Adèle Exarchopoulos, right, and Léa Seydoux in Blue Is the Warmest Color (Cannes Film Festival)

Adèle Exarchopoulos, left, and Léa Seydoux in Blue Is the Warmest Color (Cannes Film Festival)

The 51st New York Film Festival arrives with a touch of scandal, courtesy of two French films. As soon as it premiered at Cannes, Blue Is the Warmest Color was almost overshadowed by its extended lesbian sex scenes, but not enough to obscure the strong performances. It won the Palme d’Or, awarded to its director and, atypically, his two leading actresses.

The second film, Stranger by the Lake, takes a perceptive look at a group of men who frequent a nude lakeside cruising beach, and features as much male nudity as any social media app. You haven’t seen so much Balzac in a narrative film. That’s one obvious takeaway, but director Alain Guiraudie has written a trenchant and even suspenseful black comedy of a young man who knowingly hooks up with a murder suspect, driven by a certain (and very visible) body part that controls his impulses. The film’s likable everyman lead actor, Pierre Deladonchamps, may be the most exposed actor ever at the NYFF, or anywhere. If Sex and the City was still on, this film would the women’s not-so-guilty pleasure, and it’s a no-brainer choice for GLBT festivals.

If you don’t live in the New York area, curiosity about these films will be satisfied soon enough. Blue arrives in theaters on October 25th and Stranger in early 2014. Likewise, the strongest films in the program will be released eventually in theaters or VOD. These include many feature films that won acclaim in Cannes: Jia Zhangke’s bloody A Touch of Sin, the Coen brothers’ melancholic Inside Llewyn Davis (don’t let the title fool you, it’s not a porno), Hirokazu Koreeda’s sensitively made Like Father, Like Son, and Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Along with 12 Years a Slave and Le Week-end (more on that one shortly), you can’t go wrong.

Since the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the festival’s presenter, added more screens to its Upper West Side campus, the programming has expanded, practically turning into a mini-Toronto International Film Festival, combining heavy-duty art house and some mainstream fare, but without the star-driven duds that occasionally explode up north.

The festival opened with a movie from Sony Pictures that will be released everywhere on October 11: Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips. Based on a real-life incident in 2009, it shares the basic plotline of the taut A Hijacking from Denmark, released this summer: Somali pirates capture a Western cargo ship off the Horn of Africa. Is there room for two such movies? Yes. One is a psychological standoff between the hostage takers and the ship’s corporate brass (A Hijacking), and the other is more action driven (Captain Phillips) with a larger budget.

It’s to director Paul Greengrass’s credit that the first 45 minutes is a nail-biter as the pirates pursue and take over the large vessel, even though the audience already knows the ship’s fate, thanks to the advertising. This is the sort of hand-held slice-of-gritty-life that Greengrass can make in his sleep. One major difference between the two film is that Phillips attempts to reveal a little of what the Somalis’ lives are like, while A Hijacking is told from the point of view of the hostages and the negotiators. But in the newer film, the Somalis can’t escape their villainous roles. Wielding automatic weapons and high on the amphetamine-like plant khat, they scream at one another and at the ship’s crew at a high-pitch intensity, their eyes bulging out. (The underweight hijackers look almost skeletal.) With its twists and turns and at 99 minutes, A Hijacking outsmarts the 132-minute long Captain Phillips.

Nevertheless, the festival still provides a showcase for auteurs whose films may be screened for only a week, tops, in the major markets. Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs is a case in point. Edited to an extremely slow pace of single takes and marked by beautifully and meticulously composed shots, this is a film you’ll tentatively embrace or, most likely, resist. The camera coolly scrutinizes the minimal movements of a Taipei family on the skids (with the requisite voyeuristic shot of a man urinating on camera). The film might play better at this festival, where a ticket buyer isn’t inundated with a slew of viewing options on any given night, like in Toronto. Otherwise, this film develops so passively that you’ll be making a laundry list in your head.

Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan in Le Week-end (Film Society of Lincoln Center)

Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan in Le Week-end (Film Society of Lincoln Center)

The festival has programmed two films that in earlier times—when the event was smaller and more selective—would have faced more difficulties making the cut. For the second consecutive year, the selection committee has chosen a film by Roger Michell, following the inert historical biopic Hyde Park on Hudson. Michell has jumped back and forth from mainstream fare (Notting Hill, Changing Lanes) to threadbare British independents, like the remarkable The Mother (2003), which grabbed attention at Cannes but was ignored by the NYFF. It was scripted by the acerbic Hanif Kureishi, who collaborates again with Michell in the delightfully tart Le Week-end, where a British couple (played by Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan) takes a brief Paris holiday. He’s a professor, she’s a teacher, they’re broke, and he has been forced to take early retirement. Both actors are wonderful, though the script gives Duncan darker, sharper moments, and a strong undercurrent of resentment cuts through even in the comedic scenes, suggesting the feelings of a generation let down. If you thought that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was too sentimental, this will be like a splash of cold water. The film will be released by Music Box Films in 2014. Yes, you can feel elated and sad at the same time.

Richard Curtis (writer of Three Weddings and a Funeral and writer/director of Love Actually) arrives for the first time at the NYFF with About Time, in which a 21-year-old bumbling ginger (Domhnall Gleeson) finds out from his drier than dry-witted father (Bill Nighy) that all of the men in the family can travel back in time—just find a dark, secluded space, and clinch your fists. If only the editor could go back and trim 20 minutes from the draggy 123-minute running time. (And whose idea was it to cast Rachel McAdams as a frump?) The apparent star of this year’s festival, Lindsay Duncan, appears here, too, though fleetingly. Another British comedy, Alan Partridge, is a showcase for Steve Coogan as the fatuous and pretentious (among many traits) radio presenter, a staple on British broadcasting since 1994, but the transition to the screen plays like an extended television episode. For BBC America aficionados, wait for it on VOD or in theaters. It will be released by Magnolia Pictures.

The Cast of Club Sandwich

The Cast of Club Sandwich

However, among the films that don’t yet have an American distributor, there are at least two strong offerings.  For mama’s boys, the deliberately terse Club Sandwich may be way too close for comfort. Director Fernando Eimbcke intimately and thoroughly scrutinizes a 40-something mother and her teenage son spending a holiday at an anonymous off-season resort sunbathing, watching TV, and kvetching. (The father is MIA.)

A more intimate mother and son relationship is hard to imagine. They live in their own bubble so that the son, just hitting puberty, can ask his mother, “Do you think I’m sexy,” without any awkwardness or fear. She answers yes, but in a different way than her idol, Prince. She spoils Hector with attention, popping the zits on his back and admonishing him for not wearing boxers instead of tighty whiteys. (He prefers her red bikini to the polka-dotted one she’s wearing.)  Their isolation is broken when his mother is away and he encounters another teenager, Jazmin, poolside. The fireworks shoot off when Mom meets Jazmin, whom she views as an interloping competitor. Mom even cannonballs into a pool to separate the infatuated teens, but her attitude can’t stop them. They pleasure each other on the beach while mom takes a swim. New Yorkers are in luck: the festival is also screening director Fernando Eimbcke’s droll charmers Duck Season and Lake Tahoe.

Though James Franco has directed many films, none have actually been widely screened in the U.S., and Child of God, based on Cormac McCarthy’s dark 1973 novel, probably won’t change this. Set in the 1950s or early ’60s, a scruffy young man, Lester Ballard, has been kicked off his family’s property and flees into the woods of Tennessee, living in an abandoned cabin and tailspinning into lunacy. The townsfolk say he hasn’t been the same since he found his father hanging in the barn.

This is a tough sell, a heavy-duty Southern gothic that makes the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men seem lightweight, featuring onscreen defecation and necrophilia. (If the festival wants to provide a full-on immersive viewing experience, it should remove all toilet paper in its facilities and replace it with leaves and bark.) The direction turns wondrously loony, though, during a shootout when Ballard aims his rifle at his only friends, the three stuffed animals that he has won at a carnival. The lens zooms in on each object, as though the big teddy bear realizes it will soon be dead meat. In a character actor/star making performance, Scott Haze leads a ferocious cast, mostly of up-and-coming actors. Like some of Franco’s other films, this has a dispossessing devil-may-care vibe (Francophelia or Interior. Leather Bar). Macabre but memorable, though for $25 a ticket, purchase with your eyes wide open.

One film that is curiously missing in the festival’s many sidebars is the new profile piece Ain’t Misbehavin’, an ambling and amicable autobiographical conversation with filmmaker Marcel Opüls that premiered at Cannes. His landmark documentary The Sorrow and the Pity screened at the event in 1971. In the new movie, he crows that the French had taken over the New York Film Festival at that time. Forty years later, it still holds true. There are roughly 11 French (co-) productions this year, and this might explain the inclusion of the space-filler Abuse of Weakness, the latest from NYFF regular Catherine Breillat, inspired by the director’s real-life experience.

In 2004, Breillat had a stroke. Years later, following rehabilitation, she was swindled by Christophe Rocancourt, a con man who masqueraded as a member of the Rockefeller family and who had been convicted in 2002 in the U.S. of theft, grand larceny, bribery, and perjury. He had been slated to star in a film by Breillat (with Naomi Campbell), but the director accused him of conning her out of 700,000 euros and won her case in court. Needless to say, the movie was dropped.

In Abuse of Weakness, Isabelle Huppert stars as Breillat’s onscreen alter ego, Maud Schoenberg, a filmmaker who has a massive brain hemorrhage in the opening scene. The physical demands of the role offer a new opportunity for Huppert, who is otherwise on automatic pilot, aloof and disdainful. After Maud learns to walk again, she happens upon a TV chat show with convicted con man Viko (French rapper Kool Shen). His hangdog look grabs her attention, and his “bitter pride” makes him perfect for the leading man in her new film. Viko accepts the part, but Maud then breaks her own rule: meeting with an actor before the shoot.

Nothing surprises Maud or should, since she’s always aware of Viko’s background and his motives are plain as day. He always needs money for a loan, a bounced check, or to pay for his luxury hotel suite. In exchange, he reluctantly plays the role of her crutch (though he has to be told what to do), and he slightly tempers her self-absorption: it’s a relationship built on self-interest.

Notably, Maud’s family has stayed away, except when a relapse lands her back in the hospital. When they and her attorney confront her with the news that she’s broke, thanks to her loans to Viko, she tears up and responds that when she gave check after check to him and he failed to repay her, she didn’t care, so neither will the audience.

Another NYFF returnee Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Tokyo Sonata) disappoints with the airless, too-carefully told Real. Under medical observation, a young man penetrates the subconscious of his comatose girlfriend, who had tried to kill herself a year earlier, in an attempt to wake her. Though the film is a mixture of macabre manga, ghost story, science fiction, childhood tragedy, and a love story, the pace and the acting could use a jolt of electroshock. Despite some horrific imagery, it’s not weird enough. The big plot revelation comes too late: it’s a J-snorer.

On a brighter note: fashion designer agnès B. has long supported film as a producer and contributor to film restoration. Her first full-length feature has the awkward title My Name Is Hmmm…, which is the go-to answer for 12-year-old Céline (a great Lou-Léila Demerliac), a runaway reinventing herself. In the beginning, we see the girl make dinner for her father and two younger siblings (her mother works nights as a waitress) and then wash the dishes before dad orders her to go upstairs, where he rapes her. This is not a spoiler. It’s handled starkly though not explicitly within the first 10 minutes.

This is not a heavy message movie. Instead it focuses on Céline’s flight, when she runs away while on a school trip and stows away in a Scottish trucker’s big rig (she was attracted to the feather boa on his dashboard) for a rambling road trip through France. The film is quietly observational and, in terms of style, all over the place. The director obviously borrows from the looseness of the early French New Wave: confessions to the camera; scenes in black-and-white, then in color; scrawled calligraphy on the screen; Kabuki performers in a forest. The director wrote the screenplay all at once a decade ago, and the storyline comes across as rough and unpolished, in an appealing, freewheeling way, though the rushed ending leaves more than a few questions. But foremost, it’s very sensitive.