As cinephiles — or anyone who sat through a basic undergraduate world cinema seminar — likely already know, 2019 marks the 60th anniversary of François Truffaut’s epochal The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups). The anniversary is not lost on novelist Russell Banks, the American ambassador for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series, which kicks off on Thursday, February 28. Not only will the French New Wave classic screen among newer works from Gallic filmmakers, but it also serves as the subject for Banks’ essay “What I Saw at the Pictures” that welcomes curious audiences leafing through the series’ promotional brochure.
Banks describes how the film served as a seminal work in his own evolution as a refined moviegoer — to use his words, it “confirmed and validated my felt, social, emotional and moral reality.” Few would argue that Truffaut’s masterwork, about to enter its seventh decade of inspiring intense identification with audiences, provides an indelible portrait of the growing pains involved with being a young person. Later in that same paragraph, however, Banks muses about the root of Antoine’s woes, and it struck me that certain elements of The 400 Blows are not as neatly applicable to present-day viewers.
As Banks describes it, “Antoine’s life […] was controlled by obtuse, shape-shifting, self-absorbed hypocritical adults, who were themselves controlled by malignant authority figures, mostly off-screen, like invisible puppeteers.” In the new films featured at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2019, young people are far from being helpless victims tormented by unknowable forces. While few subjects maintain the cherubic yet fiendish innocence of Antoine Doinel, contemporary French films paint a portrait of a world that will chew adolescents and young adults alive if they do not take an active role in claiming their own destiny. In a changing, uncertain country, the youth cannot afford to write off their struggles to pin down security and prosperity as no more than the timeless travails of maturation.
Nowhere was this clearer than in Sébastien Marnier’s School’s Out (L’heure de la sortie), a psychological thriller about the increasingly bizarre behavior of a class of gifted students. After their teacher dies by suicide while proctoring an exam, Laurent Lafitte’s Pierre enters the picture as a long-term substitute. It’s obvious from the jump that he commands little to no power in the classroom — yes, even less than a regular substitute enjoys. Pierre serves as a stolid, still presence, though the sight of violence in the halls quickly jolts him into action. When his suspicions are triggered by the inexplicable behavior of the class, Pierre begins covertly monitoring their exploits out in the world, despite receiving a warning from school administration that faculty cannot get involved in any matters outside of school.
What he discovers rattles him out of indifference. The group participates in increasingly dangerous and violent rituals designed to steel their nerves in preparation for militant action. School’s Out lays out the stark differences between Generation Z and their forebears, depicting a group of emerging young adults as committed to tackling existential threats like climate change with an unflinching radicalism that rattles elders. They evince little fear over the idea of meeting an extreme threat with an extreme response. Credit to Marnier for maintaining a remarkably even tonal keel as events begin to border on the surreal in their quest for environmental justice.
Elsewhere in the selection, several films explore the continuing efforts for millennials to grow into adults who can fully integrate into society. The sporadic, incremental gains of maturity are best explored not through a single film in the lineup but rather through one performer: 25-year-old Vincent Lacoste, featured in two films playing Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. (Gotham residents would do well to venture down to the Quad Cinema and see him in a third new French film, Christophe Honoré’s Sorry Angel, to further expand their knowledge of this fast-rising star.) As an avatar for the personal and societal pressures placed upon current twentysomethings, Lacoste’s diptych within the festival provides a unique and multi-faceted examination of the modern young man.
In Thomas Lilti’s The Freshman (Première année), Lacoste plays Antoine (appropriately named for the purposes of this piece), a stubborn medical student who would rather withdraw from consideration than accept a sub-optimal concentration placement. He will be a medical doctor, full stop, and chooses to repeat his first year — the only one among his peers to do so. In a kind of scholastic meet-cute, Antoine finds a study buddy in William Lebghil’s Benjamin. They form a mutually advantageous partnership, pairing Antoine’s institutional knowledge with Benjamin’s more natural grasp of the material.
Still, in a cutthroat environment where only 300 of the two thousand students will pass their examinations and advance to the next level, their bond remains tenuous by nature. With stress mounting on Antoine to make his do-over a worthwhile endeavor, he lashes out at his partner for scoring a superior class rank before growing increasingly isolated and irascible. Antoine cannot help but buckle under the weight of expectations imposed by both himself and the world at large. While Lilti’s buddy movie eventually resolves in an expected positive light, The Freshmen calls out the absurdity of an academic system that pushes young people to such limits to achieve success. “I think they’re more efficient than we were at that age, definitely,” tells an administrator to a television reporter who is covering the final exam like a news event.
And why must they be so efficient? Look no further than Lacoste’s other appearance in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, Mikhaël Hers’ Amanda. As mop-headed 24-year-old David, Lacoste brings to light the exhausting hustle that many young people need to get by in contemporary Paris. He’s a tree trimmer for parks, a point person for a realtor helping settle in out-of-town visitors, a contract translator… and, not to mention, a kind of surrogate father for his seven-year-old niece, the eponymous Amanda. Calling his existence a struggle might qualify as a stretch, but David clearly overextends himself in order to meet his professional and familial obligations. Forget about planning ahead for a real career or a long-term relationship.
But, as it often does, the world has other plans for David beyond just dwelling in prolonged adolescence. After a brutal terrorist attack claims the life of his sister Sandrine and leaves Amanda orphaned, he’s placed in a position akin to Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler in Manchester by the Sea, left to wonder whether he can overcome his own personal baggage to provide adequate guardianship. David’s obstacles, however, stem less from what he’s done than who he is. Scarcely an adult in his own right, he strains to provide the firm emotional support his niece requires because he himself is still processing the unexpected loss of his sibling. Though he manages to rise to the occasion for Amanda, Hers does not portray David’s growth as extending to all corners of his life; crucially, his budding romance with pianist Léna proceeds only in fits and starts.
If the world seems tough for Vincent Lacoste’s characters, it looks downright hopeless for those lower down the socioeconomic ladder. Rendez-Vous with French Cinema’s program also features several works that stare sharply into the dark underbelly of the Fifth Republic, revealing how the social forces that appear inhibiting to more well-off citizens function like straightjackets to those hanging on by a thread. In Sarah Marx’s The Truk (L’Enkas), young Ulysse (Sandor Funtek) must assume caregiving responsibility for a relative — not unlike Lacoste’s David in Amanda. In this case, it’s his depressive mother. But with limited options due to his recent release from prison, along with staggering healthcare costs, Ulysse opts to hitch his financial fortunes to selling ketamine with an old pal.
The setting for their most lucrative opportunity is a notable one — an EDM festival. In an ideal world, Ulysse would be a part of the blissful action, not dealing drugs outside it to scrape by. But such is the bleak world of The Truk, one that’s particularly unforgiving for young people on the fringes of society. In this setting, youthful freedom is denied and replaced by crushing responsibility. In a compact 83-minute runtime, Marx makes clear just how stacked the deck is against someone like Ulysse to become a full member of society once again.
Virgil Vernier’s Sophia Antipolis stakes out a similar disaffected, disenfranchised milieu in the community surrounding an office park in the south of France. The story takes on a more fractured quality than any of the previously discussed films, portraying a wide swath of discontent connected by the discovery of a young girl’s dead body. The anthology-like film provides glimpses of a fractured community on the verge of collapse, be it in small gestures like an alarming rise in very young girls seeking breast implants or larger trends like the rise of vigilante militias and doomsday cults. Social and environmental change both loom large for the young people, apocalyptic in both their scale and imminence.
Given the delays in both production and foreign travel, none of these films can be pegged as a direct response to France’s Yellow Vest movement that has roiled the country and its fresh president Emmanuel Macron since November 2018. Nor do they really predict it, either — at least not without making some pretty indulgent stretches of their narratives. But a sampling of 2019’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema does reveal that many filmmakers identified their society’s fault lines and felt the tremors of a coming political earthquake. Only future editions of the festival will tell if the dislodging of The 400 Blows’ timelessness is but a passing phase in the country’s history or represents a permanent shift in the consciousness of the young.
The 400 Blows
Saturday, March 2, 1:00pm
Saturday, March 2, 6:00pm
Saturday, March 9, 1:30pm
Thursday, March 7, 9:00pm
Saturday, March 9, 3:45pm
Friday, March 8, 3:45pm
Saturday, March 9, 8:30pm
Tuesday, March 5, 4:00pm
Sunday, March 10, 5:30pm
Wednesday, March 6, 4:00pm
Sunday, March 10, 1:30pm
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