Saturday, March 3, 2012

Rendez-vous: Benoît Jacquot's FAREWELL, MY QUEEN and the Coulin sisters' 17 GIRLS

Rendezvous With French Cinema's near-regular Benoît Jacquot is back this year with one of his most accessible and, I suspect, mainstream art-house movies, FAREWELL, MY QUEEN (Les adieux à la reine), dealing with the intrigues both upstairs and downstairs during the final days at the court of Louis XVI. Initially, the film may bring to mind a French-ified and much earlier version of Downton Abbey. You needn't worry: the movie soon has the Jacquot stamp all over it: the skewed view; the interest in things farther afield from those of the standard historical costume drama; the filmmaker's interest in women and what they need, feel and think; and a very modern sensibility brought to bear upon the past. The latter two points, I think, are much at work here, and when Jacquot has a theme as fraught as this one -- royalty, coming to terms with the change that is afoot and understanding that its end may be near -- the tension created provides a thrust to this film that was almost entirely missing from Jacquot's earlier period-piece Adolphe.

The film concentrates on three women: Marie Antoinette (given a wonderfully rich and nuanced portrayal by the fine Diane Kruger, above); her favored lady-in-waiting (another knockout performance from Lea Seydoux (below, from Midnight in Paris and Mysteries of Lisbon), and an especially interesting, if brief, one from Virginie Ledoyen (further below, in green), as the Queen's lover, who seems to have taken her pleasure with many of the men and women, high and low, around the court.

How our ladies deport themselves and use each other is fascinating, sad and real, and what we learn from this film, for all its skewed view, is so much more than we got from Sofia Coppola's attempt at depicting French royalty. (Benoît's view is much more entertaining, too.) There are also wonderful performances from a supporting cast that includes actors/directors Noémie Lvovsky and Xavier Beauvois, plus Lolita Chammah and the upcoming, gorgeous heart-throb Vladimir Consigny, as a faux Venetian gondolier whose pole is in much demand. The finale -- suspenseful, surprising, ironic and wicked -- is a wonder to behold in a number of ways. Bravo, Jacquot!

The film screens again tonight, March 3, at IFC Center at 7pm and tomorrow, March 4, at 6pm at BAM.  M. Jacquot will be present at both screenings. If you don't make these two screenings, take heart: The film has been picked up for U.S. distribution by Cohen Media Group.


Taken from an event that happened in France a few years back, when a number of high-school girls decided to get pregnant and have their babies without any help or interest -- besides the original insemination -- from their fellows, 17 GIRLS (17 filles) proves a surprisingly smart, thoughtful and believable movie. These young ladies seem quite real and no more or less intelligent than French girls of this time and place might be. The filmmaking duo -- sisters Delphine and Muriel Coulin -- have created a movie that's alternately funny, sweet, sad, and a little depressing, though not particularly deep. Nor can it be, given that its heroines are relatively clueless youngsters who think they know what's going on and what's ahead of them, but then realize too late that they've bitten off more than they can chew -- at their present age, at least.

What especially makes the Coulins' movie -- their first attempt at full-length writing and directing -- worthwhile (other than its array of very good and very specific performances from the girls) is its take on how this rather bizarre situation is looked upon by society at large: from parents and friends to the school's teachers and administration. In general, French society, as shown, seems more enlightened than you might expect. 17 Girls screens tonight, March 3, at 9:30pm at IFC Center and tomorrow, March 4, at 1pm at the Walter Reade. This film, too, has been picked up for U.S. distribution by Strand Releasing.

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