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The Uncivil Servant: French Cinema on Display

Mitchell Abidor
March 6, 2018
THE ANNUAL FESTIVAL of French cinema that is now known as Rendez-Vous with French Cinema has been with us for decades, under different names and in different venues. This year’s edition, running from March 8-18, will be at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Here is a sample of some of what will be on display.

There have been countless films about Joan of Arc, at least two of them classics (Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and Bresson’s Le Proces de Jeanne d’Arc). All lead up to those central moments in her story: her trial and her burning at the stake. Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc, is the story of Joan as a child and young woman, having her visions, finding her mission, and setting off to join the army of France at Orleans. No trial, no stake, no martyrdom.

In this, Jeannette stands out from the pack. Little Jeannette is determined, intelligent, questioning, ferociously devoted to the cause of driving out the British. The text of the film is based on the works of the brilliant Catholic poet, the Dreyfusard Charles Péguy, who died at the front in World War I.  Jeannette ponders the big questions, wonders about God’s plan. This, though, is a film by the provocateur Bruno Dumont, so it is also the only film about the Maid of Orleans in which she breaks into rock song -- usually heavy metal -- dances wildly, and engages in headbanging. Her uncle, who helps her flee her family, is fond of hip-hop gestures and rhythms in his speech.

Dumont set out to smash the conventions of Joan’s tale, and does so brilliantly. However outrageous the film sounds, by setting the film in Joan’s native region, by grounding everything in the film in the material reality of Lorraine, it never becomes simply an exercise in provocation and outrageousness. Rather, in its strange way, its materialism returns this wild film to the ground established by Straub and Huillet in their 1968 classic The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, which, while at stylistic antipodes from Jeannette, insisted on the materiality of Bach’s life. In Jeannette, the future martyr and her friend might sing heavy metal plaints to God, but it is all brought back to Earth by the bleating of the sheep that Joan is guarding, by the poor children she gives her bread to, by the rough garments they all wear, and by the crudeness of Joan’s family’s house.

One is tempted to say that if Joan’s hearing the voices of Saints Michael, Margaret, and Catherine was miracle, Bruno Dumont’s carrying off of this Jeannette is a miracle along the same order.


BORN EUGENE GREEN in New York, Eugène Green has Frenchified his name over the decades he’s been living In France while carving out a fascinating niche for himself as a theater director, film director, novelist, and theater theoretician who harkens back to the ideas and practices of the Baroque period. His characters articulate every syllable of every word, rejecting French as it is commonly spoken, with certain vowels and consonants slurred over. He adds to the theatricality of his actors’ performances by dictating a strictly maintained rhythm of speech. Nothing is natural, and even when his works are set in the contemporary world, Green’s stylization raises his works to heights of sublimity.

Waiting for the Barbarians, which the filmmaker announced would not receive a commercial release when it was premiered at a festival in Spain, is perhaps his most rarefied film, as six individuals are taken in for a night by two magi after requesting shelter from oncoming barbarians (the Goths, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, and the “United Statesians “- - a horrific neologism now sweeping through the French intellectual world). The six must surrender all of their electronic devices -- the thought of which horrifies them -- and so, as they break down into pairs, they must converse, lacking any other form of entertainment.

They reveal themselves to their conversational partners, don’t necessarily connect, and then, for the last fifteen or twenty minutes of the film, are spectators at the performance in Green-ian style of an adaptation of a 12th-century Catalan work. This purifying experience prepares them to return to the outside world, where we are informed in a final note, all except the homeless man who is one of them, have met their goals. The homeless man remains homeless.

The beautiful images were shot by Raphael O’Byrne, Green’s regular cinematographer, who succeeds in lighting much of the film as if it was a Georges de la Tour painting. The rigor of the performances and the control of the material make this a perfect exemplar of Green’s films, which, though not intended for all audiences, are for all audiences that are interested in the possibilities of a different cinema.


FOR DECADES, Raymond Depardon has been one of the most important photographers in the world. He has also, over these many decades, built up a substantial body of documentary films, both long and short. In some, the filmmaker’s presence is essential. In others, he adopts a modified version of the Frederick Wiseman method, examining institutions while remaining out of the frame — as is the case in 12 Days, a heartbreaking film made up of hearings for psychiatric patients held involuntarily in a Lyon hospital who are requesting release.

12 Days is a far cry from a film like Wiseman’s Titticut Follies, which depicted the real horrors of a psychiatric hospital as something out of a 19th-century nightmare. Instead,  by concentrating on the unfathomable sadness of people attempting to talk their way out of the hospital before a judge -- something not a single patient succeeds in doing in the nearly ninety minutes of hearings before a handful of different judges, all of whom are sympathetic, reasonable men and women, all clearly interested in the well-being of the patients but holding strictly to the letter of the law -- we feel the sheer human awfulness of madness, the terrible price it makes its sufferers pay.

The patients are strikingly logical, and seemingly lucid: the woman who wants to commit suicide but is told to think of the suffering it will cause her family; the man who admits he can’t hear what the judge is telling him because the voices in his head are drowning her out; the young woman who slit her wrists, not to kill herself but to release the energy within her from the boy who raped her; or the man who wants the judge to be sure to get in touch with his father, whom we learn the patient had killed . . .

The first patient complains that the judge is abusing her power, that his being kept in hospital is an abuse of power in “the land of the human rights” -- but it is the beauty of Depardon’s film that we never get that feeling. It would have been all too easy to present the judges and lawyers as parts of a system aimed at crushing the insane. But Depardon is aiming at more, he’s aiming at showing the humanity of all concerned. This is not an exposé of an unjust system. It’s an exposé rather of how unjust the human condition can be.


LAURENT CANTET has produced several films revelatory of the radical changes in French society since the turn of the century, with films like Human Relations, about the downsizing of companies and its human impact, and The Class, a brilliant portrait of a school made up of largely black and Arab students. His latest, The Workshop, continues along these lines, and, despite its attempt at a slightly optimistic ending, gives us a grim image of France.

A mixed-race group of young people is gathered together in La Ciotat, a suburb of Marseilles, a former shipbuilding town fallen on hard times. In an attempt at “social integration,” they are working collectively on a novel, under the guidance of a successful female novelist.

At first the students are united in their disdain for the novelist, whom they mock for her pretentious Parisianness (which is visible only to them) and her incomprehensible -- to them -- Parisian accent.  But this unity is quickly shattered, and the racial chips they each carry on their shoulders lead to constant sniping, to challenges to fights, to racist slurs, among them. Antoine, one of the two young whites in the group, is absorbed in his violent video games, pistol practice, and extreme rightwing politics, while also mildly obsessed with the teacher.

All of these young people are living in a society in which they have no place, and the tale told them by a former shipyard worker of the time when La Ciotat was a vital place, and how the workers, led by the Communists, fought to preserve their livelihood, further underlines their fundamental lostness. Any sense of purpose -- personal or political -- is gone, and nothing can bring it back, so all that is left is resentment. Still, they are able to work hopefully on their thriller about murder at the shipyards.

The Workshop is a brutally honest film about the many-sided lack of understanding that is so much a part of France now, and which explains both the alienation of those of color and the white turn to the National Front. It is also, and not incidentally, a brilliantly written, directed, and acted film.


GUILLAME BRAC’S charming little film July Tales is about a different France. No major issues are addressed here, JUST the simple matter of being young and seeking or avoiding someone of the other sex. The film is made of two short tales, “The Sunday Friend,” in which two female schoolmates go to a beach outside Paris, where one of them has what seemed like it was going to be a pleasant encounter with a young man that goes bad, while the other friend , who expected nothing and had felt like a third wheel, does quite well for herself on that front. The second film, “Hanne on the National Holiday,” is the account of Bastille Day at a student dorm of the Université de Paris and the doings of Hanne, a Norwegian student who seems to irresistibly attract men -- which causes damages to those around her.

The scripts were developed by the actors in collaboration with the director, and everyone bears their real name, adding to the verisimilitude of the performers and scenarios. If the film’s title lends it a certain Eric Rohmer air, particularly the Rohmer of the Tales of Four Seasons, Brac’s film is slighter than Rohmer’s, which is not an insult: Rohmer was absolutely sui generis. But Brac has a lightness of touch, a sympathy for his characters that bodes well for his future as a filmmaker and ours as viewers. For the moment, the only criticism of July Tales is that it’s only sixty-eight minutes.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.