Friday, March 12, 2010

The French Return


Michel Gondry's The Thorn in the Heart

Rendezvous with French Cinema

March 11-21, 2010

Alice Tully Hall, West 65th Street and Broadway

Walter Reade Theater, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza (West 65th St between Broadway and Amsterdam)

Last year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema series was crammed with filmmaking heavyweights, from New Wave masters like Agnès Varda and Claude Chabrol to eminent veterans like François Dupeyron and Anne Fontaine to critical favorites like Claire Denis and André Téchiné.

The 15th annual edition, with nowhere near such marquee appeal, compensates with an array of stimulating films from established and up-and-coming directors. Xavier Giannoli, whose debut Eager Bodies was a New Directors/New Films highlight several years ago, is back at Rendezvous with In the Beginning, a return to form after his lightweight Gerard Depardieu vehicle The Singer (2007). The new film, based on a true story, stars Francois Cluzet in a powerhouse performance as a con man who dupes an entire desperate town into going along with his plans to restart a stopped construction project. Giannoli brilliantly shows people behaving at their best and worst, most intriguingly the con man, who’s in over his head but can’t stop himself.

Veteran director Robert Guediguian has made subtle films about ordinary people that eschew contrivance and melodrama. Army of Crime, Guediguian’s singular epic on the French Resistance during World War II, shows how so many foreigners aided the French in fighting back against the Germans. Specifically, an Armenian poet (the excellent Simon Abkarian) risks his life, pacifist principles and marriage to a lovely French woman (the perfectly-cast Virginie Ledoyen) to lead a motley crew plotting to assassinate a Nazi bigwig. Guediguian handles his large cast and historical canvas with assurance, making a film that’s exciting and tense by turns.

Mademoiselle Chambon is Stephane Brize’s perfectly-pitched film about a construction worker who slowly develops feelings for his son’s sweet schoolteacher. Vincent Lindon and Sandrine Kiberlain make a wonderful couple, and Brize delicately shows their relationship evolving despite their own misgivings. I’m Glad that My Mother Is Alive, directed by veteran Claude Miller and son Nathan, features a splendid cast of unknown faces in a true story about a young man whose mother gave him and his little brother up for adoption; he tracks her down and begins an unsettling relationship with her and his half-brother. This sober, reflective tale is made all the more remarkable by the fact that it’s true.

The opening night selection, Farewell, stars Serbian director Emir Kusturica as a KGB officer who chooses a French businessman in Moscow as a go-between for top-secret documents. Director Guillaume Canet plays his foil, and they play off each other like old pros, elevating this somewhat familiar Cold War spy thriller. A real find, The Hedgehog’s pre-teen actress Garance Le Guillermic plays a young girl, planning to kill herself on her birthday, who builds an unlikely friendship with her building’s concierge (the sweetly hard-headed Josiane Balasko). Isabelle Carre (pregnant while filming) positively glows as a recovering addict carrying her dead boyfriend’s baby in Francois Ozun’s intermittently absorbing Le Refuge.

Finally, I’ve never felt an affinity for director Michel Gondry’s flights of whimsy like The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. However, in his touching family chronicle, The Thorn in the Heart, Gondry introduces us to his elderly aunt Suzette, a former school teacher, in a personal documentary of sympathy and grace, marred only by (you guessed it) a short excursion into the fantastic that populates his other films.

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