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by Erica Abeel
March 3, 2009 4:14 AM
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Self-Portraits and Biopics Dominate 14th Rendez Vous With French Cinema

A scene from Agnes Varda's "The Beaches of Agnes." Image courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Jean-Francois Richet's "Mesrine" is a bloody, hi-octane account of a legendary gangster. In "The Beaches of Agnes" Agnes Varda looks back at eighty at her own momentous life. Light years apart in spirit, the two films are part of a cluster of remarkable self-portraits and biopics that dominate the 14th edition of Rendezvous with French Cinema. Unspooling at the Walter Reade Theater and IFC Center March 5-15, this year's edition is notable, too, for the accomplished work of women filmmakers, including Claire Denis with her glorious "35 Shots of Rum"; and for selections from auteurs Claude Chabrol ("Bellamy"), Andre Techine ("The Girl on the Train") and Benoit Jacquot ("Villa Amalia"). As well, after a sense that recent Rendezvous were serving up too many "seconds," as we say in the schmatte trade, it's heartening to report that Martin Provost's fest entry "Seraphine" just won seven Cesars, including best picture, while Jean-Francois Richet snagged best director for "Mesrine."

In "The Beaches of Agnes" New Wave vet Varda has contrived a wondrous vehicle for recapturing watershed moments, a kind of cine memoir that filters her past through the many beaches, from Noirmoutier in France to the Pacific in California, that in some way shaped her. Shooting in HD video, Varda includes reenactments of events in her life; old photos (she started as a photographer for Jean Vilar); excerpts from both her own films, including "Cleo from 5 to 7" and "The Vagabond," and those of her late husband Jacques Demy. At times Varda is archly literal, as when she walks backwards or sets up mirrors on the beach that reflect and coexist with "real" water and sky. Continually inventive and playful, the film has the artisanal flavor of something made up as it goes along. So many striking moments: a cartoon cat who comically "interviews" Varda in the electronically altered voice of Chris Marker; a scene from her first film in 1954, projected on a makeshift screen on a moving wagon. And over it all a wash of ironic nostalgia, but also deep sadness. The most moving moments, which catch Varda weeping, display her photos of the beautiful dead - my God, the young Gerard Philippe! - including portraits of Jacques Demy, "le plus cheri des morts."

The second of Rendezvous' luminous cine memoirs - and not to be missed - is "Stella" an account by Sylvie Verheyde of her own coming of age. Stella Vlaminck (tellingly with the same initials as the filmmaker) is an 11 year old girl from a blue-collar background, living in her parents' cafe-hotel -- where, she tells us in voiceover, "guys die of cirrhosis and stuff." Transferred to a classy secondary school, she at first flounders, then comes into her own, surmounting the marital meltdown in her family. Dispensing with Hollywood hoopla, this film approaches the triumph over adversity with an unassuming tone, layering Stella's streetwise voice over events that tumble in on you.

"Mesrine" comes in two installments: Part 1, "L'instinct de mort," based on a memoir by Jacques Mesrine; and Part 2, "L'ennemi Public #1," to be released separately. This gangster epic reflects the current predilection of French filmmakers for genre flicks and commercial versus arthouse. If New Wavers Truffaut and Godard found inspiration in American cinema, well, now a fresh generation of Gallic filmmakers is again looking across the pond -- Variety dubbed them "French New Wave 2.0." (Other recent examples are "Ne le Dis a Personne" and "Roman de Gare," which lend a French twist to Studio-type thrillers.)

Be forewarned: from its opening scene, "Mesrine" deals in arterial spray, taking violence to new, well, lows. Yet the feral energy of Vincent Cassel (who bagged a Cesar for best actor) and the film's headlong pace make it all compulsively watchable, even when you want to look away. An early scene of Mesrine observing a violent interrogation when serving as a soldier in Algeria suggests that he was either traumatized by or schooled in the brutality he witnessed. Plus dad was a "collabo," which didn't help. Part 1 follows his apprenticeship to sleezy gangster Guido (Gerard Depardieu); marriage and doting fatherhood; a construction stint in Montreal, where he meets soul mate Cecile de France and they brutalize a gullible millionaire. The centerpiece is a daring prison break Mesrine orchestrates with a Canadian inmate, their motto "out or dead." Honorable in his fashion, Mesrine attempts a risky flyby to rescue his prison cohorts, and, thanks to Cassel's charisma, you're rooting for the guy every second. Part 2, which I haven't yet seen, explores Mesrine's talent for playing the media, plotting Houdini-like escapes, and outfoxing the fuzz with ingenious disguises. It's even bloodier, I'm told, than Part 1.

A 180-degree turn and you get Martin Provost's Cesar-winner "Seraphine." The fictional biopic follows the life of Seraphine de Senlis, magically embodied by Yolande Moreau, a washerwoman and maid who secretly paints hallucinatory canvases of flowers, creating pigments from soil, animal blood, and oil filched from the church. Her "guardian angel," she claims, guides her hand when she paints. German art critic Wilhelm Uhde, a collector of Le Douanier Rousseau, accidently discovers Seraphine's outsider or "naif" paintings and gives her a show - but she's destabilized by her new world. Especially luminous are depictions of French rural life and the artist-mentor bond between Uhde and the painter.

A scene from Claire Denis's "35 Shots of Rum." Image courtesy of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Claire Denis's "35 Shots of Rum" marks a fest high point. Alex Descas works as a train conductor and enjoys a harmonious, almost coupled life with his beautiful marriageable daughter (Mati Diop), the situation evoking Ozu's "Late Spring." Familial harmony is disrupted, however, by the romantic urges of a restless neighbor, Claire Denis regular Gregoire Colin. The film lays out an almost plotless story about the struggle to let go and move on, using ellipses you could, well, drive a train through. Daringly, elegantly, Denis keeps life-altering moments out of the frame. Though most of the characters are black, there's no ghetto misery or anger, color is not the main issue. "35 Shots" is a must-see for the way it captures the texture of lived life -- especially the dancing scene in a cafe, where the great DP Agnes Godard records the young couple's rapture as only cinema can. Denis is the least literary of filmmakers, taking you where language falters.

Testifying to the broad range of current French cinema, several works in the fest reach beyond personal drama to address concerns of the larger world. Socially engaged Costa Gavras weighs in with "Eden is West," the tale of illegal immigrant Elias (studly Riccardo Scamarcio) from some unspecified locale, who battles to gain a foothold in France. After leaping from a tanker to avoid arrest, Elias swims to shore and wakes to find himself, ironically, in luxury resort Eden Club Paradise, surrounded by nude bathers. Suddenly the story takes on a Candide-like allure, as Elias disguises himself as an attendant, gets groped by a club official and pulled into the bed of a lady from Hamburg. The barbarity of the Haves - a club activity involves hunting down les clandestins with dogs and baseball bats - contrasts with the kindness of fellow pariahs, along with women, who are drawn to Elias's hunky looks. A ride with two weirdo truckers, a stint in a factory, countless flights from the police, and Elias finally makes it to Paris. Though a picaresque string of incidents, the film generates sympathy for this hunted, embattled figure, about as welcome in Eden as a cockroach.

Pierre Schoeller's "Versailles" also looks at the marginalized: a homeless woman and her son, who fall in with a squatter, the late Guillaume Depardieu, living in the shadow of France's great symbol of opulence. After bonding with the boy - temporarily dumped by his mother -- the homeless man manages to set him on the good path. This inspirational story is relayed without an iota of sentimentality. How wrenching to watch Depardieu, a strikingly beautiful man and mesmerizing actor, who after a history of drug problems, recently died of pneumonia at age thirty-seven.

I revere Andre Techine, but his "The Girl on the Train," a festival premiere, is not quite up to snuff. The film is rooted in the ethnic and racial tensions roiling France -- more precisely, a real life scandal involving a girl who claimed, falsely, that she was molested by skinheads who mistook her for Jewish. At the center is the bond, fractious but loving, between daughter Emilie Dequenne and mom Catherine Deneuve. But the film spins out too many subplots to form a coherent picture and barely makes a pass at understanding why the girl lied. Deneuve, however, only gets better. Watch her face as she struggles to control her dismay when her daughter announces her dubious romantic choice. Jacquot's "Villa Amalia" casts Isabelle Huppert as a woman pianist who, betrayed by longtime bf, literally erases her previous life and lights out for Ischia. There she finds a deserted villa and a female lover. I didn't buy any of it. Looking amazingly girlish, Huppert narrowly misses, in this role, coming off as uber-bitch and becoming a parody of her own hard-edge persona.

Among a subset of lesser films is Christophe Barratier's fest opener "Paris 36" (screening at newly refurbished Alice Tully Hall). It's a kind of real estate musical which, despite its panache, never finds its groove. A fellow named Pigoil (popular comedian Gerard Jugnot) turns his ramshackle thirty's music hall into a cooperative in which all the players have a stake. The launch depends on a new act, talented chanteuse Douce (lovely newcomer Nora Arnezeder). With its fluid camera movements and evocative period sets, "Paris" wants to render homage to retro pre-war cinema, complete with accordion music, the left wing Popular Front, Faschist ruffians, even a Busby Berkley bit at the end. But though Jugnot makes an endearing little guy, the stock situations remain toothless and the sentimentality - which worked in Barratier's "The Chorus" -- feels unearned.

Daniele Thompson infuses her mainstream cinema with intelligence and wit - witness "La Buche." "Change of Plans," though, is not nearly so telling as that earlier outing. "Change" follows a group of sophisto Parisians who come together for a dinner party, their thin veneer of civility concealing a host of miseries for which the cure would seem to be a switch of partners. Thompson attempts an innovative time frame, flashing forward and back to reveal how it all shakes down, but the results are more jumbled than illuminating. And except for the superb Karin Viard as a workaholic matrimonial lawyer, the others are hard to like. Oh, and Thompson should lose those coy gyno office shots. The unfortunate "The Girl from Monaco" by Anne Fontaine (who gave us the wonderful "How I Killed my Father") is a tricked-up buddy film with boobs. The misused - though delightful -- Fabrice Lucchini plays an uptight lawyer who comes to Monaco to try a case that's so hi-profile, he's been assigned a live-in bodyguard (magnetic Zem Roschdy in a comic turn). Mid-trial, the lawyer becomes the sex slave of a TV weather vixen, which prompts unwelcome interference from the guard and precipitates an absurd denoument.

There is a brand of French whimsy that goes right by me, and it can be found in Ilan Duran Cohen's "The Joy of Singing." A secret service agent, the charmless Marina Fois, and cohort Lorant Deutsch form yet another odd couple, as they track down Jeanne Balibar limning the opera-singing widow of a uranium trafficker. Marina wants a baby, Lorant wants to escape her clutches, Jeanne prefers pop music - does it make sense? Do we care? The film's main distinction is a display of pubic hair design to rival the topiary art of Harvey Ladew. In "The Other One" by Patrick Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic a fortyish woman (Dominique Blanc) breaks with her younger boyfriend to live an unfettered life, then goes beserk with jealousy when he finds a new partner. This tired tale of obsession is less a movie than fodder for Dear Abby.

But to end on a high note. Hats off to Claude Chabrol and "Bellamy," film #50 I think, his most wicked since "La Ceremonie" and a savory meeting of two legends. Gerard Depardieu as happily married police chief Bellamy prefers investigating law-breakers to taking vacations, so when he finds a fugitive haunting his country place, professional curiosity takes over. After alcoholic younger brother Clovis Cornillac shows up, Chabrol cunningly interweaves the crime story with Bellamy's hidden family history, implicating the seemingly innocent. "Bellamy" broadens the range of the sexually viable if we're to believe - and we do! - that Depardieu, now massively stout, remains romantically active with his wife (lovely Marie Bunel). Fine, but let's cast a massively stout woman in a similar role. Chabrol has said that "Bellamy" attempts a kind of portrait of Depardieu himself, which chimes with the biographical bias of this year's rewarding fest.

[For more on this year's Rendez Vous line up, visit indieWIRE.]

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