French Cinema Swinging Rendez-Vous

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03/05/2009 10:00 AM |

Starting today, through the middle of the month, at the Walter Reade Theater and IFC Center, it’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, the annual survey of prizewinners and box-office hits from Freedomland, featuring bluehair favorites, fest-circuit auteurs and more. This is, by consensus, one of the strongest fests in recent years, though as of right now many of the best selections are inexplicably without U.S. distribution.

Stuff I haven’t seen but have heard vouched for would be Mesrine, a doublefeature biopic of the eponymous 60s and 70s criminal (“everything Che should have been”, says a colleague); The Girl on the Train, the new Andre Techine, starring Catherine Deneuve; and Bellamy, a police procedural/family drama directed by Claude Chabrol and starring Gerard Depardieu, who, despite having between the two of them directed or starred in every movie ever made in France, have never worked together before now. As for what I have seen (both now-or-never deals)…

Agnes Varda’s Beaches of Agnes, in which, like Ross McElwee minus the installment plan, New Waver, photographer/videographer and widow of Jacques Demy Agnes Varda scrapbooks something like an autobiography out of a life in cinema, reediting clips from her playful, peripatetic half-century of filmmaking into the narrative of her life. Cinema is life; life is cinema: she also restages memories, builds sets of old homes, and address the camera from inside a papier-mache whale. With her two-tone (henna and skunk-white) bowl-cut helmet, Varda is a genuinely odd individual — wandering around the Venice Biennial in a potato suit is hardly her kookiest moment — and her crazy-aunt warmth, shining on both her own life and the lives of her many colorful (and famous) friends, ought to appeal equally to fans and newcomers.

And, yes, Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (pictured). Even at her most oneiric, Denis has always been generous with her time, letting her attentions spill over into supporting characters “having their being.” After a gorgeous nocturnal opening, introducing the characters in limnal states — trains, platforms, cigarette breaks — Denis settles into the lovingly textured domestic routine of a widower father and young-adult daughter, sitting down to eat rice together. Denis lingers, wordlessly, on the meal, and you realize that she’s making an honest-to-Hou East Asian long-take movie. Elliptical in its divulging of information and essentially plotless — though with far more of a recognizable narrative arc than Beau Travail or L’Intrus35 Rhums is about a surrogate family caught between hanging together or moving on, with a final bow to the ancestral god of the East Asian long-take movie, Ozu’s Late Spring (the rice cookers from the opening scene feature prominently). Scene of the year: an impromptu after-hours slow-dance, all exchanged glances, cross purposes, light and shadow, skin and wet clothes, set to the Commodores’ flesh-smooth “Nightshift” — a song about absent friends.