35 SHOTS OF RUM: Claire Denis’s film aspires to the grace of a Yasujiro Ozu film.
Last year's Boston French Film Festival featured Claude Chabrol's A Girl Cut in Two, and that, combined with this year's Chris Marker retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive and Agnès Varda's fine new The Beaches of Agnès, made it seem almost plausible that the New Wave might rise again. But to judge from this year's selections, any such resurgence has peaked, and the Gallic film industry has turned to other matters — political issues like immigration and education and economic concerns such as the box office and the allure of Hollywood.
Even so, not all the films are as bad as Rémi Bezançon's THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (2008; July 9 at 8 pm, July 18 at 4:30 pm), a mawkish, cliché-ridden family melodrama broken into five vignettes dramatizing significant days over two decades. This being a French film, you could hope that the title is ironic, but it doesn't seem so, since similar bromides headline each segment. Cornier than the material is Bezançon's pretentious style, which includes clumsy flashbacks within flashbacks and pretentious imagery. (Youngest sibling Fleur witnesses her own "deflowering" behind a closed door under which pours blood as if from a scene out of Kubrick's The Shining.) One of the boys competes in air-guitar contests, and I would describe this film as the cinematic equivalent of air guitar. It was a huge hit in France. No wonder it's the festival's opening-night entry.
But neither are the films all as good as the closing-night offering, Martin Provost's SÉRAPHINE (2008; July 26 at 8 pm), a wrenching, magnificently crafted bio-pic of artist Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), the "Modern Primitive." (That's the label on which the critic Wilhelm Uhde, who discovered her, insisted.) Forget La Vie en Rose — Séraphine is a true tortured artist, with the shimmering creepiness of Gustav Klimt. She's also a despised housekeeper in the town of Senlis who creates her uncanny paintings in secret — until the vacationing Uhde (Ulrich Tukur) spots one and says he'll make her a star in Paris. World War I intervenes, and it's more than a decade later that Uhde makes good on his promise — but the big time proves too much for the simple, religious visionary. Moreau portrays her saint-like turmoil without sentiment or stereotype.
More on the ironic side is François Dupeyron's WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MYSELF (2008; July 10 at 5:45 pm, July 11 at 1:45 pm). Sonia (Félicité Wouassi), the matriarch of a rowdy African immigrant family, has been having a rough day: her older daughter is getting married, her older son has just been arrested, dad has lost all their money at the races, and in the ensuing ruckus the bride gets a black eye. When the old man kicks the bucket from a heart attack, all seems lost. But guided by Dupeyron's mordant sensibility and the rousing soundtrack, Sonia heeds the title advice.