First, the good news. Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2010 offers a handful of works that are marvels of craft, among them “Mademoiselle Chambon” by Stephane Brize and “Les Regrets” by Cedric Kahn, two wildly different takes on love. A third triumph is “Rapt,” a masterful thriller by Lucas Belvaux about the kidnapping of an industrialist that transcends the genre to expose the rot within the power elite. Along with the intimist dramas we’ve come to expect from the French, this year’s Rendez-vous (screening from March 11-21 at the Walter Reade Theater, IFC Center — and, newly, at BAM) offers several films that deal incisively with social issues, opening a window onto the wider world — happily, in France current events and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. So expect to find explorations of unemployment (“In the Beginning”), immigration (“Welcome”), and obscene wealth (“Rapt”). As an extra bonus, this 15th edition of the annual March ritual is a virtual showcase for Vincent Lindon and Yvan Attal, two nonpareil actors who seem never to act, and each starring in two films.
And the less good news? The lineup in this year’s Rendez-vous (a co-presentation of Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance, in collaboration with IFC Center and BAMcinematek) fluctuates in quality. More than a few films occupy a mid-zone of flawed-but-worthy. But what’s the deal with the insubstantial works that made the cut? Are they stocking stuffers to fill out the program and make up a quota of eighteen features? Even allowing for the holdouts for Cannes, was there truly nothing to take the place of films that might charitably be termed unnecessary?
These caveats aside, “Mademoiselle Chambon” (picked up by Lorber Films) is exquisite, never putting a foot wrong. The story could hardly be simpler: Jean (Vincent Lindon), a burly, married contractor, becomes involved with his son’s elegant, reclusive homeroom teacher Veronique (Sandrine Kiberlain — in real life Lindon’s former wife, which adds a certain titillation) and is forced to make an impossible choice. A standard tale of adultery, but Brize decants it through a radical form, dispensing with psychology and extended dialogue. Rather, the story is carried through the gaze of the actors; actions — Jean’s construction of windows and walls, suggesting flight or immurement; and Veronique’s violin music, which cements the couple’s bond. Brize is a master of ellipsis and indirection; instead of clunky exposition, ne needs only a message on an answering machine to sketch Veronique’s upperclass background. At a bruising climax Brize’s camera reveals only Jean’s nose and mouth in his rear view mirror. At other moments light pours through these undoctored faces, translucent like Meissen china. “Chambon” is one of those films whose seeming smallness belies its breadth.
A sort of profane companion piece to “Chambon,” Cedric Kahn’s “Les Regrets” testifies to a French paradox: they’ve added another hour to the day. Even allowing for high speed trains, where else can someone hold down a demanding job and commute from Paris to the provinces to pursue an affair? And who but the French would give a film about l’amour fou — fou being the operative word — the breathless pace of an action flick? In “Les Regrets” a married Parisian architect (Yvan Attal) returns to his hometown to visit his dying mother and reconnects with a girlfriend (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) from fifteen years back. What starts with a quickie on free standing stairs (ingeniously shot from beneath), blossoms into a passion that drives them to the brink of violence and death. Unable to live either together or apart, the couple may drive viewers mad as well (their antics reportedly drew snickers in Cannes), but it’s quite a ride. Attal, with his slightly askew gaze, cloven ear, and je-m’en-foutisme is hyper cool. Bruni-Tedeschi (sister of Carla Bruni), lush and unreconstructed, is like an avatar of sex, especially that killer voice.
One of several films with a topical spin, “Rapt” mines the true story of a 1978 kidnapping to create both a white-knuckle thriller and a snapshot of society: an industrial behemoth and its handlers, the police, and the lifestyles of the super-rich. In a witty opening, Belgian auteur Belvaux (of the awesome “Trilogy”) swiftly roughs out the privileged routines of industrialist Stanislas Graff — Yvan Attal again, this time wearing entitlement like a second Armani. Be forwarned: after the ambush of his limo by some generic, unidentified hoodlums, there’s some nasty business involving a severed digit (Graff’s associates confirm it’s his after recognizing the bitten nails). Such horrors are balanced by cutaways to the deliberations of the police, hamstrung by bureaucracy, and Graff’s colleagues, who haggle like merchants in a bazaar over the kidnappers’ demands while their victim’s life hangs in the balance. The thing is, since he let his associate do most of the work, Graff might just be expendable.
The media whips up public indignation by exposing Graff as a playboy with a stable of girlfriends and a gambler who pissed away vast sums in a France where people go homeless. Graff’s elegant wife (Anne Consigny) at first defends him — “he has more energy and appetites than others,” etc. but the escalating tension threatens to undermine the scaffolding of a family built on appearances. While Belvaux is scarcely condoning the raptors, he’s also out to skewer their victim, a monument to self-seeking and arrogance. And in the third act Belvaux not only rejects the humanist consolation that Graff’s ordeal has made him a better man — he suggests that the same qualities that made him a shit enable him to survive.
If “Rapt” deconstructs the world of privilege, “In the Beginning” from gifted Xavier Iannoli looks at the limbo of little guys in anytown France who have been nullified by unemployment. Inspired by a news item, it’s the unlikely tale of a smalltime conman (Francois Cluzet) who passes himself off as the boss of a construction site, which then builds a highway — to nowhere. He may be a fraud, but he’s put a town back to work and made the world bearable. Iannoli sustains a delicate balance throughout between comedy at the charade and dismay over the gullibility of a community so desperate for work they’ll hitch on to any scam. He tried to capture, Iannoli has said, “people’s fear of not existing … Unemployment marginalizes out of existence.” On another level “Beginning” plays into the impostor nightmare, the fear we all have of being exposed as fraudulent. But the promising premise is marred by Cluzet’s wooden performance, his expression frozen somewhere between incomprehension and panic.
A pair of far-reaching films resurrect historical dramas. Fest opener “Farewell” by Christian Carion revisits an espionage plot that supposedly helped bring down the Soviet Union and altered the world’s balance of power. It’s the true story of a KGB colonel (Emir Kusturica, best known as a director) who, disenchanted with Communism under Brezhnev, passes along top-secret documents to a French businessman (Guillaume Canet) based in Russia. Carion’s team has nailed the look of Soviet-era Moscow. And as the world-weary colonel in thrall to French culture — who sees his own fate reflected in Alfred de Vigny’s poem “La Mort du Loup” — Kusturica has a bearish charisma. Canet, though, has little to do except look sexily nerdy and the convoluted plot never builds dramatic urgency. Perhaps Carion’s laudable ambitions were derailed by the subject’s complexity.
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Far more successful is “Army of Crime” by Robert Guediguian (“La Ville est Tranquille”), a thriller about the French Resistance, whose leaders and foot soldiers were often foreigners. The film opens with its ending: a roll call and the words “Mort pour la France” — then flashes back to the story of how four murdered partisans came together to build their mini-army. The title invites comparison to Melville’s immortal “Army of Shadows,” but Guediguian holds his own with this distinctly leftwing perspective. At a time when many French famously collaborated (“the stadium roundups were a great success and not one German took part,” exults a French police official), the film underscores the heroism of a ragtag band of communist sympathizers. At the same time it chronicles the “Red Poster” campaign mounted by Vichy France to discredit them, and the “second” war waged by the Germans against the Bolsheviks. Anchoring the story is an Armenian-born poet and partisan played by marvelous Simon Abarian, who in American films usually gets cast as a terrorist. But the show-stealer is Robinson Stevenin as a fearless activist who ignites mayhem by bumming lights from German soldiers. (Chilling note: in that torture scene were the Germans using waterboarding?)
Among Rendez-vous’s flawed but worthwhile films count “The Wolberg Family,” an assured first feature from Axelle Ropert about a Jewish mayor in the Basque country and his multi-generational family. Though slow to rev up, Wolberg finds the hidden seams and pathos of these seemingly ordinary lives. Madame Wolberg (Valerie Benguigui) may be plotting her exit from the marriage, while her adoring husband (the somewhat unappealing Francois Damiens) harbors a sad secret he can only blurt out at the tomb of his dead mother. In a tragicomic confrontation, Wolberg and his wife’s ex-lover descend to a verbal fight-fest in the rain, while the camera hovers in medium closeup, following the volleys like a match at Wimbledom. There’s a lot of ground covered here: family, sex, death, the uneasy integration of Jews in France. In some ways the French answer to “A Serious Man,” the film closes with an unattributed, haunting quote: “The only certain thing is a secret violence that overturns everything.”
The novel “The Silence of The Hedgehog” has amassed many fans in the States. Its film version “The Hedgehog” by Mona Acache revisits this story of a young girl from a wealthy family who bonds with the literate concierge in her tony building and the woman’s Japanese soul mate. Though watchable, intelligent, and beautifully acted by the reliably fine Josiane Balasko as the gruff Tolstoy-quoting concierge, “Hedgehog” plays more like a novella than feature film. I also found it mildly condescending, as if the filmmaker were marveling that the brutish underclass could appreciate the finer things. “In The French Kissers” by Riad Sattouf — which copped a Cesar for first feature — two geeky teens with zits search for love in a Breton town. In a novel departure, one is an aspiring rapper of Arab descent who must contend with prejudice along with the usual teen trials. Sattouf gets more mileage out of horniness than you would have thought possible and these nose-picking Lotharios furnish plenty of laughs. After a while, though, the ick factor — including a leering, voyeuristic mom — overwhelms the comedy.
Also problematic but worth a look is the oddly titled “I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive” from master filmmaker Claude Miller and his son Nathan. Based on a true story and sparked by social concerns like much of Rendez-vous’s lineup, it deals with the challenges faced by single mothers struggling to raise children on little money. Compelling newcomer Vincent Rottiers (also impressive in “In the Beginning”) portrays Thomas, a mildly troubled young man who becomes obsessed with a quest to track down his birth mother Julie (Sophie Cattani). Once he locates her in the French-style projects — now with a new baby on her hands — their Oedipal attraction leads to dire consequences. Though craft is never in short supply — the scenes between Thomas and Julie bristle with latent eroticism — the story plays too much like a twisted case history, prompting the question, Why are we watching this?
And how did “Making Plans for Lena” by Christophe Honore crash the party? Criminally mis-using lovely Chiara Matroianni as the hapless Lena, it follows what looks like her slo-mo breakdown provoked by an intrusive family, a smarmy ex-husband, and the pesky details of everyday life. Or has she just misplaced her meds? The great mystery at the heart of the film: why doesn’t Lena just run off with ex-bf Louis Garrel? “Restless” by Laurent Perreau is an unfocused coming-of-ager about a tomboyish teen uneasily sharing a stately country house with granddad Michel Piccoli. Not even the great actor — in perhaps his last hurrah — and a surprising third act reveal can prevent this structure-free story from collapse.
Another puzzlement is “OSS 117 — Lost in Rio,” a sixties spy spoof of the James Bond franchise from Michel Hazanavicius. Jean Dujardin, France’s answer to Peter Sellers, plays agent OSS 117, a buff superspy protecting French interests around the globe post WWII. After a shootout in a Swiss chalet, the hero is sent to Rio to track down a Nazi war criminal, and the plot turns goofier by the frame. The jabs at Brazil as a Nazi haven hit the mark, the sixties hairdos are a riot, and Dujardin makes an amusing smartass — see him cavorting in a shorty terrycloth robe. But the labored gags eventually doom this extended exercise in silliness. Also provoking the question, Why? is Michel Gondry’s “The Thorn in the Heart.” This cine-memoir traces the life of Gondry’s schoolteacher Aunt Suzette and her problematic son Jean-Yves. A numbing section of the film is devoted to poking around the ruined schoolhouses in the boonies where Suzette once taught. But this odyssey seems peripheral to the “thorn” in the family: her son — or rather, her painfully dismissive attitude toward him. Whatever deficits he might have been born with his mother seems only to have aggravated, yet Gondry records this with puzzling neutrality. What possible interest could this home-movie-style ramble have for someone who’s neither family nor a shrink? At the end it’s revealed that the toy train set Gondry uses to flag towns and periods is the handiwork — and maybe principal occupation of — Jean-Yves, which is either poignant or creepy.
But to end on a celebratory note: the fest includes two lovely films in the intimist manner virtually owned by the French. The title of “Welcome” by Philippe Lioret is ironic: the film concerns the lowest rung on the food chain: illegal aliens. Simon (Vincent Lindon in another superb minimalist turn) is a depressed one-time swimming champ turned instructor, now in turmoil over his impending divorce. Enter Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a 17-year-old Kurdish refugee, who turns up at Simon’s pool desperate to swim the English channel so he can rejoin his sweetheart in England. Though it’s a whacko scheme, Simon, eager to win approval from his activist wife, agrees to help Bilal. Another filmmaker might cue the violins at the strong bond that forms between Simon and Bilal, but Lioret avoids sentimentality by keeping a balance between the tragic fate of a boy and the official policies that provoked it.
Finally, “Le Refuge” by Francois Ozon is a mysterious meditation on the nature of blood ties and parenthood. Ex-junkie Mousse (Isabelle Carre) discovers she’s pregnant after her boyfriend (Melvil Poupaud) dies of an OD. Holing up in a beachside retreat, she’s joined by Paul (singer Louis-Ronan Choisy in his screen debut), the gay brother of her late boyfriend. The pair’s connection deepens as Paul discloses family secrets and Mousse recognizes in him traits of her dead lover. Ozon’s camera boldly foregrounds Carre’s round forms — the actress was six months pregnant during the shoot — and Paul is drawn to her both erotically and perhaps from some unspoken desire to replace his brother and father a child. Ozon has always been a provocateur, and this film is no exception. The latest in his gallery of strong-willed women, Mousse becomes the agent of her own destiny in a denoument as surprising as it is apt. “Refuge” looks deep into the nature of family and finds that traditional roles are all up for grabs.