By William Wolf

RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2008  Send This Review to a Friend

Several impressive films from France were among those that turned up in the latest Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series (Feb. 29-March 9, 2008), which is hosted annually by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance USA, with the presentations at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center. Of those I managed to sample from the 15-film selection, a few favorites emerged.

Veteran director Claude Lelouch’s “Roman de gare,” the opening night attraction, is a clever work that is fresh in performances and attitude. Fanny Ardant stars as a best-selling author of crime fiction. She’s in the process of researching her book, and meanwhile, there is much ado with news broadcast about a serial killer who has escaped.

When a Parisian hairdresser, Hugette, picks up a man at a roadside rest stop, we quickly begin to wonder whether he is the escapee. Audrey Dana is compelling as Hugette and Dominique Pinon gives an excellent performance as the man in question. The story is part-mystery, part-romance, with twists of deception and exposé. The writing is sharp and entertaining, and the film has a good share of humor sandwiched between its more serious aspects. The acting is top drawer. This is one of the more accessible French imports, and it is being distributed commercially by Samuel Goldwyn Films

Another favorite is Cédric Klapisch’s “Paris,” which tours relationships as well as the city. The popular actor Romain Duris plays a man who requires a heart transplant, and lovely Juliette Binoche is his devoted sister, who moves into his flat to care for him as he waits with hope that a heart will turn up. The film ventures into various parts of the city and explores the lives of working people with their dreams and foibles. The cast is strong and one gains further understanding of and affection for Paris and its people.

Klapisch knows how to involve us in the character assortment and how to place them in environments that capture our visual as well as emotional interest. Setting some of the action in a public marketplace and some in the huge wholesale market where vendors come to get their produce adds to the charm. The film is an ode to Paris as well as to its inhabitants.

The trouble that has been brewing among the have-nots in France is reflected in a strong film that in effect is a plea for recognition. Called “Ain’t Scared (Regarde Moi),” it has been written and directed by Audrey Astrougo and focuses on black and white teenagers in a suburban housing project.

Although there is intermingling, there is also underlying tension fueled by attitudes concerning race but also by the jealousies that arise. The cast members seem extremely realistic in their characterizations. Terry Nimajimbe plays Jo, who is elated at learning that he has been accepted to join the Arsenal soccer team. But for most of those in the project, the future looks bleak. Intense feelings culminate in bullying and frustration. The filmmaker doesn’t flinch in presenting the project as an emotional cauldron that can explode, and yet friendships and needs can lead to bonding.

“Shall We Kiss?” is a very French tale about what happens when an unexpected meeting takes place and is the takeoff point of a story that examines how lives can be turned upside down by succumbing to an impulse may seem innocent at first but creates the potential for much more.

Emilie (Julie Gayet), a designer of fabrics, is on a business trip to Nantes and, having trouble finding a taxi, is befriended by Gabriel (Michael Cohen), who gives her a lift. There is an obvious attraction between them, and they wind up spending time together. As a souvenir, Gabriel would like a kiss, but although inclined to grant his wish, Emilie is hesitant. The reason, she explains, is a story of what a seemingly innocent kiss led to in the lives of friends. He is intrigued, and she finally agrees to tell him the story.

The film is a tease, sort of a “Canterbury Tale,” or in film terms, the kind of story Buñuel might have spun. They wind up in the Emilie’s hotel room, and she recounts what happened. There is a twist, of course, as we learn the details and are treated to flashbacks involving Emilie’s friend Judith (Virginie Ledoyen) , her husband Eric (Stefano Accorsi), and Judith’s best friend Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret). Some of what happened borders on silliness, but because of the film’s playful viewpoint, one can accept the plot and enjoy the humor of the amusing presentation, marked by a wink accompanied by the entertaining view of sex and human nature.

One of the weaker entries in the series was “La Disparue de Deauville,” a film by Sophie Marceu, who also co-stars with Christophe Lambert and who collaborated on the screenplay with Gianguido Spinelli, Jacques Deschamps and Rania Meziani. The film is wrapped in the mystery of what happened in the past, a cover-up and an effort to sort out the truth. Jacques (Lambert), a cop, is investigating a disappearance, and he is intrigued when the mysterious Victoria (Marceau) turns up. A hint: Marceau has a double role.

Jacques has been having problems with his superiors and, treading on controversial territory, he is warned against getting further involved. Naturally, he doesn’t listen. The plot thickens, and the film becomes increasingly convoluted without becoming increasingly interesting. I was, however, intrigued by the appearance of Marie-Christine Barrault in a key role.

Another disappointing film was “Love Songs (Les Chasons d’Amour),” which has since opened in a commercial run. If the characters in this pretentious little film were of interest, perhaps one might be charmed by their occasional outburst into song instead of traditional dialogue. The gambit has been done before, of course, but writer-director Christophe Honoré attempts to bring something fresh to the method. Unfortunately the story grows increasingly tiresome, the characters increasingly boring.

Ok, so there’s a threesome. Big deal. Ludivine Sagnier and Louis Garrel play Julie and Ismaël, who attempt to spice up their relationship by getting a third partner, Clotilde Hesme as Alice, who works with Ismaël. Complications can be predicted and they arise as a result of a tragic situation. There’s also a dash of homosexuality involved when Ismaël develops affection for a student, played by Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet. The cast includes Chiara Mastroianni and Brigitte Roüan. The entwinement of the characters doesn’t add up to much, whether by the spoken word or breaking into song.

  

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