New Yorkers are fortunate enough to have a rendezvous with French cinema all year long, in any year; 2008 alone saw the release of movies like La France, Before I Forget, and The Duchess of Langeais—some of the finest films not only from Gaul but from any nation. But the tagline for “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema”—the “annual showcase of the best in contemporary French film”—is misleading boosterism. Like most roundups of national cinema, the 14th iteration of “Rendez-Vous” hits as often as it misses. At its very best, “Rendez-Vous” gives stateside audiences what may be their only chance to see films—like Claire Denis’s sublime 35 Shots of Rum—that are still inexplicably without distribution. At its worst, the series offers sneak previews of inconsequential period-piece trifles like Paris 36, which opens “Rendez-Vous” at the renovated Alice Tully Hall before its official theatrical release in April.
In Ilan Duran Cohen’s enervatingly ridiculous The Joy of Singing, Jeanne Balibar takes the tune of the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand by You” and turns it into “L’Amour Est Fou.” Crazier still is what the exceptionally talented Balibar—whose costar in the ensemble cast is fellow Jacques Rivette and Olivier Assayas alum Nathalie Richard—is doing in this mess of a comedy-thriller about spies who go undercover in an amateur opera-singing class to retrieve a USB key. Love is also crazy in Patrick-Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic’s flat, tedious The Other One, in which Dominique Blanc (playing the world’s best-dressed social worker) bludgeons herself with a hammer and starts screaming at mirrors after she discovers her much younger ex-boyfriend has taken up with another woman d’un certain âge. Thankfully, a portrayal of real-life derangement, Martin Provost’s Séraphine stars Yolande Moreau as the titular naïve artist championed by a German collector in the 1920s and ’30s, and mostly avoids the mishaps of biopics about the “touched,” thanks to the actress’s graceful performance.
The redoubtable Isabelle Huppert may have lost her marbles in Benoît Jacquot’s Villa Amalia: As Ann Hidden, a concert pianist (sort of the flip side of Erika Kohut in The Piano Teacher) who abandons everything to travel alone, Huppert is constant determination and motion. The other lioness of French cinema, Catherine Deneuve, reteams with frequent director André Téchiné in The Girl on the Train. Based on the true story of a young woman who falsely claimed to be the victim of an anti-Semitic attack, Téchiné’s film, like last year’s The Witnesses, creakily broadcasts its observations on French politics and society; Deneuve, at least, flourishes in another great maternal role. The droll detective story Bellamy is a first-time collaboration between two Gallic legends—director Claude Chabrol and Gérard Depardieu. The mountainous actor, playing a celebrity inspector still haunted by a childhood incident with his younger brother, explains to his wife, “I found a kind of dignity in despising myself.” Depardieu brings his own ruffled dignity to the film, artfully moving his formidable bulk from scene to scene.
Real-life Depardieu fils, Guillaume, who died last year at age 37, shows up in two films, both of which feature the intensely gifted actor opposite moppets: Sylvie Verheyde’s Stella and Pierre Schöller’s Versailles. Neither film escapes the easy sentimentality that weighs down so many movies about tykes, but as a de facto posthumous tribute to a talent who left us too soon, they’ll do.
Intense family bonds are the theme of the two highlights of this year’s “Rendez-Vous,” one fiction and one fact. Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum, which premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, is already famous for its sexiest moment: Mati Diop and Grégoire Colin’s dance to the Commodores’ “Night Shift.” Teasing out the relationships among a handful of residents, mostly of Afro-Caribbean descent, in an apartment building in the Parisian suburbs, Denis’s movie focuses on the deep intimacy between a Métro motorman (Alex Descas) and his college-student daughter (Diop), honoring its extreme closeness while suggesting its suffocating potential. On the eve of her 80th birthday, Agnès Varda made the autobiographical The Beaches of Agnès (another Venice premiere), guiding us through her extraordinary 55-year career and poignantly reminiscing about her husband, Jacques Demy, who died in 1990—and whose real cause of death is revealed here. Raising two children and making some of France’s greatest movies from the 1960s, Varda and Demy traveled the world but appeared to have been most at home in the septième art. Or, as Varda puts it: “Cinema—I feel like I’ve always lived in it.”