The recent Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival at Lincoln Center in New York City showed a wide range of recent French films, including several nominees and recipients of the César, the French Oscar.
My top film was “See You Up There” (“Au Revoir La-Haut”), terrific storytelling, which received the César for Best Director and several Césars for its expansive recreation of a harrowing WWI battlefield and the vibrant post-War Paris. Two veterans, one portrayed by director Albert Dupontel, and another disfigured during the War concoct an elaborate scam taking advantage of memories of the war. More on this and other films in future blogs.
The most audacious, if not the most successful, selection was “Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc”. Director Bruno Dumont, known for raw realism, combines the childhood of the 15-century female warrior with heavy metal music.
Several films had a contemporary resonance. “The Workshop” (“L’atelier”) was a fascinating and tense thriller directed and co-written by Laurent Cantet who received the top prize at Cannes for “The Class” (2008). With thought-provoking results, a writing workshop in a distressed area exposes the divisions between students and the instructor Olivia (César nominee Marina Fois), a novelist.
The setting is La Ciotat, a once prosperous shipping town, now with high unemployment, where the main jobs are servicing yachts of wealthy owners. The assignment for her teenage students is a murder mystery set in their home town.
Other students are frightened by the violence expressed in the early writing submission from Antoine (Matthieu Lucci) who is seen playing violent computer games and listening to the tirades of right-wing politicians. Arguments break out between Antoine and his fellow students and prejudices are exposed The instructor considers Antoine‘s writing a promising first draft. The riveting “Workshop” dramatizes how decay incites prejudices.
Antoine’s endless provocation is described as exhausting. As more and more of Antoine’s thoughts are revealed, Olivia becomes increasingly frightened from potential threats of violence. “I scare you”, Antoine says. Cantet skillfully builds tension between student and teacher.
After the film, Laurent Cantet participated in an intriguing discussion.
He said that after finishing “Human Resources” (1999), he had a desire to explore working class culture further. Since the Charlie Hebdo killings, he wanted to make a film on what is like to be 20 in France today. In regard to his character of Antoine, Cantet said “Boredom is killing him”. He added that Antoine has a “thirst for violence” with the border between real life and literary fiction blurred.
He described a long casting process where finding the right young personalities could take up to six months. Cantet’s daughter was involved in the casting. Matthieu Lucci who plays Antoine was found the first day.
Cantet co-wrote a precise script with dialog as literary as possible. He checked the script with people closer in age to the characters to make certain his writing was not off-track. In rehearsal, days were spent talking about film, lives and issues which turned into new improvisation scenes, to verify “The Workshop” was not an “old fool’s view of what’s going on.”
Cantet said he wanted to explore how boredom can become fertile ground for extremism to gain a foothold, attracting the extreme right and jihadism.