Bright Lights Film Journal

Plus Ça Change: The 2008 Rendez-vous with French Cinema

Gingerly moving out of the 20th century, not quite into the 21st

Only occasionally terrific, the 2008 Rendez-vous with French Cinema at New York’s Lincoln Center reflected much in the French headlines: undocumented immigrants; soaring property values; working-class unrest; and, inevitably in any industrialized society, drugs. Above all, and more than most national cinemas, this year’s cull of fifteen revealed an obsession with the effect of globalization and its technological cohort on French life, from the indigent to the well-heeled. In recent French films, the cinematically (and generally) ubiquitous mobile phone underscores a pervasive loneliness and separation: even within sight of each other, several characters choose talking or texting over a tête-à-tête. At the same time, the aftermath of World War II and of the Nouvelle Vague continue to influence form and content, even the actors, giving French filmmaking more continuity than many other national cinemas.

In part, this is because several not-so-young directors haven’t stopped working. In Roman de Gare, veteran Claude Lelouch shows a monumental Fanny Ardant, reminiscent in her gorgeous ruthlessness of Anjelica Huston’s super-con in The Grifters. A best-selling author whose books are ghosted by her private secretary (Dominque Pinon), Ardant conveys perfectly the insulated life of a successful fraud. The film weaves reality with fiction: Ardant’s biggest hit is the result of a coincidental meeting between Pinon and Audrey Danon at a rest stop. En route to a visit with her family and ditched by the fiancé she planned to introduce, Danon convinces Pinon to be his stand-in. This sets in motion various coincidences and connections that finally come full circle back to Ardant, who smells a hit and eagerly awaits her latest creation from Pinon’s laptop. Though it’s mostly frothy, with easy-watching camerawork to boot, Roman de Gare does question the idea of success at any price.

In the even more erratic Love Songs, Christine Honoré channels both François Truffaut and Jacques Demy. Wound up and spun like a top, the film, like its protagonist Louis Garrel, aims for perpetual motion. Garrel, who paces or rolls his task chair even when at work, amplifies his passing physical resemblance to (his real-life godfather) Jean-Pierre Léaud with body language that recalls Bed and Board in particular. Despite its clear French antecedents, Honoré’s film owes its greatest debt to Dennis Potter, the first to let his characters break into song to convey their emotions without adhering to the conventions of the musical. Set around a threesome (Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier, and Clotilde Hesme), the film examines the time immediately preceding Sagnier’s death and its aftermath. The tone isn’t so much lighthearted as confused, with Garrel casting about to find a way to obliterate his memories, to shed his loss. He stays in flux, hoping to keep from having to fix himself emotionally, sexually, mortally. Although Honoré wears his influences openly, the freedom his protagonist achieves in Love Songs is rootless and sexually ambiguous, a far cry from the bourgeois patterns Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel sought merely to subvert.

Claude Miller offers another thoroughly modern prism on the past in A Secret. Alternating among the Second World War years, 1955, and 1985 to tell the story of assimilated Jews in France, A Secret picks up on a burgeoning theme in European cinema: the somewhat neglected immediate postwar period, well before the economic miracles and social change that dominated the 1960s. Adapted from Philippe Grimbert’s novel of the same name, the story is told by François, an only and isolated child played by three different actors (Valentin Vigourt and Quentin Dubuis, child and teen, with an extended cameo by Mathieu Amalric, in his adulthood). Weak and little inclined to sport, François reliably disappoints his gymnastics instructor father (Patrick Bruel). Even his protective mother (Cécile de France), so Art Deco chiseled she’s a walking caryatid, can’t shield him. Instead, François retreats into fantasy, unsettled to find the dynamic, sporty brother he invents for himself more real than not. Shot in saturated color that feels a little too burnished and sentimental, A Secret diminishes some of its power through sheer good looks, its story less narrative than didactic. At its best, the film shows the long-term effects of his father’s practical decision to pass as non-Jewish when he could, its unexpected consequence not only to legitimize his adulterous interest in another man’s wife but to ensure the existence of Francois himself.

Another aspect of this view of Fascism’s insidious after-effects plays out in Nicolas Klotz’s excellent Heartbeat Detector. Following up on his recent studies of life from the bottom up in France in The Wound and The Pariah, Klotz trains his lens on the ostensibly perfect corporate world. Based on Belgian François Emmanuel’s novel La Question Humaine, Heartbeat Detector centers on Simon (Mathieu Amalric), an organizational psychologist on staff at S. C. Farb, a German multinational. Asked to provide evidence for a case against the CEO, Simon finds himself questioning not only his employers but ultimately himself, until his work, once a source of satisfaction, gives him the deepest shame. A bit long and burdened by connections to the Third Reich that eclipse its far more interesting J. G. Ballard-style reckoning of well-behaved corporate savagery.

A less balanced, altogether messier view of the mingling of past and present occurs in Cédric Klapisch’s exhilarating Paris. Although completely different from Robert Altman, Klapisch is similarly deft at multi-character stories that pivot on chance and inevitability. At the center are siblings Élise (Juliette Binoche) and Pierre (Romain Duris), coping with the news that a necessary heart transplant gives Romain a 50-50 chance to live. Élise takes time away from her work with immigrants, moves her three children into his enviable Paris flat and does all she can — including rustling up a sex partner — to make what may be her brother’s last days pleasurable. The siblings are the center of a web of social, commercial, and purely coincidental connections that encompass Parisians as varied as a greenmarket vendor and a history professor. Some more, some less sympathetic, all these urban archetypes are understandable, surprisingly realized characters. Though not centered on one neighborhood, Paris has something of Klapisch’s 1996 When the Cat’s Away view of the city as a hive not only of inhabitants but ghosts. Shots of the city are adoringly gimlet-eyed, revealing its diversity and the inevitable changes wrought by a world that technology has shrunk. The acting is uniformly good, with a special mention due to Karin Viard in a small, thankless, but crucial part as a mingy bakery proprietor. She infuses each of her scenes with Balzacian exactitude, her fixation on money making at the cost of all else a perfect evocation of the market-driven homogeneity infecting even seemingly untaintable Paris. In this loving but unsparing portrait, Klapisch unsentimentally shows the vestiges of a city and a way of life the 21st century may well wipe out.