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A Preview of the 2024 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

For those who have had their appetite for Gallic cinema whetted by the success of Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall,” “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” is returning to New York’s Walter Reade Theater for its 29th year to provide American moviegoers with a taste of what is going on in the world of contemporary French filmmaking. Running from February 29th through March 10 at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York, the 21 films playing here cover a number of genres and themes and feature the contributions of some of the country’s best-known names on both sides of the camera (with more than half directed by women) as well as eight directorial debuts. Additionally, a number of the films playing here have already found success on the international awards circuit, including several that were either nominated for or winners at the annual Cesar Awards that were presented last weekend. A number of the films will be accompanied by post-screening Q&A’s with the filmmakers and there will also be a couple of on-stage discussions that will be open to the public.

This year’s offerings kick off with “The Animal Kingdom” (Feb 29), the sophomore feature from Thomas Calley (who will be attending the screening), which received 12 Cesar nominations—the most of any film this year—and won five of them, including Cinematography, Sound, Original Music, Costume Design and Production Design. The film is an odd fantasy-drama set at a time when humanity is facing a mysterious infection that inexplicably mutates the bodies of certain people and transforms them into human-animal hybrids, including the wife of Francois (Romain Duris). As local tensions involving these new creatures increases after a number of them escape into a nearby forest, Francois and his teen son Emile (Paul Kircher) find themselves unexpectedly pulled even deeper into the question of what is to be done with them. Although the story points are not exactly dazzlingly unique and Adele Exarchopoulos is mostly wasted as a local cop who befriends Francois and Emile, it is pretty spectacular from a technical perspective and is undeniably entertaining to watch.

Of those attending this year’s festival, the biggest name by far is Marion Cotillard, the award-winning actress who will be on hand on March 1 to present “Little Girl Blue” along with its director, Mona Achache. The film is a narrative/documentary hybrid inspired by the 2016 suicide of Achache’s mother, actress, writer and photographer Carole Achache. The filmmaker utilizes thousands of photos, letters and recordings and employs Cotillard to create a docudrama in an effort to explore her mother’s life, from her childhood to her turbulent and abusive relationships with a number of men, including Jean Genet. The blending of the documentary and narrative elements can be a little distracting in the early scenes, but the combined power of Cotillard’s performance and Achache’s attempts to come to terms with who her mother was make for a unique and ultimately affecting viewing experience.

Last year’s big guest, you may recall, was one of France’s hottest new stars, Virginie Efira, who was on hand to present two films, “Revoir Paris” and “Other People’s Children.” Although she is not appearing in person again this year, she will once again be represented by a pair of films. In “All to Play For” (March 1, 8), which debuting director Delphine Deloget will be on hand to present, she plays Sylvie, a single mother doing her best to raise her two sons in a loving, if occasionally chaotic, environment. Alas, when she is out at work one night and her younger son is left alone for a bit, he has an accident while trying to make some French fries and while the injuries are not too terrible, they end up arousing the suspicions of child welfare services and Sylvie finds herself in a struggle to try to retrieve her son from foster care even as the rest of her world threatens to collapse around her in the process. Although interesting for a while—Efria’s performance is typically strong and Deloget resists the urge to make the people Sylvie is up against anything more than people just trying to do their jobs—the material is ultimately a little too familiar for its own good and the big finale just does not land with the kind of emotional impact that it was clearly aiming for.

Efira is also put through the emotional wringer in Valerie Donzelli’s “Just the Two of Us” (March 3, 5), for which she, co-star Melvil Poupaud and composer Gabriel Yared all received Cesar nominations and which Donzelli and co-writer Audrey Diwan won the Best Adaptation prize. Based on the novel by Eric Reinhardt, Efira plays Blanche, a woman who has just about given up on romance when she is swept off her feet by the dashing Gregoire (Poupaud). After the two marry, she moves with him to a lavish, if somewhat creepy, home in the woods far away from her friends, family and, most significantly, her twin sister Rose (Efria again). After a while, it becomes apparent that Gregoire is a possessive and jealous type who is increasingly unwilling to share Blanche with anyone and her attempts to have the slightest semblance of a life of her own only trigger increasingly abusive behavior on his part. This is a somewhat odd film that seems to be setting itself up to become a De Palma-style thriller in the early going (especially with the introduction of Blanche’s twin, a development that doesn’t really go anywhere) but then turns into a fairly routine narrative about a woman trying to muster the strength to leave a bad situation that ultimately works almost entirely on the strength of the performances of Efira and Poupaud, who is especially memorable as Blanche’s increasingly nightmarish dream guy.

Michel Gondry, the acclaimed director of such films as “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “The Science of Sleep” and “Be Kind Rewind,” is in this year’s lineup with “The Book of Solutions” (March 7, 10), his first project since 2015’s “Microbe & Gasoline.” Reportedly inspired by the troubled production of his 2013 film “Mood Indigo,” the film stars Pierre Niney as Marc, a filmmaker who latest project is in jeopardy when the people funding it are unimpressed with his current 4 hour+ cut. In response, he steals the film and brings it and his long-suffering editor (Blanche Gardin) to the remote country home belonging to his aunt (Francoise Lebrun) in order to finish it without interference from the philistine money people, only to drive everyone crazy with his increasingly bizarre delusions of auteur grandeur. Some of this is quite funny, especially a sequence in which the increasingly frustrated Marc attempts to conduct a group of musicians to precisely play the music that exists only in his head. After a while, thought, the more whimsical elements begin to curdle—I am a huge Gondry fan and even I felt that some of it was a bit much—and the central character is so irritating that most viewers may find themselves siding with the money guys. 

Having made a splash five years ago with his first film, the incendiary drama “Les Miserables,” director Ladj Ly will be on hand to present his follow-up feature, “Les Indesirables” (March 2, 7), a film which, like its predecessor, offers an eye-opening look at marginalized communities and how the pressures of relentless institutionalized discrimination can eventually lead to violent clashes with the forces of oppression. Set in one of the poorer suburbs of Paris, it begins as the mayor presides over the demolition of a housing project, ostensibly to go forth with a renewal plan that proves to be less than suitable for the current residents, only to end up dying during the event. To replace him, the powers-that-be pass over the current Black deputy mayor, Roger (Steve Tientcheu) to push through local doctor Pierre (Alexis Manenti) to replace him and when it dawns on him that he, as an unelected official, has no real constituency to answer to, he decides that the best way to move forward is by proving his power to them with a series of unfair arrests and building condemnations. This eventually leads to community organizer Haby (Anta Diaw) deciding to mount a campaign to oust Pierre and bring the gentrification to a halt, leading to a series of clashes between the officials and the people they ostensibly serve.

I confess that I didn’t care that much for “Les Miserables”—although stylishly done, it was always just a little too on-the-nose in terms of its social commentary. Although there is some of that here, Ly tackles the somewhat similar material in a more restrained manner that is ultimately more interesting. For example, the opening sequence, in which the dead body of one of the residents of the housing projects living on the top floor has to be carried down several flights of narrow stairs because the elevator is perpetually out of order, deftly presents the often-deplorable conditions that those living there are forced to endure on a daily basis. I also liked the performances from Diaw, who tries to battle the system by working within its seemingly labyrinthine structure, and Aristotle Luyindula as a friend who prefers to employ a more direct method of protest to make his anger known.

A number of this year’s selections use the viewpoint of children as a way of exploring their more adult-oriented issues. Marking his return to the director’s chair for the first time since his award-winning 2017 film “120 BPM (Beats per Minute),” Robin Campillo will be on hand to screen his latest project, “Red Island” (March 5, 9), a semi-autobiographical work set on a French military base in Madagascar in the early 1970s that finds a little boy named Thomas (Charlie Vauselle) doing typical childhood things—running around with new pal Suzanne (Cathy Pham) and obsessing over the adventures of superhero Fantomette—while also picking up barely comprehensible signals of unrest ranging from the marital discord involving his parents (Quim Gutierrez and Nadia Tereszkiewicz) and other adult figures also living at the base to the growing unrest outside the gates from locals who achieved their independence 12 years earlier regarding the French presence. The film works as a stirring, visually striking and sometimes provocative coming-of-age drama, both for Thomas and for Madagascar itself, and even if some of the vignettes seem out of place (such as Thomas’s dad’s ill-advised decision to purchase a trio of bay crocodiles as pets), they contribute to the rich tapestry that Campillo is portraying and the end result is one of the films in this year’s lineup that will have you thinking long after it is over.

In “Ama Gloria” (March 2, 7), the new film from Marie Amachoukeli, who will be in attendance, a six-year-old girl named Cleo (Louise Mauroy-Panzani) is crushed when she learns that her beloved nanny, Gloria (Ilca Moreno Zego), has to return to her native land of Cape Verde to care for her own children, including one about to have her own child, following the recent passing of her own mother, who had been caring for them while she was earning money abroad. Eventually, Cleo is able to convince her father to send her to Cape Verde for the summer to stay with Cleo and her family. However, while everything seems great at first, tensions begin to develop as the dynamic between Cleo and Gloria is thrown into upheaval by the new circumstances that Cleo cannot quite understand and Gloria cannot quite explain. The film doesn’t really break new ground in the way that it depicts the tensions inherent in someone essentially leaving their own children behind in order to care for those of someone in a more privileged position (you need to go to Nikyatu Jusu’s “Nanny” for that) but the film is still more than watchable, thanks mostly to the endearing performances by the two leads—Mauroy-Panzani is especially good in a role that could have come across as unbearably cloying but which instead comes across as nicely understated.

There are many words that could be used to describe “Sisterhood” (March 6, 9), the debut feature from Nora El Hourch (who is scheduled to attend) but “understated” is not one of them and it is all the better for it. The film centers on three teens who have been friends and classmates since childhood despite only having their shared experience as the children of immigrants in common—while Djeniba (Medina Diarra) and Zineb (Salma Takaline) live in a rougher and lower-class area of town, Amina (Leah Aubert) lives a life of privilege with her well-to-do and thoroughly assimilated parents, including an dad who clearly wishes that she would hang out with the more socially acceptable white kids instead. One night at a party, a friend of Zineb’s older brother makes unwanted sexual advances towards her and when she tells her friends, they set things up to film him accosting her for a second time. After letting it sit for a bit, Amina anonymously posts it online under the hashtag #HLMPUSSY (the film’s original and more evocative title) without seeking permission from Zineb, kicking off a series of unintended consequences that put Zineb and Djeniba in danger and expose the inherent fissures in their relationship.

The result is a dark and unsparing film (though there are moments of levity as well) that offers an eye-opening look at the usual indignities and harassments that too many women face on a daily basis and the diseased mindset that not only allows people to prey on them but then turns around and condemns them (or worse) if they have the temerity to take any sort of action. Watching these three seemingly inseparable friends being torn apart because of the actions of a sexual abuser is both enraging and heartbreaking, especially as depicted via the vibrant and exciting performances from the three young leads. Some may complain that El Hourch does not quite resolve all of the story points in a fully satisfactory manner but that is not really what she is going for—instead, she is shining a light on what is really going on and leaving viewers to contemplate what needs to be done in the real world long after the film has ended. “Sisterhood” is ugly, harsh, tender, provocative and angry in equal measure and it might be my favorite film in this year’s lineup.

Kids also focus in two of the festival’s less intriguing offerings. In Erwan Le Duc’s “No Love Lost” (March 4, 9), Etienne (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) has been single-handedly raising daughter Rosa (Celeste Brunnquell) since Mom mysteriously bailed on them shortly after giving birth. Although the relationship between father and daughter is loving enough, Etienne has become a bit of a control freak towards here, a condition that is exacerbated first by Rosa’s impending departure to art school and the possibility that he may have seen a glimpse of her long-gone mother on a news broadcast. Although Brunnquell is good as the daughter (and received a Cesar nomination for her performance), Le Duc has chosen to present the material in an overly whimsical manner that it makes “The Book of Solutions” seems like a David Fincher film by comparison.

In “Toni” (March 2, 10), the sophomore effort from director Nathan Ambrosioni, Camille Cottin plays a woman who was briefly a major pop star before fading from the scene in order to become the mother of five children. Now, with the oldest of them preparing to go away to school, she finds herself at a personal crossroads and contemplates doing something for herself by looking into going back to school in the hopes of becoming a teacher. Alas, this news is not received well by her kids and she finds herself battling both them and her own insecurities as she tries to work on the next chapter of her life. The film is trying to be a slice-of-life comedy-drama but it is just too broad to be convincing as a character study and the brattiness of the kids is so overscaled that I found myself involuntarily flinching whenever two or more of them would turn up in the same scene. Then again, if I had to pick one film in this year’s lineup that I could see one day receiving an essentially pointless English-language remake, it would be this one.

In “Marguerite’s Theorem” (March 2, 4), the debut feature from Anna Novion (who will be in attendance, along with co-star Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a brilliant mathematics PhD student (Ella Rumpf, who you may recall as the older sister in “Raw”) is on the cusp of completing her dissertation when a flaw is discovered during the presentation of her research that destroys the entire thing. Distraught, she decides to abandon her studies entirely and sets out to reinvent herself, utilizing her skills to make rent playing mahjongg, but eventually finds herself being lured back into it, thanks in no small part to the influence of a former rival (Julien Frison). The course of Marguerite’s evolution is pretty familiar, I suppose, and there are no real surprises in the end. Despite that and a lifelong disinterest in anything related to mathematics, I still found myself reasonably compelled by this one, mostly due to the affecting and entertaining work by Rumpf, who won a Cesar for her efforts here.

Those of you who are fans of the current art house hit “The Teacher’s Lounge” may enjoy “A Real Job” (March 1, 10) the latest film from director Thomas Lilti in which a PhD student (Vincent Lacoste) in desperate need of money takes a job as a substitute teacher in a middle school (where the other teachers are played by the likes of Adele Exarchopoulos, Louise Bourgoin and Francois Cluzet) and finds that it is no picnic as he deals with uninterested and occasionally hostile students and a bureaucracy that seems to have been designed to ensure that nothing gets done. Likewise, those of you who have been yearning for something to fill the void left by the conclusion of “Succession” may be interested in Helena Klotz’s “Spirit of Ecstasy,” in which the ambitious Jeanne (pop star Pomme in their acting debut) tries to escape her current circumstances by using her head for business to score a job working as a financial analyst for the boss (Sofiane Zermani) of the firm where she is temping, only to learn too late some enjoy manipulating people as much as she enjoys manipulating numbers. The film has a strong first half, driven by the undeniably electrifying presence of Pomme in the central role, but it starts to meander a lot in the second as it builds to a conclusion that is too rushed for its own good.

On the other hand, Andre Masson (Alex Lutz), the central character of Pascal Bontizer’s “Auction” (March 1, 10) seems perfectly content with his lot in life as a high-powered art appraiser who regards the works that he looks at purely as commodities to be bought or sold. That changes when he gets a call regarding an ordinary factory worker who claims to have an Egon Schiele painting that thought to have been lost after being seized from its owner by Nazi officials in 1939. At first, he assumes that it is a fake but when he and his ex-wife colleague (Lea Drucker) take a look for themselves, they realize that it is indeed the genuine article, and things quickly get complicated for all involved. As an exploration of the age-old conflict between art and commerce, it doesn’t have much new to say and I wish that it had gone into a little more detail about efforts to reunite artworks with Jewish owners who had them seized during the war. However, as a standard-issue drama about a once-arrogant man who gradually learns that there are some things more important than money, it gets the job done and even manages to end things on a quietly touching note.

Perhaps the closest thing to a straightforward genre film in this year’s lineup is Rabat Ameur-Zaimeche’s “The Temple Woods Gang” (March 6, 7) a crime drama inspired by an actual incident from 2014. Here, a group of six guys, all of whom live in the titular housing development on the outskirts of Paris, band together to pull off a daring robbery that sees them waylaying and stealing the contents of an SUV owned by an enormously wealthy Saudi prince. Needless to say, the prince is not happy with this—among the items taken were a number of important classified documents—and before it dawns on them that they are in way over their heads, the hapless thieves are taken out one by one. Instead of trying to amp things up with quick cutting and flashy camerawork, Ameur-Zaimeche utilizes an approach that is more Michael Mann than Michael Bay—methodically paced, detail-oriented and filled with the kind of quiet character moments that might have hit the cutting room floor in another movie. While it may ultimately prove to be perhaps a little too dour and slow for some moviegoers, I suspect that many others will be as riveted with what Ameur-Zaimeche has created here as I was.

Finally, there are a handful of films that I was unable to view in time to cover in this article. “Banel & Adama” (March 3, 6), the debut feature from Ramata-Toulaye Sy, is a Senegal-based drama with supernatural overtones about a married couple whose relationship is tested by their refusal to follow traditional roles and responsibilities. Vanessa Filho’s “Consent” (March 5, 9) is an adaptation of the controversial memoir from writer Vanessa Springora chronicling how she was groomed into a sexual relationship with celebrated author Gabriel Matzneff when she was only 14. Victoria Musiedlak’s debut feature “First Case” (March 3, 8) is a drama that finds a fledgling lawyer (Noree Anita) supervising the interrogation of her teenaged client, a suspect in a murder case, while dealing with her troubling attraction to the cop in charge of the investigation. Nicolas Philbert’s “On the Adamant” (March 4, 8), the only pure documentary in the lineup, takes viewers to meet the workers and patients aboard the Adamant, a barge located in central Paris that, as part of an ambitious program, is being used as a day care facility for neurodivergent adults. Lastly, The Rapture (March 3, 5), the debut feature from Iris Kaltenback, observes a midwife (Hafsia Herzi) who deals with the aftermath of an unexpected breakup by channeling her entire emotional life into the pregnancy of her best friend.

For more information on screening times, tickets and scheduled guest appearances, go to The Rendez-Vous with French Cinema program runs at New York’s Walter Reade Theater from February 29 through March 10.




Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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