By William Wolf


That time of the year is here again when we can get a look at new films from France, thanks to the annual Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, sponsored jointly by the Film Society of Lincoln center and Unifrance Films. The 2014 edition, March 6-16, has an eclectic slate. My two special favorites from among those that I have seen at the convenient advance press screenings are “The French Minister” the closing night selection, directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and “Under the Rainbow,” by Agnés Jaoui. There are mixed results as to others.

With “The French Minister”—the French title is “Quai d’Orsay”--brace yourself for a hilarious satire on French foreign affairs, courtesy of long-time expert filmmaker Tavernier, with a screenplay that he co-wrote with Christophe Blain and Antonin Baudry based on Abel Lanzac’s graphic novel. The humor plays out delightfully in the Quai d’Orsay set , headquarters for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The minister is portrayed by Thierry Lhermitte as a manic, opinionated official who thinks in clichés and is a hard taskmaster for his staff of speech writers who learn that the more of his favorite clichés they serve up the happier their boss is. The spotlight is on a young, new writer, hired because of his success as an author. Played by Raphaël Personnaz, he is as bewildered as other staff members as how to best serve his master.

The activity swirling around the ministry deals with the question of invading a mythical country, as well as jabs at the real political powers, with the gags flying furiously and entertainingly. It’s very sophisticated comedy aimed at those who can especially appreciate the satirical thrusts. The pace is hectic, and Lhermitte gives an outstanding performance as the official who exasperates everyone around him.

Political satire is an art in itself, and Tavernier, with his keen eye for the targets at hand, makes the most of this witty romp fine-tuned to France but offering recognizable follies that audiences in the United States and other countries can translate as also appropriate to their governments.

I always appreciate the films of director Jaoui (“The Taste of Others” and “Look at Me”) and “Under the Rainbow” is no exception. Jaoui and her long-time collaborator Jean-Pierre Bacri both act in the film, and that immediately is a plus. The story is very layered, with much going on in the illumination of the character assortment, their aspirations and problems. The result is very colorful, at times funny, at times emotional, and on occasion a mix of both. The film is also delightful to view, with its various locations and overall cinematography.

Children are observed performing in a fairy tale, in which there is a princess and a prince The youngsters are very cute, with whether the boy will bestow a kiss on the damsel an issue. A key character in real life is also on a quest for her prince. Laura, the lovely Agathe Bonitzer, is 24 years old and smitten by a young music student, who becomes enchanted with her. He composes and gets a big break when a hot-shot, influential critic takes an interest in him and arranges for a concert to play his avant-garde music, but at a cost. His good friend will be dumped for a better known violinist to play in the orchestra.

The man arranging it all is a handsome, older guy who can get plenty of women. Of course, Agathe falls for him, and we know it is only a matter of time when he breaks her heart, while she breaks the heart of her younger boyfriend. Meanwhile, various adults are going through their own problems in parallel, intricate stories. Overall it is a charming. well-crafted film typical of the high level of what Jaoui accomplishes each time out.

Another superiorachievement is “Grand Central,” set at a nuclear power plant where immigrants work among those hired for low-paying jobs that are especially dangerous as a result of intense radioactivity. Director Rebecca Zlotowski creates an intense atmosphere with a fine sense of place. I enjoyed aspects of the nuclear work scene best, but found the romantic aspects less interesting.

Nevertheless, the director works up plenty of heat between Gary, the unskilled worker played by Tahar Rahim, and Karole, a very sexy Léa Seydoux, who is the girlfriend of Toni, another worker played by Denis Ménochet, whose life becomes endangered when he is overexposed to radiation. The affair is also exposed, creating emotional danger. There are excellent scenes in which the workers must be washed down in efforts to scrub radiation from the skin, and the equipment they must wear when getting near danger is extensive. Of course, the situation makes one think of real-life nuclear disasters.

Whenever Catherine Deneuve is in a film, it holds extra interest, as it does with director Emmanuelle Bercot’s opening night selection “On My Way.” Deneuve plays Bettie, once a Breton beauty queen, now a bistro owner struggling under accumulating debt. The plot builds on what happens when she breaks away in the wake of the pain she feels when her long-time married lover callously dumps her in favor of a younger woman.

Bettie’s self-absorbed daughter Muriel, played by musician Camillle, asks her mother to drive her son Charly (Nemo Schiffman) to his grandfather’s house. The resulting journey results in complications for Bettie that make for a fascinating story as layers of the past come into play. As expected, Deneuve’s performance is another to add to her distinguished career.

The opposite is true for Isabelle Huppert, always an actress interesting to observe, but this time in a misbegotten role in a misbegotten film, Serge Bozon’s “Tip Top.” In this police satire, Huppert plays Esther, an internal affairs investigator sent to Villeneuve to look into what happened with respect to an Algerian stool pigeon who has been murdered. She has a sidekick named Sally, played amusingly by Sandrine Kiberlain. Another key character is Detective Mendés, amusingly played by François Damiens.

One might think the combination would produce some entertaining results in the story that Bozon co-wrote with Axelle Ropert from a novel by Welsh writer Bill James. But it is all an intricate mess, as Huppert works hard to play her role as an eccentric. Esther is heavily into sadistic sex play with her husband, who likes to beat her up. She loves the violence and gives as good as she gets, knocking him around with gusto. She shows up for duty with cuts and bruises on her forehead and face. The major problem: The film simply isn’t funny enough.

I much prefer François Ozon’s “Young and Beautiful,” starring attractive Marine Vacth, as Isabelle, a 17-year-old student who becomes fascinating with the opportunities for prostitution over the internet, and finds that she can make considerable money selling her body. She gets to enjoy it, while her mother and stepfather have no clue as to what she is doing. The work gives her a sense of empowerment over the men who hire her in this new world of self-discovery.

The situation falls apart when a kind, elderly man she has been seeing dies in bed in the hotel room they have shared. His phone records lead to her and her secret becomes known to her flabbergasted parents. New complication arise, but Isabelle follows a request for what leads to a strange encounter in the fatal hotel room with the deceased’s widow, played by Charlotte Rampling. Ozon has come up with another involving and original film.

In “Suzanne,” directed by Katell Quillévéré, the young heroine pursues a road that leads to a different fate. Initially played by Apollonia Luisetti and later by Sara Forestier, Suzanne has a baby at 15, and falls for a guy who turns her on with words of love and a strong physical relationship. But he is a bad egg and leaves her holding the bag in a criminal escapade, and she is on a downward spiral after that, going to prison. Fortunately, she has an older sister who is loyal to her. Her widower father, played by François Damiens, tries his best to cope with the family tragedy. Good performances all around keep the drama surging. Moral: Young women should avoid loving bad guys.

Although “Love is the Perfect Crime,” directed by Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu is thoroughly preposterous, the excellent cast holds one’s interest, as does the attractive Alpine scenic splendor. Matthieu Amalric plays Marc, a university writing professor who is besieged by beautiful young students. As any professor knows, becoming romantically involved with students can lead to trouble, which it does here, big time. Complications start when a student with whom he sleeps disappears. There is the appearance of a woman who announces herself as the missing girl’s stepmother, and, no surprise, she too establishes an intimate relationship.

Also coming on to him with demands for sex is the demanding student daughter of a crime boss. One interesting note is the relationship between Marc and his sister, which has sexual overtones. Did something go on between them? Meanwhile, an investigator lurks on the university scene. The plot may flunk, but the cast is amusing.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi both directs and stars in “A Castle in Italy,” which involves once affluent family that has an estate in Italy, but no longer can afford to maintain and keep it. Tedeschi plays Louise, who in her forties and longs for love and the opportunity to bear a child. She has a brother, who is fatally ill with AIDS. The family portrait is an interesting one, but here again, it is the entourage of actors that provides more interest than the story line.

My nomination for the worst and most annoying film of the Rendez-Vous series goes to “Love Battles,” directed by Jacques Doillon, The film details the flirtations and ultimate explicit sex between “Her and Him,” Her by Sara Forestier, and Him by James Thiérrée (grandson of Charllie Chaplin). The woman is a bundle of neuroses fueled by the hatred of her late father and badly in need of psychiatric help—my diagnosis, not the film’s—and he is a guy who, if he had any sense, would flee far, far away from this miserable gal, who doesn’t even come across as physically attractive.

She is a mischievous tease, and they go back and forth, coming closer and closer to sex in one exasperating scene after another. When they finally go at it, it is in a pile of mud that makes everything seem all the more ludicrous. Perhaps the battle is meant to symbolize the battle of the sexes, but the film cannot be taken seriously on any level. Unless you are turned on by lousy, pretentious movies, there is nothing erotic about “Love Battles.”

In the weak category is “Playing Dead,” directed by Jean-Paul Salomé. François Damiens plays Jean, whose acting career has hit the skids. He is hired to play a role in a police reenactment of a murder in the French Alps. He tries to make the part more than it is, much to the annoyance of Géraldine Nakache as the woman heading the investigation. The plot spins with various ploys, but despite the effective cast, the film ultimately isn’t satisfactory either as comedy or as a crime story.

There are, of course, more films in the series. But these are the highlights among those I have viewed. The main venues are The Walter Reade Theater, the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, and at BAMcinématek. Reviewed March 6, 2014.


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