Critics' Conversation: Isabelle Huppert, K-Stew in Paris, Depicting Terrorism and More From the Year in French Film

From left: Pierre Niney in 'Frantz,' Kristen Stewart in 'Personal Shopper' and Isabelle Huppert in 'Things to Come.'

THR's two Paris-based film critics look back at a year in movies highlighted by Isabelle Huppert's double tour de force, a slew of mediocre blockbusters and questions of national identity.

Jordan Mintzer: When we tried to write our wrap-up piece on French cinema this time last year, the Paris attacks had occurred only a month beforehand and were still fresh on everyone’s mind. Since then, we’ve all tried to move past the events of November 13, not to mention the Charlie Hebdo killings and the incident in Nice this past summer — though the nation continues to remain on high alert, with army patrols roaming the streets of Paris and other major cities, day and night.

While last year’s crop of French movies seemed to reflect fears of terror and uncertainty, the films of 2016 mostly kept clear of these issues, save for one notable exception — I’m talking about Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama and not The Take (the Idris Elba actioner formerly known as Bastille Day). Otherwise, this year’s better Gallic films seemed to be centered on questions of national identity, whether it was French films directed by non-Frenchmen, French directors making movies in other languages or films asking us what it means to be French in 2016. With a presidential election coming up in May 2017 —- one in which many speculate that the far-right National Front party could garner more votes than ever — identity seems to be à l’ordre du jour.

But before we delve into those issues, we first need to get another major event out of the way, which is that 2016 will definitely go down as the Year of the Huppert. Between Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come, the 63-year-old actress gave two of the most thrilling performances in a career that’s already filled with them, and both films offered generous and memorable portraits of a woman who would not go gently into that good night, but instead rejected conventional notions of femininity, sexuality, family, relationships and aging. They both also showed that Huppert gets along really well with cats. However, if you look back at her filmography, you could argue that several years have been vintage Huppert years, including 2009 (Claire Denis’ White Material and Benoit Jacquot’s Villa Amalia) and 2000 (Claude Chabrol’s Merci pour le Chocolat and Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher), to name just a few. So what makes 2016 so special?

Boyd van Hoeij: First, the two films in question make for a fabulous study in contrasts: Elle is about a woman who runs on instinct and desire and Things to Come is about someone who finds comfort in philosophy and relies on intellect to deal with life’s curveballs. Pitch-black humor and razor-sharp irony pepper the former, while the latter finds solace in silence and quiet me-time. The vertiginous range of emotions that these two films encompass shows how great an actress Huppert really is and I think this is what has really put her over the top this year. Of course, the hard-working Huppert’s stream of constantly brilliant depictions in very different but always complex roles has made her a beloved collaborator of international auteurs for years. Perhaps it’s because Elle finds a Hollywood director working on Huppert’s home turf that this is the first time we’re hearing her name seriously being considered in the U.S. awards race?

And let’s not forget that just this year, Huppert also starred in the high-finance drama Right Here, Right Now — which skipped festivals but was released here in June — and The False Secrets, a somewhat meta adaptation of a Marivaux play that premiered in Locarno in August. Plus, Toronto title Souvenir — in which Huppert gets to live out her Jane-Wyman-in-Douglas-Sirk fantasy, sing and hook up with a hunky boxer almost four decades her junior — which will be released locally at the end of this month. We thus have no less than five incredibly diverse Huppert performances to cherish in 2016.

Elle, based on a French novel but scripted by an Australian and directed by a Hollywood-based Dutchman, also highlights another question you already hinted at earlier: What makes a movie French these days? For the Gotham Awards, Elle somehow qualified as American. And one of the biggest “local” hits here, It's Only the End of the World, starred a real who’s-who of French acting talent, including Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard, but was directed by French-Canadian wunderkind/enfant terrible Xavier Dolan. 

JM: Between Verhoeven and Dolan directing French films, or Francois Ozon making Frantz in German and Olivier Assayas shooting Personal Shopper in English — the latter was definitely one of my coups de coeur of 2016 — I really think that the greatest strength of contemporary French cinema lies in its growing diversity vis-a-vis a heritage that was mostly Franco-Francais, male-dominated and ignorant of its country’s colonial past and long history of immigration.

This is not to say that such a heritage didn’t bring us countless masterpieces — several of which are masterfully analyzed in Bertrand Tavernier’s documentary A Journey Through French Cinema (another one of my 2016 favorites). But with the passing of the great Jacques Rivette in January, there are very few filmmakers left from what we could consider a “golden age” of French cinema that stretched roughly from the late 1930s to the late 1970s, and I feel like the future of French film will be found elsewhere than in the traditional directorial DNA of the past.

Case in point, the number of female French auteurs turning out ambitious and challenging movies seems to grow each year, and in 2016 we not only had Hansen-Love’s Things to Come, but also two first-time filmmakers making impressive debuts in Cannes: Houda Benyamina with her banlieue coming-of-ager Divines and Julia Ducournau with her ultra-gory, ultra-savvy cannibal college movie Raw. I definitely preferred the latter over the former, but both films showed distaff directors venturing into tough terrain — the street movie and the violent horror movie — typically reserved for men.

BVH: The closest France has to a post-Golden Age auteur for me is Ozon, who keeps reinventing himself. His Frantz is my favorite film of the year and its exploration of the intersection of nationality and identity and of some of the reasons we lie to ourselves and others yields new insights at every viewing. It plays around with the codes of black-and-white studio films (Lubitsch’s 1932 drama Broken Lullaby inspired Frantz’s first half) but also offers a poignant reflection on morally compromised behavioral patterns and the (eventual) rise of nationalism as it investigates post-WWI trauma in both France and Germany, something that turns the film from a beautiful period piece into something urgent and contemporary.

Unlike the old-school name directors Tavernier examines in his excellentissime documentary, Ozon is more of a post-modern auteur, making films that play around with genre(s) in unexpected or subversive ways while exploring hot-button societal issues. Assayas does something similar in Personal Shopper, a supernatural horror art film that offers the most convincing showcase yet for the mesmerizing capacity of Kristen Stewart to completely exteriorize her character’s complex and mysterious — sometimes even to her — inner life. One of the most heart-pounding things I’ve seen all year is that text-messages-on-the-Eurostar sequence, slowly mounting in tension and layered with a sense of spectral unease. It is the most perfect contemporary update of Hitchcockian suspense I’ve seen in a long time but the sequence is never about technique or simple thrills. Instead, it illustrates how Stewart’s Maureen tries to navigate her connection to the unknown and/or afterlife, something she wants to believe in but that also frightens her. 

Both Ozon and Assayas are great directors of women and tellers of women’s stories, of course. And as you know, the we-need-more-female-filmmakers discussion isn’t as intense in France, where about 30 percent of the directors are actually female, as it is in the Anglo-Saxon film industry. But even so, it's interesting to note that they didn’t direct any of the big local hits this year and that only one of them — Eric Lavaine’s Back to Mom’s  actually had a female protagonist. Did you see any (thus invariably male-directed) local hits you liked this year?

JM: As is usually the case, many of the French hits I caught were a tad below par, to put it nicely. To put it not nicely, they were borderline unwatchable. Luckily I was spared this year’s number-one hit, which was The Tuches: The American Dream  a movie you unfortunately had to contend with (and about which you wrote: “God help French cinema”). But I did catch such gems as the overpriced, truly awful The Visitors: Bastille Day, the annual Dany Boon cash-grab Penny Pincher! and the feel-good, laugh-free bovine comedy One Man and His Cow. Much to my surprise, I did enjoy the number-two film at the box office — Fabien Onteniente’s Camping 3 — which offers a rather hilarious and often melancholic portrait of French rednecks, or beaufs. (Apparently I wasn’t the only one surprised that I liked Camping 3, with Premiere magazine actually posting a story about how we gave it a positive review.)

To my mind, 2016 was the same as 2015, 2014 and the past decade or so of commercial French cinema, where the studios put out lots of star-packed comedies that are underwritten, overproduced and quickly forgotten. The hope, of course, is that out of every 40 or so like-minded releases, there will be at least one Welcome to the Sticks or Serial (Bad) Weddings  or in the best case, Intouchables — that will strike gold. But you really get the feeling that, as long as there’s a bankable cast, many movies are rushed into production without proper development. It’s unfortunate, because as Tavernier points out in his film, the French studios used to put out quality fare made by capable craftsmen and sometimes, true auteurs. Nowadays it’s a rarity.

BVH: What’s fascinating is the apparent disconnect between quality and popularity, both among blockbusters — The Tuches was indeed the sloppiest and most offensive film this year and by far the biggest local hit, with 1.4 million more admissions than number two on the list — but also, of course, in terms of the more traditional commercial/art house divide. I can only see one title that feels like an art house film this year that also became an audience phenomenon and that’s Thomas Lilti’s Irreplaceable, a drama about a rural doctor played by Francois Cluzet from Intouchables. It’s a sober, well-acted feature that feels like one of the quality studio films of yesteryear that Tavernier discusses in his doc but that now feels like an anomaly.

I don’t want to end this chat on a truly depressing note but I do think it is important to underline for international cinephiles that some of their 2016 French darlings are indeed great films but not necessarily huge hits at home. Nocturama and Things to Come, for example, didn’t even make the top 100 of highest-grossing films, while several others we’ve discussed did decent numbers for art house releases but not all that great when compared to everything else released this year, with Elle coming in at number 83, for example, and Frantz at number 75. For the longest time, French audiences could be relied upon to queue up en masse for more obscure or challenging fare but I’m left wondering, looking at this year’s results, whether they too are succumbing to the domination of adaptations, sequels and films seemingly designed by marketing committees more than cineastes?

JM: I definitely think that France has succumbed to blockbuster-itus over the last decade or so, although there are a few anomalies in 2016 that show how the French still support art house cinema more than viewers in most territories. Where else, for instance, could The Revenant (released in France in February) become the number-three box-office hit of the year, or Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World rake in more than a million admissions? (And where else could Deadpool — arguably the artsiest Marvel release to date — beat out Captain America: Civil War, which ranked in at number 11?)

As for Nocturama, it’s unfortunate that audiences didn’t respond to Bonello’s rather ambitious attempt to tackle terrorism from such a fresh and deeply aesthetic angle, though I do think that few people were in the mood to see a fictionalized Paris attack less than a year after the real ones happened. The film certainly has its champions (especially among certain U.S. critics) and its detractors (the Cahiers du Cinema, who have always been huge Bonello supporters, called it “incredibly confused” and “politically empty”). I was more in the middle of the road – both impressed by the virtuosity of the filmmaking and put off by the movie's muddled messages about capitalism and social decadence, especially during its weaker second half. For me, Bonello is a director who doesn’t necessarily know what he wants to say but has a beautiful way of saying it, and Nocturama was, at the very least, the most visually splendid French film of 2016.

But if we’re talking about the most significant film, especially with regard to national identity issues, the one that struck me the most was Raymond Depardon’s documentary Les Habitants (or France, as it was simply called in English). Depardon, who’s both a photographer and filmmaker, could be seen as the Gallic equivalent of Frederick Wiseman, relentlessly capturing French life over the last half-century in over a dozen movies and thousands of photos. In this minimalist chronicle, he traveled around France in an RV and invited folks from different walks of life to come inside and engage in private conversations. What he revealed was the face of a new nation — a panorama of African, Arab and working-class folks worried about their future, or the future of their children, yet filled with humor, compassion and the kind of daily struggles that people have been facing since the beginning of time. It’s a group portrait of a country that's both troubling and invigorating, sad, funny and sanguine. Things to come, indeed.

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