Rendezvous with French Cinema

This is a series I look forward to every year as the Film Society of Lincoln Center does an excellent job picking a mix of known and unknown talent from among France’s diverse cinematic landscape.  I have seen many great films here, some of which went on to international acclaim and others that never even appeared on DVD.  Perhaps because I was actually paying for tickets this year (the blog isn’t traffic-ed enough yet to allow me a press seat) I went a much safer route, choosing to stick with two of my favorite directors Christophe Honoré  and Francois Ozon.  The upside of this choice is that I got to see the films well in advance of their US release, at two of my favorite theaters in NY (BAM and Walter Reade) and both films were followed by a Q&A with the directors (Honoré was accompanied by Chiara Mastroianni) all of which made for an enjoyable, festival-like experience.  The only downside is that I did miss out on the rare opportunity to see some of those hidden gems, something that if I had more time or money I’m certain I would have found.  

These two films were made under very similar circumstances; the scripts were written in a short period of time, the directors worked closely with their lead actresses, each in a difficult role, both included scenes that were largely improvised and had endings left open to interpretation.  Both films deal specifically with women struggling with motherhood but under very different circumstances.  There is also no denying that both films stand in the long shadow cast by the recent work of fellow writer directors Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale) and Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours).   In fact all four films share actors and similar themes.  Honoré addressed this fact directly after the screening, Ozon did not but I have to imagine he can’t help being influenced in some way by the success of those two films.  While both Making Plans For Lena and Le Refuge confirmed the talents of the men behind them and were admirable in their own ways neither were able to attain the depth or resonance of these two recent masterpieces.

Making Plans for Lena, which takes its name from an XTC song played in the movie, follows Lena (Chiara Mastroianni) who chooses to deal with her husband’s infidelity and the onset of a midlife crisis by making drastic changes.  Lena is Honoré’s first film shot in his native Brittany instead of his adopted home of Paris, a fact which gives the film a much more personal feel with an understated style to match.  No longer is he paying tribute to Godard and the French New Wave but seeking to create something all his own.  He said in his Q&A after the film that for him a script is always a draft and he doesn’t like to spend a lot of time working on it before shooting.  This seemed evident as the writing always felt real and believable but also half-sketched, as if there were bigger points to be made within the sequences of these characters lives.  Perhaps the film’s best scene sees a distraught Lena showing up unannounced at her son Anton’s school and asking if she can eat with him at the cafeteria.  He tells her calmly, as if he is the adult, that she isn’t allowed and that he will meet her later to go to the park.  The role reversal is funny and revealing far more than some of the dramatic scenes in which long-held family grudges are shown in over the shoulder asides or dragged out in dialogue heavy discussions.  However despite the film’s flaws and the dark cloud that it travels under Honoré still infuses it with moments of genuine connection, humor and joy.

Francois Ozon’s Le Refuge is certainly the more mature of the two films.  It begins with a difficult opening sequence that lays a drug addicted couples habits bare and felt to me distracting and somewhat unnecessary.  However with its point made the film moves on to become something beautiful and thought-provoking as Mousse, who has come out of a heroin induced coma learns that she is pregnant.  One of the most interesting things about all of Ozon’s films is the suspension of judgment.  He can present the transformation of a woman who was a junkie mess into a glowing example of womanhood while still showing her drinking beers, guzzling methodone, dancing in clubs and going home with strangers – none of which compares to the worst of her sins.  He is able to capture people being who they are by allowing situations to play out as they would in life.  His camera is unobtrusive and there are no musical cues or editing tricks that lead you to any one conclusion about how to feel about what you’ve seen.  He trusts his audience and if you enjoy some room to think in your movies this film will certainly reward you.

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