I was recently surprised by a man sitting next to me on a flight who professed that the only films he allowed himself to see these days were French films. But I probably shouldn't have been: If you're looking for enjoyment, enlightenment or both, the national cinema of France offers the best batting average.
It's no surprise, then, that although French films play year-round at local arthouses and in a variety of Bay Area film festivals, there is still more than enough underseen cinema from the country to fill the seven-day schedule of French Cinema Now (FCN). San Francisco Film Society's annual fall showcase returns with ten features that run a wide thematic and tonal gamut, but have at least one thing in common: All of them are well worth your time.
Last year FCN commenced at Landmark's Clay Theatre with a double bill of comedies sans well-known directors or stars. Even though The French Kissers and The King of Escape were among the most purely pleasurable movie experiences I had in 2009, I did not have to fight lines around the block to get in to see them. The 2010 program (this year screening at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema) may be a different story: It's bookended by films with marquee names.
Probably more than any current director or actor, what actually says “French cinema now” the loudest is Isabelle Huppert. She's been onscreen since the early 1970s, yet only keeps growing more formidable as international star and cultural force as she approaches 60 (still looking extraordinary, of course). Kicking FCN off, Marc Fitoussi's Copacabana finds her exercising comparatively seldom-seen comic chops as Elizabeth, the aging free spirit who's spent decades “bumming around” the globe, dragging an only child with her. Now that the latter (played by Huppert's own daughter Lolita Chammah) is grown, engaged and eager for stability, she views mom as an embarrassment. We, too, are initially put off by Elizabeth's self-absorbed irresponsibility—but several surprising developments later, both she and the film have grown quite winning.
Six nights later, FCN ends with another brilliant and beautiful actress, this time showcased by a famous director making his first narrative feature outside native Iran (where, by the way, this film can't be released because the star's attire is considered immodest). Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy is a challenging, fascinating, sometimes confounding construct sure to stir much viewer discussion.
Juliette Binoche plays a Frenchwoman living in Italy who attends a reading by an English intellectual (opera singer William Shimell making a persuasive non-singing screen debut), then invites him to spend the day touring Tuscany. As their sometimes prickly conversation drifts freely from French to English to Italian, she encourages strangers to think he's her husband of 15 years and indeed sometimes acts like a disgruntled spouse. But after a while we begin to wonder: Are these two really strangers? Are they perhaps a real couple after all? Unafraid of long talk and longer shots, Kiarostami's typically detached yet provocative work can shift from comedy to pained dramatics in a mercurial moment's space, helped immeasurably by the performers' unwavering commitment to emotional truth.
FCN's midsection holds many of its most engrossing and accomplished works. More serious takes on Copacabana's theme of parent-child disconnection are Julie Lopes-Curval's Hidden Diary and Éléonore Faucher's Sisters. The first stars Lady Chatterley's Marina Hands as a young woman who's flown from Toronto to visit a mother (Catherine Deneuve at her chilliest) who has seldom offered her anything but distemper and criticism. When a grandmother's journal is discovered, it re-opens old wounds and ultimately, poignantly explains how two subsequent lifetimes of frozen emotions came to be.
Sisters, based on thesp Sylvie Testud's autobiographical novel, cuts between the formative years of three little girls irresistibly curious about the absent father their mother won't discuss—and the women they become, grownups whose wildly belated reunion with that mysterious figure likewise ends the film on a complexly moving note.
Growing up in discordant family circumstances isn't easy either for the teenaged heroine of Katell Quillévéré's Love Like Poison, which is very much in the French cinema coming-of-age tradition but is no mere retread. Awaiting her confirmation, Anna (Clara Augarde) juggles budding sexuality with Catholic guilt, even as her parents edge toward divorce and her mom fixates on the sexy local priest.
Also growing up fast, albeit a few centuries earlier, is The Princess of Montpensie—a 16th-century French noble (Melanie Thierry) married very young to aristocratic heir of great wealth and property. He almost immediately sets off to war, however, leaving her alone and vulnerable, particularly to the myriad suitors who seem forever to be throwing themselves at her neglected body. Lambert Wilson is touching as the older soldier who comes to love her, yet is the one man moral enough to resist compromising her. If you've been jonesing for the kind of lush arthouse costume epic that feels like a big fat classic novel, this latest by 70-year-old Gallic master Bertrand Tavernier will scratch that itch for 138 satisfyingly tragic-romantic minutes.
Two other features edge toward thriller territory. Actor-turned-director Lucas Belvaux's Rapt follows a corporate CEO as he's kidnapped for ransom, a situation further complicated by his company's blunt bottom-line concerns as well as scandalous media revelations (re: gambling, mistresses, etc.) that mortify his anxious family. Rapt's biggest surprises actually come after the crime aspects run their course, in a long last act arguably even more chilling than those earlier perils. Sarah Leonor's A Real Life stars the late, charismatically frail Guillaume Depardieu as a petty hood who goes on the lam from police. He brings alone the schoolteacher (Florence Loirette-Callet) he's been shagging—and she's rather enchanted by this unplanned drastic detour from boring everyday life. Starting out somber, Sarah Leonor's film turns giddy, then finally haunting.
French Cinema Now always seems to have at least one slot dedicated to Gallic cinema's past. This year there are two: Alain Cavalier's Irene is an essayistic feature in which the octogenarian director (who's worked with Deneuve, Delon, Michel Piccoli and others) mulls his past both personal and professional, while coping with the infirmities of age.
Emmanuel Laurent's Two in the Wave documents the early years of the New Wave's most famous enfants terribles, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. Meeting as teen film fanatics, becoming esteemed Cahiers du Cinema critics then celebrated first-feature directors (via The 400 Blows and Breathless, respectively), the duo were longtime friends and sometime collaborators—until a bitter rift in the early ’70s turned them into enemies. (Responding to malicious letters, Truffaut bluntly accused politically high-minded Godard of being a privileged hypocrite, saying, “You act like a shit,” for good measure.) Wave ends with a segment showcasing their shared use of favored actor Jean-Pierre Leaud. That delightful passage is by itself worth the price of admission.