By William Wolf

RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2011  Send This Review to a Friend

The annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema is always a welcome opportunity to sample what’s happening on the French film front, and this year’s edition (March 3-13, 2011), sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance Films, offers several standouts. The venue includes the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, the IFC Center and BAMcinématek.

The press of work dictates dipping into some of the presentations rather than covering everything. For me the most interesting of those that I previewed are François Ozon’s “Potiche,” the opening night choice, and two films by veteran director Claude Lelouch.

“Potiche” starring two of France’s icons, the ever-wonderful Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu, looms as a combination domestic and political drama with accent on a woman who goes from being a “Potiche,” a trophy housewife, to a newly liberated status. At the start Deneuve as Suzanne Pujol is confined to being a mother and the subjugated wife of a domineering businessman husband (Fabrice Luchini at his tyrannical best), who owns an umbrella factory and treats his workers like dirt.

When the workers go on strike and take the boss hostage, Suzanne steps into the breach to run the factory and take a more progressive attitude toward the workers. Enter Depardieu, a Communist politician and former union leader, who had a one-time fling with Suzanne and is still attracted to her. It turns out that Suzanne had quite a few flings in her younger years. The pleasure of the film is watching how she revamps the factory but then has to face her husband after he is released and dismissively wants to undo her good work and go back to the old days. Suzanne has a fresh challenge to conquer.

“Potiche” is a worldly film that taps into economic conflict while telling a very personal story of a woman coming into her own. Deneuve, who has aged gracefully since her early stardom days, is glorious in this fresh, new role.

Having a taste for nostalgia after reviewing so many French films throughout the years, I was caught up in Claude Lelouch’s autobiographical documentary “From One Film to Another,” in which he surveys 50 years of his career. There is a knockout of an opening in which he undertakes the feat of speeding through Paris at 6 a.m. without stopping for lights. The camera is positioned from inside the car as the vehicle traverses the city as if we were inside of a racing car. Of course, it could have been shot with the car at normal speed and then speeding up the film. (I’m not saying it was done this way.) In any event, the effect is showing the driver being foolhardily dangerous, which is the point Lelouch is tyring to make—a metaphor for the risk he has taken in filmmaking during his long career, which took off with his successful “A Man and a Woman.”

Yes, the documentary is an ego trip, too indulgent and too long, but it is an earned ego trip, and the film is loaded with nostalgic clips including some of France’s greatest stars, such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Deneuve, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Depardieu and Annie Girardot, who died recently. French film history courses majestically through this screen autobiography.

Lelouch also is represented by his latest drama, “What Love May Bring,” a sprawling intertwining of love and World War II. Lelouch has always been known for his flair for romanticizing life, and he does this in abundance here. He mixes love stories with resistance, betrayal, collaboration, anti-Semitism and the extermination of Jews. He sharply examines how the French rounded up Jews for deportation and skewers those who benefited by taking over Jewish property.

Lelouch has the nerve to focus on a young woman who falls in love with a Nazi officer, whom he portrays with a measure of sympathy. His canvass encompasses the love life of this woman, including being smitten by two soldiers and their rivalry for her love. His overall take in the film is gushy and overly-sentimental, which defines the approach in so much of his work. “What Love May Bring,” is his crowning expression of the road he has taken as a director.

Among the effective films in the series is “The Long Falling,” directed by Martin Provost and starring the superb actress Yolande Moreau. Based on the novel by Keith Ridgway, the film tells the story of a rural battered wife who finally takes revenge by fatally running over her husband with a car at the exact spot where he killed a woman in a road accident for which he served a prison term. The woman has a gay son, who has resented his father and is trying to escape into a life of his own. Now he must decide what to do about his mother, who turns up while hunted for her crime.

Another that I liked was Romain Goupil’s “Hands Up,” in which Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi plays a woman who takes into her home a Chechen girl in danger of being deported from France. A spirited group of children disappear with the Chechen youngster in an effort to save her, and their much-publicized disappearance ignites solidarity among children throughout France. The story is a refreshing take on the immigration crackdown occurring in France and its ramifications in terms of human lives.

I’m still unsure about my feelings concerning “Deep in the Woods,” Benoît Jacquot’s film about a vagabond, mischievously played by Nahuel Perez Biscayart, who is attracted to a striking looking young villager (Isild Le Besco). He worms his way into her household, proceeds to ravish her and kidnap her. But she comes under his spell and likes the sex. How complicit is she in the adventure? The film strikes me like those old literary tales of women who pretend to be asleep so they can be taken sexually without guilt. The situation becomes increasingly complicated. Would you be surprised to learn that the birth of a child follows? The film has a haunting quality, and yet it gets to seem silly at times.

Likewise, there is another problematical film, “Free Hands,” by Brigitte Sy. It is about a woman filmmaker shooting a documentary on inmates of a prison in a Parisian suburb, where she visits twice a week to shoot her various subjects. She falls in love with one of them, and there are furtive connections between them. When the prisoner asks a favor of her, this leads to problems. Plans for a prison marriage develop as well. The trouble is that one questions believability at various points, and that undercuts the extent to which one can become emotionally involved with the characters.

Coline Serreau, one of France’s interesting directors, this time has ventured into making a documentary about food production and industrialized agriculture. But with “Think Global, Act Rural” she is in way over her head. The film features an array of characters sounding off on how the world food situation is being ruined by increased mechanized farming that yields profits but wrecks the soil. Not that the point might not be well taken. But people angrily spout statistics and platitudes, and there is no way of knowing the extent to which the statistics are accurate or the extent to what various types say is rooted in accuracy. The film doesn’t give off a sense of expertise that will inspire confidence even though it alerts us to what is a real problem.

Can you imagine a film that can make explicit sex between couples changing partners boring? Antony Cordier’s “Happy Few” does the trick. The film follows two couples who through circumstances slip into attractions that lead them into switched relationships, which, not surprisingly, lead to conflicts. The trouble is that neither the tattooed men nor the women are especially attractive or particularly appealing, so that the sex itself, at least from this viewer’s perspective, is not very worth watching. It only proves that films about foursomes can be a dull as some films about twosomes.

Bertrand Tavernier is a fine filmmaker with a great track record. Therefore it is disappointing to find his “The Princess of Montpensier” more appealing visually than as a 16th century drama. Based on a short story by Madame de La Fayette, it is set against the background of the violent religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots and the political intrigue involved. The romantic focus is on Marie, who is driven into a forced marriage despite her love for another. Mélanie Theirry, the actress who plays her, is more convincing in the manicured beauty department than in performance and the problem with the film is that its romantic aspect becomes tiresomely reminiscent of old-fashioned costume dramas. The action aspects are very well done and the landscapes benefit from exquisite cinematography. But the film is overly long and eventually tries one’s patience.


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