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A Preview of the 2020 Rendez-Vous With French Cinema

Now in its 25th edition, “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” returns to New York’s Walter Reade Theater from March 5-15 to serve as a gathering place for cineastes with a preference for films with a Gallic bent. Over the course of those 11 days, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in conjunction with UniFrance, will be presenting a program of 22 features, covering a wide variety of genres, a collection that includes the newest works from some of France’s most well-known filmmakers as well as presentations from emerging new voices deserving to be heard. Many of these screenings will have the filmmakers and other key talent on hand to participate in Q&A’s afterwards. (If you get to the mike, please try to avoid using the phrase “Il s’agin plus d’un commentaries qu’une question” at all costs.) In addition, there will be a number of discussions that are open to the public, including the festival’s inaugural event, an on-stage conversation between actors Juliette Binoche and Ethan Hawke.

Binoche and Hawke will also be on hand to present the festival’s Opening Night presentation, the New York premiere of “The Truth,” the latest from internationally acclaimed filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, his first since winning the Palme d’Or for “Shoplifters” in 2018, and his first shot in France. Catherine Deneuve plays a legendary film actress who is about to publish her memoirs, an occasion that brings the arrival of her screenwriter daughter (Binoche), along with her husband (Hawke) and their young daughter (Clementine Grenier), to help celebrate. From the moment they reunite, it is clear that there is a long-standing frostiness between mother and daughter which is only exacerbated further when the latter gets a look at the book and disagrees vehemently with how her mother has chosen to recollect her life. Those worried that Kore-eda’s decision to work in another country might lead to a less distinctive work will be relieved to know that while the language and actors may be different, the concerns that he is dealing with here—including family relationships and the weight of passing time—are of a piece with his earlier works. The film is also a great showcase for its two lead actresses, who manage to create a fully convincing portrayal of a particularly tense mother-daughter dynamic and Deneuve gets to deliver a hilariously snippy one-word comeback to a reference to a particular actress that is pretty much worth the price of admission itself.

In addition to “The Truth,” Deneuve and Binoche each have another film at the festival. In “Happy Birthday” (March 12, 15), the new film from Cedric Kahn, Deneuve plays the matriarch of a family that has gathered together for her 70th birthday that is thrown into upheaval with the unexpected arrival of her daughter (Emmanuelle Bercot), who shows up after being gone for several years, leaving her own daughter (Luana Bajrami, last seen in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) in her own mother’s care, with a litany of grievances—some justified, some born out of her need to be the center of attention and some the result of the mental instability that everyone in the family seems willing to ignore. For films about dysfunctional families getting together for a celebration that explodes in a shower of buried secrets and long-simmering resentments, Kahn does not exactly bring anything new but the actors make the most of the material—other than the always-regal Deneuve, the other scene-stealer is Vincent Macaigne as the screw-up son who tries to manipulate the events to help spice up a vague film project he claims to be working on.

As for Binoche, she is the focus of “Who You Think I Am” (March 6, 9) Safy Nebbou’s adaptation of Camille Laurens’ best-seller. She plays Claire, a philosophy professor who is reeling from a breakup with a younger man and decides to invent a fake Facebook profile in order to spy on her ex online. This becomes complicated when her messages catch the eye of her ex’s friend and they begin an online relationship that he wants to move into the real world but which she is loathe to do for any number of reasons. This may sound like the premise for an updated version of a standard-issue rom-com but it blessedly does not go for the storybook ending one might find in that kind of story. Nevertheless, I was never able to get into this movie at all for one simple reason—as much as I like Juliette Binoche and admire her performance her on a technical level, I never bought her for a single second as someone who would do any of the things that her character does here. 

In a fortuitous bit of timing, two of the films that took home prizes at France’s recent (and highly controversial) Cesar awards are on the schedule as well. Anais Demoustier overcame some heavy competition to win the Best Actress prize for her work in Nicolas Pariser’s funny and thoughtful “Alice and the Mayor” (March 7, 11), where she plays a philosophy professor who leaves her teaching position to returns to her hometown of Lyon to work for the mayor (Fabrice Luchini) as part of his communications department. After he confesses to her that he cannot think of any big ideas to improve the city, she takes on the job of coming up with advice and suggestions designed to jump-start his long-dormant progressive spirit, much to the chagrin of colleagues who are more interested in keeping their jobs and maintaining the status quo. “Papicha” (March 6, 12), which I was not able to view, tells a story set during the Algerian Civil War, about a young woman (Lyna Khoudri) who is studying French at the local university who discovers a passion for fashion design that she eventually utilizes to protest the religious conservatism around her. Khoudri was awarded the prize for Best Female Newcomer while debuting director Mounia Meddour won the award for Best New Film.

Of the famous directors with new projects in this year’s festival, none has had a longer career than Claude Lelouch, who has been directing feature films since 1961. Alas, if his latest film, “The Best Years of a Life” (March 7) is any indication, perhaps a graceful retirement is long overdue. The film is a second sequel to his 1966 Oscar and Palme d’Or-winning “A Man and a Woman” and once again reunites co-stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimee in the roles that made them international stars. This time around, Jean-Louis (Trintignant) is in a nursing home dealing with the onset of dementia and one-time lover Anne (Aimee) is running a fabric ship in Normandy when his son (Anotoine Sire) looks her up and asks her to visit him in the hopes that a reminder of their long-ago romance might spark something in him. Although one cannot deny the power of seeing two screen legends like Trintignant and Aimee reuniting, it is too bad that it has to be wasted on this lazy and mawkish bit of empty nostalgia that has so little to say about anything that it is forced to drag in lengthy flashbacks to the original film (though practically none that I can recall from Lelouch’s fairly weird and long-forgotten 1986 sequel “A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later”) in order to get it up to an acceptable running time. The whole thing comes across at times like a whimsical version of “Amour” and while some Lelouch devotees—such people presumably do exist—may embrace it, others, upon hearing the deployment of Francis Lai’s infamous earworm of a theme song, may find themselves wishing that they had brought an extra pillow along.

In stark contrast to Lelouch’s predictable bag of goods, the always-iconoclastic Quentin Dupieux and Bruno Dumont are presenting new works that are just as wild and bizarre as anything that they have done before. Believe me, that's saying a lot. Dupieux’s latest, “Deerskin” (March 8, 14), is a surreal black comedy (no surprise there, I suppose) in which Jean Dujardin plays a man in the throes of a midlife crisis who takes virtually all of the money he has left in the world and buys a 100% deerskin jacket that immediately becomes the focal point of his entire existence. He soon determines that his must be the only jacket in the world and sets out to acquire and destroy all other jackets, even going so far as to film the increasingly grisly lengths that he goes through in order to achieve that goal with the help of the mini-DV camera that came with the coat. Admittedly, the film never quite pulls together into a completely satisfying whole, though with a premise this odd, it is hard to imagine how it ever could have done so. On the bright side, it is short enough so that the basic joke doesn’t completely run out of steam before it ends and the byplay between Dujardin and Adele Haenel, as the bartended who fancies herself as a film editor, is reasonably inspired.

As for Dumont, his contribution is “Joan of Arc” (March 11, 13), a follow-up to “Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc,” an origin story centering on the early years of one of history’s most famous figures that he reconfigured into a full-on hard-rock opera complete with head-banging and dancing nuns. That film divided audiences between those who were intrigued by Dumont’s offbeat take on the familiar story while others who felt that it was pretentious, ear-splitting nonsense. Although I tend to find Dumont to be a maddeningly uneven director, I actually liked “Jeanette” quite a bit and while “Joan of Arc,” which focuses mostly on her trial for heresy after leading the French into battle against England, is not quite as strange as its predecessor (there are fewer songs this time around), it is still a compelling and fascinating work. Most of this is due to the performance by ten-year-old Lise Leplat Prudhomme, who reprises her lead roll of Joan and proves to be just as magnetic of a presence as she was the first time around. No, Dumont’s films are not going to replace “The Passion of Joan of Arc” anytime soon but anyone looking for a fresh cinematic take on world history may well find it invigorating.

“Proxima” (March 7, 10) is the eagerly awaited third feature from director Alice Winocour, who previously made “Augustine” (2012) and “Disorder” (2015). It tells the story of Sarah (Eva Green), an astronaut whose dreams of going into space seem to have come true when she is chosen to go on a year-long mission designed to set the stage for future voyages to Mars. Unfortunately, this means being separated from her young daughter while she spends the next year training for the mission at a facility in Moscow. This proves to be a bigger challenge than expected, as she tries to maintain a bond with her child during this time while suppressing her own feelings of separation anxiety so as not to arouse doubt in the mind of the mission’s sexist American captain (Matt Dillon). As much as I liked Winocour’s earlier efforts, I have to concede that this one is a bit of a mess that feels as if it was written decades ago during a time when women were not often members of missions into space. Another key problem is that the kid is so omnipresent throughout the story—even being brought in at Sarah’s insistence to sit during a classified debriefing—that you never get any real sense of the separation and loss that Sarah is supposed to be experiencing. That said, Green is quite good despite being given a role that borders on being unplayable and the score by Ryuichi Sakamoto is striking but considering the talent involved, “Proxima” is one of the more disappointing titles in this year’s lineup.

With their latest works, Christophe Honore and Cedric Klapsich tackle romantic comedy-dramas with decidedly muddled results. In Honore’s “On a Magical Night” (March 6, 9) Chiara Mastroianni plays a law professor whose affair with a young student is discovered by her husband of 25 years (Benjamin Biolay). After a fight, she relocates to a hotel across the street from their apartment to contemplate what to do next and over the course of—well, you saw the title—she is visited by a host of odd characters, including the 25-year-old version of her husband (Vincent Lacoste), the woman who was his first great love (Camille Cottin) and the representation of her own will (Stephane Roger). It sounds whimsical enough to go on the same shelf as “One from the Heart” but it never quite makes it. Part of the problem is that while Mastroianni is as strong of a screen presence as ever, the character that she is playing is so off-putting that it is virtually impossible to warm to her or her story. Another problem—one that should inspire some interesting reactions from the anti-Roman Polanski contingent—is the revelation that the husband’s first love was his piano teacher who initially seduced him when he was just 14, a detail that is dropped in and then never really dealt with. Klapsich’s “Someone, Somewhere” (March 9, 14) tells the story of two people, a warehouse worker (Francois Civil) and a research assistant (Ana Girardot), who seem destined to be together—they live virtually next door to each other, they shop at the same store and walk the same streets—but who are too absorbed in the bubbles of their respective lives to notice each other. Some of this is amusing and the notion of making a rom-com that ends where most would normally start is interesting but the film is too long for its own good, the near-misses grow tedious and its insights about the young people and their devotion to things like dating apps in lieu of experiencing life is enough to make one look up how to say “OK, boomer” in French.

Of the films in this year’s lineup, there was none that I dreaded more than “The Specials” (March 14, 15), the latest work from Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, who had a big hit with the ghastly “The Intouchables.” Based on my distaste for that would-be inspirational buddy comedy about a rich paraplegic and the guy from the streets that he hires as his caretaker, I had a feeling that this one, in which Vincent Cassel plays a man who runs a shelter for severely autistic young people in the face of dwindling finances and crippling bureaucracy and Reda Kateb is a friend who finds jobs for underprivileged youths, would be more than the same. Happily, the film, whose two main characters are based on real people, is a good deal better than that, largely due to its determination to eschew the sappy sentiment in order to take aim at the French medical system. On top of that, "The Specials" also seems more interested in shutting down those willing to help with those that society has given up on than in providing them with those necessary services. The film is nowhere near perfect—there are some unforgivable melodramatic lapses here and there and there is always the sense that this material might be better served by a full-length documentary—but the reasonably serious tone and the strong performances from Cassel and Kateb make it worth a look.

There are a number of newer and lesser-known filmmakers presenting films this year and one of them just happens to be the best of the bunch. That would be “Perfect Nanny” (March 9, 11), a slow-burning but absolutely mesmerizing thriller from Lucie Boreleteau, following up her 2014 feature debut “Fidelio: Alice’s Journey.” Based on the best-selling novel by Leila Slimani, one inspired by a notorious real-life incident, it tells the story of harried parents Myriam (Leila Bekhti) and Paul (Antoine Reinartz), who decide to hire a nanny to look over their two young children so that increasingly frazzled Myriam can go back to work. Amazingly, the perfect candidate arrives in Louise (Karin Viard), who has great references and instantly hits it off with the kids. For a while, everything is great but as Myriam and Paul take advantage of Louise’s presence in order to focus on their own jobs and lives, Louise begins to become deeply enmeshed in the family dynamic even though she is not an actual member, as she is constantly being reminded. This leads to increasingly strange behavior on her part that Myrian and Paul are helpless to deal with and which eventually goes into very grim areas. Yes, it sounds like one of those tacky cable TV melodramas on the surface, but I can assure you that this is an intelligently crafted and absolutely merciless psychological thriller that effectively examines the willingness of people to put their absolute trust in people based on little more than a piece of paper. Anchored by a powerful performance by Viard, "Perfect Nanny" is a dark and uncompromising work that will leave unsettled long after it has come to its shattering conclusion.

“Burning Ghost” (March 10, 13), the award-winning debut feature from Stephane Batut, is an offbeat dramatic fantasy about a young man named Juste (Thimotee Robart) who is a spirit who helps escort the recently deceased people of northeast Paris to the afterlife, even though he cannot seem to go there himself. Essentially drifting through his form of purgatory, Juste’s existence is thrown into upheaval when he runs into Agathe (Judith Chemla), a woman he knew a decade earlier when he was alive, and drifts into a relationship that proves to be unsurprisingly complicated. Although the performance by Robart is perhaps too ethereal for its own good—at one point, he becomes invisible and the difference is largely negligible—but the quietly haunting mood that Batut establishes and maintains throughout keeps the material from slipping into nonsense. Another debut feature is Sarah Suco’s “The Dazzled” (March 8, 13), a drama about a 12-year-old girl named Camille (Celeste Brunnquell) whose parents fall under the spell of a strict Catholic Community headed by a charismatic leader who demands total obedience from its members. As her parents become further enmeshed, Camille is torn between trying to make them happy and trying to figure out a way to shield herself and her younger siblings from the cult. This is a largely effective drama with a stellar performance from Brunnquell that is unfortunately undermined by a last-minute plot development that is dropped into the mix without ever really being dealt with as anything other than a device.

“South Terminal” (March 11, 15), from Raba Ameur-Zaimeche, is a violent political thriller set amidst the upheaval of Algeria in the nineties. In it, a doctor (Ramzy Bedia) tries to simply go about his job of tending to the wounded while demonstrating no opinion about the brutal conflict going on around him. Despite this neutral approach, he cannot help but get dragged into the conflict, first when his firebrand journalist brother-in-law is murdered in the streets and later when he is kidnapped by rebel forces so that he can use his skills to save the life of one of their leaders, a move that makes him the target of vengeful government forces who torture him for giving comfort to the enemy. Although it sounds gripping enough, the film meanders considerably and never comes together into the kind of powerful statement that it seems to think that it is delivering. Considerably lighter in tone is “Spread Your Wings” (March 15), a family adventure in which grumpy teenage Thomas (Louis Vazquez) is forced to spend the summer in the middle of nowhere with his environmentalist dad (Jean-Paul Rouve) and ends up helping him with training a flock of endangered geese to use a safe migratory path. Yeah, it sounds a lot like Carroll Ballard’s wonderful 1996 film “Fly Away Home” and it is not nearly as good as that one, largely because the kid is such a sulky twerp in the first hour that it is impossible to warm to him. However, once the journey kicks in during the second half, director Nicolas Vanier manages to make it come across as both visually extraordinary and dramatically exciting even though I suppose there is not really much suspense as to how things will turn out. This is a perfectly pleasant work, and would be an ideal film for parents to help introduce younger kids to the wonders of foreign films.

In addition to the aforementioned “Papicha,” there are a few films unspooling that I was not able to screen in advance. “Cuties” (March 10, 12), which recently screened at Sundance, tells the story of an 11-year-old girl (Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi) who is torn between the traditions of her family and her desire to perform with a local competitive hip-hop dance group. “An Easy Girl” (March 7, 12), from Rebecca Zlotowski (“Planetarium”), is a coming-of-age drama about a 16-year-old girl (Mina Farid) who falls under the spell of her more worldly cousin (Zahia Dehar) over the course of the summer. Damien Manivel’s “Isadora’s Children” (March 6, 14) tells the story of a trio of women coming to terms in their own separate ways with “Mother,” a three-part dance piece created by Isadora Duncan as a response to the tragic deaths of her two children. School Life(March 8, 10) from the directing duo of Grand Corps Malade and Mehdi Idir, tells the story of a newly installed middle school vice principal (Zita Hanrot) who elects to ignore the warnings that the students are an undisciplined mob and attempts to reach out to them.

For information on screening times, ticket availability and talent appearing for Q&A’s, click here to be brought to the Film at Lincoln Center's website. The Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival runs from March 5-15. 

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

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