Three stars of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema

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It’s always big news when a new Claire Denis film lands on these shores, and her latest film, “Fire,” opens this year’s edition of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, which runs from 3 to March 13 at the Film at Lincoln Center. Denis is one of the greatest directors working today, and also one of the most variable of the great directors, one whose ardently attentive artistry is sparked in large part by her choice of subject matter and casting. When the spark fires, as in “Fire”, the result is a kind of ecstatic vulnerability that embodies its powerful emotion in a distinctive form. “Fire” is a cinematic family reunion; this is Denis’ second collaboration with novelist Christine Angot, who co-wrote the screenplay, his third with the two main actors, Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon, and his eighth with Grégoire Colin, dating back to 1994. Like all good reunion, the The subject of the film is the endurance of the past in the present, for better or for worse.

“Fire,” which premiered last month at the Berlin Film Festival and is still unreleased in France, is the drama of a worn-out middle-aged Parisian couple, Sara (Binoche), host of a radio talk show, and Jean (Lindon), whose relationship with Sara gives him a sense of stability. Jean is a former professional rugby player and ex-convict; he was incarcerated for some sort of criminal activity in which his friend François (Colin), a younger man, was also involved, but not prosecuted. Today, Jean joins forces with François to set up a sports agency – he had done similar work before getting into trouble. The problem is that François is also Sara’s ex. Coincidences never happen alone: ​​when Sara sees him in the street while he is kissing a young woman, she is seized with torment. Suspicious of Jean’s reunion with a man who got her into trouble, she nevertheless looks forward to seeing Jean get back on his feet and back to the ground he knows and loves, and she stiffens against her own unease at renewed closeness. with her former lover.

The volatility of the configuration is peculiar – it is a threat of discreet elisions and silent fears which preserve the romantic mystery and the erotic passion of the couple. Sara and Jean are talkative, but aphoristic: they talk, but they don’t communicate. When Jean borrows Sara’s credit card, it is for unspecified reasons; when he goes out in the evening and comes home late, he is “working”. Meanwhile, Jean also tries to mend his relationship with his troubled fifteen-year-old son, Marcus (Issa Perica), who lives with Jean’s mother, Nelly (Bulle Ogier), in a suburb of Paris. Marcus is black; Jean, who is white, tries to teach her a lesson in race-blind self-reliance, and it doesn’t take. For her part, Sara, on her show, interviews real-life author and retired soccer star Lilian Thuram, who is black, about her 2021 book, “White Thinking.” Yet when it comes to Marcus too, Jean rules out Sara. The reserve Sara imposes on Jean is like an embrace, an expression of her tenderness and compassion, sparing her the questions and doubts that would sting Jean’s bruised soul. But, as she inevitably reunites with François, Jean’s jealousy becomes oppressive. Sara finds her self-control an emotional confinement of her own, and all hell breaks loose.

There is a pugnacious brutality, a heavy physicality in the images of the film (the cinematographer is not Agnès Godard, Denis’ longtime collaborator, but rather Éric Gautier); Denis films the corpulence and age of his characters’ bodies, shows his protagonists in extreme close-ups that fill the theater with sweat and cologne, transmitting a feeling of electroshock to the connection of gazes. The ambient anxiety is intensified by the present of the film at the time of covid, with masks as standard equipment and proof of vaccination as part of office life. Denis reveals the face of the city and the textures of street life with an appropriate sense of longing, rediscovery and heartbreak. I’m generally suspicious of filmmakers who distrust their knowledge of the characters and withhold what the characters know about themselves, but Denis turns the film’s calculated shortcomings into crucial aspects of its narrative architecture. The silences that overwhelm the film’s conflicted rages and the suppression of story detail, understating motive and emphasizing action, pushed “Fire” out of the realm of psychological drama and into emotional immediacy. shocking.

Silences are also at the center of “Petite Solange”, a learning story written and directed by Axelle Ropert. It is set in the provincial town of Nantes, where the protagonist, Solange Maserati (Jade Springer), a bright and studious schoolgirl, revels in the warmth of her family life and thrives amidst her cultural stimulation: her mother is a busy theater actress, her father owns a musical instrument store, and her brother is an aspiring mathematician moving to Madrid for a year of study. But the paradise of her domestic bubble is shattered when Solange hears muted arguments between her parents, finds them asleep separately, sees her distraught mother and fears that they will divorce. Gradually, with each new sign of marital conflict, she crumbles, losing focus, discipline, honesty, self-control and sense of identity.

As Denis does in “Fire,” Ropert keeps her characters’ stories lean and gives them little on-screen leeway for digressive ruminations or expressive flourishes, but she does so for quite different purposes. Instead of Denis’ eruptive, tactile immediacy, Ropert pursues a poised, aloof style, exemplified in Springer’s controlled, focused performance, which transforms the traditional coming-of-age tale into a modernist twist on classic melodrama. The exemplary figure in Ropert’s film is Solange’s retreat into highly expressive silence, captured in precisely posed and composed images that ring out as clearly as a cry of agony. The drama reaches a peak of emotional potency in a long, silent sequence in which Solange surrenders to a desperate nighttime stroll through the city, which rises to a poignant, almost lyrical intensity. In this scene and other equally meticulously constructed sequences, Ropert suggests furies as powerful and moving as those “Fire” openly displays.

In Deception, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1990 novel, director Arnaud Desplechin takes a big risk and, for the most part, succeeds. Much of Desplechin’s cinema is under the influence of literature; here he takes on the literature itself, and the connection is energizing. The book takes on a particular form – everything is dialogue, without attribution, and without description that surrounds or connects it. Desplechin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Julie Peyr, treats the dialogue very literally, attributing it to the characters it evokes, starting with a writer named Philippe, played by Denis Podalydès, an actor with theatrical aplomb and with comic grace. Philip’s dialogues are mostly with women, and the rest are about women. His main foil is a woman in her thirties, played by Léa Seydoux, who is only identified as “the English lover”. Their dialogue acquires a singsong, inflected life in the actors’ performances – in the flint calm of Seydoux and in the wry conduct and plaintive wit of Podalydès.

The ultimate story of the book is its very existence, and it’s also the story told by Desplechin: Philip’s wife (played by Anouk Grinberg) reads the dialogues in a notebook that she mistakes for a diary , and therefore for a register of his infidelities. (The novel has autobiographical elements – and plays with this idea, starting with the title.) In Desplechin’s sense, certain moments hammer their tone; others lose themselves in superfluous effects. Yet in the film’s strongest scenes, biographical matches are left out, as is the character of Roth, who subsumes himself in the personality and performance of Podalydès and the artistic mythology of Desplechin. Although the character is presented as a writer born in New Jersey and based in New York, the film francizes and cinematizes him. The film doesn’t come across as a footnote to Roth’s life story, but as a gloss on the male directors of French cinema who develop their films based on their real-life romantic relationships. In Desplechin’s implicit view of his artistic heroes and milieu, he makes Roth’s personal story his own.

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