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Catherine Deneuve and Many More in Rich, New "Rendez-Vous with French Cinema"

Reviews
by Caryn James
March 7, 2014 12:16 AM
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Deneuve On My Way

On My Way, starring Catherine Deneuve as a divorced woman who runs away from home, has a playful, charming surface and emotional depth that sneaks up on you – which makes it the ideal choice to open "Rendez-Vous with French Cinema," the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance's annual program of new works. Those are the very qualities we still associate with French film, and On My Way reinforces some of those impressions even as it shakes things up.

Deneuve's character, Bettie, runs a family restaurant in Brittany and lives with her aged mother, who delivers some awful news: Bettie's married lover has left his wife for a woman in her 20's. Let's pause for a second to notice how wonderfully blase about sex and fidelity the French still seem to be. Some stereotypes persist for a reason, and it's hard to image that mother-daughter chat fitting so nonchalantly into an American movie.

The next day Bettie walks out the door and starts driving through the countryside, with no destination. She has a drunken night at a roadside bar, then her estranged daughter  convinces her to drive her grandson to stay with his father's father. Along the way Bettie is corralled into something she'd been avoiding, the reunion of contestants at a beauty contest, where she was Miss Brittany of 1969.

On the surface, this road movie has plenty of generic touches, but as we follow Bettie the film becomes thoughtful, wise and light-handed about sex in middle age, changing looks, family estrangements. When Bettie has a drunken, one-night stand with a much younger man, Deneuve makes their flirtation at a bar warmly comic, dismissing him with raucous laughter at his absurd pick-up lines.

But there's a darker side to the comedy. The next morning, he tells her that while they were having sex he imagined her as she might have been when she was young.  "You must have been gorgeous,"  he says, and her face registers nothing beyond a calm recognition of reality. Like so much of the film, the moment breezes by, but stings. Bettie is still gorgeous, of course, one of the many ways the character would have been totally different  -- and possibly less cheery -- if played by almost anyone other than Deneuve.

Last year the Chilean film Gloria  was extravagantly praised for depicting a middle-aged woman looking for love, or at least sex. On My Way handles a similar subject with a lighter touch.  The director, Emmanuelle Bercot (also an actress, she was one of the tough cops in Polisse) does not use Bettie as material for a lecture or a life lesson. She and Deneuve simply, gracefully make her live.  



On My Way (which opens theatrically in NY on March 14, with other cities to follow) is a smashing way to being Rendez-Vous, but other films reveal the wealth and range of French cinema. Many are directed by or focus on women; many go beyond the typical glamor of Paris to other parts of France, or address the tensions in a country where immigrants are imperfectly blended into society. A complete list of films, locations and schedule for the program, which runs from March 6- 16, is at  http://rendezvouswithfrenchcinema.com

 (For a distinctly French-American treat, watch this week's couch gag from The Simpsons, from Triplets of Belleville director Sylvain Chomet.)

Here are a few other Rendez-Vous highlights:

 

TIP TOP

Tip Top

 I like the edginess of this black comedy meets police drama, with Isabelle Huppert as Esther, a no-nonsense senior detective, and Sandrine Kiberlain as Sally, her newly-assigned partner. When they are called in to investigate whether the police in the suburb of Villeneuve might have inadvertently caused an Algerian informant's death, their male colleagues resent them for being Internal Affairs agents and for being women. As their investigation goes on, we come to see that the women have some quirky, sexual secrets. Esther indulges hers with her husband, which leads to some crazily, deliberately unrealistic moments (the women are not, as their male colleagues are predictably quick to guess, lesbians).

 The film veers away from realism, but it was never a traditional police drama; it's a bizarre black comedy about sex, secrets and power. Directed by Serge Bozon, the film will definitely divide opinions. Many people coming out of the press screening loathed it, but I think its jagged comedy works.


MOOD INDIGO (opens in theaters on July 18)

Mood Indigo

There is no place remotely like Michel Gondry's imagination, filled with colorful, inventive props like giant toys. This romance, in which Romain Duris falls for Audrey Tatou, is timeless in the sense that its period isn't specified, although it looks a bit like the 1970's. The couple takes a drive in a car shaped like a cloud that hovers over Paris; they do a popular dance that seems to allow your legs to grow by several rubbery feet; a flower somehow gets into the heroine's lungs, turning her into a new version of Camille. And Omar Sy (Intouchables) tags along as their  very welcome best friend.

 It's entertaining enough, with some sly jabs at French culture. One character is obsessed with the philosopher Jean-Sol Partre. But the props overwhelm the characters. Gondry's masterpiece, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, got emotional depth and warmth from Charlie Kaufman's screenplay. There's no depth and not very much warmth here, even when the plot turns darker and the film switches to gorgeous black-and-white reminiscent of Cocteau.  

 

UNDER THE RAINBOW

Under the Rainbow

 Director Agnes Jaoui, in deft, small-scale films like Let It Rain, specializes in relationships that are all the more realistic because they are not built on explosive drama. Here she veers beautifully into a different style with a tongue-in-cheek, contemporary take on fairy tale romance. Joui herself plays Marianne, an actress who is staging a fairy-tale play with kindergarten kids. Her character is also a kind of bumbling fairy godmother to her niece, a young woman who spots her prince charming at a dance, but quickly gets taken in by a seductive other man; we would recognize him as a Big Bad Wolf even if his name wasn't Maxime Wolf.

Jaoui's real-life and frequent on-screen partner, Jean-Pierre Bacri, plays Prince Charming's father, who becomes Marianne's driving instructor, just to make sure things stay tethered to earth in a clever tale that never becomes icky-sweet. Don't be put off by the terrible American title; the original Au bout de conte, gives a better feel for the film, meaning roughly "after" or "at the end of the fairy tale."

 

THE FRENCH MINISTER (opens in theaters and on VOD March 21) 

Bertrand Tavernier's "The French Minister."
Bertrand Tavernier's "The French Minister."

In the closing night film, Bertrand Tavernier goes in the direction of In the Loop and  Veep with a political satire that takes us behind the scenes in the office of a fictional French foreign minister. Thierry Lhermitte is perfect as the good-looking minister, full of bloated talk that actually sounds politically plausible. But the focus is on his staff, which often cowers before him, then behind his back tries to second-guess and manipulate him and each another. Niels Arestrup (A Prophet) just won a Cesar for playing the sage chief of staff. A sexy, backbiting advisor played by Julie Gayet. (Ah ha! The very actress in the actual news as President Francois Hollande's alleged lover. I will leave the art-mirrors-life-mirrors-art conundrum and  jokes to you.) 

 

Because it is set in 2002, the advisors have mobile phones, but not smart phones; the Minister is always railing against American "Neo-Cons," not the Tea Party.  That time gap is problematic; the differences are not far enough away to be jokey, yet the film doesn't quite feel current. But there's a lot to like in this romp, including the minister's gilded office, fit for Versailles. 

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