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Rendez-vous with French Cinema ’06, An Ensemble of French Films Rise To The Top

Rendez-vous with French Cinema '06, An Ensemble of French Films Rise To The Top

True, the 11th edition of Rendez-vous with French Cinema offered no clear consensus on standouts. Absent, too, were high-profile auteur films, such as “Comedy of Power,” Claude Chabrol‘s latest, unfinished at the time of the selection process; and the exciting product held in reserve, one can guess, for Cannes. Still, this year’s Rendez-vous yielded its own pleasures, including a couple of small gems. But its star attraction, perhaps, was the ensemble, the dazzling breadth of offerings, ranging from the character studies associated with French cinema (“Not Here to be Loved“), to mainstream comedy (“Orchestra Seats“), to a surreal tease (“La Moustache“), to a rejuvenated policier (“Le Petit Lieutenant.”)

Even some of the fest’s oddities and semi-duds delivered enjoyable moments (to paraphrase Woody Allen, even bad sex is good sex.) At the very least, the films on view explored the medium itself; showcased France’s great actresses; and displayed a high intelligence both behind and in front of the camera that’s manna to refugees from the multiplex. Says fest director Richard Pena, “The French continue to make films as though films really do matter.” And now, with the demise of Wellspring’s theatrical arm — which, it is feared, may further reduce the paltry distribution here of sub-titled fare — Rendez-vous matters all the more as an important forum.

Perhaps more than in recent memory, the 11th edition featured the “boulevard” strain in French film — popular, accessible, brassy, the Gallic equivalent of ‘ollywood. Daniele Thompson’s “Orchestra Seats” — her third time as director — is a winning hybrid, a broad romp notched with auteurist quirks. Like “La Buche,” it was co-written with her dishy son Christopher, who also stars. Artfully built around a theater district cafe, a nexus for all the characters, the film follows an actress in the soaps (Valerie Lemercier) who aspires to play Simone de Beauvoir; a world-class concert pianist who wants out of the circuit; an aging collector about to auction off his artwork. And threading among them, Cecile de France as a provincial waitress, goggled-eyed at theglam and high culture.

“Orchestra” deals in serious stuff: grownups who want to de-accession their old lives and move on, desires they articulate in pungent dialogue (“We had a hard-on for life,” the collector says of himself and his late wife) — yet it’s also a comedic fairy tale full of brio. I hear distributors are circling, and with reason: is there a more American theme than self-renewal?

Another mix of commercial and arthouse is “Russian Dolls” from Cedric Klapisch (picked up by IFC Films), a sequel to “L’Auberge Espagnole,” that sunny celebration of the youth we all deserved. Now rounding on thirty, Xavier (Romain Duris) writes soaps and gets a gig ghosting a celebrity model’s memoir (she’s twenty-four.) The story is framed by Xavier manically commuting on the Eurostar, exploring his issues on his laptop — hey, growing up sucks. The film overuses the split screen, like a child repeating the same joke, and hops around with acute ADD, presumably to capture Xavier’s confusion — but Klapisch ably milks our fondness for the old gang in Barcelona. Perhaps he’s tapped into an Xavier franchise, and we’ll get future installments a la Truffaut’s Antoine.

Palais Royal” by Valerie Lemercier (who also stars) was greeted with silent dismay at the press screening — but reportedly went over well at the public one. (Such divergences of taste don’t faze Richard Pena, who says, “I’d be upset if someone came to Rendez-vous and liked every film.”) “Palais” is a broad farce, vulgar without being funny, about a pair of frivolous young royals, strong-armed onto the throne by cussin’ queen mother Catherine Deneuve after the king’s sudden death. When Princess Armelle (Lemercier) finds her prince (Lambert Wilson) boinking her best friend, she exacts revenge by becoming the people’s princess.

Catherine Deneuve and Valerie Lemercier in “Palais Royal,” which screened at the Rendez-vous with French Cinema. Photo provided by the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Ripped, lushly full-lipped Wilson is wasted in the role of playboy consort. And much gets lost in translation: Lemercier — a celebrated comedienne in France, is perhaps an acquired taste; the much-publicized pratfalls of royals are of more interest in Europe than here, where the aristocracy of money keeps well out of sight. And the people’s princess bit seems mainly a jibe at the Brits. As a fellow journalist said of this type of film, “We have these in America, so we don’t need them with subtitles.”

Fest attendees were fortunate to catch two marvelous, if smallish films which would fit snugly into an arthouse niche stateside. “Not Here To Be Loved” by gifted filmmaker Stephane Brize is a two-hander about one Jean-Claude, a dreary bailiff (the excellent Patrick Chesnais) who delivers eviction notices to the working poor. Sunday’s he visits his ingrate of a dad in a nursing home — and he calls this a life. When Jean-Claude takes up tango lessons for his health, he encounters a forty-ish engaged guidance counselor (lovely Anne Consigny), who awakens him to new possibilities.

Brize breathes life into the overworked trope of the dance class as all-pupose panacea. He’s unafraid to start with a dour, offputting hero, and he procceds by incremental steps — with total confidence in the viewer’s complicity — to make us root for his sad sack loser. The film’s meta-subject is Brize’s sure-footed pace, a counterpoint to the swooping tangos. And in what American film could we see a figure like Anne Consigny, so luminous, she seems almost a source of light? Woman as life-giver to a soul-dead man was also the theme of “You Are So Handsome,” an unabashedly conventional comedy by Isabelle Mergault. There a Roumanian mail-order bride, glowingly etched by Medeea Marinescu, transforms Michel Blanc, as a hilariously dour farmer, into a mensch.

The second gem was “Le Petit Lieutenant” by Xavier Beauvois, a searing drama encased in a policier, shot cinema verite style. It pulls out an enormously affecting turn from Nathalie Baye. (Other glorious actresses in the fest included Emmanuelle Beart, Carole Bouquet, Karin Viard, Emannuelle Devos, Cecile de France, and honorary Francaise Charlotte Rampling.) In “Lieutenant” the fiftyish Baye plays Caroline Vaudieu, a recovering alcoholic who returns to her job as Inspector in a Parisian crime unit, determined to stay clean. Her arrival coincides with that of cadet Antoine (Jalil Lespert), a young novice hot for action, whose wife has remained in the country. The interplay between Antoine and a veteran cop (Roschdy Zem), also North African, makes cinema verite look fresh again But the focus is mainly on Antoine and Caroline, who has lost a son who would now be Antoine’s age. The pair form an exquisitely modulated connection — familial, professional, erotic. When tragedy strikes, the film becomes a powerful meditation on the open-endedness of loss that brings to mind Joan Didion’s book on a similar subject.

The grim tone of some of the selections — such as “Ames Grises,” an impeccably mounted exploration of civilian meltdown against the backdrop of WWI — was offset by cream puffs and petits fours, some concocted, unfortunately, with reddiwhip. What never fails to amaze in French film is that major stars sign on (and even go full frontal) for relatively minor efforts. Testimony, I suppose, for a solidarity in the film community that exists far less here.

Take Emanuelle Devos, so radiant a screen presence, you could make a film — as Arnaud Desplechin claims he has — about the luminosity of her skin. But what was she doing in “Good Girl” by Sophie Filleres, a lint-gathering exercise about a flaky woman unsure if she wants to marry her (extremely hairy) live-in boyfriend? Sometimes a little Gallic whimsy goes a long way.

And there was Devos again in “La Moustache” by rookie director Emmanuel Carrere, filming his own novel. After we watch in unattractive detail while Vincent Lindon, as her husband, sheds his mustache, Devos insists he never had one. Is this Rubik’s cube of a plot a metaphor for the pair’s diverging viewpoints? A story of parallel realities? Do we care?

Hard to imagine a Rendez-vous without films reflecting political and social turmoil. This year’s crop was uneven. In Toronto 2005 critics eagerly anticipated “Heading South,” the latest from Laurent Cantet, chronicler of social malaise. But they left disappointed. An investigation of sex tourism in the Caribbean, “South” spotlights three North American older women who frequent a secluded resort in Haiti to make whoopee with the lads on the beach. But outside their artificial paradise, the Duvalier regime holds sway, and the fellow favored by two of the women clashes with the dread Macoute militia. The three women, including queen bee Charlotte Rampling, break down the 4th wall in cringe-worthy confessions to the viewer, a device that fractures the unity, while adding to the sordidness of the subject. This project is an honorable failure that never found its form.

Johan Libereau, Salome Stevenin and Pierre Perrier in “Douches Froides,” which screened at the Rendez-vous with French Cinema. Photo provided by the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Douches Froides,” a first feature from Anthony Cordier, looks at both French economic malaise and teen sexuality through the eyes of Mickael, a student whose father is on the dole. Mickael sees a judo championship as the ticket out, but a threesome with his girlfriend and a wealthy judo enthusiast throws him off course. Though way too long and diffuse, the film has been picked up here, and will be marketed, according to one jaundiced industry insider, to viewers who like to watch boys in showers.

Far more successful was Serge le Peron‘s “I Saw Ben Barka Killed,” a political expose based on real events. It starts with the great Charles Berling as a sleazy operator, lying dead in a pool of blood and commenting on his own demise. Seems he was in on the wrong end of a plot to abdjuct and assassinate the eponymous Moroccan Third World leader in mid-sixties Paris. And what a pleasure to see again sexy Simon Abkarian of Sally Potter’s “Yes”! Though somber in subject, this genre-bender is never less than entertaining in its use of noir and jazz riffs reminiscent of “Breathless.”

There’s much controversy these days in Europe around the issue of immigration — and understandably, perhaps, the Rendez-vous films avoided direct reference to that hot potato. With one sly exception. Brigitte Rouan‘s “Housewarming” is seemingly just a fluffy comedy about a renovation from hell. Chantal (Carole Bouquet), a litigator and single mom with left-leaning creds (she defends Third World tenants and joins rallies to protest limits on immigration), hires a work crew of Colombians to redo her apartment. But as the renovation spins out of control, Chantal goes ballistic over this ever-expanding team who have invaded her turf, smashed her precious French antiques, and seem bent on dismantling her world. It’s harder to be munificent in your own backyard.

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