For the 11th time, Lincoln Center’s annual cross-section survey of what’s current and courant in French cinema focuses on the native work likely to be deemed unsellable in the stateside bazaar, for reasons often clear and sometimes unfathomable. This year, the crop is a trifle thin, and dominated by films whose spirited mediocrity suggests a potential upswing in U.S. sales. Valérie Lemercier’s Palais Royal! is a bouncy, buffoonish ruling-class spoof that plays like a sedated Shrek sequel in some aspects, and riffs on a Princess Di–like game of class turnabout—an improvement, at least, on the Meg Cabot empire. There are other things to sell in Antony Cordier’s Cold Showers, which unimaginatively observes a coming-of-age-with-high-school-judo dynamic, until the opaque hero and his luscious girlfriend accept a buddy into their mesh and fall into a gym-floor ménage. Similarly, Laurent Cantet’s shockingly tourist-minded Heading South stokes the sexual mismatch furnace, as wealthy white women (including Charlotte Rampling and Karen Young) head to Haiti in the 1970s and screw the local teenage boys on the beach, oblivious to the Baby Doc–era oppression and poverty. Worse still, Danis Tanovic’s Hell—continuing the projected Kieslowski trilogy based on Krzysztof Piesiewicz’s heaven-hell-purgatory screenplays—is a brooding shambles of cheap symbology and coy super-coolness, inevitably nurturing the suspicion that maybe Kieslowski was in the end something of a high-handed gasbag himself.
On the upside, Brigitte Roüan’s Housewarming tears through a Mr. Blandings home-improvement explosion of chaos with perfect balance and brio, and does not, like Tanovic’s film, waste the entrancingly sharp-witted Carole Bouquet. Serge Le Péron’s I Saw Ben Barka Get Killed would seem to be a graver launch, chronicling the disappearance of the titular Moroccan anti-colonialist leader in 1965, but it’s actually a paranoid character satire focusing on real-life bullshit artist Georges Figon (Charles Berling) as he tries to make a dime coordinating Marguerite Duras (Josiane Balasko), Georges Franju (Jean-Pierre Léaud), and Mehdi Ben Barka (Simon Abkarian) into making a political doc, before being assassinated for his trouble.
Good year or bad, France has always excelled at producing female movie stars, and here’s an opportunity to feast on the sheer human opulence and amazing Picasso face of Emmanuelle Devos. Both brimming with other Arnaud Desplechin alumni as well, Sophie Filliéres’s Gentille and Emmanuel Carrére’s La Moustache are mini-masterworks that dovetail and countervail each other, and in both Devos plays a Parisian woman haunted by mistaken identities and unglued from the man in her life for unexplainable reasons. But Gentille is a juicy, seductive rom-com, with Devos’s dizzy doctor eluding boyfriend Bruno Todeschini’s offer of marriage at least until her GI tract can generate the errant ring, while La Moustache is a queasy parable of menopausal horror in which the shaving of lip fuzz musters a perceptual and memorial chasm between husband and wife, and man and world.
Other Frenchness afoot: MOMA is taking the year to showcase winners of the Prix Jean Vigo, celebrating Gallic innovation, originality, and promise for 55 years running. The rarely screened triomphes include Philippe Garrel’s The Secret Child (1982), William Klein’s Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1965), and Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s Statues Also Die (1953).