11 March, 2011

French Femme Directors Take Center Stage

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor
Kathryn Bigelow may have broken through the glass ceiling with her historic Best Director Oscar win last year for THE HURT LOCKER, but the door was not pushed wide open for women directors in the American film industry. Despite strong work by such American indie stalwarts as Lisa Cholodenko (THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT) and Nicole Holofcener (PLEASE GIVE), and the emergence of a number of debut directors (chief among them Debra Granik with WINTER'S BONE and Lena Dunham with TINY FURNITURE), women directors still must compete in a mostly male-dominated profession.

Luckily, the same is not the case in the French film industry, as evidenced by the strong representation of femme talents at this year's Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, a showcase of contemporary French films co-presented by Unifrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Not only do most of the films in the program feature strong stories about and peformances by women, the sheer number and diversity of works by women directors is eye-catching and enviable.

Coline Serreau, a still vibrant 63 years old, is the veteran of the group, having made films since the 1970s, most notably the Cesar Award winners 3 HOMMES ET UN COUFIN (1985), LA CRISE (1992) and CHAOS (2001). She is represented in this year's showcase by THINK GLOBAL, ACT RURAL, a radical documentary manifesto that digs into the problem of industrialized agriculture and queries a diverse group of citizens, from farmers to philosophers, on solutions and alternatives to our devouring of the earth's precious natural resources. This is eco filming with a poetic twist by a filmmaker whose oeuvre has darted from sly comedies to intense dramas to probing documentaries.

Catherine Breillat
relishes her reputation as a wild child of French cinema, a kind of twisted "female Tim Burton" whose unabashed feminism and disquieting cinematic exercises make her a cult favorite and, admittedly, an acquired taste. She is one of the few filmmakers in the world who burrow from cinema's aesthetic past while adding contemporary twists that allow the classic tales to resonate with a new and slightly subervise air of knowingness. In her latest, an adaptation of THE SLEEPING BEAUTY, the psychological burden of a young girl's curse to be asleep for 100 years, where her subconscious gives way to ravishing and disturbing dreams. The program, which continues through this Sunday at both the Walter Reade Theater (uptown) and the IFC Film Center (downtown), also charts a new generation of femme auteurs-in-the-making.

Brigitte Sy is an actress-turned-director whose sophomore effort FREE HANDS is based on a true story. A women filmmaker working on a neorealist project at a French prison crosses the line with one of the inmates and becomes involved in both his unrequited sexual hunger and his illicit drug dealing. Featuring a strong central performance by Israeli actress Ronit Elkabetz, the film explores both sexual obsession and the thin line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior in a highly charged setting. While questions remain in the narrative about accountability, the film proceeds to an open-ended coda where the on-going relationship between the two protagonists is far from resolved.

Described as a kind of French West Side Story, Audrey Estrougo's LEILA (a rather bland Americanization of its original title TOI, MOI, LES AUTRES, meaning You, Me And The Others) unveils a musical love story about a pampered slacker and an amibitious Arab law student, set to French pop songs of the 1960s and 1970s. Using vivid colors and vibrant cinematography, the film is in the best tradition of other "through sung" musical classics such as THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and THE GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, but with a modern twist laced with class conflict and worldly pessimism.

Up-and-coming actress Anais Demoustier gives a smart performance as a bored 20-something with gumption in director Isabelle Czajka's noir-influenced LIVING ON LOVE ALONE. Needing to find an alternative to her dead-end job and less-than-glamourous life, she runs off with a guy (played by sexy Pio Marmai) and a gun in the classic road movie mold of barely controlled anarchy.

Making an auspicious feature debut is Katell Quillevere, whose LOVE LIKE POISON was one of the standouts at last year's Directors Fortnight/Cannes Film Festival. When a fourteen year old girl comes home from Catholic boarding school, her strict family is unprepared for her mysterious behavior. The film brings the contradictions of its coming-of-age story into deep focus, as the young woman struggles with the hypocrisy of her religious dogmatism and her sexual stirrings awakened by a less-than-innocent choir boy. The film is an adaptation of an original script that won for its fledgling writer/director the Jean Vigo Prize.

Triple threat Valerie Donzelli directs, writes and stars in THE QUEEN OF HEARTS, a French screwball comedy that hits all the expected notes of sexual romance and fulfillment. A hopeless romantic recently dumped by a long time boyfriend is now juggling the attention of three different suitors. Only in France could such sexual goings on be slapped with a G rating and a shrug of inevitablity by film censors. It seems the French never tire of "l'amour toujours l'amour" in all its guises and assume that one's sexual and romantic fulfillment is a right not a privilege. It's a woman's world and we men are only visitors in it. For more information on the films presented in this year's series, visit: or

07 March, 2011

A French Feast For Cinema Lovers

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

It is a longstanding amour fou......the crazy love New Yorkers have for all things French, and the French appreciation of New York as its cultural cousin. For both sides, the yearly Rendez-Vous With French Cinema program, which is now running in several venues around New York City, is both an erotic embrace and a dazzling dance. For francophiles and film buffs, it is a film feast.

Presented by the Film Society at Lincoln Center and Unifrance, the 16th edition offers its customary hors d'oeuvres of genres and styles, reflective of the larger French film industry, one of the most prolific in the world and a beacon for countries who have seen their own output overwhelmed by Hollywood blockbusters.

The stars are here....Deneuve, Depardieu, Bruni-Tedeschi, Scott Thomas, Sagnier, Wilson, as are great auteurs, both classic (Claude Lelouch, Bertrand Tavernier, Phillipe Le Guay), contemporary (Alain Corneau, Francois Ozon, Benoit Jacquot, Catherine Breillat) and a host of newer names making their reputations in their native France and now here. Things began on a strong note last Thursday, with the Opening Night launch of the popular film festival favorite POTICHE, the latest film from cult director François Ozon. The film, nominated for four César awards (the French Oscar) was a huge box office hit in France, no doubt due to its repairing of Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu. Deneuve, who also starred in the director's ensemble musical 8 WOMEN , is being given a hefty retrospective at the BamCinematek that parallels this contemporary French film program.

While it is hard to hang a thematic lynchpin on such a diverse program, this year's line-up has a distinctly feminist caste. Of the 22 feature films presented, a third are directed by women, with others also prominently featuring women and their sensibilities. In POTICHE, the story centers on a trophy wife who takes over her ailing husband’s factory. MOZART'S SISTER offers a complelling portrait of thwarted musical genius, restricted by the morals and sexism of the 18th century. THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER features a strong performance by Mélanie Thierry as the object of affection of warring factions. Two generations of actresses, Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier give powerful performances in Alain Corneau's LOVE CRIME, a tale of corporate competition in the workplace. A strong supporting cast of Spanish actresses, including the delicious Carmen Maura, are also prominently featured in the comedy SERVICE ENTRANCE, a comedy of class struggle and personal liberation by Phillipe Le Guay.

Not all of the films on display are quite as breezy. Benoit Jacquot, who apparently relishes his ability to shock an audience, is back with another controversial showcase. DEEP IN THE WOODS is set in 19th century France, when a young vagabond arrives in a village and ist aken in by a doctor and his daughter. While earning their trust, the film proceeds to a lengthy and discomforting rape scene, which tears apart the civility of the father and daughter relationship. Counter-intuitively, the rape victim, driven by an uncontrollable force, leaves home in search of the man who has stripped her of her innocence. Truths are revealed on the part of this lusty trio as the filmmakers turns our bourgeoise assumptions on their head.

Several of the films on tap are new to me and I will dutifully report on some of the breakout films from the series, which represents a truly impressive snapshot of contemporary French cinema, in my next report. For a complete list of films being presented through March 13, visit:

02 March, 2011

Brooklyn Welcomes A Screen Goddess

by Sandy Mandelberger, North American Editor

Brooklyn…..get ready for some true glamour. Catherine Deneuve, the grande dame of French cinema will receive a career retrospective starting on Friday, March 4 at the BAMcinématek, Brooklyn’s leading art house cinema. In the month-long tribute, 25 films from the great actress’ varied career over five decades will be showcased. The program is co-presented by Unifrance,in collaboration with Music Box Films, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, and Institut Français. BAMcinématek is the first presenter on this national tour—with all films projected in 35mm—which will take the retrospective to Los Angeles; Pleasantville, NY; Chicago; Boston; Seattle; San Francisco; and Portland, Oregon; with other cities yet to be announced.

Deneuve, one of cinema’s great beauties, is also an actress of remarkable range. She has starred in a mix of edgy dramas, frothy musicals, out-and-out comedies and historical epics. In many ways, her career reflects the obsessions and interests of French cinema itself, one of the only film industries that has weathered competition from the Hollywood studio system and refuses to retreat. Early in her career, she was the not so discreet object of desire in such landmark films as BELLE DE JOUR, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, REPULSION and TRISTANA. As she matured, in that manner of French beauties whose allure only grows with age, she became emblematic of a particular kind of French woman….seductive, sensuous, aware of her power, yet with a core of vulnerability that must be masked by a cool, impassive exterior.

BAMcinématek welcomes Deneuve herself, who will appear in person on Friday evening for a Q&A with cult director François Ozon following the Brooklyn premiere of his newest comedy, POTCHE (2011), screening as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, a review of contemporary French cinema that also begins this weekend at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in Manhattan. On the same night, Deneuve will appear for a screening of Roman Polanski’s psycho-sexual classic REPULSION (1965), one of her best known and most appreciated films.

The program features a garden of delights from the actress’ oeuvre. From her international breakthrough in THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964), a through-sung tale of love lost with music by Michel Legrand, to her matriarchal turn in the family drama A CHRISTMAS TALE (2008), the length and breadth of her career is nothing short of inspiring. Everyone has their favorite Deneuve film, so one has the choice over the next few weeks to savor her riveting performances in such classics as BELLE DE JOUR (1967), THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967), LA CHAMADE (1968), TRISTANA (1970), DONKEY SKIN and LIZA (1972), in which she stars opposite the equally beauteous Marcello Mastroianni.

Films from her later career demonstrate what a durable actress she is and how she transcended her looks to find the core motivations and neuroses of her characters. In Francois Truffaut’s THE LAST METRO (1980), she is glamour personified in a role of a wife hiding her Jewish husband in occupied Paris. One of her frequent collaborators of late has been the iconoclastic director André Téchiné, whose emotionally complex chamber pieces have yielded some of Deneuve’s most critically acclaimed roles, including her turns in such films as SCENE OF THE CRIME (1986), MY FAVORITE SEASON (1993) and CHANGING TIMES (2004). Recently, she has worked with such individualistic directors as Francois Ozon and Lars Von Trier in a career that keeps evolving and expanding.

For a complete list of the films to be screened, visit: