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by Erica Abeel
March 5, 2011 2:14 AM
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2011 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema: Deneuve's a Delight, but the Softcore's a Drag

Bipolar describes this year's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York City. Presented by the Film Society at Lincoln Center and Unifrance, the 16th edition of the fest yo-yos between a few soaring highs and and as many troughs. It also offers small-but-worthy efforts likely to resonate with French film enthusiasts who flock to this marquee event. But perhaps the lineup's chief hallmark this year is its feminist spin, from "Potiche," about a trophy wife who takes over her ailing husband's factory, to "Mozart's Sister," about female genius stifled by 18th-century sexism.

That said, nagging questions dog this Rendez-Vous. Billed as "the best in contemporary French film," why is the quality so uneven, with the number of middling films expanding each year like Gerard Depardieu's middle? Is this annual showcase tailored to cater to the mid-cult tastes of a graying audience? Is the fest getting starved out by bigger venues, with the crème being withheld for Cannes, the New York Film Festival, Venice, Tribeca? Or does it simply represent a snapshot of current French cinema in a year when winners were outnumbered by middling work?

Count among Rendez-vous' high points two samples of popular French cinema, the Gallic, charm-heavy equivalent of studio fare: "Service Entrance" ("Les Femmes du Sixieme Etage") by Philippe Le Guay and opener “Potiche” by Francois Ozon. "Service Entrance" is a delicious confection thanks to a witty script and the presence of French national treasure, Fabrice Lucchini, an actor with a delicacy and comic style that evokes Moliere. Lucchini plays Jean-Louis, a stockbroker bent on tyrannizing servants over the timing of his morning boiled egg. But when he suddenly awakens to the appalling condition of the help's upstairs quarters, he becomes entranced with his beautiful new housekeeper and her high-spirited cohorts. After a fight with his wife (Sandrine Khiberlain, an ideal foil for Lucchini), Jean-Louis relocates to the 6th floor, where he clinches his new romance.

The premise of an upper-class stiff in a joyless marriage who finds happiness among the warm, big-hearted Spanish maids who live on the sixth floor of a Parisian townhouse (code for slave quarters) rings a variation on a familiar premise, but Le Guay and his charming cast work it to perfection. Strategically set in 1962, the film mocks not only the period's fashions, but also rich men's pampered wives, who claim exhaustion after flitting from bridge games to fittings and blithely profess ignorance about finance, history, or anything resembling an idea. In one of many droll moments, after a Spanish maid lands a French husband, she describes her new life as a wife doing exactly what she once did as a maid. The film's celebration of Iberia winks at Stendhal and what he called l'espagnolisme, his fanciful notion that the Spanish harbor a generosity of spirit and spontaneity foreign to the shrewd, calculating French – a subtext Americans won't get. This would hardly keep “Service Entrance” from being an arthouse fave stateside. Amazingly, it still lacks an American distributor.

For "Potiche" – or "trophy wife" – Francois Ozon dusts off a 1980 "boulevard" play by Pierre Barillet and Jean-Pierre Gredy to create a '70s-set farce toplined by Catherine Deneuve at her grandest. Here's another upper-class wife, this time married to an abusive, reactionary owner of an umbrella factory – again Lucchini, this time donning his villain's hat. After he's sidelined by ill health, she's forced to take over at the factory -- turning for help to communist mayor and one-time lover Gerard Depardieu – before launching a political career. In this tale of an oppressed wife finding liberation, Ozon delivers a feel-good entertainment spiked with sly jokes about sexist assumptions and bourgeois hypocrisy.

Two richly rewarding films – "The Princess of Montpensier" by iconic filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier and "Mozart's Sister" by Rene Fere – adopt a more somber tone to explore female destiny. A costumer set in 16th century France during the bloody strife between Catholics and Huguenots, "Princess" could exemplify the "cinema of quality" attacked by the New Wave. But Tavernier makes the old new again, combining epic sweep with intimacy. Rarely has an historic film felt so immediate, from recreations of the period's battle maneuvers, to the pomp of Versailles, to the predatory swordsmen dueling to conquer beautiful Marie de Montpensier (Melanie Thierry, who resembles a lush-lipped Michelle Pfeiffer). Marie in an apple-green robe atop a rearing white stallion is but one of many stunning visuals.

Though in love with the Duc de Guise (Gaspard Ulliel, France's hottest rising star), the heroine is forced by her avaricious father to marry the richer Prince de Montpensier (Gregoire Leprince-Rinquet). "Our duty is to obey," says her mother. In one indelible scene Marie on her wedding night is oiled and perfumed by servants while the fathers play cards in an adjoining room waiting for the presentation of the bloody sheet. Marie pines for de Guise, an irresistible bad boy and hothead, fending off declarations by her tutor (Lambert Wilson), along with the heir to the throne (Raphael Personnaz) – a challenge for an actress who doesn't quite possess the magnetism to rack up such a list. Adapted from the protofeminist novel by 17th century writer Madame de Lafayette, "Princess" brilliantly charts the fate of a passionate woman preyed upon by men for whom love is merely combat shifted to the boudoir. The quartet of male actors is across the board superb.

"Mozart's Sister" is a spellbinding biopic that invites speculation about the impact on classical music if Wolfgang's older sister Nannerl had overcome 18th-century strictures to embrace her own genius. Echoing the Mozart family portrait in the film, Rene Feret assigns the key acting roles to his own two daughters, who play Nannerl and her royal best friend; and his wife, who plays the mom. The story pivots on two dramas: the ambition of Nannerl, gifted violinist and singer, to study composition, despite her father's claims that women can't master harmony (though it's implied that she, not Wolfgang, composed his early pieces). There's also Nannerl's amorous intrigue with France's dauphin, who's dazzled by her talent but pursues a private agenda that would make any girl run screaming to the convent. Like the Tavernier, Feret's film feels anything but cobwebby, despite the actors' purposefully stilted, anti-psychological delivery styles that lends the action a dreamy, off-kilter quality. Feret not only brings to life the Mozart family, he vividly captures 18th-century decadence, especially through the rouged and lipsticked dauphin who delivers a death blow to Nannerl's dreams. Without preachiness, both Tavernier and Feret reinvent feminist themes in their accounts of female aspiration quashed by male dominance.

The wickedly entertaining "Love Crime," the last film of the late Alain Corneau, brings on the mother of all catfights. Kristin Scott-Thomas is perfectly cast as a ruthless exec in some vague multinational, more serpent than warm-blooded mammal. She both caresses and exploits her ambitious young assistant (Ludivine Sagnier), tossing off such lines as "You have a great talent and I made the most of it." After humiliating Sagnier at a company event, the assistant doubles down for an elaborate revenge. The scenes of company business, filled with mumbo-jumbo, hardly bother to appear authentic; and hey, what happened to the lesbian vibe in the early scenes? But the bitchery is a hoot, the chilly chrome color design is an extension of the characters' inner world and the final sting in the tail a nasty surprise. You can bet that in his remake Brian De Palma will pick up on that lesbian motif.

Antony Cordier's "The Happy Few." Image courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center.

The answer to much that ails the world is dung, according to hell-raiser Coline Serreau's "Think Global, Act Rural," an essential doc that no one who cares about the planet – and surviving on it – can afford to miss. In its way it's as important as Charles Ferguson's “Inside Job,” but less stylish and incisive. Capitalism, single-crop farmin and addiction to pesticides are depleting – literally raping – the earth. According to agriscientists interviewed in the film, food is poisoning people and causing illness. And if, like me, you're prone to conspiracy theories, Serreau presents a good one: in a vicious loop the same companies who manufacture medicine also make the pesticides. Oops. Not much chance to buff up research, either, since anything that blocks industry won't be funded for study. An enlightened, but growing minority worldwide are promoting ecological farming versus chemical kits from multinationals, the goal being to nurse the dying earth back to health - with dung, composted with fish, cow piss, ghee and milk. Serreau's hard-hitting film offers infotainment, emphasis on the info.

Benoit Jacquot, the veteran director who has made a specialty of women and desire, is on hand with "In the Woods." In a vaguely 19th century -- or at least pre-dentistry -- France, a semi-wild boy with yucky teeth arrives at a doctor's house in the provinces and hauls off to the woods resident maiden Isilde LeBesco, who seems to have fallen under his spell. This, despite the presence in the house of a respectable suitor. A humpathon later, the authorities catch up with the pair and toss wolf boy in jail. In the trial that follows, LeBesco explains that she was “in his thrall, he bewitched me." At bottom, the film is about the 19th century's equation of female sexuality with madness -- and Jacquot's fixation on the beautiful animal that is LeBesco -- but it's more curiosity than rounded story. Following on the heels of "Blue Beard," the ever inventive Catherine Breillat weighs in with "The Sleeping Beauty," her latest feminist deconstruction of a classic fairy tale. When a witch curses a princess to die young, three fairies intervene to revise the curse so she'll fall asleep, waking 100 years later as a 16-year-old. Pirating the girl's dreams during her 100-year nap, then opposing them to starker waking realities, Breillat wrings new resonance from Perrault's fable.

The balance of this year's Rendez-vous is bulked out with lesser pleasures. A raunchy little exercise in bed-hopping called "The Happy Few" not only blasphemes Stendhal (who owns the phrase), it also violated my film festival rule: no softcore porn before noon. (Press screenings started at the uncivilized hour of 9 A.M., which is fine on the Croisette, but not in blizzard-ridden Manhattan.) As compensation, you get Nicolas Duchauvelle naked. The story, such as it is, involves two couples who discover the joy of switchies - or what the French call l'echangisme - a game without rules. The fun looks at times like hard labor, with one of the husbands going down on two wives in one day. Worth noting: the film features the worst squash-playing scenes ever; the camera slavers over female nudity, but goes all coy around the men (except for that Duchauvelle highlight); the couples' kids get swept under the rug; though the four adults are employed, their primary occupation is sex. Vive la France.

To judge by "Free Hands," in France even prisoners are cinephiles and busy critiquing movie scripts. Sultry Ronit Elkabetz plays an HIV-positive filmmaker who falls in love with a career criminal while shooting a doc about inmates. Based on a true story, things picks up once she starts filming her own love story with the inmate, her assistant reluctantly taking her role. In a moving final scene the two damaged souls marry against the brutal sounds of prison life. In Eric Lartigau's “The Big Picture,” based on the novel by Douglas Kennedy, Romain Duris as a man who has everything inadvertently commits a crime, steals his victim's identity and heads off for some place like Croatia to rediscover his authentic self as a photographer. Tension builds around how long, in the age of information, he can sustain the ruse.

"Hands Up" is one of two films exploring the plight of France's illegal immigrants - or "sans-papiers." In it, a Chechen woman recollects years later the story of her near-deportation from France at the age of ten and the plan her young classmates hatched to save her. The French have the good sense to portray kids without making them cute. Film's other plus is sexy Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi as a liberal mom. Who else would both lose her bikini top and smoke while taking a swim? (And, at 44, get engaged to 25-year-old Louis Garrel? Now there's a movie.)

The others sans-papiers film is "Leila," a squirm-worthy "West Side Story" style dramedy, complete with bad dancing and worse songs (“I'll Be There,” anyone?). Depicting the unlikely romance of a rich slacker with an Arab woman pursuing a law degree, the film feels like PC junk food. But the absolute nadir of this Rendez-vous is, sadly, “What Love May Bring,” from the prolific Academy Award winner Claude Lelouch. Audrey Dana plays a woman who reflects on her many past loves, one of whom is a Nazi officer in occupied Paris. Not only does the film lurch all over the place in a cinematic kind of ADD, it also features a pianist playing lush Rachmaninoff over the background of Auschwitz. And please, no romantic Nazis. When the heroine is rescued by two Americans from a crowd hungry to shave her head, it's a major letdown.

This year's Rendez-vous will also host Meetings and Conversations with French Actors and Directors, including an event at the Walter Reade with Bertand Tavernier on "The Cinema Inside Me;" and a Movie Night at the IFC Center with Catherine Breillat, who will discuss and screen some favorite films. Also expected to be on hand are Catherine Deneuve, Benoit Jacquot, Claude Lelouch, Ludivine Sagnier, Gaspard Ulliel, and Colin Serreau.

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