Each year the “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” series, a presentation by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance, offers a sampling of new films from France, and the 2018 edition (February 19-22) is highlighted by some worthy examples from among those I have seen, as well as some less appealing inclusions.
“Number One,” right in tune with the time, stars the superb Emmanuelle Devos as Emmanuelle Blachey, a highly placed executive in a drama about what a woman must endure in rising to the top. Directed by Tonie Marshall from a screenplay that she wrote with Marion Doussot, the film presents an in-depth portrait of its protagonist, with Devos capturing the various subtleties in the character portrait.
Blachey at first shows no interest in getting into the battle for executive supremacy, but she is pressed by a forward-looking group to make the most of a chance to become the CEO of a water-distribution company. But the temptation is there. As the plot moves ahead, Blachey will learn about infighting with resentful men, having to allow the job to monopolize her time at the expense of her personal life, and being the target for those digging up her past.
“Number One” is an involving, intelligent look at the corporate world, and most importantly in tune with what’s happening now with respect to the support for women’s advancement. It therefore has a universality even though it is specifically set in France.
Another favorite of mine in the lineup is “The Guardians,” directed by Xavier Beauvois from a screenplay written by Beauvois and Frédérique Moreau. This is a war film that doesn’t stress battlefields, but concentrates on what’s happening on the home front.
The setting begins in 1916 on a French farm run by Nathalie Baye as Hortense Sandrail, the family matriarch. It is a stellar performance, with Baye embodying the toughness required to keep the farm going with the sons in the family off to war.
The plot grows interesting when Francine Riant, played with spirit by Iris Bry, arrives to seek work. She is taken on by Hortense and proves to be an excellent, dedicated worker with a sunny disposition. But trouble brews when the sons return on a furlough.
A romance develops, and the plot turns ugly as Hortense wants to thwart a relationship of which she disapproves because of Francine’s common status. The acting is excellent all around and director Beauvois achieves eloquent visuals that depict the French farm and countryside.
One film that annoyed me is "Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc,” written and directed by Bruno Dumont. It is certainly a valid idea to reach back to examine the development of Joan of Arc and see what impelled her to follow the path that led to her heroism and becoming a legend. But although exquisitely shot to capture the ambiance of the French countryside in 1425, the film becomes numbing.
We first meet Jeannette when she is eight and tending sheep. (The director has used non-actors.) I suppose if one is steeped in religion the film could connect emotionally. But I quickly tired of this kid singing and praying, singing and praying, and already obsessively devoted to God above anything else. It is the same as she grows up in different stages (embodied by different casting). More singing and praying.
We follow her trajectory with her child and adult relationships, including with twin nuns, until ultimately she mounts a horse and sets out to do battle in the still-raging Hundred Years’ War. The rest is history but at least we don’t have to endure more of a kid singing and praying.
On the up side of the series, there is a stunning, deeply emotional “Ava” by Léa Mysius. What is it like for a 13-year-old girl to learn that she is going blind? In Mysius’s film, the young heroine battles to savor very moment of her diminishing sight.
The plot is somewhat of problem, as the protagonist goes off on an unlikely venture that stretches credibility. Still, Mysius manages to hold our interest and sympathy for the afflicted youngster.
Noted French director and actor Mathieu Amalric has come up with a film that’s different, a salute to the so-called legendary singer Barbara. The triumph is in the casting of the dynamic Jeanne Balibar in the role of a woman who plays Barbara.
The singing is strong, although the melodramatics of the plot don’t rise to the film’s musical aspect. As for the other casting, always-interesting-to-watch Aurore Clément plays Barbara’s mother. I can recommend “Barbara” as among the best of what I have sampled.
The strangest of the films that I saw is “See You Up There,” directed by Albert Dupontel. A soldier in World War I is wounded, with the result that his face is badly shattered. He is distraught and doesn’t want to show it to anyone. He wears a mask and doesn’t want to return to his family in that condition.
He teams up with a friend in a fraudulent art scheme, and soon they are making money with a mail order business in which they sell what are supposed to be important originals. The tone of the film grows zany in this post World War I setting, and of course, there has to be a romantic story requiring resolution. Reviewed March 16, 2018.