) growing abuse; the young wife's father who is determined to get his daughter’s abuser; another father too possessive of his even-younger daughter to let her go, especially as she’s pregnant by and determined to marry a man many decades older; a middle-aged father recovering from a divorce and starting over; and a lonely young PhD student whose newly stricken mother, dumped by the husband/his father, requires confinement because of her severe mental breakdown. All this may sound grim, but no—the film is alive with charm, honesty and authenticity. As of press time, no distributor is onboard.

Laurent Cantet, whose credits include the acclaimed Oscar-nominated The Class and the exceptional but underappreciated workers drama Human Resources, again expresses his interest in learning, inequality and the country’s growing economic and cultural fault lines in The Workshop. But his apparent real purpose here is the film’s surprise.

The story takes place in a coastal working-class town near Marseilles where a shipping industry once thrived and where now a fiction-writing workshop for mostly young locals takes place. Parisian novelist Olivia (César Best Actress nominee Marina Foïs) leads the outdoor workshop—ethnically mixed and sometimes at odds—as the not-so-aspiring writers mostly take it easy during a summer break. Of interest among her students as they attempt to co-write a locally set murder-mystery novel is the intense Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) and his preoccupation with far-right extremism. As he and Olivia grow close, so grows the intrigue: What really drives Antoine and is Olivia on safe ground? A shocking sequence near film’s end teases and may fool with its message of the power of creativity and imagination. Or does The Workshop, with maybe red-herring themes of inequality, anomie, violence and creativity, never commit to its real intentions? A personal bet is on the power of imagination and creativity, but viewers will get a chance to ponder all this when Strand Releasing opens the film tomorrow.

A memorable Rendez-Vous encounter came by way of A Paris Education, a contemporary drama but black-and-white throwback to young student days and a nostalgic, bohemian Paris with Etienne (Andranic Manet), an eager young cinephile, at its center. True to many a dream, he leaves Lyon (and his girlfriend) behind to study film in the French capital. From the way filmmaker Jean-Paul Civeyrac shoots his film (especially the contrasty and crisp B&W photography and emphatic fade-outs of traditional film grammar) and the nonstop chatter and references to old and new directors and not a few philosophers, the Nouvelle Vague-inspired A Paris Education is a dive into student life as many remember and even more imagine it. Primarily, this modest film is Etienne’s coming-of-age tale (often as intimate as Eric Rohmer’s also romantically themed academic classic My Night at Maud’s). Separated then reunited with his Lyon girlfriend, Etienne wrestles with fidelity and finds consolation in discussions with fellow cinephile friends and a mentor before confronting a tragedy and facing an unsure future in the real world.

Director Mathieu Amalric also co-stars in what was Rendez-Vous’ Opening Night presentation, Barbara, a biopic of sorts about France’s late, legendary one-named chanteuse who, though popular from the ’60s through the ’90s, is, alas, largely unknown here in the States. This film offers a committed, intense César-winning performance from Jeanne Balibar, who plays Brigitte, the actor hired by on-screen/off-screen director Amalric to recreate Barbara for his film. Messy, yes, as is the nervous on-screen director’s mania to get things right in capturing the much-adored, certainly his much-adored Barbara. No doubt not her fault, Balibar’s Brigitte playing Barbara won’t win the chanteuse many new fans. There’s Barbara music aplenty and archival footage of the real-life performer nicely intercut, but the film falls short and confuses. Dommage, as France has previously given us strong fiction treatments of French music stars like Serge Gainsbourg, Johnny Hallyday, Django Reinhardt and Edith Piaf (an Oscar went to Marion Cotillard in the sensational La Vie en Rose). Maybe Barbara deserved better.

The Sower, taking place in the mid-19th century countryside as Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte nears end of his battle to become Emperor of the French, is another war story that, like The Guardians, focuses not on the battlefronts but on a farm homefront struggling because the men are gone. The women left behind do all the work, but as in Sofia Coppola’s recent The Beguiled, mattersgrow interesting when Jean (Alban Lenoir), a handsome wandering journeyman, shows up wounded and needing help. He gets it, then returns the favor with farm chores. What unfolds is familiar: The mysterious stranger clicks with one of the young women and a romance is born. But in a reminder that powerful sisterhood can also be regrettable, cruelties and jealousies arise among a somewhat man-hungry female population. A scheme is hatched that could have Jean not just working the fields but playing the field. The film is often slow but it’s always satisfying eye candy: The rustic locales beguile here.

Pastoral beauty informed many of the Rendez-Vous films, but with Petit Paysan, a superbly acted contemporary drama about devoted young farmer Pierre (Swann Arlaud) who is up against a deadly epidemic threatening his dairy stock, the beauty comes with a price. Pierre loves his animals, even giving them names and going to extremes to save them. But animal lovers will recoil at some of the footage shown (debuting director Hubert Charuel based his tale on what he learned growing up on such a farm), but the well-crafted film and César-winning performances from Arlaud and Sara Giraudeau (Best Supporting Actress as Pierre’s sympathetic ally) merit attention.

Léa Mysius’ Ava was one of several films like Barbara whose heroines lack that je-ne-sais-quoi that make their characters, whether likeable or not, worthy of attention and engagement. The unpleasant story follows restless 13-year-old Ava (Noée Abita), who is going blind and is estranged from her struggling but hot-to-trot mother and going blind. On summer vacation at a working-class beach community, Ava runs off, hooks up with Juan (Juan Cano), an outlaw gypsy teen living in a shore blockhouse, and eventually takes off with him to his family’s encampment to help him settle a score. The onset of her eye disease doesn’t get much attention, as it loses its story and purpose while the two lost souls embark on their sordid adventure. Some drama at the end and a sweet few seconds come too late. Like many of the Rendez-Vous films, Ava milks the assets of its locations, here the sunny, bustling beach community and the noisy gypsy trailer park, both impressing as the real deal.

Also unprepossessing is the heroine Marguerite Duras (Mélanie Thierry) of Music Box Films’ A Memoir of War, directed and adapted by Emmanuel Finkiel and based on famed writer/filmmaker Duras’ autobiographical World War II memoir. Duras here suffers from the ordeal of her husband Robert’s capture by the Nazis (the couple were apparently both active in the Resistance), his unknown whereabouts, imprisonment and ultimate fate (mostly off-camera). The story is set in motion with the post-war discovery of Duras’ diaries and unfolds in Paris near the end of the war. There are detours into brief fantasies, readings from her memoir and only flashes of flashbacks. On Robert’s trail from her Paris base, she must play the tricky make-nice game of staying close to high-up Nazi collaborator Rabier (ever-watchable French star Benoît Magimel), her accommodating informant, purported sometime-lover and pipeline to information about Robert. As Rabier is so impressed with Duras being a writer, they use each other. The situation of the Jews barely figures, but the Paris of that era is nicely recreated and the few scenes of concentration survivors are harsh. Overall, the film is often too impressionistic, elliptical and wobbly about its chronology. And some cynical viewers may, rightly or wrongly, catch a whiff of Lillian Hellman-like invention for the sake of better storytelling.

With Distrib Films’ 12 Days, Raymond Depardon, the well-regarded photographer and documentary filmmaker, goes inside a Lyon psychiatric facility where judges interrogate unwillingly confined patients individually—about a half-dozen or so are featured—after their 12 days of confinement to determine whether they are fit for release. These judges impress as fair and sympathetic, but it’s not clear to what degree they are suited for mental-health evaluations. (Input from a mental-health professional would have helped here.) The subjects represent a variety of people of different races, ages and apparent backgrounds, but all appear disturbed to varying degrees, whether from serious depression, violent natures, severe neuroses, learning disorders or milder neurotic afflictions. One subject is even pretty scary. Another problem here is that the relatively short doc withholds Depardon’s judgment (whether of doctors, patients, lawyers or judges or the seemingly arbitrary 12-day rule that may or may not be effective). Documentarians like Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers have dealt with similar themes and material more effectively.

Two words (or is it three?) are all that are needed—Jean-Pierre Léaud—to explain the appeal of The Lion Sleeps Tonight, which stars the New Wave icon immortalized in François Truffaut’s 1959 classic The 400 Blows. Léaud hasn’t stopped acting since. Like his recent The Death of Louis XIV, Lion is another meditation on mortality but here far less somber, as filmmaker Nobuhiro Suwa takes advantage of the great outdoors (the Alp foothills, coastal France) to tell his fanciful story. Léaud is Jean, an aging film star set loose on his own for a few days after personal matters detain his co-star. Jean roams and reminisces through lovely countryside and a seemingly abandoned shabby-chic chateau where the ghost of a former lover summons him. In a more earthly mode, Jean joins a group of spunky kids who go DIY to shoot a no-budget haunted-house story. Like the scenery, Léaud—vigorous and charming—gives this quirky movie its raison d’être.

The Rendez-Vous series this year felt, at least for this reporter, more akin to speed-dating than pleasant rendezvousing. Fewer films were press-screened, fewer press material and links were available, and the latter sometimes carried annoying supertitles or, not in a dating mood, froze up. (Blame piracy fears and not always perfect technology.) Also gone were the get-cozy opps with filmmakers via Q&As or gatherings.

Happily, the films continue to generate the chemistry needed for seductive encounters. The content deluge guarantees that the better handful will go on to be shared with others as the Rendez-Vous events continue to promote an open and enduring relationship between French cinema and its many fans.