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France Gets Its Politics On: 6 Must-See Titles from the Rendez-vous with French Cinema series

France Gets Its Politics On: 6 Must-See Titles from the Rendez-vous with French Cinema series

In an election year, the 2012 Rendez-vous with French Cinema is largely about politics past and present. “Farewell my Queen” offers a “downstairs” view of the French Revolution through the eyes of a servant at Versailles, while “Free Men” reveals how the Muslim community in Paris worked with the Resistance during WWII. And in present-day Marseilles “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is a virtual paean to blue-collar workers that follows a retired union rep after a theft forces him to reexamine his ideals.

Even dramas that contain no overt political themes nest within a social context.  When the eponymous “17 Girls”decide to become pregnant at the same time, it’s a move to push back at the dismal lack of options in a town the economy has left behind, lending fresh meaning to “the personal is political.”  Meanwhile “Les Intouchables,” the irrepressible buddy farce that kicks off the fest, takes the politically incorrect to new dimensions – and gets away with it    

Billed as a snapshot of contemporary French cinema, the quality of Rendez-vous, a joint enterprise of Unifrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, remains, as in the past several years, disconcertingly uneven. This may say more about the fierce competition from international fests than about the health of French cinema.  

Yet even Rendez-vous’ weaker works offer a welcome antidote to the tendency in American films to focus on private dramas while ignoring the wider political context. In placing individual stories within the forces shaping the larger society, the French features achieve the texture and timeliness offered by the best American documentaries (such as as “Bombay Beach,” Alma Har’el’s brilliant, surreal portrait of the American Dream on crack). And after a diet of studio films, it’s also refreshing to see up on the screen the middle-aged, lived-in faces of people who work instead of having work done. 

Themes running through the lineup are solidarity, social responsibility and bridging the class divide. Not that the series is all scoldy political screeds. The films range from farce to rom com to coming-of-agers – yet almost always with a savvy social subtext. 

Screening from March 1 to 11, Rendez-vous will take over Film Society of Lincoln Center, IFC Center, and BAM Cinématek, and has expanded this year to include recent French documentaries and rarely screened classics. Below, six standouts of Rendezvous 2012 you won’t want to miss.

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Robert Deguidian

Unrelated to Hemingway, “Snows” is a celebration of love and decency among 50-ish blue-collar types in Marseilles, a topic so far off Hollywood’s radar as to be in another galaxy. Union rep Michel (the superb Jean-Pierre Darroussin) allows himself – in an almost sacrificial gesture – to get laid off along with fellow shipyard workers, and prepares to enjoy a modest retirement with his wife (the director’s muse Ariane Ascaride). Then a thief breaks into his home, making off with money planned for a safari. On learning that the robber used the stolen loot to support his younger siblings and is unlikely to find another job in the constricting economy, Michel feels complicit in the system that lead to the crime and withdraws charges.       

Marshalling his terrific ensemble of actors, Deguidian returns to form after the less focused Resistance drama “Army of Crime” – and to his home turf of Marseilles. The film is unabashedly partisan: “The bosses want us to fight among ourselves,” Michel observes, and dismisses the need for a safari, saying, “English is a colonizer’s language.” With a few momentary lapses, the characters come off as salt of the earth – even a waiter in a cafe is a prince.  Above all, the film offers a lovely portrait of a united longtime couple; not for them the self and mutual torture that Deguidian likely considers a hobby of the haute bourgeoisie. Ravel’s “Pavane for a Dead Princess” on the soundtrack is a bit over the top, but it’s a film that will make you feel better about the world.

“Free Men” by Ismael Ferroukhi

During the German Occupation of France, Younes, an Algerian black marketeer (“A Prophet” star Tahar Rahim) is coerced into spying on the denizens of the Paris Grand Mosque. He gradually uncovers a clandestine operation headed by the mosque’s leader (the great Michael Lonsdale) to provide North African Jews with fake Muslim IDs. Arabs as freedom fighters issuing false papers to protect Jews? Could the timing of such news from the past be better? 

“Free Men,” which features a cameo from splendid Lubna Azabal (“Les Incendies”), is a biopic about a young man’s awakening conscience.  At film’s start, Younes is little more than a hustler, though he dutifully sends cash home to his family. Enlightenment comes by way of his cousin, a union organizer and fighter in the Resistance. “It’s their war – it’s not our war,” Younes objects early on. But is it? Far from a dry historical account, “Free Men” dramatizes the discovery of solidarity with a brotherhood outside one’s immediate clan. Rahim makes a shy and handsome apprentice, who may or may not be in love with a gay Jewish cabaret singer. Lonsdale playing cat and mouse with the Germans is a joy to behold.

“Farewell my Queen” by Benoit Jacquot  

The premise of Benoit’s gripping and revelatory new film is in itself a political statement. It filters the last days of Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger) and the Ancien Regime through the POV of a servant, the queen’s official “reader” Sidonie (Lea Seydoux, ironically, is herself French royalty as grandaughter of the chairman of Pathe). 

The trope of a bit player’s blurred, worm’s-eye view of history is rooted in French literary tradition – think Fabrizio bumbling around in the Battle of Waterloo in Stendhal’s “The Charterhouse of Parma.” Set at Versailles, starring as itself in all its gilded glory, “Farewell” takes us from the storming of the Bastille, through the panic and chaos among the royals, their courtiers and servants as the monarchy teeters, to the queen’s ill-starred plans to escape to Metz. Throughout, Sidonie is devoted with single-minded passion to the queen, and envious of her homoerotic attachment to Gabrielle de Polignac (a miscast Virginie Ledoyen). 

In Jacquot’s reading, the sexual intrigue in this court is woman to woman. He succeeds brilliantly in suggesting the rot and pollution beneath the gilt and captures the disarray of the court as it reacts to the bloodletting in Paris, courtiers wandering with candles in their night clothes with an overbred dog; congregating to hear the list of names – topped by the queen’s – slated for the guillotine (the sound of its descent woven into the, er, edgy score).  

The film reinvents the costumer with its fresh angle and acidic commentary on clueless royals. While Paris erupts, the queen obsesses about aging, weeps over the departing Gabrielle and plans her diversions in Metz. “I always thought power was inherited,” the king reflects. “And a curse.” Some critics at Berlin, where “Farewell” opened the fest, judged the film distant and detached and Sidonie opaque. For this viewer, “Farewell” packs the power of a bildungsroman as a devoted servant discovers exactly how the devotion of an underling will be rewarded as the executioner draws near.

“Unforgivable” by Andre Techine    

An author of thrillers (Andre Dussollier) arrives in Venice in search of a writing retreat. An expat realtor (Carole Bouquet) suggests a house on the somewhat remote island Sant’Erasmo. This being a French movie, Dussollier is less interested in insulation and square footage than romance: he’ll take the place if Bouquet moves in and marries him. Presto, they’re wed, it’s a summer later, and Techine whisks the viewer off on a speedboat tour through a few of his favorite themes: fluid sexuality, blocked creatvity, inappropriate romance, tortured parent-child relations.  

The plot, did you say? Well, some of it involves Dussollier’s married daughter, who disappears with an aristo drug dealer; jealous of Bouquet, who’s mysterious and chilly, Dussollier hires a woman detective (who was also Bouquet’s former lover) to tail her, triggering precisely the infidelity he fears.  Seasons pass; a character dies; couples break up…  Yes, it rambles, though part of the fun is trying to ascertain how the director will knot together his far-flung strands. 

With its intimacy and intensely personal flavor, B-level Techine is superior to many filmmaker’s As. At the film’s heart is parental guilt, a motif that emerges loud and clear among the busyness. “Nothing is worse in life than being a parent,” says Dussollier. And: “There should be a ban on reproduction, it’s the only way out of guilt.” “Impardonnables” refers, no mystery there, to parental gaffes. The film’s darkness is leavened by Techine’s exhilarating trademark traveling shots, this time of characters furiously piloting their boats around Venice like cris du coeur.

“38 Witnesses” by Lucas Belvaux

Transplanting the Kitty Genovese scandal to present-day Le Havre, the reliably provocative Belvaux explores a conundrum that refuses to yield up an answer: how did 38 witnesses fail to help, or even summon the police, while a screaming woman was murdered in the early morning hours on the street below? Yvan Attal (Belvaux’s “Rapt”) plays a ship pilot who was one of the 38 – and the first to come forward and admit he remained mute. His girfriend (Sophie Quinton), who was away that night, longs to forgive him, but he can’t forgive himself: “I’ll hear those screams my whole life.” Moral cowardice has turned him into a dead man walking; now he asks only to be judged in an explosive article planned by crusading journalist Nicole Garcia.  

It’s refreshing, this stern moral code, considering all our financial felons out there who were doubtless quick to pardon themselves. The film is flawed by providing no arc for Attal; he has nowhere to go but deeper into self-hatred.  For Belvaux, lachete – or moral cowardice – is beyond redemption. Still, “38” bravely probes the mystery of evil, suggesting as well a parallel between the witnesses in Le Havre and the lachete of the French during the Occupation. A character in the story, Le Havre and its leviathan container ships and towering shipyard cranes seem objective correlatives of industry’s indifference.

“Les Intouchables” by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano

They’re calling it “The Intouchables” in English, but if that’s an actual word you had me fooled. I also cringed when I heard the premise: rich white quadriplegic gets rhythm from black guy from the projects. Surprise: “Intouchables” is a funny, sharp romp about two men who save each other – and about the chasm between the Paris bourgeoisie and the multiracial suburbs. 

Philippe (art house fave Francois Cluzet) has been seriously messed up in a hanggliding accident. To the dismay of his starchy-but-hot secretary, he hires Driss (Omar Sy), a Senegalese man fresh out of prison who pinches a Faberge egg on his way out. The filmmakers have a lot of fun setting Driss (from Idris) loose in Philippe’s palatial digs, where he hits on the secretary and tries to reintroduce sex into his boss’s life. One of many comic scenes finds Driss in Philippe’s box at the opera loudly exclaiming over a parodic production. There are even bad Nazi jokes.  

I know, it’s in the worst possible taste, yet they’ve been lining up for it in France and Germany (and TWC plans a remake; casting ideas, anyone?). Actually, the film is a subset of French comedy – along with last season’s “The Women on the 6th” – that proposes impoverished immigrants and the underclass have a monopoly on joie de vivre. “Intouchables” blows away objections with its infectious bonhomie and charming actors who are visibly charmed by each other. What makes the film tick is the flirtation with the outrageous and obnoxious – then the pull-back just in the nick of time. This watertight package is untouchable in the sense of being beyond criticism.

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