BAMcinématek’s five-film showcase—the latest incarnation of an annual series that premieres a selection of recent French films as yet without stateside distribution—offers an alternative to the brand-name auteur output and harmless, dorky comedies that routinely make the Atlantic crossing.
Based on what’s here, you may worry for the mental health of the Fifth Republic: Three of the features are practically case histories in abnormal psychology. Laurent Achard’s Demented works within the What Maisie Knew template, filtering eavesdropped fragments of adult misbehavior through the eyes of a child. Several boyhoods’ worth of trauma are condensed into a single, lazy summer in the countryside, as 11-year-old Martin (Julien Cochelin) witnesses gay trysts, menstruation, feminine hysteria, and suicide. Transposing Ontario-born Timothy Findley’s 1967 debut novel, The Last of the Crazy People, onto contemporary rural France, the film achieves a curiously anachronistic quality: The complete provincial isolation it depicts—a world untouched by mass culture—seems as quaint as its shopworn shock tactics.
Emmanuelle Cuau’s Trés Bien, Merci is concerned with vaguer sorts of crisis. A corporate accountant (Gilbert Melki) is ticketed for smoking in the Metro station, and the incident rends a hole in his psyche, throwing the structure of authority that surrounds him into sharp relief. He can’t seem to rightly reintegrate into the system: He’s arrested without breaking the law, then gets himself committed without properly going nuts. Melki’s potent performance is packed inward, fraught and ulcerous, though the film belongs equally to Sandrine Kiberlain as his cabdriver wife, who subtly reflects the ripples of his breakdown in her every scene. It’s a slight, wanly lit film that plays a bit like a comedy with all of the laughs attenuated, but there’s something to it: Tuning into obscure bandwidths of human behavior, the film picks up a free-floating strain of city sickness.
Melki shows up, harried again, in the series’ most extravagantly mad entry, Michel Spinosa’s Anna M. Here he’s mostly a cipher, the doctor who has the misfortune of being on-duty to treat the titular heroine (Isabelle Carré, face taut with strained feeling) after her botched suicide attempt. She repays him in love letters, risqué Polaroids, and unsolicited, unyielding, undying love. Anna probably never wanted to kill herself any more than she ever really loves the doctor—Carré, a youthful-looking mid-30s, suggests an adolescent so bored with everything that she can only quiet her surging mind by making and taking her own escalating dares. The title pays homage to The Story of Adele H., Truffaut’s period-piece study of unrequited obsession and wallowed-in self-abasement (shooting the reading room of the Bibliothéque Nationale in burnished, antiquarian tones, Anna M. does gain a distinctly 19th-century air), but the film can equally well claim the lineage of Alicia Silverstone’s The Crush.
This isn’t a slight; Spinosa and Carré’s willingness to go too far make Anna M. the most purely enjoyable movie of the batch, a departure from the reticent filmmaking that’s standard here, and which often feels like a shrinking from articulacy rather than a challenge. Case in point is Philippe Faucon’s The Betrayal ( La Trahison), which follows a platoon of French soldiers and their Muslim harki auxiliaries, circa 1960, as they fight to flush the FLN insurgents out of the hostile Algerian countryside while failing utterly to win the hearts and minds of the local populace. The story has the makings of an ace thriller—intelligence suggests that the harkis may be preparing to turn on the French soldiers, though this could be a setup, deliberately leaked to erode their morale—but Faucon delivers a work of overcautious ambivalence, ossified in its artfulness, that stays in the memory about as long as it takes to exit the theater.
The stand-alone documentary is Maria de Medieros’s slim el cheapo, Je t’aime, moi non plus: artistes et critiques, shot at the 2002 Cannes festival, which addresses the spiky co-existence between filmmakers and critics. The title comes from a Serge Gainsbourg tune in which Jane Birkin famously exhales her way to orgasm in the recording booth; the thesis is that the critic-director relationship is something like a rocky love affair (and an unappetizing one, as neither critics nor directors are a notoriously photogenic bunch). Though I’ll gladly accept any affirmation of the critical calling in a cultural environment that so frequently disdains it (“Strong Box-Office Showing by Fantastic Four Proves Beyond Any Doubt That Critics Are Obsolete, Impotent!”), the insights offered by this batch of talking heads are fairly commonplace. On a related note: I’d like to officially retire the entire “When the lights go out before a movie, it’s like the lights going out before sex” metaphor, which was—let’s be honest—a bit wobbly to begin with.