Though the annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival brings a de rigueur selection of art-house favorites, this year’s choices sway toward star-driven vehicles. Director François Ozon returns with his latest, the elegant period piece Frantz (out in theaters on March 15), as does Bertrand Bonello with his politically provocative Nocturama (streaming on Netflix later this year). But really, actresses are front and center, as they often are in this program presented by the Film Society at Lincoln Center and UniFrance. They take the spotlight in more than half-a-dozen films, and counting.
Case in point is the Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen (The Duke of Burgundy), who only recently became an above-the-title star in France. She’s now best known stateside as the corporate drone in HBO’s Westworld, but those who follow Scandinavian television will remember her in Borgen. Last year, she won the Best Supporting Actress César Award for the quiet, love-at-middle-age drama Courted, and now she headlines director Emmanuelle Bercot’s crowd-pleaser 150 Milligrams as crusader Iréne Frachon.
The film’s French title, La fille de Brest, better conveys the uphill battle that lung specialist Fauchon, from the coastal sticks of Brittany, faced in fighting smirking Big Pharma for knowingly marketing a heart-damaging medication to millions of diabetics. Based on Frachon’s memoir, the screenplay provides many facets to the doctor: she’s at turns maternal, bratty, obstinate, impulsive, and thoughtful. Think of the role as a Norma Rae or Erin Brockovich who has a medical degree (or who doesn’t wear a push-up bra).
Although this movie has the field to itself, it easily wins the title of best medical drama, circa the 2010s. Thanks to the snappy pace and Frachon’s arsenal of tactics—ranging from cuddling to cajoling, to bristling verbal smackdowns—the filmmakers build suspense as she and her team collect evidence against the corporate giant; they even make the compiling of a research paper exciting.
In a departure from American bio dramas, the film implies some tensions on the Frachon home front, as she leaves most of the household (with three children at home) to partner Antoine, but it’s a rare portrayal of a pragmatic relationship, which is in keeping with Frachon’s practical, brisk approach to her work. On the other hand, she nearly bullies the meek, number-crunching researcher played by Benoît Magimel. Now proudly flaunting his dad bod, Magnimel has gone from playing the hunk du jour, such as in his co-starring role with Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, to the middle-aged everyman. (Yes, there is a pattern here: almost all the filmmakers and actors mentioned here are at least one degree away from Huppert.)
Compared to Bercot’s last film, Standing Tall, which appeared in Rendez-Vous 2016 and played out in the faux-documentary-style of the Dardenne brothers, 150 Milligrams has the vigorous pace and well-defined structure of a high-end television movie (with dates appearing on the screen, the time line is crystal clear), but the filmmakers don’t necessarily play it safe. The movie features blunt, graphic sequences in the operating room that hold nothing back. Combine this with another stellar film in the series, Heal the Living, for a crash course on operating room procedures.
In fact, Heal the Living features the best acting showcase in this year’s program. The storyline is as straightforward as they come: The audience follows the case of an organ transplant, from the riveting opening sequence, in which a teenager is critically injured in a car crash, to a heart transplant in the second half. Director Katell Quillévéré takes a domestic drama scenario and expands its horizons, with a large, well-drawn cast of characters. (It’s based on Maylis De Kerangal’s Man Booker Prize–nominated novel Mend the Living.) Her directorial approach remains mostly intimate, with close-ups capturing every flinch of the eye, and she imaginatively films from multiple points of view. Emmanuelle Seigner stands out as the mother of the teen, giving the type of performance in which the audience can read her every thought. With this film, Venus in Fur, and In the House, Seigner has become one of France’s finest (and underrated) actors. The cast also includes Tahar Rahim, Anne Dorval, and Dominique Blanc. It will be released in April.
Nicole Garcia’s plot-heavy From the Land of Moon, a full-fledged, unabashed woman’s picture, stars France’s most well-known international star of the moment, Marion Cotillard, as Gabrielle, a small-town outcast-turned-bourgeois wife and mother with a past. Living in the stiflingly tight-knit 1950s Provençal countryside, her behavior is the subject of village gossip, namely for her uninhibited pursuit of a married school teacher. To avoid scandal, her all-knowing mother gives her headstrong, temperamental daughter a choice: marriage or the mad house.
José (Alex Brendemühl), a Spanish bricklayer and Spanish Civil War vet, agrees to marry her and promises her that he will keep his hands off her; as part of their no-sex agreement, he’ll go to brothels instead. That’s the initial setup before a sickly Gabrielle enters a Swiss sanitarium and encounters a morphine-addicted dilettante, Andre Sauvage (a typecast Louis Garrel), a veteran of the war in Indochina.
Garcia adapted the Italian novella The Stone Sickness by Milena Agus, and the tone of her film balances a fine line between histrionic hysteria and melodrama. Throughout she films from the omnipresent camera’s point of view, without hinting that what we’re viewing is not necessarily reliable. Largely because of this last-minute reveal, or letdown, the movie was tepidly received at Cannes. The ending pulls the rug out from under this tepid-to-medium hothouse drama.
Another big name, Natalie Portman, arrives to the film series with Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium, which was justly overshadowed by Jackie when both films premiered last fall. Portman and Lily-Rose Depp (yes, of that Depp) play the Barlow sisters from America, mediums who headline the 1930s club circuit. Taking on rich clients, who pay the duo to communicate with the dead, the sisters, flushed with money, rub shoulders with Parisian high society against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism, the encroaching war, and the French film industry. Though handsomely produced and rich in subject matter, the scattered focus—with none of the plot strands even half-way developed—comes across as one long expositional setup.
There is no better example of star power in the program than Huppert (yes, her again) in Pascal Bonitzer’s Right Here, Right Now. (Read Caroline Ely’s review here.) Even in a supporting role, she effortless takes over the film, giving off a charge to this contemporary and otherwise coolly acted Executive Suite á la française drama. Haughty one moment and disarmingly vulnerable the next, Huppert is the linchpin of this family drama set against cut-throat corporate calculations.
Finally, as in the past, Rendez-Vous offers filmgoers a chance to catch up on a slate of films that were recently in the running for the French film industry’s César Awards. From the Land of the Moon was lavished with eight nominations, including Best Film; it came away empty-handed. Cotillard was nominated for Best Actress, as was Knudsen for 150 Milligrams. Frantz also racked up a high count of nominations, 11, winning for cinematography. Even Planetarium was able to score a nod, for Best Production Design, as did the otherwise overlooked Heal the Living, for adapted screenplay. However, the winner of the top prize for Best Film went to a work that has been out for months: Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. It won just one more award, but a major one at that. Both Cotillard and Knudsen lost to Elle’s star and raison d’être, Isabelle Huppert (yes, her again).