Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs March 6 - 16. Scheduling and ticket information are available here.
Over the next few years, keep an eye on Solène Rigot. Actually, I happened to think of her but I could have mentioned any number of promising young actors in French cinema—Maud Wyler, for example, or Laetitia Dosch, Kirill Emelyanov, Pierre Rochefort... There’s never any shortage of young acting talent emerging from France, not least because of the sheer volume of the country's film production (last year, 209 features were approved for funding by the CNC, the industry's government body).
The way that engine keeps pumping ensures a constantly renewed workforce of young actors coming on the French scene—every season a new "new wave," if you want to call it that. In fact, it tends to be a case of consistently rolling waves rather than a sudden deluge. The latter happens, certainly—now and again, a single film will present us with a brand-new talent, exploding without warning onto the screen. The French press thrives on such abrupt "révélations"— as was the case last year with Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue Is the Warmest Color), or in 2009 with Tahar Rahim (A Prophet). (In fact, these "meteors" rarely come entirely out of the blue: Rahim had already made a mark on TV, while Exarchopoulos had made several films and played Jane Birkin’s daughter at the age of 10.)
More commonly, though, French actors’ emergences tend to happen by slow accretion—you suddenly realize that you recognize someone because they’ve been there a lot in the background, or in small films that you’ve only half-noticed. Then, before you know it, they’re everywhere. It happened a couple of years before Blue Is the Warmest Color with Léa Seydoux; in this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, she’s terrific in Rebecca Zlotowski’s power-plant drama Grand Central, playing a tough proletarian vamp, a sort of modern-day Simone Signoret role. Similarly in the Nineties, it took a while before you registered that Mathieu Amalric had acquired the superpower of ubiquity (the theory persists that French film financing works on a principle of "Amalric points": get enough Amalric into a film, even if it’s only the one-shot cameo he once played for Eugène Green, and your funding is secure).
A key related phenomenon in French actors’ careers is longevity, or at least the possibility of it. Because of its range, because of its emphasis on the personal, because of the emphasis on auteur work, French cinema tends to keep actors in business for much longer. There are more roles, and more appealing ones, for older actors, who seem much more able than their contemporaries elsewhere to sustain prominence for long periods, whether in lead roles, or playing parents or parental figures to younger actors. Veterans sometimes stage elegant late-career comebacks—although "comeback" seems too flashy a term for the naturalness with which some veteran actors seem to reintegrate themselves into the scene as prominent players. In recent years, this has happened with Emmanuelle Riva (Amour), one-time Franju heroine Edith Scob (Holy Motors), Niels Arestrup (A Prophet, Our Children), or indeed Dominique Sanda, magnificent as a chilly society matron in Nicole Garcia’s Going Away, featured in Rendez-Vous.
What I’m suggesting is that, while critics tend to present French cinema history as one made by auteurs, it could be argued that we’re really dealing with an actors’ history. The individual trajectories of certain players—who, after all, rack up a lot more credits than directors ever do—help guide us through the ever-shifting map of the French film landscape. Directors may change the shape of that map, but it’s the actors, with their constant visible presence, that make the landscape more readable.
It’s also the actors that keep things interesting when the machine of French cinema seems simply to be purring along—maintaining a level of quality but not producing radical innovations. Arguably that’s the case with French cinema at the moment, and in truth, the formal or thematic shocks provided every few years by the boldest directors—the likes of Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, Philippe Grandrieux—are few and far between. What tends to be true is that French filmmakers work flexibly within an established tradition, sometimes with the weight of that tradition very visibly on their shoulders; if, rather than a mood of perpetually fermenting radicalism, the result is a reliable "cinema of quality" (a term given the harshest negative resonances by the Nouvelle Vague director-critics), that’s not to be disparaged, because the quality continues to be consistently high and fascinatingly diverse.
So you can navigate the program of this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema as much through the faces as through the directors’ names. The opening film, Emmanuelle Bercot’s On My Way, is a prime example of how actors carry history with them. Catherine Deneuve stars as Bettie, a restaurant proprietor from Brittany who goes AWOL from her daily pressures and responsibilities and embarks on a picaresque series of adventures that include bedding a much younger man, hitting the road with her grandson, and attending a reunion of former beauty queens. The film is a low-key, entertaining comedy-drama about the possibilities of life for older single women, and without being aggressively mainstream, it has an unashamed crowd-pleasing element—what you might call the "You-go-girl!" factor.
On My Way
But the film is as much about Deneuve and her history as anything else. Deneuve’s status as French screen royalty is such that we can’t see her in a role without being primarily aware that we’re seeing the sainted Catherine (unlike Isabelle Huppert, who has the capacity of disappearing entirely into her characters without being obviously chameleonic). Bercot’s film plays knowingly on the Deneuve legend, on her longevity and the fact of her aging—a game that Deneuve embraces very happily. There’s a sobering scene in which Bettie wakes up with her gauche, bullish young lover, who awkwardly compliments her by telling her that she must have been very beautiful—in her day. And at the beauty queens’ reunion, a photographer instructs Bettie: “Head back for that double chin.” Not cruelly but poignantly, Bercot shows us a photo of Bettie as a young ingénue, a picture of Deneuve in her own starlet days. This is a film about accepting the aging process, even enjoying it—although to do that, it clearly helps to be Catherine Deneuve.
The important thing is that such films operate on the understanding that French audiences have a long memory. We may think of Maggie Smith, say, as having always been a magnificent part of film culture, without specifically remembering The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In French film, however, an actor’s past is nearly always implied in a film and that heritage is part of what makes each new role interesting. There’s also a strong sense of generations succeeding each other, each turning into the next. A notable case of a single generation or ‘school’ of young actors appearing simultaneously together was in the early work of Arnaud Desplechin, whose 1996 film My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument featured Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, Jeanne Balibar, Chiara Mastroianni, Denis Podalydès—who all remain as presences in French cinema. Sophie Fillières’ If You Don’t, I Will shows how erstwhile young newcomers shift into the middle-aged bracket, and how watching them make that transition is part of the pleasure. Here, Amalric (more haggardly anxious than ever) and Devos become a couple in mid-life crisis. “What have we become?” asks Devos’s frustrated Pomme; “Your parents,” sniffs her husband.
As for new talent, this year’s Rendez-Vous is rich in names to watch, some of whom you’ll already know—without necessarily being aware that you know them. A case in point is the second film by director Katell Quillévéré, who made a striking, autobiographical, and somewhat conventional debut in 2010 with Love Like Poison, about an adolescent girl’s religious and familial traumas. The more adventurous Suzanne follows two sisters and their widowed father over several years; one, Suzanne, abandons her son to run off with a petty criminal, while the other tries to hold things together. The adventurousness of the film lies in its fragmentation, in the way that it lets Suzanne herself disappear from the action for long periods, so that the film’s titular subject becomes less a character than a sort of elusive phantasm.
The film is beautifully crafted and terrifically acted, the emotional core being the interplay between Sara Forestier and Adele Haenel as the sisters. Forestier was a genuine out-of-nowhere discovery in Abdelattif Kechiche’s Games of Love and Chance in 2003; having established a "wild child" persona in various films since then, she really comes of age in Suzanne, subtly playing on the character’s troubles and inability to settle (Forestier also more than holds her own in Jacques Doillon’s typically loopy mud-spattered psychodrama Love Battles). Meanwhile Haenel (who made her mark in Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies) plays the (ostensibly) sensible sister, but she’s just as punchy and prickly as Forestier. There’s strong support too by an established name (although less familiar outside France): Belgian actor François Damiens as the father, touchy and immensely touching despite some seriously unfortunate ‘rejuvenating’ make-up. Damiens also gives, incidentally, the show-stopping turn in Serge Bozon’s comedy thriller Tip Top: his hilariously deranged outburst of racist rhetoric at the start is one of those "force of nature" outbursts that are a French cinema specialty, in the Gabin/Depardieu tradition, and horribly entertaining.
This year’s Amalric Award for ubiquity, however, goes to an actor who has already been acclaimed as "the new Depardieu," although I suspect the term refers as much to his bulk as anything. Vincent Macaigne appears in three Rendez-Vous films, Guillaume Brac’s Tonnerre, Justine Triet’s Age of Panic, and Sébastien Betbéder’s 2 Autumns, 3 Winters. Bulky, beaky, hirsute, with long hair plastered into an unruly comb-over, Macaigne’s persona is as an awkward, likeable schlub with variations—he can make himself more tenderly shy, or outright clownish with a dash of blowhard. But he can also be abrasive, and his characters can turn when you don’t expect it. In Age of Panic—a film set and shot partly on the day of the 2012 French elections, using its quasi-documentary crowd footage to vivid of-the-moment effect—Macaigne plays the ex of heroine Laetitia (Laetitia Dosch) and father of her children. He’s seen at the start as a comically insistent sad sack, an amusing inconvenience who won’t be turned away; but once he bursts into Laetitia’s apartment and refuses to leave, Vincent becomes a genuinely troubling, indeed menacing figure, and Macaigne pulls off the transition brilliantly.
Age of Panic
He does something very similar in Tonnerre (the word means "thunder" but it also refers to the setting, the Burgundy town of the same name). Here Macaigne plays Maxime, an indie rock musician who’s moved back in with his father (Bernard Menez), and who starts a relationship with a much younger local girl, Mélodie (Solène Rigot, funny and affecting and, as I said, a face to watch). The film starts out as slackerish, tender, and comic—there’s some affable interplay between father and son and the dad’s very expressive dog, and a great goofy impromptu dance that Maxime does to charm Mélodie. And then it turns quite nasty, as we realize that maybe this couple isn’t the perfect match—only Maxime doesn’t see it. A violent turn in his character creates a shift that arguably the drama can’t quite handle but that Macaigne pulls off superbly.
The film I most urge you to watch, though—and certainly the most artistically inventive in this programme—is 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, written and directed by Sébastien Betbéder. Again, it’s a film that carries a weight of tradition—it looks back to Truffaut and Godard, as well as the literary genre of the confessional récit. But it has a freshness that makes you feel that Betbéder and his actors are making up the story as it unfolds on screen. It’s a story about romantic encounters and tribulations—about two friends, Arman (Macaigne) and Benjamin (Bastien Bouillon); Arman’s love for Amélie (Maud Wyler); both men’s spells in hospital for different reasons; and Benjamin’s weird, seemingly telepathic sister (Pauline Etienne). Divided into two parts and several chapters of varying lengths, the film is narrated in turn by its three main characters, sometimes direct to camera, and uses animation, rear projection, film clips (including Night of the Living Dead and Alain Tanner’s The Salamander) to create a multilayered but very immediate comic evocation of life’s complexities and the dreams of youth.
All this may suggest something very classical, which in some ways 2 Autumns is—but it’s a film that has a magnificent quiet energy, always seems to be thinking on its feet, and feels authentically literary in the way that French films often do when they acknowledge that cinema isn’t just made of cinema but of other art forms and modes of feeling too. The film also tells us—quite explicitly—that it’s perfectly possible to love the films of Eugène Green and of Judd Apatow. In its gently persuasive way, 2 Autumns reminds us, as its Nouvelle Vague models once did, that anything is possible.
Postscript: Given that Vincent Macaigne is new French cinema’s embodiment of le slackerisme or the flag-bearer for France’s equivalent of mumblecore (le bofcore, as I like to call it), I nearly remarked that it’s only a matter of time before he’s cast in a transatlantic romcom opposite Greta Gerwig. As it happens, I’ve just noticed they’re both in the new Mia Hansen-Løve film (as is Pauline Etienne of 2 Autumns). Watch this space…