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Last year in France, the knockout success of Amélie and its impish star, Audrey Tautou, had angst-besotted cinephiles wringing their hands over the prospect of nostalgia-ridden, cheery imitations. Despite one Tautou vehicle (God Is Great, I’m Not, an eminently avoidable, madcap romantic comedy), this year’s “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema” offers a small dose of intellectual navel-gazing alongside lush historical dramas and complex explorations of humanity’s darker impulses.
The latter are on display in Read My Lips, Jacques Audiard’s deliciously sinister thriller about a frumpy, partially deaf secretary (Emmanuelle Devos) who turns down her hearing aid when the world becomes too much of a problem. One day Paul (Vincent Cassel), a worn ex-con, shows up at her office looking for a job; for him, she turns up the volume. Yet love is the last thing on anyone’s mind, as these two hardened outsiders gradually make use of each other to serve their thwarted ambitions. With a clever script (co-written with Tonino Benacquista) and suspenseful camerawork, Audiard and his two stars (both cast against type) put a new spin on the old tango between straight and underworld society.
André Téchiné returns to French North Africa (the terrain that haunted his Wild Reeds) with Loin, an impressionistic survey of three days in the lives of lost types, hangers-on, and independent spirits in the former colonial metropolis of Tangier. Sarah (Lubna Azabal), a young Jewish woman whose mother has died, is closing their hotel in the medina; her servant (Mohamed Hamaidi), a Moroccan who dreams of going to Europe, helps bring about her reconciliation with her ex (Stéphane Rideau), a French truck driver continually shuttling between continents. Téchiné’s gift lies in orchestrating the vivid, ragtag assortment of characters. Individual performances sparkle like bits of mosaic, though the central love story lacks substance.
Yamina Benguigui also charts the psychological effects of geographical distance in Inch’Allah Dimanche, her vibrant debut feature about the “family reunion,” the French government’s euphemism for a 1974 law allowing Algerian wives to rejoin their husbands working in France. Strong-willed Zouina (Fejria Deliba) parts tearfully from her mother in the port of Algiers; once in France, she and her three small children are at the mercy of her mother-in-law (the ferocious Rabia Mokeddem) and confused by the strange customs of their local grocer and garden-obsessed neighbor. Benguigui’s script, which contains elements of fairy tale, occasionally errs on the side of Sturm und Drang. But the film draws strength from her careful attention to domestic detail.
World War I shakes up French society in two sumptuous period dramas. Les Destinées, Olivier Assayas’s luxuriant rumination on love and Limoges porcelain, opens here in April. François Dupeyron’s Officers’ Ward, based upon the novel by Marc Dugain, is surely one of the oddest war films of recent memory. Most of it unfolds in the sepia-toned haze of a military hospital, where a lieutenant (Eric Caravaca) spends the entire five years of the war recovering from facial wounds suffered in the first days of battle. There he fights for self-acceptance, aided by a small posse of similarly disfigured officers and the near saccharine compassion of his nurse (Sabine Azéma). The film offers few surprises, but discreet camerawork and nuanced psychology soften the harshness of its subject.
French icons and sacred monsters Marguerite Duras and Jean-Pierre Léaud are the focus of two disappointing films. The author’s final love story with Yann Andréa, a man more than 30 years her junior, is brought to the screen in Cet Amour-Là, writer-director Josée Dayan’s version of Andréa’s memoir. Not even the magnificent Jeanne Moreau, whose performance perfectly captures the novelist’s utter conviction of her own talents and infantile brutality, can save this film from its made-for-TV aura. Léaud’s narcoleptic style cannot carry The Pornographer, a disjointed meditation on the generational divide separating an aging porn director from his young son. Director Bertrand Bonello proffers both critical reflections on the corrupting influence of May ’68 and bits of softcore material.
Twisted maternal legacies take center stage in Betty Fisher and Other Stories, Claude Miller’s comic adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s psychological thriller about a nutty mother (Nicole Garcia) who comes to stay with her novelist daughter (Sandrine Kiberlain) and four-year-old grandson. After a tragic accident, their lives become intertwined with a frustrated waitress (Mathilde Seigner) and her young son. Together these three actresses incarnate all the complexities, grace, and ambivalence of motherhood.