France’s Fault Lines Are Exposed in an American Film Showcase
The selections in Rendez-Vous With French Cinema at Lincoln Center explore hard truths about the nation in the years since the 2015 terrorist attacks.
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By Beatrice Loayza
For much of Alice Winocour’s “Revoir Paris” — the opening-night film of this year’s Rendez-Vous With French Cinema — Virginie Efira’s Mia seems to have fallen under a terrible spell. She struggles to make sense of her life after it is upended by a terrorist shooting, one not unlike the 2015 attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and surrounding areas in Paris.
Like many of the strongest selections at Film at Lincoln Center’s annual showcase of contemporary French cinema, “Revoir Paris” (or “Paris Memories”) lays bare the state of the national psyche, shaken by a confrontation with hard truths about French society.
The attacks marked a turning point in the country’s recent history, leading to increased anti-immigrant sentiment underpinned by the passage of punitive legislation and the fearmongering rhetoric of a revitalized far right. Winocour’s drama is not the first domestic production that speaks to the mood — see Bertrand Bonello’s teen-terrorist provocation “Nocturama” (2017) or last year’s “Novembre,” a slick procedural that detailed the ensuing manhunt. But “Revoir Paris” is, perhaps, the most personal, with the filmmaker drawing inspiration from the experiences of her younger brother, who witnessed the carnage at the Bataclan.
“Revoir Paris” cuts through the political chaos by centering on the emotional lives of those directly affected by the violence as Mia strives to connect with other survivors, namely the undocumented kitchen hand with whom she hid from a gunman. Though the film begins with a scene of unnervingly realistic brutality, it unfolds as a meditative character study teeming with doubts, contradictions and great empathy — an effect achieved in no small part by the performance of Efira, who last month took home the César Award (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for best actress for her efforts.
The Césars’ biggest winner, “The Night of the 12th,” is also screening at Rendez-Vous. Though the French awards body has made little effort to address the accusations of sexism leveled against it — this year it failed to nominate a single woman for best director — voters clearly had gender politics on their minds. Directed by Dominik Moll, this austere Grenoble-set policier raises questions about the prevalence of misogyny in French culture and the country’s high rates of sexual violence. When a young woman is set on fire while walking home alone at night, a detective (Bastien Bouillon) is plunged into a rabbit hole of slut-shaming and dead ends that recalls the existential malaise of David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” All the suspects — ex-boyfriends, lovers and local weirdos — exhibit potentially incriminating attitudes toward the victim and women in general. As the investigation deepens, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out a clear culprit because the seedlings that give rise to gendered violence are seemingly everywhere.
A more transgressive take on the horrors of toxic masculinity comes from a female director, Patricia Mazuy, a modern master who remains relatively unknown to Americans. Her latest, “Saturn Bowling,” takes no prisoners. In this minimalistic serial-killer thriller, we’re thrown into a nocturnal abyss of hereditary barbarism and emotional detachment wherein big-game hunters rub shoulders with date-rape killers — all men who derive pleasure from wicked games of objectification and domination, no matter the corpses they produce as a result. With explicit scenes of sexual violence, the film will surely prove divisive, but there is no denying the haunting force of the world Mazuy summons as well as its eerily recognizable power dynamics.
With “The Plough,” Philippe Garrel returns to color after a decade of films in black-and-white. It’s the veteran filmmaker’s most inspired turn in recent memory on the vagaries of love and seduction, his perennial fixation. A kind of passing of the torch, it stars Garrel’s three children — Lena, Esther and Louis (whose latest directorial effort, the punchy caviar-heist comedy “The Innocent,” is also part of the Rendez-Vous lineup)— as a family of puppeteers contending with the art form’s growing obsolescence. Winner of the best director prize at the Berlin Film Festival, Garrel leads a pack of Rendez-Vous regulars, among which Arnaud Desplechin (“Brother and Sister”), Christophe Honoré (“Winter Boy”) and Rebecca Zlotowski (“Other People’s Children”) stand out.
The French, of course, are experts in the art of the bourgeois drama, with Garrel and company as practitioners of the highest order. But also worth your while are films that burst the white and/or middle-class bubble. Take Rachid Hami’s “For My Country,” a tragedy about an immigrant Algerian family that depicts their adopted European home as a bastion of cruel deceptions and broken dreams. There’s also Philippe Faucon’s “Harkis,” a sober historical portrait of the war for Algerian independence that focuses on a group ultimately disowned by both sides: “harkis,” a term derived from Arabic and roughly synonymous with “traitor,” referring to the native Algerians, mostly young and impoverished men, who joined the French army.
The slippery pseudo-documentary “The Worst Ones,” from Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret, explores the ethics of street-casting — the too easily exploitative practice of scouting for nonprofessional actors who belong to the same community the filmmaker wants to portray. Four teenagers from the housing projects in the north of France are plucked from obscurity; they’re the “worst” behaved, the most problematic among the kids who showed up to audition. The film follows the would-be stars — one, for instance, is a foster child, another suffers from A.D.H.D. — as they participate in the shoot; the film within a film seems to be a scrappy, sentimental vision of working-class life à la “The Florida Project” or one of the many coming-of-age tales by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Both satirizing the methods of those docufictional reference points and engaging in the same processes — albeit with pointed awareness and ambivalence — the film questions the pursuit of authenticity so central to the history of cinema, bringing awareness to its fraught dynamics of class and control without sinking into didacticism.
For a lighter touch, see Sébastien Marnier’s Hitchcock-inspired nouveau riche thriller, “The Origin of Evil,” a criminal romp that occasionally reverts to split-screen stylings as it tracks the shady maneuverings of relatives vying for possession of the family empire.
An engagement with history and the travails of inheritance hovered over this year’s selection with a ghostlike presence, which is no surprise considering the heated state of the country’s various reckonings — with ingrained cultural values about sex and gender that many denounce as patriarchal, for instance, or the clash between the nation’s ideals about assimilationism and its increasingly diverse ethnic makeup. Léa Mysius’s “The Five Devils” offers a science-fictional interpretation of such heavy baggage, unveiling the secret history of an interracial family with cool, hypnotic swagger. Adèle Exarchopoulos stars as Joanne, the mother of a creepy little girl whose precise sense of smell is essentially a superpower. Time bends in flashbacks that double as the child’s dream visions, provoked by the appearance of Joanne’s troubled ex-lover, Julia (Swala Emati), her French-Senegalese sister-in-law. Uninterested in spelling things out, Mysius relies on uncanny, elemental imagery — Julia is known to play with fire, literally, while Joanne routinely swims in frigid lake waters — to bring about a sense of the murky, primordial connections between mother, daughter, aunt and father.
Then there is Léonor Serraille’s “Mother and Son,” an intergenerational triptych set in the 1980s about an Ivorian single mother and her two sons. At first glance, the film is a straightforward naturalistic drama about the immigrant experience, but it refuses to stoop to clichés of victimhood — a rare feat among contemporary French titles that deal with the subject so directly. Though the latter half of the film delves into the sons’ lives, it is the section on the mother, Rose (Annabelle Lengronne), that dazzles, offering a vision of womanhood full of sensuality, conflicted responsibility, humor and grace. Seek Rose out.
“Rendez-Vous With French Cinema” runs Thursday through March 12 at Lincoln Center. Go to filmlinc.org for more information.
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