Wednesday, March 10, 2010

FSLC's annual Rendez-vous with French Cinema: The (Relatively) Quick Checklist

Each March the Film Society of Lincoln Center, together with Unifrance, offers movie lovers the chance to steep themselves in current French culture via 15-20 recent films in a series the FSLC calls Rendez-vous With French Cinema whose subjects and styles run the gamut.  This year is no exception and in fact houses one of the better Rendez-vous groups in the series' 15 years.

Having seen all the films in this year's bunch (except the program of shorts, which I'll view during the festival and report on at that time), I can vouch that there is not a ringer in the bunch, although The French Kissers, a Gallic equivalent of our own American Pie, comes closest. The don't-miss movies, on the other hand, number maybe half a dozen (including In the Beginning -- a still from which is shown above -- the most progressive film I've seen since Human Resources).  The very-good films account for another six, and the worth-seeing batch six more. This, I maintain, is a high standard -- better than most festivals/series can offer.

Below is a quick checklist of titles, arranged in no particular order, with a short paragraph describing their themes and merits. After that, it's your move. You can find the entire program here, with screening dates and times at the Walter Reade.  (I've also included these, with the IFC screening, as well, in bold at the end of each description.)  TrustMovies is only giving cursory recommendations in his thumbnails below.  Complete reviews will appear on those films that garner some sort of U.S. release (theatrical, On-Demand, streaming or DVD). Several of them have already been picked up for distribution, with, we hope, more to come.

Note: This years' screenings will take place at the FSLC's Walter Reade Theater (two per film), the IFC Center (one per film) and at the BAMCinématek (two programs only), with two personal appearances at FIAF.

this year's Opening Night attraction, is sure to prove more popular with the intelligentsia than did last year's Paris 36 (a song from which was actually part of this year's Academy Award  nominations).  It's also one of the most bizarre espionage flicks ever (truth-based, too): genuinely funny, satiric, surprising, moving and (very occasionally) exciting -- with a fine lead performance by Emir Kusturica, a good one from Guillaume Canet and decent direction from Christian Carion. If the $25 Opening Night ticket price is too much (only $20 for FSLC members!), don't despair: a new distribution firm, NeoClassics Films is scheduled to open the movie in the USA this coming June. Thurs. March 11, 7pm – Alice Tully Hall; Fri. March 12, 9:30pm – IFC; director Christian Carion and actor Guillaume Canet will attend both screenings

a what-to-do-with-those-immigrants saga that was nominated for ten César awards this year, is a smart heart-tugger that does not draw tears as much as make you look at the situation from all angles: foreigners, natives, police and protectors. Vincent Lindon (who will be making a personal appearance for a "Conversation" on March 14, at 6:15), on whom could be bestowed the mantel of Jean Gabin, is wonderful in the lead and Philippe Lioret directs with a fine eye for the beauty of the everyday. Though one of this year's must-sees, if you don't catch it at Rendez-vous, Film Movement will open in in the USA on Bastille Day. Fri. March 12, 1:15pm – WRT; Sat. March 13, 9pm – IFC; Sun. March 14, 3:30pm – WRT; Actor Vincent Lindon will attend screenings on March 13 & 14

THE HEDGEHOG, another must-see, was adapted from the popular Muriel Barbery novel and stars French treasure Josiane Balasko as a dumpy concierge of a building filled with rich twits, one smart little girl, and an exotic new Asian tenant.  Filmed with elegance and savvy by Mona Achache, the movie is a classy, literate, mainstream dream of a film that gives you everything: laughs, tears, charm and -- best of all --  the unexpected.  A shoo-in for arthouse popularity, The Hedgehog as yet has no U.S. distribution (hello: Music Box Films!). Fri. March 12, 3:50pm – WRT; Sat. March 13, 4pm – IFC; Sun. March 14, 8:45pm – WRT; Director Mona Achache will attend all screenings

from Lucas Belvaux who brought us that Trilogy some years back, is much like his earlier work (quiet, thoughtful and alluding rather than spelling out) but with a much grander budget. And why not, as he is dealing here with million-dollar people and high-
rolling corpor-
ations. Even the criminal element (for this is a kidnapping tale) seems a tad classier than usual, though the film is definitely about class distinctions -- the nouveau riche, haute bougeoisie against some smart ruthless have-nots. While there is just about everything here (thrills, suspense, family ties, even a dog!), nothing quite coalesces. And yet you may not mind much, as this may very well be Belvaux's point: Even the richest among us can't have it all.  Yvan Attal stars with Anne Consigny and the still-great Françoise Fabian (remember My Night at Maud's?). Fri. March 12, 6:30pm – WRT; Sat. March 13, 12:30pm – WRT; Sun. March 14, 1:30pm – IFC; Director Lucas Belvaux and actor Yvan Attal will attend all screenings.

As a fan of the work of Robert Guédiguian, I am recommending this movie as very worthwhile on the basis of watching two hours of its two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time. There was a glitch in the DVD screener shown the press (the last 20 minutes never played) and I could not attend the re-scheduled screening. On the basis of what I saw, unless the director missteps terribly toward the finale, this is a riveting, full-bodied exploration of the beginnings of the French Resistance during WWII, with a cast -- including Simon Abkarian, Virginie Ledoyen and Jean-Pierre Darroussin -- that's first-rate. Guédiguian moves back and forth in the time period with speed and grace, easily capturing the look, feel -- and fear -- of 1940s France.  The Army of Crime has been picked up by Lorber Films, with no release date scheduled as yet. Wed. March 17, 6pm – WRT; Thurs. March 18, 9:30pm – IFC; Fri. March 19, 1pm – WRT; Actress Virginie Ledoyen will attend all screenings.

This undiscovered sleeper (unless you managed to catch the good DVD release via Image a few years back) from the late Jules Dassin proves to be one of that director's most entertaining and prescient films.  Far ahead of its time regarding sexuality and humanty's foibles, it's got a cast to die for (Yves Montand, Marcello Mastroianni, Gina Lollobrigida, Melina Mercouri and Pierre Brasseur, to name a few), a plot that scintillates, and themes -- love, passion, jealousy, betrayal -- that are never out of date.  For whatever reason (maybe the movie's exceptional quality coupled to a lack of general appreciation), Oscilloscope Laboratories is planning a June 2010 re-release next month. Good idea.  Sun. March 14, 6:45pm – IFC; Thurs. March 18, 1pm – WRT; Sun. March 21, 4pm – WRT.

Here is this year's example of the outrageous, outré, mash-up movie that Rendez-vous usually includes (last year's was The Joy of Singing, which is just now receiving its On-Demand release).  If the youngsters in French Kissers (below) seem wacked-out, the adults here -- from the police to grandparents, parents and kids -- will knock you for another, dizzier loop, as they engage in inter-generational sex (homo and hetero) various hijinx, organic drug-taking, and more.  If co-writer/director Alain Guiraudie seems as much intent on upending our notions of the possible as entertaining us, he accomplishes both rather well.  And his stars, the cute, corpulent Ludovic Berthillot and the gorgeous, sexy Hafsia Herzi, are great fun to view.  This one has no distributor as yet, but it's hard to believe that Strand, TLA or Wolfe won't come calling -- and soon. Sat. March 13, 9pm – WRT; Mon. March 15, 3:45pm – WRT; Tues. March 16, 9:30pm – IFC; Director Alain Guiraudie will attend all screenings.

This nod to America's American Pie and its many spin-offs, has its moments, but they're too few and far between to keep us going.  Despite the presence of stars like Emmanuelle Devos, Irène Jacob and Noméie Lvovsky (none of whom are shown to much advantage), the movie concentrates on youths who are just at that age at which they seem least intelligent and most obnoxious. While I applaud the movie's sense of verité in capturing these qualities, I still have to wonder why first-time filmmaker Riad Sattouf bothered. In any case, the movie manages to put even this year's lesser Rendez-vous efforts into more pleasing perspective.  No distributor yet.  No wonder. Fri. March 12, 9:25pm – WRT; Sat. March 13, 5:30pm – BAM; Sun. March 14, 4:30pm – IFC; Tues. March 16, 3:45pm – WRT; Director Riad Sattouf will attend all screenings.

OSS 117 -- 
If the earlier venture of sexy French funnyman Jean Dujardin didn't sate your satiric longings, here's another opportunity to see the would-be suave & debonair idiot in action.  Since the earlier film trounced the Arabs, this time Agent 117 performs the same on Israelis but the result seems not quite as funny as was the (only-scattershot successful) first attempt.  Still, Dujardin is extremely watchable, as are the locations and babes (this is the 60s, when women were all babes or Miss Moneypenny-type secretaries).  The capture of the time period is quite good, and there is one chase scene in a hospital that is truly hilarious (for awhile).  As with the earlier incarnation, Music Box Films is said to be releasing the sequel this May. Mon. March 15, 1pm – WRT; Tues. March 16, 8:45pm – WRT; Wed. March 17, 7pm – IFC;
Director Michel Hazanavicius and actor Jean Dujardin will attend all screenings.

is writer/director Christophe Honoré's second film with Chiara Mastroianni, but it comes nowhere near the level of his earlier Love Songs. I find myself running warm and luke-warm to the work of this filmmaker; his latest is definitely in the latter category. Beautifully filmed in what I gather is Brittany, the movie -- as well as the Lena character played by Mastroianni -- fairly reeks of entitlement. After a time, it is extremely difficult to watch Lena in action without wanting to haul off and smack the woman.  Her behavior toward everyone around her grows more appalling as the movie progresses.  Could Honoré and Mastroianni be unaware of this?  Embarrassing, if true.  But then that's movie folk for you. On the plus side is a cast filled with fine French actors -- from Marina Foïs to Jean-Marc Barr, Marcial di Fonzo Bo and especially Marie-Christine Barrault. What a pleasure to see this great old actress in a good role again!  IFC Films has picked "Lena" up for U.S. release. Thurs. March 18, 7pm – IFC; Fri. March 19, 8:45pm – WRT; Sat. March 20, 1:30pm at the WRT and again at 5:30pm at BAM; Director Christophe Honoré and actress Chiara Mastroianni will attend screenings on March 18, 19 & 20.

is an amor fou film par excellence. Written and directed by Cedric Kahn, it tells the tale of a successful and happily married French architect who comes upon an old flame from his high school years.  What happens at first seems fairly typical but slowly begins to creep out the viewer, who, thanks to Kahn's careful unfurling, has come to care for not only the man (Yvan Attal again, who'll also be doing that Special Evening at FIAF) and woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) but also his wife and her husband, not to mention the child in the picture.  And this time, for a nice change, it's the guy who seems even crazier than the gal.  Kahn and his cast take this to very nearly the extreme that film-goers will have yet encountered -- and thankfully more on the emotional level, rather than the typical, get-the-gun-and-go-for-it, American response. Although you may be creeped-out by the behavior on display here, the movie will stick with you in ways you'll probably not expect.  No distributor has as yet come to call. Fri. March 12, 7pm – IFC; Sat. March 13, 6:15pm – WRT; Sun. March 14, 1pm – WRT Director Cédric Kahn will attend all screenings and actor Yvan Attal will attend screenings on March 13 & 14.

MADEMOISELLE CHAMBON  Stéphane Brizé, represented a few years ago at Rendez-vous with the quietly entrancing Not Here to Be Loved,  is back again with an ever better, and just as quietly entrancing film, this time with two of France's best actors at the very top of their form: Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain. A movie with minimal dialog, but never obviously so, it relies on the moment-to-moment response of the two actors, who are simply marvelous at expressing their inner selves while appearing to camouflage their feelings. This is a lovely film to look at, filled with widescreen images of nature (including us humans) and commerce, life at home and at school -- all of it quite real.  Brizé drops only the barest hints of any background (the Kiberlain character's family, for instance) but this is quite enough to help create a full character. Mademoiselle Chambon rises above morality and traditional values by honoring them but giving the individual human element priority. Post-press screening, I -- and it seemed, many of my peers -- found this film particularly worthwhile. I think you will, too.  We can all be grateful to Lorber Films for picking this one up for distribution. Mon. March 15, 7pm – IFC; Fri. March 19, 6:15pm – WRT; Sun. March 21, 1:30pm – WRT; Actor Vincent Lindon will attend screening on March 15 and director Stéphane Brizé will attend screenings on March 19 & 21.

THE THORN IN THE HEART  While we've come to expect the unusual from Michel Gondry, I suspect you may not be prepared for this filmmaker in a documentary mode.  But what he does with the form is both expected and not. He looks at his family, particularly at his aunt Suzette and her odd and troubled son Jean-Yves, and the gaze seems loving but distanced.  Gondry is all over the place, back and forth in time, chatting informally, looking through old scrapbooks, talking to the family and friends both close and old acquaintances.  The result is sometimes appealing but also stand-offish, as though Gondry were frightened of getting too close or having to deal directly with the situation, which as we begin to see is, like life, anything but simple This will be a "must" for the moviemaker's completists, perhaps less so for others.  Fortunately, we'll all have a chance to weigh in, as Oscilloscope Laboratories plans a release this April. Mon. March 15, 6:15pm – WRT; Wed. March 17, 9:30pm – IFC; “A Conver-
sation with Michel Gondry” to follow Mon. March 15 screening.

How fine to have Michel Piccoli still with us, filling out his grand-père roles with such aplomb.  He gets yet another one in this new film by director/co-writer Laurent Perreau (with Christine Carrière and Juliette Soubrier) that also brings a fine young talent to the screen (Pauline Etienne), along with two always-good stand-bys (Eric Caravaca, Johanna ter Steege) and another newcomer and quite a "find" (Clément Roussier).  M. Roussier, in fact, provides the film with its odd heart, as a young man with whom our heroine begin a relationship that will leave one of the parties bereft and enchained, perhaps for good. An almost-coming-of-age film, Restless tracks a season of growing up for the character played by Ms Etienne, and what new it offers has to do with location (a great old family house), and the fact that our young lady has no real money worries.  Her relationship with Piccoli's gramps, with M. Roussier's character, and with her swimming coach (Caravaca) provides the meat of the movie, which is tender and not over-cooked. Episodic and only partially fulfilling, the film is still worth a watch. Tues. March 16, 7pm – IFC; Wed. March 17, 1pm – WRT; Thurs. March 18, 8:45pm – WRT; Director Laurent Perreau will attend all screenings.

IN THE BEGINNING  The champion of this year's French fest would have to be Xavier Giannoli's amazing movie about a human being's possibilities for growth and change (and a town's, as well). Based on a true story as unlikely as any you could imagine, the film brings together themes and ideas about a truly progressive society that might actually be possible.  Into a small French town comes a con man ready to bilk whatever he can get out of the residents and their politicians. And he is clearly good enough at his game to do just that.  Then things begin to change -- for him and for the populace.  Not since Laurent Cantet's Human Resources have I encountered a movie as progressive, with this much on its mind: economics, politics, a society's need for work, cooperation as the mode for existence and more.  (And this film is not nearly as didactic as Cantet's good work.)  At the center of the film is an actor who may be as important to cinema as any working today: François Cluzet (whom you'll remember from Tell No One).  This guy nails a role that is first and foremost mysterious, and he makes it believable without undermining its mystery.  What a face he has! (Yes, it's a bit like Dustin Hoffman's but I don't think any observant person would mistake the two.)  He's abetted by Emmanuelle Devos and Gerard Depardieu, as well as by newcomers Vincent Rottiers and a young lady named Soko, who are aces as young lovers with staunch morality, even though he makes ends meet as a petty thief. "Work is a fool's game," declares Depardieu's character (who comes as close as the movie offers to a villain).  Oh, no: This great film is a paean to the wonders and necessity of work.  In the Beginning does not have U.S. distribution as yet.  Would someone please step up to the plate? Sat. March 13, 1:30pm – IFC; Wed. March 17, 9pm – WRT; Thurs. March 18, 3:45pm– WRT.

One of the more original movies in this year's bunch is Xabi Molia's alternately charming, scary and bizarre 8 Times Up, which gives (for my money) one of France's most special actresses, Julie Gayet, along with another unusual talent, Denis Podalydès, the chance to shine. And glow they do -- in their odd way. Ms Gayet, whom I once recommen-
ded to a director for a role of a woman who goes to Africa to live among the natives, only to be told, "Oh, no -- she is all wrong: such a typical French city girl!" Well, I don't know. But I hope that the director sees her work here, and understands that Mlle. Gayet is capable of  more than she's been allowed to so far show us. Molia's movie is about the unemployed, and that particular branch of said unemployed who just may be unemployable. How true this is is is difficult to say, and Molia doesn't insist. The characters played by Gayet and Podalydès have their problems, and though they seem to want to work, they also seem to shoot themselves in the foot with alarming regularity. (Is this psychological, societal, genetic?  We don't really know.)  In any case, the filmmaker blends smart animation (by Jean-Christopher Villain, aka Geronimo), believable performances, family squabbles and workplace nonsense into a mix that is not really comparable to anything else I've come across. 8 Times Up (which is taken from a proverb: If they knock you down seven times, you'd better come up eight) keeps you very nearly as unbalanced as its characters.  I didn't love the film, but I wouldn't have missed it, either. Tues. March 16, 6:15pm – WRT; Wed. March 17, 3:30pm – WRT; Wed. March 17, 8pm – IFC; Actress Julie Gayet and director Xabi Molia will attend all screenings.

A collaborative first for Claude Miller, who has brought in his son Nathan as co-director/
writer, here's another Miller movie (Class Trip, Alias Betty, La Petite Lili, A Secret) that gets just about every-
thing right and yet seems bereft of any directorial stamp (this is a compliment, by the way).  A based-on-truth tale of an adopted boy who, as a young man, at last reconnects with his birth mom, the Millers give us the facts of the matter, melding past and present to create full characters and a story that is easily followed yet seems rich in possibilities.  Miller and his son tackle these possibilities with the director's brand of tacit skill that end up making us aware that, though the human condition is vast and unknowable, its exploration is always worth the ride.  I find Miller to be a non-judgmental director in the best way:  He lays it all out and lets you make your own judgments, which, by the end of his films, you usually find difficult to manage because Miller always makes it clear that in real life there are many objects for both blame and approbation.  It's all connected, but how difficult it is to untangle!  In the lead role, young Vincent Rottiers (from In the Beginning, above) is incredible: full of quicksilver changes as he searches for some identity; this actor should have a long and full career.  As his birth mother, Sophie Cattani is also excellent -- warm, slutty, selfish and finally as surprising as her son.  In the roles of the adoptive parents, Christine Citti and Yves Verhoeven make us feel their pain as something not just unfortunate but very unfair. I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive has no U.S. distributor yet -- which makes these screenings a don't-miss event. Mon. March 15, 9:30pm – IFC; Fri. March 19, 4pm – WRT; Sat. March 20, 8:45pm – WRT; Director Nathan Miller will attend screenings on March 19 & 20.

THE REFUGE  Here's François Ozon in "slight" mode, although the tale he's chosen to tell in his latest work could easily lead -- in 15 or 20 years -- to what we've just witnessed in the Millers' "Mother" movie (above).  Yet this popular and sometimes very fine director (the recent Ricky, Time to Leave, 5X2 and other films) glides along the surface of things, showing us character traits and events that lead to a conclusion but don't carry the weight necessary to make that conclusion meaningful or moving.  You buy it, but you want more.  Fortunately the writer/director has assembled a good cast led by the ever-expanding Isabelle Carré (Les Sentiments, French Gigolo), who here plays a drug-addicted good-time girl who suddenly confronts a life-changing situation. The well-off family she has fucked herself into includes a cold mother, distant dad and kind brother, and via one of those too-good-to-be-true situations, she ends up in in a fabulous house by the beach (the seashore is clearly this director's favorite location).  It's all lovely to watch and relax into and the finale provides ample food for thought. And yet, given all that's going on here, the result seems slight. But as it's also Ozon, you probably won't want to miss it.  I certainly wouldn't. Sat. March 13, 7pm – IFC; Sat. March 20, 6:15pm – WRT; Sun. March 21, 8:45pm – WRT; Director François Ozon will attend screenings on March 20 & 21.

My personal favorite of the fest is this small gem from writer/director Axelle Ropert -- her first full-length film.  Only 80 minutes long, it's the kind of special, delicate work that, if you love it, you'll want to protect and nuture it. One way to do this would be to not "oversell" it, so I will try to restrain my adjectival usage.  But hell, it is photographed so beautifully (by Céline Bozon, who also shot Restless and Regrets from this fest) and imagined with such an unusual combination of tactful restraint and exploding creativity that characters and events are made unforgettable (the face-down of "the blond," for instance, or Dad's speech at the party). Ms Ropert tells the tale of one odd, funny, sad Jewish family in a small French town, the father of which doubles as the mayor. It seems to me that the Holocaust, barely (if ever) mentioned in the movie, hangs over everything and actually is responsible, at some distance, for how the father feels and what he does to protect his family.  In any case, the filmmaker has cast this movie very well:  As the goofy dad, François Damiens excels, the torn-apart mom is given perfect weight by Valérie Benguigui; and the two children -- played by Valentin Vigourt (the boy in Miller's A Secret) and Léopoldine Serre -- are so beautiful, talented and real that they help ground the film as much as do the adults on view.  These include Jean-Luc Bideau (remember Jonah, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000?), now playing the grandfather role.  The Family Wolberg does not have any U.S. distribution as yet, so see it now -- or maybe never. Sun. March 14, 9:15pm – IFC; Sat. March 20, 4pm – WRT; Sun. March 21, 6:30pm – WRT; Director Axelle Ropert will attend screenings on March 20 & 21.

That's it, folks.  Hope these notes have been helpful, and that you're able to procure tickets for the films you most want to see.  Don't wait, for Rendez-vous With French Cinema is always the FLSC/Walter Reade Theater's most popular series of the year.  And if you can't manage tickets to the WRT, do try the IFC.

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