Un petit rendez-vous
A little over a year ago, I arrived in New York for a friend’s wedding, after which I was to spend a week at my office’s New York branch. As with any trip to New York, I had planned a week of theatre, film, and museums to fill the evenings and weekends. The first item on the docket was to be at the annual Rendez-vous with French Cinema festival, programmed by and hosted at Film at Lincoln Center – it would include a Q&A with Juliette Binoche, my favorite contemporary actor. The New York trip was off to a good start.
But at the last minute, Binoche couldn’t make it – travel advisories in Europe surrounding the COVID-19 virus made the trip impossible for her. I cancelled my ticket and saw a Broadway show instead, with a little regret at not getting to see Binoche in person, but mostly, as many Americans did at the time, brushing off what only five days later would become our all-consuming crisis. I did finally make it to one Rendez-vous event, to see Rebecca Zlotowski’s lovely An Easy Girl, the very last screening Lincoln Center hosted before shutting down, on March 12th. It was, to date, the last movie I’ve seen in a theater.
That makes it a little surreal to see Rendez-vous with French cinema re-emerge once again, if indeed more than a little pleasant to be able to “attend” the festival from Los Angeles. Like most once-local film programs over the past year, Rendez-vous is entirely online, with each of the selections available for a limited time. I hardly went all-in on the experience, but I did check out three interesting films worth reporting on – additionally, I can note, having seen it at another virtual festival last year, that François Ozon’s Summer of ‘85 is the best thing he’s done in at least a decade and could easily land in my top ten this year. But I digress…
I started off with Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, her film debut as writer, director, and actress. Only 20, she may be the youngest feature filmmaker whose work I’ve seen (apologies to the children of the world whose works I don’t know), and it will not surprise anyone to learn she has a familial connection to the industry – her parents are actors Vincent Lindon and Sadrine Kiberlain (not exactly households names even on the art house circuit, but each quite prolific). One should not, however, judge the young for taking advantage of the conveniences life has afforded them; our only interest, as an audience, is what they accomplish with those conveniences. And Lindon, to my eyes, has accomplished quite a bit.
She plays a character also named Suzanne, who, at 16, seems content in high school, if unfulfilled. Her social circle, wide but not deep, consists of acquaintances who are always happy to see her, to whom she has little to say (or they in return). Like most Parisians, she walks where she needs to go, and a few days in a row, she notices a handsome thirtysomething actor (Arnaud Valois) hanging out around a small theatre, running lines or repairing his scooter or passing time at the cafe. Eventually she works up the courage to more actively catch his attention, and maybe because he’s restless with the play or he’s lonely or maybe he is just a flat-out creep, he reciprocates and intensifies that interest.
And maybe because it’s French or maybe because Lindon just has the good taste to not overextend herself, that’s about all there is to it. The actor maybe crosses some lines, and Suzanne maybe gets a little out of her depth, but nobody’s life will be ruined by this. It’s a brief, fleeting moment between two people, a stopover on their way to something else. Lindon punctuates the drama with an occasional dance flourish, some simple movements when their emotional engagement reaches a height where any kind of literal physical or verbal expression would be inappropriate, but is too intense to leave merely in silence. Not that the silences themselves are uninteresting – Lindon is not at all overextending her talents by casting herself. She still has ready access to all the awkwardness of adolescence, and all the scenes between her and her parents (Frédéric Pierrot and Florence Viala) underscore just how unbelievably strange teenagers are. Suzanne is always asking them questions that seem to come out of nowhere or darting off places or offering stray-but-earnest compliments, yet she has a sort of upbeat energy that all her parents can do is shrug and recognize she doesn’t seem to really be getting into trouble and hope it all works out.
The eventual heartbreak she must experience as a teenager with a crush on a much older man is well-handled as well, and while the ending may immediately come off as abrupt, so too does any minor episode in one’s life – especially as a teenager – just end suddenly. Then it’s onto the next thing.
Margaux Hartmann (Emmanuelle Béart), the fiftysomething title character of the motion picture Margaux Hartmann, is herself going through a brief, but hopefully recoverable, episode. Following the death of her husband, she’s enrolled in some college courses and is trying to get a peak at everything she didn’t do after getting married at 20. She’s making friends with the kids, she’s flirting with the teachers, and she’s trying to find a little of that extra spice of life. The French title – L’etreinte (“the embrace”) – gets a little closer to the real dynamic; Margaux is used to having somebody close by, and she wants to be held, to be considered, to be a part of someone’s life.
Ludovic Bergery, an actor of no great renown as far as I can tell, makes his feature debut here as a writer and director, delivering a very fine, insightful look at the crossroads of middle-age (or post-middle-age, I’m sure, depending on who you ask), and what happens when the life you’ve defined for yourself suddenly disappears. The script can be a little episodic, to the point of abandoning the whole school setting for most of its latter half, in favor of Margaux’s scattershot dating life, but the film is really driven by Béart.
A major figure in French cinema from the late-80s through mid-2000s, she has appeared in little of note since, and while the film here may not be sturdy enough to change that, it’s a welcome reminder that she remains as good as ever, quite capable of providing all the text that the film does not spell out. The curiosity and spontaneity she grants Margaux go a long way towards giving a stock character a trace of unexpected dimensions, and the way she’s able to activate sudden excitement over a lover’s musical skills or bashfulness over the brazen sexuality her younger friends exhibit give the character – and the film by extensions – more dimensions than it may first appear to have.
As these things sometimes go, my final film with Rendez-vous was both my most anticipated and ultimately the least exciting, though it’s not without several notable elements. Emmanuel Mouret, himself a frequent actor (if largely in his own films), has a reputation for the kind of French sex comedies that rarely get distributed in the States – despite our undying love for European nudity and sex jokes, Americans rarely have much interest when the two are combined – and with Love Affair(s) turns that into a sprawling meditation on the absurdity of love and our innate expectation that two people could ever align at the right time to form an ideal union. At its most basic level, you’ve got a lovesick writer (Niels Schneider), the cousin he’s visiting (Vincent Macaigne), and the cousin’s younger and pregnant girlfriend (Camélia Jordana), who is entertaining the writer at their country house while the cousin is delayed. To pass the time, they catch each other up on their tangled love lives.
Trying to fully encapsulate the plot, which has multiple flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks and crosscutting stories that are forever contradicting themselves, would essentially require at least a full review. Mouret’s architecture here is indeed terribly impressive, keeping all the pieces in balance and intersecting at the right moments, but the telling of it is a little overeager. The writer and the girlfriend occasionally over-prompt one another to get to the next detail, as though Mouret is more eager to show off his outline than let character moments develop. Conversely, the film is best at precisely those intangible details, the flourishes the actors provide or the way light passes between rooms (I don’t think I’m familiar with cinematographer Laurent Desmet, but boy I’d like to be), which it largely overlooks or takes for granted. This rush for plot is often a blast in the form of an out-and-out comedy, but Mouret is after a more tender framework that relies on character, and not circumstance, to drive the action, and he can’t often enough divorce himself from the latter.
And that was my Rendez-vous with French Cinema this year! Hopefully this fall, COLCOA – more or less the LA version of the same affair – will be back up and running, and we can enjoy locally what we enjoyed from afar.