Sex and the city, false identities and love triangles feature prominently in this year’s Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, an annual showcase of contemporary French filmmaking held by Film at Lincoln Center.
Since last year’s virtual edition, female directors from France have been making headlines, with two major European festivals awarding their top prizes to Frenchwomen: Julia Ducournau took home the Cannes Palme d’Or for her gender-bending love story “Titane”;and Audrey Diwan nabbed Venice’s Golden Lion for “Happening,” about a young woman in the 1960s seeking an abortion. Even the master filmmaker Claire Denis receivedone of her only competitive awards when she won best director for “Fire” last month at Germany’s Berlinale.
“Fire,” a brooding melodrama, will be the opening-night film when Rendez-Vous make its return to in-person screenings on Thursday in New York. A pared-down pandemic production stocked with booming performances by Juliette Binoche, Vincent Lindon and Grégoire Colin, the film is Denis’s second collaboration with the screenwriter and novelist Christine Angot. Unlike their first effort, “Let the Sunshine In” (2018), a sly romantic comedy in which Binoche played an artist drifting through a succession of frustrating relationships, “Fire” is all Sturm und Drang. It focuses on the love lives of a late-middle-age couple with the kind of tempestuous passion befitting an adolescent affair. Though Denis obliquely weaves in broader social commentary with a subplot involving a troubled mixed-race son, the film’s shambolic qualities stoke the erotic follies at its core with transportive delirium.
At Rendez-Vous, Denis is joined by other established French directors like Arnaud Desplechin (“Deception”), François Ozon (“Everything Went Fine”) and Christophe Honoré (“Guermantes”). But a newer generation of filmmakers is making a strong showing as well, and many of them are building on the great promise of the festival-winning streak for Gallic women.
Three of the four feature debuts in the program are by women, including Constance Meyer’s “Robust,” a handsome-looking dramedy about an aging actor (Gérard Depardieu) who strikes up a friendship with his female bodyguard (Déborah Lukumuena). Though significantly less flamboyant, “Robust” takes cues from the 2012 interracial buddy blockbuster “Les Intouchables.”
What may be the strongest debut in the lineup is Charline Bourgeois-Tacquet’s “Anaïs in Love,” which would make a fine double feature with “The Worst Person in the World”; both are about impulsive 30-somethings who fall in love and lust at the clip of a pop song. “Anaïs,” a jaunty summer story full of droll chatter and sparkling countryside vistas, follows its capricious heroine as she enters into an affair with an older man, only to find herself more interested in his novelist wife.
Films like “Anaïs in Love” that relish the frisky humor and whimsy of modern romance without moralizing guilt would seem to fit squarely in the sexually liberated tradition that many see as central to France’s artistic heritage. The debate between a younger generation of feminists spearheading the country’s #MeToo movement, which has been gaining momentum after a feeble start, and elite figures who denounce the movement as extreme and puritanical continues to cast a shadow over the French film industry. This year’s Rendez-Vous selection certainly straddles the old and the new — though conspicuously absent is the Rendez-Vous regular Jacques Doillon, whose strong, if thorny, new film, “Third Grade,” concerns the playground intrigue between two children, one of whom sexually harasses the other. Nevertheless, the program keeps in step with the national penchant for sexual audacity.
Male directors have rarely had any qualms about examining the intimate lives of women, and Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District,” a punchy drama in slick black and white about the messy dating lives of young Parisians, continues that tendency. It’s a pleasant surprise, though the auteurist theory explanation for a film’s success (or failure) is particularly questionable here. Consider the compelling performances by the film’s lead actresses: Noémie Merlant plays a law student whose life is thrown into shambles when her classmates mistake her for a popular camgirl; and Lucie Zhang makes her auspicious debut as a first-generation Franco-Chinese immigrant, a punkish, bedraggled young woman with a self-sabotaging romantic streak. Complex and not necessarily likable without falling into the “messy woman” archetype of so many pop feminist characters, the women of “Paris, 13th District” must have benefited from the august scriptwriting team — Audiard, Céline Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) and Léa Mysius — who temper the director’s penchant for vacuous stylization with grounded humor and pathos.
Five Movies to Watch This Winter
1. “The Power of the Dog”: Benedict Cumberbatch is earning high praise for his performance in Jane Campion’s new psychodrama. Here’s what it took for the actor to become a seething alpha-male cowboy.
2. “Don’t Look Up” : Meryl Streep plays a self-centered scoundrel in Adam McKay’s apocalyptic satire. She turned to the “Real Housewives” franchise for inspiration.
3. “King Richard”: Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Venus and Serena Williams’s mother in the biopic, shares how she turned the supporting role into a talker.
4. “Tick, Tick … Boom!”: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is an adaptation of a show by Jonathan Larson, creator of “Rent.” This guide can help you unpack its many layers.
5. “The Tragedy of Macbeth”: Several upcoming movies are in black and white, including Joel Coen’s new spin on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
The Tunisian writer-director Leyla Bouzid also takes a stirring look at the sex lives of Parisian students in her sophomore feature, “A Tale of Love and Desire,” only this sexual awakening drama speaks to different facets of the Arab diaspora. Ahmed (Sami Outalbali), who comes from a traditional household, yearns all the more intensely knowing the forbidden nature of his desires when he meets a forthright young woman from Tunisia. The lip-biting restraint and Bouzid’s surreal flourishes make the film among the most tantalizingly erotic entries of the series — a reminder that the slippery nature of desire isn’t necessarily best captured by explicitly sexual means.
Last month, Xavier Giannoli’s staid Honoré de Balzac adaptation, “Lost Illusions,” took home best film at the Cesars, France’s Oscar equivalent. You can check that film out at Rendez-Vous as well, but a worthwhile alternative is the pluckier costume drama “Secret Name.” Directed by Aurélia Georges, it follows Nélie, a maid turned sex worker turned frontline nurse at the beginning of World War I. When a bomb hits, Nélie swaps identities with someone she believes to be dead and assumes a cushy position as a reader to a noblewoman.
What the script lacks in nuance is made up for in eerie, noirish tension, eventfully building toward a climax that unexpectedly centers the relationship between Nélie (a hypnotizing Lyna Khoudri, who you might recognize from “The French Dispatch”) and the aristocrat who comes to love her (played by the veteran Sabine Azéma).
Also worth recognizing is Rachel Lang’s “Our Men,” an assured portrait of Foreign Legion soldiers drawn from the filmmaker’s own experiences in the French army. Led by Louis Garrel and Camille Cottin (the “Call My Agent!” actress who arguably stole the show from Matt Damon in “Stillwater”), this understated film bobs between operations in Mali and family tensions in Corsica, where the wives of the emotionally stunted soldiers are casualties themselves. Lang’s approach never slips into treacly sentimentality; rather it soberly considers the incompatibility of the military lifestyle with the domestic dreams that soldiers and their families are simultaneously expected to uphold.
A number of Rendez-Vous films are elevated by acclaimed French actresses really strutting their stuff: Virginie Efira (“Benedetta”) in “Madeleine Collins,” Léa Seydoux in “Deception,” and Binoche in “Between Two Worlds.” But I was particularly struck by the program’s youngest lead, Jade Springer, who plays the eponymous heroine of “Petite Solange,” Axelle Ropert’s luminous coming-of-age film. It taps into the inner world of a buoyant 13-year-old girl rattled by her parent’s imminent divorce, with furtive whispers and closed-door arguments filtered melodramatically through the lens of her vulnerable inexperience. A critic turned screenwriter and director, Ropert isn’t particularly well-known outside of France, though she should be. Instances of deceit and adultery are a dime a dozen in French cinema, a prime practitioner of the national “art of seduction”; against the odds, “Petite Solange” puts the sting back in it.
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs Thursday through March 13 at Film at Lincoln Center. For more information, go to filmlinc.org.