French screenwriters are unstoppable at the moment. Two of the best films of the last five years — Michael Haneke’s Amour and Leos Carax’s Holy Motors — hailed from France; in the last six months alone, we’ve seen The Past, Stranger By the Lake and Blue is the Warmest Color. These films have taken cinematic expression to new heights in the sexual, emotional and cerebral realms. So it is joyeux news indeed that the 19th annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance Films, is currently in full swing at cinemas across New York. We cheer the sudden influx of great original writing into movie theatres glutted most of the year with remakes, sequels and adaptations. We cheer the effort Rendez-Vous put in to flying in directors and stars to talk to eager audiences after screenings. We cheer the IFC, BAM, Film Society of Lincoln Center and the French Institute for devoting their programming to twenty-four untested subtitled films. I was lucky enough to catch three of them in the last few days. Spoiler alerts!
François Ozon’s new film, Young & Beautiful, opens on a teenage girl sunbathing topless on an immaculate beach while her little brother watches through binoculars… We’re in Laura Mulvey territory here, and the film is indeed dominated by the male gaze. But unlike his previous In the House (2012), whose protagonist was a sexually manipulative adolescent boy, Ozon’s theme here is female sexuality. He’s dealt with familio-sexual carnage before, notably in Sitcom (1998) and In the House, but never quite so naturalistically. The story follows the emotional and carnal development of Isabelle (a sphinxy Marine Vacth) as she loses her virginity and decides to become a prostitute. She doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy it, nor does she spend the money she earns from it. When one of her clients dies of a heart attack mid-sex, she’s upset only insofar as she might get found out. Isabelle’s mother and stepfather (Géraldine Pailhas and Frédéric Pierrot, both smashing) don’t understand her; even her nosy, horny little brother, in whom she initially confides, is shut out. At the risk of spoiling the ending, it’s up to Charlotte Rampling, in a brilliant last-minute cameo, to open the door for Isabelle to a sexual world in which she need no longer be fettered by convention and bourgeois expectation.
Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys also swims in sexually irregular waters. Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) cruises the Gare du Nord for eastern European boys. One day he gives his address to Marek (Kirill Emelyanov), but when the allotted time comes round he becomes the victim of a home invasion by Marek’s friends, a freewheeling criminal gang led by the psychopathic “Boss” (Daniil Vorobyov). Things look very bad. His TV and exercise machines are headed for the door. There’s a sinister, violent undertone to the whole enterprise. But Daniel, in a weirdly transcendent plot twist, appears to accept what’s going on. Indeed, he even ends up joining Boss’s gang in their affectless dancing. He rolls with it. The following day he calmly pays his cleaner to dispose of the broken glass and broken furniture. When Marek turns up again, this time alone, the two men begin an affair, initially commercial in nature but mutating in time into something more familial. Campillo said at the IFC on Monday that he wanted to make a film in which that which is normally hidden is revealed and vice versa. So it is that we never really know what Daniel does, and we see next to nothing of above-board life in the whole film. By the climax of the film, in which the home invasion from the start finds its perverse obverse, Campillo is entertaining a dozen unsettling and insoluble ethical problems. It’s a thrilling ride.
Grand Central features rising stars Tahar Rahim (A Prophet, The Past) and Léa Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color, The Grand Budapest Hotel) in a romantic drama set in a nuclear power station. Rebecca Zlotowski’s film, written with Gaëlle Macé, was the New York Times favourite going in, and it’s easy to see why. Brutal and fiercely blue-collar at times, at others wheatfield pastoral, it hinges on a powerful and fecund central metaphor: love as a kind of radiation poisoning. As in Eastern Boys, there’s a social conscience at play too. Many of the workers in the most perilous parts of the plant are forced to falsify the readings of their dosimeters in order to retain their jobs, and there’s a sense of desperation born of economic deprivation in the men who perform them. Rahim is perfect casting as the misfortunate Gary, embarking on an ill-fated affair with Seydoux, who happens to be engaged to one of his co-workers. Under Zlotowski’s sensitive direction, even the happy moments in the film — Rahim’s absurd joy at beating a bucking bronco; a simple birthday party — feel haunted. The romantic scenes, mostly set by the river overlooking the plant, have a fleeting beauty to them. During one of them, an alarm goes off in the distance and Seydoux explains to Rahim what each number of blasts signifies. In true Chekhovian fashion, you just know we’ll hear the seven blasts that denote catastrophe before the film is over.