Friday, March 3, 2017

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2017

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2017
March 1-12, 2017
Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, New York, NY

For 22 years, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema has brought the newest—and even, at times, the best—French cinema to New York.  This year’s selection includes some worthwhile films that will be released commercially soon.

Paula Beer in Francois Ozon's Frantz

With Frantz (opening March 15), Rendez-Vous favorite Francois Ozon has made one of the most satisfying and least typical films in his prolific career. A riff on Ernest Lubitsch’s 1932 anti-war classic Broken Lullaby, Ozon’s World War I drama—which precariously flirts with soap opera—follows the curious relationship between the fiancée of a dead German soldier and a young Frenchman who tells her and his grieving parents that Frantz was a close friend. Ozon expertly keeps us off-guard by teasing what direction he’s going only to pivot to a more interesting route. Handsome black and white photography is punctuated with periodic bursts of color, and if Pierre Niney is more a ninny than a sympathetic hero, German actress Paula Beer gives a spectacularly affecting portrait of grief tempered by affection for a young man who’s not who he seems.

Another frequent Rendez-Vous visitor and former enfant terrible of French cinema, Bruno Dumont has been reduced to a pale imitation of his earlier, austere work who now skirts self-parody. Slack Bay (opening April 21)—his second attempt at farce, after 2014’s L’il Quinquin—explores the confrontation between local yokels and inbred aristocrats with side trips to cannibalism, incest, murder and levitation. This unpalatable brew strands some renowned stars: Fabrice Luchini is reduced to crass posturing, and Juliette Binoche gives one of her worst performances, carrying on so outrageously and unfunnily that it’s as if Dumont directed her with a cattle prod.

Heal the Living

On firmer ground are three choice dramas directed by women. Heal the Living (opening April 14), an often blunt drama that follows the choices made by several people about organ donating after a teenager has a serious accident, is skillfully directed by Katell Quillévéré, who loses her way only during two unnecessarily graphic sequences in an operating room.

Marion Cotillard in From the Land of the Moon

The marvelous screen presence of Marion Cotillard—who may be alone among our best actresses in not worrying about looking unglamorous, as shown in Rust and Bone, Two Days One Night and her Oscar-winning Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose—is forcefully used by director Nicole Garcia in From the Land of the Moon (opening in July), an overwrought melodrama of l’amour fou in which Cotillard spends much of the movie dealing with an unrequited love while married to someone else. Garcia pushes her luck showing Cotillard several times with a single tear running down her cheek; but if anyone can turn artifice into art, it’s Garcia’s star actress.

In The Dancer, Stephanie Di Giusto follows modern dance innovator Loie Fuller, an American who became a smash hit as part of the Parisian avant-garde in the early 1900s. Played with gusto and a physical intensity that’s at times exhausting to watch by pop singer turned actress Soko—who also turns in a gritty performance in The Stopover, about female soldiers on leave in Cyprus alongside horny men both French and Arab (also in the series)—Loie becomes a sensation and befriends an up-and-coming American dancer named Isadora Duncan, played with wide-eyed innocence by Lily-Rose Depp (yes, that Depp).

Arresting performances distinguish a pair of interesting but not overly memorable dramas. Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen is intense and exasperated as a pulmonologist who goes up against the French version of Big Pharma in 150 Milligrams, a real-life case study of a medical crusader who risks her reputation to help save lives. And a game Raphael Personnez plays an adventurer in In the Forest of Siberia, a nicely photographed if somewhat monotonous chronicle of a Frenchman living in icy isolation.

The Paris Opera

Finally, the must-see documentary The Paris Opera is reminiscent of the great works of Frederick Wiseman, a fly-on-the-wall look at how one of the largest, most complex arts organizations in the world puts on its opera and ballet seasons, with all manner of dramas happening inside and outside the company. There’s an unwelcome strike, an unhappy ballet director, and even a tough-to-train real-life bull brought in for a cameo in Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron. It’s fascinating and consistently engrossing stuff that could have gone on for hours. Maybe a Netflix series next time?

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