Fresh Visions at the Ninth Rendez-Vous with French Cinema
by Erica Abeel
True to its mandate, this ninth year of Rendez-vous with French Cinema (presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Unifrance, and the French Film Office) focused on a broad panorama of contemporary French film, ranging from art-house provocation, to intimate drama, to stylish comedy. There was something, in short, for every taste. And if not all the films were uniformly successful, they offered fresh visions that are essentially different -- and vive la difference -- from the mainstream.
One striking difference, of course, lies in the gallic candor regarding bodies and sex. "Something's Gotta Give" served up Diane Keaton's midlife, and implausibly youthful form -- but blink, and you missed it. While the camera in Guillaume Nicloux's "Hanging Offense" dotes unblinkingly on the un-botoxed scowl and overflowing contours of Josiane Balasko (54), who literally lets it all hang out with sublime confidence (rather like that female statue by Gaston Lachaise that used to preside over the MOMA garden.) It's one of the more evolved visions you're likely to see in present-day cinema. Not surprisingly, Eros was also much in evidence, from real-time fucking in Bruno Dumont's "Twentynine Palms" to a male shower frolic in Robert Salis's "Grande Ecole."
American taste in film requires clarity, explanations, neat endings. Such qualities were of little interest to the creators of two thrillers, which focused more on character study ("Hanging Offense"); or somberly elegant cinematography (from Pin Bing Lee in "Inquietudes") that conveyed the landscape of a deranged mind. If you insist on knowing who dunnit, you might have left the theater frustrated. Michael Haneke's "Time of the Wolf," set in a post-apocalypse hell, captured post 9/11 malaise without identifying a perpetrator. And the sleek medical thriller "Who Killed Bambi" violated a shibboleth of the genre by quickly flagging the villain.
Even in the riskiest films, though, you sensed an auteur breathing life into a vision, however imperfectly articulated. The directors in this series are unafraid to fail, spectacularly. Siegfried's "Sansa," which follows the picaresque roamings of a North African street artist (the charismatic Roschdy Zem), pulses with ferocious energy, offering hilarious moments in Sansa's tangles with cops of various countries -- but then collapses into a Family of Man display from National Geographic. If you walk a tightrope, as do many of these films, you risk falling on your ass. "The French continue to see going to the movies as an adventure," said Richard Pena, the series director. "They're willing to be challenged and provoked. In Rendez-vous we salute French cinema for making difficult films and highwire acts."
One of the most satisfying entries in the lineup was "Monsieur N," directed by Antoine de Caunes (and picked up by Empire.) Principally set on the island of St. Helene, this riveting historical thriller creates an alternative destiny for Napoleon. Without playing spoiler, I'll say the film proposes that the great Bonaparte did not, as in history, end his days on a remote rock. Garbed in military regalia and surrounded by a loyal (and bickering) retinue -- including, bien entendu, a mistress -- the beaten but uncowed emperor verbally duels with his blowhard keeper Hudson Lowe (Richard Grant), proving himself the greater strategist.
Of course the Napoleonic mystique is still alive and well in France -- but de Caunes's portrait also resonated with audiences here. The meticulous reconstruction of Longwood, the emperor's island prison, delights history buffs; headed by accomplished stage actor Philippe Torreton as Napoleon, the cast is diamond sharp. Look to handsome newcomer Jay Rodan, as an English aide de camp, for a big future. Then, too, "Monsieur N" is not yet another film about Napoleon," said de Caunes. "It's about loss -- a man who has lost everything, who was once king of the world. It poses the question, 'How do you go on when you can no longer play the character you've played your whole life?' And he stage-managed his own image, created 'Napoleon' from scratch. He invented political propaganda." How did Torreton meet the challenge of portraying the great man? "Well, there's no manual to tell an actor how to play an emperor. Yet we all understand what it's like to feel deeply humiliated, and to desire power even when you're shut out and powerless."
Philippe Le Guay's "The Cost of Living," an elegant farce-inflected comedy with serious undertones, was another Rendez-vous fave, just waiting to be nabbed by a smart distributor. Centered on the theme of money disorders, the film weaves together five stories unfolding over a few days in Lyon (a city synonymous with food and pleasure): an industrialist sells off his factories, even though it will put a community out of work; a young heiress wants to be loved for herself; a compulsive spender courts ruin; and in the opening scene, a skinflint dumps his date in a taxi, when he sees the meter shooting up. Even more than what they call "Anglo-saxons," the French regard money as a taboo subject -- so the film's premise is more risque than the gay love scene in "Grande Ecole." Who but the incomparable Fabrice Lucchini, constipated with stinginess, could sit on a toilet and look poetic? With his mournfully waif-ish expression, he's an updated version of Moliere's "The Miser," who devises an ingenious contemporary cure for his vice. The film even manages a tart aside on capitalism, when that mean industrialist gets his comeuppance.
No Rendez-vous would be complete without the intimate films about love and desire that are staples of French cinema. Anne Fontaine's "Nathalie" stands the classic love triangle on its head. When a well-married doctor (Fanny Ardant) discovers her husband (Gerard Depardieu) is having an affair, she hires a classy hooker (the ever-gorgeous Emmanuelle Beart) to seduce him, and then tell her what turns him on. Aided by this dynamite cast, Fontaine explores female power and revenge. The real emotional fireworks occur between the two women, Depardieu be damned. In another departure, Beart describes her sexual repertoire as if reading a grocery list, replacing visual with verbal porn, which delivers a fresh frisson. With its surprise denouement, the film could be read as a twisted manual for keeping your man.
In a similar vein, "Feelings" from Noemie Lvovsky starts with a conventional plot: two newlyweds move to the country so the husband can take over the practice of a retiring doctor. They set up house adjacent to the home of the retiree and his wife (Jean-Pierre Bacri and Nathalie Baye) -- and not too surprisingly, the aging doc falls for the nubile bride. The new wrinkle: Lvovsky brings in a Greek chorus to provide a wry singing commentary on the foursome's follies. The best that can be said is that this attempt to ramp up a time-honored intrigue doesn't succeed in torpedoing an otherwise engaging film. Chief among its virtues are Nathalie Baye as the ditzy wife, who, unlike Fontaine's Fanny Ardant, gets flattened by her wandering husband; and joli-laid Jean-Pierre Bacri of the perfect comic timing, whose mere presence on the screen is a jolt of adrenaline.
This year's Rendez-vous' de rigueur shocker is Bruno Dumont's "Twentynine Palms," which could disperse a crowd faster than rubber bullets. As Richard Pena acknowledged, "it's aggressive toward the audience." True to the lint-in-the-pubic-hair school of filmmaking, "Palms" dispenses with plot. David, an American photographer, travels into the southwestern desert with girlfriend Katia, who speaks only French. So their mutual language is sex -- shot in real time, usually from a single angle at the foot of the motel bed. They tromp around in the desert naked, eat Chinese food, watch freight cars go by -- count 'em! -- and drive around in David's Hummer. It's got snappy dialogue too -- David to Katia: "Some day I want to see you pee" -- and a violent ending, not without its dark humor. The whoosh of highway traffic alternates with David's coital cries, which sound like a hog getting slaughtered (and drew laughter at the screening I attended). You could say the couple's exertions mark the farthest extreme from the Hallmark prettiness of Jude and Nicole at the climax of "Cold Mountain." "Dumont is exploring the fascinating theme of sex as both a personal drive and something you do with someone else," said Pena. Well, yeah. Dumont, who ressembles a pouty school boy resigned to getting taunted, sees "Palms" as "a horror film, about the banality of the couple." The pair's inner desert is reflected in the exterior desert and its crazed population, who in Dumont's reading embody a violence peculiar to the locale and America in general.
Lastly, the elegant "Grande Ecole" from Robert Salis opens a portal into an elite grad school that produces France's future masters of the universe. Adapted from a play by Jean-Marie Besset (reportedly autobiographical), the film follows a group of incoming students from privileged backgrounds who acquire a "sentimental" education, along with a knowledge of corporate takeovers. The class and dorm rooms soon segue into a battlefield of eros. The well-born Paul must negotiate between his luscious fiancee, his fling with an Arab grounds worker, and an Apollo-like classmate (electric newcomer Jocelyn Quivrin), catnip to both sexes, who would rather seduce the world than pursue more dangerous liaisons. To Paul the "grande ecole" represents coercion to join not only the corporate elite -- which he finds increasingly alien -- but the hetero straight and narrow. Resisting every category, be it straight or gay, he wants "to choose not to choose." Literate dialogue coupled with twisty games of sex and power -- and a frank celebration of male beauty -- should pull in the arthouse audience here.