Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2014

Kurt Brokaw reviews his top choices from the 19th annual showcase of contemporary French film.


Deneuve in the driver's seat in Emmanuelle Bercot's "On My Way."
Deneuve in the driver's seat in Emmanuelle Bercot's "On My Way."

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Senior film critic Kurt Brokaw is viewing all 24 features in the 2014 Rendez-vous With French Cinema lineup. The series screens March 6-10 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Young & Beautiful
(François Ozon. 2013. France. 95 min.)

Steven Soderberg’s The Girlfriend Experience and Steve McQueen’s Shame have both explored the dark side of sex addiction, but leave it to the French to get it right.

François Ozon’s wise and rueful statement on the subject starts as a summer loss-of-virginity of the 17-year-old Isabelle (supermodel Marine Vacth, who is 23) and over the next three seasons, watches her harden into stone. Ozon senses this slender, breathtaking beauty can hold the screen without a moment’s hesitation as she shape-shifts from a Sorbonne freshman and sometime babysitter for her Parisian parents’ friends, into a high-end prostitute who demands every dollar she books via her website and private mobile line.

We watch Young & Beautiful with growing curiosity, because there’s no apparent reason for Isabelle to be turning tricks in hotel rooms or cars for 300 Euros; her parents are pleasant upper middle class sophisticates who live comfortably, and all of Isabelle’s earnings are stashed unspent in her bedroom closet. While the teen has a mild interest in Internet porn, it appears to be more as an educational training tool than an outlet. What’s more, she hardly appears hungry for sex; we watch her quietly masturbate alone in her bed, and her first intercourse is brusque and joyless.

Indeed, when she starts having paid sex, the trysts show her as an obedient hire simply performing on cue. She gets along well with her sweet younger brother, who’s just starting to date, and she’s reasonably close with her mom (a fine Géraldine Pailhas), whose clothes she borrows for assignations even as she suspects mom may be having an affair with a younger family friend. Her step-dad (Frédéric Pierrot) remains a neutral and largely disinterested live-in. Her real father, who’s moved out of Paris, is a brand new dad with his own new companion. All or none of these events may be triggering her risky extracurricular adventures through the seasons; Ozon lets us do our own speculating as a medley of François Hardy songs match the moods of the changing seasons to their unfolding actions.

Along the way, we feel some crisis may jolt all this, and it does—a certain incident involving a much older and steady customer (well played by Johan Leysen). This prompts a police investigation and a showdown between the outraged mother and her daughter. Isabelle throws mom’s suspected dalliance back at her, and the angry parent tells Isabelle what we’re beginning to suspect: that perhaps this is a teenager who’s inexplicably “bad to the bone.”

Isabelle briefly partners, and then breaks up with, a shy Sorbonne boy. Put into therapy, she keeps an upper hand with her middle age male psychiatrist and seriously suggests she pay for their sessions with her earnings. She coolly seems to read the therapist the same way she intuits her own stepfather, as an older man who might desire the right younger woman. Ozon’s film, unlike the McQueen and Soderbergh efforts, is full of nuance, conjecture, and mystery. Nearly all the sex scenes, and there are many, are graphically discreet and thus maintain a clinical exoticism that’s far more compelling than explicit eroticism. Ozon understands this cinematic truth better than McQueen, Soderbergh, and even master director Luis Buñuel nearly 50 years ago, who put Catherine Deneuve through extravagant torment, as the housewife/prostitute in Belle Du Jour. There’s no visible torment in Isabelle’s life. Maybe 17 is the new 37.

Ozon may be positioning Vacth as a young, budding version of Charlotte Rampling, whom he directed in three prior films. But Vacth is more likely to remind you of the 19-year-old Lauren Bacall, partner to Humphrey Bogart (at 43), in To Have and Have Not and later in The Big Sleep and Key Largo. The camera loved Bacall in 1943 as it loves Vacth in 2014—she doesn’t have to do much to hold you in thrall.

Young & Beautiful has a richly rewarding conclusion—a scene in which Isabelle comes face to face with the woman who was married to an older man the teen whore pleasured again and again. It’s a joy to report that this woman is played by Rampling, and that Rampling keeps building her career in shrewd, considered ways, film after film. She’s aging as female screen legends always should but seldom do—preserving both the alluring screen presence that defined her early persona as well as her commanding sexuality that’s continued to dazzle audiences worldwide. Ozon has given Rampling just one scene, but every second is a master class in how to remain as eternally young and beautiful as that new girl in town.

Young & Beautiful shows March 7th at 8 pm at IFC Theaters; March 8th at 6:30 pm at the Walter Reade Theater; and March 8th at 9 pm at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).

Love Is The Perfect Crime
(Arnaud Larrieu. Jean-Marie Larrieu. 2013. France. 110 min.)

“I had Professor Marc last semester, but this is the first time I’ve taken a course under him.”

The above quip, long a favorite in faculty lounges everywhere, isn’t heard in the Larrieu brothers’ dry, crisp thriller, Love is the Perfect Crime. Too bad; it could have fit perfectly as a comment on Marc (Mathieu Amalric) who, like Isabelle in Young & Beautiful, is a sex addict but a far more conventional variety.

A creative writing professor at an unnamed university (filmed on the staggeringly swanky University of Lucerne mountain campus), Marc has a constant eye on the student body. Prattling on about James Joyce and assigning dreamy writing exercises to his largely female class, handsome Marc is the coeds’ darling. He’s never more in his element than when he’s driving some young thing like Barbara (Marion Duval) to the spectacular mountain chalet he shares with his sister, Marianne (Karin Viard, blond and sulky). Marianne is making time with Marc’s department head, and occasionally seems to share her brother’s bed, as well. The problems begin when the adoring Barbara vanishes after her sleepover.

As Marc meanders moodily on skies around his snow trails—carefully avoiding a treacherous, bottomless ravine into which he tosses the missing Barbara’s red heel—another gorgeous dish, Anna (Maïwenn Besco) appears, introducing herself as Barbara’s stepmother. Uh, oh. It doesn’t take Marc long to seduce her, too, though he has to put yet another cute student’s bold advances on hold. This prompts the frustrated kid to order her father’s thugs to give Marc a beating. Things really fall apart when the bleeding Marc is pulled over by a stern cop. The lawman is going to disappear, too.

Love is the Perfect Crime is an absurdly enjoyable caper, replete with zigzag twists and shivery surprises. Amalric, unleashed here with a literate, whip smart script and the juggler’s task of keeping all those pie plates merrily spinning on sticks, is a twinkly lothario. He doesn’t have tenure, but academics-with-benefits sometimes already have everything they want and need. Besco, a sloe-eyed, tree-top tall lovely, is endlessly fetching. The Larrieus’ production design and cinematography are ravishing—this is a big, handsome movie-movie. You may not be persuaded by a minute of it, but if you have a sweet tooth for French neo-noir, you can’t help but believe your lying eyes.

Love is the Perfect Crime shows March 7th at 1 pm at the Walter Reade Theater; March 9th at 9:30 pm at IFC; and March 10th at 9:15 pm at the Walter Reade Theater.

On My Way
(Emmanuelle Bercot. 2013. France. 116 min.)

The cards are stacked against Bettie (Catherine Deneuve) from the opening seconds of On My Way, in which she’s strolling an empty beach, lost in thought, and we glimpse a quick cut to her in a youthful, glory-days pose. It might be a still from Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969) in which Deneuve briefly shed her top and sent waves of longing rippling through darkened art cinemas worldwide.

As we learn in Bercot’s expertly mounted but mercilessly chilly portrait of growing old alone in contemporary France, it’s a reference to Bettie’s brief reign as Miss Brittany, a regional beauty queen. She’s a small town girl who never left her roots and opened a struggling (and apparently doomed) restaurant with her mother, married a philanderer who choked to death on a chicken bone, birthed a divorced and angry daughter whose meds are badly out of whack, and has a snappy, sullen, preteen grandson. Bettie’s a chain smoker who drinks too much and is socially naive, and she’s just been dumped by a 20-something lover. So she sets out alone in her Mercedes station wagon, determined to attend a reunion of local beauty contest winners like herself.

Nothing goes right. She runs out of cigarettes, and stops to watch a dotty senior who takes forever rolling one for her. She spends a night laying about getting drunk in a singles bar where the favorite pastime is making animal sounds—then falls into bed with a vacant slacker whose best come-on line is “you must have been something…a real beauty.” At a convenience store where she finally finds cigarettes, she gets pulled into a nasty family squabble that ends with the husband harshly admonishing her to “move your fat ass.”

It gets worse. Her daughter Muriel (the singer Camille who takes no prisoners) persuades her to pick up her son, Charly (Nemo Schiffman) and drive him to his paternal grandfather for a visit. The kid sings along (horribly) with his headphones on and steals sunglasses from a store when Bettie’s credit card stops working. At the pageant, posed with her aged contemporaries in a photo op, Bettie faints. She ends up being lectured by glum, grumpy grandfather Alain (Gérard Garouste) and—wouldn’t you know?—she goes to bed with him, too. Alain is not exactly the sharpest pencil in the box, either.

On My Way earns its spot as a critic’s choice for a simple reason that has nothing to do with all these disheartening plot points, but everything to do with how this movie got made to begin with. It’s a learning exercise many independent filmmakers may want to study and file away:

It’s been widely reported that co-writer/director Bercot conceived and developed this movie exclusively for Deneuve. Bercot pitched it to Deneuve and insisted she wouldn’t make the movie without her. This will remind you that the American director J.C. Chandor did the same thing in selling All Is Lost to Robert Redford. He convinced Redford with a 30-page outline that the actor had to do the film…and of course Redford at 77 has seen a distinguished career kick-started anew. It’s certainly possible the same thing can happen to Deneuve at 70. Pitching a change-of-pace project to a star you’re betting everything on may be a risky but fascinating way to get that project greenlit.

On My Way is not the same movie as All Is Lost. Chandor’s movie title for Redford’s awful journey on storm tossed seas is far more accurate. Bercot’s title should have been more along the lines of the Redford film’s marketing theme, “Never Give Up.” Deneuve, who opened Rendez-vous With French Cinema three years ago with the pleasant critic’s choice, Potiche, may be defining a new career direction. When you’re on your way to see her, consider the possibilities.

On My Way opens Rendez-vous With French Cinema March 6th at 7:30 pm at the Paris Theater. It also shows March 7th at 6:45 pm at BAM and March 8th at 7 pm at IFC.

Mood Indigo
(Michel Gondry. 2013. France/Belgium. 90 min.)

In his detailed storyboards and notes that accompany a 2003 two-DVD collection of music videos, documentaries, and other short films, Michel Gondry describes his first experimentations with computer-generated imagery: “I was trying to come up with a new way to use the morphing effect. One idea was to shoot stills that worked in a series of four frames per second and then morph in between each one, so the character morphs but not the background. It would stretch as if sticking to your skin.”

He goes on: “The second effect was the idea of stopping time by using two camera shots simultaneously and morphing between them. Your eyes have different perspectives and as your brain ’s trying to match them, it reconstructs the construction of the layers into a three dimensional image. If your brain can reconstruct an image in 3D, why not a computer?”

Starting in the late 90s, as Internet technology was changing the landscape of visual effects, Gondry began injecting his pioneering theories into videos for Daft Punk, The White Stripes, Foo Fighters, Bjork, and in particular Kylie Minogue. His video for Minogue’s “Come Into My World” was a game-changer—we watch four Kylies stroll past each other through city streets in a 360-degree circle, while a large cast and neighborhood activities progressively evolve behind them.

The Minogue video was a transformative exercise, a significant leap forward in effects visualization. Gondry’s work set the tech bar higher than French film directors had ever conceived—his goal was affirming a credo set by a favorite French author, Boris Vian. In 1947 Vian claimed his novels were “all true because I imagined them from the start to the finish.” Gondry has built his career around the same premise—if he could dream it, he could figure out ways to produce it without being held to traditional animation, papier-mâché, miniatures, stop motion, rotoscoping and other time-tested techniques.

Gondry’s triumphant summation of a decade’s worth of illusion making is Mood Indigo. It’s a $23 million production up on the big screen, surely every indie filmmaker’s over-the-moon jackpot—an unabashedly romantic blending of his dad’s eternal affection for Duke Ellington (thus the “Mood Indigo” title from the 1930 jazz standard) and the legendary organist Lou Bennett, who could swing a Hammond B-3 like Jimmy Smith. The music supports a gee-whiz arsenal of visual tricks that never quit. Gondry has a cartoonist’s love for wild exaggeration coupled with a mime’s passion for subtle mischief. Unlike Tim Burton, there’s no meanness or Guignol edge in Gondry’s imagery. You can trust this movie to your children, which in this sex-drenched festival is no small accomplishment.

Mood Indigo grows out of the post World War II novel L'Ecume Des Jours by Vian, an inventor, literary dandy and recording artist who helped introduce American jazz (including Ellington) to French audiences. It stars the beguiling Audrey Tautou, who’s already proven she can play Coco Chanel as an aging enchantress on screen while pitching Chanel No. 5 as an ageless ingénue on television. Tautou partners Romain Duris, last seen as the charmer in Populaire who kept the country’s high-speed typing champ on point.

Tautou (as Chloé) and Duris (as Colin) fall in love in a glass-enclosed swan that floats over Paris and marry in go-karts that zip around a church. He’s an inventor who plays tunes on his “pianocktail” which has its keys connected by tubes to different kinds of liquor (so instead of mixing yourself a drink you can play yourself one). He also has a lawyer/mentor (the irresistible Omar Sy) who cooks up delicacies like papier-mâché eels that move around on plates and resist being speared. Duke Ellington’s classy ballad “Chloe” accompanies all this. Are you getting the idea?

Gondry uses rows of portable typewriters from Populaire that rattle out some of the movie’s narration. The doorbell to Colin’s luxe Paris flat is a ringing mechanical bug, and there’s a tiny mouse-man in residence who skitters around. People’s legs suddenly elongate on dance floors and skating rinks. But just when you think Colin and Chloé will live happily-ever-after, Gondry segues his plot into a dark side not uncommon to classic fairy tales: one of the major characters contracts a lily pad on a lung. This leads to fainting, visits by the doctor (modestly played by Gondry), then major surgery with staggering hospital bills…and the eventual death of the character. The color is drained away and replaced by black-and-white. Colin and Chloé’s lovely Paris apartment withers. The mouse-man rescues a scrapbook of child-like drawings before scampering away from the crumbling home.

Mood Indigo is a bittersweet French confection, happy/sad in its frenetic inventiveness. The soundtrack, filled with Duke Ellington’s eclectic and sometimes mournful melodies, includes elegant contributions by another musician for whom Gondry directed a 2007 video, Paul McCartney.

Mood Indigo shows March 9th at 7 pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center; March 10th at 7 pm at IFC; and March 10th at 9:30 pm at BAM.

The French Minister
(Bertrand Tavernier. 2013. France. 113 min.)

Tavernier’s rousing crowd-pleaser The French Minister will refresh your faith in French politics; that alone makes it worth adding to your must-see list. It’s an accessible, highly entertaining look at how men and women who govern in good faith can inch along the machinery of civilization. The bonus is how easily this narrative drama by one of France’s few living legendary directors demonstrates that a robust, meat-and-potatoes mainstream movie can be more intellectually rigorous and wittily sophisticated than anything in this 19th “Rendez-vous” edition.

At 73, Tavernier is a marvel. He’s poised to sweep into Manhattan not just to introduce his new movie on March 16th, but to give master classes at Columbia University (March 12th), Hunter College (March 10th) and Bard College (March 18-19). You’ve probably seen the films he’ll be introducing to fresh young eyes—Round Midnight, Coup de Torchon, Life and Nothing But. He’ll also lead a public discussion at Bard on Capra’s Platinum Blonde and Kazan’s Wild River. This is an auteur and scholar at the top of his game, and it’s not surprising these programs are sponsored by a cultural unit of the French Embassy.

(The other newsy item worth mentioning is that you may be drawn to The French Minister by the actress Julie Gayet, who plays a government adviser to the minister and was last seen, in real life, as the cashiered girlfriend of French President Francois Hollande. Gayet was nominated for but didn’t win the Cesar as Best Supporting Actress; she’s crisply competent in a decidedly minor role. The young woman you may be more attracted to, and who’s essential as a balancing mechanism in the film’s plot, is Marina, the committed partner of the speechwriter, who plays an elementary schoolteacher; she’s acted by the vivacious Anaïs Demoustier.

The French Minister is loosely based on the life of Dominique de Villepin, France’s Prime Minister from 2005-2007. De Villepin graduated from Manhattan’s Lycée Francais in 1971 and became a career diplomat. Former president Jacques Chirac was his mentor and considered de Villepin as a potential successor before gravitating to Nicolas Sarkozy. De Villepin was a poetry buff and published a volume of verse, The Shark and the Seagull (Le Requin Et La Mouette).

One of de Villepin’s speechwriters was Antonin Baudry, who later wrote the graphic novel, Weapons of Mass Diplomacy (Quai D’Orsay), using the pseudonym Abel Lanzac. Baudry, Christopher Blain and Tavernier collaborated on The French Minister screenplay, creating the fictional minister of foreign affairs, Alexandre Taillard de Worms, acted in full throttle by Thierry Lhermitte.

Worms is the lead character and he’s worlds removed from Peter Capaldi’s hilariously foul-mouthed spin meister in In the Loop and Robert De Niro’s wacky adviser who ignites a war with Albania in Wag the Dog. These were pure out-and-out satires; while The French Minister has satirical elements and more than its share of fictionalized countries with strange-sounding names, it’s a movie that walks a new and highly original line.

Tavernier asks that you take his contrived international crises and emergencies as more than a comedic romp—and mostly you do—his ensemble cast, innovative script and sumptuous production work non-stop to earn your undivided attention and respect. Tavernier’s work is closest in spirit to Pierre Schollier’s excellent The Minister (L'exercice de l'État) of 2011 in which Olivier Gourmet played an equally harried French minister of transportation, caught up in the government’s decision to privatize the country’s rail system. That film, perhaps to its credit or detriment, was completely serious… and hasn’t yet found an American distributor.

In The French Minister, Arthur (Raphaël Personnaz, earnest and spiffy) is hired as a “commando” 24/7 speechwriter. He’s to be the language specialist for the loquacious Worms, who jogs, calls people “pal,” draws upon the exploits of Tintin, endlessly quotes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (“struggle is the father of all things”), harps on the principles of legitimacy/unity/efficiency… and sets off room-shaking thumps and a whirlwind of papers whenever he charges in. Worms upstages everyone, even the luminous Jane Birkin who has a brief luncheon scene as a Nobel Prize winner in literature and can barely get in a word.

This embassy office has its own encrypted operating system, and Internet access is forbidden. (Though Claude, the chief of staff, wonderfully acted by Niels Arestrup who just won the Cesar for Best Supporting Actor, has access to a tablet he keeps locked in a safe.) The film’s basic tensions are between Worms and Claude as they attempt to delve out solutions to problems in non-hotbox countries like Turkey and Chile, as well as fictionalized lands like Lusdemistan and Ubanga. Tavernier pictures both these diplomats largely in win-win situations, ending with Worms’ stirring speech to an applauding United Nations Security Council. Like Claude’s luxurious cat who curls up on the official’s desk and jumps whenever Worms plunges through the door, The French Minister is conceived and executed as a feel-good movie. As the closing night attraction in this “Rendez-vous,” it’s a keeper.

The French Minister shows Sunday March 16th at 3:40 pm and 9 pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

This concludes critic’s choices. Watch for upcoming selections in New Directors/New Films, showing March 19-30.