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A Preview of the 22nd Annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Cinephiles whose tastes lean towards the Gallic will want to make arrangements to spend a considerable amount of time over the next two weeks at the Walter Reade Theater in New York. From March 1-12, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in conjunction with UniFrance, will be hosting “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema,” the 22nd edition of an annual series presenting viewers with a chance to see the latest in contemporary French film. Over the course of those 12 days, 23 films—ranging from children’s fantasies to gut-crunching (and chewing) horror—will unspool, a collection that includes both the latest efforts from some of the country’s top directors and performers as well as the audacious early works of a number of emerging voices deserving to be heard. Many of the screenings will have the filmmakers and other talent on hand to present their efforts and participate in Q&A’s afterwards. In addition, there will also be a number of panel discussions and one of the legends of French cinema, the great Agnes Varda, will participate in a live talk on March 10 that will find her looking back on her long and illustrious career.

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Having seen all but three of the films that will be screening—I have yet to catch the dark drama “Faultless,” the documentary “The Paris Opera” and the Closing Night presentation, the Jacques Cousteau biopic “The Odyssey,” featuring Lambert Wilson as the famed explorer and Audrey Tautou as his wife—I present for you an overview of the festival as a whole. The offerings, as is the case with many festivals, are a bit of a mixed bag that contains a few gems, a few perfectly passable items and a couple of fairly dubious titles. What is interesting is that while the films with the bigger names behind them will almost certainly be the most popular of the presentations, the smaller movies with the lesser-known talents are the ones that, more often than not, turned out to be the more memorable selections. Needless to say, there is pretty much something for everyone here and those who drop by to experience the cinematic culture of another country as they can here are likely to come away entertained, informed and, in at least a couple of cases, enraptured by the enigma that is French pop singer Soko.

Many of the higher-profile selections in the year’s festival are period pieces, starting off with the Opening Night presentation, the North American premiere of “Django” (March 1, pictured above). Etienne Comar’s film follows celebrated Roma guitarist Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) in 1943 Paris, where his musical talents have allowed him to thus far escape the fate of his fellow Romani, who were then being rounded up and sent to concentration camps by the Nazis. At first, his view of the world is decidedly apolitical but when he can no longer ignore what is happening to his people, he is finally compelled to act, utilizing his artistic gifts as his weapon of choice. The film does have its virtues—Kateb is fairly magnetic as Reinhardt and the extended musical sequences allow fans and neophytes alike to bask in the genius that was Reinhardt’s work. But as a whole, it's a bit of a misfire. Comar (making his directorial debut) never quite figures out a way to make the story nearly as engaging or emotionally compelling as the music it celebrates and the climax, in which Reinhardt’s music distracts the Nazi bigwigs at a party he is playing at from Resistance activities going on practically under their noses, leans more towards the silly than the suspenseful. A movie seemingly designed to fill opening night festival slots—opulent and well-produced but never too much of a challenge for viewers—“Django” serves as a nice if superficial tribute to the man’s music, which will continue to live on long after this film has been forgotten.

For his latest work, “Frantz” (March 2, 11), the always bold filmmaker Francois Ozon has made the audacious decision to remake a film by no less a revered figure in the history of cinema than the great Ernst Lubitsch. But little of the Ozon touch comes through in this take on “Broken Lullaby,” Lubitsch’s 1932 anti-war drama about the perils of nationalism. Set in a small German village in 1919, the story begins with Anna (Paula Beer) noticing a strange Frenchman (Pierre Niney) visiting the grave of her fiancee Frantz, who was killed during the recently ended war. Eventually, she brings the young man, Adrien, back to the home that she shares with Frantz’s parents (Ernst Stotzner and Marie Gruber), where he informs them that he and Frantz knew each other before the war and regales them with stories about their friendship that lead to an unexpected bond that develops between him and Anna until certain truths are eventually revealed. Admittedly, Ozon can be an uneven filmmaker but even his least effective films tend to at least be unique. But aside from a couple of admittedly audacious touches—black-and-white photography that bursts into color during moments of great emotion and one great scene that slyly subverts one of the most iconic moments in screen history, the singing of “La Marseillaise” in “Casablanca”—this is one of the few efforts of his that could have easily been made by any number of other filmmakers with little noticeable difference. 

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At least “Frantz” sort of works on some basic fundamental level, which is more than can be said for “Slack Bay” (March 9, 11), the absolutely bewildering new effort from Bruno Dumont, the director of such controversial films as “L’humanite” and “Twentynine Palms.” After testing the waters of farce with his previous film, “Li’l Quinquin” (2014), he fully takes the plunge this time around with results that could politely be called inexplicable. Set in a remote seashore town in 1910, a conflict arises between a family of oddball local fishermen and a well-to-do clan on summer vacation when the son of the former and the occasionally cross-dressing daughter of the latter seem to be falling in something resembling love. The girl’s family—including Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as her mother and a scenery-chewing Juliette Binoche as her aunt—is so aghast at this development that they hardly seem to notice that visitors to the island are disappearing at an alarming rate. Fusing together a halfhearted detective narrative (with a lead investigator whose chief attribute is his massive girth) with broad slapstick and moments of over-the-top gore, Dumont is certainly going for broke this time around. However, while one has to applaud his nerve in coming up with something so decidedly odd, it cannot be ignored that very little of it works and Binoche’s performance, while clearly meant to be absurdly overblown, has got to be one of the most insanely miscalculated turns from a demonstrably great actress in a long time.

Another one of France’s leading actresses, Marion Cotillard, turns up in her own period piece, Nicole Garcia’s romantic melodrama “From the Land of the Moon” (March 3, 12). In this exceptionally ripe slice of amour fou, she plays an intense-but-troubled woman trapped in an ostensibly respectable but romance-free marriage whose passions are relit when she is sent to a spa in the Alps to treat kidney stones and falls for an injured war veteran (Louis Garrel) who is also staying there. Cotillard is as good of an actress as there is working today and she is as good as can be while she going through the various stages of amour fou. Yet not even her efforts can liven up the proceedings, which somehow contrive to be simultaneously ridiculously soapy and relentlessly run-of-the-mill. It is the kind of formulaic fare that, save for a few graphic details, could have been cranked out in the Fifties and is further undone by the fact that Cotillard’s character has more genuine chemistry with her husband than with her lover. An allegedly jaw-dropping twist ending is just too silly to be believed.

Not to be outdone, filmmaker Rebecca Zlotowski has imported an equally big Oscar-winning actress, Natalie Portman, to take center stage for her own period drama, “Planetarium” (March 2, 7). Set in Paris during the 1930’s, Portman and Lily-Rose Depp play a pair of American sisters traveling through Europe performing seances on stage. Eventually, they attract the attention of a movie producer (Emmanuel Salinger) who quickly grows obsessed with the ideas of making them into movie stars and then somehow capturing a genuine act of paranormal activity on film in the process. Deliberately eschewing a solid storyline for lavish details and loads of atmosphere, the film is undeniably a kick from a visual perspective but there isn’t much going on underneath all the surface flash—the narrative doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, the characters are not especially intriguing and Portman is just coasting through her performance here while the more intriguing character played by Depp winds up disappearing for long stretches of time.

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No, if you are in the mood for a sumptuously appointed drama set in Paris’ glamorous past and featuring Lily-Rose Depp in an oddball supporting role, turn your attention instead to the infinitely more interesting and compelling “The Dancer” (March 2, 6). It's a biopic about modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller that follows her from her days as a teenager living with her French father in the American Midwest to her journey to France, where her unusual dance style, utilizing silks and colored lights to help create arresting visual displays, made her the toast of the town during the days of La Belle Epoque and the mentor and eventual rival of Isadora Duncan (Depp). Granted, Stephanie Di Gusto’s film, while beautifully produced, does not exactly reinvent the biopic wheel but what it does have going for it is an absolutely magnetic lead performance from Soko as Fuller. Going into this movie, I had never heard of Soko before—further research determined that she previously made a splash on screen in “Marguerite” and she is also a pop music star of note—but I certainly came out of it a huge fan. She is never less than mesmerizing throughout and her presence may well have the same effect on audiences today that Fuller must have had on hers a century ago. The film as a whole is good but she makes it pretty much a must-see.

Soko turns up again in another one of the more interesting titles being presented, Delphine & Muriel Coulin’s drama “The Stopover” (March 9, 10) She has a supporting role as one of a contingent of French soldiers—one of only three females—who have just concluded a tour of Afghanistan and have been sent to a luxurious resort in Cypress for three days of decompressing and psychological debriefing (complete with VR recreations) designed to help them come to terms with the things they saw and did in combat before returning to society. It all seems like fun and games at first but eventually the tensions existing between the soldiers—ranging from anger and shame over events in the field to blatant sexism—threaten to tear them apart. The film, a prizewinner at the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes last year, sometimes seems a little confused at times about what it wants to be about—it seems to be pointing out the futility of the decompression program but as depicted here, it actually seems as if it could be beneficial to many soldiers, at least those not being primed for third-act explosions. But the performances are strong and convincing, while the observations it has about what women in combat must undergo, both in the field and at the hands of their fellow soldiers, is compelling. "The Stopover" should spark any number of healthy post-screening conversations.

However, the film that seems destined to spark the most outrage among festival attendees is “Nocturama” (March 4, 5) the highly controversial new work from Bertrand Bonello, whose last film was the epic biopic “Saint Laurent.” For roughly the first half of the film, we witness a number of seemingly disparate Parisian millennials as they prepare and execute a number of precisely staged terrorist bombings throughout the city. In the second half, we observe them as they hole up overnight inside of an otherwise empty department store, sampling the luxury wares and screwing around while waiting for the coast to clear. The first half of the film is undeniably troubling and provocative as it follows these kids, who look like a fashion magazine spread come to life, as they go about their deadly business and Bonello’s decision not to ascribe any stated reasons for doing what they have done is a smart one—what kind of explanation for such actions could there be that would satisfy viewers? However, the second half in the store is pretty much a disaster—imagine “Dawn of the Dead” without the keen social satire or the interesting characters and you have an idea of what it devolves into. As the twerps gad about, trying on clothes and blasting music while strenuously ignoring the news of what they have wrought, they become increasingly aggravating and while it was presumably not Bonello’s intention, the available onscreen evidence inevitably begins to suggest the notion that urban terrorism is cool.

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A somewhat gentler film involving a kid going against the system is “Mum’s Wrong” (March 5, 10) which follows Anouk (Jeanne Jestin), a deeply idealistic 14-year-old girl who is doing a week-long internship at the insurance company where her mom (Emilie Dequenne) works. While Mom and the other office workers keep shuffling her off to do meaningless busywork, she learns of the case of a woman being denied the benefits she is owed and becomes determined to help her out. When she begins digging in, right under the noses of the other employees who barely acknowledge her, she not only discovers that the company has been committing widespread fraud in order to deny benefits to many of the people it covers but learns that her mother may have been an active participant in the deceit. Marc Fitoussi’s film is a rabble-rousing morality play aimed at younger audience that may not be especially subtle but which is buoyed by good performances by Jestin and Dequenne, whose presence will remind viewers of her own performance as a 14-year-old struggling with work in the award-winning powerhouse “Rosetta.” 

Corporate shenanigans also crop up in “Right Here, Right Now” (March 10, 12), a comedy/drama about a young woman (Agathe Bonitzer) climbing the corporate ladder at a financial firm, which becomes even more complicated when it turns out that two of the associates in the firm (Lambert Wilson and Pascal Greggory) have a past history with her daffy father (Jean-Pierre Bacri). The divine Isabelle Huppert pops up her in a supporting role as the wife of one of the associates who also has a history with Dad but her presence isn’t enough to help make this one work.

An anti-corporate sentiment is also present in “150 Milligrams” (March 4, 6) a docudrama based on a real-life scandal involving a diabetes medication that seems to be doing more harm than good to those taking it, the pharmaceutical bigwigs who will go to any lengths to keep the hugely profitable drug on the market and Irene Fachon (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a pulmonary specialist who sees the damage the drug is doing and fights to get the truth about it out. Writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot has made a standard-issue issue drama in the mold of “Erin Brockovich” but she has done it well and the strong performance from Knudsen helps to prevent it from getting bogged down in clichés. A more affecting medical drama on display is “Heal the Living” (March 2, 3), a sprawling work that begins with a car accident that leaves a 17-year-old boy brain dead and observes the lives affected by him. This ranges from his devastated parents to a woman in desperate need of a heart transplant to the doctors simply trying to do their jobs. Katell Quillevere’s film does an excellent job of weaving its stories together without letting them degenerate into mawkishness, though viewers with an aversion to watching open-heart surgery might want to give it a pass.

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In addition, there are a couple of films involving people who venture out to remote areas in the hopes of discovering themselves. Inspired by an award-winning book by Sylvain Tesson, the grim “In the Forests of Siberia” (March 5, 9) tells the story of Teddy, a young man who decides to chuck it all and go live in the frozen and remote Siberian taiga. At first, he is enraptured by the blissful peace and quiet of his new surroundings but he is soon faced with the harsh realities of living in such an area—the lack of electricity and food, the dangerous weather and the threat of bears only scratching the surface—and is about to succumb when he encounters and befriends a Russian convict who is also living out there as a necessity. “Journey to Greenland” (March 7, 8) is a much lighter take on the conceit as a couple of friends, both named Thomas and both failed actors looking for a change, decide to relocate to a remote village in Greenland, where the father of one of them resides, and find themselves looking for love, meaning and, perhaps most important of all, a consistent wifi signal. Of the two, the latter is slightly better in the way that it gradually develops an offbeat vibe that will remind some of the early days of “Northern Exposure.”

There are other comedies on display at the festival, though they are a mixed bag as well. “Struggle for Life” (March 6, 7) is a grating combination of slapstick and social satire that finds a klutzy government trainee (Vincent Macaigne) who is sent to Guyana to supervise the construction of an indoor ski track in the Amazon and get into a lot of wacky scrapes with his beautiful driver, Tarzan (Vimala Pons of “Elle”). “Sophie’s Misfortunes” (March 4, 8) is a family-oriented film by Christophe Honore that adapts the famed French children’s story about an impish young girl (Caroline Grant) whose charmed life sours when she is put in the care of a nasty stepmother. While sumptuously produced, the whole thing is fatally undermined by the fact that Sophie is one of the more grating kid characters to appear in a film in quite some time. The final work from the late filmmaker Solveig Anspach, “The Together Project” (March 3, 9) is a slight romantic comedy starring Samir Guesmi as a guy who meets a flinty swimming instructor (Florence Loiret Caille) and hits upon the idea of getting to know her by taking lessons from her even though he can swim, a move that leads to a number of strange complications once his ruse is discovered. “In Bed with Victoria” (March 4, 12) is essentially the Gallic version of a Katherine Heigl vehicle about a driven lawyer (Virginie Efira, also last seen in “Elle”) trying valiantly to juggle her professional and personal lives even as they begin to intertwine in unexpected ways. Although very silly, this film is rescued somewhat by the smart and funny performance by Efira and the agreeably weird touches sprinkled throughout, such as the climactic court case that hinges in large part on the testimony of a Dalmatian.

The best thing about a festival like this is being able to experience something completely new and unusual that avoids any and all cliches and two of the best films being presented do just that. “Daydreams” (March 8, 10) the debut feature from Caroline Deruas, observes a group of young artistic types who come to a beautiful villa in Rome as part of a year-long residency program. Among the participants is Camille (Clotilde Hesme), a would-be writer whose problematic marriage to a famous and much older novelist (Tcheky Caro) who becomes even more troublesome when he starts trying to undermine her ambitions in order to keep his place as the important writer in the family. Another is Axele (Jenna Thiam), a mysterious photographer whose obsession with the history of the villa leads her to begin having startling visions of past events. Both a straightforward examination of the artistic process and an increasingly surreal work in which reality and fantasy clash in unusual ways, this is one of those films that has the serene confidence to tell its unusual story without ever succumbing to the urge to spell everything out for viewers. While the end result may leave some unsatisfied, I suspect most will find it to be an engrossing and compulsively watchable work.

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Finally, there is “Raw” (March 7, 8), a horror film that has been on the radar on many genre fans ever since a controversial screening at the Toronto Film Festival where the grisly imagery on display supposedly caused some viewers to faint. For those out of the loop, it tells the story of a sweet-natured girl named Justine (Garance Marillier in a standout performance) who joins her older sister (Ella Rumpf) at a veterinary college that features hazing rituals that makes the opening of “Full Metal Jacket” seem tame by comparison. A lifelong vegetarian, Justine is forced to eat a piece of meat during one part of the initiation and this unleashes a long-buried primal instinct in the girl that eventually causes her to develop a craving for human flesh. Although the gore quotient may not be quite as high as some have suggested (though most viewers may want to skip the concession stand), this film otherwise not only lives up to all the advanced hype but exceeds it with a bold and startling original coming-of-age story that combines jet-black (and oftentimes deep red) comedy. It's arguably the most fascinating observation of the dynamic between sisters to appear in a genre film since “Ginger Snaps” and its moments of grisly horror are astonishingly effective because of the way that debuting writer/director Julia Ducournau stages them. You are led to expect one thing, only to be blindsided when the real nastiness springs up out of nowhere. (The scene in which Justine gets a wax job from her sister is certain to go down as one of the great moments in contemporary horror cinema.) This is not just one of the best horror movies of recent times, it is one of the best new movies period and announces Ducournau as a major new discovery. After all, isn’t that what a festival like this is supposed to do in the first place?

For information on screening times, tickets or talent, click here. The Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs from March 1 - 12. 

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