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Women figure prominently in this weekend’s New French Connection film series at BAMcinematek.

From women in prison to 1950s-style melodrama, from a guy with too many women in his life to a country girl trying to make it in the city, the four films in this second annual event cover a broad range of film styles, and tell very different stories. Two of the films are directed by women, making it evident that French cinema truly has open arms for women filmmakers.

"A Piece of Sky" ("Une part du ciel") by Belgian-born Bénédicte Liénard, follows the lives of two groups of women: prisoners who find a way to resist unfair practices in jail and factory workers trying to negotiate a new contract. Each group has its own problems to bear, and Liénard shows their parallel lives, which intersect throughout.

Shown in the "Certain Regard" section of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, the film stars Séverine Caneele (who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes in 1999 for her work in Bruno Dumont’s "L’Humanité") as Joanna, the prison inmate who rebels against the treachery of the jail’s warden. While the factory workers are free, they are, in their own way, prisoners of an economic system.

The connection between the two groups is the friendship of Joanna and Claudine (Sofia Leboutte), the union representative of the workers in a large bakery’s production line. (One cannot miss the irony of the sweetness of the bakery product and the sourness of these women’s lives.) The film’s stories are told in straightforward ways, but there is a plodding sense to the film that could put off many viewers.

Liénard owes a great deal to the Dardenne Brothers, Belgian filmmakers who have made a career finding a sense of purpose in ordinary lives ("La Promesse," "The Son," and the Cannes 1999 Palme d’or winner, "Rosetta"). She makes a good attempt, but still has a way to go to reach the quality of the Dardennes’ work. (This film plays Sept. 25-26 at BAMcinematek.)

"A Big Girl Like You" ("Une belle fille comme toi") is a sharp commentary on women’s roles in society. Sabine is a student in a small town technical school, learning all the tools of the restaurant trade. When she washes out there, she heads for Paris. Telling her parents she’ll be going to school there, she winds up homeless and without a job, which leads her to a generous family who own a jewelry store and put Sabine up in their home.

As lead after work lead dissolves, Sabine runs through a few incidents of bad judgement typical of an innocent in the big city - a no-good boyfriend who leaves her after she commits a crime to get him money, a falling-out with her benefactors, and a stint with the porn industry.

But director Christophe Blanc doesn’t make "A Big Girl Like You" stale or trite. And the film owes much of its success to Mercedes Cecchetto, who plays Sabine with a rich combination of naivete and teenage brashness. This heartfelt 2003 film also focuses on the "new" France - a world of immigrants who are part of the country’s 21st-century face. (Plays Sept. 25-26.)

"Nearest to Heaven" ("Au plus près du paradis") by Tonie Marshall, is an odd homage to the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr tearjerker "An Affair to Remember." "Nearest to Heaven" is certainly no tearjerker, but this fluffy romance, with Catherine Deneuve and William Hurt, makes constant reference to the Leo McCarey melodrama. Deneuve is an art critic who deals with a variety of men in her life, from old lovers to her brother to Hurt, who may become a new lover.

From the first frames of the film we get an idea of what we’re in for - the music telegraphs the melodramatic moments. After turning down a friend’s advances, Fonette (Deneuve) heads for New York from Paris to write a story and runs into Matt (Hurt), a photographer at the gallery.

Theirs is a truly odd relationship - will they be friends? lovers? - but their work together does give us one of the strangest but most charming scenes in the film. In a restaurant, where they discuss matters of the heart, Hurt suddenly sings out a line from the Stephen Stills song: "Love the one you’re with." The entire restaurant then proceeds to sing the rest of the song together.

There are a couple of problems with this 2002 film. First of all, the English dialogue is quite stilted. And updated melodramas have a hard time finding their place in a cynical society. So "Nearest to Heaven" struggles here. (Look at Todd Haynes’ wonderful "Far From Heaven" where he restages the genre, keeping it in the same time period.) For all the film’s faults, however, it is always a treat watching Deneuve strut her stuff, and director Marshall wrote the film specifically for her. (Plays Sept. 27-28.)

In "Minor Cuts" ("Petites coupures," 2003) actor Daniel Auteil has to juggle a seemingly endless array of women - wife, girlfriend, secretary, and a few other eccentrics that he meets along the way - including English actress Kristin Scott Thomas (speaking fluent French) and Ludivine Sagnier, France’s current "it" girl (she’s shown up in François Ozon’s "Eight Women" and his most recent film, "Swimming Pool") - in this thinking person’s farce.

Auteil plays Bruno, a communist writer and intellectual who, while his wife is out of town, embarks on a business trip with mistress in tow, to see his mentor, who sends Bruno on an errand to discourage the mentor’s wife’s lover.

Got that?

While this seems like a convoluted plot, it is, in fact, a canvas on which director Pascal Bonitzer paints his story of a man who lets events overtake him; he can’t seem to commit to anyone. While with his mentor, Gerard (Jean Yanne), talk turns to love and when Nathalie, Bruno’s girlfriend (Ludivine Sagnier), overhears Bruno picking her assets apart, she takes off.

But he’s not without companionship for long.

Once on the road, he innocently stops for directions when a pretty young woman jumps into his car to escape her uncaring husband, who will make Bruno pay for being a good samaritan later.

Finally, in the mountains around Grenoble, Bruno encounters Béatrice (Scott Thomas), whose sickly husband/stepfather has been dallying with Gerard’s wife. An evening of sexual, emotional and intellectual flirting ensues. The journeys make this a road movie, yet all these smart women make it an intellectual sex farce.

Auteil does a great job as the confused Bruno. He doesn’t really want to sleep with every woman he sees; he seems to let life just happen to him - getting various cuts and bruises (physical and otherwise) along the way. But Bonitzer puts an interesting focus on all these women, and does a great update of the traditional French farce. (Plays Sept. 27-28.)

Although some of these films succeed more than others, it is a pleasure to see contemporary French filmmakers keep traditional genres alive on the screen, as well as pushing the envelope in terms of character. There is certainly a film for every taste in this little taste of les film français.

Marian Masone is the associate director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and chief curator of The New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center.

 

BAMcinématek presents New French Connection, Sept. 25­28, at 30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene. Tickets are $10. For more information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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