If Rushmore‘s Max Fischer and the anonymous videographer from Michael Haneke’s Caché somehow spawned a love child, he’d look something like Claude Garcia (newcomer Ernst Umhauer), the apt pupil at the center of François Ozon’s delicious bourgeois horror story, In the House, one of the major highlights from this year’s edition of Rendez-vous with French Cinema. An open-faced overachiever with a dangerous glint in his eyes, Claude sparks the attention of his burned-out French teacher (Fabrice Luchini) when he turns a series of perfunctory writing assignments into an ongoing chronicle of his entry into the picture-perfect home—and lives—of a fellow classmate and his parents. Of particular interest to young Claude: his friend’s voluptuous mother (Emmanuelle Seigner), whom he repeatedly describes as having the distinctive “scent” of a middle-class woman. And with each successive chapter, Claude’s story becomes more riveting to the reader, and potentially more dangerous to the participants.
Adapted by Ozon (Under the Sand) from a play by the Spanish writer Juan Mayorga, In the House is a remarkable movie about how writers transform reality into fiction, as knowing in its way as Adaptation or The Shining, with a splendid performance by Luchini (at the very acme of his “French Woody Allen”-ness) and a revelatory one by Umhauer, who blazes with the adolescent fire of the young Jean-Pierre Léaud.
Elsewhere in its first edition overseen by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s newly appointed director of programming, former Variety critic Robert Koehler, the 22-film Rendez-vous lineup offers no shortage of the arthouse catnip Francophile audiences have come to expect from this long-running showcase, including the requisite prestige literary adaptations (the late Claude Miller’s Thérèse Desqueyroux, starring Audrey Tautou, and The Nun, featuring Isabelle Huppert), historical dramas (Renoir, with the great Michel Bouquet as the eponymous painter) and romantic comedies (opening-night attraction Populaire, a decorative piffle set in the world of 1950s secretarial speed-typing competitions).
But upon closer inspection, a few stealthy subversions emerge—movies by iconoclastic filmmakers working far from the French cinema mainstream (and unlikely to see American distribution). They include Damien Odoul’s Rich is the Wolf, a haunting memory film constructed from the director’s own home movies and a loose narrative about a wife’s attempt to unravel the mystery of her husband’s disappearance; The Atomic Age, an intoxicating debut film from director Héléna Klotz set over one long, Joycean night in the throbbing world of Paris techno clubs; and Jean-Claude Brisseau’s The Girl From Nowhere, a delightful curlicue from the enfant terrible director of the erotically charged Secret Things and The Exterminating Angels. Brisseau himself stars here as an author who welcomes a battered young woman (the doe-eyed Virginie Legeay)into his home, only to discover that she seems gifted with mystical powers—perhaps a muse, an angel, or a demon. Or perhaps, like many Brisseau women before her, she is all three at once.
Among glossier fare, Jappeloup, arriving just ahead of its March 13 opening in French cinemas, is a by-the-numbers biopic of equestrian champion Pierre Durand, from his bucolic childhood in the Aquitaine countryside through to his triumphant performance at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. Along the way, there are failures and hardships aplenty, multiple inspirational training montages, and possibly more slow-motion shots of equine majesty than in War Horse. And yet, this entertaining hokum (crisply directed by Hollywood veteran Christian Duguay) absolutely had me at hello. Durand is played by Guillaume Canet (a/k/a Mr. Marion Cotillard), who also wrote the script and is, by the evidence on-screen, nearly as fine a horseman as he is an actor. He’s surrounded by an even finer supporting cast that includes, in the role of Durand’s unfailingly supportive father, Daniel Auteuil—an actor of unfailing effortlessness and generosity, whose ability to mine genuine pathos from pablum is itself worthy of Olympic gold.