Let’s Meet Again…
Filmmakers are like architects: whatever the time and costs involved, they’re always ahead of the game; cresting the wave of the future, anticipating the next Zeitgeist. And so it is at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Gone are most of the ruling Gallic rom-coms, the brilliant historical pageants and adaptations of classic plays (though there is a lot of sex…). In only three years, this always-provocative festival has become a reflection of France now and in the foreseeable future, its cultural, racial and linguistic issues front and center in 2016.
Well, there are two exceptions: on opening night, The Valley of Love, starring the iconic Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert, filmed in Death Valley (largely in English), reaffirmed the French connection to world cinema that began with the New Wave.
And although (strictly speaking) by Chekov, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi has turned The Three Sisters into a gorgeous souffle of a tragicomedy that while quintessentially French, is, somehow, more Russian than Russian in its mercurial shifts and failed trajectories. The cast (from the Comédie Française) is superb in every part. But the décor, the costumes, the shorthand translation carry us to the Russia-that-was and will-never-be-again faster than the speed Chekov imagined in 1900, yet with no less power, and with tender attention to spirit and detail that marry the best of Now and Then. (The opening scene is absolutely Now!)
That said, Rendez-Vous’ focus on the present offers a wide-ranging slate from new and seasoned directors (more than one-third of them women) with original ideas about the human condition.
Fatima (Philippe Faucon) is a real honey; one of many entries about Muslims adjusting to (and changing) French culture. In its quiet way, the lives of a divorced mother and her two daughters make a great impact because of the film’s modesty—its whisper is stronger than any shout. While one daughter is a rebellious teenager who turns her back on her first culture, the other struggles to become a doctor. The mother (Soria Zeroual) supports the family with cleaning jobs as she navigates the rigidity of the Muslim community she remains part of, yet determined to give her children a future. She keeps a diary (in Arabic) that reveals the keenness of her sensibilities, and studies French to be able to live more fully in her new home. The film’s last image (devoid of any show, any effects) is simplicity itself; yet carries a soaring emotional charge that simply explodes in joy.
While The Story of Judas (Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche)
could be described as an historical film, it’s definitely not an historical pageant, but rather a fresh re-imagining of the Biblical story that could never have been part of Hollywood’s overblown Biblical canon. Like Zaïmeche’s earlier Smugglers’ Songs https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/apollos-girls-12/, it reminds us that legends are always based on elements of reality; in this case, Judas’ part in Christ’s death, as well as the roles of Pontius Pilate, Carabas, and others we think we know reduced to their essence in vivid snapshots among the mountains and deserts of Judea. The air shimmers with heat and dust, the clothes are ragged and begrimed. You are left to connect the dots on your own, based on what you see and what you remember. It’s a challenge worth taking, hard to resist, and definitely original.
The Great Game (Nicolas Pariser) is a political thriller in the tradition of the British The Ghostwriter, but with an even twistier plot and more populous cast starring Melvil Poupaud, who proves once again (as in last year’s Fidelio: Carol’s Journey) https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/apollos-girl-52/ ) that he has aged remarkably well. The politics here are still being played out in France between the police and a group of idealists trying to live in communal peace; it’s a dark (and accurate) view of limited choices.
Alice Winocour’s Disorder combines the PTSD of a veteran of the war in Afghanistan (Matthias Schoenaerts) with the desperation of a wealthy weapons dealer’s wife (Diane Kruger) and some really terrifying thugs seeking revenge into a fast action movie that had a critics’ audience gasping more than once. Schoenaerts is believable, scary and sympathetic in every scene, and Kruger torn between her sense of entitlement and intense attraction to him (equally believable).
La Tête Haute (Emmanuelle Bercot) reflects a French juvenile justice system reminiscent of the elementary school lunchroom in Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next. The phalanx of judges, therapists, teachers and counselors deployed for a decade in the ultimate salvation of a recidivist punk is in stark contrast to our own tradition: Reflect on our teens unlucky enough to be sentenced to serve time and unlikely to receive either sympathy or support, or to be able to rejoin society as functioning adults. (Just as the students in Moore’s film can look forward to a leisurely gourmet feast every day, while lunch here is fast, brutal, and largely about starch, fat, sugar and salt.) Definitely food for thought…
Winter Song (Otar Iosseliani) As complex as Georgian culture and language, Iosseliani’s brilliant jigsaw puzzle of a film is a real pleasure at every level. His ability to deploy crowds of unforgettable characters defined in seconds like Japanese brush-strokes is equaled by his genius for keeping them moving through brief scenes as they skitter in and out of each other’s lives. His gift for connections is both visual and narrative; his tongue forever in his cheek. Worth seeing twice just to join the game going on in his artful and prodigiously humane imagination.
My King(Maïwenn) stars Emmanuelle Bercot as a lawyer with a broken leg and a persistent memory for her affair with and marriage to Vincent Cassell. As for Cassell? He’s trouble with a three-day stubble (uh-oh), dancing in the street, sweeping her away on a motorcycle when they first meet, laughing her into bed shortly thereafter. Complications ensue. They love each other, but drive each other crazy for a long time. (One suspects that there may be a great deal of autobiography lurking about in Maïwenn’s script, and a brief survey of its watersheds would heighten that conclusion.)
Dark Inclusion(Arthur Harari) is set against a fascinating and uncommon backdrop: the diamond business in Belgium, where gems mined in South Africa go to Antwerp to be cut and polished. It has been dominated by close-knit families (many of them Jewish) for generations and remains cool to outsiders. While diamonds are at the center of the plot, it is spun by family ties unraveled and ultimately spun again; blood proves thicker than water. As one trick after another unfolds and alliances shift, the multi-cultural nature of the gem trade now includes Arabs, Indians, Jews, Africans and the Belgians who cut the stones and each others’ profits. What goes on behind the closed doors of offices and workshops leaves you wanting to know more.
Summertime (Catherine Corsini) With its theme of intense love between two women—especially since one of them is named Carole—it’s hard to avoid comparing Summertime to this season’s Carol, a mainstream feature on the same topic. Yet Carol, despite its outstanding performances and really stunning production, remained, for me, a tale worthy of respect for its achievements, but always a bit chilly under its high-gloss surface. Summertime, on the other hand, while certainly beautiful to behold, was on fire with emotion and the caprices of real-life women with deep conflicts (for different reasons) over the connection that brings them together. It’s definitely not because of the external differences in their lives when they meet, or that they regret their surrender to one another as often as they are torn by it, but the gritty reality (with its constant shifts and contradictions) that frames their every move into, and away from, the flame. Its evocation of city and countryside in the France of the 1970s is immersive. And both Izia Higelin and Cėcile de France capture your attention and your sympathy full-time.
Dheepan (Jacques Audiard) Ever since seeing Read My Lips, I’ve had a thing about Jacques Audiard. No one does light and dark quite the way he does, shooting and cutting at high speed while always digging deep into his characters. More often than not, they are flawed, yet give hints of redemption on closer look. Dheepan shifts the balance in the other direction: its hero (Antonythasan Jesusthasan) rejects the violence of his military service in Sri Lanka and emigrates to France to start over again. He is a man of conscience who works hard, sees everything, says nothing and earns the respect of those who share his life in a grim housing project on the outskirts of Paris. Until he’s forced to take a stand. Then he, and Audiard, deliver the kind of electric finale you’ve been waiting for.