Robert Koehler estimates he watched between 100 and 120 films for the current iteration of “Rendez-Vous With French Cinema.” Koehler — who, with the estimable Kent Jones, took over as program director of the Film Society at Lincoln Center from Richard Peña, who stepped down last year — did this all himself. He had no aides.
The annual series, now in its 18th year and co-presented with Unifrance Films, is consistently one of the most popular regular programs at the Film Society at Lincoln Center. The two dozen titles that made the cut serve, as it always has, to familiarize audiences with the current cinema of another country. But Koehler wanted to do things slightly different this year.
“What I wanted to do,” he explains, “is broaden the focus just a little bit to capture every shade of French cinema, from the most independent and, if not experimental, then semi-experimental to the most commercial, star-studded box-office comedy.”
Granted, he doesn’t go to the absolute extremes of the French mainstream. Missing, although perhaps not tragically, is the latest “Astérix and Obélix” live-action blockbuster, a series that makes crazy money at home (and in Europe) but has never once been exported stateside. Gallic comedy doesn’t always translate stateside — never released here either is “Welcome to the Sticks,” the highest grossing homegrown film in French history —but Koehler is confident in the few yukfests he’s programmed. That includes actor-director Bruno Podalydès’s “Granny’s Funeral,” about a man’s awkward attempts to make funeral arrangements for the grandparent he barely knew.
As promised, the rest of the “Rendez-Vous” slate is a mix. There are films with names (Jeanne Moreau in “A Lady in Paris”; Nils Arestrup in Closing Night Film “You Will Be My Son”; etc.). There are new films by name directors, including “In the House,” the latest from François Ozon. Ozon was once the enfant terrible of French cinema, with “See the Sea,” “Criminal Lovers” and “Swimming Pool.” He’s been quiet of late, and his films, even the good ones like 2007’s “Angel,” have not garnered the attention he once commanded so easily. But “In the House,” about a promising high school student who infiltrates an allegedly normal suburban family at the behest of his lit teacher (Fabrice Luchini), is playful in a manner different from past Ozons, and loops in a predictably winning Kristin Scott Thomas for good measure.
Of equal, if not greater, interest are the films by neophytes. This year’s slate has a number of first-time films. “French cinema is really being regenerated and revived by a young generation of filmmakers who are thinking way outside the box,” Koehler says. “They’re much more personal and they can’t be identified as French in the clichéd way. They’re films that cross cultural borders. They draw stylistic tendencies from Asia and Latin America, and have transformed these tendencies into their own personal work.”
Koehler cites Shalimar Preuss “My Blue Eyed Girl” and Héléna Klotz’s “The Atomic Age,” a 65-minute experimental narrative with fluctuating sexuality he says “sneaks up on you,” as two films that represent the Janus faced nature of new French cinema: looking forward while facing backwards at the same time. Not that he wants to call it a New Wave: “Don’t call it a Wave. That term should be buried and dead.”
There are also a few older films, paired with newer films in the program. One of the more anticipated films on tap is “Renoir,” a biopic about the painter Auguste Renoir spending time with his son Jean, when he was still young and not yet aware he would become a great artist, too. Renoir the Younger’s 1951 classic “The River,” a Technicolor beaut about a Western family in India, will be screened from a new restoration. And because there will be shown the last film from the late Claude Miller, “Thérèse Desqueyroux” — starring Audrey Tautou — the series also boasts the 1962 version of the same François Mauriac novel. Directed by Georges Franju (“Eyes Without a Face”), it features a younger Emmanuelle Riva, late an Oscar nominee for “Amour.”
“France is still the most vibrant, most wide-ranging and possibly most vital of the national cinemas in Europe,” Koelher says. Even as the cinema, like economies and people, crosses borders into other countries, France still has a toe in tradition. “There’s still a distinct national voice that goes back to the origins of cinema. The first films were made there, after all.”
For the full lineup click here.
If You Go:
"Rendez-Vous With French Cinema"
Through March 10
At the Film Society of Lincoln Center, BAM and IFC Center"