2018 Film Essays

Five Films to See at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2018

When I interviewed notorious French director François Ozon earlier this year, he expressed a frustration with American audiences for failing to move beyond the New Wave in their consumption habits of his nation’s cinema. “I think it’s too bad that Americans have focused and fixated on this period without seeing the rest because, naturally, there’s a lot of other interesting things in French cinema that you don’t know or haven’t seen,” he remarked.

Luckily for New York audiences, the Film Society of Lincoln Center makes it easy to avoid falling into the trap Ozon describes. With services like FilmStruck providing all the Nouvelle Vague you can stuff your eyes with, it’s easy to get your French cinema fix at home these days. But for 23 years, the Film Society has programmed 10 days of new works at the vanguard of the Gallic cinema. I’ve been fortunate enough to a sneak peek at some of the lineup, and here are five titles that Gothamite cinephiles should make an effort to experience with a crowd.

Ava

First-time feature director Léa Mysius bursts out of the gate with Ava, a wild beachside coming-of-age story that continually shocks as it burns through taboo after taboo (particularly in regard to sexuality and nudity, where I frequently asked myself, “Would this even be allowed in the U.S.?”). The French have always been far more equitable with the gender distribution around stories of teenage exploration, and this tale of a rambunctious 13-year-old revving up her defiant behavior as she begins to prematurely lose her eyesight will definitely help fill the void Lady Bird can’t cover alone. It’s a joy to watch the titular character tear up the screen, but Mysius also makes sure to develop the mother Maud, who is herself still struggling to grow up and balance her roles as parent and lover.

Sunday, March 11, 8:30 P.M.

Friday, March 16, 9:15 P.M.

Custody

Xavier Legrand is not wasting a second of his time behind the camera. His first directorial outing, the short film Just Before Losing Everything, earned him an Oscar nomination. His second (and first feature), Custody, won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival last fall. In an hour and a half, he packs a concentrated gut punch of tension and trauma as he chronicles the fallout of a divorce that has turned from bitter to septic. Though the first 15 minutes details a court proceeding between the dissolved couple, the rest of Custody puts the emphasis on how the separation affects their two children. Particularly when it comes to young Julien, Legrand exposes how kids can become just another pawn in the power games that exes play.

Sunday, March 11, 3:00 P.M.

The Guardians

Admittedly, Xavier Beauvois is not much of a “discovery” in the lineup — the Of Gods and Men director is already a Cannes prize winner. But don’t let the lack of novelty of The Guardians detract how great Beauvois’ latest effort is. Americans don’t generally spend much time thinking about World War I, much less representing or viewing it on screen. And even then, it’s rarely framed through the lens Beauvois uses: the homefront. This tale of a family farm run by the women left behind (and one hired worker who causes a real stir) presents the conflict from a remarkably humane perspective, only showing the battlefield when it pertains to how the soldiers carry it back home with them. By the time The Guardians is finished, Beauvois demonstrates how the Great War not only changed people’s relationships with each other, but how it altered the core of their relationship to their native land.

Friday, March 16, 6:00 P.M.

Montparnasse Bienvenüe

Montparnasse Bienvenüe begins with its protagonist, Paula, banging her head against her ex’s door with such force it will later require stitches. Things can only go up from there, right? In her dynamite debut, the winner of Cannes’ Camera d’Or, Leónor Serraille follows the fickle exploits of Paula as she begins to reconstruct a sense of self after the dissolution of a decade-long romantic relationship. Her lowest moments are full of caustic humor, and her peaks are tinged with melancholy. It’s a story of maturation and self-discovery that’s reflective of life itself in all the ups and downs, executed with such confidence that you never doubt that the director is in control of the situation. (The character, though, is another story entirely.)

Friday, March 9, 9:30 P.M.

Monday, March 12, 1:15 P.M.

Petit Paysan (Blood Milk)

For a more contemporary look at agrarian France than The Guardians, might I recommend Hubert Charuel’s Petit Paysan? (That’s translated as Blood Milk by the good folks at Letterboxd.) The director, himself a former farmer, helms a process-oriented look at the serious business of dairy. Charuel mines the anguish of small-time producer Pierre as he faces a brutal decision. After noticing strange signs from one of his cows, Pierre begins to suspect an outbreak of a Mad Cow-like disease among the herd. Does he skirt the law and kill the one cow rather than risk all of them being seized by the epidemic? It’s a gripping, tight ethical drama made even better by Charuel delving into how a conspiratorial internet factors into Pierre’s decision-making process.

Sunday, March 11, 1:00 P.M.

Wednesday, March 14, 4:00 P.M.

Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).

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