In its 10th manifestation, Lincoln Center’s annual buffet of Gallic entrées presents, among other things, a distinct vision of how internationally engaged French cinema is in contrast to larger, more self-involved industries. The majority of the 17 films culled from last year’s releases—including those by familiar big guns like Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas, Benoît Jacquot, and André Téchiné—routinely hop continents; many of them take immigrational frisson as their landing zone. Perhaps more than that, the series generates a high-beam glare from France’s current load of star amperage (as opposed to mere fame)—nowhere as ponderable as in Jacquot’s À Tout de Suite. Fascinating if a trifle stagnant formally, this ’70s-set lovers-on-the-run melodrama revolves around the toothy, sylphlike, blonde-goddess presence of Isild Le Besco (Girls Can’t Swim), whose role entails too much worrying and waiting, but whose hypnotic intercourse with the camera is a movie unto itself. Documenting its laconic Paris-Spain-Morocco-Greece scramble with a rough-and-ready new wavey grain, Jacquot’s film is based on a true story, but it’d be a shrug without Le Besco to glow at its center like bulb filament.
Another approach altogether, Assayas’s Clean tracks the pilgrim’s progress of a low-level pop industry diva (Maggie Cheung) as she struggles to yank herself out of the sump where years of scag have placed her. Though no less radiant than usual (or less incongruously healthful than your average movie star as junkie), Cheung is fearlessly unlikable, making Clean a pungent portrait of dependent personalities and the strain they put on the social weave. Assayas only uncages his ex-wife’s formidable smile once or twice, never demanding our empathy. Narratively orthodox, the movie is also a spot-on poison-pen sketch of the basement bar-and-motel-room subterranea of the fringe rock world.
Téchiné’s Changing Times is also conventional—verging on the paperback romantic. But the context is a contemporary salmagundi of social cross-intentions: Catherine Deneuve is an aging beauty and radio host married to a Moroccan doctor (Gilbert Melki) and living in Tangiers, where her bisexual son (Malik Zidi) visits with his petulant Arab girlfriend (Lubna Azabal) and their boy. Gérard Depardieu soon appears as the living epitome of globalized impact—who, it turns out, is Deneuve’s long-jilted lover, now on a mission of the heart. Téchiné’s narrative threads don’t knit together, and the climactic deus ex machina is virtually Lelouchian, but the actors all attack their little moments of reality with gusto.
Denis’s The Intruder also considers generational angst, but in exactly what terms it’s hard to say—beautiful and resolutely enigmatic, the film is composed almost entirely of the glowering Michel Subor gazing out windows, walking with dogs, lying in bed, everywhere from the Jura Mountains to Pusan to the tropics. Hearts are literally exchanged (Katia Golubeva appears occasionally as an organ trafficker, I think), and Grégoire Colin gets sacrificed off-camera, but the film is so narrative-immune that it’s virtually a waking dream—you could dose and confuse it with your own subconscious images. Antithetical in every way, Olivier Marchal’s 36 Quai des Orfèvres is a self-conscious noir epic with as much cultural texture and urban eloquence as Michael Mann’s Heat, starring Daniel Auteuil and Depardieu as opposing cops fatally caught in each other’s crosshairs. As comfortingly beholden to genre, Yolande Moreau and Gilles Porte’s When the Sea Rises is a misfit rom-com that tracks a cut-rate one-woman theater show across northern France.
In more than one way, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence stands out—based on a Wedekind story and helmed by Gaspar Noé’s producer-editor-girlfriend, this fruitcake-rich fable about a mysterious, overgrown girls’ school surrounded by an unscalable wall, where new students appear in coffins, the hair ribbons are age coded, and an ancient sewer system rumbles under the forest, is a green heaven of metaphoric darkness. The equations of childhood to totalitarian citizenship and puberty to the underworld are just the first tendrils of what might be the year’s most original movie—if a stateside distributor ever takes the challenge.