THE LINEUP of this year’s “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema,” presented by New York’s Film at Lincoln Center, may be the strongest in years. In addition to new work by seasoned auteurs Jacques Audiard, Claire Denis, Arnaud Desplechin, Cedric Klapisch, and Francois Ozon, several directorial debut features merit particular note. One of these is Constance Meyer’s Robust, an unpretentious sketch of the relationship between an aging, temperamental actor struggling with health problems (the ever-resilient Gerard Depardieu) and his temporary guardian-cum-female-wrestler (Deborah Lukumuena). The rapport that develops between these two is as touching as it is unusual. No doubt a good part of the movie’s appeal is that it resonates so naturally with Depardieu’s long and unparalleled career.
Depardieu also appears in one of this year’s most ambitious offerings, Xavier Giannoli’s Lost Illusions, in which he plays an unmitigatedly corrupt publisher who relishes making and destroying literary careers. Alfred Hitchcock once wisely advised filmmakers to steer clear of classic novels on the grounds that if their greatness was inextricably tied to their literary values, they would not make good movies. Giannoli’s film comes as a pleasant surprise, then, to this cynical viewer, for whom the adaptability of anything by Balzac would seem prohibitive by definition.
In Giannoli’s previous film, the caustic, weird, and strangely affecting Marguerite (2015), he displayed an enviable flair for evoking a historical period and a horde of eccentric characters. These strengths are again in evidence in Lost Illusions, a piercing dissection of the unscrupulous world of journalism and the hollow aristocracy of nineteenth-century Paris. While no film could do justice to the dense texture and subtleties of Balzac’s prose, whole chunks of it are excerpted and heard in voice-over narration by a character whose identity we only learn at the end. It makes for a busy and intense following of intricate subtitles, which might put off viewers unfamiliar with the novel. But the choice is smart. And while it may not succeed as brilliantly as the more patiently delivered voice-over in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975)—another literary adaptation with built-in pitfalls—it helps evoke the detached voice of Balzac’s novel without resorting to smug irony. We know from the start that the fate of Lucien de Rubempre, Balzac’s enterprising and engaging but woefully naïve poet-protagonist (Benjamin Voisin), is sealed. As characters keep reminding him, and the viewer, his very name is a deception, an attempt to deny the low social status inherited from his father. The narrative’s title and trajectory are captured by the contrast between the film’s opening and closing shots. The former is a close-up of Lucien’s book of love poems, dedicated to the woman he loves but, thanks to the laws of privilege, loses. It’s a moment rife with feeling, promise, and sunlight. The latter is a long shot of Lucien, stripped of everything, including his clothes, walking despondently into a lake under an overcast sky. That all this seems less a result of fate than of the venality of every character so painstakingly etched is a tribute to Giannoli’s skillful avoidance of preaching and stereotypes.
Christophe Honore’s Guermantes takes an entirely different tack. Chock-full of personable film actors playing professional theater actors, its charm is as novel as its premise. The film’s title is a reference to The Guermantes Way ,volume three of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, a dramatization of which was underway in the spring of 2020 until Covid forced everything to close down. As disappointed as his performers, all of whom knew their parts by heart, Honore decided to shift focus and make a film about the frustrations of the situation. Guermantes is the result: a quasi-fictional, quasi-documentary chronicle of the playful and serious interactions of his cast trying to maintain good spirits while rehearsing for a performance that will never take place. It’s not the first time a Proust project was abandoned, snaps one character, citing the aborted efforts of Luchino Visconti, whose treatment of Sodom and Gomorrah never got off the ground, and Harold Pinter, who only managed a screenplay. Then again, as another character remarks to his comrades, at least they have the comfort of knowing they’ve done nothing to make Proust turn over in his grave. It’s hard not to agree.
“Rendez-Vous with French Cinema” runs from March 3 to March 13 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.