By William Wolf

RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2012  Send This Review to a Friend

Teenage students decide to get pregnant…Marie Antoinette is hot for a woman…Thirty-eight neighbors hear frantic screams a night but don’t call police….A woman executive falls in love with an employee…What gives here? It was the annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (March 1-11), presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance Films. The range of the current French film scene is wide, as evidenced from my sampling.

“17 Girls,” directed by Delphine Coulin and Muriel Coulin, is based on an actual situation that arose in the United States. Fictionalized and set in France, the film by the Coulin sisters spins a fascinating and upsetting story of what happens when school girls become excited by the potential of becoming pregnant. They see it as a way of revolting against parental control and what they perceive as boring lives. The idea engulfs 17 students of various types.

Getting pregnant will give them a status—babies of their own and a defiant state of independence. The world will have to look at them differently. The boys who they will enlist to impregnate them are mere means to an end. Romance isn’t involved.

Of course, becoming pregnant and actually coping with the experience of living through the ordeal are different. Tensions begin to set in, and emotional complications result. A good cast makes the various schoolgirls distinctive characters, and while there is some humor, the film becomes quite poignant at times, and it is very contemporary for Americans with all of the political talk about birth control.

“Farewell, My Queen,” directed by Benoit Jacquot, is a beautifully filmed historical saga with a twist. The personal life of Marie Antoinette is inspected against a background of frenzy in the royal court when the revolution has erupted and the royals must try to flee for their lives while everything is rapidly collapsing about them. The characterizations are compelling and colorful, illuminated by excellent acting and the elaborate surroundings with breathtaking use of Versailles.

A highlight is the performance by Diane Kruger as the embattled queen, imperious yet vulnerable, smitten by her affection for another woman, and cruelly manipulative in her scheme to save her secret lover’s life. Another striking performance is given by Léa Seydoux as the queen’s lady in waiting, who has her own agenda. She reads to the queen, whom she admires, but also is filled with envy for those on top.

When the queen asks her to pretend to be the object of the queen’s affection in fleeing from Paris, thereby putting her live in danger, the lady in waiting relishes the idea of posing as an elite despite the peril. The yarn is spun with expertise and there is great pleasure in looking at this behind-the-scenes take on the French Revolution.

“38 Witnesses,” directed by Lucas Belvaux, is another that stems from real life in America. Some may remember the case of Kitty Genovese, who in 1964 was murdered in Queens. Adding to the horror was the shock of learning that despite Ms. Genovese’s horrifying shrieks, nobody called the police and tried to save her.

The situation has now been transferred to Le Havre, and the story is built not so much about solving the murder of a young woman as about the quest to investigate why nobody responded and the feeling of guilt it engendered in one of the 38 witnesses. The fine actor Yvan Attal plays Pierre, a harbor boat pilot, who is emotionally tortured by his inaction. Sophie Quinton portrays Louise, his fiancée, who is disgusted by it.

A key figure is the inquiring journalist Sylvie, well acted by Nicole Garcia, whose nosing around unleashes a storm. The authorities would just as soon forget the matter because exposure of the cowardice would mean an investigation that would get nowhere. Thus, when Pierre decides to come clean and admit he heard the screams, he is the object of hatred by neighbors who resent the spotlight his confession throws on their behavior. The journalist is also loathed.

There will be personal consequences with respect to Pierre’s love life, as Louise loses respect for him. The exploration of human behavior and the tendency toward cover-up is involving, and the low-key approach provides authenticity. However, I didn’t quite believe the ending involving a choice that Louise makes.

Audrey Tautou is always an attraction and in “Delicacy,” directed by David and Stéphane Foenkinos, she plays a woman whose life is suddenly thrown into a tailspin when she loses her husband with whom she has been deeply in love. It is a shattering experience rendering her incapable of seeking a new relationship, at least for the time being.

But unexpected things can happen. She has a fling with a subordinate employee in the firm for which she works. Then she wants to forget it ever happened. Not so the employee. He is smitten by her and befuddled by her behavior.

The film is done in the tone of a comedy, not unlike one of the old Hollywood screwball comedies, but this one with a French twist. The romance has to build and play out with various complications. It is strung out a bit too much, but Tautou is charming and easy on the eyes, and one wants to cheer her character on to a new happy relationship.

Director Andcré Téchiné has come up with a complex, entertaining film, “Unforgivable” set in Venice. Superb, mature actor André Dussolier plays a vacationing writer who needs a place to live. He gets more than he intended from prolific actress Carole Bouquet as a real estate agent. She finds him a place all right, and they also fall into a romantic relationship.

Bouquet has been a favorite of mine ever since I saw her in Luis Buñuel’s “That Obscure Object of Desire.” Here, although older, she still looks appealing and adds strength and complexity to her character, who cherishes her independence. She has had a lesbian relationship in the past, but is comfortable in this heterosexual one. The trouble is that her new-found lover is fiercely jealous and hires a young man to spy on her. The fellow is a problem case, having a prison past and being prone to trouble. There is a subplot involving the young man and his ailing mother.

One is pulled along by the involving story and the acting, and of course, there is Venice, with a scenic perspective different from the clichéd look of the city that we usually get.

“Smuggler’s Song,” directed by Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche, is an unsual period film rich in mid-18th century ambience. A folk hero, Louis Mandrin, has been executed and his followers attempt to carry on the tradition of smuggling, symbolic of resistance to he throne. They are dedicated to traveling through country villages to hawk their wares, including tobacco and attractive fabrics.

They are also involved in printing and disseminating the forbidden writings of their fallen hero. They are hunted, and their lives are constantly imperiled. The film concentrates on their commitment despite it all, and in addition, provides a depiction of their nomadic way of life, including the relations with their womenfolk, who are also part of the rebelliousness. The mood is somber, the tone tense.

“Pater,” directed by Alain Cavalier, is a talky satire of French political life that is alive with wit, although so lengthy that even the French may grow a bit tired of it. However, the poking fun at the French politicos is often quite droll. The director plays a fictional French president and Vincent Lindon his newly designated prime minister. They are enacting their roles for a film they want to make, sort of an inside movie game.

The humor comes from their devoting elaborate attention to what they eat and what they wear, concentrating more on such matters than on governing. There is also some hilarity in the political maneuvering. No sooner than Lindon is made prime minister, the president is backstabbing him with the selection of a replacement. The film is severely in need of tightening, but it is consistently provocative with its comedic take on the political scene.

The one film that was a thorough bore is “The Screen Illusion,” (L’Illusion Comique”), directed by Mathieu Amalric and an updated riff on Corneille’s 17th Century play. The film was commission by the venerable La Comédie-Française. The plot involves a hotel concierge following a man who is missing and has a reputation of having made a string of women fall for him.

Although now taking place in the present day, the work is in verse. It gets increasingly ponderous, and –how can I resist?—goes from bad to verse.

An important film, which I didn’t get to see was the big French box office hit “The Intouchables,” directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, about a paralyzed man whose spirit is revived by a Senegalese caretaker. A highlight in some of the special programming was the presentation of a fresh print of the wonderful classic, “Children of Paradise.”


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