Sara Forestier, left, and Adèle  Haenel in Suzanne (Film Society of Lincoln Center)

Sara Forestier, left, and Adèle Haenel in Suzanne (All photos: Film Society of Lincoln Center)

If you’re lucky enough to see only a handful of what the mini-festival Rendez-Vous with French Cinema has to offer, you’re likely to have a sense of déjà vu, or at least left wondering, strange, I’ve seen that face before. One of the resulting pleasure of this annual series—23 features this year—is that in a short period of time, a viewer discovers an actor’s range and star power from one role to another.

This year highlights many actors in their 20s and 30s, particularly two stars of the moment, Sara Forestier (who kind of looks like a blond Emily Blunt) and Vincent Macaigne (not a likely star). Forestier appears in three films, and it seems like she has grown up on camera. Her first role was as a teenager in Abdellatif Kechiche’s 2003 Games of Love and Chance, and if you admired Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color, you should definitely seek this one out. But these two are not the only up-and-comers who could be poster children for the series.

The showcase, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and uniFrance, presents many films that are very good, all with a distinct point of view. Fortunately, there are only a couple of all-out disappointments. However, a few of the most entertaining new French films are conspicuously absent: the hit mama’s boy comedy Me, Myself and Mum, with a great drag performance of Guillaume Gallienne, and Roman Polanski’s nimble adaptation of the play Venus in Fur. Fortunately, the program includes the Venice prize–winning Eastern Boys, which walks a tightrope, without wobbling too wildly, in blending three genres: social realism verité, queer drama, and crime thriller. Its central relationship reflects the film’s mood, as a john’s interactions with a teen Belarusian hustler turn from tricking to the paternal.

Among the best films is Suzanne, the second sharply perceptive film by Katell Quillévévé, with Sara Forestier as the disheveled, erratic, and nearly feral title character in a family drama that’s intimate and epic in a small-scale sort of way. Working-class teenager Suzanne becomes a barely-there single mother for her son, and makes one disaster decision after another, each with a long-term consequence, one of which is to leave her family for a gangster-to-be bad boy, played by Paul Hamy. That actor appears again as a one-night stand for Catherine Deneuve in On My Way; the cross-casting among these films is almost incestuous.

The impulsive Suzanne remains a hard-edged cipher, yet the elliptical story line doles out enough finely drawn characters so that many sequences pack an emotional punch that saves the film from undernourishment. What remains within the trim and speedy 94-minute time frame is often riveting. It’s like watching a car wreck in slow motion. Suzanne meanders, but the film doesn’t. It was nominated for five César Awards, bestowed by the Academy of Arts and Techniques of Cinema, and the ever-dependable Adèle  Haenel won for supporting actress as Suzanne’s steadfast older sister. Rendez-Vous regulars will instantly recognize Haenel from many films screened here.

Vincent Macaigne in Tonnerre

Vincent Macaigne in Tonnerre

Actor Vincent Macaigne is cuddly and creepy in equal measure in two fine films by new directors. Judging by his looks, he’s like a young puppy-dog Gérard Depardieu with his slumping posture, receding hairline, and bald spot. In two films, he plays low-key, earnest guys with an edge of the sinister. No caffeine is necessary before watching Justine Triet’s The Age of Panic, with its anxiety-producing first hour, much of it filmed on the streets of Paris during the May 6, 2012 national elections.

The rowdiness and hustle-and-bustle of the crowds waiting for the returns are no match for the domestic high-heat dispute between a divorced drama queenish (at least in her private life) TV news reporter, Laetitia (Laetitia  Dosch), and her ex, Vincent (Macaigne), who arrives a day late to his court-appointed time to visit their two daughters. She has barred him from entering her apartment while she’s out covering the news, even if that means leaving her daughters with a nervous babysitter who cringes (as will the audience) from the nonstop wailing toddlers. There’s not a chance that anyone will nod off. The film singly breaks the festival out of any art-house stupor. Laetitia also asks a neighbor to keep an eye out for Vincent and not to let him into the apartment building, saying he’s dangerous and violent; what makes Vincent’s interactions compelling is seeing if the hothead will, in fact, physically lash out.

All the actors play roles with their same first name—hey, whatever works. You’ll not catch anyone “acting,” and you can’t help but be sucked into the bickering couple’s chaos. Though calmness sets in during the last half-hour, it doesn’t undercut the urgency that earlier propels the film. In addition, the closing credits feature “Lose Your Soul” by Dead Man’s Bones, the rock duo that includes Ryan Gosling.

Varying degrees of stalking take place in Tonnerre, set in the titular Burgundy town of 5,500, where 30-something, unemployed musician Maxine (Macaigne) still lives at home with his widower father. He pursues a pretty, Ruben-esque student, who’s 20 if she’s a day, and the camera eavesdrops on their tentative date. She’s halting, and he’s charmingly shy, amazed at his luck. They have a brief relationship before she stops returning his calls and he receives a scalding text sent from her cell phone. The mood then turns into something unexpected: a slow-burning impending disaster. For such a straightforward storyline, director Guillaume Brac fills it with very precise sense of place and telling gestures. It leaves an impression of the sweet and menacing in equal measure. (And you might think of Taxi Driver.)

The actor who plays the father in Suzanne, François Damiens, returns as everyone’s favorite target: the insufferably clueless, egotistical, and high-maintenance actor (is there any other kind?) in the comedy/whodunit Playing Dead, which well describes the latest role of fallen-from-grace Jean, played by Damiens—curiously goofy and sternly serious at the same time. Famous for one role 25 years ago, Jean has been fired repeatedly for arguing with directors, so the hard-to-cast thespian takes on the assignment as a murder victim in a police investigation of a double-homicide in a provincial Peyton Place.

Causing delay after delay, he takes his Stanislavsky training too much to heart, dissecting every possible motive for the victim and the assailant, flagging the investigation. Of course, his over-analyzing of the crime reenactment will lead the beautiful investigator (who happens to be staying at the same hotel as Jean, hint, hint) to discover the case-breaking clues. The innocuous film works both as a satire and a mystery. Surprisingly, it was co-produced by the Dardenne brothers, filmmakers of much more somber fare, where you’d feel guilty if you laugh.

Another equally harmless selection is The Gilded Cage, a glowingly filmed ethnic comedy. A tirelessly dependable Portuguese couple has been the superintendents of a swanky apartment (think a Classic Six with plenty of space) for 30 years before they strike gold: they are bequeathed a large vineyard back in the home country, with the requirement they reside in Portugal. Though they cautiously wait to break the news to their loved ones, the news emerges thanks to one snoop. Nobody wants them to go, and all work together to make sure the couple stays in place. The acting style wavers from the sensitive to the most sitcomish, but lead actress Rita Blanco anchors the film as the soulful matriarch, while others mug for the camera. What’s ham in Portuguese, canastrão?

For scandal watchers, the closing night film, Bertrand Tavernier’s The French Minister, features Julie Gayet of the recent hubbub involving President François Hollande. Even though she’s only in this film for 10 minutes, tops, she pops out of the screen, bringing a headstrong sensuality to the nonstop dialogue, but it’s a bit strange that she has been nominated for best supporting actress for the César Awards. In her role as a cabinet officer in charge of African affairs, she doesn’t have much to do, other than backstabbing (superficially) a greenhorn speechwriter hired to prop up the verbose but nonsensical foreign minister on the eve of the American invasion of a Middle Eastern nation. You say Ludestan, I say Iraq. This is a polite and more optimistic satire of realpolitik than the British curse-fest In the Loop. This pat on the back to France climaxes at the United Nations, where Old Europe eloquently stands up to the American reactionary neocons. But that’s so 2003.

Actor Mathieu Amalric is everywhere. When does he sleep? He recently starred in Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, not to mention Venus in Fur or The Grand Budapest Hotel. He made a good Bond villain in Quantum of Solace, but the elfin Amalric is spectacularly miscast in the gorgeously scenic why-he-dunit Love Is the Perfect Crime, filmed in the breathtaking and crystal-clear skies of the Alps. It’s not only the clean air that’s transparent; so is the lack of credibility. You have to accept that Amalric’s Bréton-quoting writing instructor cuts a wide swath through the female population or that a sexually voracious student would consider him fascinating (played by Forestier, again, who tosses off her clothes as she does in her remaining film here, Love Battles).

At a lost at what to do, Amalric looks like a chamois-in-the-headlines in another offering, Sophie Fillières’s tentative middle-class marriage meltdown, If You Don’t, I Will. It features the type of direction where actors stand lifelessly delivering their lines, repetitively bickering. The on-screen relationship is dead upon the first scene. There’s no else to go but to divorce court.

Tahar Rahim and Léa Seydoux in Grand Central

Tahar Rahim and Léa Seydoux in Grand Central

On the other hand, Tahar Rahim (A Prophet) and Léa Seydoux are not only convincing but raise the heat without overpowering Rebecca Zlotowski’s sensitive, fly-on-the-wall approach in Grand Central. Seydoux shared the Palme d’Or with her director and co-star for Blue Is the Warmest Color last year, and she has gained more visibly, at least here in the States—she made it onto the fold-out cover of Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue.

Rahim plays Gary, who in the first scene dodges a ticket-taker on a train to a new town, where the only work available to someone with his limited training is at the nuclear power plant (remarkably filmed on location), not far from Lyon. Almost 30 and with a small-time criminal past, Gary wants stability, i.e., euros. The worst thing that can happen at most jobs is getting fired; here, you can get both canned and toxic doses of radiation. Knowledge is not only power—it could save your life.

But the personal headstrong determination bleeds from the job to after work when he hooks up with a friend/co-worker’s fiancée, Karole (Seydoux—she wears a tight white top and short, short cut-off jeans—you can’t miss her). They conduct their tryst in secret, though not discreetly. Their meeting point: on a verdant river bank. Unlike many working-class based films, there’s a respite from the drudgery: life goes on, and hormones take over. There’s also a strong spirit of camaraderie among Gary and his newfound friends that makes the work shift tolerable.

But enough about the actors, what about auteurs? Actress/director Agnès Jaoui was nominated for best foreign language film in 2001 for The Taste of Others, and she has consistently delivered one consistently likable relationship-driven comedy after another, in the flavor of Woody Allen (without the baggage, of course). It’s a little odd that her new melancholy comedy, Under the Rainbow, doesn’t have a distributor yet. She’s co-written once again with collaborator Jean-Pierre Bacri, who co-stars as well (as surly a sourpuss as ever).

There’s stronger contrast of tone than in her other movies: wryly observational vs. whimsical fairy tale longings that pierce through the cynicism. To get the picture: it opens with a dream where a lost princess in a glowing blue dress meets her prince. And the young women in the dream will remember it as a sign when, awake, she meets a floppy-haired composer—he seems to fit the bill. The viewpoint’s romantic or sappy, depending on how you look at it, until Jaoui complicates and undermines her diverse characters’ desires. Her scripts are so well constructed, yet there’s a sense of the characters being set loose. She’s among the most consistently playful and introspective (without navel gazing) of filmmakers.

Julie Bertuccelli was a TV documentary filmmaker before she made one of the best family dramas of the ’00s, Since Otar Left. She returns to nonfiction film with School of Babel, with students who hail from all over the world—Morocco, Venezuela, Romania, Senegal, the Ukraine—in a French middle school immersion class. Disruptive, acting their age and acting up, and behaving diffidently—the (pre)teens are uninhibited; they are even comfortable being filmed at a swimming lesson. The pace matches the jaunty orchestral score, and because the students take their time speaking, it’s also a good way to brush up on your French. Much may feel familiar to an American audience or to those who saw the ever-patient teacher in Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and To Have or Laurent Cantet’s The Class, which had a real-life teacher acting as the central character. But the last day of school in Babel is a doozy, a teary reminder that these preteens are not yet old enough to hide their feelings when saying goodbye to each other or their retiring teacher, Brigitte Cervoni.  À Madame, avec amour.

Catherine Deneuve in On My Way

Catherine Deneuve in On My Way

One screen veteran in particular returns as confident as ever. It’s rare when this series doesn’t include a film with Catherine Deneuve, and she’s again in the opening night selection, On My Way, in a role tailor made and one of her best in the last 10 years—and there have been many to choose from. Like the off-the-rack leopard-print blouse she wears throughout, the movie’s loose and unpretentious. None of Deneuve’s American female contemporaries can claim having the fortune of such a multifaceted vehicle. Even her slightly younger counterpart, Meryl Streep, transforms herself according to the role, but in On My Way, it would difficult to imagine anyone but Deneuve as an ex–beauty queen getting away from it all in an impromptu road trip where her stoic bearing takes a beating, sometimes literally.

In this case, a familiar face is not only reassuring but also raises the overall standard of the selections. And if you’re in the mood for another amicable road trip, there’s Nicole Garcia’s ambling Going Away, which features a startlingly brisk supporting turn by 1970s It Girl Dominique Sanda, pulled out of retirement for her first role in years. Her presence is a reminder of a golden age of European film, but it also offers an opportunity to reevaluate and appreciate Sanda’s contributions to such landmark films as The Conformist.