The annual New York festival of French film presents some fine movies this year in a program of high quality overall—even the program’s occasional misfires boast something to recommend them. Women directors especially display a great range of talent here, tackling everything from comedies to tight thrillers. Echoes of the supernatural emerge in unexpected places. A brooding sortie into the fallout from a foreign war hints at the dangers of France’s overseas adventures. Artists condemn a cutthroat mentality that rejects those who have outlived their usefulness. And two very different movies offer challenges to young men in cold climates.
Right Here, Right Now
“Projects are to be fulfilled, dreams are to be shattered,” intones a haughty executive, and so sets the tone for Pascal Bonitzer’s Right Here, Right Now. Corporate power games, family rivalry, and the lasting sting of a long-ago betrayal crank up the tension in a stylish production supported by a top-notch cast.
Young but supremely self-controlled, Nadia (Bonitzer’s daughter, Agathe) aims to make her mark in a high-stakes company merger. Along the way she tangles with one nasty boss (Lambert Wilson) and another that’s ineffectual (Pascal Greggory), an alcoholic corporate wife (Isabelle Huppert, who tones down her usual intensity to believable effect), and a sullen rival and sometime lover (rising star Vincent Lacoste). Hallucinatory episodes—subtly deployed in the movie’s context—will have Nadia doubting her sanity. And bitter family secrets strain her loyalty.
Right Here, Right Now is elevated by polished dialogue that manages to sound piercing, real, and slyly funny. The film takes its time establishing the complex relationships, which pays off in spades as a canny plot structure inexorably reveals a dark surprise connected to all that has gone before. Unpredictable forces pulse beneath the surface of this elegant, ironic psychological thriller, which, like its characters, drops its game face only at the exact right moments.
What could be farther than the chilly offices of Right Here than the French Academy in Rome’s glorious Villa Medici? That’s the rarefied setting for a group of artists in Caroline Deruas’s sumptuous, sudsy romp. Titian-haired, tempestuous beauty Axelle (Jenna Thiam) is a photographer, footloose and looking for romance. Lean, green-eyed Camille (Clotilde Hesme) is a writer, now bored with an older husband (Tchéky Karyo), who may have outlived his mentor role. The two meet with other creative types in the Renaissance palazzo for a year-long fellowship, and so unfolds a series of rivalries, liaisons with doe-eyed swains, and ghost sightings from the storied villa’s past.
Daydreams aims for social relevance by mourning the commercialization of the villa and its spinning off of loyal retainers who have served there for generations. Borderline-silly scenes of empresses and nuns returning from the dead attempt to inject sinister elements into the plotline. But the real point of the enterprise lies with Daydreams’s sexy visionaries, their heated (and opportunistic) affairs, and ravishing tableaux of the villa itself, all gorgeous frescoes, balustrades, topiary, and staggering Roman views.
In the Forests of Siberia
The romance of the wild flares in this paean to Russia’s harsh landscape and one young man’s quest for solitude, based on a best-selling memoir by Sylvain Tesson. Teddy (Raphaël Personnaz) flees the cacophony of modern life to hole up in a cabin by vast Lake Baikal, testing his skills and his resolve. Director Safy Nebbou underlines the young man’s utter isolation in the majestic landscape as sweeping wide and overhead shots reduce him to a tiny speck on a frozen lake or against a mountain range, his movements scored to a lush soundtrack. Other shots bore closer in as Teddy shivers in the night or wrestles with a hand auger to drill a hole in thick ice. One comic, scary sequence has Teddy cowering in the nude from a bear. In another, he faces off with Aleksei (Evgeniy Sidikhin), a notorious poacher and reputed murderer wielding a rifle.
Teddy becomes an unlikely friend to the hard-bitten older man, who resembles daguerreotypes of Rasputin, only with a shorter beard. Their alliance breaks the young adventurer’s isolation and forces him to put something on the line as the truth about his new companion emerges.
Earnest as the film is, the stakes do not always feel as high as they might when Teddy braves the elements. This gentle soul’s deeper impetus for challenging himself in the wilderness may be unclear, and he seems insufficiently careful to avoid deathly situations in a perilous environment. “This place is not for made for human beings,” growls Alexei, and Teddy should listen. Still, Forests is an adventure that uses the immensity and majesty of Siberia to impressive effect.
Journey to Greenland
Two young men also take time off to navigate a freezing cold, unfamiliar environment, but director Sébastien Betbeder plays their journey strictly for low-key laughs. Thomas (Thomas Blanchard) is the scruffy short one, and Thomas (Thomas Scimeca) is the scruffy, taller, almost-good-looking one, and the movie makes a running joke out of the friends’ sharing the same first name. The two underemployed actors from Paris land aboard a helicopter in Kullorsuaq, Greenland’s most remote town, where the shorter Thomas’s father (François Chattot) has made his home.
Thereby unfolds a fish-out-of-water story as the guys cope in Jarmuschian (or perhaps Seinfeldian) fashion, meeting the locals, attending awkward parties made even more stilted by a lack of booze, and eating butchered seals. Internet connections and new acquaintances are hard to sustain, and the two friends begin to needle each other. (“Did you make fun of my Marseille accent?” “I apologize for calling you insensitive.”)
Journey has raffish charm to share, but the movie’s energy stays on the low boil. A local beauty Thomas likes but who has avoided his gazes kisses him and the other Frenchman on the cheek toward the movie’s end. “You’re nice guys,” she says. “I’m glad I met you.” So are we, but the two Thomases could work harder to sustain a film beyond good-natured whimsy. (Journey is currently streaming on Netflix.)
Heightening a film’s atmosphere of dread may seem manipulative on a director’s part. But the deliberately mounting pressure in The Stopover feels sincere and organic, a reflection of its powerless characters’ immersion into an unbearable mental space.
A troop of French soldiers fresh from the battles of Afghanistan flies to a cheesy Cyprus resort to collect a reward: three days of decompression with beaches, bikinis, and booze. The fighters also face debriefings where individual soldiers recount stories of ambush and death reconstructed with a virtual reality simulator in front of their fellow troops. Reliving the experiences is harrowing for some, and the brass watches soldiers for signs of stress.
The sister directorial team of Delphine and Muriel Coulin focus on two young women, childhood friends pipelined into the military from their dead-end provincial town. Ariane Labed as Aurore displays the sad-eyed watchfulness of a decent soul who has endured terrible ordeals but cautiously yearns to taste some of life’s pleasures. She’s protective of resentful, on-edge Marine (French chanteuse Soka, radiating the defiance of a young Joan Jett), who jeers at the resort as a place for “Brits getting drunk and Russians pigging out.” As though watching from a discreet distance, the camera glides over their terse interactions and those of the troop’s angry young men. Endless shots of tequila, brushoffs from semi-nude women, and the trauma of reliving combat do not bring the desired relief for these haunted veterans. They are walled off from the other hotel guests, from each other, and the men from their female fellow soldiers, and the frustration mounts as the stay goes on.
To escape their cohorts’ bad attitudes and to see a bit of the island, Aurore and Marine allow themselves to be picked up by some local Cypriots. The encounter does not go well. Comrades become enemies, and misogyny, rage, and violence rise in a climax that for all the foreshadowing still comes as a shock.
The Stopover would benefit from a little dramatic tightening and shorter scenes, but it builds to a hard-edged portrayal of mental devastation and the lasting effects of violence. The film’s restraint only makes the movie more powerful—its final blow lingers on.
In Bed with Victoria
Imagine a wittier Bridget Jones’s Diary or a worldlier Trainwreck, then go along for the ride with Justine Triet’s knockabout farce/melodrama. Single mother Victoria (Virginie Efira) is an accomplished lawyer, but has an unfortunate habit of hurtling into the kind of predicaments duller types would prudently skirt. Against her better judgment, she takes on an assault case for a seductive yet creepy womanizer pal (Melvil Poupaud), a misstep that exposes her to penalties for ethics violations. Her pest of an ex-husband is harassing her with lurid details of their life together on his blog. And the trial she aims to win requires her to call on an unusual star witness—a skittish Dalmatian dog.
In Bed rolls out some of its busy situations for giggles and others straight-faced, which can feel disorienting. But the movie has a knowing, brassy quality that makes it contemporary and lets it get away with a lot. Hard-charging and whip-smart onscreen, Efira screws her cutie-pie features into charming vivacity, then lets them fall into a down-at-the-mouth soufflé, mirroring the erratic Victoria’s rising and falling morale. Vincent Lacoste (again) plays handily against type as a loveable nerd trying to help Victoria right the ship. Soothsayers, old confidants, sexual pickups, and legal types hanging around the movie’s margins keep spirits high and interactions unpredictable. Light but with an unmistakable bite, In Bed harbors an accepting soul hidden beneath its hyperactive surface.