“All of us at Cahiers [du Cinéma] thought of ourselves as future directors. Writing was already a way of making films,” Jean-Luc Godard once said, referring to his fellow critics at the instrumental journal, who would soon become the auteurs of the New Wave. Roughly 40 years after the release of The 400 Blows, Breathless, Le Beau Serge, etc., another gang of critics, affiliated with the magazine La Lettre du Cinéma, would go behind (and also in front of) the camera, making some of the most invigorating, sui generis work in France of the past decade.
Almost all of the 13 titles in Walter Reade’s celebration of these cinephile writers–turned-auteurs are receiving their New York premieres; “Free Radicals” serves as a much-needed corrective to the increasingly staid, mediocre fare the Film Society fetes every year in its high-profile “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema,” which, with one exception, has overlooked all the movies in this series. Made in a collective spirit, nearly every film in the retrospective features a performance by tireless multi-hyphenate Serge Bozon, a writer-director-actor (and DJ; he’s spinning at the Walter Reade’s Furman Gallery this Friday and Sunday night) who’ll be presenting two sidebar programs—including one at Anthology on April 16—of movies that influenced him.
Though it never had a proper theatrical release in the U.S., Bozon’s La France is the best known of the titles in “Free Radicals”; this singular war movie/musical hybrid was the revelation of the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 2007, where it premiered. Written by frequent Bozon collaborator Axelle Ropert, the former editor-in-chief of La Lettre du Cinéma, La France unfolds as a drama about the horrors, loneliness, and camaraderie of World War I, in which soldiers intermittently break out into delirious song. Picking up their handmade string instruments, made from tin cans and other everyday detritus, the fighters croon creamy, harmonious ditties (written by Bozon) that suggest outtakes from Pet Sounds and other mid-’60s pop manna while lamenting the folly of nationalism. (La France was beautifully lensed by another influential Bozon: Céline, Serge’s sister, the cinematographer for many of the films in the program).
Bozon’s infatuation with the sound of the ’60s plays an even larger role in 2002’s Mods (which also shares La France’s military motif), his earlier pairing with Ropert (she wrote, he directed, they both star). Two greenhorn enlistee brothers, Paul (Bozon) and François (Guillaume Verdier, another recurring presence in the series), visit their university-attending sibling, who has sunk into a catatonic depression. As the bumpkins try to acclimate to the ways of the campus sophisticates and coax their brother out of bed, vintage garage rock—Phil and the Frantics, the Seeds—stops the narrative as characters, both major and minor, move to goofy, Trisha Brown–like choreography; the banged, Fred Perry–polo-shirt-wearing quartet of the title pops up throughout as a near-aphasic Greek chorus.
Equally besotted with ’60s melodies, Ropert opens her feature-length directorial debut, 2009’s The Wolberg Family, with “Let Me Down Easy,” Bettye LaVette’s scorching soul nugget. If Ropert’s script for La France boldly reimagined the war picture and the musical, then Wolberg, which she also wrote, fulfills an even greater challenge: reinvigorating the nuclear-family drama, among cinema’s most shopworn genres. A small, modest film, Wolberg has nothing but big ideas, sharply exploring one of life’s thorniest struggles: how to carve out an identity wholly separate from one’s kin.
Even more essential questions of selfhood are addressed in Jean-Charles Fitoussi’s far-out The Days I Don’t Exist (2002), the story of a Montmartre man who disappears into a void every other day, never having any knowledge of yesterday or tomorrow. Parisians also vanish in Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s Fantômes (2001): Ghosts of loved ones return briefly before departing; by film’s end, the distinction between living and dead ceases to matter. Each film in “Free Radicals,” however, remains electrically alive.