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Speaking in Tongues: Rendezvous with French Cinema 2008

Are the boy-os over at the Film Society at Lincoln Center running on a lean mixture or do they just have a bad case of retrograde amnesia? A couple weeks ago, the society played four of the best French films in recent memory in their wildly anarchic Film Comment Select series. Top-lined by the latest triumph by Jacques Rivette, The Duchess of Langeais, the series also gave two worthy additions to the French horror pantheon, the startling Inside and Xavier Gens’ brutal Frontier(s), and one unnervingly-blunt study of age and homosexuality, Jacques Nolot’s Before I Forget. So, why, pray tell, with the overflowing of quality undistributed films in the pipeline, would they not save these juicy tidbits for their annual celebration of the City of Lights that directly follows the Select series, the Rendezvous with French Cinema event? Questions without answers.

The Rendezvous series opens with the latest from nouvelle vague helmer Claude Lelouch, Roman de Gare (). The title roughly translates into Crossed Tracks which also serves as the title of the fictional book by fictional fiction writer Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardent) who opens the film talking about her latest novel, God, the Other. In actuality, her latest novel was penned by a ghostwriter named Pierre Laclos (the great Dominique Pinon) who himself is on the road when he meets Huguette, a woman stranded at a gas station by her bullheaded fiancée. The ghostwriter poses as the fiancée and later attempts to resign from his position and, well, things get complicated. Too complicated, in fact, and without any reason: this boilerplate of a tepid thriller packs in the twists and turns but doesn’t have much in the way of tone, consistency or mood. It almost passes as sub-Chabrol intrigue, but Lelouch, miles away from the wondrous charm of La Bonne Annee and A Man and a Woman, serves this cooled dish without a dollop of wit to spare.

Likewise, the lone animated feature on hand, Fear(s) of the Dark (), presented scatterbrained high and low points, though it at least had good reason. A mélange of five shorts from five separate French animators, Fear(s) brandishes two excellent studies in stylized jeepers-creepers from Richard McGuire and Lorenzo Mattotti, the former of which uses the contrasts of black-and-white to stunningly haunting ends. There’s also a not-half-bad Cronenberg rip-off and three mediocre shorts that constitute the rest of the film, one of which includes a man happily being devoured by his own dog. Elsewhere, Ain’t Scared () offers a moment of creeping psychosis that has Fear(s) beat. In the projects outside of Paris, a group of friends prepares for the arrival of soccer ingénue Jo (Terry Nimajimbe) while the player himself attempts to persuade his adored Julie (Emilie de Pressaic) to come with him. It’s the young Fatimata (an enthralling Eye Haidara), who brutalizes Julie and stalks Jo in the name of an unspoken love, that helps set off lingering jolts of social and racial tension in this promising debut from 23-year-old Audrey Estrougo. Though not particularly crisp in any sense and saddled with a trite finale, Estrougo’s feature has more vitality and seduction than a few dozen Crashs or Babels.

A surely well-meaning exercise, actress Sandrine Bonnairre’s Her Name is Sabine () nevertheless lends nothing new to the documentation of mental disease. In filming the life of her sister Sabine, who suffers from an extreme case of autism and stays in a house for similarly handicapped individuals, Bonnaire aims for 20/20 weep reports and finds little to encourage understanding of the intricacies in a family dealing with such unceasing hardships. More honest, somehow, was actress Anne Le Ny’s subtle Those Who Remain (), a jumpy, if not conventional exploration of grief and loneliness. Reuniting the stars of La Moustache, the radiant Emmanuelle Devos plays Lorraine, a young woman whose boyfriend will likely live with a catheter for the rest of his natural life, while the stoic Vincent Lidon plays Bertrand, a German-language professor dealing with his wife’s breast cancer. The two find themselves in the halls of a hospital, trade sob stories and, before you know it, are having a quickie in the back of Lorraine’s car. It’s old territory and the emotions are etched in stone, but the actors, including Ny herself as Bertrand’s sister and a solid Yeelem Jappain as Bertrand’s stepdaughter, respond well to the director’s breezy style, creating an engrossing but inarguably light atmosphere.

For outright daring, points go to festival mainstay Christophe Honoré who follows up his dazzling Dans Paris with the bemused-yet-charming musical Love Songs (). Involving a threesome including two French hotties (Ludivine Sagnier and Clotilde Hesme) and one seriously lucky guy named Ismael (Louis Garrel), they switch allegiances, parade jealousies, and create chaos for one another with gusto. That is until tragedy strikes and Ismael begins to form a crush on the brother of one of the girls. Sexual politics are a whirligig to Honoré and Songs succeeds best when it dumps the self-awareness of its lilting French pop ballads and plays loose with sexuality and romance. Not nearly as fluid nor as striking as Paris, Honore’s third proper feature still draws some thankfully lively performances from its three lead performers. What’s better, Sagnier confirms her bravado as a Jewish wife to a lovelorn gymnast in Claude Miller’s exceedingly well-made Un Secret (). Adapted from Philippe Grimbert’s novel of the same name, Miller tucks his fascination with French Jews during the escalating years of World War II in the revelations of Francois (played by Valentin Vigourt at 7, Quentin Dubuis at 14, and Mathieu Amalric as a grown-up). Francois uncovers the truth about how his father (Patrick Bruel) and his mother (Cecile de France) came together from the ashes of his father’s first marriage to Hannah (Sagnier) and their child, who both disappeared in the tumult of the occupation. It’s old-style historical drama stuff, but Miller splinters the narrative with keen results and shows a preternatural talent with his cast.

Though terminally riddled with experimental half-breeds and stylized mediocrities, the festival did allow for two legitimate triumphs. First and most surprisingly is the madcap family comedy Let’s Dance! (), from writer-director-actress Noe
mie Lvovsky, who pairs with Valeria Bruni Tedeschi here and in the upcoming, ingenious Actresses. Tedeschi works her mojo as the pregnant daughter of a mentally-forshits mother and a father who is making his way back into the dating scene. Pops (deftly-funny Jean-Pierre Marielle) has become entranced by the lovely and by-all-means bonkers Violette (Sabine Azema of Private Fears in Public Places) while he begins to prepare for his almighty reward. Meanwhile, his wife (Bulle Ogier) has stuck to the indoors with her caregiver (Bakary Sangare), who believes he’s found the key that will unlock her father’s hidden fortune. Stylistically off-the-wall and endlessly entertaining, Lvovsky’s film hits its hysterical climax when Tedeschi describes how her father single-handedly offed the Fuhrer. It’s got a real skip in its step.

But none of the films screened carry even a whiff of the bold brilliance going on in Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector (). Shot with cool reserve by cinematographer Josee Deshaies and based on Francois Emmanuel’s novel La Question Humaine, this chilling, well-constructed stunner stars the inimitable Mathieu Amalric as Simon Kessler, a shrink at petrochemical giant SC Farb who has just been asked to keep an eye on CEO Mathias Just (Michael Lonsdale, who played Amalric’s culinary genius father in Steven Spielberg’s Munich). Shadows of Just’s father’s work with the Nazis during World War II have begun to weigh heavily on the corporate king and uncovering those very secrets through Farb’s glacial managing director Karl Rose (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) begins to rattle Kessler mercilessly. Riveting and relentless, Klotz’s 140-minute provocation disturbs the sentiment of corporate crimes built upon the horrors of history, lucidly uncovering the schisms these revelations can cause down the line. Propelled by astute performances, Klotz’s exemplary direction and a ghostly score by Syd Matters that evokes the loops of madness inside Kessler and Just, this mysterious film is at once complex, historic, and bewilderingly post-Chabrolian. It’s the kind of film Lincoln Center’s cinephile base should go all googly-eyed over.

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