The cinephiles attending the 23rd edition of “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema” (March 8–18) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this year may relate a little too hard to Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s new film, A Paris Education, about a movie-obsessed young man named Etienne (Andranic Manet) who moves to Paris to attend film school. The entire 24-film series (co-presented with UniFrance) is a Francophilic affair, but Civeyrac’s black-and-white coming-of-age drama feels especially French, following as it does a protagonist reminiscent of a Godard–Truffaut–Rohmer male lead — quite handsome and sensitive, but a little lost when it comes to romance — as he makes films and encounters a string of women, some whom influence his political outlook. There’s even a self-effacing moment when one of Etienne’s classmates complains about “whiny French films” — a label that could certainly apply to A Paris Education, though it’s admittedly immensely enjoyable for the entirety of its sprawling two-plus-hour runtime. Simultaneously an homage and a slight to cineastes, the film is like a cinema-studies class without the homework, but there are no shortage of cutting lines (“You lecture about life, but you live yours through film”) that will make certain viewers feel especially seen, and picked on.
Speaking of French New Wave male leads, none were more prominent, or so fitting to play the part, than Jean-Pierre Léaud, the 73-year-old screen legend who was the subject of a Film Society retrospective just last year. Léaud, still steadily working, can be seen again here in The Lion Sleeps Tonight, a sweet movie-making drama from Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa. Yet another ode to film lovers, Lion finds Jean-Pierre — an aging actor named Jean in the picture — as the leading man of an amateur ghost story made by a group of children. When the cameras aren’t rolling, Jean also faces a ghost from his past: an ex-lover named Juliette (played in her own youthful image by Pauline Etienne).
Another great dose of the French New Wave can be found in Guillaume Brac’s July Tales, which, as hinted by its season-evoking title alone, heavily channels Rohmer. Separated into two different stories of awkward relationships between men and women — the first about two friends who take a weekend getaway; the second centered on a Norwegian exchange student — this 68-minute diptych film almost feels like two television episodes squished together. But don’t write it off: Its greatness can be found in the comedic yet poignant observations it offers of unassuming events and relationships. It’s a quiet, modest highlight among the crowded series.
The opening-night selection, the Jeanne Balibar–starring Barbara, about the famed French chanteuse, was directed by actor Mathieu Amalric, who’s graced a countless number of great movies in his storied filmography. (Here, he not only directs but stars — as a director.) The rest of the eleven-day “Rendez-Vous” run will lend itself to plentiful revelations: one unexpectedly gripping cow thriller (Hubert Charuel’s Petit Paysan); a couple social-commentary pictures (Laurent Cantet’s The Workshop and Vincent Macaigne’s Comfort and Consolation in France); a handful of wartime dramas (Xavier Beauvois’s World War I–era The Guardians, Emmanuel Finkiel’s World War II–themed A Memoir of War, and Marine Francen’s The Beguiled–esque The Sower). Up-and-coming filmmakers are also present, bound to be discovered; one name to take note of is Léa Mysius, who co-wrote Arnaud Desplechin’s new movie, Ismael’s Ghosts (out March 23). In her debut feature, Ava, Mysius strikingly captures a thirteen-year-old girl’s journey reckoning with impending blindness.
The standouts of “Rendez-Vous” tend to shirk conventional structures — they are truly unique and innovative in style, even when they don’t always work. Decidedly among this crop, Eugène Green’s Waiting for the Barbarians is a hilarious, nightmarish realization of the director’s theatrical leanings, meshing B.C.-era couplets with the very specific digital-era anxiety of checking your phones at the door. The performance-art nature of it would be insufferable if it weren’t for Green’s arid sense of humor. But the strangest of all is Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc. The heroine-turned-saint has been depicted in many screen adaptations before, but never in the way Slack Bay director Bruno Dumont has envisioned it: as a heavy-metal musical. The text and the set design remain faithful to the story’s fifteenth-century time period, but Jeanne d’Arc (played by Lise Leplat Prudhomme and later by Jeanne Voisin as the older version) whips her hair to wailing guitars as if she had rebelled against her parents and snuck into a rock show. Meanwhile, her goofy uncle dabs and raps through wartime. It’s weird, wild, and, shockingly, executed with pious earnestness. Though several galaxies removed from Éric Rohmer territory, it achieves an audacity that even the most traditional of cinephiles should find hard to ignore.
‘Rendez-Vous With French Cinema’
Film Society of Lincoln Center