By William Wolf

RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2006  Send This Review to a Friend

Superb French actress Nathalie Baye is very human in her excellent, engrossing portrayal of Police Inspector Caroline Vaudieu in “Le Petit Lieutenant,” a stellar attraction in the 2006 edition (March 10-19) of the Rendez-Vous with French Films series presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in collaboration with Unifrance and the French Film Office/Unifrance USA. Baye plays a cop who has lost a son and has been an alcoholic. The stress of the job poses an ever-lurking threat to drive her back to drink and wreck her comeback into a position of authority.

The role on a superficial level is somewhat akin to what Helen Mirren has done in her British series, but Vaudieu’s territory is Paris and Baye has worked out her own persona and characteristics for the demanding part. Encountered at a luncheon given in honor of the series, the directors and stars who attended, Baye said there was no particular key to what she accomplished. “It’s mainly trust," she said, “trust in the director."

The director in this case is Xavier Beauvois, and working from a screenplay on which he collaborated with Guillaume Breaud and Jean-Eric Troubat, he has packed the film with every-day atmosphere and dramatic tension. Also key in the film is the role of Antoine, newly graduated from the police academy and bursting with enthusiasm about becoming a cop. Jalil Lespert plays him compellingly as he comes up against the reality of the life and the dangers that must be faced.

There are complications, of course, as we are led through efforts to capture unsavory, murderous characters. The situation is trying for Vandieu, who faces a crisis when events suddenly threaten to tear apart her recovery and her efforts to be good at what she does. Much is fascinating in this police drama, but it is the performance by Baye that carries the most impact.

The opening night selection for the series was “Palais Royal!,” directed by Valérie Lemercier, who also wrote the screenplay and stars in the film along with Catherine Deneuve. The comedy deals with a fictional monarchy in a country resembling France, but it prompts thoughts of Princess Diana in Britain. The work, told in flashback, broadly satirizes royal shenanigans when the king dies suddenly and the queen (Deneuve) decides that Arnaud, the younger son who isn’t next in line for the throne, should become the new king. We ultimately learn the reason.

Arnaud’s wife Armelle, a mother of two and a speech therapist, isn’t ready for her new position. She is unassuming and doesn’t take well to pomp. At first she merely tries to fit in with comic results. Gradually more confident, she begins to stir things up and she wins the love and loyalty of the populace, much to the chagrin of the queen.

Lemercier, who plays Armelle, is a wonderful comedienne. She brings sophistication to the part even while turning things upside down in a broad way. It is a happy blend of witty writing, directing and the performance by the writer-director herself. The film is often obvious and nobody would accuse it of being deep, but, thanks largely to Lemercier’s performance, there is plenty to provide amusement.

Set in Haiti, “Heading South” (“Vers le sud”) involves two women who go to a resort where they can have sex with young Hatian men. The strongest aspect of the film as that these women are played by Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young, two excellent actresses. They are each attracted to Legba (Menothy César), who gets in trouble during the repressive regime of Duvalier.

The situation grows very steamy with jealousy and sex, although the dialogue is on the stilted side and the film, as directed by Laurent Cantet, turns quite melodramatic. The chief attraction is watching Rampling and Young, each of whom brings truthfulness to her respective role. There is also the intriguing idea of the basic situation, in which women find a way to aggressively pursue their desires in a place where they can be fulfilled.

I was able to talk with the two star actresses when they were in Toronto to promote the film earlier at the Toronto Film Festival. Rampling said what interested her was the story because it concerned women of a certain age. Such parts are hard to find, she noted. Asked why she wanted to play her role, Young said with a smile, “The size of the part.” But it was also the meaning of the role that attracted her. “She [Brenda] finds herself in love but can’t accept that she’s entitled.”

Other talked about films in the Rendez-Vous series included Cédric Klapisch’s “Russain Dolls,” a follow-up to his 2002 “L’auberge Espangñole,” with the same leading characters but a film meant to stand on its own. Danièle Thompson’s “Orchestra Seats” (“Fauteuils d’orchestre”) also stirred interest, as did “You Are So Handsome” (“Je vous trouve très beau”), starring attractive actress Medeea Marinescu and Michel Blanc and directed by Isabelle Mergault.

Another major entry was “I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed” (J’ai vu tuer Ben Barka”), a drama built around the 1965 disappearance of Moroccan independence leader Mehdi Ben Barka and directed by Serge Le Péron. There was also “Housewarming” (Travaux, on sait quand ça commence”), directed by Brigitte Roün.


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