The 16th edition of Rendez-vous with French Cinema raises the question, Why is French popular cinema smarter, wittier, and heavier on charm than Hollywood's equivalent crowd-pleasers? Is this another example of the "French exception," along with Gallic longevity and slimness despite all the wine, cream, and petits fours? Currently unspooling at New York's Film Society and the IFC Center, and co-sponsored by Unifrance, the fest offers two not-to-be-missed samples of popular French cinema: Service Entrance (Les Femmes du Sixieme Etage) by Philippe Le Guay and Potiche by Francois Ozon. Service Entrance is a delight, thanks to a witty script and the presence of French national treasure, Fabrice Luchini, whose comic schtick evokes Moliere. Luchini plays a tight-assed stockbroker who browbeats servants over the timing of his morning boiled egg. But before you can say hola he awakens to the appalling condition of the help's upstairs quarters and becomes entranced with his beautiful new housekeeper, along with her high-spirited cohorts.
Strategically set in 1962, the film not only mocks the period's fashions, but also the do-nothing wives who flit from bridge games to fittings, and profess ignorance about anything resembling an idea. In one of many droll, but revelatory moments, after a Spanish maid lands a French husband, she describes her new role as a wife doing -- well, exactly what she once did as a maid.
For Potiche -- or "trophy wife" -- Francois Ozon dusts off a 1980 "boulevard" play to mount a 70s-set farce toplined by Catherine Deneuve at her grandest. Here's another upper class wife, this time married to an abusive blowhard and owner of an umbrella factory -- versatile Fabrice Luchini, donning his villain's hat. After he's sidelined by ill health, she takes over at the factory -- turning for help to communist mayor and one-time lover Gerard Depardieu -- before launching a political career. Deneuve displays perfect comic timing and Ozon's slick entertainment also delivers a sly commentary on sexist assumptions and bourgeois hypocrisy.
If accessible art films are more your thing, try The Princess of Montpensier by iconic filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier and Mozart's Sister by Rene Fere, which both explore female destiny. A costumer set in 16th century France during the bloody religious wars, Princess could exemplify the "cinema of quality" attacked by the New Wave. But Tavernier makes the old new again, combining epic sweep with intimacy. Rarely has an historic film felt so immediate, from fascinating recreations of battle maneuvers, to the pomp of Versailles, to the predatory swordsmen dueling to conquer beautiful Marie de Montpensier (Melanie Thierry, a lush-lipped Michelle Pfeiffer). Featuring four of France's hottest and most accomplished actors, Princess brilliantly charts the fate of a passionate woman preyed upon by men for whom love is merely combat shifted to the boudoir.
Mozart's Sister is a spell-binding biopic that invites speculation about the impact on classical music if Wolfgang's older sister Nannerl had overcome 18th century strictures to embrace her own genius. Echoing the Mozart family portrait in the film, Rene Feret assigns the key acting roles to his own two daughters, who play Nannerl and her royal best friend; and his wife, who plays the mom. The story pivots on two dramas: the ambition of Nannerl, gifted violinist and singer, to study composition, despite her father's claims that women can't master harmony (though it's implied that she, not Wolfgang, composed his early pieces). And Nannerl's amorous intrigue with France's dauphin, who's dazzled by her talent, while pursuing a private agenda to make any girl run screaming to the convent. Like the Tavernier, Feret's film feels anything but cobwebby, despite a purposefully stilted, anti-psychological style of delivery by the actors, which lends the action a dreamy, off-kilter quality. Feret not only brings to life the Mozart family, he vividly captures 18th century decadence, especially through the rouged and lipsticked dauphin who delivers a death blow to Nannerl's dreams. Without preachiness, both Tavernier and Feret reinvent feminist themes in their accounts of female aspiration quashed by male dominance.
Lastly, try to catch the mother of all cat fights: Love Crime from the late Alain Corneau. Kristin Scott-Thomas is perfectly cast as a ruthless exec in some vague multinational, more serpent than warm-blooded mammal. She both comes on to and exploits her ambitious young assistant (Ludivine Sagnier), tossing off such lines as "You have a great talent and I made the most of it." After humiliating Sagnier at a company event, the assistant doubles down for an elaborate revenge. The bitchery is a hoot, the chilly chrome color design an extension of the characters' inner world, and the final sting in the tail a nasty surprise. You can bet that in the remake planned by Brian De Palma, he'll run with that lesbian motif.