If your understanding of non-American cinema came solely from watching what comes out of highly curated festivals like Cannes, TIFF and even Lincoln Center’s own New York Film Festival, it’s possible to develop a skewed sense of other countries’ filmmaking apparatus. There’s a certain sampling bias that many — myself included — fail to account for when forming our ideas about world cinema. If we were judged only by what played at Berlin or Locarno, it would represent a merely a small thread pulled from a giant tapestry encompassing everything from studio poptimism to politicized indies and all the uncategorizable artists tinkering away at the boundaries of the form.
But with the domination of Parasite at the Academy Awards, it feels like something is changing in film culture. As countless sites rushed to put up explainers and streaming guides to going deeper into South Korean cinema, many voices pushed back against the idea that one film could metonymically represent an entire national cinema. And almost as if on cue, Film at Lincoln Center’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema has arrived to dispel any monolithic notions of Gallic filmmaking. This year’s sidebar provides a portrait of neither a country nor a lady on fire, as France’s final two contenders for their 2019 Oscar submission suggested. Instead, the program invites guests to take in the everyday and the banal at its most enlightening, terrifying and sometimes absurd.
Perhaps it was selection bias among what I sampled prior to the official opening of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema on March 5, but there did not seem to be any grand overarching themes or bold pronouncements of this year’s selection. Even when taking into account two films I saw at TIFF, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s French-language debut The Truth and Alice Winocour’s space drama Proxima, the overall impression amounted to more of a disparate landscape view of the national cinema rather than a unified thesis. There’s everything from crowd-pleaser The Specials, a new film from the filmmakers behind global phenomenon The Intouchables, to the bonkers stylings of Bruno Dumont once again tackling his country’s most fabled heroine with Joan of Arc. There’s New Wave icon Catherine Deneuve (twice!) and any number of new faces ready to define a new generation. Yes, French cinema is vibrant indeed precisely because it is so varied.
Case in point: last year, I viewed Rendez-Vous with French Cinema largely through the lens of rising star Vincent Lacoste. He’s back again in 2020, albeit simply as his magnetic on-screen presence in the background of Christophe Honoré’s On a Magical Night. On first glance, his character Richard appears to be merely a young lover to the middle-aged Maria (Chiara Mastroianni). The setup of her lodging in the hotel room directly across the street from the apartment she shares with her husband certainly invokes an image of the libidinous French.
But nothing is quite as it seems in Honoré’s world. Rather than milling about in Maria’s mid-life crisis, the film opens outwards in striking, surprising directions. Despite what the original French title (Chambre 212) might imply, this is anything but a chamber piece. Honoré gets contemplative, if not necessarily inquisitive, as he explores the many choices and forces that led Maria to this very room on the brink of restarting her very established life. The chamber is not the final destination for the character; in Honoré’s hands, the room and all it represents become a springboard into a visually inventive threshold of revelation for Maria. Strict realism quickly cedes the way to flights of fancy, imagination and reverie.
While the title On a Magical Night might imply a certain amount of fantasy at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, that’s mostly relegated to the storytelling. Maria herself is a character grounded in reality, as is Richard. Neither are spectacular cinematic creations meant to argue a case or stand in for an issue. They’re just people — or, well, at least Maria is — and that’s totally fine. We can learn a lot about French attitudes towards middle-aged people having sex, age imbalances in relationships (particularly with an older woman) and infidelity, just to name a few cultural norms that Honoré illuminates. A film need not make a sweeping proclamation on the issues it circles to show something meaningful.
At Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, I had a similar feeling watching Lucie Borleteau’s Perfect Nanny, the kind of imperiled yuppie tale that’s been woefully missing from cinemas after their 80s/90s heyday (particularly in America). Karen Viard plays Louise, the titular caregiver, who at first appears a boon to working parents Myriam (Leïla Bekhti) and Paul (Antoine Reinartz) struggling to stay above water with two young children. Something about Louise seems slightly askew from the outset, though Borleteau steadfastly avoids heavy-handed foreshadowing or obvious genre hat-tips. Though she moves her film in some dark and terrifying directions, Borleteau plays the vast majority of it impressively poker-faced.
Perfect Nanny ultimately takes final shape as a thriller, albeit not of the “social” variety popularized by Jordan Peele in the U.S. over the last few years. That’s not to say Borleteau disconnects entirely from the world around her; quite the opposite, in fact. But the subtexts of race, class and gender dynamics are merely shadings, not the subject altogether. The way Louise triangulates her position as above a population of younger, more diverse nannies — and on par with the family who employs her — portends her future unbalanced state. The film sneaks up on you, just as the character does to Myriam and Paul. By the time Louise’s parasitism emerges, it’s too late to stop what’s coming.
If genre subversion and cheeky play with conventions is more your style, not to worry, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema has you more than covered with another reliably wacky outing by Quentin Dupieux, Deerskin. Within its absurdist packaging, the film satirizes commodity fetishism, the much-maligned “toxic masculinity” and the old boys’ club that is the French film industry. In a style befitting this eccentric filmmaker, the satire is fairly oblique — but by no means does that imply his critiques are defanged.
Deerskin gives a voice to Jean Dujardin, who’s been largely absent from screens stateside since his silent performance in The Artist improbably won him an Oscar for Best Actor, as flailing filmmaker Georges. As his act of midlife desperation, Georges plops down a nice wad of change for a deerskin jacket that makes him feel tough and invincible. Dupieux also gives voice to the piece of clothing — literally. The deerskin talks to Georges and tells him that it wants to walk the world and see no other jackets. Given the rapaciousness of his domineering masculinity, which France seems to tolerate far more than America, Georges proves all too willing to attempt this quixotic mission.
On multiple occasions during Deerskin, I felt like I was watching a French version of an Adam McKay comedy from the 2000s, his pre-“serious filmmaker” period. Dupieux has a way of simultaneously and paradoxically exposing the absurdities of unearned machismo under a microscope while also blowing them out of scale for comic effect. Georges is a monster both exaggerated and familiar. Viewers can buy into some of his more unhinged behaviors precisely because he cannot believe that a woman can be an effective film editor or that his wife can lock him out of their joint bank account. For these reasons, it’s all too perfect that Adèle Haenel (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) serves as Georges’ foil, the kind but wily Denise. Considering her recent public protest of Roman Polanski’s win at France’s César Awards, there’s something deeply personal about confronting the misogyny of the industry.
For anyone seeking more grounded fare, the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema lineup also has plenty to offer in that regard that spans both mainland France and the country’s former colonies. (I look forward to catching up with the latter of these when the festival starts — these voices are undeniably important to the national cinema, and I regret not having more time to watch and include them in this piece.) If you need an illustration of the many multitudes French filmmaking can contain, take a look at selections Cédric Klapisch’s Someone, Somewhere (Deux moi)and Sarah Suco’s The Dazzled (Les éblouis).
Klapisch’s work is Parisian through and through, a self-contained bubble that recalls the way American filmmakers think about New York or Los Angeles. It’s an unapologetically urban and professional vision of the world as seen through the eyes of twentysomethings Rémy (François Civil) and Mélanie (Ana Girardot). They’re neighbors, which perhaps they would know if they ever looked up from their phones. While Klapisch has their stories run parallel to each other, they might have intersected with a little more awareness of the world around them.
Someone, Somewhere is hardly the anti-millennial screed that its premise suggests. If anything, it’s a clever play on the “hyperlink cinema” film that predominated the early internet era. When it seemed like technology would connect the world and bring us closer together, a wave of stories about improbable linkages between an ensemble of characters flooded the cinema. Now, in the age of disillusionment around those same innovations, those narratives seem like idealistic hogwash. Klapisch’s rejoinder depicts the tragic irony staring down today’s young people: the world is at our fingertips, but genuine connection always feels just out of reach. Rémy and Mélanie are two ships passing in the night with an increasing frequency, but Klapisch never gets too glib or contrived with these scenarios.
Meanwhile, Suco’s The Dazzled feels so far removed from the urban sprawl of Paris that it might as well be both another time and country. Gone is the upstart individualism on display in Someone, Somewhere for the dwellers of the secluded Catholic town Suco depicts. In the face of still-powerful institutions like the Church, community is not something people create for themselves — it’s something impressed upon them. And it demands rigid conformity.
Young Camille (Céleste Brunnquell, a dead ringer for early 90s Reese Witherspoon) learns the cost of charting one’s own course in this this top-down social organization. She dedicates herself to becoming a circus acrobat and achieves a fair level of mastery for a 12-year-old, only to have church leadership tell her she must stop due to their moral concerns. Suco wastes no time getting to the tension at the heart of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema film, arriving at the church’s condemnation in under 20 minutes. Most surprising of all: Camille cannot count on her own parents to stand up for her. The church provides necessary income for her mother, and her father quickly becomes a true believer.
While Camille’s parents first approach the religious community with some level of outsider’s curiosity, they capitulate to the church’s conservatism rapidly and thoroughly. What first seems like it might just be performative for the paycheck authentically accelerates for them. The chief contradiction of communitarianism is on full display in The Dazzled: a group that bonds around a strict set of shared values also repels those who refuse to march in lockstep. From a narrative perspective, this pours fuel on the fire of Camille’s process of claiming individuation and independence. With her parents rendered unreliable to serve in the best interest of their own spawn, she’s also forced to take charge for her younger siblings. It’s a coming-of-age story with extremely high stakes, one Suco tells with both empathy and urgency.
This world and narrative would be all but unrecognizable as a contemporary one to the characters in Someone, Somewhere, yet it’s all under the banner of the Tricolour. A piece of land smaller than the state of Texas can play host to any number of disparate stories. And for 11 glorious days at Lincoln Center this month, New Yorkers have the great opportunity to encounter them at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.
Showtimes for Selected Films
*All films screen at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater (165 W 65th Street).*
On a Magical Night
Friday, March 6, 8:45 PM
Monday, March 9, 4:15 PM
Sunday, March 8, 9:15 PM
Saturday, March 14, 9:00 PM
Monday, March 9, 6:15 PM
Wednesday, March 11, 1:45 PM
Monday, March 9, 9:00 PM
Saturday, March 14, 6:30 PM
Sunday, March 8, 6:30 PM
Friday, March 13, 4:15 PM
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).