By William Wolf

RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2010  Send This Review to a Friend

Each year the Rendez-vous with French Cinema series, a presentation by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance, provides a welcome opportunity to sample some of the latest French movies. This year the series (March 11-21) has demonstrated again that there is impressive creativity among France’s filmmakers. Although I haven’t been able to see all of the entries, several among those I viewed offered distinctive pleasures.

One of my favorites was “Mademoiselle Chambon,” a delicate, lovely story by writer-director Stéphane Brizé. The film has a tender, emotional quality, enhanced by admirable performances by its stars. Vincent Lindon, whose popularity is on the rise, plays Jean, an earnest, happily married home contractor. His young son is being taught at school by Sandrine Kiberilain as Véronique Chambon, an unmarried, sensitive woman. Meeting her at school, Jean finds her attractive, but is not looking for any extra-marital affair.

The teacher needs work done in her residence and contracts Jean for the job. This brings them into closer proximity, and it becomes clear that there is a mutual attraction. Véronique is a violinist and music becomes a strong means of their communication as she introduces him to classical selections and he broadens his musical appreciation, as well as his appreciation of her. All the while there is a growing, smoldering affection. When Jean invites her to play for a family event, his wife senses something.

The writing and the direction of the film, as well as the acting, enable us to feel the emotions brewing, but the film takes an intelligent, realistic road toward expressing the passion without exploitation. Both the teacher and Jean gain from the experience, while placing it into the perspective of their respective lives. “Mademoiselle Chambon” is a film of rare beauty.

Another superior work in the series is “In the Beginnimg,” by writer-director Zavier Giannoli and said to be based on a true story. A small time con man, Philippe Miller, played superbly by François Cluzet, has worked out a way of pretending to be from a company and buying equipment charged to the firms, then selling it. But one day he stumbles into a situation far beyond his customary schemes.

A highway project that was begun has been abandoned, leaving the community in deep financial trouble, including extensive unemployment and lack of any hope. Miller sees an opportunity and pretends to be a representative of a major company that is now going to resume building the highway and put people to work again. In a way the character of Miller is reminiscent of the con artist in the American stage and film musical, “The Music Man.” The upshot in both is that the con man becomes caught up in the spirit of the town and wants to make good on his promises.

Matters get complicated emotionally when Emmanuelle Devos as Stéphane, the local mayor, falls in love with Miller, who is reluctant to become involved but does. Director Giannoli succeeds in creating striking atmosphere as the work on the highway intensifies against all obstacles, including weather, and Miller desperately tries to con more funds to cover the mounting debts. We know that eventually the scheme will have to collapse and reality faced. How will it be resolved? “In the Beginning” is consistently intriguing, and there is even a small part for by now almost unrecognizable Gérard Depardieu.

Another top film among the new crop is “Rapt,” an unusual thriller by Lucas Belvaux starring Yvan Attal as Stanislas Graff, a high-flying, arrogant business executive who is kidnapped and held for an exorbitant ransom. The scenes of his snatching and imprisonment by his captors are harrowing, as he is reduced to a nervous wreck. But that is mere physical punishment, even with the painful slicing off of a finger to send to his wife to show that the kidnappers mean business. Far more detrimental to him is what is happening as a result of the attention focused on him.

The investigation of the crime leads to exposure of his personal life, including a secret apartment and a mistress, his extensive gambling debts and his financial manipulations that lead to his demise within his business world. At home, his wife, Françoise, in an excellent performance by Anne Consigny, flashes icy anger and disappointment but also loyalty and determination to save her husband despite the machinations of the police and business interests. The film solidly dramatizes all of the domestic and business infighting. Attal delivers a terrific performance as the kidnapping victim, and it grows increasingly clear that even if he survives, his life will never be the same.

One of the films that I didn’t like was “The French Kissers,” about young teenagers in quest of sexual experience and written and directed by Riad Sattouf. If you think coming of age films about American teenagers can be dumb, this one is even dumber. What’s more, the characters are unrelenting bores. Their adventures are silly and you’d wonder why any of the young girls would be in the least attracted to these misfits.

Yvan Attal, so successful in “Rapt,” has a lesser film in “Regrets,” directed by Cédric Kahn. Attal plays an architect who is married and living in Paris. But when he returns to his home town for a visit to his mother, who is on her death bed, he encounters an old flame, Maya, played intensively by Valeria Bruni Tedschi. They begin driving each other to distraction with the ups and downs of their rekindled relationship. They can also drive an audience mad. I surmised that they were so thoroughly mismatched that if they ever would get together permanently they would fight relentlessly and probably try to murder each other.

“OSS 117—Lost in Rio,” directed by Michael Hazanavicius, aims to be a satire in the mold of James Bond, but although it has a funny moments here and there, it isn’t nearly funny enough, offering fizzle instead of sizzle. Jean Dujardin isn’t especially interesting in the lead, a supposedly suave Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, who as on the trail in Brazil of a wanted Nazi. He is aided by a pretty Mossad agent (Louise Monot). Some of the jokes are tasteless, which really wouldn’t matter if they were more amusing.

Other more substantial films of the series includes “I’m Glad My Mother is Alive,” directed by Claude and Nathan Miller. It’s about a young man who had been given up for adoption and is now searching for his birth mother. He is disturbed as a result of his past, and when he finally finds her, a woman with her own problems, a troubled fresh relationship begins.

“The Army of Crime,” directed by Robert Guédiguian, is a rousing story of underground activities during the German occupation of France, with emphasis on participation by individuals of various ethnic backgrounds. Heroically they have the daring to spark early resistance at great personal risk and with widespread consequences as a result of Nazi retaliation. At the Walter Reade Theater, the IFC Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

  

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