An array of recent French films were selected for the 2020 edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (March 5-15), an annual event jointly presented by UniFrance and Film at Lincoln Center. Among those screened for the press that I saw, there are pros and cons.
The strongest and most enjoyable film is the opening night selection, “The Truth” (“La vérité”), a sophisticated and absorbing work directed and written by Hirokazu Kore-eda (“Shoplifters”). Catherine Deneuve gives another memorable performance, this time as Fabienne Dangeville, an aging actress who has published her memoir. Her daughter, Lumir, played by Juliette Binoche, accompanied by her American actor-husband Hank (Ethan Hawke), returns from New York for the occasion. Put Deneuve and Binoche together and the result is extra strong.
Mother-daughter issues surface. We also get a portrait of Fabienne being jealous of a younger newcomer actress who is everything she can no longer be. There is in addition a back story of Fabienne having edged out another actress for a film role with dire results, and revelations that justify the film’s title.
The dialogue is sharp and, above all, Deneuve delivers the caliber of performance that has made her an icon of French cinema. And director Kore-eda knows how to show her skill to full advantage.
The other superior film is the political comedy “Alice and the Mayor” (“Alice et le maire”), written and directed by Nicolas Pariser. Here too there are superior performances that light up the screen. Anaïs Demoustier plays Alice Heimann, a philosophy professor at Oxford who accepts a job with the mayor’s office in Lyon, her hometown. The mayor, Paul Théraneau, played by the always-excellent Fabrice Luchini, is feeling drained of ideas and figures someone with a background in philosophy might come up with inspiring fresh thoughts about running the city.
The job is a kind of nebulous one, but Alice takes to writing memos and the mayor, appreciating her, views her above his other seasoned staff members. Her ideas about making the mayor and the city function better revive the mayor’s spirit. In the process he and Alice develop a very close relationship—no, not a romantic one—that makes the mayor not only get more confidence but regard Alice as a friend with whom he can talk candidly about his thoughts and feelings.
This leads to the mayor considering a run for higher office. Should he or shouldn’t he? Throughout we get a picture of French politics with background issues discussed and debated, and that gives the film weight as well as doses of comedy. Yet the overall thrust is serious as a description of the choices political leaders face and must make. In addition, director Pariser provides an excellent scenic background of Lyon.
Cast Juliette Binoche in a film and one can be sure to get a sharp character portrayal. That’s true in “Who You Think I Am” (“Celle que vous croyez”), directed by Safi Nebbou based on a book by Camille Laurens, but the trouble is that the woman Binoche depicts is an obnoxious, self-centered, messed up individual who can be destructive in her narcissism, which makes the film ultimately distasteful.
The plot spins from Binoche as Claire Millaud, a philosophy professor seeking help from a new psychiatrist (Nicole Garcia), who has replaced the one previously treating her. Claire is deeply upset at the breakup with her younger boyfriend.
In an effort to find a new relationship, Claire, pretending to be Clara, goes on the internet. We hear a lot about men on the internet lying about themselves in an effort to attract women. This time it is the woman who does the unscrupulous lying. An innocent young man is captivated by the sexual web the fake Clara spins about herself, including using a photo of a younger woman. The texting that results gets more and more erotic, soon even evolving into phone sex.
A meeting is arranged, but when Claire spots the much younger guy, she is afraid of rejection and departs without introducing herself. She hasn’t a clue of how destructive she is being to the man smitten by her lies. The film becomes gimmicky in the plot development, including a surprising relationship that is revealed and another false story. In the end, I could hardly care about whatever might work out for Claire, who has not earned our sympathy.
“An Easy Girl” (“Une fille facile”), directed by Rebecca Zlotowski from a screenplay that she wrote with Teddy Lussi-Modeste, is a coming of age story with efficient casting, but it isn’t very compelling and grows tiresome after a while. Set in Cannes, the story focuses on Naïma, a 16-year-old played by Mina Farid.
During the summer she works at a restaurant and also rehearses for acting auditions with her young friend Dodo (Lakdhar Dridi). But things change drastically with the arrival of her cousin Sofia (Zahia Dehar), who is a bit older, dazzling to look at and flaunts her sexuality and a devil-may-care attitude, at least on the surface.
Sofia leads Naïma into temptation upon the arrival by boat of two men, art dealers, played by Nuno Lopes and Benoît Magimel. Sofia willingly has sex with one, while Naïma feels like an outsider and is titillated even though she doesn’t really feel ready for what Sofia is doing. Fortunately for Naïma, the mature guy with whom she might have a go considers her a mere child and will not take advantage of her.
Apart from some plot maneuvers, that’s about the situation and one can tire of the machinations despite some explicitness and tension created. As a plus there are intriguing scenic views of parts of Cannes to grace Zlotowski’s film.
“Deerskin” (“Le daim”) is an especially oddball tale written and directed by Quentin Dupieux. At the center is Georges (Jean Dujardin), who develops a liking for deerskin jackets and anything else made of deerskin and sets about to film himself in the skins that he collects through various ways. It comes across as a serious fetish.
With his camcorder, he captures not only the way he looks in his new acquisitions, but the victims that he assaults and even kills to get rid of ordinary non-deerskin clothing they wear. It is as if he wants to rid the world of every garment that isn’t made out his beloved deerskin.
Georges meets Denise, a young woman played by the intriguing Adèle Haenel, who hopes to become a film editor, and he dupes her into providing money for cassettes and agreeing to edit his film footage. Georges doesn’t realize it, but he has met someone even more conniving than he is. Are you ready for a film this crazy?
“One Magical Night” (“Chambre 212”), written and directed by Christoph Honoré, gains from the starring presence of Chiara Mastroianni, who is the daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve, and who remarkably resembles her late father and does honor to the acting tradition of both her parents. But oh, what a pretentious story in this attempt at sophisticated comedy.
The situation is that Maria Mortemart (Mastroianni), a law professor, has a young lover. Leaving messages on a phone is not a good idea, as her husband Richard (Benjamin Biolay) discovers the texts that reveal the relationship. A marital crisis erupts.
Maria checks into a hotel and as she mulls over her life, a cascade of relationships and entanglements parade before us to illustrate what’s going on in her head, including the appearance of her husband at various ages. It is a mélange of comic takes that are meant to illuminate Maria’s existence with all the complexities. It is all quite lightweight stuff, but at least there is Mastroianni to look at and admire and the supporting cast members to their jobs well too.
In “Spellbound” (“Les envoûtés”) director Pascal Bonitzer and co-screenwriter Agnés de Sacy update the short story “The Way It Came” by Henry James. The plot, never very convincing, concerns reports of apparitions involving the deaths of loved ones. Sara Giraudeau plays Coline, a literary critic who gets an assignment to interview Simon, a noted artist, played by Nicolas Duvauchelle, who is living a reclusive life. In his case he believes he has seen a vision of his mother’s spirit. Coline also has an artist friend who speaks of an apparition, this one of her father. What’s going on here?
Giraudeau has a most interesting face, but the character she plays is a mess and not one about whom we can much care. The painter agrees to the interview at his out-of-the-way home, and what follows are the dynamics of what’s evolving between them, the suspicions that arise and the path leading to the film’s climax. There is plenty of tension, with a dash of suspense, but one can lose patience with the characters and not be ready to buy the developments as the story spins to its conclusion.
For information about other films and special events in the series visit en.unifrance.org and/or www.filmlinc.org. Reviewed March 9, 2020.