Headlined simply “Vive la jeunesse!” the French Institute Alliance Française’s month-long series devoted to new French filmmakers might just as soon be called “Vive la femme!” given the preponderance of bright distaff talent behind and before the camera. That holds especially true for two superior coming-of-age dramas that have surfaced previously in New York, albeit so briefly that their encores are more than welcome: Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love and Rebecca Zlotowski’s raw, kinetic Dear Prudence (Belle Épine), starring the ferocious Léa Seydoux (Inglourious Basterds, Midnight in Paris) as a dissolute Jewish teen drawn to the subculture of illegal motorcycle racing on the outskirts of Paris.
Elsewhere, this fine series, co-curated by Cahiers du Cinéma critic Clémentine Gallot and regular FIAF programmer Marie Losier, offers short- and medium-length films by emerging directors working far outside the French cinema mainstream. Among the most impressive is “Le Marin Masqué,” a 30-minute, black-and-white short by actress-director Sophie Letourneur, in which two young women (played by Letourneur and the game Laetitia Goffi) spend a weekend retreat to their Breton hometown discussing everything from boyfriends to bowel movements, while pursuing the eponymous “shady sailor,” Goffi’s unconsummated high school crush. That simple premise is then ingeniously refracted by Letourneur through multiple narrative prisms, including a flashback structure, two overlapping first-person voiceovers, and a camera that impishly irises in and out on the action seemingly at will.
The spirit of Éric Rohmer—and of the forgotten New Wave master Jacques Rozier (Adieu Philippine, Du Côté d’Orouët)—hovers over Letourneur’s film, as it does A World Without Women (Un Monde Sans Femmes), director Guillaume Brac’s disarming portrait of another vacationing couple, mother Patricia (Laure Calamy) and daughter Juliette (Constance Rousseau), who arrive in the northern French beach town of Ault only to find themselves among the few eligible women in a largely male hamlet. Flirtation ensues with a local police officer and the shy, self-effacing proprietor of their rental cottage (well played by Vincent Macaigne). Brac gently dispenses insight about parents and children and our collective longing for the warmth of another human body.
Most striking of all is Gwendal Sartre’s mysteriously beautiful Song Song, which begins as a series of wordless tableaux featuring a man with graying hair and a beard wandering the rooms and gardens of a home festooned with musical instruments. Eventually, we gather that he is a composer awaiting the arrival of the muse—possibly literally, depending on how you interpret the mysterious young woman who sometimes appears beside him, saying nothing but communicating volumes with her piercing dark eyes. The spark of creativity is not something that can easily be captured by the camera’s lens, though a handful of films have come close, notably two studies of painters at work: Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse and Victor Erice’s Dream of Light. For all of its 40 strange, wondrous minutes, Song Song is nearly their musical equal.