A trio of dazzling films from seasoned directors marks this year's Rendez-vous With French Cinema (running from February 29 to March 9 at the Walter Reade Theater and IFC Center in New York). Claude Lelouch -- known here primarily for his 1966 "A Man and a Woman" -- is in wicked form with thriller and series opener, "Roman de Gare," which hits more curves and speed bumps than Sarkozy's love life. "Paris" by Cedric Klapisch offers an eagle's eye view of the city's lives, while a young man waits for a heart transplant. And Claude Miller's "A Secret," suffused with personal resonance, probes the buried past of French Jews trying to pass as Aryans during the Occupation. Sad to say, though, the remaining twelve films, many from newcomers, are somewhat disappointing. Yes, they offer a hand-tooled look of French film -- always a welcome respite from studio product -- but overall, the selection is a grab bag ranging from worthy but flawed, to mildly entertaining, to duds. This year's uneven lineup raises questions about the always popular Rendez-vous, increasingly presented as a wine-and-cheese event for armchair travelers. Are some films included just to pad the roster and give viewers their French fix?
It's a challenge to find an English title for "Roman de Gare," which is French for "airport reading" or potboiler. (At the press screening, they went with "Tracks." Another linguistic problem: the film's constant use of the very un-P.C. "petit negre" for ghostwriter.) But you can bet that faster than distrib Samuel Goldwyn can invent a title, Hollywood will gobble Lelouch's dark bonbon for a remake. To watch "Roman," with its cascading false leads, feels almost dangerous, like skiing blindfolded down a black diamond trail.
It opens as best-selling author Judith Ralitzer (an electric Fanny Ardant) is getting grilled by the cops over some fishy similarities between events in her novels and the actions of a magician and serial-killer on the loose. Flash back to a highway diner, where Huguette (Audrey Dana), after being abandoned by her b/f, sees a creepy dude (Dominique Pinon) performing card tricks for kids. When he offers her a ride, she accepts, asking him to substitute for the bf she was bringing home to meet the parents -- and of course at every turn we expect the worst. At every turn, though, Lelouch delights in thwarting us. Several other stories criss-cross in in a suspenseful game of subterfuge and mixed identities. At bottom, "Roman" captures the outsize ego and ambition of scribblers who will murder, if necessary, to achieve success. In a country that lionzes its writers, this is more plausible than you might think.
Cedric Klapisch has proven himself a deft juggler of mutiliple storylines in such omnibus films as "L'Auberge Espagnole." He brings this skill, minus his signature camera tricks, to "Paris," a stirring riff on the "rooftops of Paris" genre, and love letter to the city that hides a story behind every shop window, market, and swank hi-rise. At the center is the ailing Pierre (a gaunt Romain Duris) whose sister Elise (Juliette Binoche) moves to his flat with her kids while her brother waits for a call from the hospital that may deliver the gift of life. A second character with bigtime problems is a guy from Cameroun contemplating a perilous boat trip to Europe. A savvy device, the troubles of these two create an ironic grid through which to view the film's other unhappy campers, whose griefs are, in comparison, a luxury. Fabrice Luchini -- who conveys greed simply by widening his eyes -- plays a prof seduced by big bucks into popularizing history for a tacky TV show; and by a hottie in his class into finding second adolescence.
In one of many knockout scenes, a quartet of wealthy women look for blue collar sex in the city among butchers working a vast meat market (that some viewers saw as a reality-based stand-in for New York's meatpacking district and the world of Pastis). In contrast to the luxe ladies, a dressed-down but gorgeous Binoche is a harried social worker walking illegals through paperwork, while trying to come to terms with her brother's illness. These and many other embattled lives abut, cross, or ignore each other, the ensemble creating a swelling chorus of humanity, even producing a few notes of joy.
Two themes surfaced during this year's Rendez-vous: the Holocaust, considered from unexpected angles; and visions of a sterile corporatized society. In "A Secret," Claude Miller, best known for his dark detective stories, adopts a fresh perpspective on Holocaust-related material. "When we speak about victims of Nazism," says Miller, himself the descendant of victims, "we often have the impression that they weren't people like everyone else: they hadn't experienced love, romance or passion." "Secret, winner of multiple noms for a Cesar, recounts a story of passion which could have occurred at any time, but had tragic repercussions linked to the the German Occupation. Anchored by the incandescent Cecile de France as a champion swimmer -- and resembling a blonde goddess -- the film opens in 1955, jumps forward to 1985, then back to events in 1938, as history closes in on an embattled Jewish family, forced to hide in the countryside with false passports. Directing the action, so to speak, is Francois (played as a grown man by Mathieu Almaric), an intuitive, haunted boy who decodes the puzzle of a a vanished son and mother that his family has kept hidden. "Secret" is not precisely auteur cinema; but Miller brings to what the New Wave contemptuously termed "quality cinema" added-on value. Swirling fluidly through time with flawless editing and pace -- centered by a recurring shot of Cecile de France poised to dive -- "Secret" is a big film combining riveting drama, historical heft, and indelible images that should pull in viewers here.
A provocative but less sure-footed gloss on the Nazi past is found in "Heartbeat Detector" by Nicolas Klotz. Mathieu Almaric again, this time playing against type as Simon, a somber in-house psychologist for a giant Franco-German chemical company. He's tapped by the boss to assess the loco behavior of the Parisian company manager (Michael Lonsdale). But the more Simon probes, the more he turns up about the company's unsavory past, extending back to the conduct of its principals during the war. Shot in stark blue, black, and grey, the film portrays the corporate machine as a wrecker of souls, working best when it shows Simon training personnel to become "knights of business," and in humorous shots of a regiment of black suits lined up at white urinals. But most scenes, especially the drunken raves that pass for recreation, run way too long; as Simon unravels, the film itself seems to implode. And the message turns murky when Klotz attempts to draw parallels between the Nazi killing machine and corporate malfaisance. Writer-director Noemie Lvovsky also references the Holocaust in "Let's Dance," something of an oddball comedy. It's the tale of a survivor (Jean-Pierre Marielle), a lusty old coot who pursues love via the Personals -- rejecting anyone close to his age -- while his bonkers wife and eccentric daughter (the sublime Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) fend for themselves.
Several other films by little known or first-time directors are, to not put too fine a point on it, expendable. You have to marvel that Sophie Marceau titled her film "Trivial" (in French the more enticing "La Disparue de Deauville"). Though the director/star is delectable to look at, the same cannot be said of her sophomore (both senses) effort, a wannabe thriller about a hotellier's disappearance that seems a rehash of plot points from a raft of B movies. Apparently the film was poorly received on native ground. "Ain't Scared" from novice Audrey Estrougo offers a close-up of the racial dynamics in the French projects, lately so much in the news. But though the film's pumped up and topical, storylines get buried in the mayhem.
This being the Rendez-vous, of course there's plenty of sex, if not explicit, at least alluded to. The quickest cuts you're likely to see in moviedom this year are from "Check, please," to the sack. A Competition entry in last year's Cannes, "Les Chansons d'Amour" by Christophe Honore is about bed-hopping twenty-somethings who are hit by unforeseen tragedy, thereby nipping in the bud a promising threesome, alas. "Chansons" purports to update the film musical. Yeah, I know Honore has said that the songs convey strong emotions better than could spoken words. Maybe in principle, but not when the music is as vapid as the characters, especially Louis Garrel, who needs to retire the wise-ass bit.
The wages of infideltiy get a going-over in Emmanuel Mouret's "Shall We Kiss?" When a dude asks his date for a goodnight kiss, she launches into a story-within-a-story about how even one kiss between friends can overturn lives. In attempting comedy, though, this morality tale -- even with the efforts of Virginie Ledoyen -- misfires badly. The most rewarding film from a relative newcomer is "The Feelings Factory" by Jean-Marc Moutout, toplined by Elsa Zylberstein. Eloise is a successful lawyer who lacks only a man in her life. Enrolling in a speed dating program, she finds a prosperous dreamboat who predictably turns out a cad, while an underemployed misfit proves to be a mensch when she's struck by illness. Anchored by a superb Zylberstein, this beautifully controlled film casts a chilly light on romance in a society without cohesion or community.