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WHAT'S HAPPENING WITH FRENCH FILMS? HERE'S WHAT!

New York's Film Society of Lincoln Center, Unifrance and the French Film Office/Unifrance USA are presenting the 11th annual edition of Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, where the accent is largely on comedy and women directors. The text below has been supplied by Lincoln Center; for complete information about the series, which runs from March 10 through March 19, click here.

 

PALAIS ROYAL!
Valérie Lemercier, 2005; 100m

Known best in the U.S. for her intense performance in Claire Denis’ Friday Night, Valérie Lemercier is actually one of France’s top and most irreverent comics. In Palais Royal!, she brings her considerable talents as writer, director and actress to this wickedly funny tale of a reluctant princess. Lemercier is terrific as Armelle, transforming herself from a friendly if maladroit commoner to a force of aristocratic power and privilege. Armelle is a speech therapist and the mother of two; her husband, Arnaud, happens to be the younger brother of the next in line for the throne. Life is relatively peaceful and good until one day her father-in-law, the king, suddenly dies. Rightfully the throne should pass to her brother-in-law, Alban, but her mother-in-law, Queen Eugenia, decides in favor of Arnaud. Thrust into the national spotlight, Armelle must now become more involved in the affairs of the court — but as she does, she starts to learn things about the royal family she scarcely suspected. Lemercier is splendidly aided by a cast that includes Lambert Wilson, Michel Aumont, Mathilde Seigner, Gilbert Melki and, as the Queen, Catherine Deneuve in a role she was clearly born to play. Any resemblance to any contemporary European royals is, of course, coincidental.


LA MOUSTACHE
Emmanuel Carrère, 2005; 86m

“Awash in unsettling, matter-of-fact contradictions, La Moustache’s tone is a bit like Gaslight meets Roman Polanski’s The Tenant.” – Lisa Nesselson, Variety. Writer Emmanuel Carrère — whose novels Class Trip (RDV 1999) and The Adversary (RDV 2003) have been recently adapted to the screen — now brings to the screen himself an adaptation of his 1986 novel La Moustache.Marc (Vincent Lindon) and Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos) form an attractive, successful Parisian couple. One day, while waiting to join some friends for dinner, Marc decides to shave off the thick moustache he’s worn all of his adult life. They go off to dinner, but no one — neither Agnes nor their dinner companions — says a word about the major change in Marc’s looks. Could they really not notice? Carrère delicately fashions his tale into a meditation of the distance between even those with whom we feel closest; people get to know one another so much by their occupation, their education, their politics that they ignore what should be the most personal and distinctive.


ORCHESTRA SEATS/FAUTEUILS D’ORCHESTRE
Danièle Thompson, 2006; 100m

In her third film as a director, Danièle Thompson brings together a top-notch cast (Valérie Lemercier, Albert Dupontel, Claude Brasseur, Cécile de France) to tell a very contemporary tale of characters caught between their private dreams and public images. Thompson co-wrote the screenplay with her son, Christopher, who also co-stars. A critically acclaimed and popular actress, Catherine (Valérie Lemercier), prepares to star in a show about to open on the 17th, but despite all her success she wonders if her work has any value or meaning. A musical prodigy with a worldwide following, Jean-François (Albert Dupontel), prepares for a major Beethoven recital on the 17th, yet he basically just wants to be alone. Jacques (Claude Brasseur) has amassed an extraordinary, highly personal art collection, but on the 17th it will all be sold off. Catherine, Jean-François and Jacques have all devoted their lives to art, yet what kinds of lives has art given them? As they ponder this and a host of other issues, they sometimes cross paths at a café where Jessica (Cécile de France), recently arrived in Paris, often waits on them.

NOT HERE TO BE LOVED/JE NE SUIS PAS LA POUR ETRE AIME
Stephane Brizé, 2005; 93m

A very welcome new feature by Stephane Brizé, whose first film, Hometown Blue, was warmly received in the 2000 edition of New Directors/New Films. In interviews, Stephane Brizé has spoken of his desire to create a film around a character who shows little outward sign of emotion, and with Patrick Chesnais he’s found the perfect instrument for his project; his carefully controlled, finely nuanced performance subtly charts each emotional transition in his gradual realization that even he might have stumbled upon a last chance for happiness. Jean-Claude (Patrick Chesnais), divorced and 51, works for the courts, delivering eviction notices and other such judicial orders; on weekends he gets to visit his father in a rest home, who usually berates him with a load of complaints. Not much of a life, until one day he gives way to his curiosity and drops in on the dance studio across the street. Soon he’s a regular in the tango class, where he meets Françoise (Anne Consigny), 40-ish, a high school counselor and about to be married.


GOOD GIRL/GENTILLE
Sophie Fillières, 2005; 102m
“Sophie Fillières is a true original, a young filmmaker with a distinctive and idiosyncratic style. Her new film, the whimsical and winning Good Girl, is a beautifully crafted, perfectly modulated portrait of a couple traversing the inconsistencies and pitfalls of a modern relationship. Emmanuelle Devos plays Fontaine Leglou, a young anesthetist whose interactions form the spine of the film. Fontaine lives with Michel (Bruno Todeschini), who is on the verge of proposing marriage, and their nervousness with each other underlines this decisive moment of their lives. Punctuating their quotidian existence is a series of chance meetings that are defined by the unexpected; people and situations come and go as if in a dream. Thinking that she is being followed by a man on the street, Fontaine turns to confront him. When he denies it, she asks him out for coffee. When he replies that he has no time, she presses him for a date on the following day.The closest analogy to the tone and content of Good Girl is the work of surrealist Luis Buñuel; both directors share an anarchic love of subverting expectations and employ humor both to define and to undermine character.” – Piers Handling, 2005 Toronto International Film Festival.

RUSSIAN DOLLS/LES POUPEES RUSSES
Cédric Klapisch, 2005; 125m

Working again with many of the same young actors who made The Spanish Apartment such a world-wide success — including Audrey Tautou and Cécile de France — Cédric Klapisch (When the Cat’s Away) offers a perceptive “state of a generation” report. Here, in one of France’s biggest box-office successes of 2005, he captures with equal measures of sympathy and bemused attachment the personal and professional travails of Xavier and his friends as their youthful promise begins to fade or at least settle into the workaday world. Five years after we left him in The Spanish Apartment (L’Auberge Espagñole, 2002) Xavier (Romain Duris of The Beat That My Heart Skipped) seems, at least on the surface, to be living out his college-dreams: he’s a working writer and journalist, he doesn’t lack for romantic companionship, and his small but supportive circle of friends is there for him. Yet somehow it’s not enough — or it is, but maybe what he really wants is something else — like travel to an exotic place.

YOU ARE SO HANDSOME/JE VOUS TROUVE TRES BEAU
Isabelle Mergault, 2006; 97m

One of France’s most popular actors, Michel Blanc stars in screenwriter Isabelle Mergault’s affecting first feature. Aymé Pigrenet (Blanc) is a hard-working farmer and needs someone to help him in his daily work; since there are few prospects for a wife in the area, Aymé engages a marriage agency to help him. His demands aren’t much: just someone willing to put up with all the hours of back-breaking toil he needs to keep the farm going. The agency advises him to head to Romania; there, it seems, the situation is so desperate women will do anything to go abroad. Aymé follows her advice, and after a couple of false starts finds Elena (Medeea Marinescu), who seems healthy enough. For her part, Elena is glad she doesn’t find her suitor too attractive. Director Mergault adopts a light touch here, but the delicacy with which she charts the relationship between Aymé and Elena can’t cover up the larger, darker reality to which the film is referring, the continuing imbalance between the “two Europes,” and the social consequences of that imbalance.


COLD SHOWERS/DOUCHES FROIDES
Antony Cordier, 2005; 102m

An opening voiceover by Mickael, the focus of Antony Cordier’s impressive debut feature, tells us that he ‘s not the same person he was three months ago — when the film actually begins. At that time Mickael was doing reasonably well: despite a tough but bearable home life, he’s become the captain of the judo team and is romancing the beautiful Vanessa (Salomé Stévenin) while waiting to take his college entrance exams. Then things start to change. Mickael becomes close to Clément, a fellow judo enthusiast whose father is the team’s principal sponsor. Clément dedicates himself to helping Mickael prepare for an important match; Vanessa increasingly feels his presence, which at first she resents but gradually comes to enjoy. The great achievement of Cold Showers it is never just a film about class, or teenage sexuality, or athletics or self-image, but a film that encompasses all those themes and more. The result, powerfully aided by outstanding performances, is a richly nuanced portrait of teenage life that avoids clichés and stereotypes.

ZIM AND COMPANY/ZIM AND CO.
Pierre Jolivet, 2005; 90m

“Zim” is what everyone in the neighborhood calls Victor Zimbietrofsky, a lanky 20-year-old who plays guitar in a rock band and earns a little money under the table unloading goods at an open-air market. After his motorbike is sideswiped, Zim fails a drug test; this being a second offense, he’s facing the prospect of real jail time — unless he can prove to the judge that he’s keeping clean and has a steady job. To help him in his quest, Zim can rely on the help of his crew, Cheb and Arthur, two pals from the ‘hood‘ who have their own problems, as well as Safia, something like Zim’s girlfriend. The plot hinges on Zim finding a job, but in truth Zim never stops working; he’s a flurry of activity practically from the first frame, which Jolivet captures with a largely hand-held camera that at times seems practically attached to his young protagonist.

GREY SOULS/LES AMES GRISES
Yves Angelo, 2005; 106m

Based on Philippe Claudel’s acclaimed novel, Grey Souls is a powerful, unsettling portrait of a world that has lost any sense of a moral compass. It’s the winter of 1917, and WWI is dragging into its third year; the sound of artillery blasts and the streams of wounded soldiers are constant reminders that the front is mere miles away. A young girl is found murdered not far from the beautiful estate of Public Prosecutor Destinat, a reclusive widower. The case is assigned to Inspector Mierck, a self-conscious, socially awkward man whom Destinat has always treated with barely concealed contempt. The notoriety of the case seems to give Mierck a new confidence as well as a chance to seek some long overdue retribution. Director Yves Angelo creates an effective counterpoint between the beauty of the rural settings and the feelings of both external (the war) and internal (the murder) violence that seem to contaminate everyone and everything. Working with a first-rate cast, Angelo offers a look at how easily the thin layer of civilization that protects us can be stripped away.

I SAW BEN BARKA GET KILLED/J’AI TU TUER BEN BARKA
Serge Le Péron, 2005; 101m

As is often said, truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, and rarely has the truth been more mysterious — or convoluted — than in the still unsolved disappearance of Moroccan independence leader Mehdi Ben Barka, in Paris in 1965. The general outline of events surrounding his disappearance have long been well known, if the details remain yet to be discovered; what director Serge Le Péron captures so brilliantly is the atmosphere of that very heady moment in France, a time when art, radical politics and criminal activity occasionally intersected, providing a new sense to the term “underground.” An ex-con and scam artist with artistic pretensions, Georges Figon (Charles Berling, in surely one of his best performances), is hired by some equally dubious characters to produce a documentary about the French colonial experience. The screenplay is to be written by Marguerite Duras (Josiane Balasko) and the film is to be directed by Georges Franju (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Mehdi Ben Barka (Simon Abkarian), a leader of Morocco’s anti-colonial struggle now in exile, is to serve as the project’s historical advisor. Figon is a whirlwind of activity, whipping around Paris trying to set up his deals and corral people into working on the film — most of whom can’t understand his involvement in the project. A meeting with Ben Barka is set up for October 29, 1965. Ben Barka sets out for the appointment and is never seen again.


HOUSEWARMING/TRAVAUX, ON SAIT QUAND CA COMMENCE
Brigitte Roüan, 2005; 95m

“Remodeling: you know when it starts but don’t know when it will end.” So goes a wise French adage that will ring true to anyone who has ever had anything rebuilt, repainted or restored by outside contractors. Brigitte Roüan’s delightful comedy begins as single mom and top litigator Chantal (the wonderful Carole Bouquet) realizes that it’s time get her living space in order. She hires a Colombian architect who brings along some very original plans and an entire work crew of Colombians; in no time, chaos reigns, with Chantal’s life — along with those of her teenage children, current lover and ex-husband —completely upended. The plot goes off in several directions simultaneously, covering everything from the French legal system to maintaining relationships with ex-spouses, as Chantal wonders if more than her home is getting remodeled. Spicing the proceedings with some hilarious musical numbers, Housewarming offers a fresh, perceptive and hugely entertaining look at the travails of modern urban life and lifestyles.

HEADING SOUTH/VERS LE SUD
Laurent Cantet, 2005; 105

“With Human Resources and Time Out, Laurent Cantet has established himself as one of French cinema's leading screen realists and analysts of social discontent. His third feature — an investigation of sexual tourism — is arguably his most achieved, and certainly his most challenging. The setting is a beach resort in late 70s Haiti, where middle-aged North American women go to be sexually pampered by young black men, rewarding them with economic and quasi-maternal favours. “Welcome to Paradise,“ says the resort's alpha female Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) to newcomer Brenda (Karen Young), but it's clear that this is anything but paradise. Outside the hotel's artificial bubble, the Duvalier regime is in power, and it can't be long before Legba (Menothy César), the young man favoured by both Ellen and Sue (Louise Portal), falls foul of the all-powerful Macoute militia. Basing their script on three stories by the Haitian writer Dany Laferrière, Cantet and regular co-writer Robin Campillo sensitively but trenchantly look into a complex nexus of sexual and political issues. Among the cast of this gripping, compact drama, Karen Young is terrific as the vulnerable Brenda, while as the ambivalent, possessive, highly knowing Ellen, Charlotte Rampling rides her current career renaissance with cool, abrasive brilliance.” – Jonathan Romney, 2005 London Film Festival.


LE PETIT LIEUTENANT
Xavier Beauvois, 2005; 110m

The promise of Xavier Beauvois’s early features (North; Don’t Forget You’re Going to Die) is brilliantly realized with Le Petit Lieutenant, a great critical and commercial success in France.
Practically bursting with pride on the day of his graduation from the police academy, Antoine (Jalil Lespert) is even more delighted to learn that his request for assignment in Paris has been granted. While his wife remains in the country, Antoine finds a place in town and starts work in the criminal unit run by Inspector Caroline Vaudieu (Nathalie Baye). Recovering from a long bout with alcoholism brought on by the death of her son, Vaudieu is determined to regain the respect she’s lost in the department — as well as to introduce Antoine to the reality of police work. As shown in his earlier films, Beauvois is exceptionally skilled at orchestrating ensemble casts; the interplay between Lespert, Baye and their fellow cops Roschdy Zem, Antoine Chappey and Xavier Beauvois himself feels both precise and remarkably natural. The police unit becomes a kind of refuge for each of these characters, a place for them to let down their guard and be themselves — until tragedy strikes and reconfigures all their relationships.

HELL/L’ENFER
Danis Tanovic, France/Italy/Belgium, 2005; 98m

“Danis Tanovic, director of the Academy Award® winning No Man’s Land, returns with another masterful and compelling film. Linking up with some of France’s major actors — including Emmanuelle Béart, Carole Bouquet and Karin Viard — Tanovic drills into a haunting screenplay by Krzysztof Piesiewicz (Kieslowski’s longtime collaborator) that is loosely inspired by Dante. The result is Hell, a whirling, epic portrait of a family torn apart by events from the past that still trouble them years later. The result is thoroughly chilling, often feeling like a metaphysical ghost story. The story emerges through a series of characters: a mother who has been placed in an elegant home in the countryside, and her three grown daughters, now mature adults with their own tangled webs of relationships. The first part of the film is quickly and brilliantly sketched by the filmmaker, and forces us to pull together the pieces. Then he transports the action to scenes of a man being released from jail and returning home — and the incident that initiated the trauma like a gunshot. What follows is a searing look at a family trying to come to grips with the powerful spell that their father has cast over their lives. Assembled with the precision of a Swiss watch, Hell ventures into emotional territory of infinite intricacy with great courage.” - 2005 Toronto International Film Festival