“Vestiges of French customs and family life remain throughout these films, yet their concerns testify to a rapidly shifting society.”
In Speck’s Idea, Mavis Gallant describes a rainy night in Paris when “the street resembled a set in a French film designed for export, what with the policemen’s white rain capes aesthetically gleaming and the lights of the bookstore, the restaurant, and the gallery reflected, quivering, in European-looking puddles.” Rendez-vous with French Cinema, the annual collaboration between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance, showcases the latest French export offerings. Given that the developed world has a certain sameness these days, with similar anxieties about barring newcomers and about keeping — or even getting — work, there are no big surprises in the French fare. Little else than the language, the infrastructure, and a tendency to dress quite well suggests a particularly French or even European aesthetic. Vestiges of French customs and family life remain throughout these films, yet their concerns, not to mention the ethnically diverse actors themselves, testify to a rapidly shifting society. Of the eighteen premieres, all made in 2009, a few were commendable, a few more memorable, the acting uniformly exceptional.
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, and Yvan Attal are delightfully believable as the perpetually on-again-off-again couple in Cédric Kahn’s Regrets. Marriages to other people, children, geographic separation: nothing keeps these two apart. But nothing holds them together, either. There are wonderful touches, such as the couple’s inability to speak when they meet again decades after their high-school romance, or Kahn’s willingness to show a particular kind of emotional hell. Despite the many crises, Regrets has no resonance. But it does have terrific performances, the marvelous leads reason enough to see it.
Also initially compelling but ultimately thin was François Ozon’s Hideaway. In a harrowing opening, two young lovers, Mousse (Isabel Carré) and Louis (Melvil Poupaud), overdose on heroin. She pulls through and discovers she is carrying his child. Retreating to a seaside family cabin, she’s joined a few months later by Louis’s gay brother, Paul (Louis-Ronan Choisy). This odd couple’s exploration of life together, with Louis’s absence a ghostly presence, make the best scenes in the film. Ozon presents an unsentimental view of the pregnancy (Carré was six months along when they were shooting), paying rare, sympathetic attention to maternal ambivalence. A pity that the end felt less thought-out than tacked-on, effectively undermining the film’s emotional daring.
Equally though differently frustrating for its end was 8 Times Up, directed by Xabi Molia. Julie Gayet plays Elsa, an odd-jobber whose hopes of landing something more substantial become dimmer by the day. Her neighbor, Mathieu (Denis Podalydès), has also hit a job-search wall, though he hopes archery will set him apart from the pack (it doesn’t). Lying, disappointing people, but sometimes coming through for them as well, Elsa is adrift, full of impulses that have no object. Gayet expresses vagueness so well that even telling the truth, Elsa is hard to believe. The film does a fine, sometimes darkly humorous job of conveying the abyss-walker that Elsa is, her precarious existence a kind of passive suicide attempt. Unfortunately, the obtrusive, completely wrongheaded music detracts from the film’s strengths, weakening and trivializing an otherwise absorbing story.
Among the memorable offerings was Philippe Lioret’s Welcome. As it opens, teenage Kurdish refugee Bilal (the exceptional Firat Ayverdi) has trekked, mostly by foot, to Calais. Eager to reunite with his girlfriend Mina (Derya Ayverdi), whose family has uprooted to London, he plans to stow himself away as truck cargo. After nearly suffocating in the attempt, he hatches the idea of learning to swim the Channel instead. Public pool instructor Simon (the excellent Vincent Lindon) takes an interest, his sympathy for Bilal leavened with his own improbable efforts to woo back his estranged wife, who volunteers at the asylum-seekers shelter. Warily, the two men collaborate on Bilal’s project, developing a fragile trust. For Simon, the risk is jail time, for Bilal, his life. Lioret, who co-scripted the film with Emmanuel Courcol and Olivier Adam, doesn’t stint on any of the horrific details of such desperate emigration, yet he never allows the social commentary to overwhelm the story. Bilal’s chivalric quest sets the tone for the piece, and it adds a different dimension to the clichéd idea of immigration as strictly about a better material life.
Based on a true story, Xavier Giannoli’s In the Beginning is less about its flimflamming protagonist than his willing victims. After years of waiting for a dormant worksite to revive, the hard-up citizens of a small town, including mayor Stéphane (Emmanuelle Devos), welcome Philippe Miller (François Cluzet, at his most ferrety) as a sign that they have been recognized. A small-time con, Miller finds himself swept up in his own deception: though the highway project is an elaborate ruse, its execution — his team of workers, heavy equipment, full-fledged office, and even the romance with Stéphane — is real. The foregone conclusion makes no difference: the boost Miller gives the town is legit even if the highway is not. The acting is uniformly great, including a minatory cameo by Gérard Depardieu and a believably emotionally bruised Devos. Newcomers Vincent Rottiers and Soko are especially startling as a couple that believe in Miller even after they catch on. Like Laurent Cantet’s more brutal Time Out (2001), In the Beginning breaks down the assumptions we make about what a job is and what it means to have a job. On paper, Miller has nothing, but the reality of what he made happen cannot be taken away.
Another true story lies behind Rapt, Lucas Belvaux’s swift-paced anatomy of a kidnapping. Yvan Attal is utterly convincing as wealthy government minister Stanislas Graff. In a thrillingly concise opening sequence, Belvaux establishes Graff’s well-controlled, luxe Paris existence, complete with high-powered meetings, a high-wattage mistress, high-stakes poker, high-maintenance family, and doting dog. You’re nearly as shocked as he is when the kidnappers pluck him from his limousine. The captors never identify themselves, though mob connections are assumed, especially when they remove part of one of Graff’s fingers to enclose with the ransom request. Without his control, Graff’s carefully hidden excesses begin to emerge, often, to his family’s horror, on the evening news. While he suffers in scenes that resemble parts of 13 Tzimeti, they dodge the daily barrages of gossip and slander. And then, nearly as quickly as it began, it’s over. Graff is released, his hound the only reliable source of affection. Very slim and sinewy, Attal has by the end the haunted look of a permanent hostage. Beautifully paced, Rapt benefits from excellent work by Anne Consigny and fine support from the rest of the cast; the film is as provocative as it is entertaining.
Secrets muddy the waters in Axelle Ropert’s Family Wolberg also. Simon Wolberg (François Damiens) has fanatical affection for his family. He adores his wife, Marianne (Valérie Benguigui), and their two teenagers, Benjamin (Valentin Vigourt) and Delphine (Léopoldine Serre) so much that he never wants any of them to have lives of their own. As mayor of their small town, Simon sometimes treats his constituents as family, too, and the results are mixed at best. But as details of an affair Marianne has recently ended emerge and Simon pays a visit to her former lover with Benjamin in tow, his adoration of all things family takes on a less rosy hue. Simon has legitimate reasons for his family mania, though the underlying impulses are composed as much of a need to control as to love. The complexity of Ropert’s portrait, not to mention the humor, keeps the Family Wolberg from pathology or pathos, though it does make it unforgettable.
The stunner of the festival, however, was Mademoiselle Chambon, directed by Stéphane Brizé. Sandrine Kiberlain is Véronique Chambon, a former violinist now itinerant schoolteacher in a small town a few hours from Paris. Jean (Vincent Lindon), a contractor and the father of one of her pupils, agrees to replace the French windows in her apartment. Over the course of the day, an initial awkwardness becomes deep respect. His handiwork astonishes her just as her violin-playing enchants him. Each sees in the other what they might have been. Their affair, nearly too delicate to consummate, is less about confession than reticence. Brizé makes perfect use of Edward Elgar’s restrained yearning and of the confined spaces in which Jean and Véronique function, the camera often translating each character’s self-limited view of the world. An elegy to lost chances, Mademoiselle Chambon is gracefully devastating.