In 2003’s Swimming Pool, François Ozon seductively blurred realism with psychological archetypes, the film’s composition, colours and landscape putting an exquisite pressure on Charlotte Rampling’s blocked English author to let loose, connect with her anima and get her mojo back. His new film, The New Girlfriend/Une Nouvelle Amie, has even more fun with divided selves and repressed desire, this time focusing on the best friend and widower left to grieve after the early death of angelic über-femme Laura (Isild Le Besco).
The construction is less deliberately artificial than that of Swimming Pool, or Ozon’s pantomimey 8 Women, but there’s still an unsettling perfection to the world that Claire (Anaïs Demoustier), her husband Gilles (Raphaël Personnaz), and Laura’s grieving widower David (Romain Duris) inhabit. ROMAIN DURIS! If you haven’t seen The Beat That My Heart Skipped, go and rent it now; he isn’t in Une Nouvelle Amie quite enough, in a move I suspect is deliberately tantalising, and although David provides the plot, it’s the changes in Claire that propel the story. Demoustier is incredibly watchable, a clear, intelligent communicator, letting Claire’s confusion and growing gameness shine through.
The film unfolds in a dreamy French suburbia, its action nearly exclusively confined to the three main players. It is loosely based on a Ruth Rendell short story, but where for Rendell’s middle-class English characters the body’s drives are to be feared, for Ozon’s bourgeoisie they bring curiosity and delight, as well as alarm.
It’s impossible to write more about what happens without spoilers; hopefully it’s enough to say that this is one of those films you feel they had a good time making, that it’s gorgeous to look at, and the swoony beauty and humour are all to a cause, asking what we really know of others’ sexuality, or of our own, until we are exposed to something new. Even in this softly shampooed, perfectly lit world, intimacy, honesty and lack of judgement are the most important things in love.
Love at First Fight/Les Combattants, the debut feature by Thomas Cailley, is one of the smartest and most charming romantic comedies I’ve seen in ages. Arnaud (Kévin Azaïs), whose father has recently died, is spending the summer in his small seaside town, helping his older brother continue the family building business. The army is in town recruiting, and during a beach wrestling session with local youths Arnaud has to face down Madeleine (Adèle Haenel), another young contender, and finds himself doing whatever it takes to get the upper hand.
Madeleine would not approve of Ozon’s plush comforts: she sees imminent environmental and financial catastrophe; disaster is coming and it will be each one for herself. If you have to work out constantly and be able to stomach sardine milkshakes to survive, so be it. Through her experiences at army training camp, and Arnaud’s slowly figuring himself out, the film explores survival, duty, teamwork, individualism and vulnerability with a sense of the absurd and quiet romantic joy. The young actors have terrific chemistry and the writing is fresh, funny and compassionate.
Twenty years after La Haine (take a minute, those of you who remember seeing that at the cinema like it was yesterday), May Allah Bless France!/Qu’Allah bénisse la France! by Abd Al Malik, based on his memoir, is another black and white film about young people in the underprivileged suburbs of a French city — this time Strasbourg — amidst a mix of music, gangs, racial discrimination, media prejudice and heavy-handed policing. This is a much more loosely structured, autobiographical tale, following Régis as he grows from a confused teen into a young man. He excels at school and strives to become a successful rapper, but it’s not until he embraces Islam that he finds peace. It’s a slow-moving and very personal story, dotted with some nice detail among the stylistic collage (documentary and music video references drive the visuals; Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus is referenced a lot, and underpins the theme). When Régis, now calling himself Abd Al Malik, argues with some older boys over his devout wearing of the thobe while proselytising on the streets, one of them points out his trainers: “You think the Prophet wears high-tops?”
The Alliance Française French Film Festival featuring these three films — plus another 29 — is on at the Embassy Theatre from 11 to 29 March.