Rendez-Vous With French Cinema 2012 - Critic's Choice

Kurt Brokaw reviews his top choices from the 17th annual showcase of contemporary French film.


Tahar Rahim in Ismael Ferroukhi's "Free Men."
Tahar Rahim in Ismael Ferroukhi's "Free Men."

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Senior film critic Kurt Brokaw is viewing the prescreened main slate of the 2012 Rendez-vous With French Cinema showing March 1-11, at the Walter Reade Theatre, BamCinematex, and IFC Center. His critic’s choices from among 20 films include:

Free Men (Les Hommes Libres)
(Ismael Ferroukhi. 2011. France. 99 min.)

The young Algerian street vendor Younes (Tahar Rahim) selling cigarettes and tea out of a suitcase is wary and uneasy, and he won’t impress you as much of a hustler. But this is Paris during the Nazi occupation of 1942, and the fear in the air is palpable. Younes is a composite of many young working Algerian immigrants who were squeezed into shabby hotels that functioned as cafés, prayer rooms, and employment centers. Many were former farmers caught in a collapsing economy and a metropolis under siege. As the Nazis begin arresting and executing Jews and posting signs that outlaw even Jewish entertainers, Younes is caught in a raid. The police offer an alternative to prison if he spies for them in the Great Mosque of Paris.

This is the setup for Ismael Ferroukhi’s tense, absorbing, and what appears to be a historically accurate rendering of how North African Arabs and Parisian Jews were drawn together into a protective alliance from 1940 through the Paris liberation in 1944. It may be a tiny footnote to history, but that’s what enduring movies often discover and enlarge. The vast, cavernous mosque on Paris’s Left Bank sheltered and hid scores of Jewish men, women, and children in its cellars. Its founder and real-life rector, Si Kaddour Ben Chabrit (1868-1954) is played by the estimable Michael Lonsdale (splendid as a doomed cleric in Of Gods and Men) Ben Chabrit’s essential decency becomes one key factor in converting Younes into an anti-fascist freedom fighter. The other is Younes’ friendship with a second historical figure, Salime Halali (1920-2005, played by the handsome Mahmoud Shalaby), a Jewish Algerian singer acclaimed as the most popular Arabic-language singer in Paris. Halali’s headquarters was Café Maure de la Mosquée, a North African tearoom still in operation today.

In Free Men, director Ferroukhi, who is French but grew up in Morocco, patiently weaves a convincing portrait of Arabs going beyond simply preparing certificates of Muslim identity for Jews. His confident storytelling weaves its way to a suspenseful conclusion, in which the emboldened Younes kills a Nazi as well as an Algerian traitor, and then assists families, including two children, in escaping Paris in a cargo boat. Historian Benjamin Stora, who worked behind the scenes on the 1992 Oscar winning Indochine, estimates that up to a hundred or more Jews were rescued from certain execution by their Muslim friends. The name of Halali’s own father was inscribed on a blank Muslim headstone in a Paris cemetery to fool the Nazis. Ferroukhi’s stated goal is “showing another reality, a world in which Arabs and Jews existed in peace…a reality that is worth remembering.” Free Men honors the Talmudic writing that whoever saves one life, it is as if they saved the world.

Ferroukhi and Rahim will attend Free Men’s openings on Friday March 2nd at 1 pm and Saturday March 3rd at 9:15 pm at the Walter Reade in Lincoln Center, and Sunday March 4th at 4 pm at IFC.

Unforgivable (Impardonnables)
(André Téchiné. 2011. France/Italy. 111 min.)

“They say Venice is a refuge from the evil in the world,” says a character in André Téchiné’s slickly engrossing and urgently paced romantic melodrama. Don’t bet on it. While the initial motivation of the blocked mystery novelist Francis (a bearded, Hemingwayesque André Dussolier) is to find a quiet offshore rental in which to write, he immediately propositions the bisexual Judith (Carole Bouquet), his lithe, competent real estate agent and a former model. They shortly marry and set up housekeeping on the gorgeous, tiny island of Sant’Erasmo, reachable only by motorcraft (which will figure importantly in the unfolding events).

Téchiné quickly introduces the other intersecting characters, all of whom will come under Judith’s quietly alluring presence: Francis’s sultry college-age daughter, Alice (Mélanie Thierry, a perfect casting fit), who disappears for much of the film, ending up in a Lusanne rehab; Alvise (Andrea Pergolesi), a smart-ass slacker and Alice’s lover who traffics in drugs and art forgeries, and will eventually seduce her father’s wife; Anna-Maria (Adriana Asti), Judith’s former lover, now a cancerous alcoholic and former private investigator, who Francis hires to try and find his missing daughter; and Jérémie (Mauro Conte), Anna-Maria’s teen son, fresh out of prison, who gravitates toward the burly Francis but is inexorably drawn to the perfectly turned out Judith.

A typical contemporary Gallic stew? Unquestionably. But Téchiné shoots in exquisite digital CinemaScope images by DP Julien Hirsch (Lady Chatterley) and artfully piles on an insistent music score by Max Richter (Waltz With Bashir). He has Alain Resnais’ ace editor, Hervé de Luze, onboard, and the pace never falters. Téchiné has a master’s touch at keeping his soapy brew churning, and you sense he’ll do anything to avoid boring you, including positing the stylish and inviting Bouquet as a bisexual, which in itself is a refreshing, arresting novelty.

Carole Bouquet deserves closer scrutiny. A model for Chanel in the 80s, she’s now 55 and started her career with Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977, acted a Bond girl opposite Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only, starred with punk rocker Richard Hell in Blank Generation, and graduated to more sophisticated roles in mostly unseen films by Bertrand Blier and Claude Berri. She was Gerard Depardieu’s companion for years, and has been linked to two of the highest names in French government. She has the kind of crisp, efficient but demure presence that Michele Morgan gloriously shone in early French cinema, and that we later admired in Grace Kelly’s roles.

The question is raised in Unforgivable whether Bouquet’s Judith is a femme fatale. Not quite. Rather, she’s a lady with a trace of raw carnality that cuts both ways. And she manages to win your sympathy here with that most human of all character traits: when she’s under pressure, her nose starts to bleed. This may not be why everyone in Unforgivable falls in love with her, but it’s one reason why her character is such an unforgettable original.

Bouquet will appear at the film’s showings on March 7th at 6:30 pm at IFC, and March 8th at 8:45 pm at the Walter Reade.

Untouchable (Intouchables)
(Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano. 2011. France. 112 min.)

If you’d like a lesson in kick-starting your next feature film or short with a scene that will focus-group as well as any Bond movie spectacle, picture this:

A young man, loose-limbed and sharply dressed, is flooring a Maserati along a crowded Paris thruway at night, narrowly missing other cars, while his older, distinguished companion watches his keen driving skills with feverish admiration. When the police finally, frantically blockade the driving lanes and force the driver out at gunpoint, screaming at him and slamming him against the door, he angrily reproaches them, shouting that his companion is suffering a seizure, can’t move without his wheelchair in the trunk, and will die unless he’s taken immediately to an emergency room. The older man is now shown coughing and sputtering in his seat. The police, thrown off guard and hesitant, open the trunk and there’s the wheelchair. So they dutifully accompany the two to a hospital entrance, where the Maserati slowly slinks off into the night, both men laughing at the subterfuge they’ve pulled off. Our attention is riveted. Is this going to be some kind of weird variation of Pulp Fiction meets The Diving Bell and the Butterfly?

The relationship we’ve been introduced to certainly stands as among the oddest in class-conscious French movie history. Philippe (François Cluzet), a multi-millionaire who lives in a splendid townhouse in Saint Germaine des Pres, has hired Driss (Omar Sy), an ex-con layabout from Parisian projects who took the interview mainly to get his next relief check, as his caregiver, driver, and companion. Philippe is a tetraplegic from a paragliding accident, and he hires Driss because he doesn’t want to be pitied, which is the last emotion this robustly aggressive motor mouth will ever extend. What makes their relationship work is that the directors, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, realize from the get-go that their movie has to be as blustery, pushy, swaggering and occasionally as outrageous as their whirling dervish of a hero—and sacre bleu, is it ever. (Is it any wonder Untouchable is being distributed by Harvey Weinstein?)

In scene after scene, Philippe and Driss play off each other like the great comic/straight man teams of screen history. Philippe takes Driss to the opera, and he’s a great annoyance to everyone as he hoots and hollers at the elaborately costumed performers—but Driss follows up by teaching Philippe’s snooty staff that’s steeped in Vivaldi how to move their bodies on the dance floor to Earth, Wind and Fire. When Driss observes Philippe studying and then buying an abstract painting for thousands of dollars, he starts throwing paint onto a canvass—which Philippe ends up selling to an art dealer for 11,000 Euros as the work of an undiscovered genius. Philippe has no feeling in his body south of his neck aside from “phantom pains”—but his ears are erotically chargeable, which Driss hires young ladies to massage and stimulate. The attentive Driss cuts and shapes Philippe’s beard—changing him briefly from the Dustin Hoffman-like character he so closely resembles, into a gallery of devils, convicts, even Hitler. Driss has no fear when he’s one-on-one with anyone who walks into his life—but he’s shaking with fear when Philippe, strapped into a special rig, takes him high up into the sky for a thrilling paragliding exercise.

All of these familiar plot mechanisms—and make no mistake, many are variations on classic routines you’ve enjoyed all your moviegoing life—work, because the energy levels are manic and both performers are welded to their comic personas. Except this time they’re so, well, French, and they’re a million miles from the antics of Fernandel and Jacques Tati. Untouchable has already earned nearly $100 million abroad in its first months of release, which tells you it may well become another Pulp Fiction for the wily and intrepid Weinstein when it opens domestically.

Cluzet and Sy are letter-perfect in their roles. In the film’s closing moments, we briefly catch a mortised glimpse of the real-life Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and his caregiver, Abdel, filmed in Morocco; their lives were documented in the 2003 film, A La Vie, A La Mort, which inspired Untouchable. This is a street-smart, museum-smart movie that richly deserves its Opening Night status.

The directors and François Cluzet will appear Thursday, March 1st at 7:30 pm at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, and Sunday, March 4th at 1 pm at IFC.

17 Girls (17 Filles)
(Delphine Coulin, Muriel Coulin. 2011. France. 90 min.)

June 2008 was the Summer of Love for 17 sophomore girls in a Gloucester, Mass high school. One by one, they formed a blood-oath bond to become pregnant and raise their babies together. While parents, teachers, and the school administration fumed, two school officials resigned to protest the local hospital’s refusal to provide contraceptives without parental consent. This has become the inspired-by-true-events framework that powers Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s deft and knowing look at modern French teenagers, who form exactly the same kind of girl-pact. Their poignant drama immediately joins the premiere handful of recent coming-of-age films focused on young women, including The Evening Dress, Water Lilies, The Holy Girl, She Monkeys, and the transgender drama XXY.

In 17 Girls the initiator and leader of the pact, Camile (Louise Grinberg, an empathetic newcomer who’s a startling blend of a young Lauren Bacall and Charlotte Rampling), sets up the beach party near the Atlantic seawall where many of the couplings occur. Camile’s boyfriend is cute but empty-headed, her divorced mom is a hardworking but mostly absent parent, her stoic older brother is home from combat duty in Afghanistan, the girls mope around a lackluster mall—all the archetypal ingredients are there to form a dispirited, bored, and alienated teen community. As viewers we recognize and acknowledge these semiotic signals because they resonate both from movies we’ve watched and lives we’ve lived. Camile will move into an abandoned trailer on the beachfront while her baby grows and she takes driving lessons from the brother.

This all sounds pretty dreary, but the directors flesh out their movie with realistic and freshly observed scenes of the pregnant teens. A school class photo session with its dozen bulging bellies has a real shock-and-awe feel. A water aerobics class will remind you of the svelte young swim team in Water Lilies, except here the girls’ bellies bob above the water surface, full and distended. Not only do most of the students smoke, but so does the school nurse, who’s on their side. Though 17 Girls is weak in its depictions of how the girls’ parents and teachers can’t and don’t deal with the cultural phenomenon, it shows the resolve of the girls to produce something meaningful in their young lives. “Nobody can stop a girl with dreams,” is the final voice-over sentiment, and the line sits there in its English subtitle like an eternal ode to the joys and agonies of adolescence.

The directors will appear at the Walter Reade on Friday, March 2nd at 9:15 pm, Sunday March 4th at 1 pm, and at IFC on Saturday, March 3rd at 9:30 pm.

38 Witnesses (38 Témoins)
(Lucas Belvaux. 2012. France. 104 min.)

The question looming over this diamond-hard French reworking of the 1964 stabbing death of a bartender, Kitty Genovese, who lived in Kew Gardens, Queens, is whether sleeping New Yorkers—or for that matter, home owners or apartment dwellers anywhere, would in 2012 again ignore the screams of a woman being murdered on the street under their windows.

For over a decade a streetwise ad campaign has conditioned New Yorkers to “say something if you see something.” Created by Allen Kay, a veteran art director and chairman of a Manhattan ad agency, the campaign began traveling nationwide in 2002 to 54 organizations, as well as to Canada and even Australia. Its primary goal has been to thwart terrorism, but clearly it’s played into public consciousness as a heads-up to stay alert 24/7 to whatever’s going on around you. It doesn’t push citizen engagement; its message is to hit 911 on your mobile phone to report an emergency. Whether you experienced 9/11 closeup or far away, it’s a valid question many filmgoers will ponder, and it gives Belvaux’ drama a resonance that is likely to transcend your Genovesean memories.

38 Witnesses has multiple origins, ranging from another Belvaux film, Rapt (2009), about a kidnapped industrialist, to a French novel (Is This How Women Die? by Didier Decoin), to the original 1964 New York Times reportage and book by A.M. Rosenthal. The movie was shot in present-day Le Havre, which is never shown as the charming bygone French village of Aki Kaurismäki’s comedy last season, Le Havre. Belvaux has chosen a non-descript urban area of mid-rises and unremarkable, contemporary shops in which to stage the nighttime murder of a 20-year-old student, and its aftermath.

The apartment of Pierre (Yvan Attal), who plays a harbor pilot, is indifferently furnished and has large picture windows overlooking the empty streets; he’s supposedly asleep and his fiancée Louise (Sophie Quinton), who’s a shipping agent, is traveling when the murder occurs directly across the street. Despite his live-in companion, Pierre is what we’d call a Hard Urban Loner; he’s the kind of neighbor who’ll ignore you getting off the elevator, a man you’ll never have a conversation with. But as 38 Witnesses proceeds, Yvan is the guy who slowly falls apart.

Belvaux’ movie burrows in on this metropolitan everyman, who first lies to Louise that he heard nothing. It appears none of their neighbors heard anything, either—the single mom across the hall is typical in staunchly maintaining she wears earplugs and takes sleeping pills. The viewer suspects everyone is lying, following the Genovese pattern of 1964. When an investigative journalist from Le Havre starts poking around, the tormented Yvan confesses to Louise that he was awakened by many screams, saw the student staggering down an empty street with multiple stab wounds, and did nothing. Then he gives his account to the police, then the journalist, who publishes the whole story. Rocks are thrown through Yvan’s window and “snitch” is painted on his door, as people in the neighborhood go out of their way to punish his whistle blowing. The D.A. doesn’t want to prosecute 38 people for lying, maintaining that 30 percent of the population is on tranquilizers and that another 25 percent of potential witnesses will misinterpret the events. But he reluctantly agrees to stage a re-enactment of the crime, to verify Yvan’s testimony and hopefully prompt more citizens to step forward. The film’s conclusion shows the re-enactment, which is tense and frightening, and produces a number of surprises.

Because it’s set in the present, 38 Witnesses walks a perilously thin line of credibility. But the line holds, thanks to Attal’s severely restrained performance and Belvaux’ thorough command of his actors, camera, music, and production design. The large opening night audience on March 2nd at IFC was quietly attentive and respectful. We never discover who killed the student in this compelling drama, but in a strange and oddly satisfying way, we get to know a number of the killer’s unwitting accomplices.

38 Witnesses will have additional showings Saturday, March 10th at 6:15 pm and Sunday, March 11th at 1:30 pm at the Walter Reade.

The Well Digger’s Daughter (La Fille Du Puisatier)
(Daniel Auteuil. 2011. France. 111 min.)

The film’s producers are requesting only short-form reviews until the picture’s opening this summer, so here’s a Twitter-length analysis for now: Far and away the most pleasurable film in this entire festival, actor Daniel Auteuil’s directorial debut of Pagnol’s pastoral country romance during WWII gift-wrap’s an entire summer vacation of bliss into two hours.

The Well Digger’s Daughter shows Thursday, March 8th at 8 pm at IFC, and Sunday, March 11th at 3:45 pm at the Walter Reade.

This concludes critic’s choices for Rendez-Vous With French Cinema. Coming up will be Brokaw’s picks from 28 New Directors/New Films, showing March 21-April 1.

Editor's Note: Originally published February 28, 2012 with additions on March 1st and 5th.

For more information about the series, visit http://rendezvouswithfrenchcinema.com.