The most sensitive and nuanced film of those that I experienced among selections in the annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series (March 3-13, 2016) is “Fatima.” The event is presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance, and it can be depended upon to include some special films along with less successful choices. “Fatima” definitely belongs in the special category.
Soria Zeroual gives a memorable performance as Fatima, who is a Moroccan divorced mother working hard with impossible hours as a house cleaner to support herself and her two daughters. Directed by Philippe Faucon, “Fatima” is inspired by a true story and the poetry of the North African writer Fatima Elayoubi. The film follows the intense struggle of the middle-aged Fatima to get along in the face of economic and pressures and racism directed against minority families.
The film also captures mother-daughter problems, as offspring may tend to look out for themselves and take for granted what their mother must cope with in looking after them and finding the money needed. The older daughter works diligently as a medical student, but the younger sister selfishly seethes with resentment against her mother. “Fatima” not only is a highlight of the French series but stands tall overall in the spectrum of new films.
“Dheepan” is another superior film, this one dealing with immigration. Directed by Jacques Audiard, the story focuses on three refugees from Sri Lanka who form a fake family to make it easier to gain residence in France. Antonythasan Jesuthasan plays the title role, and the other two are portrayed by Kalieaswari Srinivasan and Claudine Vinasithamby.
They run into problems in the gang-dominated housing project in which they live on the outskirts of Paris. The film is thoroughly involving as it shows the obstacles, and ultimately, there is a violent battle for survival.
For a helping of entertainment spiced with malice there is “Lolo.” Julie Delpy has written and directed it and also has the starring role. She is delightful as a woman in her forties working in the fashion world and in need of a man in her life. There is very funny conversation between her and her best friend as they talk about men in sexual terms, much like men talk about women. She becomes involved with an ordinary guy, played by Dany Boon, who doesn’t fit her social world, but is a whiz at computer programming and treats her amorously.
She doesn’t realize that her son Lolo (Vincent Lacoste) has a fixation on her, is jealous of any man in her life and has been sabotaging her relationships, as he does with her latest one. The film becomes very involved plot-wise, and it takes a long time for mom to discover what Lolo is up to. As director, Delpy makes the film spin merrily along with its dark side as well as with its humor, and as an actress she also succeeds charmingly and is very adept at comedy.
Watching stars Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert is enjoyable, even in “Valley of Love,” with its cockamamie metaphysical plot set in California. Directed by Guillaume Nicloux, the film spotlights the stars portraying a divorced couple whose gay son has committed suicide. He has written a letter, seemingly after his death, giving them instructions to proceed along certain paths in Death Valley, where he is supposed to appear in some ghostly fashion.
Depardieu has morphed into a mountain of a man, but his face remains compellingly expressive. Huppert continues to be a formidable actress. We watch the characters they play bicker endlessly, with moves toward rekindling the past, but basically both held together and divided by the death of their son. Despite the acting skills, the film is thoroughly pretentious and hardly believable.
“A Decent Man” (“Je ne suis pas un salaud”), directed by Emmanuel Finkiel, deals heavily in morality. Eddy (Nicolas Duvauchelle) has been hurt in a mugging, but emerges OK. Who is the culprit? He is pressured to identify the chief attacker, and he accuses Ahmed, played by Driss Ramdi, in a police lineup.
Ahmed is innocent, his life suddenly thrust into a nightmare, and he and his family must fight to free him. But once committed to his testimony, Eddy finds it hard to back off even as doubts emerge. Thus the film becomes one of suspense. What will Eddy do? The familiar situation of someone of a minority fighting bias drives the story, and the innocent man feels that he has been singled out because his name is Ahmed.
“My King,” directed by Maïwenn, follows the up and down relationship between Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel). Georgio is a flamboyant controlling type who makes being involved with him hell. Such an ongoing battle of anger and reconciliation can get on the nerves of an audience. Yes, the acting is fine, as is that of Louis Garrel as Solal, Tony’s brother. But a little of “My King” goes a long way. The story unspools in flashbacks after Tony is injured in a ski accident.
We read often about battles of immigrants to stay in the country of their choice, and “Parisienne” ultimately comes down to that issue. But before it gets to that nitty-gritty, the storyline involves the adventures of Lina, a young Lebanese woman, given an excellent performance by Manal Issa.
Lina finds her uncle coming on to her, and she must flee the home where she has been housed. In Paris, she makes her way, with efforts to get an education, an assortment of relationships and political involvements. Ultimately, her future depends on whether or not she can remain a Parisienne. The film has been directed by Danielle Arbid.
One of the more interesting and challenging films in the series is “Three Sisters,” Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s directorial take on the renowned play by Chekhov. There is an attempt to adhere closely to the original, and it is largely successful.
The acting is excellent, the period is captured via settings, costuming and attitude. But why ruin the ambience with bursts of contemporary music?
“Two Friends,” directed by Louis Garrel, involves an uneasy companionship undermined by condescending behavior and theft of relationships. Garrel also stars in the film as Abel, a personable gas station attendant who wants to be a writer. His buddy is Vincent (Vincent Macaigne), who works as an extra in movies. He is smitten by a woman (Golshifteh Farahani) who works in a pastry shop in the Gard du Nord.
But the object of his infection is a prisoner who gets day leave for her work. Vincent asks his friend Abel to help him overcome problems with her. Guess what happens? The film is an uneasy mix of comedy, romance and plot complications, but the cast makes it watchable.
Even though “Bang Gang,” directed by Eva Husson, wallows in sex, it is pretty much of a bore. The focus is on youth—teenagers on summer holiday in the Biaritz area—and the determination to enjoy sex parties with groups letting themselves go. There is plenty of such swinging, but when it gets to the individual stories, the film proves once again the cliché that it difficult to have impersonal relationships without emotions eventually being manifested.
At the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Sreet. Reviewed March 6, 2016.