By William Wolf

FRENCH FILMS ALIVE AND WELL  Send This Review to a Friend

Judging by the films I have seen in advance from this year’s Rendez-vous with French Cinema (March 5-15, 2009), an event presented by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance, the screen in France is healthy with much exciting new work. More of such films need to be imported and made available to the American public.

“Mesrine,” which comes in two parts, is one of the best gangster films ever. Directed by Jean-François Richet, it is based on the true story of Jacques Mesrine, a legendary gangster who robbed banks and dazzled the public and the press with his escapes from prison. He was finally gunned down in 1979 after a huge manhunt.

Vincent Cassel gives a huge, memorable performance as the violent, power-mad but charismatic Mesrine. It is a performance that heats up the screen, as do the super-charged atmosphere and explosive events. The film reminds me of the 1930s James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson black and white gangster pictures, only charged up with all of today’s cinematic know-how and flashiness. Both parts, which can make sense separately, seize the attention and emotions of an audience and don’t let go.

The screenplay is by Abdel Raouf Dafri, based on Mesrine’s autobiography, “L’ Instinct de mort.” (“Death Instinct”). The cast includes Gerard Depardieu as a crime boss. as well as Cecile de France, Ludivine Sagnier and Mathieu Amalric.

Veteran director Costa-Gavras has come up with an especially appealing film, “Eden Is West,” a film expressing social commentary in an entertaining manner. Elias, played by the good-looking, dark-haired Riccardo Scamarcio, is packed with other would-be immigrants in the cargo hold of a ship in a clandestine effort to get into France. When the ship is spotted, Elias and others dive into water. After an exhausting swim to shore, he awakens on a nudist beach.

The humor of that arrival is the jumping off point to a series of exploits in which Elias finds that the beach is connected to a resort dubbed Eden, struggles to remain incognito and subsequently goes through various exploits in an effort to get to Paris. Costa-Gavras, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Jean-Claude Grumberg, mixes the sensibility of Charlie Chaplin style comic situations with the emotional impact that gets us to root for Elias to be successful in his quest to remain in France.

The film inventively reflects the problems immigrants have in finding their place in French society. The winsome performance of Scamarcio and the often amusing way in which Elias’s struggles are depicted, sometimes in the context of other struggling individuals, make the movie a pleasure to watch. It adds another feather in the cap of Costa-Gavras, who has spent a career making films that try to have something worthwhile to say about important issues.

“Paris 36,” written and directed by Christophe Barratier, is a grand film that is in a sense an homage to the French classic “Children of Paradise.” The evocation, of course, can not duplicate the greatness of its predecessor, but it carries on the tradition of exploring the passion that goes into the world of theater and the stories that can be intertwined. “Paris 36” is set in the 1936 period of the Popular Front that preceded the tragedy for France with the German occupation in World War II.

The drama, with music by Reinhardt Wagner and lyrics by Frank Thomas, is rich in songs composed to capture the feeling of music hall entertainment at the time. A colorful cast includes Gérard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Kad Merad, Nora Arnezeder, and Pierre Richard, as well as a host of others, The film is an entertainment that manages to be both showy and intimate There is much sentiment in the story, both with respect to nostalgia and the way in which the various plot threads are resolved.

“The Apprentice,” directed by Samuel Collardey, is a beautifully understated look into the life of Mathieu, a 15-year-old student at an agricultural high school in France, who gets a part-time job on a small dairy farm in the Haut-Doubs region, which is near the Swiss border. His parents have split, and he is lonely and often sullen. But in his work, he finds a sympathetic mentor in Paul, who teaches him how to perform the various required chores.

We get to see some of the routine, like killing a pig or helping birth a calf. The work is hard. Gradually, Paul begins to view Mathieu as a son, and Mathieu in turn gets closer to Paul as if he were the father Mathieu needs. The quiet, easy going way in which the story unfolds and the observations afforded of the characters and their pattern of life make for a gratifying experience.

Another insightful film is “Versailles,” written and directed by Pierre Schoeller. Judith Chemla plays Nina, a forlorn woman with problems, including lack of work and a child she has trouble caring for. When she goes to the Versailles area in search of a job she meets a Damien (Guillaume-Depardieu) as vagabond who lives in the woods like a hermit. Strangely finding confidence in him, she runs away and abandons her young son Enzo to him.

The story takes various turns leading to life changes for everyone. As we follow the characters, we get to know them better, be concerned about their emotional complications and hope that the future will turn out to be rosier.

There is also a new Claude Chabrol film—yes, he continues to work. His “Bellamy,” a detective yarn, is an homage to Georges Simenon and is distinguished by having Gérard Depardieu in the lead as a detective. It is strange watching the star these days. He has ballooned into a Marlon Brando type figure, which leaves wistful memories of how handsomely rough hewn Dépardieu was early in his career. But his acting is still at a solid level, and there is an incomparable aura about him.

The story, however, is nothing great. The pleasure lies mostly in watching the star at work and soaking up the French atmosphere. The excellent cast includes Clovis Cornillac, Jacques Gamblin and Marie Bunel.

A much better film dealing with intrigue is “The Joy of Singing,” directed by Ilan Duran Cohen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Philippe Lasry. A daffy mix of love of music and espionage, the offbeat tale is awash in danger, sinister escapades and sex. The intrigue revolves around information regarding uranium. One woman has the makings of a successful singer of popular music, but her teacher is only interested in the classics.

The thrust of the film is satirical and romantic, but the mystery and the life threatening events are there, making “The Joy of Singing” invitingly droll. The cast includes Marina Foïs, Loránt Deutsch, Jeanne Balibar, Nathalie Richard, Juilien Baumgartner, Caroline Ducey and Guillaume Quartravaux.

“The Girl From Monaco,” written and directed by Anne Fontaine, has all the earmarks of a popular success. It’s the kind of a glossy film that gets attention. It has a good cast, but is glib and, while accomplished, it offers only minor rewards. Fabrice Luchini, always a fine actor, plays Bertrand, a hot-shot lawyer who is in Monaco defending a renowned woman accused of murder. Since Bertrand could be in danger, he is assigned Christophe, a bodyguard played with staunch determination by Roschdy Zem.

Trouble begins when Betrand falls for Audrey (Louise Bourgoin), an attractive, high-spirited young woman who is the weather girl on a cable network, but has aspirations for greater success. Bertrand could be useful. Meanwhile, the bodyguard is trying to break up the attraction between Bertrand and Audrey. What is Christophe’s real motive?

The film is slickly done and Audrey is quite an eyeful, but while fairly entertaining, “The Girl From Monaco” is still fluff.

A film that I like very much is “With a Little Help From My Friends,” about an African immigrant who is having a rough time making ends meet and dealing with her family in a Paris housing project. Félicité Wouassi gives a dynamic performance as Sonia, whose irresponsible gambler of a husband dies on the day their daughter is to be married. Trying to conceal the death so as not to spoil the celebration, Sonia enlists the help of an elderly neighbor in a very droll scheme.

The plot thickens when the neighbor begins to become attracted to her. Meanwhile, she is attracted to a more appropriate suitor, but is reticent. Directed by François Dupeyron, the mix of drama and comedy is another film hat attempts to explore immigrant life and does so entertainingly. A good cast gives the film added strength and helps leave an imprint of social satire.

Another highly accomplished film is “The Girl on the Train,” directed by André Téchiné based on a play by Jean-Marie Besset and teaming Émilie Dequenne as Jeanne, a restless young girl and Catherine Deneuve as her mother, Louise. Trouble breaks loose when Jeanne reports that she has been attacked by skinheads for being Jewish. The situation escalates, and Louise seeks the help of an old friend, Bleistein (Michel Blanc), now a powerful lawyer. As the story unfolds, we are given a further view of some of the social and class problems that exist in contemporary France.

I saw more, but missed some of the highly praised films in the series as a result of scheduling conflicts. I have received enthusiastic reports about “The Beaches of Agnès,” an autobiographical work by the renowned New Wave director Agnès Varda, and “Séraphine,” directed by Martin Provost, as well as for Claire Denis’s “35 Shots of Rum,” which I had already seen an enjoyed at the Toronto International Film Festival. No doubt about it—French films are making their mark.


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