Moviegoers seeking release from the increasingly unavoidable escapism of superhero movies will find much to enjoy in the 11th Boston French Film Festival, which runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through July 23. At least half the films being presented this year are excellent, thought-provoking, satisfying works of non-computer-generated cinema. And the rest aren’t too shabby either.
TOWERING PERFORMANCES: Isabelle Huppert in L'invresse du pouvoir, Charlotte Rampling in Ver le sud.
If today’s French cinema can’t, or won’t, compete with Hollywood in the intensity of its special effects, it more than compensates with the intensity of its emotions and ideas. Take Robin Campillo’s LES REVENANTS|THEY CAME BACK (2004; July 8, 7:15 pm + July 14, 6 pm). Here’s a zombie movie with no violence or gore that still bests the recent crop of revisionist fast-moving zombie flicks. Thousands of the recently buried come back to life and resume their lives in a suburban town, where they become more a social problem than a police and SWAT-team matter. By turns an examination of aging, immigration, and the downsized workplace, Les revenants in the end becomes a meditation on death and letting go. It builds tension like the horror movies Val Lewton produced in the 1940s.
LE COUPERET|THE AX (2005; July 9, 5:15 pm + July 20, 4 pm) is unexpected too. A savage comedy by Costa-Gavras, the director of Z, it also deals in downsizing. Here a chemical engineer, let go two years before the film begins, decides his only recourse in today’s competitive job market is to murder everyone else who’s qualified for his position. José García is by turns harried and cool as the job-seeking murderer, a combination of Bob Hoskins and Jack Lemmon in the kind of desperate middle-class, end-of-his-rope comedy Lemmon specialized in. Costa-Gavras, after years of political thrillers, has perhaps found a true calling in social comedy.
In Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu’s PEINDRE OU FAIRE L’AMOUR|TO PAINT OR MAKE LOVE (2005; July 15, 2:15 pm + July 23, 5 pm), Daniel Auteuil plays a successful meteorologist whose wife (Sabine Azéma) convinces him to buy a country house after he takes early retirement. What to do with your life after the system is through with you is a preoccupation of the films in this festival; Peindre ou faire l’amour is about two French baby-boomers who connect with nature and the elements after they’ve put work and children behind them. Their reconnection in part takes the form of spouse swapping with a younger, blind village mayor and his hot wife. In the ’70s, this would’ve been a gauzy softcore romp; here it’s something more mainstream, yet weirder: a non-cliché’d spiritual journey through a walnut grove.
Treacherous walks through dark forests connect Peindre ou faire l’amour with Fabrice du Welz’s CALVAIRE|THE ORDEAL (2004; July 20, 8:15 pm), essential viewing for anyone beguiled by cinema at its most extreme. This crazy, horrible shocker follows a cheesy singer (Laurent Lucas) into the countryside, where his van breaks down and he’s held captive by a disgusting ex-comedian-turned-innkeeper. When the Straw Dogs–like villagers become jealous of the innkeeper’s new guest, things get much worse. Few will be able to take this jaw dropper, which features a nightmarish group dance scene that out-zombies Les revenants.