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On the Move: Rendezvous with French Cinema 2009

Though there will always be a surfeit of worthy foreign fare without distribution, living in New York City affords one a sort of residency in world cinema. To this end, a program like Rendezvous with French Cinema, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual survey of all things cinematic from L’Hexagone, might seem redundant to the naked eye. Yet it arrives every year with its hits and misses, offering everything from crime epics to matzo-dry dramas to lustful peculiarities. The 2009 edition is no exception to that rule.

This year’s triumph, Claire Denis’ mesmerizing 35 Shots of Rum (), may be lighter in tone and subject matter than last year’s — Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector — but is no less eerie and memorable for it. A widowed commuter train driver (the great Alex Descas) lives with his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) in the same apartment complex as his ex-girlfriend and Josephine’s intended. The four gather and part and regroup whilst deciding whom to leave and for whom to stick around. As Denis has admitted, 35 Shots is a film about love, but it is also a film about commitment in its most ostensible forms. Denis’ most intoxicating scene finds the four lost souls coming out of the rain and spending the night in a small café where jealousy, lust and apprehension drift as if they were molecules in the air they breathe. It takes a master filmmaker like Denis to make things so seemingly passé reach a level of blinding sublimity.

Denis’ latest found its foil in Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (). This gaudy spectacle depicts, at an exhausting 240-minute runtime, the life of Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel), France’s most notorious modern criminal who was famously gunned-down in a police ambush in 1979. Following his adventures from his days as a soldier in the Algerian War through a couple of jailbreaks, countless women, and a half-dozen accomplices, director Jean-François Richet never skimps on the machismo and fills the film with an A-list cast that includes Mathieu Amalric, Gerard Depardieu, Ludivine Sagnier, Olivier Gourmet, and Cecile De France. Unfocused and convoluted as it is, the film is a lively bit of action that is kept kinetic by Cassel’s compulsively-watchable act of unadulterated bravado.

While Depardieu met with another French legend — director Claude Chabrol — in the passable Bellamy (), his late son Guillaume left his indelible mark in two films: Stella and Versailles (). Though I missed the former, the latter, a likable parable concerning a young boy who becomes the ward of a homeless man, benefits immeasurably from Depardieu’s angular presence. The young actor died from complications due to pneumonia last October, two months to the day after the film premiered in France. Versailles certainly doesn’t smack of the actor’s implosive, smoldering work in last year’s The Duchess of Langeais, but it is nonetheless a pointed, aggressive performance that, though not his best, certainly qualifies as one of his most agreeable.

Catherine Deneuve, Depardieu’s co-star in Leos Carax’s Pola X, does her best to support Girl on the Train (), Andre Techine’s flighty follow-up to last year’s superior The Witnesses. Deneuve plays the mother of a young woman (Emilie Dequenne) who cries wolf about being attacked in a subway by skinheads after a romance with a college wrestler cum criminal conspirator topples. The story goes off the rails when an old friend of the mother’s, a popular lawyer (Michel Blanc), invites mom and daughter to his country home with his family. Though not without a few random strong scenes, Techine spends too much time pointlessly detailing the family life of the lawyer to properly burrow into either the mother’s or daughter’s complex mentality. It’s a character study devoid of any sense of character.

Matching wits with considerably higher yields, director Benoît Jacquot centers his Villa Amalia () on the excellent Isabelle Huppert. Sparked by a moment of genuine seduction and intrigue, Jacquot’s film spins a yarn about a famed pianist’s self-induced extraction from French society that eventually finds her roaming Tangiers and settling in a small house in the hills surrounding Naples. Based on Pascal Quignard’s 2006 novel of the same name, Jacquot retools this breezy narrative as a canvas of odd, repeating rhythms. From the beguiling score to Huppert’s echoing of specific phrases and actions, the filmmaker has created a spellbinder based intrinsically on a character as unknowable as his leading lady.

Perhaps the best female performance of the festival came from director Agnes Varda, who creates a blissful, moving cinematic autobiography in The Beaches of Agnes (). Recreations play a large part of Varda’s film as she combs through her life with fellow nouvelle vague icon Jacques Demy, their children, her early days in filmmaking, her family life, and even her brief residence in the U.S., where she became friends with a young actor named Harrison Ford and the lizard king himself, Jim Morrison. Inventive and sincere, the filmmaker creates installations on the titular landscape, evoking memories that may have been stuck in still photographs and talking heads if not for her considerable creativity. Even as she achingly recounts her last days with Demy, who succumbed to AIDS in 1990, Varda’s vitality runs through this marvelous film like a polka-dotted steam engine.

A less interesting return came from Avenue Montaigne director Danièle Thompson. In her latest, Change of Plans (), the filmmaker evokes the same sort of messy liveliness she conjured up in Montaigne through the happenings of a group of friends and lovers whose lives change after an eventful dinner. Though blessed with gifted character actors like Marina Hands, Dany Boon, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Patrick Bruel, Thompson earnestly pushes for darker material which doesn’t blend well with her effervescent style. The result is a lumpy mixture devoid of the charm and love for France that accented her two previous features. Like Rendezvous itself, the concluding scene at a tapas bar is filled with the awkward and the blessed alike.

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