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Great Performances by Great Actresses Dominate Rendez-vous with French Cinema 2012

by Stephen Holt

The tres magnifique Rendez-vous with French Cinema is wrapping up its’ 18th season in New York City, and it’s presence is always delightful, always missed when it’s over, and always looked forward to year after year. Film after film after glorious film, premieres and classiques for nearly two weeks, the Rendez-vous always clearly marks the end of the Oscar season, and lets us all know that spring is coming, and that many, many new marvelous films are on the way to an art house near you. This year it was held at more locations around the city than ever. Lincoln Center, the IFC center and the Paris theater in Manhattan and BAM in Brooklyn.


It also is refreshing in its’ emphasis on great actresses in great roles in great films new and old.

Towering over everything this year was the one-two punch of seeing the two French Cinema icons, Audrey Tautou and Emmanuelle Riva, BOTH essaying the same classical, disturbed French heroine “Therese Desqueyroux” in two terrific film versions of the legendary Francois Mauriac novel of French provincial life in 1927 .

Which was better? It’s impossible to say. Both deserve to be seen by audiences world-wide.

This year’s Oscar nominee for Best Actress for “L’Amour,” a very young Emmanuelle Riva is a revelation in the Black and White 1962 George Franju version, which was also scripted by Francois Mauriac himself.

“Therese Desqueyroux” is the startling story of a wife, who is slowly poisoning her husband. Riva’s Therese is so proper, so delicate, so beautiful and so rich, it seems impossible for her to have taken that step to the dark side. But take it she does, and you’re with her every step of the way as her husband Phillipe Noiret is simply boring and controlling her to death. Riva is simplicity itself as her wide, fawn-like eyes show her plumbing the depths of this tortured, timid woman’s soul as she tries to break free from her imprisonment of a marriage.

Audrey Tautou’s “Therese” is anything but timid, more like overwhelming. Darker and more of a spitfire, you can understand her Chekovian frustration with the life of a haute boigeoise house wife trapped in the countryside, in color, this time, and set in the 1920s. The late great filmmaker Claude Miller’s last film is sumptuous and horrifying, and Tautou makes her Therese much more twisted and frightening than the more empathetic Riva’s. Riva makes the arsenical overdosages of her husband’s medicine(it was thought a cure for heart disease in those days) seem like a dire mistake, while Tautou suggest a psycopathology much darker. But it is to these great actresses credit that you are sympathetic to their murderous actions in both films.

This is one of Tautou’s greatest performances in a career of iconic roles. Opening later this spring, her half-mad, terrific Therese will be talked about a lot, especially if the American roles for actresses continue to be a skimpy as they were this past year.

This year the French roles were so good we nearly had TWO French Best Actress nominees acting in their own language! That would be Marion Cotillard’s fierce “Rust and Bone,” in addition to Riva’s tour-de-force as the dying Ann in “Amour.” Cotillard was an Oscar also-ran, but she almost made it into the winner’s circle. And Riva, of course, was nominated.

And then there’s Jeanne Moreau, who has also never won an Oscar (like Tautou, like Riva)who is an astonishing Estonian octogenarian, in “A Lady in Paris”. I like the French title “Une Estonienne a Paris” better. Moreau is Ann,an elderly, lonely, wealthy Estonian immigrant whose much-younger former lover Patrick Pineau hires a housekeeper and care-taker(a marvelously dour Laine Magi) for the partiially bed-ridden women and to keep what is basically a suicide-watch on Moreau as she is constantly trying to kill herself. Her raspy, whisky voice and her take-no-prisoners demeanor makes Moreau’s Ann a Bette Davis-like dragon to end all dragons, and unbelievably Moreau’s complex, bravura performance, is also a quite a comedic.

The great gay director Francois Ozon is back once again and he, too, furnishes great roles for Emmanuelle Seigner and Kristin Scott Thomas in his neo-noir thriller “In the House” or “Dans La Masion.” The convention of the film is “Rear Window”-like, except this time the voyeurism takes the form of a shy high school literature teacher(Fabrice Luchini) getting excited about a student’s literary gifts as a short story writer, as the boy,Claude ( a terrific Ernest Umhauer), makes friends with a fellow student whose beauteous mother (Seigner) he secretly covets. Claude then writes about them brilliantly in diary/short story form as class assignments that his teacher is astonished to read. And Luchini becomes increasingly captivated by these intimate vignettes of how his prized pupil Claude slowly, but successfully insinuates himself into Seigner’s household and family. Scott Thomas plays the equally befuddled and bemused and ultimately endangered wife of the teacher, a gallery owner specializing in Erotic Art. I ask you, where are similar roles in American films for actresses? It’s no wonder the wonderful Scott Thomas lives and works mostly in Paris. The roles are THERE.

The Rendez-vous also presents us with such divertisements as “Jappleloup” as rousing, humdigger of a horse story, written by and starring French heartthrob Guillaume Canet. It is the true story of French Olympic Gold Medal Winner for equestrian jumping and Canet is gripping as the trainer/jockey who appears to be doing all the stunts and jumping himself!

Not to be outdone is French Animation, who bring us the darkly, daffy, 3-D, cartoon musical, “The Suicide Shop” (“Le Magasin des Suicides”). The city(presumably Paris) is grey and green and the sky is black with citizens jumping out of windows and pigeons just choosing to fall off wires to their sudden deaths. The antidote to all this urban darkness is the brightly lit and inviting “Suicide Shop,” where the ebullient proprietors can’t do enough to supply their lonely and depressed customers a quick fix with their various “end-of-life” services. Business is booming for the never-depressed proprietors,Monsier Mishima and Madame Tuvache, when a monkey wrench is thrown into their morbid works, with the birth of an irrepressibly happy child, Alan. Hilarity and many wacky, wonderful musical numbers ensue. Master filmmaker Patrice Leconte concocts this happy witches’ brew of a movie. It has the honor of also being the first 3D film that the Rendez-vous has ever shown

And last but not least, the Rendez-vous almost always highlights the greats of French cinema history and it’s a rich one. This year they were saluting the great auteur Jean Renoir with a selection of his films. The rarely seen color film in English, the 1951″The River” set on the Ganges in a newly restored version.

Arguably his greatest work and one of the greatest works of world cinema “Rules of the Game”(1939) was filmed during the Nazi occupation of France during WWII, “La Regle du Jeu” had to avoid all criticism of the Third Reich, so Renoir turned his attention to the frivolous affairs being conducted by all manner of classes at a chateau in the French countryside. Their mindless extra-marital carryings-on and extravagant costume balls are then contrasted in unforgettable fashion by the brutal rabbit hunt they go on mindlessly killing animal after animal. Reading between the lines, it can indeed be seen as a subtle, scathing indictment of the Vichy society of the time, who turned their backs on the slaughter of millions of Jews.

Renoir’s father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the great Impressionist painter as well as the young Jean Renoir himself are depicted in a new film “Renoir” about the father’s final years and the young and future filmmaker son exploits as a returning wounded veteran of WWI.

Again beautifully shot in color on the Cote d’Azur, that Renoir Pere painted so memorably, it delves into the rather unpleasant habit the 72 year old arthritic Renoir (Michel Bouquet) had of hiring beautiful young country girls, who he eventually persuaded into posing nude then painted and painted many, many pictures of them before tiring of them and turning them into maids and cooks and housekeepers in his household packed with women, all of them former models.

A spirited Dede(a fetching and feisty Christa Theret) breaks this mold by falling in love with the wounded younger son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers). She then is seen here as the one who encourages his love of film and becomes the muse and star of Jean’s early films, and eventually marrying him.

With such a wide variety of excellent, diverse films, it is no wonder the Rendez-vous with French Cinema is such a popular annual mainstay of film culture in NYC.