Last year, the annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series at Lincoln Center was cut short by the pandemic: the final weekend of screenings was canceled, the first casualty of what’s become 12 months of lockdowns and virtual cinema. Needless to say, this year’s edition—the 26th—of Rendez-Vous is completely online, with all 18 films available for anyone to watch. That’s the small silver lining: if you were never able to go to New York and catch the series at Film at Lincoln Center, now’s your chance!
The opening night film is a first for Rendez-Vous: Sébastien Lifshitz’s astonishing documentary, Little Girl. Lifshitz followed a French family for a year to chart their lives as the youngest daughter Sasha deals with the fallout of her gender dysphoria, which includes stonewalling school administrators—who refuse to accept her “new” gender—and sympathetic doctors. At the heart of the film, though, is a remarkably loving family whose acceptance gives Sasha what she needs at a very difficult time.
Disturbing relationships between children and adults are studied in two films. Charlène Favier’s Slalom deftly explores the one-sided relationship between 15-year-old Lyz, a competitive skier, and her demanding coach, who becomes more controlling—both emotionally and physically—as she continues improving and winning. Noée Abita giving a wrenching performance of a talented but confused teenager in Favier’s splendid film debut.
Another debut, Spring Blossom introduces 20-year-old Suzanne Lindon as director-writer-star of a wispy romance between a precocious 16-year-old (Lindon) and a 30ish actor she befriends at a café by the theater where he’s performing in a play. Lindon shows a lot of promise and has a beguiling onscreen presence—her famous acting parents are Sandrine Kiberlain and Vincent Lindon—but Spring Blossom is somewhat less than the sum of its good-natured parts.
In the grittily absorbing Ibrahim, director Samir Guesmi lays out the complicated relationship of the 17-year-old title character and his father Ahmed, both dealing with the difficulties of adolescence and single parenthood. A L’abordage, Guillaume Brac’s gentle comedy of manners, follows a motley trio of young men who travel to the south of France to surprise one of their girlfriends, which barely summarizes a film of acute behavioral insights.
Lifelines chronicles what occurs after a difficult breakup: Esther finds a mysterious diary and is soon on the road tracking down the woman who wrote it, leaving her best friend, whose cancer has returned. Written and directed with controlled poise by Fabienne Godet, the film smartly if almost imperceptibly shows how Esther’s discoveries are inevitable and surprising simultaneously.
In Margaux Hartmann, this year’s festival guest of honor Emmanuelle Béart—one French cinema’s true sex symbols over the past three decades—heartbreakingly plays an aimless 50-ish woman who, several months after her husband’s death, moves in with her half-sister in Versailles and enrolls in school. If director Ludovic Bergery at times lets the aimlessness seep into his film, Beart is always laser-focused in her all-too-human portrayal.
Rarely has tennis—or any sport—been dramatized in all its sheer psychological, emotional and physical turmoil as in Quentin Reynaud’s illuminating and compelling Final Set, which follows a 37-year-old former teen prodigy trying to remain relevant on the court even as his body, mind and personal life (his wife, a former player, wants him home more for their young son, not playing in tournaments around the world, while his eternally disappointed mother passive-aggressively berates his talent and choices) are wearing him down. Reynaud might rely too heavily on the climactic French Open match, but his fantastic cast—Alex Lutz, Ana Girardot and Kristen Scott-Thomas are all masterly—hits repeated aces.
The Algerian War is the backdrop for Faithful, Hélier Cisterne’s searing fact-based drama about Fernand Iveton, a revolutionary who falls in love with a fiery Frenchwoman, whom he brings back to Algeria with her young son; Iveton’s resistance activities soon land him on trial for his life. Cisterne adroitly mixes the personal and the political in this real-life tragedy, bolstered by the supremely accomplished acting of Vicky Krieps and Vincent Lacoste in the leads.
Romances with a twist are de rigeur in French films. Nicole Garcia’s Lovers, which unspools a love triangle among a young woman, her affluent husband and her former drug-addict lover, is highlighted by Stacy Martin, eminently believable as an effortless magnet for men. The title of My Donkey, My Lover and I is about as witty as Carole Vignal’s otherwise dopey comedy gets; Laure Calamy manages to keep her dignity as a teacher who follows her lover (and his family) to a hiking trip that includes her dealing with a cantankerous ass (not her lover). And Emmanuel Mouret’s latest almost-decent rom-com, Love Affair(s), is a second-rate Arthur Schnitzler steal by way of Eric Rohmer about several characters’ mostly fraught romantic adventures, told with intermittent charm but a deadly self-satisfaction.
Finally, there’s Red Soil, Farid Bentoumi’s engrossing ecothriller in the vein of Silkwood or the more recent Dark Waters, whose slow unveiling of concrete pieces of evidence against a chemical factory polluting nearby land for decades is put in the capable hands of Zita Hanrot, who gives a palpable sense of impassioned urgency to her role of a whistleblower, at first reluctant because her father is a long-time factory employee. The gifted Hanrot keeps viewers gripped by her naturalness as the heroine, even when the movie takes conventional turns in its approach to a familiar subject.
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2021
Film at Lincoln Center
Virtual screenings March 4-14, 2021