Apologies to T.S. Eliot, but March in New York is surely the cruelest month, often a 31-day mantle of cold or drizzle (or both) through which spring refuses to budge. Yet March does have its saving graces, among them the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance Films’ annual Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, now in its twentieth year.
The festival, a showcase of new French films spanning genres and styles, and made by relative newcomers and veterans alike, has grown so much that it now takes place in three venues: the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the IFC Center, and BAMcinématek. The ten-day event kicks off on March 6 with Rendez-Vous stalwart Benoît Jacquot’s stylish romantic melodrama 3 Hearts, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Chiara Mastroianni, and the incomparable Catherine Deneuve, and wraps up on March 15 with Reality, a dream-logic reverie by Quentin Dupieux (whose 2010 Rubber chronicled the crime spree of a murderous tire). In between, this year’s Rendez-Vous offers pictures from familiar names (like André Téchiné, whose psychological drama In the Name of My Daughter makes its North American premiere) and from novices who may not be known to American audiences — at least not yet (like rapper Abd Al Malik, making his directorial debut with May Allah Bless France!). Here are a few highlights from the series’ 26-film slate — if you manage to catch every one, you may not even notice the weather.
Love at First Fight: Don’t be put off by the not-so-graceful English title of Thomas Cailley’s debut picture — think of it by its much better French one, Les Combattants (or Fighters), which more fully captures the movie’s bold, sweet, punch-drunk temperament. Young, gentle-spirited Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs) is just about to join his family’s woodworking business when scrappy Madeleine (Adèle Haenel) catches his eye; more accurately, he loses to her — technically — in an impromptu beach wrestling match. Madeleine’s dream is to join the army, and the smitten Arnaud toys with the idea of following her, but the going is rough. Cailley makes the most of these two wonderful young actors’ faces: Together, they capture the head-rush of young love in all its prickly, misguided glory, and won some welcome celebration: Love was honored with three Césars, for best first film, best actress, and best new actor.
Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart: Erstwhile Cahiers du Cinéma critic Cédric Anger has fashioned a chilly, fascinating film from the pages of true crime. Guillaume Canet plays a serial killer based on Alain Lamare, responsible for the brutal murders of several young women in Oise in the late 1970s. The stinging twist is that Lamare — here renamed Franck Neuhart — was a gendarme assigned to investigate the very crimes he was surreptitiously committing. The opening of Anger’s film is rendered with the elegance of De Palma: We see the killer
going about his horrific nocturnal routine with an almost zenlike physical composure, though we don’t see his face until later, as he dons his uniform for work. The effect is disquietingly creepy, and Anger builds the story skillfully from there. As Neuhart, Canet is a waxen blank: He has a placid, anonymous quality, like a store mannequin, which makes his portrayal all the more unnerving. Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart is one of two serial-killer-themed pictures in this year’s Rendez-Vous: The other is Frédéric Tellier’s SK1, a drama focused on the more recent case of Guy Georges, sentenced to life in prison in 2001 for the murder of seven women. Together, they offer two good reasons to look over your shoulder when you’re walking home late at night.
Stubborn: Romantic obsession can be adorable — until it becomes annoying, or worse. In his second feature film, video artist and experimental filmmaker Armel Hostiou tells the story of Vincent (Vincent Macaigne), a chubby, endearing Frenchman who has followed the love of his life across the sea to New York — only to discover that she wants nothing to do with him. Still, Vincent won’t take no for an answer: He doggedly follows his lady love Barbara (Kate Moran), at one point barging in on her and her new boyfriend to bestow a token upon her that he’s sure will change her mind. (It doesn’t, but the way he orders the boyfriend to make him fresh-squeezed orange juice is hilarious, the mark of a guy who clearly has trouble with boundaries.) Where’s the line between garden-variety devotion and stalkerish obsession? Stubborn blurs it in a way that’s both unsettling and bitterly funny: You may start out feeling sorry for Vincent, only, like Barbara, to find yourself wanting to brush him off like a gnat. And in the end, you may feel something else entirely, like compassion. In
between you’ll laugh and cringe, perhaps
in equal measure.
Breathe: Mélanie Laurent is best known as an actress, but Breathe, her
assured, potent second feature as a director, gives us good reason to pay attention to what she’s doing behind the camera as well as in front of it. Seventeen-year-old Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is a quiet, dutiful student with a few close friends, a good kid who seems destined to disappear uneventfully into the anonymity of the adult world. Then the charismatic, wild-haired Sarah (Lou de Laâge) shows up at her school, and everything changes: The two form a symbiotic bond that tilts toward romantic obsession. By turns moody and piercing, Breathe captures both the intimacy and the potentially claustrophobic quality of teenage friendship. We’ve all seen the story of the sexy, dangerous newcomer at school who wreaks havoc everywhere she looks. But Laurent has such a deft touch — and is so delicately in tune with her two lead actresses — that she makes you believe you’re seeing it all for the first time.
Back Alley: This 29-minute film by Cécile Ducrocq, part of the Rendez-Vous shorts program, plays like a full-length feature distilled to its essence. Suzanne (Laure Calamy) has been a streetwalker since the age of fifteen. She treats her clients with respect, but she’s authoritative with them, too, proficient in the art of controlling any given situation. She’s dismayed to learn that a group of young African immigrants are setting up shop in a caravan of campers just outside her city, greatly undercutting her prices and threatening to destroy her livelihood. The tactics she uses to address the problem introduce thorny questions about ethical business practices, sexual politics, and racism: Back Alley, which is Ducrocq’s fourth short, folds a lot of provocative ideas into its diminutive runtime. It’s a challenging little piece of work that honors the inquisitive spirit of Rendez-Vous. Maybe next time, Ducrocq will give us a feature.