Last month, I had the extraordinary opportunity to travel to an event called Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris. Film journalists from around Europe were in attendance, and the organizers—a government-affiliated organization called Unifrance—decided to invite an American this year. After assuring myself that the whole thing wasn’t an elaborate kidney-stealing scheme, I decided to accept their invitation.
The good part: I spent four very full days interviewing some major names in the French film industry, including cinema icon Isabelle Huppert, rising star Finnegan Oldfield, veteran director Arnaud Desplechin, and Oscar nominee Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who made the marvelous “Mustang.” The bad part: There was hardly any time for leisurely sightseeing—although we did get to visit the Eiffel Tower, which is more than a lot of Parisian residents can say!
The other good part was that I had the opportunity to preview a sizable proportion of the French films currently slated for American release in the next several months. A few of them will be playing in February’s Portland International Film Festival: the charming animated feature “April and the Extraordinary World”; the less charming but intermittently compelling thriller “Disorder” (originally titled “Maryland”); Desplechin’s “My Golden Days,” an oh-so-French prequel to his 1996 film “My Sex Life (or How I Got Into an Argument)”; and, most notably, director Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s eerie, allegorical dark fantasy “Évolution.”
A couple of themes presented themselves as I digested this feast of Gallic cinema. Most impressive was the number of female filmmakers represented. Over the course of the four days of interviews, I spoke to the directors of seven live-action films, six of whom happened, without any special effort on my part, to be women. Whether or not this speaks to an existential difference between the French film business and its gender-diversity-challenged American counterpart is hard to say. But it was a pleasant realization to arrive at towards the end of my visit, especially after speaking with graphic novelist, filmmaker, and iconoclast Marjane Satrapi. She didn’t have a film to promote, but appeared in her capacity as a juror for the online event myfrenchfilmfestival.com.
The films made by these women ran the gamut from hard-edged thriller to lesbian romance to historical drama. Alice Winocour’s “Disorder” is the former, featuring a brooding Matthias Schoenaerts (“Rust and Bone”) as an Afghan War vet hired to protect the wife (Diane Kruger) of a wealthy, possibly corrupt businessman. Catherine Corsini’s “La Belle Saison,” crudely retitled “Summertime” for its upcoming U.S. release, tells a passionate love story set against the tumult of the 1970s. The brutality of World War II is explored in Anne Fontaine’s “Agnus Dei,” as a French Red Cross nurse (Lou de Laâge) comes to the aid of Polish nuns who were subjected to mass sexual assault by Soviet troops.
Another recurring motif, perhaps more apparent and certainly more relevant mere weeks after November’s horrific terrorist attacks, was the continuing cultural dialogue around the assimilation, or lack of it, of France’s Islamic immigrants.
One of the most affecting films was “Les Cowboys,” a loose remake of John Ford’s “The Searchers.” When his teenaged daughter runs away with her Muslim boyfriend, her father (François Damiens) and brother (Finnegan Oldfield) embark on a years-long quest to rescue her that eventually leads to the wilds of Afghanistan and an encounter with an enigmatic American operative played by John C. Reilly.
Damiens’ character is a huge fan of American country music and of Western cowboy culture in general, underlining the debt director Thomas Bidegain owes to Ford’s classic, with Islamists taking the place of Native Americans as The Other. Bidegain is making his directing debut after penning a series of acclaimed screenplays, including “A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone,” and “Dheepan,” the latter of which will screen during PIFF.
Cultural diversity gets a more optimistic treatment in “Les héritiers,” which literally translates as “the heirs,” but has been dubbed “Once in a Lifetime” for English-language audiences. (The French film industry might need a new title translator…) This formulaic but effective classroom drama was written by 22-year-old co-star Ahmed Dramé, who based it on his own experience. A dedicated teacher (Ariane Ascaride, wife and collaborator of socially conscious director Robert Guédiguian) assigns a Holocaust project to a group of ethnically diverse high schoolers, which opens their eyes to its horrors. The movie was a popular hit in France, but is still apparently waiting to be picked up by an American distributor.
It doesn’t have any cowboys, but the American West is also the setting for the most star-studded of the movies I saw. “Valley of Love” brings Huppert and the equally iconic Gerard Depardieu together for the first time in 35 years (raise your hand if you’ve seen Maurice Pialat’s “Loulou”). They play a pair of formerly married actors named Gerard and Isabelle who’ve been summoned to Death Valley by a posthumous note from their adult son, who committed suicide some months earlier. That setup provides plenty of opportunities for the pair to emote with intensity, and Depardieu, especially, continues to fascinate, exposing his voluminous torso and effortlessly commanding the screen.
Not everything on the Rendezvous docket was worth a transatlantic flight, or even an $8 movie ticket. The teen sexcapade drama “The Bang Gang” was only a bit classier than a Larry Clark flick. The unapologetic incest tale “Marguerite & Julien” accomplished in an hour and a half what a single Cersei and Jamie Lannister scene on “Game of Thrones” accomplishes in five minutes. And veteran helmer Benoit Jacquot’s take on “The Diary of a Chambermaid” pales before Luis Bunuel and Jean Renoir’s earlier adaptations of Octave Mirbeau’s decadent 1900 novel.
Still, being selected to preview this curated program of the upcoming output from one of the world’s most vibrant national cinemas was an undeniable treat and one of the more memorable movie-related experiences of my life. With any luck, Portland audiences will be able to check most of these films out as well, despite the challenging state of foreign film distribution in the U.S. And hopefully, it won’t cost you a kidney, either.