New France

One of the best-represented nations at this year's festival is France. The 30 French films on the roster include three from the masters of French cinema -- Alain Resnais, Erich Rohmer, and Claude Chabrol -- as well as a vital contingent from France's newest wave of directors. One much-anticipated exemplar here is from Erick Zonca, who in his exceptional The Dreamlife of Angels rendered a fierce evocation of two young women adrift. In his latest film, The Little Thief, he takes another excursion into the underclass, this time with an unemployed young baker who opts for a life of crime that turns out not to be the ticket to easy street he'd imagined.

While American films are consumed with epic sweep, digital wonder, and psychosexual violence, the French extol sensuality, frank eroticism, and emotional immediacy. And, unlike American movies, which focus on the chase -- the pursuit and capture of an object of desire -- French cinema deals with what happens after one is caught, the consequences of love and passion. Cedric Kahn's Ennui, based on a novel by Alberto Moravia, is a comic, matter-of-fact, and sexually graphic account of an obsessive affair between a cerebral philosophy teacher and a 17-year-old as detached as she is voluptuous. Cecilia (Sophie Guillemin) is the embodiment of a middle-aged male fantasy, an insatiable, nubile young woman who makes no emotional demands and offers more sex than Martin (Charles Berling) can handle. (Her last lover, also an older man, died in the throes of passion.) Despite her eagerness to have sex any time, anywhere, she remains impassive and consistently eludes Martin's attempts to analyze and possess her. In no time, he graduates from insanely jealous to unhinged. It's a well-acted saga of a man who uncovers his instincts and loses his mind.

Though the French didn't invent film noir, they coined the term. Guillaume Nicloux's Le Poulpe, (The Squid), is a violent crime story set in a grimy seaside town populated with an assortment of losers and drunks. (Apparently the reason for this is that there's a writers' colony nearby.) The Squid and Cheryl are a low-brow Nick and Nora who engage in glib repartee while investigating a slave-labor ring. Gabriel struggles with his footwear -- white shoes that glow in the dark -- while his tough- talking, bisexual cohort sports spike heels and yellow vinyl pants. "It doesn't hurt. It's all in your head," she says to a thug she decks in a hotel hallway. She's a thoroughly modern woman with no qualms about her body or asserting her will. And let's just say she's not shy.

Finally, Jean-Philippe Toussaint's The Ice Rink is a goofy light comedy that substitutes a running joke for a storyline. A film crew is trying to shoot a movie while on ice skates, and as they try to conduct the business of movie-making, they are thrown off balance, literally and figuratively, and dogged by a TV crew that's documenting their every move. The director of this movie on ice -- he's the imperious one with the megaphone -- coddles actors' egos; smooths down the producer (a nice turn by Marie-France Pisier); and lectures the extras, a team of Lithuanian hockey players, on the cinematic theory of Robert Bresson. The film is something of a one-trick pony, a way-distant cousin of Day for Night, without the charismatic presence of Truffaut or the sardonic humor of "Living in Oblivion."

-- Sura Wood

The Little Thief: Friday, April 30, 7:20 p.m., Kabuki; Saturday, May 1, 3:45 p.m., Kabuki

Ennui: Friday, April 30, 9:10 p.m., Kabuki; Sunday, May 2, 6:30 p.m., Rafael; Thursday, May 6, 6:45 p.m., Kabuki

Le Poulpe: Saturday, April 24, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki; Wednesday, April 28, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki; Friday, April 30, 7 p.m., Rafael

The Ice Rink: Friday, April 23, 9:40 p.m., Kabuki; Tuesday, April 27, 9:10 p.m., Kabuki; Wednesday, April 28, 12:30, Kabuki

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