Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2013 - Critic's Choice

Kurt Brokaw reviews his top choices from the 18th annual showcase of contemporary French film.


Candy-colored nails sweeten "Populaire's" typists' chance at victory.
Candy-colored nails sweeten "Populaire's" typists' chance at victory.

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Senior film critic Kurt Brokaw is viewing the main slate of the 2013 Rendez-vous With French Cinema showing February 28th through March 10th at the Walter Reade Theatre, BamCinematex, and IFC Center. His critic’s choices include:

Populaire
(Régis Roinsard. 2012. France. 111 min.)

Don’t be misled by the one-sheet poster that places Romain Duris, all buttoned-up and smugly Don-Draperish, squarely in front of an adoring Déborah François, making him appear the sashaying 1950s hero of Régis Roinsard’s screen debut. It’s not his movie for a minute; it’s hers, and the poster should be hers, too; her real co-star is the Japy 518 French portable typewriter on which she becomes the world’s fastest speed typist. Populaire is not merely this festival’s most beguiling choice for opening night, but the Weinstein Company’s third-gem-in-a-row (The Artist, The Intouchables) that may be significantly reshaping French rom-coms to fit younger American tastes.

Populaire follows 21-year-old Rose Pamphyle (François) from her rural roots to Lisieux where she’s interviewed by an insurance firm CEO, Louis (Duris) for a secretarial job. Rose’s one superior talent lies in her typing skills, which are fast and furious. Louis calls her ‘pumpkin’ and mentors her into a national speed-typing contest, which she wins, which then propels her into a world competition held in Manhattan.

There’s a sub-plot involving Louis’ former girlfriend Marie (Bérénice Bejo, from The Artist, who’s conveniently married an American) but the film is anchored by the competitions—costumed and shot in lustrous widescreen color with the grandeur of early 60s 20th Century Fox titles like Woman’s World. Director Roinsard also has the inventive Guillaume Schiffman onboard as cinematographer. Schiffman shot The Artist at 22 frames per second rather than 24, which gave that film a slightly speeded-up “silent film” aura you felt more than saw, and he appears to have engineered the same effect here in the blazing typing competitions.

If you grew up and worked in an era of portable typewriters—this writer still uses his original Royal portable for occasional personal correspondence—Populaire will immediately take you back into workplaces in which superior typing speed was a hallmark of excellence in the most demanding corporate cultures. (Had the current Jack Kerouac film adaptation, On The Road, which has sunk without a trace, focused on Kerouac’s considerable typing speed in banging out his novel on a long unbroken roll, who knows what new markets it might have opened up.) François divides her Herculean skills between the Japy portable and a Hermes Ambassador, and we can’t get enough of her, as she outlasts, exhausts, and demolishes one sourpuss female after another of all ages, sizes, and ethnic origins.

She’s the small town girl we want to see win, and when the one glitch we’ve been fearing throughout the entire movie finally occurs (a dead-key pileup that briefly jams her keys and leaves her stuck while she pulls them apart), it’s a tip-off that manual speed typing has reached its apex and America is ready for The Next Big Thing. And that’s hinted at, too, in the final seconds—the 1961 IBM Selectric with its jam-free type ball, a little smaller than a golf ball—is on the way. Not to worry: “America is business; France is love” summarizes a character, but Rose and Louis have met and their love will endure for all time. Which is why Populaire is your enduring Valentine’s Day gift of 2013 from Unifrance and The Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Populaire screens February 28th at 7:30 pm at the Paris Theater; March 1st at 7 pm at BAMcinematek; and March 2nd at 7pm at IFC.

Renoir
(Gilles Bourdos. 2012. France. 111 min.)

The last important French film to delve into the creative process from a painter’s perspective was Jacques Rivette’s 1991 La Belle Noiseuse. In that four-hour opus, Michel Piccoli played a cranky, aging artist with a 10-year creative block, stuck in a chateau near Montpelier in southern France. Piccoli is visited by the stunning Emmanuelle Béart, who agrees to pose nude because the artist only paints from real life. Béart’s skin textures, “the line of her back, the curve of a breast and the arch of her chin” were described by New York Times film critic Vincent Canby as “appearing to have been air-brushed by God.”

Canby’s description more than fits the rapturous, red-headed Andrée (Christa Theret), another inexperienced model who turns up in 1915 at Les Colettes, the farm at Cagnes-sur-Mer near the French Riviera, where the master impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet) is in residence with his family. Bourdos’ sumptuous new film, Renoir, is the flip side of Rivette’s frustrating exercise in trying to get a painting started. At 74 Renoir is painting one oil masterpiece after another (details of The Bathers are shown in ravishing close-up), concentrating in his last years on nudes and domestic scenes. His hands and body, racked with the swelling and hardening of rheumatoid arthritis, have largely confined the painter to a wheelchair.

He’s fussed over by a bossy, protective staff and extended family, including his 21-year-old wounded veteran son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers) and younger adolescent Coco (Thomas Donet). Andrée, armed with the same insouciance of youth as Béart in Rivette’s film, is regarded by the family as an irritant even as she quickens the old man’s sensual and artistic urges. She will later marry Jean and become his leading lady in silent films, a life that’s hinted at when Jean purchases an early silent reel and screens it for the entire rapt family.

Renoir is a singular example of the French art of mise-en-scene, which is taken for granted in world cinema but rarely demonstrated as vividly as in Bourdos’ drama. Here it encompasses a domineering, totally assured performance by Bouquet (a favorite actor of Claude Chabrol); the unclothed alabaster beauty of Theret’s body, photographed and painted from multiple perspectives; the 2003 book, Le Tableau Amoureux, by Jacques Renoir, the master’s great-grandson, on which director Bourdos based his close-to-the-bone screenplay; and those endless, wind-swept, sun-dappled afternoons throughout the lushly wild grounds and sprawling Renoir home, exquisitely photographed by Mark Ping Bin Lee (Flight of the Red Balloon, Norwegian Wood). The last film to have caught and sustained such a mood of exotic abandon may have been Elvira Madigan, nearly 50 years ago. It’s luxurious and at moments a bit delirious, with a pristine eloquence that mirrors Renoir’s most memorable paintings.

Sensing his frailty and mortality, Renoir summons up the memory that “fury once ran through my veins,” though he is content to observe through his later paintings that “pain passes…beauty remains.” The only danger in falling under Renoir’s spell is that you may be sorely tempted on your way out of the theater to dial up your travel agent and get on the next plane to Les Collettes, where you can stroll the olive groves overlooking Haut de Cagnes, the fields and home where the painter spent his last 12 years.

Renoir screens March 2nd at 6 pm at the Walter Reade Theater; March 3rd at 5 pm at BAM; and March 6th at 7 pm at IFC.

Jappeloup
(Christian Duguay. 2013. France. 130 min.)

Are your dreams “inspired by true events”? These days it seems half the movies beckoning us derive from somebody’s once-upon-a-time realities. None of these three critic’s choices in this year’s Rendez-vous fest appear to be using the inspired-by flag in their marketing rollouts. But all three pictures could. France’s high-speed typing champion of 1959… France’s most renowned impressionist of the 20th century… and now France’s Gold Medal Olympics jumper are all proud cultural markers. They’ve been crafted into lavishly styled, accessible movies intended to please wider audiences than thorny, argumentative, even depressing items like Augustine, In the House, A Lady in Paris, and Thérèse Desqueyroux. When they work and you can describe them to friends without biting your tongue, it’s not surprising that they become festival favorites.

Jappeloup is the little (158 cm, just 15 hands) show-jumping gelding that wins big in Christian Duguay’s robust outing. The movie begins in the early 80s with the transition of Pierre Durand from a law career into a life riding horses. Real-life Durand is acted by Guillaume Canet, himself a former show jumper who’d retired from active competition; Durand’s ascent in jumping events can be read in his biography, Jappeloup and in Crin noir: Pierre Durand et Jappelou De Luze by his sister-in-law, Karine Devilder. Their books were adapted into the screenplay by Canet, whose knowledge reflects his own experiences as well as Durand’s life in equestrian circles.

Even better, Canet’s screenplay has the added dimension of leaning heavily on the screenwriter’s complex relationship with his father, an artistic decision that resonated well with Duguay, the director. (Duguay was a horse groom in his youth and shared a similarly unsettled adult life with his dad, too.) Inspired-by-true-events thus powers Jappeloup along its global jumping circuits and helps give the film a win-win in authenticity. It won’t surprise you that Durand’s father is played by the familiar French actor Daniel Auteuil (The Well Digger’s Daughter), an intense, scene-stealing pro who can hold the screen against any animal.

The movie replicates the significant victories in Jappeloup’s career, including World Cups and other competitions set in Berlin, Aachen, Gothenburg, Dortmund, and St. Gallen; European Finals and French Number Ones. Many of these are shot in the Palma de Mallorca stadium, and Canet does all the jumps, up to l.6 meters. Multiple horses of varying size play Jappeloup from event to event, and the transitions are seamless, as are Duguay’s handsome computer effects. Horse and rider get better and better, victory after victory—until 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics, where Jappeloup stalls and throws Durand—a huge, humiliating loss.

Discouraged and burdened with debt, Durand decides to sell Jappeloup for $400,000 to an American executive (Donald Sutherland, fit and brisk), but the deal falls through and he decides to try rebuilding the trust he’s lost with Jappeloup. Strong support is given here by Marina Hands as his wife, Nadia, and Lou de Laâge as the loyal groom Raphaëlle. When Jappeloup finally wins the gold in the Olympics in Seoul in 1988, Durand lovingly hangs his victory medallion around Jappeloup’s neck for a victory walk, and you’ll be forgiven if your heart slowly melts into your knees.

Jappeloup screens March 2nd at 9:40 pm at IFC; March 6th at 3:30 pm at the Walter Reade Theater; and March 9th at 5:30 pm at the Walter Reade.

Three Worlds
(Catherine Corsini. 2012. France. 101 min.)

The best-intentioned Good Samaritan can become a victim of entrapment, as Catherine Corsini’s smoothly fashioned thriller with an intellectual conscience demonstrates. Neither a pulse-pounder nor a neo-noir, Three Worlds adheres closely to principles followed by pulp master Cornell Woolrich, one of whose favorite plotlines was the collapsing world of a trapped innocent. Woolrich’s first rule of engagement in his 1930s and 40s fiction was building what he called the “line of suspense” which, if strong enough, would allow the author (or film director) considerable freedom in stretching the bounds of credibility. Aided by careful casting and disciplined performances, Corsini’s Three Worlds is a neat example of how fate, bad choices, and worse timing can intersect and destroy the humane instincts most decent people still carry around in 2013.

A construction worker is struck and grievously paralyzed crossing a street late night by a Mercedes driven by Alan (Raphaël Personnaz) and two drunken companions. Jumping out to briefly examine the unconscious man, Alan locks eyes for a moment with Julianne (Clotilde Hesme) watching from her apartment across the street. Though she can’t ID the car and doesn’t tell the police she saw the driver, Julianne accompanies the ambulance to the hospital and meets the man’s wife (Arta Dobroshi) and members of his extended family, all undocumented Moldavians. The two women form a bond of sorts, and Juliette begins returning to the hospital to visit the comatose husband and comfort his wife.

In the meantime, Alan, the top salesman in a successful but shady car dealership who’s just been named a co-owner, agrees with his two underlings to hush-up the accident, as he’s marrying the daughter (Adèle Haenel) of the owner Testard (Jean-Pierre Malo) in several days. He’s the heir apparent, but newspaper stories of the investigation and near-fatality draw Alan, who’s feeling guilty and scared, to the hospital room to view the victim, and Juliette recognizes him. Following him into the elevator, she eavesdrops on his cell conversation with Testard, and confronts Alan the next day at his showroom. He initially brushes her off but she persists, and Alan reluctantly agrees to help pay the family’s mounting hospital bills by selling some cars off the books, if Juliette carries cash to the family, which she even more reluctantly agrees to do.

Juliette’s own life is complicated by her being three months pregnant by her sometime lover Frédéric, played by Laurent Capelluto, a philosophy lecturer and expert on Heidegger’s death theories. Juliette sits in part of a lecture by Frédéric. This is right before her friend’s husband dies in the hospital, and before Juliette finds herself sexually attracted to his murderer… and also before the widow orders Juliette to tell Alan to fork over 20,000 euros for the hospital bills as well as her husband’s funeral—or else. Alan will have to steal the money. Both Alan and Juliette are in this stew over their heads. The good news is that all the players and plot convolutions are now lined up for a slew of additional surprises that will follow.

Director Corsini has a female sensibility that shows an acute understanding of how women in crisis comfort each other while responding in wildly unpredictable ways. This is an essential component of Three Worlds and a key reason the film holds us in thrall through some highly questionable plot twists. Among French directors, Francois Truffaut had a keen feminine intuition throughout his career and used it shrewdly in his adaptations of Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black with Jeanne Moreau and Mississippi Mermaid with Catherine Deneuve, as did Mitch Leisen in his direction of Barbara Stanwyck in Woolrich’s No Man Of Her Own. When the vulnerable female is compassionate and believable, the viewer is likely to cut her vast amounts of slack in her actions. And Clotilde Hesme is perceptively cast and directed as the modest bystander who only wants to be helpful but ends up falling for the hit-and-run killer she’s tracking.

Personnaz capably partners Hesme as the handsome car salesman who sees his future being erased by one awful mistake. The supporting players all contribute on point ensemble performances. Production values are first-rate. Three Worlds is an improbable nightmare expertly rendered, and you are very glad it’s not happening to you.

Three Worlds shows March 5th at 9:30 pm at IFC; March 6th at 6:15 pm and March 7th at 9 pm at the Walter Reade.

The Suicide Shop
(Patrice Leconte. 2012. France. 105 min.)

How would the notion of an animated madcap 3-D French musical strike you? Leconte’s The Suicide Shop transports you into a Paris rendered like the off-kilter Gotham metropolis of our Batman movies, filled with pitiful, unhappy souls drawn like creatures who’ve escaped from Gahan Wilson’s canvasses. It’s the gloomiest City Of Lights imaginable, filled with the effects of recession and global warming, with citizens taking dives off tall buildings (and since public suicide has been outlawed, having their corpses ticketed).

The one retail outlet that seems to be pulling a crowd is the back-alley store run by Mishima and Lucrèce Tuvache and their children Vincent and Marilyn (all four being named after famous suicides). The Tuvache’s shelves are stocked to bursting with every kind of concept and paraphernalia (bullets, sleeping pills, razor blades, roped nooses, samurai swords, poisons, et. al.) one could imagine to end life. “Your money back if no eternal rest” is their marketplace positioning. Think of them as the singing Tuvaches whose signature chorus is “Long Live Suicide—Killing You Is Our Pride And Joy.”

Actually, you can think of them in relation to a growing stage and screen gallery of loony dispensers of cartoon death with a beat—The Addams Family and Little Shop of Horrors as plays and movies, Jack Nicholson’s and Heath Ledger’s Joker characters, Julian Crouch’s Shockheaded Peter (with its giant, vaudeville-styled puppetry), Stephen Sondheim and Tim Burton’s stellar versions of Sweeney Todd. Even those “Masters of the House” the Thénardiers, sung by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen in Les Misérables, seem like remotely linked merchants of misery. Let’s face it, all these formidable artisans have built their gallows high for their gallows humor, and The Suicide Shop recognizes it’s in fast company from the get-go.

Leconte (Girl on The Bridge) based his film on the 2006 novel by Jean Teulé, Le Maya sin des Suicides, with clever, rhyming songs by Étienne Perruchon. When Madame Tuvache gives birth to Alan, her third child, the mood of the family and the film changes because Alan is not the devil’s spawn but a happy-go-lucky baby and child. As he grows into a teen who Vincent desperately tries to turn into a chain smoker, Alan re-engineers the plot into directions that widen the film’s appeal but may disappoint any pre-teen goths who wander into Lincoln Center. As a retail venue, the family decides to reinvent its shop as a bistro, a dispenser of crepes instead of rat poison. This probably earns a sigh of relief from the red-eyed rats that’ve formed a backup chorus on the songs.

The surprising conclusion by the filmmakers may be aimed at deflecting criticism away from the film’s essential premise, which is, to be sure, a serious and growing international health crisis. CineEuropa reported that The Suicide Shop has already hit a bump with the Cinematographic Revision Commission, which briefly put a ban on minors in Italy because of “the concrete dangers of emulative acts by younger audiences.” The Suicide Shop ends with the positive notion that selling crepes are better for your heart than selling ways to stop your heart. In movies this used to be called a happy ending, and maybe it still is.

The Suicide Shop shows March 2nd at 3:30 pm, March 8th at 6:30 pm, and March 9th at 8:15 pm at the Walter Reade.

This concludes critic’s choices from the 19 films Brokaw viewed in Rendez-vous with French Cinema. The complete schedule is here.

Originally published February 24, 2013 with additional choices added March 1, 2013.