Having been forced to go virtual last year like so many other film festivals throughout the world, “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” is set to once again return to an in-person event at New York’s Walter Reade Theater. Starting today and running through March 13, the festival, presented by the Film Society at Lincoln Center in conjunction with Unifrance, will present a program of 22 new feature films (plus one classic), covering a wide variety of genres and featuring the work of some of the country’s top names on both sides of the camera as well as the initial efforts from a new generation of talents. Many of the screenings will be accompanied by Q&A sessions with the filmmakers and there will also be a couple of on-stage discussions that will be open to the public.
The festival kicks off today with “Fire,” the latest collaboration between two of the leading lights of contemporary French cinema—director Claire Denis and Juliette Binoche. The film, which recently earned Denis the Best Director prize at the Berlin Film Festival, concerns a couple, Sara and Jean (Binoche and Vincent Lindon) whose somewhat shaky relationship is thrown for another loop thanks to the unexpected reemergence of Francois (Grégoire Colin), an old friend of Jean and an ex-lover of Sara. As Francois comes back into their lives with the offer of a much-needed business partnership with Jean, it's perhaps inevitable that a love triangle of sorts will form and the film explores the repercussions of such an event. Both Denis and Binoche will be on hand to introduce the film at its premiere screening, and Denis will return the next day for a free onstage conversation between her and Jim Jarmusch covering both of their remarkable careers.
Binoche will be pulling double-duty at the festival by starring in a second film in the lineup, Emmanuel Carrère’s “Between Two Worlds” (March 5). Inspired by The Night Cleaner, the best-selling 2010 non-fiction book by Florence Aubenas, Binoche plays Marianne Winckler, a celebrated investigative journalist whose latest project finds her going undercover as a cleaning woman in the north of France so that she will be able to better report on how they are habitually exploited and mistreated. As she settles into her new routine, she's able to get plenty of great material and even winds up bonding with a number of her fellow workers, the people who do such punishing work because they need the money and not because of some literary lark. But as time goes on, she's forced to reckon with the notion that, for all of her good intentions, she is just as guilty of exploiting their labor as her presumed targets. Although the film threatens at times to delve into mawkishness, it's ultimately too smart for that and manages to hit a refreshingly realistic note in its final minutes.
Binoche will participate in a Q&A with Carrère following that screening, and will participate in her own onstage conversation earlier that day along with Déborah Lukumuena, a rising French actress who can be seen co-starring alongside Gerard Depardieu in “Robust” (March 6), a genial if ultimately inconsequential lark from debuting filmmaker Constance Meyer. The film is about a past-his-prime movie star (guess who?) whose is forced to take on a new assistant, a much younger security guard and amateur wrestler (Lukumena). "Robust" allows Depardieu to take a few self-aware shots at his own image, but is otherwise so unmemorable it feels at times to be its own Americanized remake.
Depardieu also turns up in a supporting role in “Lost Illusions” (March 8 and 11), Xavier Giannoli’s lavishly appointed adaptation of the Honore de Balzac novel that just swept this year’s César Awards. Set in 1821, the film charts the rise and (Spoiler Alert!) fall of Lucien de Rubempre (Benjamin Voisin), an ambitious poet from the provinces who arrives in Paris with dreams of being with his married lover (Cecile de France), a woman much higher up on the social scale, and becoming a celebrated novelist. When those dreams both fizzle out quickly, he, like so many of us, slides into the newly ascendant world of journalism, writing rave theater reviews in exchange for bribes, stealing an ambitious young actress (Salomé Dewaels) from her rich lover, and rising up the social ladder until his eventual comeuppance. Giannoli’s film is the kind of overstuffed epic that seems to have been made primarily to appear in international festivals and not even its exploration of how long the concept of “fake news” can make you forget that it somehow won the César over the far more invigorating likes of “Annette” and “Titane.” In spite of that, it's still surprisingly easy to get swept up in the grandeur of it all (helped in large part by the undeniably affecting performance by Dewaels as the ultimately doomed ingenue). While the results may not be that great in the end, they are certainly watchable.
Several of France’s top filmmakers will be screening their latest efforts at this year’s festival. “Deception” (March 5 and 13) finds Arnaud Desplechin (who will conduct a Q&A after the first screening) adapting the Phillip Roth novel of the same name that observes the ongoing discourse between novelist Phillip (Denis Podalydes), who describes himself as “a talk fetishist,” and his married lover (Lea Seydoux). The relentlessly prolific François Ozon returns to the festival with “Everything Went Fine” (March 7), a film based on the autobiographical novel by Emmanuele Bernheim about a woman (Sophie Marceau) as she goes through any number of legal and emotional hurdles to accommodate the wish of her stroke-afflicted father (Andre Dussolier) to help him commit suicide.
Having had a stage adaptation of Proust’s The Guermantes Way scuttled in 2020 due to the pandemic, filmmaker Christophe Honoré and his cast elected to continue with rehearsals and even some audience-free performances, solely out of a love for the theatrical experience that brought them all together in the first place. Now he has used that experience as the inspiration for “Guermantes” (March 8,13), which also finds him appearing in front of the camera as well. On the other hand, Mathieu Amalric, better known for his on-screen work, will be on hand on March 6 to present his sixth directorial effort, “Hold Me Tight” (March 6, 13), which stars the great Vicky Krieps as a woman who has inexplicably abandoned her family and gone on the run ... or has she?
In fact, veteran directors are responsible for what are perhaps my two favorite films in this year’s lineup. Cédric Klapisch, whose oeuvre has always struck me as being somewhat inconsistent as it seesaws between successes like “When the Cat’s Away” and “L’Auberge Espagnole” and duds like “Back to Burgundy” and “Someone, Somewhere,” has come up with a real winner with his latest, “Rise.” The film tells the story of a ballerina named Elise (Marion Barbeau) who simultaneously suffers both heartbreak and a potentially career-killing injury and finds herself reevaluating her professional and personal lives when she falls in with a contemporary dance troupe (led by real-life choreographer Hofesh Shecter). Sure, the story is not blazingly original but Klapisch presents it in an undeniably crowd-pleasing manner, and is aided in great part by the impressive dance scenes (the extended opening sequence is particularly brilliant) as well as the magnetic performance from Marion Barbeau, a real-life principal dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet making her acting debut. Her presence lends such an air of authority to the proceedings that it takes on a documentary-like feel at times.
Working from a screenplay co-written by Céline Sciamma, “Paris, 13th District” (March 4, 7) finds Jacques Audiard (who will do a Q&A following the first screening) transplanting some stories from a 2015 graphic novel by Adrian Tomine from the U.S. to the section of Paris named in the title. The film follows the romantic and emotional entanglements of a quartet of people, including a young woman (Lucie Zhang) whose search for a roommate to help split the rent goes bad; the winning candidate (Makita Samba), a teacher who sleeps with her but is not interested in a relationship; a slightly older woman (Noémie Merlant) whose long-delayed return to college is thrown into upheaval when an ill-fated choice of wig leads to her being mistaken for a popular online sex-chat worker (Jehnny Beth) that she eventually turns to for advice and help. Beautifully photographed in black-and-white, filled with winning performances, and containing a refreshingly healthy amount of big-screen sexual activity, this is an absolute delight from start to finish. I hope it will catch on with the arthouse crowd when it opens commercially later this year.
Other films feature a number of France’s brightest new stars front and center. Rachel Lang’s “Our Men” (March 4, 7) is a modern-day French Foreign Legion drama told from the perspective of two couples posted at Corsica—a commander (Louis Garrel) and his wife (Camille Cottin), and one of the men under his command, a Ukrainian soldier (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) and his fiancee (Ina Marija Bartaité)—and which illustrate the pressures they face both in the field and on the home front. Lang herself previously served in the French army reserves and her film reflects that, sticking with the recognizable day-to-day existence of the characters rather than trucking in melodramatic conflicts. The Ukrainian heritage of two of the characters does add an additional palpable edge to the proceedings.
“Anaïs in Love” (March 6, 11), the debut feature from Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet (who will do a Q&A on the 6th), tells the story of a flighty woman (Anaïs Demoustier) whose seemingly aimless existence is unexpectedly brought into focus when a short-lived affair with an older publisher (Denis Podalydès) brings her into contact with his far more fascinating partner (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi). I confess that for perhaps the first two-thirds of this film, I flat-out hated it—it struck me as being the crappy version of “The Worst Person in the World”—but towards the end, it pulls itself together far more effectively than I could have anticipated. The movie's final scenes have a real power to them.
Virginie Efira, who should have received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work in Paul Verhoeven's “Benedetta,” turns in another impressive performance in “Madeline Collins” (March 4, 12), a quietly effective thriller from Antoine Barraud (who will do Q&A’s after both screenings). The follows a woman who appears to be leading a double life—for several days a week, she is living with a partner and young daughter in Switzerland, but spends the rest in France with another man and two sons—and reveals how this to juggling act can get very complicated. In “Secret Name” (March 10, 12), Aurélia Georges (who will appear following the second screening) tells the World War I-set story about a former sex worker (Lyna Khoudri, the radical student in “The French Dispatch”) working as a nurse who takes on the identity of a young woman killed by German troops and goes off to take her place as the ward of a well-off older woman (Sabine Azéma).
Described as the French equivalent of “Straight Outta Compton,” Audrey Estrougo’s “Authentix” (March 8, 11) is a musical biopic that charts the rise of French rap duo Supreme NTM from the spontaneous musical collaboration between two friends to their rise in popularity and notoriety as their music, especially their controversial hit “Police,” began to give voice to a community that had been silenced for far too long. On the opposite end of the musical scale, Philippe Bezlat’s documentary “Gallant Indies” (March 12) chronicles a group of singers and dancers who gather at the Opera Bastille in 2019 to stage a production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Les Indes Galant,” one of the most historically important of all French musical compositions, and find themselves wrestling with sociological and racial attitudes inherent in the material that, suffice to say, have not aged quite as well as the melodies.
Music also plays a key role in “Magnetic Beats” (March 5, 9), Vincent Mael Cardona’s energetic-if-familiar drama set in early 1980s Brittany centered on two brothers—the charmingly self-destructive Jerome (Joseph Olivennes) and his shyer younger sibling Philippe (Thimotée Robart) who operate their own pirate radio station. Both fall in love with the same single mother (Marie Colomb) just before Philippe is sent off to Berlin for his year of compulsory military service. Similarly, “The Horizon” (March 8, 10), the debut feature from Emilie Carpentier (who will appear with the film on the 10th), tells a fairly unexceptional story of an 18-year-old named Adja and her gradual shift from self-absorption to political engagement; the film derives most of its energy from the undeniably compelling performance by Tracy Gotoas in the central role. Skewing even younger, Axelle Ropert’s “Petite Solange” (March 7, 12) focuses on Solange (Jade Springer in her screen debut), a 13-year-old girl trying to negotiate the emotional minefield that is the rapidly disintegrating marriage of her parents (Philippe Katerine and Léa Drucker).
Of all the films on display, the bleakest by far has to be “Bruno Reidal, Confessions of a Murderer” (March 9, 11), Vincent Le Port’s sure-to-be-controversial directorial debut. Based on a real-life case, the film opens with 17-year-old seminary student Bruno (Dimitri Doré) confessing to the gruesome murder of a 13-year-old boy. Unable to understand what could have motivated such an act, the doctors charged with determining his sanity ask him to write his memoirs so that they can get a better idea of who he is, to help them render a verdict. His recollections make up the bulk of the film. Many will be appalled by some of the imagery on display, ranging from sexual molestation to a startlingly visceral reenactment of the murder, but even though there were many points when I seriously considered bailing on the film, it's made with undeniable skill and intellect. Whether you will love it or loathe it, I could not say. One thing is for sure—if ever there was a movie tailor-made to appear on the annual list of the year’s best films that John Waters compiles for Artforum, it's this one.
Crime also figures into the remaining two titles in the program. Thierry de Peretti’s “Undercover” (March 6, 10) recounts another real-life crime story, this one recounting the three-year investigation beginning in 2017 inspired by a police informant (Roschdy Zem) who approaches a journalist from Liberation (Pio Marmaï) with evidence suggesting that the chief narcotics officer (Vincent Lindon) is in fact a top-level drug trafficker himself. Last, but certainly not least, Jim Jarmusch will introduce a screening of “Touchez pas au grisbi” (March 4), Jacques Becker’s 1954 classic about a pair of aging criminals, Max (Jean Gabin, who won the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for his performance) and Riton (René Dary), who have just stolen 50 million francs in gold, money that will allow Max to retire comfortably and Riton to help keep a hold of his showgirl girlfriend (an early appearance by the legendary Jeanne Moreau). Alas, those plans inevitably end up falling apart in the face of greed, violence, and betrayal in what is generally considered to be one of the greatest of all French crime films and one which, despite its age, feels just as fresh and innovative as any of the other picks in this year’s lineup.
For more information on screening times, ticket availability, and scheduled appearances, go to the Film at Lincoln Center website at filmlinc.org. The Rendez-Vous with French Cinema program runs from March 3-13.