Thursday, February 26, 2009

PARIS 36 Opens FSLC's French Rendez-vous series: Good Choice!

Early March is the time of year that French film buffs in the tri-state area probably cherish more than any other, thanks to the annual Rendez-vous with French Cinema presented jointly by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance. This year should only add to the anticipation and laurels, as 18 new films make their U.S., North American, and in one case (The Girl on the Train from André Téchiné) world premier at this festival -- the consistently best-attended program in the FSLC's annual repertoire.

The opening night event features, as usual, a film that proves a popular, rather than an "arty," choice. Last year saw Claude Lelouche's Roman de Gare open the fest and go on to have a successful run in art houses across the country; in 2007 La Vie en Rose made its first NYC appearance at the fest prior to relatively boffo box-office and a Academy Award for Best Actress to its star Marion Cotillard; and 2006 saw Palais Royal! do the opening night duties -- never to be heard from again (well, you can't win 'em all…)

This year, I predict, will not remind us of 2006 because opening night will see Faubourg 36, already smartly snapped up for U.S. distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, make its U.S. premiere. Idiotically re-titled Paris 36 (for whom? Art house/foreign-language audiences would have had no trouble figuring out the Faubourg angle), this throwback to classic soap-opera cinema offers just about everything that a two-hour French film taking place in 1936 can contain. Suicide, murder and vaudeville; nasty French Nazis, good-hearted Socialists, a child custody battle and unrequited love; song and dance -- including a variation on Busby Berkeley and that understudy-gets-her-break chestnut -- comedic impersonations, and a very funny fashion sense. The result? A crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking, music-loving bundle of cinematic joy.

In other hands, all this could easily come off as tired and second-rate but director/co-writer (with Julien Rappeneau and Pierre Philippe) Christophe Barratier approaches his material, on one level, as though it were something new. Consequently, it seems fresher than it has any right to be. On another level, however, the director is very canny. He allows each scene, and all the moments in it, to last not a beat too long, so that the movie, while not charging lickity-split ahead with lots of fast-paced editing, still moves quickly enough that we have no time to waste. "You've seen this before," Barratier seems to be saying, "so let me elide here and open up there and make it all appear new." He does. One of his elisions -- at the very end -- manages to do away with WWII entirely and instead of giving us the expected resolution, allows the audience to use its imagination to fully savor what it knows will come. This leaves us in something approaching an enormously satisfied state of grace. (Unless, of course, you hate the movie -- which has its share of detractors. A film like this, that harks so defiantly to the old-fashioned, always does.)

Barratier has so far made only one short film and the full-length, award-winning (The Chorus). He uses many of the same actors: Gerard Jugnot (below, right), Kad Merad (below, left) and especially Maxence Perrin (son of actor/producer Jacques Perrin). How wonderful, too, to see again Pierre Richard (The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, The Toy), who is sublime here. Clovis Cornillac (below, center, from Gille's Wife and this Rendez-vous' Bellamy) -- he of the mug's face and the Schwarzenegger (well, in his early years) body -- is not an actor you'd expect to see in a semi-musical, yet Cornillac acquits himself admirably as a fighter, lover and dancer. The discovery of the film is its leading lady Nora Arnezeder (above, right), who brings to her role of Douce an irresistible combination of beauty, sweetness and strength -- not to mention, if it is truly her singing that we hear, a knockout voice. The whole ensemble, in fact, is aces. And don't worry if Rendez-vous' Opening Night is inevitably sold out or its $20 price too steep. This movie will have its theatrical release, draw art house crowds aplenty and appear -- eventually -- on DVD.

The complete schedule for this year's Rendez-vous with French Cinema, including dates, times, prices and ticket-0rdering, can be found here.

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