Mia Hansen-Løve's 'Goodbye First Love' brings a less breezy approach to French Cinema Now than other of the francophone titles.

Under the Spell of French Cinema Now

Dennis Harvey October 25, 2011

Love permeates SFFS's francophone film series.

Late October leaves many of us in the Bay Area feeling strangely summery and concomitantly romantic. Whether or not it’s a result of our annual fog lift, an atmosphere of amour is to be savored whenever it occurs. And any romantic inclinations you may be having in this spell of warm weather could be well served with or without a date by dropping in on French Cinema Now, the San Francisco Film Society showcase for new French-language cinema. Its fourth edition, opening at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema October 27 for convenient hand-holding walks along the bay before or after your movie, continues on at SF Film Society | New People Cinema through November 2.

Naturellement, opening night provides a big dose of love action—though these two films directed by women also happen to share scrutiny of the disorder that happens when the masculine half of a heterosexual pair-off experiences commitment jitters. Katia Lewcowicz's Bachelor Days Are Over finds pleasant, pliant Arnaud (Benjamin Biolay, best known in France as a singer-songwriter) turning unusually evasive as his wedding to longtime girlfriend Anna (Valerie Donzelli) nears. He's not just resisting various pressures from high-maintenance friends, his temperamental sister (Emmanuelle Devos) and mother (Nicole Garcia), he's also experiencing the major inconvenience of perhaps having just met the woman (another woman?) of his dreams in the form of one-night-stand Lea (Sarah Adler).

After these Days are over, you can repair to FFN's opening night party, or see the night's second feature Goodbye First Love, a less breezy take on romantic conflict. The latest by Mia Hansen-Løve of the excellent Father of My Children has Lola Creton from Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard as Camille, a precocious teen who's been very sure of her love for Sullivan (Sebastian Urzendowsky) since they were both 15. But life goes on at warp speed, during those crucial child-to-adult years and this boy is as clear about needing to travel and grow as the girl is about wanting things to stay the same. Spanning nearly a decade's course, Goodbye sports that distinct French knack for casual observation that reveals the minute impulses of fickle hearts.

Friday's program starts out light as a souflee with Piertre Salvatore's Beautiful Lies, in which Audrey Tatsou—still pixie-ish at 35—plays a hair salon owner in denial of the adoration vibes sent her way by incongruously hyper-educated handyman Jean (Days of Glory's Sami Bouajila, charming in a rare romantic-comedy role), whom she attempts pawning off on her own lovelorn mother (Nathalie Baye).

After that, however, the day moves into thornier territory with portraits of what's often the most complicated of loves, that between a parent (or parent figure) and child. In Delphine Gleize's The Moon Child, a teenager (Quentin Challal) whose whole life has been defined by a rare medical condition must adjust to the imminent departure of the doctor (Vincent Lindon, who played the working class father drawn into a passionate affair with Mademoiselle Chambon) who's overseen both his physical and mental health since infancy.

Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner The Kid with a Bike is about a younger boy (Thomas Doret) who refuses to believe he's simply been abandoned by his deadbeat dad (Jeremie Renier). This being a drama by the Belgian Dardenne Brothers, who first wrested international attention with La Promesse (in which Renier played the juvenile wrenchingly underserved by a father), you can bet such cruelties do indeed befall children, alhough the presence of Cecile De France as a benefactress makes Bike less of a tragic ride than the directors' resume might suggest.

Martin Prevost reunites with the indelible star of 2008's Seraphine for The Long Falling, in which Yolande Moreau plays a dowdy rural housewife whose drunken brute of a husband has driven away their only child and regularly batters her. When he commits an accidental DUI killing, she takes revenge, seemingly without consequence. But their broken familial past makes a reunion with now-grown gay son Thomas (Pierre Moure) less than smooth, and moving to Brussels doesn't stop the police back home from starting to suspect Rose knows more about her spouse's death than she's let on. As the story slowly drifts toward fugitive suspense, Edith Scob (Eyes Without a Face) turns up as an elderly matron eager to help out a heroine on the lam.

The remaining five French Cinema Now features run the gamut from contemporary political intrigue (Pierre Schoeller's The Minister) to 17th-century aristocratic intrigue—the latter, however, transposed to a handsome Parisian hotel of today in The Screen Illusion, a modern-looking, antique-sounding (i.e., metered rhymes) adaptation of a Corneille play by Mathieu Amalric (of this spring's SF International closer On Tour). In contrast to that last talky delight, there are the fleshy pleasures of Antony Cordier's Four Lovers, in which two married couples (Marina Fois, Roschdy Zem, Elodie Bouchez, Nicolas Duvauchelle) experiment with swinging.

That is not a direction likely to be hazarded by the stability-seeking protagonists of FCN's final two 2011 offerings. Alix Delaporte's Angele and Tony has Clothilde Hesme as the erroneously named titular woman, a sexy but off-puttingly hardboiled ex-con, thief and absentee mother trying to start afresh in the unlikely company of personal-ad respondee Tony (Gregory Gadebois), a portly fisherman with few illusions about his qualifications as Prince Charming.

Perhaps decades later this odd couple might turn into Marcel (Andre Wilms) and Arletty (Kati Outinen), poor but happy residents of another port town. In Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's second French-language feature Le Havre (the first was La vie de boheme a decade ago, also starring Wilms), their long marriage is threatened by her possible terminal illness—but during her hospital absence Marcel (and in fact their whole neighborhood) finds ample distraction in helping an illegal African emigre boy (Blondin Miguel) elude immigration authorities and reunite with his family. Full of fond allusions to French cinematic history as well as the director's trademark sourpuss humor, this nonetheless unusually sunny Kaurismaki joint ends French Cinema Now's current edition on a note celebrating the positive power of community.