By William Wolf

RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2004  Send This Review to a Friend

Offering a welcome opportunity to sample the latest films from France, the recent Rendez-Vous With French Cinema (March 12-21 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater) not only provided a look at a variety of new works but also brought over a contingent of directors and stars to meet with audiences and the press. Several films stood out among those that I was able to see.

Anne Fontaine's bold "Nathalie" was quite a teaser with a sex-charged subject and a talent-charged cast. Fanny Ardant, playing Catherine, a married woman who knows her husband is cheating on her, still loves him and wants to learn what it is he desires sexually from other women. The husband, Bernard, played by Gérard Depardieu, is always running off with business given as the explanation.

Catherine concocts a plan. She goes to a pick-up bar and gets acquainted with Marlene, a prostitute portrayed by the ever-fascinating Emmanuelle Béart, whom she enlists and pays to, under the name of Nathalie, get acquainted with Bernard, have sex with him and report back on the details in regular meetings. The story is a recipe for eroticism and Fontaine's screenplay, which she wrote with Jacques Fieschi and François-Olivier Rousseau, doesn't miss opportunities. The dialogue is explicitly raunchy enough to stimulate imagination.

The three stars are in fine fettle and are intriguing to watch from the various perspectives. There's a twist, better left for the viewer to discover. I had a chance to discuss the film with Fontaine at one of the two press lunches held at the New York restaurant Mix by the Cultural Service of the French Embassy in conjunction with Unifrance and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. She made the point that it didn't really make a difference whether a viewer figured out what was happening early in the film. She said the relationships and emotional aspects were what counted. The film explores the effect of the scheme on Catherine, Marlene and ultimately Bernard.

"Nathalie" is the sort of sophisticated film that is very, very French, and it also fits the pattern of unusual achievements by the extremely gifted Fontaine, whose previous work includes the disparate "Love Affairs Usually End Badly," "Augustin," "Dry Cleaning" and "How I Killed My Father."

Another major film in the series was "Monsieur N." Seizing on historical speculation involving Napoleon, the film, directed by Antoine de Caunes, weaves an elaborate story about Napoleon under arrest in exile on St. Helena, assorted intrigues, escape plans and mystery.

Philippe Torreton as Napoleon cuts a figure of arrogance and determination to still act like a major force even though he is under guard. Richard E. Grant plays Hudson Lowe, the British officer who is Bonaparte's jailer and extra strict in his control. Grant's acting is somewhat over the top at times, but he does get across the challenge he faces in carrying out his duty. Others in the cast include Jay Rodan, Elsa Zylberstein, Roschdy Zem and Bruno Putzulu.

What's most fascinating is the way in which "Monsieur N." speculates on events that have factual backing, but are woven into suppositions that go beyond what is known and trade on what can be suspected.

"After You (Après Vous)" is a comedy that stars Daniel Auteuil, one of France's best actors, and teams him with José Garcia. All is well and relaxed in the life of Antoine (Auteuil), who works as the maitre d' of a restaurant in Paris. On one fateful evening he spots Louis (Garcia) trying to commit suicide. The good Samaritan in Antoine leads him to intervene. He doesn't know what trouble he is in for.

The result is that Louis becomes dependent on Antoine, who gets him a job in the restaurant to try to put his life on an improved path. But Louis is a depressive, desperately longing for his ex-girlfriend Blanche (Sandrine Kiberlain). Antoine, ever helpful even though he is becoming exasperated, hunts down Blanche, and as you might guess, this results in a massive complication.

"Après Vous," directed by Pierre Salvadori, goes on too long, but at its best the film is amusing as it tracks the closeness that develops between the men to surmount the early comic antagonism. Salvadori, encountered at one of the press luncheons, spoke highly of Auteuil's professionalism and described him as serious and cooperative on the set, an actor with whom it is easy to work.

Isabelle Huppert stars in "Time of the Wolf (Le temps du loup)," Michael Haneke's strange film about a catastrophe, how people react to it and struggle to cope. Something drastic but unspecified has occurred. There is a shortage of food. Desperation has set in, and people do whatever they must to survive. Refugees wander the countryside and hope for a train that will take them to safety.

Huppert plays a mother who sees her husband killed by a man who is found, with his family, to have taken over their country home, to which they had fled with the intention of finding shelter there. Her plight escalates as she and her children wander in search of food and a place to stay. Huppert brings stoicism to the part, but matters keep getting out of hand. Life turns on a dime; someone can become the victim of violence at any time.

One has to be able to find circumstances credible for such a film to click. But this one has a contrived air about it, making credibility spotty. Yet the entire film is directed hauntingly with a sense of danger persistently lurking, fights breaking out and scheming to survive.

Because of a pressing schedule I didn't yet get to see Nathalie Baye in "Feelings (Les Sentiments)," but I did see charming Nathalie Baye in person. She was at one of the luncheons and impressed with her friendliness. She was, of course, working to promote her film, but in what little spare time she had in new York, she intended to see a show. Mainly, she was interested in going to the theater in hope of finding a role for her to do on stage. "I would very much like to be in a play in Paris," she said, ever the actress looking for the right part.

The film I greatly disliked out of those sampled was writer-director Bruno Dumont's "Twentynine Palms," all the more regrettable because I so admired his film "Humanité." It was surprising how boring watching his copulating couple could be despite their nudity and explicit sex, complete with kind of orgasmic shrieking that could outdo even the soundtrack of porn flicks. Why? Because the man and woman followed, David Wissak as David, a photographer, and Katia Golubeva as Katia, his troubled girlfriend full of mood swings, are so vacuous that watching them meander through a California desert area is tedious, whether they are chatting with nothing to say worth listening to or having sex repeatedly. Wissak is scruffy to look at and Golubeva, while somewhat pretty, plays a character who is such a pain that even watching her have an orgasm is dull, let alone watching her urinate, as the director has her do, whether real (as it seems) or simulated.

All of this isn't the point of the film. As David and Katia alternately fight and make love a foreboding begins to build. One senses that in the vast well-photographed space through which they drive in their huge vehicle or in the motel they use as their base, the danger of violence lurks. Frankly, it can't come too soon to relieve doldrums, but when it does it is so brutal as to also be hard to watch. Dumont appears to be commenting on the random violence we all may face, with a particular jab at the United States, since that's the locale. He is also exploring the psychology of a victim turning on someone other than the guilty to act out pain and anger. The trouble is the film isn't compelling enough to earn the dramatic climax. "Twentynine Palms" is more annoying than profound.

Back to the luncheon opportunities, at one point I had the occasion to sit next to actor Lambert Wilson, who plays a wealthy American in Alain Resnais' "Not on the Lips." Wilson, well known as a singer, spoke highly of the opportunity to work with Resnais, as he did previously in "Same Old Song." He was enthusiastic about his pending show in Paris, where he will concentrate on American popular music with emphasis on Broadway scores, but spoke about the difficulties in getting all of the rights he needed to do everything he wanted. Yet he had gathered enough permissions to present what he hoped would be a special program. Although French, handsome-looking Wilson speaks English fluently, which makes him a good candidate for working both sides of the Atlantic.


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