Here’s a look at some of the best films screening at the 2019 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in NYC, including Premiére Année (The Freshman), Keep an Eye Out!, and Raising Colours.
Every year, the Film Society of Lincoln Centre curates some of the best of French Cinema in the last year for the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival (this year from February 28-March 10). The festival regularly screens treasures from Cannes sidebars like Fatima and Love at First Fight that only receive very limited distribution in North America. This year’s 2019 edition includes the latest film from Mia Hansen-Løve, Maya, which had its world premiere at TIFF in the fall; Mikhaël Hers’ touching and airy drama Amanda; and a handful of other noteworthy films. Here are quick takes on some of the highlights of the festival
The Trouble with You
Between Love at First Fight and The Trouble with You, the ever versatile Adẻle Hanael has established herself as one of our very best comédiennes of the screwball comedy. In The Trouble with You, she plays Yvonne, a widow, mother, and police officer who suddenly discovers her late husband was actually a crooked cop. In one hilarious scene, Yvonne stares around at all of the luxury items in her apartment — including an Eames chair — and suddenly realizes what should have been obvious: these weren’t bought on a regular police officer’s salary.
When Yvonne discovers that her husband sent an innocent man to jail ten years ago, and he’s now about to be released, she makes it her mission to seek him out and set things right. Hilarity ensues. Angry at having done the time without ever committing the crime, Antoine (Pio Marmaï) starts making up for lost time by holding up stores, stealing cars, and getting into fights. She follows him — not to intervene, but to help him avoid the cops, and when she finally meets him, tell him he’s got the right to his anger and criminal actions. Though an amusing flirtation occurs between them, the heart of the story is between Yvonne and her longtime friend Louis (Damien Bonnard), her husband’s former partner, as they admit their feelings for each other, and between Antoine and his wife who can’t understand what happened to the sweet man she married.
Considering how French comedies have that tendency to be extremely racist and xenophobic, The Trouble with You comes out mostly clean with just a few uncomfortably prejudiced jokes. But for the most part, it’s an absurd and hilarious romantic comedy, in which Hanael offers perfect comic timing in a self-serious performance, which is of course the joke. Plus, there’s a great ongoing gag about Louis’ distractedness at work, in which he repeatedly tunes out during a serial killer’s confessions.
Writer-director Thomas Lilti’s The Freshman is his second film about the medical profession after Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor, which also stars Vincent Lacoste. Where Hippocrates was a mostly whimsical look at a young man’s hopes of becoming a great doctor, The Freshman deals with the realities of how incredibly competitive the field is. Watching the film, I found myself repeatedly thinking, “God, the medical school system in France is insane.” The Freshman follows two first-year medical students, Antoine (Vincent Lacoste of Lolo and Amanda, also screening at the festival) and Benjamin (William Lebghil). Benjamin has just entered medical school, but Antoine is repeating his first year for the third time, in hopes of advancing — only the top 300 first-year medical students in a class of 2000 are admitted to the second year. While Benjamin is naturally gifted, Antoine is still struggling, even with the past years of experience behind him. Antoine is passionate about becoming a doctor, while Benjamin wonders if it’s even what he wants.
The film is also the closest depiction I’ve seen of what it’s like to be in a competitive STEM undergraduate program (mine was Engineering Science). When Antoine and Benjamin discuss their study schedule in which all 14 hours of their waking hours are carefully mapped out, it’s so absurd it’s funny, yet I remember being in a similar situation. We see them falling asleep while reading textbooks, and covering the shower in notes so that no waking minute is wasted.
The film follows their friendship through its ups and downs, through the stresses of studying and through their exams, illustrating how important their shared work ethic is for their success and happiness. It’s also a sobering look at how outrageously competitive medical school is in France: a system that over-stresses students while forcing them to uselessly memorize material without offering enough time and space to properly understand the concepts. It’s a test of stamina rather than competence. The film doesn’t overtly deal with how ableist this system is, though it does address the toll the schooling can take on mental health. And it makes you question whether the hoops Antoine and Benjamin have to jump through are anything but arbitrary. (Screens March 9)
Keep an Eye Out
At just 73 minutes, Quentin Dupieux’s absurdist black comedy Keep an Eye Out is an amusing trifle that doesn’t outstay its welcome even though it doesn’t quite stick the landing. Detective Buron (Benoît Poelvoorde) is holding the very hungry witness, Louis (Grégoire Ludig), in the police station for the night for interrogation; because Louis reported a murder, he has become the prime suspect, though he insists on his innocence while looking for any excuse to come back later after he’s eaten. But Buron will not be deterred even as he is regularly sidetracked by a one-eyed colleague who thinks a geometry triangle could be used as a weapon. Before long, Buron and Louis are both getting sidetracked with made-up stories about who has suffered the worst hunger, and Buron is literally entering into Louis’ memory as they retrace his steps on the evening of the murder. It’s all very silly and diverting, even if it doesn’t really amount to much. (Screens March 10)
Raising Colours (Volontaire)
Actress-turned-director Hélène Fillières’ Raising Colours offers an interesting counterpoint to the Quebecois documentary, First Stripes, about what it’s like to be a woman in the army, this time looking at the French navy. Petite, 23-year-old Laure (Diane Rouxel) finds herself joining the navy as a bureaucrat at a training facility, thanks to her Russian-speaking skills, because it’s the only job she can get. Though she finds military life strange and foreign, at first, this isn’t a story about the problems with the military, so much as how she gets brought into the culture. She becomes distant from her past connections, like her boyfriend back home. More importantly, she wants to participate in the military beyond her desk job, in the field. She starts running at night to strengthen her body and improve her fitness so that she can train for an elite faction, where her translation skills can be used on the front lines.
Laure’s struggle to find herself, detach from her old life, and succeed in this new, physical world is the film’s most compelling component. Other plots threads are less compelling. Much time is spent introducing us to Laure’s boss, the handsome middle-aged Commandant Rivière (Lambert Wilson), who becomes both a mentor and an object of fascination. Having spent decades in the military, while keeping his personal life private, she wonders what makes him tick, and what’s kept him there so long. Fillières plays with their mutual fascination that shifts between a father-daughter dynamic and something more sexual. It’s a relief that they don’t end up lovers, but the tension between the characters is never really dealt with, nor is Riviere much developed.
Raising Colours skirts addressing the sexism in the navy head-on; Laure only encounters minor obstacles from Riviere, while the rest of the men are relatively supportive and friendly. Then again, we mostly only seeing her interact with her first friend at the base who is gay (the very handsome and charismatic Corentin Fila, last seen in Being 17). We don’t really get to know the one other woman in the navy that we meet, Laure’s superior who is only on screen briefly. These gaps in the story make the film less weighty and thoughtful than it could have been given the setup. By the end, it’s frustrating that we’ve spent so much time with Rivière without really getting to know him, especially since we do see him when Laure isn’t present. Still, it’s worth a watch for this albeit limited look at what it’s like to be a woman who suddenly finds herself ensconced in the military when that was never previously an ambition.