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Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2009

Above: Marie Bunel and Gérard Depardieu in Claude Chabrol's Bellamy.
The uncomfortable irony with the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Rendez-Vous with French Cinema national survey of films is that for a country regarded as having such a vibrant appreciation for the seventh art and a true richness in cinematic masters, the annual program inevitably ends up aiming for the middle and as such rarely catches en total—if such a thing were indeed possible—what is exciting in French cinema this or any year.  In 2009, as usual, it is the masters who bring to the table yet again something truly worth watching.  The hope still is, though, that one day we won't have to rely on the masters but on their disciples to draw us into the theater.
First mention should be made of what is without a doubt the first among many films, French or otherwise: Claire Denis' lovely, lilting 35 Rhums, perhaps the most accessible film this devotee to the allusive and the oblique has ever made, but losing none of Denis' emotionally vibrant and sensually rich impressionism.  An ode to Ozu's Late Spring only in its focus on what people—in families, in relationships, and those without those things—desire to hold on to and to let go, 35 Rhums is the most centered Denis has been since her one-night-stand miniature, Friday Night, but uses this stable basis of theme and story to harken back to her earlier works in the 1990s that spread wide across races, classes, and genders of French society.  Suffice to say, she has made another masterpiece.  As our colleague Ryland Walker Knight has hinted (and who will write more on the film), seeing a movie like 35 Rhums negates the need for one to see another film for a long, long time; there is just too much to think about, too much to enjoy and nurture in Denis' film.
Often, though, the transcendent art is not what one is in the mood for, and the stable recognizability of genre is more of a cinematic comfort.  Perhaps if Claude Chabrol took a year or two off between each production he, too, would make another masterpiece, but like Oliveira, like Allen, he is tireless, and like the former of those aged masters (and decidedly not like the latter), if he is going to make a movie, even a lesser movie, he takes the opportunity to hone and explore both his craft and his art.  There are no throwaway films in a director's filmography when one approaches each project with this admirable attitude.
Bellamy, Chabrol's film of 2009, is the filmmaker's first collaboration with Gérard Depardieu, and initially seems to be a policier curdled into a character piece to give due room and respect to this great actor.  But the lesson, both of the film itself, and, inside that, of Detective Bellamy's story, is there is more than meets the eye to this world of ours, its desires, and its stories.  In fact, despite being dedicated to Georges Simenon, Bellamy's aura has less in common with the procedural detection of crime novels than it does with the cinema of Jacques Rivette and the desire to detect.  Depardieu's famed inspector Bellamy takes up a case while on vacation with his wife, but takes it up like an armchair general would take up a distant, historical battle: no action, all speculation, all late evenings talking about a situation one mostly only imagines.  Indeed, the ending, which supposedly reveals that Bellamy's obsession to solve the case has roots elsewhere in his family past, only points the film more askew.  This is a movie where people seem to be thinking about plots, schemes, and relationships that exist outside the story.  The film is assuredly a dedicated character piece, with the story seeming to be one long series of extended conversations with deliciously sketched "types," ranging from Jacques Gamblin's schemer suffering moral mania to Clovis Cornillac's hunkered down cliché of the family's black sheep, that all barely lead anywhere narratively or psychologically.  Yet Bellamy continually surprises in its growing abstraction, its desire not only to fail to reveal the mystery by the end, but to only hint, and hint so softly, that all the mystery in the film hasn't even begun to be suggested.  Under a guise of many things—genre, character, stardom—Chabrol is actually practicing an extreme form of experimentation, one in which everything on-screen points to something unspoken and unexplained not off-screen but out-of-the-movie.
But with such a marked lesson in tackling genre and generic cinema as Bellamy, Benoit Jacquoit's Villa Amalia illustrates that even seasoned directors can fall victim to the most unnecessary production.  A banal study in female alienation that is shamed a dozen times over by something as cinematically expressive as Lucrecia Martel's The Headless Woman, Jacquoit's film takes great pleasure in how Isabelle Huppert decides to disconnect herself from her everyday life after her boyfriend's infidelity shakes her to her core, and proceeds to do all the boring things boring people do to leave their current boring life behind.  The opposite approach—treating the important off-hand rather than underlining its profundity—can be found in the immensely more personal and immensely more satisfying auto-biographical portrait of Agnès Varda in her essay film, Les Plages d'Agnès.  Here, the details of a woman's life, small and large, become heartfelt and humorous, whimsical and touching.  Tangential and distractible where Jacquoit is frustratingly singular in both focus and expression, Varda's film is inspired by the freedom of digital cinema to re-visit the old and play off the new, capturing the essence of her past films, her love for her husband filmmaker Jacques Demy, and the places and people of her life in a continually unexpected and continually sweet look in the cinematic mirror by the filmmaker.  With perennially young filmmakers like Agnès Varda (not to mention Chris Marker!) still making such beautiful works, perhaps our need for a new generation of filmmakers to take over can be assuaged for a while yet.
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center from March 5 - 15.

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