By William Wolf

RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2005  Send This Review to a Friend

This has been an exceptionally fine year for the annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema preview event (March 11-20) held at the Walter Reade Theater by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Unifrance and the French Film Office/Unifrance USA, together with the French Cultural Services. Although I have not seen all of the films, an impressive number of those that I was able to catch turned out to be excellent and good news in terms of what is happening in France. Not everything has acquired distribution in the United States, but much of it merits being seen by a wide American public. There is also special pleasure to be found in the level of the acting.

One particularly entertaining example is “Happily Ever After,” directed by Yvan Attal, who also stars in the film, which distributor Kino International arranged to open at the Paris Theater in New York on April 8. Produced by Claude Berri, long an important force in French cinema, “Happily Ever After” follows the lives of couples and their marital problems, as well as a single friend who manages to sleep with a bevy of attractive women, much to the envy of his married buddies.

The central husband and wife, Vincent and Gabrielle, are played by Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Vincent is having an affair, and Gabrielle begins to think about others, especially a stranger she meets in a record store, played in a cameo appearance by American star Johnny Depp. The other characters are also interesting and often amusing. The strength of the film is the tour it takes in depicting the various lives under the microscope, its lightness of touch and the humor that bubbles throughout. At the same time the film is passing along some stringent observations. The milieu is very contemporary French, but parallel characters can surely be found on this side of the Atlantic.

Asked at a luncheon in honor of the French filmmakers coming to the Rendez-Vous event whether it was difficult to get Depp, director Attar replied, “No, I just asked him. I sent him the script and he agreed.”

The biggest disappointment was “The Bridesmaid,” a work by renowned director Claude Chabrol. Of course, he knows how to make a movie with the utmost finesse, but the story here, based on a novel by Ruth Rendell, is an unconvincing, contrived one. It involves a young man who becomes involved with an obsessive, psychologically damaged young woman, who demands that he kill someone to prove his love, which she promises to do in return. (Distorted echoes of Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”) The woman is so screwed up that even allowing for men being led around by their sexual drives instead of their brains it is hard to imagine the extent and rapidity of this guy’s entanglement with such an obvious nut case. The film is acted well enough by Benoît Magimel and Laura Smet, but the story gets less and less credible as the plot becomes more and more dire.

Bertrand Tavernier has made a compelling film called “Holy Lola,” in which a French couple go to Cambodia with the intent of adopting a child. The drama follows the intricate process of delay and the request for bribes that they and other couples on similar quests encounter. The film stars Isabelle Carré, Jacques Gamblin and Bruno Putzulu.

In telling the story Tavernier also focuses on life in Cambodia, where many are still being maimed by remaining mines and where poverty is rampant and needy people scrounge for money anyway they can, including selling children. The couples seeking to adopt are brought in contact with a world that is so foreign to them in comparison with their comfortable perches back home. In a conversation with Tavernier, he stressed passionately that in the Western world people know so little about Cambodia.

Perhaps the most original of the series is “When the Tide Comes In” (formerly “When the Sea Rises”), co-directed with Gilles Porte by Yolande Moreau, who also stars as Irène, a performance artist who travels through the north of France with her strange one-person show, “A Dirty Business,” and wins over audiences with her off-beat costuming, funny lines and bizarre approach. Moreau is fascinating, a heavy-set woman who is extremely charming. Although married, Irène meets Dries (Wim Willert), a virile-looking man with whom she gradually moves toward a relationship.

The growth of intimacy is handled sensitively, and much of the film shimmers with a magical aura. The performances of the play enacted, the use of locales and the feeling developed for the itinerant star combine to be mesmerizing. Moreau is a startling talent before and behind the camera. Asked at the French luncheon what was the most difficult aspect of making the film, she replied with a smile, “Getting the financing.”

The acting in “The Role of Her Life,” a sophisticated drama directed by François Favrat, sparkles with skill. Agnès Jaoui gives a superb performance as a renowned actress, Elisabeth Becker, who hires as her assistant, Claire, a free-lance journalist assigned to write a story about her. Karin Viard gives an equally impressive performance as Claire. The film details the relationship between the two, first cozy and friendly, but later becoming strained as Jaoui begins to resent the way Claire is running her life.

A problem arises around a man, who comes to work as a landscaper for the actress. But the film involves more than just man trouble. It is a psychological study of a relationship characterized by dependency, jealousy and frustration. Both actresses are extraordinary, and the film also has an impressive look.

André Téchiné has directed “Changing Times,” an engrossing drama set in Morocco and starring icons Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. The characters they play, Cécile and Antoine, were in love 30 years before. Cécile’s life has moved on, and she is now married to Nathan, a Moroccan. Their son, Samy, visits from Paris with his Moroccan girlfriend, a single mother. She has a reclusive twin sister living in Morocco under the very strict rules applied to Muslim women.

Antoine arrives in hopes of winning Cécile back, but while there is still an old repressed spark on her part, there is also strong resistance and residue of anger. Deneuve gives a moving performance as a restless, unfulfilled woman trying in vain to control the life of her son. The film gains authenticity by virtue of its setting and deeply impressive acting.

Corsica is the scene of “Rules of Silence,” a haunting film that deals with hunting and death. Director Orso Miret takes us into the mountains he knows well as he spins a story about a couple whose vacation turns into a nightmare. Olivier (Mathieu Demy) witnesses a killing and agonizes over whether or not to report the guilty man. Informing would violate the code between friends, and he faces a dangerous dilemma.

The tale is set against the intense atmosphere of the hunt, and Miret is expert at creating an ominous mood and sustaining it through the film. I find the milieu of shooting animals off-putting, but the skill with which the story is told and photographed had me deeply involved. Miret scores quite a feat with this engrossing feature.

The crown for the most esoteric film in the series goes to Claire Denis’ “The Intruder.” As those familiar with her work know, she is a supreme stylist and enjoys being provocative. In this one we follow the trail of Louis, played enigmatically by Michel Sobor, whose past and present are examined slowly with the audience compelled to concentrate hard on piecing together what we are informed about his life.

It turns out that he has an estranged son, with whom he wants to reconcile. “The Intruder” is told in a fragmented pattern and I’m still puzzling over what was going on at the beginning. Eventually Louis’ ultimate goal becomes clear as Denis leads us step by step.

”Quai des Orfèvres,” a dazzling excursion into police work and corruption, is sparked by two of French cinema’s finest, Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu, as rivals who are waging a war against criminals, each by his own methods and standards. Director Olivier Marchal achieves utter visual realism as the film plunges into the underground world of cops and robbers and the various manipulations in which the police are shown indulging.

This is a tough no-holds-barred crime story extremely well directed with one exception. A thundering score accompanies virtually everything, as if the director is trying to turn it into an opera, and the music undercuts the gritty realism of what is on screen. When I made that complaint to Marchal, he said he agreed to an extent but defended the intent. Apart from the music complaint, I found the film taut, well acted and successfully in the solid tradition of the genre.


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