Rendez-Vous With French Cinema
They are back from the dead! Once again, the French, who bankrolled our revolution before their own got under way, who invented la grand cuisine before we invented cholesterol, and who refreshed us with the New Wave, have – after some years of really tepid fare – risen anew.
Of course, dissatisfaction with Rendez-Vous‘ programming has been expressed in certain quarters: “too feel-good,” “too historical,” “too old-fashioned.” If, by that, the writer thinks it’s not relevant in 2012 – well, think again. It’s not the story that counts, or when it takes place, but how it’s told and what it’s saying; these stories are relevant, based on real events, and told very well indeed. Yes, with some sentiment, with some costumes, with – can it be true? – ideas, and some narrative to hang on to. Let us give thanks.
In fact, this year’s selections – in costume or no – are still carrying the flag for revolution: And they focus either on little-known aspects of well-known history (Smugglers’ Songs; Farewell My Queen; Free Men); and/or on the divide between the haves and have-nots (A Painting; Untouchables). So sample Rendeez-Vous’ pleasures and see what the right stuff looks like here and now. (March 1 – 11): rendezvous schedule
Smugglers’ Songs (Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche)
The context is France in the years before the revolution, after the death-by-torture of Louis Mandrin, an outlaw and folk hero. He, and his spirit, survive in the band of brothers who protest the country’s infamous tax laws which have cruelly burdened the poor. (I said it was relevant, didn’t I?) Their modus operandi is to steal goods from the rich, and set up markets in rural villages where they resell them, untaxed, to the villagers and give away songs– which they have written and had printed—in Mandrin’s honor. Smugglers’ Songs is described as “a film by Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche,” and so it is. Ameur-Zaimeche is a tall, robust man with a compelling presence who has written, directed, produced, and starred in the movie—his fourth. His ideas, and the energy of the film’s collaborative and semi-improvised scenes (beautifully filmed) make this a fascinating experience. And, as an adventure in pure cinematic texture, there is an interlude in a print shop, where the songs are set in type, pressed, hung on a line to dry, and bound by hand reminiscent of the interior of the mill in The Mill and the Cross, and no less powerful.
Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot)
A sumptuous behind-the-scenes glimpse of Marie Antoinette and her court on the eve of the revolution. Told from the point of view of her reader (a reserved, but totally enthralled Léa Seydoux) who observes, and forgives, her queen’s every whim. Though occasionally teetering on the brink of soft-core cinema, the film is saved from it by the wholly contemporary photographic, lighting, and editing techniques Jacquot employs to paint his picture. The incredible extravagance and caprice of the royal playground at Versailles are revealed in swift fragments, rather than in the customary tableaux vivants. Coupled with strong performances, especially from Diane Kruger, as Marie Antoinette, they remind us that the queen’s self-indulgence was partially the result of her unhappy, arranged marriage into a foreign dynasty when she was only 15; lonely, far from home, she became the pampered object of envy and scorn, unable to comprehend the consequences of her irresponsibility.
Free Men (Ismael Ferroukhi)
Set in Vichy France, Free Men (like Nowhere in Africa), is a window into an entirely unfamiliar chapter of World War II. The freshness of its story, and strength of its cast (you will recognize Tahar Rahim from A Prophet of 2009), keeps interest high. There are many surprises, and a deeply satisfying transformation in Rahim’s character that is all the more satisfying for being hard-won. Another big plus: an excellent score, and swatches of Arabic popular music of the period.
The Painting (Jean-François Laguionie/Anik Leray)
This is animation as you’ve seldom seen it: in saturated colors and in an original style that occasionally adds live action to the mix. Its original story (of haves and have-nots) is couched in visual metaphors of finished (Alldunns), partially-finished (Halfies), and sketches (Sketchies), standing in for the social pecking order. For children, because it’s animation? There weren’t many in the audience, but everyone seemed to be having a very good time. The Painting has lessons for us, but they are taught with sure and graceful hands. (the painting)
The Intouchables (Olivier Nakache/Eric Toledano)
The Rendez-Vous opening night selection. Okay. We simply have to face the fact that The Intouchables is a feel-good film. And that it is (so far) the second highest-grossing film in France (it opens here in May). Its two stars (Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy) loft two characters: a rich aristocrat and an irrepressible caregiver who help each other back to lives lived to the hilt. It’s based on a true story and, well, it’s hard to resist its emotional arc. The Weinstein Company is distributing the film, and you know what that means. Think The Artist and you’ll get the idea. In fact, with The Artist as a jumping-off point (see post of February 25), it’s fair to say that France is really in the air. At the Met Museum (where a life-size photograph of the Steins’ collection, and many of its paintings have been gathered for The Steins Collect); at MoMA (where Eugene Atget’s photographs make you long for its fin-de-siecle alleys and parks); and in the concert hall for NYFOS‘ upcoming New York to Paris, Paris to Paradise songfest at Merkin Hall on March 13. Go. See. Hear. And smell les fleurs…