At New York's French Cinema Series, the 10th Rendez-vous, An Ensemble of Works Shine
by Erica Abeel
If you needed further evidence that New York City is a nation apart, you had only to attend the annual Film Society of Lincoln Center's Rendez-vous with French Cinema (celebrating its tenth year), which unspooled from March 11 to 20. The rest of the land may be awash in Francophobia (mainly a diversionary tactic, one suspects, fanned up by Bushworld: give 'em someone to hate, and they'll never notice that CEO's are 500 times richer than they are.) But no sign of French-bashing at the packed Walter Reade Theater.
In fact, viewers so appreciated the Gallic lineup, they were practically kissing the director's ring in the lobby. One woman was willing to wait three hours in the cold for tickets for Andre Techine's "Changing Times." The love affair was reciprocal: Director Olivier Marchal, bowing with the thriller "36 Quai des Orfevres," observed, "this is one classy audience, more receptive to my film than in provincial France."
Why does the annual March blowout (also sponsored by Unifrance and The French Film Office) inspire such enthusiasm? Perhaps because these films, though not unflawed, seem resistant to market imperatives, refusing to pander or wrap things up in rose ribbons. Even the casting shows integrity: while Hollywood taps mega-stars able to "open" a film, in "Changing Times," you sense that monstres sacres Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu are paired to serve the script. It's really no surprise that a discerning public, offered a diet of Redi Whip and Velveeta -- not only from entertainment congloms, but also from so-called news outlets -- would be ravenous for this cinema without additives.
In making his picks, program director Richard Pena avoids a unifying peg, trying instead for a broad panorama that includes films not otherwise likely to make it across the pond. 2004 produced a large crop of first directors in France, and several appear in the fest. Some first-timers are fortyish -- significant because, unlike many Amerindie filmmakers, they can address subjects other than dysfunctional teens. And while no consensus emerged about a single masterwork, you could say the star was the ensemble of works, which embraced a stunning array of topics, tones, and genres.
The lineup ranged from Marchal's nouveau noir crowd-pleaser "Orfevres"; to "Tell Me I'm Pretty," the sort of intimist romantic comedy for which the French are famous; to "Innocence," a riveting rejiggering of coming-of-age, set in a sci-fi netherworld. An internationalist sensibility reigned as well, in such films as Bertrand Tavernier's "Holy Lola," about a French couple adopting a baby in Cambodia; Orso Miret's "The Rules of Silence," which exposed the harsh code governing a Corsican village; and Claire Denis' tone poem "The Intruder," spanning the Jura mountains to Tahiti.
And up front and center stage, films about love, of course, offering strip teases of the soul, far more than the body (reflecting a pullback to pudeur after all the envelope-pushing?) When it comes to exposing, wordlessly, the heart's dilemmas, Catherine Deneuve, whose presence in New York anchored the festival, only gets better with each film. (Curiously, in person, the ever-lovely icon seemed ill at ease among the popping flashbulbs.)
"Changing Times," she explained in introducing the film, poses the question, Can a first love also be the last? A higher than usual concept for Techine, whose latest is always eagerly anticipated. Antoine (Depardieu), a successful French builder, has engineered a gig in Tangiers so he can reclaim Cecile (Deneuve), the lover of thirty years back he's never forgotten. Antoine appears undeterred by the life Cecile has built in Morocco, which includes a job and doctor husband Gilbert Melki. In his signature manner, Techine surrounds the central couple with whipsawed characters, including Cecile's bisexual son, who arrives from France, troubled pregnant girlfriend in tow - and promptly seeks out his male lover. The larger world intrudes in shots of North Africans camped in the woods, waiting for their chance to leave for Europe. Following a near-fatal accident, each character chooses his course through a leap of faith that resonates deeply.
Some viewers argued -- and post-film discussion was the rule -- that the sub-stories pulled the focus off the central couple. With Techine "you feel the film could fly apart at any moment," says Kent Jones, associate director of progamming. "I appreciate his virtues as much as his shortcomings. He overreaches in interesting ways." As Cecile ponders the unexpected - and outlandish - avenue life has opened up, the shifting emotions telegraphed by Deneuve's mouth, eyes, and crossed arms are nothing short of heart-stopping. Depardieu is now shaped like a steamer trunk; nor is Deneuve any longer a sylph (and why the hell would she be?) -- yet the film assumes their viability as romantic partners. Techine's unhysterical take on later-life love stands in stark contrast to Hollywood's treatment of the subject, in films such as the coy and despicable "Something's Gotta Give."
Arnaud Viard and Bernard Jeanjean also contributed distinctive love stories, displaying amazing skill for first-time directors. Both Viard's "Clara and Me" and Jeanjean's "Tell Me I'm Pretty" showcased coming star Julien Boissellier, who is not only criminally charming, but a chameleon able to disappear into a role. The camera is all over his face, as if he were, well, Stephane Audran. In "Clara" Boissellier plays a thirtysomething late bloomer, who finds his ideal mate (by meeting cute on the metro), only to be thrown a cruel curve. (Apparently in Paris, subway riders think mainly about sex, and you need only glance up from your "Le Monde" to land in the sack with some dishy type.)
Set entirely in what the French call an "apart," Jeanjean's "Tell Me I'm Pretty" watches a man and a woman shoot themselves in the foot with each effort to connect - until they finally strip down, as Jeanjean said it in the Q&A, to their "unedited selves." Boissellier manages to look nerdy as a computer geek fond of interpretive dancing; Marina Fois is his match as a woman both afraid and frantic to be known. With its mix of humor and pathos, this mating dance, not a minute too long, achieves a moment-by-moment immediacy unimaginable in studio films, and packs more drama than "Gladiator." Distributors, step up to the block: this one's guaranteed to go down big with urban singles.
L'amour fou drives "The Bridesmaid," a gothic thriller from Claude Chabrol, at seventy-five, still doing what he does so well: puncturing bourgeoise facades and releasing the stench within -- this time, literally! -- while gaming the viewer at every turn. (Part of the fun of Chabrol is knowing pretty much what you're going to get, like ordering quenelles with a different sauce.) In this adaptation from a novel by Ruth Rendell, love, not surprisngly, turns sinister, suggested straightaway by the ominous keyboard from Claude's composer son Matthieu. The superb Benoit Magimel plays Philippe, dutiful son, brother, and shlepper, who falls for Laura Smet's Senta Bellange, his sister's bridesmaid. Hunkered down in the basement of a decaying mansion, this femme is literally fatale, pulling her lover into a vortex where he can no longer distinguish fact from homicidal fantasy.
With "36 Quai des Orfevres" (police headquarters in Paris), Olivier Marchal breathes new life into the thriller, a venerable genre which has lain dormant in France for over a decade. The film was a hit there "people were ready for a crime blockbuster after so many years," says Marchal. Made for 12 million euros (pricey for a French film), it's a mano a mano between rival policemen Daniel Auteuil and (again) Gerard Depardieu: whoever nails the brazen gang that's been robbing Brinks trucks will head up the deparment (which is rife with corruption), when the current chief steps down. Based on a true story, this stylish atmospheric film intercuts short takes with near-subliminal speed, linking them with music (unfortunately cheesy) to operatic effect. Standout scenes of a retirement party for a loved colleague could double as a drunken Brueghel revel. Auteuil deservedly won a Cesar for his powerhouse portrayal of a professional bear -- trapped by his own good intentions.
"Quai" has been cited as evidence of French capitulation to Hollywood tastes. (Curiously, Marchal has gotten remake offers here, but none so far from distributors; how obnoxious is that?) But Marchal, forty-six, is more about one man's lifelong fascination with American genres than part of a trend to go Hollywood. He joined the police because he'd always been enamored of Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson; quit because of the type of violence depicted in "Quai." "Then I became an actor, playing cops or hoodlums - the same thing. Esthetically I've been very influenced by American films." As inspiration for "Quai" he drew on Michael Mann's 'Heat' - "its confrontation between two great actors"; Sergio Leone's "operatic" use of music; and "the sombre colors and oppressive ambiance of 'The Godfather.'"
At the same time Marchal looked to French classics by Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Corneau. A gripping ride, "Quai" is more a pacey riff on genre, than symptom of sellout. If one film in the series apes American overstatement -- and even compounds it - that would be "Happily Ever After," about three Parisian jerks behaving badly. Created by and starring Yvan Attal, its over the top schtick seems pitched primarily to married horndogs; and Attal's persona makes Vin Diesel the epitome of refinement.
Several innovative films dispensed with conventional narrative and character arc, among them Claire Denis's controversial "The Intruder." Disclaimer: I saw only a dark, mangled tape. But the apparent lack of storyline, plus turns from gap-toothed Beatrice Dalle, the cannibal in Denis's "Trouble Every Day," and Katia Golubeva, the emmerdeuse from Bruno Dumont's "Twentynine Palms," suggest a film that's highly "challenging" (code for what the fuck's going on?)
"Innocence," a visual stunner and first feature from the richly gifted Lucile Hadzihalilovic, was both provocative and accessible on whatever level you chose. It's a surreal parable about a mysterious girls' school secreted in the woods, drawn from a prescient 19th century novella by Franz Wedekind. Film announces its otherwordly tone with long opening credits, the bleary print onscreen vibrating to a disquieting rumbling, suggesting a cosmic brown-out. Cut to a young girl emerging from a coffin into a boarding school governed by strict rituals, along with ballet and biology classes designed to package the young charges for womanhood.
Picked up by Leisure Time Pictures, "Innocence" interweaves several modes: though avoiding any overt message, it works as a sly feminist critique of enforced female passivity, reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's futuristic pageants. At the same time, the eerie day for night visuals place the story in a spooky Magritte-like dusk that captures the spirit of a menacing childhood tale, as girls in white drift through darkening lamp-lit woods. The director also marshals realistic detail