[Editor's Note: The Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series continues through March 11 with screeings at the Walter Reade Theatre and the IFC Center in New York.]
The French Paradox has it that our Gallic friends can eat all that cheese and chocolate and still get fewer heart attacks. To judge by this year's 12th edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York, a second paradox is emerging: despite their storied filmmaking tradition, France's filmmakers are gung-ho on high concept studio-type films that resemble the fluff in our multiplexes, only with subtitles. (Then Hollywood, of course, often remakes the same premise, in effect regurgitating its own film, adding cultural pollution to the greenhouse gasses.)
True, last year's Rendez-Vous, jointly presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance, was not without its broad comedies in the French "boulevard" manner -- think "Palais Royal" with Valerie Lemercier and a misused Catherine Deneuve. But in this year's edition a commercial tone predominates; that more films than in the past -- nine out of sixteen -- arrive with a distributor attached is telling. And the brochure for the fest promises "a ticket to France" -- film as virtual tour, with galettes de Bretagne thrown in.
Still, even marked by the creeping homogenization of culture, Rendez-Vous remains a must-see event for cinephiles. Even in the duds, the actors inhabit the screen with a special luminosity. And holding the Hollywood behemoth at bay is a smallish roster of terrific films, ranging from those psychologically nuanced portraits at which the French excel ("The Singer," "The Man of My Life," "Blame it on Fidel"), to the blockbuster "La Vie en Rose," a media sensation in the home country. Perhaps what the Rendez-Vous creme has in common is what the late Hubert Balsan (subject of a documentary included in the fest) called the trademark "artisanal" quality of French cinema.
"La Vie en Rose," a bio pic about Edith Piaf, kicked off the fest in grand style (after opening the Berlin International Film Festival), and looks poised to match the box office of 2001's "Amelie." Marion Cotillard as Piaf (meaning "Little Sparrow") channels the chanteuse in a kind of feral outpouring. It's one of the great screen impersonations, surpassing those of Jamie Foxx, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toby Jones--and who knew from watching her in "A Good Year"?
The film opens in 1959 at a performance in New York, when Piaf, already in a steep decline, collapses onstage. It then leaps back to the past, highlighting dramatic turning points in Piaf's eventful life, equal parts tragedy and success. Abandoned by her singer mother, Piaf grew up in a brothel; briefly suffered childhood blindness; passed the hat for her circus performer father; got famously discovered when nightclub owner Louis Leplee (Gerard Depardieu) heard her powerful throaty voice as she sang in the rough streets of Belleville, and connected her to people who would launch her career. A lovely section traces her romance with boxer Marcel Cerdan. His death in a plane crash en route to meet Piaf triggered her downward spiral. Of course the whole film drives towards "Je Ne Regrette Rien," played over her dying moments.
Some find irritating a narrative that pingpongs from the hard knocks past, to the glory days, to a stooped, balding Piaf, wrecked by morphine addiction and booze. But once you realize the film is framed as a memory piece, with Piaf revisiting chunks of her life from a drug-addled state, the form feels justified. This is no hagiography -- Piaf often comes across as coarse, imperious, a grownup guttersnipe. Yet Cotillard keeps you mesmerized. Lip-synching persuasively to Piaf's recordings, she inhabits Piaf down to the hand motions and body language--the actress claims she even studied Piaf's tongue movements and breathing when she sang. "I had to welcome her in," as Cotillard puts it.
In a different vein, the festival also included the sort of astute character studies some consider the calling card of French cinema. Most magical was "The Singer" from the gifted director Xavier Giannoli ("Eager Bodies," a standout in a recent New Directors/New Films). Playing a second string chanteur, Gerard Depardieu (in his best work in years), is paired with the ensorcelling Cecile de France. Fifty-ish Alain (Depardieu) croons oompah faves for greying singles in dance halls in Clermont Ferrand -- a town about as far from Piaf's Olympia as you can get. Spotting her in the audience one night, Alain becomes enamored of blonde Marion (de France), a much younger realtor with a troubled past.
Yep, it's a May/December romance, but one that subverts the genre. Starting at the end--a roll in the sack on their first "date"--Alain and Marion then get down to serious business: exploring a bond as compelling as it is impossible to live out. The venue for their encounters is a series of houses that Marion shows Alain -- nakedly bright, contrasting with the strobe-lit murk of Alain's dance halls.
Keeping the viewer off balance at every turn, the movie avoids sentimentality, along with what director Giannoli terms the "cliche of bitterness" Alain might feel as a has been who never was. (You can imagine the kind of coulda'/woulda' spin Hollywood would give this material.) The pop songs, which Depardieu sings himself, become the story's inner voice. This film about mutual fascination visually pinpoints the precise moment when the pair realize they're in over their heads--and this while dancing to a song, "Mourir d'amour." Depardieu, it should be said -- despite the schnozz, pillowman bulk, and, I think, heart surgery scar -- makes a plausible object of desire. Like a dance, "Singer" is built on brief touches, looks, distance. It celebrates the dignity and natural elegance of a man who, in America, would be labeled a loser.
An impressionistic swirl, "The Man of my Life" -- by actress-turned-director Zabou Breitman -- pivots on another mutual seduction, this time between a straight married man and his gay neighbor. Happily married Frederic (Bernard Campin) is on vacation with his extended -- and rather rambunctious -- family in the French countryside near Provence. He invites his neighbor Hugo (Charles Berling) for dinner en plein air. An all-night talkathon between the two men hatches an attraction that drives Frederic into an existential crisis. Dispensing with linear narrative, Zabou Breitman structures this emotional tango around repeating motifs: the fatal conversation; the sound of footfalls and panting as Frederic and Hugo jog through the countryside. The film's artiness starts to pall -- enough, already, of that gauzy curtain blowing in the mistral; and as for closeups of a dripping spigot... But it's remarkable how two female writers (Breitman and Agnes de Sacy) got into the heads of their male duo. And Charles Berling holds the screen with such magnetism, he turns the somewhat cliche'd figure of the disengaged Hugo ("I'm in love when I make love") into a credible character, and rescues Breitman from her own excesses.
A polar opposite in style, "The Page Turner" from Denis Dercourt is a tight-fisted story of vengeance laid out with icy control. Melanie, a talented young pianist, gets shunted aside from her career when a judge at a competition--famed pianist Ariane Fouchecourt (Catherine Frot)--carelessly distracts her by signing an autograph. Cut to ten years later, when Melanie (Deborah Francois, the young mother of "L'Enfant") insinuates herself into the Fouchecourt family, working at their estate, and becoming indispensable to Ariane as her page turner. Director Dercourt, himself a musician, has to have watched a lot of Chabrol -- hints of incipient violence abound, especially around an eerie underground pool. When it comes, Melanie's revenge makes for a neat finish, but the film is more polished artifact than vital drama.
The fest's quotient of art films ranged from challenging to groan-worthy. Bruno Dumont's "Flanders" took the Jury prize in Cannes, but inspires plenty of groands, too. The film crosscuts between a young couple in rural northern France, and Frenchmen at war in some nameless Arab country, committing, then in turn suffering atrocities. There's an integrity to the film's unflinching gaze--both at characters who resemble the the farm animals they tend (though the real-time rutting is kept to a minimum for once); and at the cycle of violence in the desert. Sometimes, though, you wish Dumont would flinch: the rape by French soldiers of a female Arab guerilla, followed by a payback which I'll leave you to guess, deposit in the brain images you could live happily without.
In the deadly "Dans Paris" from Christophe Honore (who gave us mother/son incest in "Ma Mere"), Romain Duris takes to his bed from depression, presumably following a breakup, while his brother Louis Garrel functions as both actor and narrator, breaking the 4th wall to conduct us through Parisian-style dysfunction. On cue, the director tips his hat at New Wave tropes--at one point the couple makes up by singing an operetta on the phone -- but mostly it's just two hairy guys sitting around in skivvies, intercut with scenes of the dentally challenged g.f. dancing topless. The talent of both Duris and Garrel pleads for a worthier vehicle.
"Countdown" by Sandrine Veysset is a gloomy little oddity, set on some fog-bound coast, about a young boy doing his best to cope with a beserko, narcoleptic mom, and a dad who hangs at a club he names the Association of Broken Dreams. There followed a haunting docu about its producer, the fabled Humbert Balsan, who committed suicide because, as a friend reflects, "he could no longer be the hero he himself had invented."
In "The Untouchable" from Benoit Jacquot a young actress (Isilde le Besco) travels to India to seek out her unknown father. That pretty much sums up the plot of this near-wordless odyssey that captures with remarkable immediacy the colors and heat of India's multitudes, thanks to talented cinematographer Caroline Champetier. The film plays like a dual travelogue about Benares and Le Besco's luscious body, an object of apparently boundless fascination for Jacquot.
As for perpetrators of hi-concept fluff, the hands-down winner is "I Do" from Eric Lartigau. The premise: at 43, Luis (Alain Chabat) is an over-age bachelor whose intrusive mom and five sisters want him married -- and would even "settle for a gay wedding" (to sample the film's humor). To get them off his back, Luis hires his best friend's sister Emma (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to become his fiancee, then dump him at the altar. When plan A backfires, he rehires her--this time to offend the family--which allows Emma to toss off remarks about shaving her "chatte" and play dominatrix. The truly alarming sight of the skeletal Gainsbourg gives the lie to "You can never be too thin." Woody Harrelson as Luis, anyone? Juliette Lewis as Emma?
Runner-up in same category: "Les Ambitieux" by Catherine Corsini, a romcom pumped with farce. After aspiring novelist Julien (Eric Caravaca) gets it on with hotshot editor Judith (Karin Viard), he snoops through her apartment and unearths a trunk-full of material about her dead father, a famous '60s radical. Presto! he's got the subject of his next novel. This enrages Judith, and--oh, you write the ending. Quite a bit gets lost in translation for American viewers: it's hard to conjure the exalted status that France bestows on writers and intellectual endeavors; and here Viard's freakouts would be managed by adjusting her medication.
"Don't Worry I'm Fine" by Philippe Lioret explores how a family gets its knickers in a twist when a son goes missing, but the film fails to find the larger meaning it aims for, and the sting-in-the-tail ending comes too late. But "Tell No one" by Guillaume Canet (which just nabbed a Cesar) is a clever hyper-plotted mystery based on a novel by American crime writer Harlan Coben. The set-up: Francois Cluzet, playing a pediatrician, discovers on his computer a cryptic message and real-time image from his wife who was murdered eight years back. Meanwhile, the cops have reopened the case and target him as prime suspect. It's almost comic the way a large section of France's acting pool, ranging from Nathalie Baye to Jalil Lespert, appear in cameos--hell, even Kristin Scott-Thomas shows up as a lesbian -- and there's a fab chase scene across a highway.
Most of the lineup in this Rendez-Vous looked inward; glaringly absent were films that addressed the social/political tensions roiling France. A delightful exception that offers a chunk of history is "Blame it on Fidel" by Julie Gavras (daughter ot Costa). The '70s and its legacy in France are viewed through the prism of Anna, a precocious 10 year old, who's forced to live through big changes when her parents become lefty political activists. Attached to the reassuring rituals of middle-class life, Anna digs in her heels and fights back, forming comically distorted views nourished by a Cuban exile housekeeper and her conservative grandparents. Meanwhile, Allende is elected in Chile; Anna's house fills with bearded idealists, who sing "Ay Carmela"; and she's dragged by her parents to a protest--dispelled by tear gas--to learn group solidarity. Cleverly shooting from a knee-level, child's p.o.v., Gavras sketches by indirection a multi-generational portrait of the period. But the film resonates most by talking to some deep-seated human impulse to resist change at any age.