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A Late Summer Fling With French Cinema

 La Vie En RoseLa Vie En Rose

Monday, August 20---------Next to the United States, France (a country about 25% the population) has the world's most prolific and dynamic film industry. And luckily, the interest in French cinema has remained consistently strong, with a new crop of directors, writers and actors making impressions on ever-increasing audiences. For those of us who proudly call themselves "francophones" (like myself),  this is very good news.

Still, the number of French feature films and documentaries that get a full-on theatrical release remains shockingly low. It is way too easy for a journalist over the age of 50 to wax nostalgic for the glory days in New York cinema, where independent film theaters and early movie chains were ga-ga for the latest European export. There was no greater intellectual cache in the 1960s and 1970s as having been the first one to see the latest Godard, the most recent Rohmer, another divine inspiration from Truffaut. The audience for sub-titled films is graying and the success of inspiring a new generation has been mixed at best. Perhaps with the media so fractured and the obsession with celebrity so exaggerated, it is difficult to inspire that kind of consuming cult following. But, for the intrepid, French films are available for adventrous audiences to discover and savor.

At the moment, New York is having l'amour fou with French cinema. In our August "dog days", French films have a pulse. And once they are successful in New York, the films build up the necessary strength and momentum needed throughout the rest of the country. While any French film's final box office take would be unimpressive compared to the latest Hollywood blockbuster, the fact remains that European cinema, French imports especially, continue to have the greatest chances for financial and critical success. The public remains fascinated with all things European. And, with actual travel to Europe becoming a very pricey affair due to the high values of the pound and the euro, film offers its audiences a way of making the European Tour......on the cheap. And it's air-conditioned too.

This week, French films playing in New York theaters include:

BLAME IT ON FIDEL, a smart, kind-hearted film written and directed by Julie Gavras, the daughter of Oscar winner Costa-Gavras. The film is deeply political and yet marvelously humane, as views the idealogical conflicts and contradictions in a French-Spanish family in 1970, all through the eyes of a determined, smart-beyond-her-years 9 year old girl.

LADY CHATTERLEY, an adaptation of the famed (and scandalous)  D.H. Lawrence novel. The film is a bracing, sexy and insightful examination into the powerful connections between sex and desire. The fim, which won several Cesar Awards this past year, has been on New York and American screens for over a month, making it one of the summer's lowkey arthouse hits.

MOLIERE, a fanciful and colorful fiction on the early life of the celebrated French playwright and farceur. The film offers a sumptuous visual experience of the late 17th century, a time of decadence mixed with poverty, where the young writer drawns inspiration for his literary masterpieces.

MY BEST FRIEND, Patrice Leconte hits in a bullseye with this witty fable about a middle-aged antiques dealer in search of true friendship. Anchored by wonderful performances by Daniel Auteuil and Dany Boon (as the gregarious taxi driver), the film is an intelligent meditation on the need for emotional connection and the difficult in achieving, or sustaining, it.

PARIS JE T’AIME, a mosaic of 18 short films by different director, all set in a different location in the City of Light. Featuring the contributions of the Coen Brothers, Gus Van Sant, Olivier Assayas, Alfonso Cuaron and others, this is truly a cinematic smorgasboard, with wonderfully eccentric performances by an international cast and atmospheric camerawork and editing.

LA VIE EN ROSE, a biopic of one of France's cultural icons, the French chanteuse Edith Piaf. The actress Marion Cotillard, which has received the best reviews of the year so far, might make French cinema history by being the first French actress to win an Academy Award. Her thorough and involving work, which requires her to age from schoolgirl to senior citizen, is amazing to behold. The film has been an impressive success d'estime for Picturehouse Releasing in the US, following their expert handling of PAN'S LABYRINTH. Look for Oscar buzz on this tasty tale. And by the way, Cotillard lipsynchs the great Piaf (can you imagine the reaction of the French press if she tried to sing those songs with her own voice?).

Add to this the mini-retro of the films of Gerard Depardieu at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the on-going French film series at the French Institute/Alliance Francaise, and the summer-long French New Wave series of classic films from the 1950s through the 1960s at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Westchester County, and New York is definitely having a late summer fling with French cinema. Again.

Sandy Mandelberger, Film New York Editor

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The Ultimate Guide to the New York Film, Video and New Media Scene.

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