March at the Film Society of Lincoln Center has been something of an annual pilgrimage for Francophiles with the widely popular Rendez-vous with French Cinema series and, as in previous installments, this year's selection offers a diverse selection of films that showcase the broad spectrum of French cinema, running the gamut from mainstream to art house, fiction to documentary, contemporary to retrospective. The series is off to a good start with the opening night selection, Farewell, an engaging Cold War thriller from Joyeux Noël director Christian Carion, based on a real-life espionage case involving a high-ranking KGB bureaucrat. While casting a pair of established filmmakers may seem like an unusual decision, Emir Kusturica and Guillaume Canet's unaffected performances suit the film's premise well in their role as idealists (and unlikely spies) who compromised the integral architecture of Soviet intelligence.
Coincidentally, reframing history propels the narrative in Michel Hazanavicius's OSS 117 - Lost in Rio, a bright and kitschy, if flat-footed parody of James Bond films (and their derivatives). Following the exploits of debonair secret agent, Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath (Jean Dujardin) who has been dispatched to Rio to retrieve politically sensitive information from a fugitive Nazi (Rüdiger Vogler), the film irreverently lampoons the zeitgeist in which these superspy films were made—machismo, sexism, xenophobia, hippies, exotic locales, and even traumatic history—but ultimately overplays its one-note chauvinism and political incorrectness.
The sense of xenophobia and strangerness take on a far more somber tone in Philippe Lioret's impassioned social commentary, Welcome. Indeed, Welcome is an ironic title, inscribed in a neighbor's door mat that is seen when he confronts his lonely, recently divorced neighbor Simon (Vincent Lindon) about inviting illegal immigrants into his home. Ostensibly about a Kurdish young man's determination to reunite with his girlfriend by swimming across the English Channel, the film is also an unvarnished social observation of life in border towns where economic disparity is further polarized by illegal immigration, racism, and exclusion.
Exclusion and rejection also lies at the heart of Axelle Ropert's complex and understated relational drama, The Wolberg Family, an intimate portrait of wounds both real and self-inflicted that are passed down from generation to generation, and the scars that they leave behind. Like the stoic, overachieving family patriarch and town mayor, Simon (François Damiens), the film's strength lies in its awkwardness, bracing honesty, and vulnerability that capture the brittle, imperfect beauty of everyday life.
Michel Gondry's compassionate and searching essay film, The Thorn in the Heart is similarly suffused with fleeting moments of imperfect beauty, a portrait of Gondry's aunt, retired provincial school teacher, Suzette, and her complicated relationship with her eccentric, middle-aged, emotionally unstable son, Jean-Yves. Interweaving Gondry's familiar aesthetic of whimsical re-enactments and animated sequences with a more distilled, impromptu, confessional approach to family biography in the vein of Naomi Kawase and Jean Eustache's Numéro zéro, the film strikes a fine (and refined) balance between storytelling and documentation, commentary and observation.
The strained ties that bind parent and child shapes Claude Miller and Nathan Miller taut and insightful social realist drama I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive, based on the real-life incident of an adopted child, now a grown man (Vincent Rottiers), who attempts to reconnect with his birth mother (Sophie Cattani). Like The Thorn in the Heart (as well as Claude Miller's previous effort, Un Secret), the film explores the enduring, formative imprint between parent and child, even in absence, that continues to shape one's identity and behavior.
This process of transference and surrogacy resurfaces in François Ozon's Le refuge, evoking the tone of his previous films, Under the Sand in the trauma of unexpected loss and Time to Leave in its rumination on mortality and legacy. Chronicling the evolution of the relationship between a troubled, pregnant young woman (Isabelle Carré) and her dead lover's adopted brother (Louis-Ronan Choisy) as they struggle to find some semblance of solace and community in their mutual grief and estrangement, Ozon creates a voluptuous and intimate exposition on passage and transitory connection.
Also in the realm of renunciation and abandonment is Alain Guiraudie's manic and delirious The King of Escape. Admittedly, I still have trouble tuning in to his wavelength, but The King of Escape strikes me as a quintessential Guiraudie film—perhaps his most accessible since That Old Dream That Moves—in the way he interweaves his recurring themes of fugue, waking dream, and sexual liberation. In this case, the titular escape arrives in the form of a middle-aged gay salesman (Ludovic Berthillot) who, stuck in a rut in his personal and professional life, decides to turn heterosexual and reciprocate the amorous advances of a headstrong teenager (Hafsia Herzi). Similar to No Rest for the Brave and Sunshine for the Poor, the fugue suggests both a restless energy and a deep-seated crisis of mutable identity.
And lastly, there's a crisis of sorts afoot in cartoonist and first-time filmmaker Riad Sattouf's saturated, over-the-top ensemble comedy French Kissers, a wincingly funny, but all too familiar coming of age tale on the romantic roundelays of hopelessly average students Hervé (Vincent Lacoste), mullet-haired Camel (Anthony Sonigo), and their circle of equally clueless and over hormonal friends. While the film's subject is interchangeable, over-mined territory, the adult cameos prove to be one of its more memorable aspects—Noémie Lvovsky as Hervé's coddling, over-permissive mother, Irène Jacob as former underwear model (and Camel's catalog lust object) whose beautiful, widely popular daughter falls for Hervé, Emmanuelle Devos as a teacher who is constantly faced with handling awkward situations, Valeria Golino as a vacuum-cleaner wielding hausfrau internet sensation, and Nicolas Maury as flamboyant literature teacher and international gay icon.
The Rendez-vous with French Cinema series runs from March 11-21.