The eagerly awaited annual film series Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance Films, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with 22 films that are rich and varied in subject matter as well as in their portraits of characters of all age groups and social classes.
The festival opens Friday, March 6 and runs through March 15, featuring screenings, premieres, free talks and exhibitions.
What would a French film festival be without Catherine Deneuve and characters puffing away on cigarettes as though it were still the 50’s? This year is an embarrassment of riches with three films starring the ageless, French icon, smoking happily away in all of them.
The undisputed queen of French cinema, Deneuve stars in three very different roles. The film series launches with Benoît Jacquot’s “Three Hearts,” a romantic roundelay about two sisters, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Chiara Mastroianni, who fall in love with the same man without knowing it. By a chance encounter Gainsbourg’s character meets an awkward but endearing man, Benoît Poelvoorde, and after a romantic evening they plan a meeting in Paris but fate intervenes and they never reconnect. Later Poelvoorde’s character coincidentally meets the other sister (Mastroianni), an antiques dealer, and after an awkward courtship they fall in love and plan to marry. Deneuve, the real-life mother of Mastroianni, plays the sisters’ wise and acerbic mother. (Charlotte Gainsbourg will participate in a free talk prior to the screening.)
In her long career, Deneuve has evolved from a glamour queen to a character actress, and she gets to showcase that talent in Pierre Salvadori’s drama, “In the Courtyard.” My favorite Deneuve entry in the festival, the actress plays a Parisian retiree, who is the wife of the manager (Feodore Atkine) of an upscale apartment building where they both live. She persuades her husband to hire an inexperienced man as the caretaker for the building, slovenly musician Antoine (Gustave Kervern), with whom she is inexplicably drawn. Together the two form an unlikely friendship, bonding in part over depression.
Deneuve also stars in André Téchiné’s “In the Name of My Daughter,” based on a real-life story that took place in Nice in the 1970’s. She plays the well-heeled and haughty owner of a casino in Nice who struggles with the mob to hold on to her establishment. Her daughter, young divorcee Agnès (Adèle Haenel), falls in love with a shady lawyer (Guillaume Canet), who is in cahoots with the mobsters. After giving her lover her inheritance, Agnès disappears, presumably murdered. Deneuve’s character spends the next three decades seeking justice for her daughter.
“In the Name of My Daughter” leads Adèle Haenel and Guillaume Canet are the breakout stars of the festival.
In the coming-of-age screwball comedy, “Love at First Fight,” directed by Thomas Cailley, Haenel plays a very different role from the emotional and love-obsessed Agnès. In “Love at First Fight,” Haenel portrays a steely woman determined to embark on a military career. She seems not to notice or care about the feelings of anyone around her. In France the film had the more apt title of “Les Combattants,” and it follows the prickly relationship between Haenel’s character and a shy, young carpenter (Kévin Azaïs) who meet as opponents in a military mock exercise. He slowly falls for her and eventually follows her to boot camp where they each discover their own strengths and limitations.
Cailley’s debut feature is a different take on young love and it’s fun to watch these flawed individuals grow up and evolve. The film was a big winner at the Césars, the French version of the Oscars, where it picked up honors for best first film, best actress and most promising actor honors. The luscious cinematography is by the director’s brother, David Cailley.
“Tell No One” (2006) director Guillaume Canet – who in real life is the partner of Marion Cotillard – proves that he’s also a charismatic screen presence, especially when it comes to portraying sociopaths. In addition to “In the Name of My Daughter,” he plays another real-life character in the chilling chronicle of a serial killer “Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart.” Canet plays a gendarme on a team assigned to capture the murderer of young women in a small French town from 1978-79. He’s revealed as the killer early in the film, but it’s exciting and frightening, as well as fascinating, to witness the skill and cunning with which he evaded his hunters. Canet’s portrayal of a serial killer is scary and convincing and his eyes do look dead and incapable of feeling in a performance that is chilling and, for better or worse, stays with you. The film, nominated for two Césars, features a terrific period soundtrack with music by Johnny Thunders and The Velvet Underground. Both director Cedric Anger and Canet will appear at several of the screenings.
And something you will never see in a Hollywood film, a movie that features a heroine over 50. A standout in the festival, “Party Girl,” stars Angélique Litzenburger as a 60ish woman who lives above a bar, where she works and lives off of tips and drinks. She unapologetically enjoys her flamboyant, offbeat life but realizes she’s aging out of that lifestyle and decides to try chances at a life with a smitten customer, Michel (Joseph Bour), who proposes marriage. She also takes a stab at reconnecting with her four children, all from past relationships. The gritty film took two awards at Cannes, including the Camera d’Or, and was nominated for two Césars, including best debut feature.
Another film that looks back to the 1970’s and ‘80’s, as many films in the festival do, is “The Connection,” a fast-paced thriller directed by Cedric Jimenez that stars Oscar winner Jean DuJardin as a driven Marseille investigator in a standoff with heroin czar Gaetano Zampa (Gilles Lellouche). It’s the same criminal ring that inspired William Friedkin’s classic “The French Connection” but set on the French side. This film is sure to be one of the most popular films in the series and will have a Drafthouse Films release in the U.S. What’s also fun about the film are all the period details like clothes, cars and furniture.
Films I didn’t get a chance to see at screenings but received good word of mouth from critics included Mélanie Laurent’s “Breathe,” Thomas Lilti’s “Hippocrates” and Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s “My Friend Victoria.”
The shorts are also worth catching up with. My favorite was “The Smallest Apartment in Paris,” a 15-minute comedy by Hélèna Villovitch that reveals the housing crisis in the City of Light may be even more dire than it is here.
For the full schedule, click over to FilmLinc.com.