Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2015 – Critic’s Choice

Mélanie Laurent's second film as director, Breathe, plays this year's Rendez-vous With French Cinema.

Senior film critic Kurt Brokaw chooses his favorites from all 22 features and 4 shorts in Rendez-vous’ 20th anniversary program.

When the New York Film Festival replaced Richard Roud with Richard Pena as lead programmer in 1988, beginning Pena’s stewardship for a quarter century, French film selections began sharing significant space with far more far-flung global cinema. Pena’s gift to New Yorkers was the world, and while many cineastes were curious to see what was playing in the downtowns of Ethiopia, Roud’s French emphasis was sorely missed. Rendez-vous began filling that gap in 1995. Its heady mix of Gallic masters and newcomers has been closely watched, along with its current expansion into multiple venues (Alice Tully Hall plus the Walter Reade and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in Lincoln Center, the downtown IFC Center, and Brooklyn’s BAMcinématek). This year it’s appointed two luminous festival co-chairs: the beloved French actress Nathalie Baye and master director Martin Scorsese.

Both Scorsese and Baye are probably beaming with the overall thrust of this year’s selections by program directors Florence Almozini and Dennis Lim, which skew thematically toward youth and crime. Not surprisingly, the 2015 critic’s choices fall neatly into these two categories.

Among the candidates viewed in the youth category are Mélanie Laurent’s Breathe, a tragic drama of two teenage girls drawn closer and closer in the face of one girl’s collapsing household; Cédric Kahn’s Wild Life, in which three youngsters pull their heavy Gypsy load of angst, doubt, and adolescent crises along in a ragtag lifestyle only their hippie dad wants to hold onto; Abd Al Malik’s May Allah Bless France!, starring the earnest, likable Malik as a kid with potential that’s nearly lost to the churning street life outside Strasbourg’s projects; Cyprien Vial’s Young Tiger, featuring a bright Punjabi teen who, with his Al Malik counterpart, shares common vocabularies, uncertainties, and the vulnerabilities of youth; and Thomas Cailley’s Love At First Fight, a vigorous tale of how military boot camp toughens up an already feisty girl (Adele Haenel in full Greta Gerwig kickass mode) until a natural disaster nearly does her in.

There’s also Alice Douard’s meditative and dreamily enigmatic 35-minute short, Extrasystole, centered on the longing felt by a sensitive female student, Mathilde Poymiro, with a heart condition, for her sophisticated female teacher played by Laetitia Dosch. And one should mention the curious and inquisitive 12-year-old Kyla Kennedy, who plays Reality, the title character in Quentin Dupieux’s film of the same name, an absurdist horror farce and a first for an ultra-edgy IFC Midnight attraction to be given Rendez-vous’ prime closing night position.

The two critic’s choices featuring youth are serious and disquieting films of substance. The first spotlights a girl, the second a boy:

My Friend Victoria (Mon amie Victoria)
(Jean-Paul Civeyrac. 2014. France. 95 min.)

Doris Lessing (1919-2013) began her writing career in 1950 with the indelible novel of colonialism, The Grass Is Singing. The book, highly unsettling, was this writer’s first literary encounter with apartheid. The original 25-cent Bantam paperback cover of a huge black man wielding a machete, with a white woman in a field behind him, is still haunting. That novel follows a white female Rhodesian settler whose marriage disintegrates, coupled with her infatuation with a black servant, who murders her. The book was filmed (badly) as Killing Heat with Karen Black, and is not unlike a far better and more recent picture, Claire Denis’ White Material (2009) in which Isabelle Huppert acts as an African coffee plantation owner who’s desperately trying to hold onto her family property in the last bloody nights of European colonialism.

In 2003, late in Lessing’s career, she circled back to the same thematic territory, in a much shorter and more muted novel, Victoria and the Staveneys, (the US edition is available only in a collection of Lessing short novels, The Grandmothers). You shouldn’t take “more muted” to necessarily mean less unsettling, for this is the story faithfully filmed as My Friend Victoria and is worth considering at some length.

The novel begins with a black child, Victoria, age 9, “with not enough flesh on her to feed a cat,” being picked up at a London playground by two white pre-teens, brothers Thomas and Edward Staveney. Victoria’s elderly aunt, her only living relative, has just been taken to hospital. The boys live in a gorgeous townhouse with their divorced mother and are “deep in the throes of a passionate identification with all the sorrows of the Third World.” Victoria, cold and wet, finds herself “in a room so big all of her aunt’s flat would fit into it.” But she’s fed and warmed and read-to; it is her first introduction to a world of privileged luxury, and she is awed and overwhelmed by it.

Five years pass; Victoria cares for her sick and dying aunt, who finally passes. The teenage Victoria is squeezed into the dour flat of her aunt’s friend, a struggling descendant of slaves “with bad blood” and three small children of her own. Victoria grows tall and slim with a soft Afro, gets a menial job and contributes to her upkeep, beginning to recognize herself as a member of class five, “the underclass.” She walks by Thomas and Edward’s stately home, but the grown boys don’t recognize her.

At 19, Victoria has passed through a series of retail and marginal modeling jobs, and is clerking in a record store, her hair straightened. Thomas, now 17, walks in and they renew their childhood acquaintance. He’s become a rabid fan of black music and singers, and takes her home to the extravagant room she slept in as a child, and they make love, starting a romance.

The shy young woman, “who walks as if she’s taking up too much space,” quickly becomes pregnant. Moving into a small apartment in the same building as her aunt’s friend, she leaves Thomas but has his baby, Mary. Victoria goes back to the record store, meets a traveling musician, marries him on impulse and has a second child, a fussy boy. She quits her job to stay home, making ends meet by sitting and doing housekeeping for other women. Then her wandering husband is killed in a car crash. Victoria is suddenly in her mid 20s with two children ages six and two, looking ahead to the same rundown schools and life as her aunt and her aunt’s friend. Victoria starts thinking about the Staveneys, the rich, prominent theater family she’s let slip through her fingers.

She calls Thomas (who’s a university student and with another black girl) and tells him he’s the father of grade-school age Mary. They meet and he’s pleasant enough. That night he tells his mother and his older brother, Edward, now a practicing lawyer. “I’ve always wanted a black grandchild,” muses the mother, Jessy. Edward is more circumspect, quickly bringing up the possibility of blackmail and the need for DNA tests. They invite Victoria over with the little girl, who quickly adjusts to the idea of a father, grandmother, and uncle—though nothing of a future is discussed.

Thomas agrees to a DNA test which confirms his paternity, and the child next meets her grandfather, the bustling Staveney actor. “Here’s my little creme caramel, my little chocolate eclair!” roars the thespian. Thomas winces—but he sets up a bank account into which monthly payments are made for Mary. Jessy takes Victoria and the child to their first show, then another, then an outing at the zoo… then invites her granddaughter to spend a month at their summer home in Dorset. Wardrobes are purchased for her. Victoria imagines, ‘I am losing Mary to the Staveneys.’

Victoria is invited for a weekend to the pristine Staveney home, where Mary is having the time of her life. Victoria feels stifled. “She lay on her elbow watching her child sleep, rather as she would a ship sailing away on a horizon.” Back in London, the Staveneys invite Victoria over and offer to move Mary out of her unsafe inner-city school to a private boarding school. Victoria refuses that but agrees to let them Mary transfer to a superior private girls’ school. She knows she’s bettering her child’s life as she never bettered her own. But we leave Victoria thinking about the church choir she’s just joined and its handsome, widowed minister—maybe there’s a brighter day for her and her son, too, somewhere in the future.

Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s adaptation and filming of Lessing’s novel replaces London with Paris. There are other minor changes—the aunt’s friend becomes an adoptive sister who takes the author’s narrative voice—but most of the novel summarized above becomes most of the movie (minus the church choir and minister). It’s Victoria’s to carry, and she’s played as a child by Keylia Achie Beguie and as an adult by Guslagie Malanda. Flanked by a superb supporting cast, these two actresses are pitch perfect in what is the most beguiling and thoughtful drama of this festival.

Victoria’s life will be judged in as many ways as there are film viewers.

If you see it, reflect on the era in which Lessing wrote it, at the turn of the century. Weigh it against her first novel, The Grass is Singing, written over half a century ago. Consider your own feelings on class and race, how they’ve evolved in your own lifetime. Decide how movies mirror or don’t mirror your deepest feelings.

My Friend Victoria will be shown Saturday, March 7th at 2:50 pm at IFC; Sunday, March 8th at 2 pm at Lincoln Center, and Thursday, March 12th at 4:15 pm also at Lincoln Center.

40-Love (Terre Battue)
(Stéphane Demoustier. 2014. France/Belgium. 95 min.)

In 40-Love Charles Mérienne gives a debut performance any parent will love. He plays Ugo, the quintessential French pre-teen in love with tennis. Ugo’s life with mom Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, and dad, Olivier Gourmet, is laced with uncertainty when the father loses his 20-year-job in retail and finds himself unemployable. So while dad tries to obtain financing to open his own shoe store, Ugo is chosen for a high-profile tennis camp and the opportunity to make a national team. The astute cross-cutting of a youngster trying to start his own shaky life with a parent trying to restart a his own failed career pulls you in.

Then things get very complicated very fast. The boy loses his parental base when mom, fed up with her husband’s fading business dreams, walks out. When dad’s financing deal falls apart, he gets drunk and orders his son to help him obscenely graffiti the store’s windows. With his moral compass in disarray, the boy, pushing against competitors he knows can beat him, executes a desperate plot against his major opponent–and is caught.

In less capable hands, this downward mobility spiral that breaks both father and son would strain credulity. But the young Mérienne has a natural screen purity that’s achingly real. And director Demoustier has cast him opposite the French actor most likely to one day inherit the mantel of Jean Gabin. Gourmet gets better and better in film after film showcased at Rendez-vous; he’s smarter than the clunky guys John C. Reilly effortlessly plays, while being less abrasive than, say, Tom Wilkinson, Brendan Gleeson, or Brian Dennehy. Gourmet wears well and his stocky, growly face and frame are built for the long run.

40-Love leaves a maturing boy and his sacked dad, both of whose dreams are shattered, back together at an uncertain starting line. Both have made bad choices but we sense their love for each other will prevail. How many actors playing father and son have you seen with the kind of substance and bearing that you feel life’s cruelties won’t crush? Not nearly enough.

40-Love will be shown Thursday, March 12th at 6 pm at IFC, and Friday, March 13th at 6:45 pm at Lincoln Center.

Marty’s been waiting patiently to invite you into a raft of crime films.

There’s Cédric Anger’s Next Time I’ll Aim For The Heart, with the handsome and quietly creepy Guillaume Canet playing the true-life French killer who led a dual life as a uniformed Gendarme while assassinating a string of young women in the late 70s. Or Jean-Charles Hue’s brazen, bristling Eat Your Bones, built around a band of evangelical skinhead brutes who attempt a truck heist in northern France. Or In The Name Of My Daughter, with Canet back this time as a scheming lawyer opposite Haenel (the tough military kid) who suddenly vanishes from the arts shop supported by her wealthy mom and casino owner, Catherine Deneuve in one of three fest appearances, and is never found. Or even Thomas Lilti’s Hippocrate, a grimly trenchant examination of a half-broken public hospital in which the new intern (son of the chief resident, no less) gets tangled in an alcoholic patient’s death which the system covers up for him, but watches a fellow intern (an Algerian immigrant physician) done in by a do-not-resuscitate decision.

The two critic’s choices in the crime mold are both, as they say, ‘inspired by true events’:

The Connection
(Cédric Jimenez. 2014. France. 135 min.)

Paging William Friedkin. Gene Hackman’s detective “Popeye” Doyle set the bar way high up in Friedkin’s The French Connection in 1971. No other neo-noir outside of the Godfather cycle has been referenced so lovingly, so exploitively, so many ways in so many films. The most amusing reference may have come in Robert Benton’s 1998 Twilight, with Hackman playing a bedridden cancer survivor watching himself on television crashing around as Popeye, while Paul Newman stands at bedside, cocking an admiring eyebrow at Hackman’s performance.

And so we come to Cédric Jimenez’ long, loud, lush take on French authorities grinding away from 1975 – 1981 to take down “La French” drug-smuggling operation out of Marseilles. This is the French successor to Friedkin’s epic tangent and John Frankenheimer’s French Connection II follow-up. Make no mistake, The Connection is a 42nd Street multiplex movie-movie that shoves its way into Rendez-vous with exhaustive brute force. You wanna smack-up? Then pay attention.

Its core concept parallels not The French Connection but Michael Mann’s Heat, among the best of American good-guy, bad-guy dust-ups. You’ll recall in that 1995 LA thriller, Al Pacino was the undaunted cop pursuing gang boss Robert De Niro, and we wait for their historic meeting with undisguised glee. Wow — Pacino and De Niro sitting down for coffee together, squaring off like two weary boxers sniffing and saluting each other’s canny prowess that takes a lickin’ and keep on tickin’.

Director Jimenez casts Jean Dujardin, the lead in the Oscar-winning The Artist, as Pierre, France’s newly promoted organized crime magistrate. Pierre’s come up from child support services, and we see he knows what heroin does to kids. Sideburned, neatly suited up and supported by a loyal wife, the polished and disciplined investigator is the exact opposite of that authoritarian roughneck, Popeye.

Jimenez’s choice as the Neapolitan czar Gaétan is even stronger: Gilles Lellouche makes Gaetan a coiled, emotionless, thinking machine — his face is chiseled into Jack Palance planes with Henry Silva’s smirk, plus that soft, threatening De Niro purr. Gaétan has a loyal wife and kids, too, and the movie slowly builds to Pierre and Gaétan’s confrontation on a spectacular cliff.

The Connection zips along with its disco-drenched nights of abandon, its sudden and stark rub outs at point blank range, its music score banging away to Sonny Bono’s Bang Bang. It’s a shameless, almost two-and-a-half-hour pick-pocketing of scenes and themes you’ve seen and ducked before, and about the only element missing from its headbanging intensity is 3-D. Scorsese does it all better, but then, this is partly his festival now. You see? Crime does pay.

The Connection shows Saturday, March 7th at 6 pm at Lincoln Center, Saturday, March 7th at 9 pm at BAM, and Sunday, March 8th at 3:4 5pm at IFC.

(Frédéric Tellier. 2014. France. 120 min.)

The title is an abbreviation for “serial killer #1.” We need to get serious here, as this is not a picture to be trifled with. It’s a cold-as-ice recreation of a day-after-day manhunt through east Paris from 1991 to 2001 for a rapist who tortured and then murdered seven young women. It’s also a forensic lecture on how pioneering DNA analyses finally establish a killer’s guilt beyond the shadow of a doubt, which has often had the effect of prompting confessions.

Tellier flawlessly executes a daring artistic decision, even more daring when you consider this is his first feature film, to frame the drama almost entirely as a flashback, starting with the trial of an accused man. This is a totally unexpected format, and it casts a feverish spell that holds from its opening moments.

There are other surprises. SK1 is not really anchored by its two leading actors, Raphael Personnaz and the ever-reliable Olivier Gourmet. They play detectives of the Police Judiciaire, Charlie and Bougon, and they’re more than adequate as the policier guides charged with all the heavy lifting this razor-sharp procedural demands in its telling. Charlie has the impatience of a rookie homicide inspector and Bougon has an aging detective’s long curve of experience in their Quai des Orfèvres headquarters, where a lot of the investigation with its grinding dead-end theories takes place.

They spend a lot of time examining grisly photographs of the mutilated faces and bodies of the victims in closeup, just as Jodie Foster, Julianne Moore, and Edward Norton did in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and Red Dragon. It wasn’t easy for any of them, or for us, and it doesn’t get any easier in another language. Director Tellier skates right on the thin edges of acceptable screen imagery.

The two real stars of SK1 are in its shadows. It seems implausible that Nathalie Baye, once one of the glamour darlings of French cinema, is now 66, exactly the right age and time in her career to take on the key role of the accused’s seasoned defense attorney. She does so reluctantly, because she’s not sure she believes his insistent plea of innocence. There are worlds of experienced doubt riven deep into Baye’s lined brow and cheeks. She mirrors the viewer’s own uncertainty with what to believe and not believe in this courtroom.

And finally, there is Guy Georges, tagged “Beast of the Bastille” in the French press, the trial’s accused. Georges is played by the Bamako-born Adama Niane, and if Anthony Hopkins gave you sleepless nights in his Hannibal Lector outings, beware of watching Niame too closely. This actor’s performance, by turns confident and outraged, pleading and conspiratorial, cunning and tormented, is a tour de force of unparalleled ferocity and craft. It’s the stand-alone performance in this memorable festival.

SK1shows Saturday, March 7th at 9:15 pm at Lincoln Center, and Sunday, March 8th at 1 pm at IFC.

This concludes critic’s choices. Watch for Brokaw’s reviews of the 44th New Directors/New Films festival, March 18-29.

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.

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