Rendez-Vous With French Cinema – Critic’s Choice

Catherine Deneuve and François Ozon on the set of "Potiche."

(François Ozon. 2010. France. 103 min.)

Fit and trim in her tailored jogging suit, 69-year-old Catherine Deneuve sprints through a dappled countryside near Sainte-Gudule in northern France. It is 1977, and nature stirs around her. Birds tweet, squirrels frolic, and rabbits mate as the decorative opening titles playfully slide in and around this first lady of French cinema. Deneuve breathes easily, taking in the spring reverie, and we half expect her to burst into song, which in fact she will do in the closing minutes of François Ozon’s wise and winning appraisal of marriage colliding with French female empowerment. Who better than Madame Deneuve to lead this parade?

She plays Suzanne Pujol, the dutiful stay-at-home wife of Robert (a bristling, motormouthed Fabrice Luchini), who manages his umbrella factory with tireless, maniacal efficiency. When workers strike and kidnap her husband, Suzanne steps down off her shelf as a decorative household object—a potiche—dusts herself off and shows she can run the family business. Ozon styles this as a frothy, high-energy comedy bordering on farce, which works as long as Luchini is sputtering and jabbering away as the family patriarch. When he’s muzzled, his unlikely but welcome replacement is Maurice Babin (Gérard Depardieu). Suzanne turns to Maurice for advice because he’s the town mayor and, not incidentally, her former lover.

For decades Depardieu has amassed enough French film leads, and now enough sheer body mass, to play the mayor as would a comic over-the-top Zero Mostel or Nathan Lane. But Ozon wisely tones him way, way down, disciplining his performance to the point where he and Deneuve’s Suzanne function as equals, thus setting up her own political ambitions, campaign, and eventual victory. When this glorious star takes her victory lap, singing Jean Ferrat’s soaring 60s anthem C’est beau la vie (How Beautiful Life Is), you are likely to find yourself dabbing at tears of joy.

Potiche is a sleekly engineered machine, a passionate and fully realized work of French art. It’s in the tradition of life lessons Francois Truffaut once invented and tossed off with abandon, scattering the cinematic landscape with movies that instructed us as we grew into adulthood and that we instinctively trusted. Ozon fills his film with the same kind of wry, rueful observations, and while they sometimes sting, they never wound.

To enhance your enjoyment of Potiche, sit down the night before you see it and revisit the Fox Lorber video or DVD of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s 1964 Cannes Grand Prize winner. In that film, you may recall that Deneuve worked with her mother in a 1950s umbrella shop in Paris, and the entire movie was sung in French. Here she is nearly a half-century later, running the umbrella factory that once-upon-a-time supplied the umbrella shop. Like those little birds flitting about Potiche’s opening credits, Catherine Deneuve is our first true sign of spring, and she’s still singing her heart out for us.

Potiche is the opening night selection of the 16th Annual Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, hosted by The Film Society of Lincoln Center. It premieres Thursday, March 3rd, at 7 pm at Manhattan’s tiny and beloved Paris Theater, followed by showings March 4th at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and March 5th at IFC in Manhattan. The Paris starts a regular run on March 25th, which one can hope will last forever.

Mozart’s Sister
(René Féret. 2010. France. 120 min.)

While Potiche is a musical ode to liberation, Feret’s sublime biopic of Mozart’s older sister, Nannerl (played by a radiant Marie Feret, the director’s 15-year-old daughter), focusing on her teenage years from 1759 to 1762, is an equally lovely portrait of female repression. “Lovely” is not a typical descriptive of repression, but Mozart’s Sister is a rich and appealing portrait of a multi-talented young woman who slowly recedes into the shadow of her famous brother, Wolfgang (an amazing David Moreau, whose child’s face bears a resemblance to virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman as a wunderkind).

Nannerl, Wolfgang, and their parents (Marc Barbé and Delphine Chuillot) lurch along by stagecoach from Brussels to Paris in bitter winter. Axels break, lodging is uncertain in abbeys, money for food is scarce, Nannerl starts her first period and must dress as a male wearing a wig just to deliver a letter. (When she’s not disguised, male students tease her, suggesting she’s come to pose as a nude model.) Nannerl comes to realize the sole purpose of their family journey is to introduce Wolfgang to the great courts of Europe. She contents herself as the harpsichordist and occasional vocal accompanist to Wolfie, and becomes friends with the young daughter of Louis XV. Eventually she becomes acquainted with the King’s son, Le Dauphin (Clovis Fouin), and from the sumptuous chateau at Versailles, he commissions her to write a composition. It’s her breakthrough chance and she delivers a work the young man loves. But her father forbids her to compose and she turns away from her parents, moving to Paris where she supports herself by giving music lessons to wealthy girls. In the film’s painful closing moments, she returns to her family but has burned all her compositions, shutting down a possibly brilliant career. She’ll become another potiche on a shelf.

Despite the sadness of its historical accuracy, Mozart’s Sister is always a pleasure to watch and listen to, for it’s a film in love with music and the art of concertizing, and there are long passages of the two Mozart prodigies playing in opulent settings by candlelight. The film gives us moments when we sense we’re watching paintings at the Metropolitan Museum come to life. (The girl looks startlingly like John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler.) Feret’s lush meditations and the editing of his wife, Fabienne Féret, create filmmaking of a high order. This is a keeper.

Mozart’s Sister will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center on Friday, March 4th at 3:30 pm and Monday, March 7th, at 6:15 pm; IFC will show it Saturday, March 5th at 1 pm.

The Big Picture
(Eric Lartigau. 2010. France. 115 min.)

Fever dream movies can grip and disturb at a deep, subconscious level, and The Big Picture is a beauty. The premise is that a successful French lawyer, Paul (Romain Duris), accidently strikes and kills his wife’s lover (Eric Ruf), then leaves her and their children to reinvent himself far more modestly but far more satisfyingly as a photojournalist.

Adapted from Douglas Kennedy’s 1998 American novel of the same name, The Big Picture is a reverse spin on both the plotline and filmic tagline of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Matt Damon’s Ripley felt it was “better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody,” so he assumed the identity of his victim, becoming a habitual criminal and likeable killer through four more Ripley novels. Here, Duris wants to disappear, even after he’s eliminated all traces of his victim. Despite the affection he still feels for his children and maybe his wife, he trades in his life and work as a big-league lawyer to become a roving itinerant photographer, partly to nurture a passion and partly to avoid ever being linked to the murder. When his photos begin to gather acclaim, maybe edging him toward a spotlight he can’t or won’t chance, he ventures even further away from civilization and takes a hugely dangerous risk.

The Big Picture gets you up close and personal into the world of high-concept photography, and the pictures that build Paul’s new life are from the files of Antoine d’Agata, an iconoclastic Magnum artist who cites Nan Goldin as a key influence of his intimate portraiture. The movie has a crisp, elegant look and sleek editing, both of which complement the sophisticated tonality of d’Agata’s photos used in Paul’s exhibitions. Parts of The Big Picture were shot in Montenegro and off the Adriatic coast in locales that are remote and unfamiliar.

The casting is impeccable: Marina Foïs registers strongly as Paul’s wife, the Serbian actress Branka Katic is even better as a photo editor drawn to Paul’s work and then to Paul, and Catherine Deneuve turns up in a small but considered role in the legal world Paul inhabits and then exits. All three are strong support pillars around Duris, who carries the film with confidence from the get-go, transforming himself from a buttoned-up corporate suit into a haggard, possessed sociopath. This is a handsome, continually absorbing thriller.

The Big Picture will be shown Friday, March 4th at 1 pm and Sunday, March 6th at 6:15 pm at the Walter Reade Theater. IFC will show it Saturday, March 5th at 3:45 pm.

What Love May Bring
(Claude Lelouch. 2010. France. 120 min.)

Has there ever been a director so in love with movies and the sheer act of filmmaking as Claude Lelouch? At 73, he calls What Love May Bring his “culmination of 50 years of dreams and emotions,” and dedicates this picture, his 43rd, to his seven children and to us, his movie going public. “Life,” he tells us, “is a film in which you miss the first 10 minutes and in which you leave before the end.” On the strength of sentiments like these, What Love May Bring might conclude a journey begun by his small and intimate Oscar winner A Man and a Woman in 1966.

The difference is that this time we witness a sprawling, glorious summation of craft, storytelling, history, and a passion for film you can get deliriously lost in, confident that within precisely two hours the director will knit together a profusion of scenes that begin with a Lumière cinematograph filming silently outside a Paris Métro and conclude with family members in a studio watching this picture’s score being recorded by a massive orchestra. Like Bergman’s Persona, Truffaut’s Day for Night, Alain Resnais’s Wild Grass, Ming-liang Tsai’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn—you can fill in your own list of tributes to cinema by world class directors—Lelouch is ready to unravel his life through his movies. A Man and a Woman flanked a vibrantly languorous Anouk Aimée alongside the romantic score of Francis Lai, and nearly a half-century later both these artists figure deeply in What Love May Bring.

Lelouch’s new movie is anchored by Ilva (the radiant, clear-eyed Audrey Dana), an Italian émigré whose mother, Madame Blum (Anouk Aimée) appeared unclothed in short films that would become known as men’s smokers. Ilva ushers in a Paris cinema, the Eden Palace, where her stepfather, Maurice (Dominique Pinon) is the projectionist and a member of the Nazi resistance. Ilva saves her stepdad from a concentration camp by giving herself to a married German officer (the one-name actor, Raphaël), who manages the Blue Angel cabaret in Berlin. Later she’s drawn to a pianist and songwriter, Simon (Laurent Couson), who’ll turn his back on a classical music career to become a jazz pianist/trumpeter and part-time lawyer who eventually defends her in a murder trial. And in between these two men, she climbs into bed with not one but two American GIs—the rich war correspondent Jim (Gilles Lemaire) and the poor boxer Bob (Jacky Ido)—both poster boy types who represent the Allied front that helps defeat Germany. Ilva marries Jim in America but eventually returns to Paris and the Eden; her disfigured German officer is still married and back running the Blue Angel. Ilva is eventually tried for a murder she didn’t want to commit.

Lelouch is disciplined in maintaining coherent time frames surrounding these many escapades, though he’s never too busy to share a trove of movie introductions, clips, and posters from different eras. We’re shown how The Jazz Singer would introduce sound …then settle in with Jean Gabin, Michèle Morgan, and other 30s stars in scenes from Daybreak, Stormy Weather and Hotel du Nord …followed by an hilariously dubbed version of Gone With The Wind …then into a visit to the Russian classic, The Cranes are Flying, demo-ing how at Mosfilm Studios the director would shoot action handheld on a spiral staircase …and later in the 50s we watch a murder scene involving one of Ilva’s lovers, plunging down a flight of theater stairs next to a Hitchcock poster of Dial M for Murder. Lelouch uses filmic images to root us in time and mood, none more powerfully than when the usherette guides a curious youngster (most certainly Lelouch as a child) up into the Eden’s projection booth where her stepfather explains how actors hidden in film stock are freed by the projector’s “magic light” and spring to life.

What Love May Bring benefits from an extravagant budget that permits Lelouch to stage battle scenes from World Wars I and II with ferocious intensity; the rounding-up of Jewish citizens for deportation to camps; a prairie race by foot, horseback, and wagon that wins Jim’s great-grandfather 250 Texas acres and begins his ascent to founding the Singer sewing machine empire; and rich, multi-layered scenes of cabaret life in Paris and Harlem. The picture is alive with music, ranging from the French Marseilles played by the Nazi officer on his accordina, various versions of Stormy Weather, a rambunctious fantasy version of The Two Uncles, in which the major cast members break the fourth wall for a rousing song-and-dance, and the moving title song that accompanies a final montage of international actors directed through Lelouch’s career. Two of Lelouch’s grown daughters are used to good advantage in war scenes, and a much younger Lelouch lookalike turns up from time to time filming all this, handheld.

What Love May Bring is an immense pleasure to experience, a return-to-form for a French favorite whose overriding filmmaking principle continues to be “fate decides, and fate is always right.”

It will be shown Saturday, March 5th at 9 pm at the Walter Reade and Sunday, March 6th at 3:15 pm at IFC.

For complete listings visit Rendez-Vous With French Cinema.

About :

Kurt Brokaw joined The Independent in 2010 as Senior Film Critic, covering New York’s six major film festivals and reviewing individual features and shorts of merit.  He was Associate Teaching Professor at The New School for 33 years, and has taught courses on film noir, early lesbian fiction and Jewish-themed cinema at The 92nd Street Y for 15 years. His memoir, The Paperback Guy, was published in 2020.