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NYC offers rendez-vous with french cinema

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Just in case anyone in the NYC area is interested:


Reality and Charm in a Feast for Cineastes



When the C?sar awards (the French Oscars) are presented Friday night at the Th??tre du Ch?telet in Paris, “Mesrine” and “S?raphine,” two films going head to head with 19 nominations between them, will represent the visceral and cerebral extremes of Gallic cinema. The good news for American audiences is that both contenders — the two-part, four-hour gangster epic “Mesrine,” which has 10 nominations, and “S?raphine,” a portrait of the early-20th-century painter S?raphine de Senlis, with 9 — are included in the 14th edition of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous With French Cinema series, which begins next week.


Screenings of the series’s 18 films (if you count Parts 1 and 2 of “Mesrine” as two selections, since they will be released separately this summer) begin Thursday at Alice Tully Hall with the nostalgic period piece “Paris 36.” A self-conscious homage to the Depression-era French music hall, made with traditional sets and costumes, Christophe Barratier’s film swirls 1930s politics (both left and right wing) with song and dance into a cinematic bouillabaisse that doesn’t taste quite right. Let’s just say that the movie, which wants to be an answer to Marcel Carn?’s 1945 classic, “Children of Paradise,” but comes across more as a Parisian “Mrs. Henderson Presents,” lards in the sentimentality as only the French can.


The happy news about the 2009 series, whose remaining screenings take place at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center, is that overall it is the best in years: a heartening development after a precipitous falloff last year. In addition to “Mesrine” and “S?raphine,” it includes major new films by Claire Denis (“35 Shots of Rum”), Agn?s Varda (“The Beaches of Agn?s”) and Beno?t Jacquot (“Villa Amalia”) and a diabolically witty homage to the mystery writer Georges Simenon by Claude Chabrol (“Bellamy”) in which G?rard Depardieu plays a Maigret-like police investigator. Mr. Chabrol’s first movie with Mr. Depardieu, “Bellamy” also marks his 50th year as a director


“Mesrine” stars Vincent Cassel, the French Robert Mitchum (without Mitchum’s bass-baritone growl), as Jacques Mesrine, a Jesse James figure who was shot down by police in 1979 following a prolonged bank-robbing rampage. After fighting in the Algerian war, Mesrine, nicknamed “the man of a thousand faces” because of his facility for disguises, reinvented himself as a glamorous outlaw and captured the public imagination with a series of prison escapes worthy of Houdini, or Steve McQueen, until his Clyde Barrow-like fall in a hail of bullets with a beautiful woman at his side.


The first part of the movie follows Mesrine’s ascendance, with the help of a sinister “Godfather”-like mentor played by Mr. Depardieu, into an international crook who is incarcerated and brutally tortured in a Canadian prison.


Part 2 examines the gangster-as-star phase of his career, in which Mesrine, relishing his designation as public enemy No. 1, fancied himself invincible and demonstrated an egomania to rival Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in “Scarface” (but without the cocaine).


The movie, based partly on Mesrine’s autobiography “L’Instinct de Mort” (“Death Instinct”) and directed by Jean-Fran?ois Richet, quotes from so many of its American-made forerunners, especially “Bonnie and Clyde,” that it is a virtual compendium of gangster-movie allusions. But they are woven so confidently into a popular epic built around a charismatic star performance that even the most obvious references don’t seem bothersome.


“S?raphine,” also a biography, follows the life of S?raphine Louis, better known as S?raphine de Senlis, an untutored French painter of primitive floral canvases who was discovered and nurtured by Wilhelm Uhde, a German art collector for whom she worked as a housekeeper in Senlis, outside Paris. Directed by Martin Provost, the movie stars Yolande Moreau, an actress for whom there is no American equivalent. Ms. Moreau, who turns 56 on Friday, is a Belgian mime and comedian whose indelible performance in “When the Sea Rises” in 2004 won her a C?sar for best actress; she is nominated again this year.


Like many serious clowns Ms. Moreau invests the tragedy and humor of the human condition with a spiritual luminosity. The elements of S?raphine’s character are indivisible: she is a devout Catholic, ardent pantheist (she literally hugs trees), artistic genius and insane megalomaniac whose groveling humility conceals a streak of psychotic willfulness. Her belated rise was interrupted when the outbreak of World War I forced Mr. Uhde to flee France, and, after his return, by the withering of the art market in the Great Depression. She died in an insane asylum in 1942.


In Mr. Jacquot’s “Villa Amalia,” the great Isabelle Huppert turns in a star performance to match any by Jeanne Moreau, playing a classical pianist and composer who abandons her unfaithful partner, her career and her homeland to disappear to the hills of Ischia, an island off Naples, where she takes up residence in an abandoned house. Enigmatic, fascinating, alternately bitter and defiant, she commands the screen at every moment.


The Denis, Varda and Jacquot films have a spellbinding visual beauty that reminds you of the transporting power of pure cinema, in which images alone convey the ineffable. Ms. Denis’s “35 Shots of Rum,” made with her regular cinematographer, Agn?s Godard, is a movie of few words and little psychology that relies mostly on the physical vocabulary of faces and bodies to convey feelings too complex to be verbalized. The main characters are a middle-aged Parisian train driver (Alex Descas) and his daughter (Mati Diop), with whom he lives, and their circle of neighbors and co-workers, most of whom are of African descent. The Parisian landscape of railroad tracks and trains rumbling at all hours of the day and night is poetically photographed, as if to illustrate the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


“The Beaches of Agn?s,” Ms. Varda’s autobiographical scrapbook shot in high-definition video, commemorates her 80th birthday (last May). It attests to the undiminished creativity of a woman who has led a charmed life surrounded by art and artists, including Jacques Demy, her husband and sometime collaborator who died of AIDS in 1990. A sequel of sorts to her autobiographical documentary “The Gleaners and I,” the film is built around her memories of seaside locations that shaped her sensibility, especially the town of S?te on France’s southern coast, the site of her first feature, “La Pointe Courte.” An attitude of surreal playfulness informs the visuals as Ms. Varda recalls her life in a matter-of-fact tone, offering up random memories, which she compares to flies buzzing around her head.


This year’s Rendez-Vous series also pays more attention than usual to the ethnic tensions in a country coping with the strains of immigration. The Costa-Gravas film “Eden Is West” follows the misadventures of Elias (Riccardo Scamarcio), a handsome young illegal immigrant from an unidentified country (he speaks an invented language for the movie) who dives off a freighter and is washed up on the nude beach of a fancy seaside resort.


As he makes his way to Paris, hitchhiking and stealing food, clothing and money when he must, he is abused, exploited and sometimes helped by a cross-section of French society and of legal visitors. Almost everywhere he goes, the police seem to scent his illegal status and give chase. The gripping film gives you a double vision; it puts you in the shoes of a fugitive outsider chasing a dream that is thwarted at every turn, and forces you to imagine your own reaction when faced with such desperation.


French social problems are addressed directly in Fran?ois Dupeyron’s mordant low-budget comedy “With a Little Help From Myself,” set in a public housing project in which all the usual urban problems are epidemic. Similar tensions are touched on obliquely in Andr? T?chin?’s factually inspired “Girl on the Train,” in which a young woman, dumped by her drug-dealing boyfriend, sets off a national uproar by cutting her face, painting swastikas on her body and claiming to have been assaulted by anti-Semitic skinheads. (She is not Jewish.) Mr. T?chin? shows his special empathy for the ways youthful impatience can trigger impulsively self-destructive behavior.


Pierre Schoeller’s “Versailles,” whose star, Guillaume Depardieu (son of G?rard), is nominated for a C?sar, explores the lives of homeless scavengers who live on the outskirts of Versailles and resist socialization. It is one of two Rendez-Vous films to feature Guillaume Depardieu, who died in October at 37 after a history of drug problems. He has a smaller role in “Stella,” Sylvie Verheyde’s wonderfully observed portrait of a restless, observant 11-year-old girl (L?ora Barbara) struggling to stay in school while witnessing the marital implosion of her parents, who own a working-class Parisian cafe.


The series makes a detour into farm country in Samuel Collardey’s austere film “The Apprentice,” which observes a 15-year-old boy’s agricultural education as an apprentice on a dairy farm. Rigorous and unsentimental, this semi-documentary might be described as a rural answer to Laurent Cantet’s recent film “The Class.”


The series includes the usual quotient of sophisticated Gallic froth. In Anne Fontaine’s mildly kinky sex comedy, “The Girl From Monaco,” a promiscuous television airhead campaigns to snare an older, uptight lawyer whose loyal bodyguard tries to protect his employer. The garrulous comedy “Change of Plans,” directed by Dani?le Thompson (“Avenue Montaigne”), imagines the urban bourgeois dinner party from hell.


Rife with nudity and titillation, Ilan Duran Cohen’s comedy “The Joy of Singing” focuses on terrorists (uranium smugglers) and spies, many comically afflicted with sexual dysfunction and obsessive fears of aging, who converge in the salon of a voice teacher. Sexual obsession also fuels the series’s most problematic movie, “The Other One,” directed by Patrick Mario Bernard and Pierre Trividic, a portrait of female jealousy run amok in which Dominique Blanc plays a toxic control freak with Bette Davis eyes.


Take it as high praise that there is not a single film in this year’s series that is a must to avoid.


Rendez-Vous With French Cinema opens Thursday with “Paris 36” at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, and continues through March 15 at the Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th Street, Lincoln Center, (212) 875-5600, filmlinc.com; and the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village, (212) 924-7771, ifccenter.com.

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