Pardon My French

Thomas Cailley, Les combattants (Love at First Fight), 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 98 minutes. Madeleine (Adèle Haenel).

CELEBRATING ITS TWENTIETH EDITION THIS YEAR, the “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” series points to both the particular problems and pleasurable results of film curation based solely on national origin. As in previous installments, 2015’s roundup of recent Gallic movies is larded with strenuously mediocre (and worse) fare from veterans and newcomers alike, whether behind or in front of the camera. But the program, which this year comprises twenty-two features, continues to serve an important role by providing New York audiences with what may be their only chance to see adventurous, genre-defying works that are still without US distribution (and unlikely ever to secure it).

That’s certainly the case with Antoine Barraud’s spellbinding Portrait of the Artist (an inexplicably banal retitling of the more evocative Le Dos Rouge—“The Red Back,” a reference to the psychosomatic rash spreading over the protagonist’s torso). Coproduced by the Centre Pompidou, the film concerns the labyrinthine quest of an auteur named Bertrand—played by the acclaimed French director Bertrand Bonello, whose slinky, heady YSL biopic, Saint Laurent, opens stateside in May—to find the artwork that best exemplifies the concept of the “monstrous,” the subject of his next movie. Guiding the filmmaker on his monomaniacal quest through the galleries of, to name just a few institutions visited, the Museum of the History of Medicine and the Musée Gustave Moreau is Célia, a gnomic art historian who is incarnated in some scenes by Jeanne Balibar and in others by Géraldine Pailhas. The tactic of having two actresses inhabit the same role clearly nods to Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), which deploys a similar conceit; other cinephilic salutes include a film-within-the-film reimagining of Vertigo. These tributes, rather than appearing slavishly derivative, instead add to Portrait’s scene-by-scene unpredictability and sharpen its absorbing ideas about images, both moving and still. The film also contains my favorite line from a movie this (admittedly still young) year: “I love to hate. It wakes me up.”

Antagonism and aggression also arouse in Thomas Cailley’s charming debut feature, Love at First Fight (yet another dopey English renaming; the straightforward original title, Les combattants—“The Fighters”—is conspicuously pun-free). Cailley’s film, one of eight “Rendez-Vous” titles with a US distributor, invigorates one of the most shopworn genres, the romantic comedy, largely through its unusual premise and its enormously appealing leads. Set during the summer in a coastal town in southwestern France, Love at First Fight follows the unlikely attraction that develops between Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), a mild-mannered woodworker and carpenter, and Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), an affectless, doomsday-obsessed graduate student preparing for an elite army unit. The two initially encounter each other at a self-defense demonstration on the beach, where Madeleine easily proves her physical superiority. Both embarrassed and intrigued by his opponent, the ginger-headed tradesman soon finds himself enrolling in the same intensive two-week boot camp that Madeleine is attending, in the hopes of figuring out his puzzling new acquaintance. Undeniably strong, the chemistry between Azaïs and Haenel occasionally confounds: Is it animal lust that draws their characters together or a sibling-like camaraderie (and concomitant enmity)? That the impulse behind this cathectic energy is never quite clear makes this mismatched couple all the more memorable.

Haenel, a twenty-six-year-old actress whom I’ve followed with great interest ever since seeing her in Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (2007), also stars in André Téchiné’s In the Name of My Daughter, an overcooked, often ridiculous mid-1970s true-crime saga. Despite my better judgment, I was hooked, pulled in by the scenes with Haenel—whose intensity here recalls the ferocity of Isabelle Adjani in her best performances from the ’70s and ’80s—and Catherine Deneuve, her hair dyed a blinding, Hitchcock-blonde white, as Haenel’s casino-operating mother. To witness the lioness of French cinema (Deneuve superfans will be pleased to know that she appears in two other films in this year’s “Rendez-Vous” slate) and one of its ascendant young talents in the same frame is to be reminded of the nation’s greatest natural resource: actresses.

“Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center March 6–15, the IFC Center March 6–12, and BAMcinématek March 7–12. In the Name of My Daughter will be released on May 8; Love at First Fight will open in New York on May 22 with a national release to follow.