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Five Views of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2015

Stubborn

On the basis of the five films I sampled in the 20th edition of Lincoln Center’s annual “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” series, I’m not inclined to make any diagnoses of either the state of French cinema or even this year’s edition. All five were worth seeing but only one skirted essential status, so let’s start there. Inelegantly labeled 40-Love in English (the French title, Terre batue, translates as “clay court”), Stéphane Demoustier’s first feature grows logically from his documentary short Fille du calvaire, a look at the long and difficult path awaiting young men training to be tennis pros. 40-Love initially appears to be about father-and-son monomaniacs. Recently let go from his longtime position as a department store manager, Jérôme (Olivier Gourmet) only knows and loves the world of mass retail. “I love supermarkets,” he tells his understandably incomprehending wife Laura (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). “I love when the carparks are full.” Driving son Ugo (Charles Mérienne) to a tennis match, he detours to check out a parking lot near a location he’s considering opening his store own near. “Look at the structure,” he rhapsodizes, opera booming from his car to suggest and comprehensibly translate his passion.

Ugo struggles to reconcile his hopeful avocation with the demands training on a professional path places on his body: he can, it seems, barely sustain the repeated workout rigors necessary, or convince himself to bring himself to the point of physique-building pain. As Jérôme butts up against a marketplace that finds him now useless — too old to be freshly unemployed with no English skills — his son confronts his own limitations. These bleak strands converge in an unexpected direction that’s both one of 40-Love’s biggest strengths (the element of surprise in a seemingly straightforward piece of social realism should never be underestimated) and its weakness, insofar as the pivot nearly derails the film.

40-Love is uncharacteristically interested in what middle management is like: how it feels to rhapsodize over new developments in synthetic materials for ladies’ shoes, the way a would-be entrepreneur appraises the site of his hopeful future store, the surveys of cars-per-hour in the parking lot of a future site that must be conducted. This is detail-oriented filmmaking that isn’t bluffing. Dardennes comparisons are perhaps inevitable — Gourmet is a regular in their films, and they’re producers — but misguided. On a thematic level, 40-Love is interested in precisely that middle tier that gets largly overlooked between dramas of poverty and mainstream, seemingly default dioramas of wealth. Dp Julien Poupard stays largely away from the Dardennes’ familiarly mobile, over-the-shoulder handheld camera, favoring Steadicam elegance in factories and the tennis court and an unshowy facility with static widescreen compositions at home. No revelations here, but a solid, gripping piece of craft invested in underexplored aspects of the current global marketplace; tennis fans should be well-served (ha) too.

Best in show runner-up goes to Stubborn, another badly retitled film (the French title, Un Histoire Americane, is much less unsuggestively blunt). This is effectively a star vehicle for Vincent Macaigne, who was in three of last year’s selections, including fest-best Age of Panic. A rising force in France (profiled by The Guardian in 2013, and possibly prematurely compared to Gerard Depardieu), Macaigne is a charismatically volatile screen presence — capable, to be sure, of more than roaring and showboating, but the inevitable center of attention wherever he is. Here, he’s “Vincent,” and the movie trickily withholds for a long time whether that means he’s actor Vincent Macaigne or just someone else with his name — the reveal, two-thirds in, of the job he holds in New York City is abruptly surprising.

Delaying this disclosure so late indicates a degree of structural trickery belied by the unassuming surfaces of Armel Hostiou’s film (another first feature), which is, for much its time, an enjoyably shaggy hang-out space of a film. In perpetually heartbroken and ill-advised pursuit of Barbara (Kate Moran), an American he met in Paris who’s back in the city and shacked up with a testy Australian boyfriend (Murray Bartlett), Vincent is a major pain. “The worst is that I make you laugh,” he tells Barbara. “That is not the problem,” she wearily explains. “You tire me more than you make me laugh.” Vincent simply does not accept the possibility that his affection does not yield a commensurate reciprocation, and in a different scenario this could be a pretty disturbing film about men who don’t understand consent or boundaries.

As is, Stubborn is pretty much a breeze, with Vincent wandering drunkenly into the dejected night with Sofie (Sofie Rimestad), an improbably patient girl who seems to think if she hangs around long enough Vincent will notice she’s right there. (She’s Danish; one of the movie’s nice little jokes is that almost everyone Vincent encounters is a displaced foreigner, decentering the traditional demographics of NYC screen portraits.) There’s a lot of drunk hanging-out, trips to Coney Island and the Belmont racetrack, and a pleasant lack of urgency. Macaigne is both appalling and appealing, which is somewhat the point; he’s credited as a writer and makes the most of his chance to create a rounded mixed-bag of a character. There’s a terrific scene in which he arrives at Barbara’s apartment to propose, and is left alone with her boyfriend while she showers. He asks for orange juice, declines Sunny D (“This is shit”), demands freshly-squeezed and keeps upping the awkwardness ante, his motives as unfathomable and clueless as the scene is squirmingly funny. Taken out of context, it’d be one of the highlights of the year; as it is, Stubborn slumps in the third act when its protagonist does. A minor victory, but Hostiou fits the “watch this space” category.

I have no idea who the perceived target audience is for Portrait of the Artist: people who would like a version of 8 1/2 focused solely on preproduction and starring Bertrand Bonello? My only experience with Bonello’s work is House of Tolerance (retitled House of Pleasures for American release, but I refuse to acknowledge that), which filled me equally with admiration and repugnance. He’s a talent, to be sure, and cuts a dapper figure onscreen. The premise is that Bonello is preparing a very vague new film, for which he wants to find one painting regarding the general theme of a monster that will inform the entire proceedings, “as in Vertigo.” The allusion is very purposeful: Bonello goes gallery-trawling with Célia Bhy, a potential obscure object of desire portrayed, with (of course), no explanation by both Jeanne Balibar and Géraldine Pailhas.

Bonello prepares his production in lackluster fashion, dodging his producer’s request for more specifics on what he’s planning. “It’s a man helping a dying woman isn’t enough,” she says. “If not a script, then something else.” (The luxury granted to the likes of Lisandro Alonso and Sofia Coppola to springboard off a 20-page-or-less treatment is not yet the acceptable norm.) Such glimpses at the preliminary mechanics of European production alternate with the other day-to-day business of being a filmmaker: fielding retrospective requests from festivals, sitting down with earnest, auteur-besotted young men for awkward interviews, attending Q&As and answering vague questions. These scenes alternate with Museum Hours-esque interludes of contemplation and analysis, which are quite fascinating, and an increasingly oneiric strand involving blatant dreams, unclear sexual relations between all and sundry, and so on, until the sturdy base of concrete happenings fades away. This is an indulgence, but an amusing one, writer/director Antoine Barraud’s speculative portrait of what it might be like to be Bertrand Bonello.

Jean-Charles Hue’s Eat Your Bones builds off his previous documentary work with the gypsy nomad Yeniche peoples, and hence contains anthropological value. What it’s really about is what happens when very large, testosterone-driven men get into a car together and the inevitable simmering tension that crests whenever someone feels they’ve been disrespected. Fresh out of prison, Fred (Fred Dorkel) returns home, promising younger half-brother Jason (Jason Francois) that he’s home to put meat on the table from here on out. Hunting and the attendant connotational virility is a big deal to Fred, one of those guys who’s proud to be a troublemaker. Infuriated that during his absence home has become infested by Christians and meek-living types, he drives up to a campsite and shoots a roasting animal. “I’m the hunter!” he shouts. Later that night, he and the gang get drunk and decide to rob a metal site. This is a grim variant on the “into the night” genre distantly related to the American Graffiti coming-of-age vein. Hue is good at giving the night the ebb-and-flow that comes with increasing/diminishing amounts of alcohol in the bloodstream. That means, attendantly, varying amount of narrative engagement, but there’s a final car chase that skirts Michael Mann terrain for its exploitation of nighttime digital sheen — blue light, the fast blur of cars and so on.

Party Girl is the work feature of three directors: Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger and Matthew Theis, the last of whom co-stars. Like the last three movies discussed, Party Girl also throws people playing “themselves” into a fictional construct: in this case, Theis’ mother Angélique Litzenburger. An aging cabaret hostess in Lorraine — on the border with Germany, where the two national languages are used interchangeably, sometimes in the same sentence — she seems to like her routine. Regardless of the demerits of a steady diet of booze, cigarettes and late-night partying carried well into one’s 50s, this life seems to suit Angélique down to the ground. It’s a mystery why she accepts the advances of a former customer, Michel (Joseph Bour), who wants her to marry him, move in, and stop smoking at the kitchen table. Their relationship, though affectionate, is obviously destined to be problematic. The visually inelegant film sticks to the Dardennes-esque (but not as nervewracking) school of handheld, over-the-shoulder pursuing camerawork. There are significant compensations in the novelty of the casually bilingual setting and the wincing, unrelenting acuity in portraying a self-destructive woman who, having one life to live, has decided she’s fine with throwing hers away and repeatedly making choices at others’ expense.

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