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Celebrating Rendez-vous With French Cinema at 20: Leading Ladies and Manly Men

03/12/2015 10:52 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015

What makes French films, eh, French? The facile answer: a focus on love: married, obsessive, at first sight. In its 20th season the popular Rendez Vous at Lincoln Center, shows a penchant for action adventure -- and, serial killers. What happened to the frothy comedies and romantic musicals of the past?

Benoit Jacquot's 3 Hearts opened the festival. Known for making each movie a love letter to women, Jacquot's films were celebrated at the French Institute Alliance Francaise with a retrospective. 3 Hearts features three of France's best imports: Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, in an odd triangle. Deneuve is the family matriarch. Her daughter, Charlotte's Sylvie, meets Marc (Benoit Poelvoorde). In a coup de foudre, she's set to leave her life behind to be with him. Fate intercedes. They lose each other, but her sister, Chiara's Sophie, strangely meets him and falls in love. The problem is Marc, a loser from the beginning, not at all sexy, and exhibits, let's say, issues of character and ethical behavior. Is this casting the director's calculation, to play his movie for comedy? Otherwise, this taut drama has you in its grip with intense, intriguing car scenes. 3 Hearts features strong sister ties between Sylvie and Sophie. Irony is: the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg's real life sister died just after the filming. Gainsbourg now lives in New York with her husband filmmaker Yvan Attal. At the opening night party, Nathalie Baye laughingly complained, she's the only French actress never to have been cast in a Benoit Jacquot film.

Sampling the Rendez-vous films: One nail-biting thriller will surely translate well to these shores: The Connection, about the drug trade in Marseilles in the late '70s into the '80s, follows the same scandal that influenced the American classic French Connection with Gene Hackman. The hero, the judge, Pierre Michel (Jean Dujardin), obsessed with this case, has flaws, and his nemesis, a violent drug lord with a soft spot for his wife, Gaetano Zampa (Gilles Lellouche) is his equal in opposition. Director Cedric Jimenez and his screenwriter and wife Audrey Divan did copious research talking to witnesses of these historic events, eager to tell what they saw decades ago. Perfect as a thug, Gilles Lellouche brings such menace to his role you don't expect to actually like him, but he seems to expect that reaction; upon being introduced, his wide gruff features fold into a dimpled grin.

Writer, director, actor Guillaume Canet entertained a dozen journalists at lunch at the Park Hyatt on Tuesday. Minus the blue eyes, he bears a resemblance to Paul Newman, and a similar zest for daredevil sport. Fine-boned and slim, he talks about his life as a competitive equestrian before an accident; that was his turning point toward film. Best known here for directing Tell No One, his leading lady is Marion Cotillard. What you don't expect is how well his good looks can turn bland, uncool and pathetic as Franck, the serial killer in Cedric Anger's Next Time I'll Aim for the Heart. It is hard to imagine as famous an actor taking on such an unlikable role, based on a real life pervert in France who doubled as the police officer in charge of the investigation. Canet's work is complex in making this chilling portrait. Next up for him is Icon, Stephen Frears' movie about Lance Armstrong, with Ben Foster in the lead.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.