Francophilia and cinephilia have long gone hand in hand. While the market for subtitled films in the US has changed greatly, we still get to see more films from France than any other country outside the multiplex circuit for mainstream cinema from India and China.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” program, now in its 24th year, offers a wide cross-section of that nation’s films. It’s willing to show everything from broad comedies (which aren’t actually that commercial in the US) to recent work by auteurs like Mia Hansen-Løve and Bruno Dumont to new directors whose work is less classifiable. In addition to the films I was able to preview, this year’s installment offers promising titles like “Paul Sanchez Is Back!,” the fifth film by Patricia Mazuy, a major director who has had great difficulty getting her films made or shown in the US and Dumont’s absurdist sci-fi mini-series “Coincoin and the Extra-Humans.”
The Film Society’s program notes for Pierre Salvadori’s “The Trouble With You” (Feb. 28, 6:30 & 9 p.m.), the opening night film for “Rendez-Vous,” call it a “comic whirlwind.” That’s not how it actually plays out. It begins with an exaggeratedly wild fight, as cop Santi (Vincent Elbaz) kicks in a door, starts throwing his fists around and letting bullets fly to the tune of a pseudo-John Barry score by Camille Bazbaz.
If this seems ridiculous, there’s a reason why: Santi is dead, and this is a story told by his widow Yvonne (lesbian actor Adèle Haenel) to their son. Also a cop, she learns that he was actually corrupt and responsible for framing an innocent man, leading to an unjust and lengthy jail term. Meanwhile, her colleague Louis (Damien Bonnard) pines loudly and obnoxiously after her.
Salvadori’s direction and script treat potentially grim material blithely. If it’s theoretically a comedy, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny — the best gag involves sex toys and a break-in — but maybe that distance lies in Yvonne’s detachment from her grief and the tension of her work. For the most part, the film makes pleasantly playful hay with familiar ideas from the cop movie and rom-com, although it’s too bad it ultimately indulges the latter’s sexism too much. That’s a symptom of its narrative contrivances; Haenel brings more motivation to her part than the script does and after a certain point the film stops making much sense.
Mia Hansen-Løve might be the most talented French director still in their 30s, but she’s made her first major misstep with “Maya” (Mar. 6, 6 p.m.; Mar. 7, p.m.). The film steps gingerly onto loaded territory. At its beginning, French journalist Gabriel (Roman Kolinka) gets off a plane after having been held hostage and tortured in Syria, with his bruise marks still fresh. Trying to recover, he heads right to the Goa region of India, where his godfather owns a hotel. There, Gabriel strikes up an intense relationship with the godfather’s teenage daughter Maya (Aarshi Banerjee), who is trying to decide if she should apply to college. Gabriel seems most at home far away from France, in the Middle East and South Asia. But his sex with Maya plays out an old colonial dynamic: a white European seeks relief from his pain in a much younger woman of color.
“Maya” wants to engage with Gabriel and Maya as people, rather than representatives of their countries and genders, but this baggage is impossible to dodge. As well-intentioned as the director may be, she winds up showing Gabriel using Maya — and India — to liberate himself from feelings of guilt and victimization, with his pain foremost. But even if she names the film after Maya and shows how hard that liberation is to come by, the girl’s emotions and life come second to his. Closing “Maya” by playing Nick Cave’s mournful ballad “Distant Sky” is a lazy way to wring something moving out of its final images.
Thankfully, Virgil Vernier’s “Sophia Antipolis” (Mar. 5, 4 p.m.; Mar. 10, 5:30 p.m.) offers something far different and more compelling than those two films. It’s tied closely to the title location: a town, between Cannes and Nice, named after its industrial park. While it has access to a beautiful beach, most of the town seems inhospitable, dominated by large, sterile buildings that don’t look like they were made with people in mind. J. G. Ballard’s shadow looms over the film. In fact, it feels close to the suburban menace of the Brazilian film “Neighboring Sounds” and Lucrecia Martel’s depictions of decadent middle-class Argentina.
Starting off on a faintly confrontational note, an 18-year-old girl looks straight into the camera and tells an unseen plastic surgeon that she wants breast implants. Following that, the film depicts a world full of false prophets, including a group with Heaven’s Gate overtones. And they look benign compared to the atmosphere of tension and barely restrained violence “Sophia Antipolis” establishes in its second half. The turning point comes with the discovery of a woman’s burned body in a factory.
Vernier throws us into life in Sophia Antipolis without any introduction, shifting from character to character. Unlike the many bad films claiming “we’re all connected” in the long trail of Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” the apocalyptic overtones and sense of the uncanny are earned here. “Sophia Antipolis” uses images of the sun as punctuation, culminating with one suggesting something larger than just the story of one city is coming to an end. Despite suffering from an elliptical narrative, the film is extremely insistent about alienation and tying its knots together in the end. Still, it all amounts to a critique of modern life that’s overly familiar but also vague rather than a film with real political punch.
RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA | Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater, 165 W. 65th St. | Feb. 28-Mar. 10 | Screenings are $17; $12 for students & seniors; opening night is $25/ $20 at filmlinc.org