By William Wolf

RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2007  Send This Review to a Friend

This year’s Rendez-Vous With French Cinema (Feb. 28-March 11) reflected positive doings among French filmmakers, and a number of films already had distributors. The series was co-presented by The Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance USA. The piece de resistance was the awaited opening night selection, “La Vie en Rose” (“La Môme”), a fictional treatment of the life of legendary singer Edith Piaf, to be distributed commercially by Picturehouse.

The film, written and directed by Olivier Dahan, turned out to be a triumph for Marion Cotillard, a gorgeous actress who, with the aid of costume, makeup and sheer talent, transformed herself into looking like Piaf. Her performance is an astonishing tour de force that captures the hardships and disappointments in Piaf’s life as well as the success that made her an idol in France and gained her recognition elsewhere in the world.

The script and style of the film is a conventional biographical approach with flips back and forth in time to reveal and contrast aspects of the star’s life. The strength lies in the effectiveness of the storytelling, and above all, in the driving, energetic, emotionally gripping performance by Cotillard, who should be up for acting award honors.

There are also other good performances by Sylvie Testud, Pascal Greggory, Emmanuelle Seigner, Gérard Depardieu, Jean-Pierre Martins and others contributing to the mosaic of Piaf’s turbulent life. This is a big, colorful film, with excellent location work and grandeur rarely reached successfully in film biographies. This one does justice both to Piaf and to the cinema.

An appealing film was also chosen as the closing night selection—“The Valet” (“La Doublure”), a satirical romantic comedy written and directed by Francis Veber and to be distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. Impeccably cast and produced, the film stars Daniel Auteuil as a philandering corporate head, Kristen Scott Thomas as his savvy wife on to his escapades, and knock-out of a looker Alice Taglioni as the supermodel-mistress rebelling at un-kept promises of divorce and marriage.

Gad Elmaleh is charming as a valet in love with a bookstore owner played by Virginie Ledoyen and rooming with a fellow valet humorously played by Dany Boon. With his customary ingenious plotting, Veber creates an effort at deception in which the corporate head pays his mistress to live with the valet (Elmaleh) in an attempt to throw his wife off the trail. Myriad, very funny complications develop. The film is stylish, with scenes from the fashion world included. Results are worked out cleverly, and the romp is consistently funny.

(Veber notes that although he interviewed model after model—“very nice work”—it wasn’t until he saw actress Taglioni, who had never modeled, that he knew he had the right star.)

Another favorite film of mine from the series is “Blame It on Fidel,” a most unusual work by Julie Gavras. It examines the problem of parents who are political activists with respect to educating children about fighting for a cause. What makes the film different is that it is told largely from the perspective of nine-year-old Anna, charmingly played by Nina Kervel. Julie Depardieu and Stefano Accorsi play the parents.

Set in the 1970s and dealing with efforts to support resistance to Franco in Spain, the film shows Anna’s difficulties and resentment when her life is tailored to her parents’ political agenda, creating problems for her at school and among friends. Gavras explores a subject not generally treated in the first place, certainly not from a child’s perspective.

“I Do,” a romantic comedy by Eric Lartigau, is an entertaining tale of a man whose sisters keep bugging him to settle down and marry. He wants to be left alone, and to appease them and his mother, he concocts a plot by paying a young woman to pretend to be his fiancée. Complications ensue. Alain Chabat is amusing as Luis, the man in question, and Charlotte Gainsbourg is effective as the woman, Emmanuelle, who goes along with the scheme.

Denis Dercourt has written and directed “The Page Turner,” a wicked little film about retribution. Melanie, the daughter of a butcher, hopes to be on track for a career as a pianist. But when she tries out for an important place at a conservatory, Ariane Fouchècourt, the chairwoman of the jury is distracted and by ignoring her throws Melanie off her stride, and when she doesn’t get in, gives up playing. Ten years later Melanie meets the woman’s husband, who hires her to look after their son, and she also becomes Fouchècourt’s page turner at her piano concerts.

Slowly Melanie builds her scheme of revenge upon the woman who hasn’t a clue as to what she did originally or what is being prepared for her now. The casting is excellent, with Dèborah Francois playing the vengeful Melanie with dead-pan subtlety, Catherine Frot as the target, and Pascal Greggory as the husband.

Gérard Depardieu may now be extra portly and looking older, but when he is on screen it is impossible to take one’s eyes off him. His physique makes him right in the looks department for his role as a has-been dance hall singer who is struggling to keep his charm and his dignity in a world that increasingly can do without him. In director Xavier Giannoli’s film, “The Singer,” Alain (Depardieu) meets Marion (Cécile de France), an attractive, much younger woman who brightens but also complicates his life with frustration.

Alain’s ex-wife and manager, who still has feelings for him, is played by Christine Citti. The film is a showcase for Depardieu, but it plods along and becomes somewhat tiresome after a while. Still, there is the great Depardieu. Cécile de France is a charmer, and there is plenty of dance hall and music atmosphere.

“The Untouchable,” a film by Benoit Jacquot, stars Isild le Besco as Jeanne, an aspiring actress who learns that her father, whom she has never known, is an untouchable whom her mother met when she was in India. Jeanne decides to go to India in search of him, and the result is a colorful, moody film with some stunning scenes shot in Benaris.

Le Besco has an original and commanding presence on screen, and is fascinating to watch. When she is invited to an Indian wedding and is dressed, Indian style, with makeup to boot, she is an incredible vision of loveliness. The journey is an exotic one, and in real life, both the director and star say that working in India was an enlightening experience. Jacquot shot actual scenes of dead being cremated in Benaris in getting location authenticity.

“The Man of My Life,” a film by director Zabou Breitman is a sensitive story of self-discovery. Frédéric (Bernard Campan) and his wife Frédérique (Lea Drucker) are planning to spend the summer in Provence, and there is a family gathering. They invite a gay neighbor, Hugo (Charles Berling) to join them for a barbeque. Hugo is candid about his homosexuality, and he and Frédéric become friendly as we watch the blossoming of a relationship with the potential to shake up lives.

The film is subtly directed, with a careful pacing that moves gingerly but surely in an exploration of feelings. There is a good supporting cast to round out the ambiance.

“Tell No One” (“Ne le dis à personne”), directed by Guillaume Canet, builds suspense as a mystery and thriller. The film is an adaptation of the novel by American writer Harlan Coben. François Cluzet plays Dr. Alex Beck, who has been nursing the pain of the abduction and murder of his wife eight years ago. The police suspect him of murder, but suddenly events take a turn that indicates there’s more to the story.

What’s going on? The film races along with mounting suspense, and there’s the boon of an excellent cast that also includes Nathalie Baye, André Dussollier, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jean Rochefort, François Berléand and Marina Hands.

“Don’t Worry About Me,” a film by Philippe Lioret, is quite nasty in depicting how families that mean to do good can be extremely destructive. When 19-year-old Lili (Melanie Laurent) returns home from Spain, she learns that her brother has disappeared. She’s told that he had as fight with their father, with whom her brother hasn’t gotten along.

Given the strong brother-sister bond, she becomes depressed, refuses to eat and is hospitalized. When she regains her strength, she is determined to find her brother, and using what clues she can, sets off on a hunt. Meanwhile, letters have been sent to her after a long silence, with the message from her brother that he is all right. What Lili eventually learns is shocking.

There were numerous other films in the attractive series, but the above are those I managed to catch, and the choices worked out quite well for me to get a fresh look at of some of what is happening in French cinema. Reviewed at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.


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