by Stephen Holt
When it seems like Hollywood is never going to budge from its male-dominated ways of doing things, from the making of films to the giving out of Oscars, the annual “Rendevous avec French Cinema” which just wrapped its’ 19th edition in NYC, presented many fascinating films by women directors this year. In fact, more than ever before. I counted ten, nearly half of the two dozen films represented! Imagine if the Oscar nomination for Best Director reflected parity of this kind. Incroyable!
And one of the major highlights of this year’s more-popular-than-ever, sold-out “Rendez-vous” was “Action!” a special evening in celebration of International Women’s Day, featuring a screening of the documentary film “Cineast(e)s” which explores the role of women in film from the perspective of 20 acclaimed French women realisateurs. The panelists in the discussion that followed at the Alliance Francaise’s Florence Gould Hall included Justine Triet, Axelle Ropert, Katell Quillevere and Rebecca Zlowtowski.
Other women filmmakers whose films were shown at the “Rendez-vous” were Emmanuelle Bercot, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Nicole Garcia, Sophie Fillieres,Julie Bertucelli and Agnes Jaoui.
Every year the “Rendez-vous” serves to remind us of just how robust, innovative and diversified French cinema is these days. Indeed when I interviewed filmmaker Olivier Nakache for Weinstein Co. blockbuster “The Intouchables” last year, he said that he thinks that French Cinema is now experiencing “a new Golden Age” as he put it, and I think he’s right.
And when you include the Oscar winners Michel Hazanaviscious and Jean DuJardin into the mix, well, French Cinema these days is simply overwhelming. And in all the ways American film is not. What we’re complaining about regarding our films, the French are actually doing, in their films.
My favorite of the “Rendez-vous” this year was indeed by one of their celebrated women directors and it was the documentary “School of Babel” or “Le Cour de Babel”. It feelingly depicts a year in the lives of the incredibly diverse class of Secondary School children in the 10th arrondissement. The Parisian school system boasts a “Reception Class” where immigrant children ages 11 to 15 are taught French in a combustible inner-city setting. The dedication of the teachers to help all these children from all over the globe adjust to life in France and the French language was very moving, even inspiring.
Racial tensions of another kind were explored romantically in Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Grand Central” which was the name of a nuclear power plant in the French countryside. A forbidden romance between an Arab, the terrific young heart throb Tahir Rahim (of “The Prophet”) and a sultry French girl Lea Seydoux (of “Blue is the Warmest Color”), is played out against the setting of the foreboding facility where they both work.The chemistry between these two stars is so hot, you don’t know which is going to explode first, them or the nuclear reactor.
First time director Justine Triet scored mightily with “Age of Panic or “La Bataille de Solferino.” In person, Triet introduced the film jocularly stating “No child was harmed during the making of this film.” Everyone laughed, but then her film showed why she said that. Two crying little baby girls are the fulcrum of this film, who are fought over by the battling, separated parents. Their mother, a frazzled television newscaster, is so afraid of her ex’s attempts to kidnap the children she sends them and their male babysitter into a crowd scene the likes of which I don’t think has ever been captured in a feature film before. And it was a REAL crowd, thousands of Parisians taking to the streets to topple the failed re-election campaign of Prime Minister Nicholas Zarchozy in May 2012.
It seemed like the two small children just never stopped crying and after the end of the film’s presentation Justine Triet took to the stage again to explain that one of the children was hers, and they kept crying a lot. “Why did you show so much crying?” she was asked. And Triet claimed that the toddlers tears evoked stronger emotions from the actors who were playing the parents and their lawyer(who is her real life husband Arthur Haran) and so one of the tots fathers was literally there on the spot and in many of the scenes. And the film’s semi-improvisational tone was continued in the family scenes as well as the mob scenes on the street, which were really frightening and reminiscent of “Les Miserables” crowds. It seemed like all of Paris was crying along with the babies.
Political protest, this time racial, informed the powerful film “The Marchers” (“The Marche”) by second-time Belgian director Nabil Ben Yadir. It addresses another true event in recent French history where 7 radicalized young people of various ethnicities and religions and two older French men marched the length of France from Marseilles to Paris in 1983. This was in protest of a police shooting not unlike that of Trayvon Martin or Oscar Grant where police shot a Magrebi young man in what is seen as an act of racial profiling.
The rousing spirit of “The Marchers” is infectious and optimistic as this non-violent protest tracks the group from the south of France to Paris, overcoming all kind of obstacles, personal, financial, sexual and political thrown in their determined way.When they finally reach Paris and tens of thousands of like-minded people of all ages and races join them, they can’t believe it! It was euphoric.
It is anchored by two very strong performances. One by French-Canadian actress Lubna Azabal of “Incendies”, as the fiery female protester,a Muslim woman who smokes, and who has several stirring speeches about racial equality and human rights, quieting initially hostile throngs with her powerful rhetoric.Her male counter-part is played by the equally charismatic Mohamed (Tewfik Jallab) as the young man who is shot in a racial incident that catapults him into taking action and creating the March.
On the lighter side I enjoyed the comedies “Playing Dead” and “The Gilded Cage.” The former about an out-of-work French actor taking a side-job playing corpses in police re-enactments of murders in the Alps. And the latter telling the story of a Portuguese couple who have been living and working in Paris for 30 years who suddenly come face the fact that they can’t leave their lives in Paris after coming to inherit a winery back home in Portugal. Hilarity ensues.
If only Hollywood could take a clue from the wonderful, diverse, female-centric films of the “Rendez-Vous”!