French Rendez-Vous 2018: “The Workshop”

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.

“See You Up There”

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.

Matthieu Lucci (2nd from left) and Marina Fois (4th from right) in “The Workshop”

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.

Director/writer Laurent Cantet at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

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.

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French Rendez-Vous 2017: “The Dancer”

“The Dancer” was a highlight of the latest Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in New York City. The film tells an absorbing story about Loïe Fuller, born Marie Louise Fuller in 1864, who left America to become the toast of La Belle Epoque Paris.

Fuller (Soko) performed in the American West and introduced a unique energetic style of dance with flowing costumes. For a time she stays with her mother (Amanda Plummer), member of a temperance league. When a frustrated Fuller sees her dances being copied by other performers, she travels to France, where her stage efforts can be copyrighted.

Soko (center) in “The Dancer”

“The Dancer” shows in intriguing detail how Fuller developed her unique style of dance. She uses detailed plans, light projectors and spotlights. Poles in her arms cause the sweeping movements of her costumes. Fuller gives amazing performances with colored projections.

In her first film, director Stephanie Di Giusto who co-wrote the screenplay, gives “The Dancer” a vibrant sense of the colorful intensity of La Belle Epoque Paris.

Soko, also a singer-songwriter, gives a performance of fierce determination as Loïe Fuller, conveying her intense dedication in taking her stage performances in new directions. In Paris, Fuller becomes acquainted with a jaded aristocrat (Gaspard Ulliel) and finds a dedicated assistant (Mélanie Thierry). She befriends Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp) who becomes a rival. Lily-Rose is the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis.

Soko in “The Dancer”

Fuller’s driven performances cause her physical strain, particularly from the weight of the poles in her arms. The film builds to an extremely tense climactic stage performance in Paris, as Fuller’s body strives to match her artistic ambitions.

After the film, Stephanie Di Giusto spoke about Loïe Fuller and filmmaking. She said the French Alps stood in for Colorado. The music of Vivaldi was used in the film for “energy and tension”.

Director Stephanie Di Giusto at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Di Giusto described the important way Fuller built her costumes using a secret mathematical formula. She added that for Fuller it was critical how these costumes were cut, as Fuller was secretive, using a different dressmaker for each part. “The Dancer” received the Cesar, the French Oscar, for Best Costumes.

Di Giusto said that Loïe Fuller’s sketches were patented in Paris, she was the first in her field it to establish a copyright to protect her work. Fuller became a friend of artists like Rodin. Fuller was described as multi-talented by Di Giusto – “dancer, choreographer, filmmaker”.

French Rendez-Vous 2017: “Nocturama”

In “Nocturama”, shown at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, a provocative subject of young terrorists in Paris is weakened by generic characterizations and a lack of contemporary context.

Bertrand Bonello at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

The film’s director/writer Bertrand Bonello (“Saint Laurent”) introduced his work. He said the film was inspired by the “crazy” events in France and throughout Europe. Bonello described himself as “obsessed” with the “contemporary period”. He said the script started in 2010-2011, before many recent events, and that “Nocturama” combines “ultra-realim and abstraction.”

“Nocturama”

“Nocturama” begins as a group of young people methodically go through their planned routines to create large-scale destruction throughout Paris, including assassination and explosions in buildings and cars. The famous statue of Joan of Arc burns.

The characters as written are one-dimensional without any insight or much interest. The film doesn’t give any reason for the young terrorists, they include children of immigrants as well as members of the upper class.

“Nocturama”

The terrorists retreat to a large-scale department store and return to typical juvenile behavior. They get caught up in the surrounding luxury goods, trying on designer items and riding electric cars. This sequence is a very obvious statement on consumerism. One young terrorist declares his hidden love for another. As their hideout is discovered, they repetitiously meet their fates, without emotional effect.

French Rendez-Vous 2017: Marion Cotillard in “From the Land of the Moon”

“From the Land of the Moon” (“Mal de Pierres”) was the best selection I saw at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series in New York City. In the film, Marion Cotillard gives a masterful performance as an extremely romantic woman with thwarted longings.

This film is impressively directed by Nicole Garcia who has acted in several films like the classic “Mon Oncle d’Amerique” (1980) and “La Petite Lili” (2003).

Gabrielle (Cotillard) is driving with her husband and son to an event where her son will perform at a piano competition. Gabrielle suddenly recognizes an address their car passes, and suddenly gets out. The film flashes back to a younger Gabrielle In 1950’s rural France.

Marion Cotillard and Àlex Brendemühl in “From the Land of the Moon”

Cotillard gives Gabrielle a passionate intensity, making for a gripping film. Gabrielle remains unfulfilled. Her mother (Brigitte Roüan) says her daughter has her “head in the clouds”. After an improper attraction from Gabrielle, her mother arranges a marriage with José (Àlex Brendemühl), a worker on the family farm. The marriage is described as “bought you off”. Gabrielle looks dazed after the wedding ceremony.

The screenplay, co-written by Garcia, develops sympathy for José as he tries vainly to understand or relate to his wife.

Gabrielle visits Switzerland for a rest cure. She becomes intensely drawn to Lieutenant André Sauvage (Louis Garrrel, “The Dreamers” (2003)), a sensitive veteran also in the sanatorium for care. He plays the piano. Marion’s developing relationship with André brings a fulfillment that has been lacking in her life. Andre will continue to dominate her life. The screenplay takes some unexpected twists.

Marion Cotillard in “From the Land of the Moon”

The photogenic scenery of Switzerland, emphasizes the healing aspects of the location. Director Nicole Garcia effectively builds tension from the raw emotion of Cotillard’s portrayal. Garcia also elicits fine performances from her supporting cast. Garcia’s other films as director have had notable performances. Her “Place Vendôme” (1998) contained one of Catherine Deneuve’s best.

After the film screening, Nicole Garcia discussed “From the Land of the Moon”. She said that the film is a free adaptation of a book by an Italian novelist set in Sardinia. She added that the subject “fit my manner”.

Nicole Garcia at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Garcia described the main character as “a woman who wants what everyone denies her”. She said that Marion Cotillard is “one of the very best”, and the “best” actress for the part, which is “particular to what she does”. She added that Cotillard brings something “unpredictable” to her characterization. Garcia described the casting as a “great actor” in a “great role.” She added that the strongest roles are ”roles that reveal as we go along.”

Garcia added that she wants “characters to be unpredictable” and that as a director, it is “nearly a duty to forget the script and invent something else.”

Garcia said that some people may see the pain Gabrielle puts her husband through, and “may dislike her, I hope not.”

Nicole Garcia at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

Her background as an actor is the “strongest” thing that Garcia believes she brings to directing, to “show actors” aspects of their characters, adding “I don’t tell (them) how to say” the dialog.

When asked to explain the title of her film, Garcia declined, adding that unlike her colleague director Francois Ozon (“Frantz”)  who told her he has approval of foreign titles of his films, she “inherited” the title. She added that a critic told her the landscape in the final scene “looks like the desert, like the moon.”

French Rendez-Vous 2017: “Heal the Living”

The recent Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series again brought a wide range of French films to Lincoln Center in New York City. For extra insight, filmmakers appeared to discuss their work. The series opened with “Django”, a well-acted but rather conventional film about gypsy jazz musician Django Reinhardt and his conflicts with the Nazis.

Reda Kateb as “Django”

The finest films included “From the Land of the Moon” with a superb performance by Marion Cotillard as woman with a romantic obsession, “150 Milligrams”, a fascinating film based on true incidents about a female doctor fighting a large pharmaceutical corporation because of a defective drug, and “The Dancer”, a biography of Loi Fuller who left the American West to become the toast of La Belle Epoque Paris.

Other films ranged from young terrorists in Paris (“Nocturama”), Natalie Portman as part of a touring spiritualism act (“Planetarium”), and a bizarre comedy about attempts to import a French ski resort to the South American jungle (“Struggle for Life”).

Gabin Verdet in “Heal the Living”

“Heal the Living” begins as a teenage Simon (Gabin Verdet) leaves to join his friends on a surfing expedition. Director Katell Quillévéré has shot visually stunning scenes of the young men surfing, capturing their euphoria on the waves. Simon is seriously injured in an accident and the film becomes an emotionally powerful study of unexpected connections that can result from a tragedy.

Emmanuelle Seigner and Kool Shen in “Heal the Living”

The screenplay, co-written by Quillévéré, sensitively depicts the variety of characters joined by Simon’s accident. The film is extremely moving due to uniformly strong performances, particularly from Emmanuelle Seigner (“Venus in Fur”), devastating as the injured man’s anguished mother. There are other compelling portraits by Anne Dorval as a musician with a degenerative disease and Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet”) as a compassionate medical professional working with transplants.

Flashbacks show Simon’s exuberant high spirits, emphasizing his loss.

Quillévéré builds acute tension in showing the steps leading to a heat transplant, climaxing with an unflinching view of the surgery.

Future posts will cover more Rendez-Vous films.

French Rendez-Vous 2016: Award-winning “Fatima” and Louis Garrel’s directorial debut

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema had early screenings of “Fatima” which received the Cesar, the French Academy Award, for Best Film and Best Adapted Screenplay. With its short 79 minute running time, the film is more of an overview than a deep study of its characters. But this film remains a compelling portrait of Fatima, a middle-aged single mother (Soria Zeroual) and her two much more assimilated daughters living in France. The older daughter (Zita Hanrot, Cesar for Most Promising Actress) is a medical student.

Soria Zeroual and Zita Hanrot in "Fatima"

Soria Zeroual and Zita Hanrot in “Fatima”

The not always appreciated mother tries to fit into a different culture, even facing scorn from some Muslim neighbors. The film builds to a poignant conclusion as Fatima frankly expresses her intimate feelings about life in an adopted country.

Louis Garrel (“The Dreamers”) was at Rendez-Vous with his directorial debut, “Two Friends” (“Les Deux Amis”), an engaging if not original film about the conflict between two male friends that develops when one (Vincent Macaigne) becomes attracted to a female convict (Golshifteh Farahani) on work release in a railway station. Garrel plays the worldlier friend. Surprisingly the film was co-written by Garrel and Christophe Honore who directed Garrel in more unique and intense films (“Love Songs”, “Ma Mere”).

Louis Garrel at Rendez-Vous

Louis Garrel at Rendez-Vous

After the screening Garrel called his film a short “Rules of the Game” and added that the menage a trois is a “gold mine” for conflicts. He said the film shows the “transfer of power” between the two friends after the complication of a third party.

French Rendez-Vous 2016: “Disorder” and Diane Kruger

Director Alice Winocour (“Augustine”) and Diane Kruger were in New York for Rendez-Vous with French Cinema to discuss their film “Disorder”. Winocur expertly builds tension through editing and sound in this thriller about Vincent, a former soldier with PTSD, another impressive performance from Matthias Schoenaerts (“A Bigger Splash”).

Matthias Schoenaerts in "Disorder"

Matthias Schoenaerts in “Disorder”

Close-ups of a shaking hand show the lingering trauma of the war in Afghanistan for the former soldier. He is hired as security for a shady Lebanese financier. When the financier leaves for business, Vincent becomes guard for the rich man’s trophy wife (Diane Kruger). Winocur has staged gripping scenes of suspense as the new bodyguard must protect the woman and her family from mounting threats.

Rendez-Vous with Diane Kruger and Alice Winocour

Rendez-Vous with Diane Kruger and Alice Winocour

After the film, Winocour said that she is obsessed with dysfunction. She chose Schoenaerts because his role was “very physical.” She described Kruger’s role as a “perfect trophy wife who liberates herself.” Kruger said her character is married to a “much older” man and “locked in a golden cage…not comfortable.” The film was called an “impossible love story” where Winocour said “he awakens her.”

Diane Kruger, who was born in Germany, said she’s neither American nor French unlike most of her film work. Appearing in large budget films like “Troy” as well as in smaller scale choices, Kruger described herself as “not typecast” which opens doors in her career.

Rendez-Vous with Diane Kruger

Rendez-Vous with Diane Kruger

Director Winocour spoke of using sound and music to “express the violence of war.” She described “Disorder” as having a “dark romanticism” and remaining on the point of view of the paranoid bodyguard to “understand what he understood.” She wanted to bring “heightened senses” to the film where the “real world seems crazy.”