05/13/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In French Film, Eros Reigns Supreme

Rendez-vous with French cinema has blown into New York for its annual March ritual, bringing with it a new French paradox: to judge by one of its highlights -- "Les Regrets" by Cedric Kahn -- they've added another hour to the day. I mean, where else but in France -- even allowing for high speed trains -- can someone work a demanding job while commuting to the provinces to pursue an affair? And who but the French would give a film about crazy love -- crazy being the operative word -- the hectic pace of an action flick?

In "Les Regrets" a married Parisian architect (Yvan Attal) returns to his hometown to be with his dying mother and reconnects with a girlfriend (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) from fifteen years back. What starts with a quickie on free standing stairs (ingeniously shot from beneath), blossoms into a passion that drives the pair to the brink of violence and death. Unable to live either together or apart, the couple may drive viewers batty as well (their antics reportedly drew snickers in Cannes), but whatta ride. Attal, with his slightly askew gaze, cloven ear, and je-m'en-foutisme is hyper cool. Bruni-Tedeschi (sister of Carla Bruni), lush and unreconstructed, is like an avatar of sex, especially that killer voice.

Screening from March 11-21 at the Walter Reade Theater, IFC Center -- and, newly, BAM Cinematek, Rendez-vous offers a more sublimated view of eros in the exquisite "Mademoiselle Chambon" by Stephane Brize. The story could hardly be simpler: Jean (the superbly stony-faced Vincent Lindon), a married contractor, becomes involved with his son's elegant, reclusive homeroom teacher Veronique (Sandrine Kiberlain -- in real life Lindon's former wife, which adds a certain titillation) and is forced into an impossible choice. Brize decants this standard tale of adultery through a radical form. Dispensing with psychology and extended dialog, the action is conveyed mainly through the gaze of the actors, Veronique's violin playing, and Jean's construction of windows and walls, suggesting flight or constraint. Brize, a master of ellipsis and indirection, requires only a message on an answering machine to sketch Veronique's upper class background; while at a bruising climax the camera holds on Jean's nose and mouth in his rear view mirror. At other moments light pours through these undoctored faces, translucent like Meissen china. "Chambon," which will have a theatrical life thanks to Lorber films, is one of those films whose seeming smallness belies its breadth.

Along with the intimist dramas the French have practically patented, Rendez-vous, programmed by Film Society of LIncoln Center and Unifrance, also offers films that deal incisively with social issues and the wider world -- in France, refreshingly, current events and entertainment are not mutually exclusive.

"Rapt" is a masterful thriller by Lucas Belvaux about the kidnapping of an industrialist that transcends genre to expose the rot within the power elite. Based on a true story, it's both a white-knuckle thriller and a snapshot of society: an industrial behemoth and its handlers, the police, and the lifestyles of the super-rich. In a witty opening, Belgian auteur Belvaux (of the awesome "Trilogy") swiftly roughs out the privileged routines of industrialist Stanislas Graff -- Yvan Attal again, this time wearing entitlement like a second Armani. Be forewarned: after the ambush of his limo by some unidentified hoodlums, there's a spot of nasty business involving a severed digit (Graff's associate confirms it's his after recognizing the bitten nails). Such horrors are balanced by cutaways to the deliberations of the police, hamstrung by bureaucracy, and Graff's colleagues, who haggle like merchants in a bazaar over the ransom while their victim's life hangs in the balance.

The media whips up public indignation by exposing Graff as a playboy with a stable of girlfriends and a gambler who pissed away vast sums in a France where people go homeless. Graff's elegant wife (Anne Consigny) at first defends him -- "he has more energy and appetites than others," etc. but the escalating tension threatens to undermine the scaffolding of a family built on appearances. While Belvaux is scarcely condoning the raptors, he's also out to skewer their victim, a monument to self-seeking and arrogance. And in the third act Belvaux not only rejects the humanist consolation that Graff's ordeal has made him a better man -- he suggests that the same qualities that made him a shit enable him to survive.

Among other must-sees in Rendezvous count "Welcome" by Philippe Lioret and "Le Refuge" by Francois Ozon. The title "Welcome" is ironic, as the film concerns the lowest rung on the food chain: illegal aliens. Simon (Vincent Lindon in another superb minimalist turn) is a depressed one-time swimming champ turned instructor, now in turmoil over his impending divorce. Enter Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a 17-year-old Kurdish refugee, who turns up at Simon's pool desperate to swim the English channel so he can rejoin his sweetheart in England. Though it's a whacko scheme, Simon, eager to win approval from his activist wife, agrees to train Bilal as a swimmer. Hollywood would surely cue the violins at the bond that forms between Simon and Bilal, but Lioret avoids the mawkish by keeping a balance between the tragic fate of a boy and the official policies that provoked it.

Finally, "Le Refuge" by Francois Ozon is a broody meditation on the nature of blood ties and parenthood. Ex-junkie Mousse (Isabelle Carre) discovers she's pregnant after her boyfriend (Melvil Poupaud) dies of an OD. Holing up in a beach side retreat, she's joined by Paul (singer Louis-Ronan Choisy in his screen debut), the gay brother of her late boyfriend. The pair's connection deepens as Paul discloses family secrets and Mousse recognizes in him traits of her dead lover. Ozon's camera boldly foregrounds Carre's round forms -- the actress was six months pregnant during the shoot -- and Paul is drawn to her both erotically and perhaps from some unspoken desire to replace his brother and father a child. Ozon has always been a provocateur, and this film is no exception. The latest in his gallery of strong-willed women, Mousse becomes the agent of her own destiny in a denouement as surprising as it is apt. "Refuge" looks deep into the nature of family and finds that traditional roles are all up for grabs.