By William Wolf


Films from France have long been favorites of the New York Film Festival, and this year there was also a sharp French presence with a few fine examples of what is happening on the French scene these days.

There was, of course, the opening night film, “Class” (See separate review). But another highlight was “Let It Rain” (Parlez-moi de la pluie”), directed by the astute filmmaker Agnès Jaoui and written by her and Jean-Pierre Bacri. Both Jaoui and Bacri are superb actors as well as film creators, so it is good to report that they also play major roles in the cast.

Jaoui has a way of focusing on the details of the lives of the characters who inhabit her films, so that although no great events may happen, the intimate observations become involving for us and add up to portraits of depth. In this case Jaoui plays Agathe, a feminist who decides to take the plunge of running for office. Meanwhile, she returns to her home town in the south of France with the task of helping her sister sort out the residue of their late mother’s life.

Agathe has a housekeeper, Mimouna (Mimouna Hadji), whose son Karim (Jamel Debbouze) is trying to make something of himself. He and his friend Michel (Bacri) team up to film a documentary about Agathe in hope it will be shown and offer entrée into the world of filmmaking. One catch: they are totally inept with one screw-up after another. The patience of Agathe is sorely tried.

Jaoui and Bacri find much humor in following the lives of these characters, but also manage to make them very human with respect to their personalities and vulnerabilities. We get to know them quite well as we watch them struggle to advance their lives. The film treats them with dignity despite laughs at their expense. It also takes a sharp view of Agathe as a woman with ideals who wants to be a politician and handle everything in the context of the pressures she needs to deal with in her personal life.

In short, “Let it Rain” is most engaging.

“Summer Hours,” written and directed by Olivier Assayas, focuses on family life and problems after a parent dies and siblings left to carry out her wishes are torn by different needs with respect to the inheritance. The film is rich in examining values and what happens when it is up to a new generation to carry on what was meaningful in the life that has ended.

What makes “Summer Hours” more convivial than other films in which there are differences over estates is that the two brothers and their sister are not at each other’s throats. They have their own agendas, but they also have a familial bond. Their mother has nurtured pride in the valuable collection of 19th century art that belonged to their uncle (about whom we learn more with respect to him and the mother). She has wanted the collection be preserved in tact. The film follows the aftermath of her death with unexpected suddenness.

Juliette Binoche plays Adrienne, a daughter who has achieved stature as a designer in New York, Charles Berling is Frédéric, who is an economist and a professor in a Paris university, and Jérémie Renier is a businessman who is about to make a long-term life for himself in China. Each can use money to be made by selling off the collection.

There are some wonderful touches in the film involving respect for art in contrast to the way it can be taken for granted, as in a scene in which a cherished piece of furniture has become part of an exhibition and is passed over with not much interest by a group viewing it on a guided tour. On the other hand a housekeeper cherishes a piece from the collection merely because she loves it and wants it as a souvenir of her employer without any sense of its value.

Assayas fills the film with minute detail, effective character study and revealing conversations. The result is a very classy example of a superior film with many subtleties.

We’re on dysfunctional family territory with “A Christmas Tale,” Arnaud Desplechin’s story of a coming together of various family strands with all hell breaking loose at holiday time. Deep-rooted problems surface, including the need for a bone marrow donor in the face of a case of leukemia, an illness that earlier claimed a child of Junon (Catherine Deneuve) an Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon). Now Junon is at risk.

One of the showiest parts, that of Henri, is played by the charismatic Mathieu Amalric. Henri has been banished from the family, but now reappears. All of the complications that ensue are too many to go into, but a large, good cast and sharp writing and direction make this a compelling family drama, although it could use some tightening.

With such strong film as highlights, 2008 Film Festival did well by France this year.


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