The ‘Ayatollah of Film Criticism’ Reinvigorates the French Import


French cinema, no matter how bad, will often find its way to these shores; last year, 75 movies from l’Hexagone were released theatrically — in other words, were given week-long runs — in the U.S. Inexplicably, this crucial exposure has never been granted to the two wonderful, deceptively modest features directed by Paris-based Axelle Ropert, one of the most exceptional talents to emerge in her nation in the past decade. Miss and the Doctors (2013), the more recent title (according to IMDb, Ropert’s third film is in postproduction), screens twice at FIAF on June 14 as part of the showcase “Burning Bright: New French Filmmakers,” which runs through July 26. Don’t pass up this rare opportunity to see it — and then demand that it be shown more, not just in New York but throughout the country.

Born in 1972, Ropert served as the editor-in-chief of the short-lived magazine La Lettre du Cinéma, where she, never hesitating to savage a movie she despised, earned a reputation as an “ayatollah of film criticism,” as she put it in a March 2014 interview on Film Comment‘s blog. Ropert was one of a gang of cinephile writers affiliated with the publication who would become directors — replicating the trajectory of Godard, Truffaut, and their Nouvelle Vague confrères, who worked as critics at Cahiers du Cinéma before making movies. The best known of the La Lettre cohort, Serge Bozon, has been Ropert’s frequent screen collaborator. She wrote, either on her own or with him, Bozon’s first five films, including La France (2007) and Tip Top (2013); he has acted in both her features and Étoile Violette (Purple Star), her medium-length work from 2005.

Joint efforts, the scripts for La France and Tip Top reveal a singular sensibility and an audacious melding of categories. The former unfolds as anachronistic war movie/musical hybrid about the horrors, loneliness, and camaraderie of World War I, with soldiers intermittently breaking out into delirious songs that suggest outtakes from Pet Sounds; the latter as a sui generis policier that balances slapstick and s/m with a fiercely intelligent probing of the legacy of France’s colonialist past.

In her scripts for her own films, Ropert has fulfilled an even greater challenge: reinvigorating the nuclear-family drama, one of cinema’s most cliché-prone genres. The Wolberg Family centers on an overbearing Jewish paterfamilias and proud small-town mayor who insists that what defines a clan is its lack of secrets, a suffocating notion of closeness that his wife and two kids refuse to adhere to. The film explores, with persistent acuity, one of life’s thorniest struggles: how to carve out an identity wholly separate from one’s kin. (It also contains a great diss: “You’re so blond you don’t even exist.”)

Miss and the Doctors similarly addresses blood ties and adds some romance. Set in Paris’s thirteenth arrondissement, the home of the capital city’s rarely filmed Chinatown (where Ropert has lived for years), the movie concerns two pediatrician brothers, Boris (Cédric Kahn) and Dimitri (Laurent Stoker), both bachelors and childless. (The English title is a clumsy reworking of the original Tirez la Langue, Mademoiselle, directly translated as “Stick out Your Tongue, Young Lady.”) So close that they live in the same apartment complex and write prescriptions at desks positioned side by side, the siblings find their bonds tested when they both fall in love with the same woman, Judith (Louise Bourgoin), the single mother of one of their charges, a diabetic preteen girl. However small this project about a love triangle may at first appear, Ropert’s film slowly reveals itself to be an expansive, deeply compassionate look at universal pairings: physicians and patients, parents and children, immigrants and the native-born, the beloved and the loveless.

“I always think of my films as a viewer: What do I want to see on screen right now? I’m trying to fill gaps,” Ropert explained in that Film Comment interview. It’s an empathic moviemaking philosophy, one that underscores Ropert’s enduring love for being a spectator and her respect for those strangers also sitting in the dark — perhaps right next to her — eager for fresh approaches to hoary conventions. Both of her features are defined by precise observations, eloquent (but never overly refined) dialogue, and idiosyncratic details that always feel organic to the story and the lives she’s depicting. Simply put, these works bear the unmistakable stamp of a filmmaker who finds profundities in even the most mundane scenarios. That gift extends to her soundtrack choices. Ropert opens her films with knockout songs: Bettye LaVette’s scorching 1965 soul nugget “Let Me Down Easy” in The Family Wolberg; Tim Hardin’s lush, compact 1966 folk heartbreaker “How Can We Hang On to a Dream?” in Miss and the Doctors. The numbers immediately establish mood, as do the other expertly selected songs heard in both movies. But they complement, rather than drown out, her characters’ quiet, contemplative moments.

Solitude is especially highlighted in Miss and the Doctors. Boris, Dimitri, and Judith all share a subdued stateliness, a trait most apparent when they’re seen in isolation, walking through their neighborhood at night and partially illuminated by the warm glow of the neon signs that adorn the abundant Chinese restaurants and bubble tea shops. They circulate through a frequently photographed city and in a shopworn genre with an air of mystery. We can’t guess where they’re headed to next — scene to scene, Ropert never fails to keep us wondering.

Miss and the Doctors

Written and directed by Axelle Ropert

June 14, French Institute Alliance Française