Credit: Mact Productions / Marianne Productions / JPG Films / BNP Paribas Pictures
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2024: The Book of Solutions, Les Indésirables, Just the Two of Us

March 6, 2024

The Book of Solutions

Michel Gondry feels like an artist from another time, even if that time wasn’t very long ago. The only movie he directed with any real staying power, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, has long been claimed by the Charlie Kaufman oeuvre, and it’s tough to imagine many are clamoring to revisit The Science of Sleep or Be Kind Rewind. But this is a problem of production as much as it is of a dated, quirky affect best left to the 2010s. Until recently, Gondry hadn’t made a feature since 2015’s Microbe & Gasoline, and he hasn’t made one you might have heard of (Mood Indigo) for over a decade. It’s the latter’s troubled, controlling, and totally directionless production that made Gondry take a step back and which now inspires his mild but honest return with The Book of Solutions.

Marc (Pierre Niney) is a familiar kind of director who has lost control of his film — even some of his closest collaborators have turned against it — and so he steals it from the studio and runs away with the few remaining faithful to the same small village in Cévennes where Gondry himself went to finish Mood Indigo. But without any outside interference, and now in possession of total control, he realizes that he cannot bear to face the four-hour version of this already diffuse-sounding project, literally titled Anyone, Everyone, and so must contrive any way possible to avoid watching it, all under the guise of inspiration and creativity. He tells his put-upon editor, Charlotte (Blanche Gardin), to re-edit the film backward, starting from the last scene, and later tries to convince her to do so in his editing bay-cum-truck (don’t ask, it’s too whimsical to bother explaining); then, he decides the film needs an animated interval that will split it into two perfectly reflecting halves. When that interval plays at the mid-point of this film, there’s the suggestion that it too might be palindromic in shape, but that ultimately seems to be beyond Gondry’s intentionally modest — in contrast with the film that inspired it — ambitions. 

The Book of Solutions looks not exactly homemade, but certainly… cheaper. It’s plainly shot and flatly lit, and while that might sound like a criticism, it gives a certain directness to its lead character. Marc’s most frustrating qualities are laid bare; there is nothing to obscure or soften just how controlling or, frankly, annoying he is. Gondry even pushes against sympathy where he could easily find it: as Marc offsets the management of his very real neurodiversity (which, at the start of the film, he decides he no longer needs to be medicated for) onto his crew, we are invited to feel their frustration, which leads them to develop a routine for whose turn it is to chase Marc after another of his innumerable tantrums. There are moments of alleviation that help us to understand how anyone can tolerate Marc at all, such as his improvisation and abstract conducting of an orchestra, whose only starting point is a half-remembered melody he hums. Sometimes, his stupid, pointless distractions converge into some kind of brilliance. It’s absurd, it’s funny, but it’s also kind of beautiful and uninhibitedly artistic. But, of course, these moments of true inspiration (or lucky alignment) do not break the broader cycle.

And quickly, the film feels like it’s spinning in place. This is really an inevitable fact of the premise — and also due to Gondry’s choice not to build a farcical complexity to Marc’s distractions, leaving them straightforward and bare — and while it makes Marc, and by extension the film itself, boring, it makes them boring in the way people really are. Most of us struggle with the same basic problems in the same basic ways over and over again. It’s not very cinematic and it doesn’t fit neatly into a conventional three-act structure of a Hollywood screenplay, but that doesn’t make it any less authentic.

The problem, then, is that Gondry isn’t quite able to let those conventions go, even if The Book of Solutions pushes right up against their limits. And so, in the film’s final 20 minutes, the director throws a series of contrivances and interceptions at Marc, hoping that one of them will cause some miraculous change, until all he can do is recede into pure fantasy. Specifically, we encounter the familiar fantasy of the manic pixie dream girl, whose Oedipal roots permeate Gondry’s whole filmography: a sexy mother (Camille Rutherford, thanklessly) who suddenly appears as Marc’s savior to sleep with him and to (literally) clean his apartment — she is so absent an inner life, with only an outer sheen of quirkiness, that Marc/Michel can fill her entirely with his self and seed (again, literally). Marc, though newly empowered, still manages to escape seeing his film at its premiere. Or to be more precise, Gondry whimsically pulls him from the film’s world altogether, leaving behind an absurd, meaningless husk: a world where the audience claps for Mood Indigo (or its stand-in). In reality — and in the world that Gondry was rendering before this terrible pivot — Mood Indigo was pulled after a disappointing premiere and re-edited for its U.S. release a few months later. ÉSME HOLDEN


Les Indésirables

Even though the in-world scenario of Les Indésirables presents a truly oppressive and regressive local government, headed by a weasley man eager to exercise power, it’s manipulatively dependent on real-world memories and emotions about a very different set of government imposed social restrictions. It’s not that dissimilar to The Creator’s visual effect recycling of the 2020 Beirut explosion that killed 218 people: both twist real tragedy and pain for dishonest artistic benefit… [Previously Published Full Review] JOSHUA POLANSKI


Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

Just the Two of Us

A French drama exploring a complicated, ultimately toxic marriage told from the perspective of a desperate wife and mother, Valérie Donzelli’s Just the Two of Us demonstrates both a knack for synchronicity and truly abysmal timing in premiering at last year’s Cannes Film Festival only two days after Anatomy of a Fall. While the Justine Triet film used the framework of a murder trial to explore the unknowability of a long-term relationship, allowing its mysteries to gradually reveal themselves while remaining maddeningly opaque (and riding a surprise Palme d’Or victory to international acclaim and mainstream acceptance), Donzelli’s film takes a more straightforward approach. Just the Two of Us presents a bad romance in largely non-sensationalistic, incrementally escalating terms, as enervating for the audience as it is for the characters. Playing out over the course of nearly a decade, the film goes through the stages of a deteriorating marriage, tracking its characters from infatuation and falling into bed with one another to the increasingly cruel and manipulative efforts of a husband to keep his wife under his thumb. Just the Two of Us possesses many of the outlandish trappings and overheated qualities of a genre film, yet it seems to be building to an inflection point or sense of catharsis that never actually arrives, instead forcing the viewer to observe endless cycles of passive-aggressive sniping and its protagonist perpetually walking on eggshells. Nobody gets pushed out of a window in the film, but it probably couldn’t have hurt.  

Belgian actress Virginie Efira (who coincidentally worked with Triet in 2019’s Sibyl) stars as Blanche, a school teacher in her late 30s living on the northern coast of France, still licking her wounds following a recent breakup. Goaded into crawling out of her shell by her more self-assured twin sister Rose (also played by Efira in a casting stunt that never quite justifies itself), Blanche is dragged along to a party where she encounters Grégoire (One Fine Morning’s Melvil Poupaud), a past acquaintance whose attentiveness only just conceals an insatiable neediness. Grégoire sweeps Blanche off her feet. He takes a genuine interest in her passions and interests, recites poetry to her, and they hungrily make love (with him even bringing her coffee in bed the morning after their initial tryst). It’s not that Grégoire misrepresents himself as the perfect man only to later reveal more sinister overtones. Rather, his clinginess and naked devotion right out of the gate — he calls her immediately, introduces Blanche to strangers as his wife after only a handful of dates, and constantly dotes on her, all of which she finds disarming — can be credibly interpreted as emotional directness by someone on the rebound looking for someone who doesn’t play games. 

When Blanche and Grégoire become pregnant after only a few months together, it accelerates their timetable. A hasty marriage follows, along with uprooting themselves to the countryside, several hours away from Blanche’s entire emotional support system, after Grégoire is transferred to a different bank branch by his work. But the warning signs are impossible to miss, even as they’re couched in quotidian disagreements and microaggressions. A superstitious Grégoire initially insists that Blanche not share the news of her pregnancy with Rose until the second trimester and presents himself as being magnanimous by allowing her to bring her favorite piece of furniture to their new home (most everything else that belonged to her fails to make the move). After a post-pregnancy Blanche finds work at a new school, and with it a renewed sense of purpose, Grégoire cheerfully blurts out that he can’t fake being happy for his wife, although he’s self-aware enough to acknowledge that he feels terrible about his confusing feelings. And that job transfer that took Blanche away from Rose and the rest of her family? It may have been initiated at Grégoire’s behest, something he conveniently failed to mention to her. 

Adapted for the screen by Donzelli and Audrey Diwan (Happening) from the Éric Reinhardt novel L’Amour et les Forêts, Just the Two of Us takes on an increasingly ominous tone without ever quite spilling over into Sleeping with the Enemy territory. Grégoire’s possessiveness and low self-confidence present themselves as minor yet persistent irritants, like incessantly calling Blanche throughout the day just to check on her and leaving pouting yet accusatory voicemails when she fails to pick up, or sulking when she stays late at school and he has to pick up the children from daycare. For much of the film, the character is guilty, primarily, of being a colossal drag, extinguishing his wife’s inner light simply by demanding so much of her time and energy. Grégoire’s M.O. is to verbally lash out over absolutely nothing, followed at first by a contrite apology only to then twist the situation back into an attack on Blanche; in one instance, he even claims that her inability to call him out on his more monstrous qualities is an indication that she doesn’t truly love him. It’s classically abusive, rarely explored on screen, behavior, and the film isn’t unperceptive about the more insidious ways abuse can present itself without escalating to violence (although the film does eventually go there), including Grégoire monitoring Blanche’s credit card purchases, pooh-poohing visits with her family, and undermining her parenting of their two small children. Yet the film is entirely uninterested in Grégoire as anything other than a sucking wound of paranoia and insecurity — although Poupaud is classically handsome, the film tries to lay the groundwork for the character’s petit pénis energy by noting that he used to be fat — which reaches critical levels once he begins to (correctly, it turns out) suspect Blanche of infidelity. Any compulsion to understand the character begins and ends with Grégoire’s need to possess Blanche, as though he ceases to exist when he’s not obsessing over what his wife is up to. Not that he appears to be getting much out of the marriage himself, as every evening devolves into testy interrogations of her daily activities and attempts to bully confessions out of her.       

It’s uncommon for a film to dedicate this much attention to the psychological wear and tear of abuse as opposed to the more salacious and visible physical toll. Just the Two of Us acknowledges the unspoken stranglehold of trying to keep a family together and presenting a happy face to the world, and that one can’t exactly run to the police because their husband scrutinizes how much they spend filling up the car. Efira (who, of late, has cornered the market on sensual yet classy French arthouse films about professional women of a certain age) moves through the film’s second half like a cornered animal, recklessly seeking out validation or kindness in whatever form it might take, only to retreat to a loveless marriage where she’s grilled about her real and imagined indiscretions. Yet Donzelli’s approach, treating this all like a pot on the stove, perpetually simmering without ever reaching a boil, has its limitations. For all of its feints at moving into a darker place — the film’s framing device repeatedly finds Blanche recounting her story to a sympathetic attorney, which only further emphasizes the Anatomy of a Fall parallels — Just the Two of Us is far too content to merely simulate the inescapable, regularly frustrating rut of being in a relationship with a hyper-controlling schmuck. The behavior is recognizable and smartly-rendered while rarely being all that compelling. ANDREW DIGNAN


Consent

In another example of the film’s excellence of form, the editor duo of Marion Monestier and Sophie Reine insightfully capture the trapped feeling that more often than not partners with abusive relationships. As Vanessa continually tries to escape her situation and repeatedly makes the decision to leave Matzneff, concealed temporal edits put her right back in that same studio or hotel room with him… The cyclical nature of abuse and the emotional confinement of manipulative and predatory men come together in Consent‘s sharply effective yet unflashy edits. [Previously Published Full Review] JOSHUA POLANSKI


Credit: Sarah Sobol/Film at Lincoln Center

The Temple Woods Gang

Death hangs over the first moments of The Temple Woods Gang, the riveting seventh feature from French-Algerian filmmaker Rabah Ameur-Zaimëche. Grizzled military retiree Pons (Régis Laroche) looks out from his apartment balcony in a Paris banlieue, one of the low-income, immigrant-focused housing projects that have often served as the setting for the director’s work, awaiting the ambulance that will retrieve his mother’s dead body. What follows is likewise structured as a series of appointments with death, as the forces that doom the film’s eponymous group of friends (raised, partly by Pons’ mother, in the Temple Woods project) are set in motion well before the film’s start.

Ameur-Zaimëche’s films have long examined the race- and class-based stratification of French society through a rigorously materialist outsider lens, and The Temple Woods Gang applies that perspective to a relatively straightforward crime thriller framework. The plot follows Bébé (Philippe Petit) and the rest of the gang as they plan and execute a highway robbery of a van owned by a powerful Saudi prince (Mohamed Aroussi), transporting large sums of cash and other valuables. The heist goes smoothly enough, but it’s only so long until the vast asymmetry of resources and ruthlessness between the two sides asserts itself. The prince and his contemptible American lackey (Lucius Barre) enlist a mysterious operator named Jim (Slimane Dazi) to track down the culprits, intent on making an example of what happens when the poor take class warfare into their own hands, while Pons stands with a watchful eye just outside the action.

As often with Ameur-Zaimëche, the film withholds many key details of plot and character in favor of a total immersion in its characters’ everyday environment. The gang’s past criminal activity, Pons’ backstory, and Jim’s methods of hunting them remain vague, but the scenes of Bébé and friends busting each other’s chops at the garage carry a rich sense of place and personal history. The film portrays these people, who would be so easily dismissed as violent criminals deserving of their fate in essentially any Western country, with all the conviviality and generosity that comes from a lifetime of communal support. It’s all the more horrifying, then, when the brutal violence that awaits them invades these spaces.

The Temple Woods Gang is largely a study in visual and spatial juxtapositions, something it announces in its opening pan from the banlieue to the distant, prosperous city center. The intimate working-class environs Bébé moves through sit alongside the empty, cavernous halls of power in which the prince plots his revenge, as alone in his visual frames as the gang is united within theirs. Jim and Pons double each other as the gang’s avenging and guardian angels respectively, opposing avatars of France’s history of colonial violence. Ameur-Zaimëche has never been given over to subtlety, and some moments — like a cut from one character futilely circling a prison yard to the elegant gallop of the prince’s racehorse — spell out the point in no uncertain terms. And yet it’s the contrast in the film’s larger construction, between surfaces raw enough to feel like Maurice Pialat on one of his lighter days and the strings of its overarching genre design, that leave the strongest impression. What could be a conventional genre script adorned with easy ironies and class condescension finds a genuinely political formal approach.

Marked as it is by death and despair, The Temple Woods Gang remains remarkably attuned to the small joys of life. Its last moments also find Pons looking out from a balcony, this time observing some young children at play. Life doesn’t go on for everyone, but the work continues for the rest of us. BRAD HANFORD


Badel & Adama

On close inspection, Banel & Adama is not a showdown between religiosity and feminism, but between selfishness and a sense of duty, however misplaced… Sy depicts absolute social collapse as the result of an inability to think outside the binarism of conservative beliefs and radical individualism. In both cases, insularity leads to utter destruction… [Previously Published Full Review] MICHAEL SICINSKI


Credit: James Shapiro/Film at Lincoln Center

The Rapture

There’s a mystery at the heart of writer/director Iris Kaltenbäck’s debut feature film The Rapture, but unlike the reams of true-crime documentaries and adjacent media that have proliferated wildly in the streaming age, it’s not a film about guilt or innocence. There is no question about who did what, only the ultimate unknowable why. And, unlike the narrative games played in current Academy Award favorite Anatomy of a Fall, which invites the audience to play sleuth, The Rapture states its case plainly and bluntly. It is, ultimately, about the mysteries of human nature. 

As the film begins, Lydia (Hafsia Herzi) is in the midst of a breakup with her long-term, live-in boyfriend. He has cheated on her and decides to end the relationship rather than work through their problems. Lydia, a midwife at a large hospital, throws herself into her work, taking on long shifts and barely leaving the house in her free time. Her best friend, Salome (Nina Meurisse), discovers that she is pregnant, and Lydia is overjoyed. She pours herself into helping her friend navigate her pregnancy, culminating in a difficult, but ultimately successful, birth. In the meantime, Lydia meets a bus driver, Milos (Alexis Manenti), and the two sleep together after a fun evening out. But Milos casually informs Lydia that it was a one-time-only dalliance, and that he has no intention of seeing her again. These two strains of Lydia’s life intersect on one fateful day: as Lydia walks around the hospital with Salome’s newborn daughter, she runs into Milos, who is visiting his sickly father. Impulsively, Lydia tells Milos that the baby is his, the result of their one-night stand. 

And so begins a series of deceptions, relatively benign at first, but gradually accumulating layers upon layers of increasingly desperate and complex lies. Milos demands a paternity test, and rather than stopping right there, Lydia instead concocts a counterfeit DNA test. She begins babysitting for Salome on a weekly basis, using the opportunity to take the baby and go on dates with Milos. All the while, an intermittent voiceover narration — revealed to be Milos telling his side of the story from some point in the future, after the ruse has been exposed — seeks to understand Lydia’s motivation. Kaltenbäck doesn’t psychoanalyze Lydia, instead presenting her actions as a kind of game, at least until she gets in over her head. She’s seeking connection, of course, and Herzi plays her as an introverted but highly competent professional. The film’s style is fairly unadorned, mostly medium shots that keep the focus on the performers, only occasionally interrupted by extreme closeups that suggest an interiority that’s just out of reach. There’s a surprising amount of suspense to the whole scenario; it’s not entirely clear what Lydia is ultimately going to go to jail for, and as her relationship with Milos blossoms, there’s an almost instinctive desire to see this couple make it work (despite any genuine connection being built entirely on an elaborate deception). Ultimately, The Rapture presents a fascinating rupture — a portrait of an unknowable woman who is at her core also, somehow, still very relatable. Who doesn’t want to be loved?  DANIEL GORMAN


On the Adamant

On the Adamant doesn’t always penetrate, and frequent stretches of its runtime do call for some exposition, if only to undergird the center’s integrated organization and functioning beyond the subjectivities of its constituents… Philibert steadfastly holds onto his free-floating, indifferent formalism though, if only to reject the need to explicate or elaborate and to, instead, humanize the struggle with disorders of the mind…. [Previously Published Full Review] MORRIS YANG


Credit: Nord-Ouste / StudioCanal / Artemis Productions

The Animal Kingdom

There’s a difference between a breakfast of scrambled eggs (with sausage, tomatoes, and mixed peppers) and a proper omelet. The combination of the same ingredients — perhaps with a few extra spices thrown in the mix — makes all the difference between a sufficient (even good!) multi-dish breakfast and a rich, delectable omelet. The latter is more put together, more prepared — and that makes for, usually, a better breakfast experience. The same could be said of director Thomas Cailley’s The Animal Kingdom: it has all of the correct components of an exceptional film, though it puts them together in a way that leaves that potential unfulfilled.

Most notably, both the film’s premise and actress Adèle Exarchopoulos are underutilized. In the present, in the Gironde department of France, humans have inexplicably begun to mutate into animals. At first, they look like weird hybrids out of an X-Men comic book, before eventually losing almost the entirety of their human selves. François’ (Romain Duris) wife has mutated into some large mammal and is now considered state property as she receives experimental treatments to slow or reverse her mutations. Émile (Paul Kircher), the son of François and his now creaturely wife, shows the earliest signs of mutation, and simultaneously develops a friendship with a bird-hybrid in the nearby forbidden forest.

The human-to-animal mutation premise (and vice versa) — as old as storytelling itself — alludes to multiple analogies and impishly avoids committing to any. The obvious environmental destruction analogy almost can’t be avoided, though it requires more eisegesis than exegesis. In fact, beyond the mere accidents of the setup — a conflict between nature and humanity that puts both at risk — the only hard in-film evidence for this analogy is a split-second character design that instantly recalls the prosthetic of the original Planet of the Apes films. A more interesting read of The Animal Kingdom leans into the xenophobia and bigotry in Francophone Europe. The way the mutated humans are treated certainly seems to have a lot in common with the experiences of many immigrants and refugees in France, Belgium, and elsewhere. “Creatures” is the more acceptable language; the blatant bigots of the world call them “critters,” a purposefully more subordinating term. “No critters here!” can be found graffitied on walls, and, on one occasion, they are even spoken of in the same breath as “gypsies,” a derogatory term for the Romani, one of the most belittled ethnic groups in all of Europe. But even this interpretation can’t be taken without reservation because, well, they become animals.

Eventually, the “creatures” lose all ability to speak and become nearly indistinguishable from normal animals of the same species. Because most people in the real world, even those who value non-human animal life immensely, regard animals as somehow less than human (hence, why so many of us eat meat), and since The Animal Kingdom is no vegan power move in the manner of Okja, this interpretation is bound to meet its end. By teasing multiple analogies and committing to none, then, Cailley’s film fails to present anything of note, let alone profound, about what it means to be human. And from Eustace Scrubb in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, that is the very thing this sub-genre does best. Here, the transformation trope instead finds itself confined to mere entertainment fodder.

Viewers will also be disappointed if they watch The Animal Kingdom solely for Exarchopoulos, no doubt one of the great French-speaking talents still in their prime. She plays an ultimately useless police officer with minimal screen time. It’s easy to imagine another cut of the film where she develops an emotional or romantic connection with François. Perhaps that was even the original plan, but for some reason or another, that’s not the version viewers have here received. Still, the way Cailley deploys her here would be like only playing Nikola Jokic for eight short minutes in a game whose outcome was long decided before he ever stepped onto the basketball court. Her character ultimately leaves no lasting impression on the outcome of the plot, nor does she establish any real emotional resonance. It’s possible her role was originally larger and for some reason got excised for brevity; it’s also possible, to be less generous, that the cop she plays was thrown into the mix at the last minute just to secure her appearance. The latter would at least explain the general uselessness of the role as a different face to occasionally cut to. 

The final cut of The Animal Kingdom, however, still appeals on a strictly aesthetic level. David Cailley’s camerawork impresses, especially during the pinnacle where the cinematography tracks Émile as he runs from authorities and stumbles onto a biodiverse utopia of creatures and animals. Cailley’s nighttime cinematography occasionally elevates the genre material to something horror-adjacent, while the daylight work maintains the verisimilar connection to life in modern France. All the while, the project on the whole is well-designed without ever being too polished in the ugly, glossy way that these sorts of films tend to go for. The creature design is also marvelous from start to finish; from a giraffe-sized stick bug and some Dementor look-alikes to the slow transformation of Fix (Tom Mercier) into a stirring and mildly unsettling bird of prey, the visual effects, make-up, and costume departments put forth exceptional work, lending the inhabitants of this universe distinctive designs without breaking the bank on uninspired Marvelized creature creation. Still, good-looking as the breakfast spread may be, it’s tough to shake the feeling that the omelet would have been better. JOSHUA POLANSKI


Ama Gloria

Rather than bank on showy workmanship and sweeping melodrama — though the film does contain some animated sequences, the purpose of which takes a while to become beautifully clear — Ama Gloria rests on Mauroy-Panzani and Moreno Zego’s shoulders, their strikingly layered performances the kind that can only come from letting an actor, or two, simply breathe… [Previously Published Full Review] SARAH WILLIAMS


Credit: SBS Production/Sebastien Fouque

Auction

Perhaps more well-known as a former Cahiers du Cinéma critic and the frequent co-screenwriter with the likes of Jacques Rivette, André Techiné, and Chantal Akerman, Pascal Bonitzer has amassed a small yet compulsive directorial oeuvre that has largely been ignored outside of French (and some more broadly international) cinephile circles. For his tenth film, Auction, which initially was conceived as a series, Bonitzer — who tends to satirically inspect the lives of the bourgeoisie with a combination of comedy and mystery — depicts the highbrow world of Parisian auctioneers at the famous (and fictional) Scottie’s auction house, where hotshot opportunist wheeler-dealer André Masson (Alex Lutz) receives a letter concerning the discovery of a painting. Said painting, by Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele, had been long assumed lost — condemned and destroyed as “degenerate art” by the Nazis in 1939. Thanks to this discovery, the ambitious Masson — assisted by the consultations and connoisseurship of his ex-wife and colleague Bertina (Léa Drucker), along with eccentric intern Aurore (Louise Chevillotte) and provincial lawyer (Nora Hamzawi) sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to skyrocket his career and status in the worlds of high art and finance.

Bonitzer is one of those auteurs whose filmmaking methodology is predominantly concerned with the concise process of forming various layers of refined, scripted story and the narrative arcs and colorful relationships that envelop a large group of characters (in a manner recalling a certain Henry James-ian novelistic tradition). But what’s most noteworthy here is that the director applies a very crystalline set of images (with an obvious taste in composing architectural and urban spaces) that, with no interruption or special superiority (of “style over substance”), easily works in close parallel with the smooth and gradual flow of the narration. This is aided by an acting ensemble that provides enough room to build a casual yet grounded chemistry — whether through moments of intimacy or highlights of contrast — so that one is able to delve into a profound exploration of the complex mechanisms of the so-called “art world,” its established hierarchies, and the grander apparatuses of post-consumerist cosmopolitanism, replete with occasional tongue-in-cheek sardonicism. And though it may not be the type of narrative device that one usually expects in a film like Auction, it’s fair to suggest that Bonitzer plants a somewhat peculiar suspense at the heart of his humorous storytelling here, which works to keep viewers curious about how situations will unfold and the ways that characters may expose or expand themselves throughout their various encounters.

Indeed, the world of Auction, as Aurore observes in one scene, depicts “a business that involves playing a role, putting on an act.” But what’s especially of singular and thought-provoking importance here is the way Bonitzer precisely depicts the duality of these characters’ lives, so that while we follow the authentication process of Schiele’s masterpiece, so too do the characters begin to reveal their true selves, hidden beneath the faux propriety of their personas and social pretensions. Which is to say that in Bonitzer’s Auction, myriad histories — artistic, political, and personal — are simultaneously entwined: if Schiele’s painting is never disassociated from its World War II context, neither do the characters succeed in escaping their untold or secret stories. Taking this a step further, if one is willing to contemplate Bonitzer’s efforts on a more fundamental level, then Auction isn’t only a portrait of the day-to-day act of forging a convincing “character” or life for themselves, but also a self-reflective, genuine study about the attempts of the artist to forge fiction into the shape of a more authentic reality. AYEEN FOROOTAN


No Love Lost

Frustratingly for some, No Love Lost indulges neither in overt sentimentality nor in insulating its slapstick world from sympathy. The result, then, is a drawn-out negotiation of rules and responsibilities for everyone… But while this languid pacing does result in the film’s predictable finale, it doesn’t detract from establishing a curiously contrapuntal rhythm… [Previously Published Full Review] MORRIS YANG


Credit: Film at Lincoln Center

Little Girl Blue

In Mona Achache’s Little Girl Blue, actress Marion Cotillard first appears as herself. As Achache gives her a wig, brown-colored contacts, perfume, a cherished necklace, and other such personal effects, her expression remains unreadable. Then, before our eyes, and Achache’s, Cotillard transforms. As a stand-in for Achache’s mother, the late writer and photographer Carole Achache, Cotillard has the difficult task of inhabiting a woman whose death by suicide remains incomprehensible even to those closest to her. It’s not a seamless performance, but rather an evolving work in progress that begins with lip-syncing to Carole’s interviews and develops as the actress becomes fully immersed in the role.

Newly changed, Cotillard picks up a copy of Carole’s novel Fille de — in which, as we are later told, the author “tenderly and violently describes her mother, and the life she had with her.” “You’re doing exactly what she did. You’re investigating your mother,” Cotillard notes. Achache reveals it all goes back a generation further: her grandmother, Monique Lange, also wrote a book about her mother. As the daughter of a well-connected writer and editor, Carole grew up in privilege, surrounded by many of France’s leading intellectual figures, but her childhood was also marked by years of sexual abuse. As a young adult, she engaged in heavy drug use and sometimes took on sex work to survive. Carole’s later family life, as shown in the film through photographs and home videos, was relatively settled, but her writing addressed her feeling “disfigured inside.”

In some ways, Achache’s filmmaking approach is similar to that employed in Martha Coolidge’s astonishing Not a Pretty Picture (1976), except, rather than re-enacting episodes from her own recollection, the director draws from a meticulous archive of written and audio recordings to reconstruct her mother’s point-of-view. Within its metanarrative, the film acknowledges that this is not a perspective that can ever truly be knowable — both Achache’s father and Cotillard question her efforts to resurrect her mother in this way — and yet, it’s not hard to understand why Achache would be driven to this investigation.

Among the film’s first images are words from a document on Carole’s computer: “Who will read what I’ve written in the depths of this folder… why is there always this hope of being understood after my death?” With generosity and respect, Little Girl Blue attempts to fulfill this innate desire to be known. However, as much as it is a loving tribute, Little Girl Blue is also an aching self-portrait. At certain points, narration is delivered in the second person, with Mona Achache making us privy to an intimate dialogue between her and her mother. In the most heartbreaking of these moments, the director reveals that she, like her mother and grandmother before her, was a victim of sexual abuse: “I tell you about it, you collapse and tell me that you knew it would happen to me, that it had happened to you too.” There are no simple answers or justifications, but Little Girl Blue ends on a note of acceptance — the image of Achache and her mother side-by-side on a beach — and it’s clear that the bond between them will live on. GRACE BOSCHETTI


Marguerite’s Theorem

For all the attention paid to theorems and formulae, Marguerite’s Theorem does little to obscure how conventional and almost trite the film can be. Marguerite’s adventures at the mahjong table play like something out of Rain Man or The Hangover, complete with complex equations superimposed over Rumpf’s face as she takes down game after game… [Previously Published Full Review] ANDREW DIGNAN