Sobering news, friends: The war between the sexes has reached the land that invented romance (or at least the cinematic myth of it). French films have always provided genteel tips for seduction and lovemaking, and pointers for meeting partners as well as elegantly disposing of them without messy scenes and crushed feelings. From the evidence amassed at this year's festival, French men and women are in dire need of a new lexicon.
In They Call It Spring, a kinetic, Marivaux-style roundelay that bristles with seen and unseen cruelties and bruised egos, three Parisian women flee their partners for a spell. In one over-the-top sequence, they punish one husband with tar and feathers. The voracious sexual selfishness on display here is stunningly far from the freedom of sexual exploration famously trumpeted in early Godard and Truffaut films. Michael Haneke's haunting Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys is seemingly more benign: Its bewildered characters -- an actress (Juliette Binoche) and her war photographer boyfriend, his walled-off father, a Mali cab driver and his assimilated son, a Romanian woman in France illegally and her husband back home -- don't wage attacks on the ones they are closest to. They are, however, just as incapable of relating to their lovers and relatives as the characters in They Call It Spring.
Relationships are no clearer outside the City of Light. When Charlotte Rampling's husband vanishes at the beach in the satisfyingly creepy Under the Sand, she refuses to accept his apparent death. We're touched by the depth of her love and commitment, until director François Ozon (quickly outgrowing his enfant terrible rep) drops hints that not all was magical in the marriage. The teenager exploring his first homosexual love affair in Come Undone isn't experienced enough to indulge in self-deception; he's too confused. He hasn't constructed a persona yet -- a fact reflected in the unvarnished film's raw, choppy aesthetic.
Class divisions, racial tensions, and sexual desire drive The Town Is Quiet, the most ambitious effort yet from the John Sayles of Marseille, Robert Guédiguian (Marius and Jeannette). He's unusually pessimistic this time around, positing that the work-ing class is trapped by heroin, unemployment, and, worst of all, dreams that have no chance of coming true. Wise to that news, the girls on the run in Baise-Moi embark on a fuck-and-kill rampage. Whatever happened to smoking after sex?
They Call It Spring: Tuesday, May 1, 7 p.m., Park Theater
Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys: Saturday, April 28, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 2, 7 p.m., Park Theater
Under the Sand: Sunday, April 29, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 30, 7 p.m., Park Theater
Come Undone: Wednesday, April 25, 7:20 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, April 26, 3:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 27, 7:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki
The Town Is Quiet: Wednesday, April 25, 10 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Baise-Moi: Opens Friday, April 27, at the Roxie Cinema