The festival has displayed exceptional enthusiasm in recent years for the most transgressive inclinations of French filmmakers, from the serious self-mutilation study In My Skin to the bad-girls-with-guns hokum of Baise Moi. At first blush, Lucile Hadzihalilovic's exquisitely etched Innocence is the likeliest candidate for this year's succès de scandale. There's its teasing title, its pedigree -- Hadzihalilovic's partner and occasional collaborator is the provocateur Gaspar Noé (Irréversible) -- and its shot after shot of pre-pubescent girls in white pleated skirts or leotards. How twisted is that?
The girls live practically by themselves in an ominous utopia with its own rituals and rules, genuinely innocent in every way. Taught only ballet and biology, they are being prepared for -- well, I'd say a world in which women are obliged to conform to men's fantasies and failings, but you might arrive at a cheerier interpretation. Photographed with calm precision, Innocence imagines girlhood as a mysterious and vaguely disquieting limbo.
Spoiled children, on the other hand, become selfish grown-ups. Or so Arnaud Desplechin posits in Kings and Queen, a shaggy and wondrous epic that relates the parallel stories of a self-assured gallery director (Emmanuelle Devos) whose father is dying and a manic violinist (Mathieu Amalric) committed to a mental hospital by his family. Self-centered and semideluded, they are shockingly (and sometimes hilariously) oblivious to the bullshit they dispense in torrents. In the last reel, though, Desplechin awakens them in time to face, and tell, something resembling the truth.
The unsentimental When the Tide Comes In centers on a married, middle-aged Parisian comedienne touring the provinces who assuredly does not traffic in illusions. An actress and artist, Irene (Belgian favorite Yolande Moreau, who co-wrote and co-directed) doesn't look to make buddies on the road, either. So her friendship with a genial wastrel (the raffish Wim Willaert) is unexpected, unlikely, and, ultimately, profoundly moving. Irene always closes her show with her arm around a "chicken" from the audience. "The beginning of a great romance," she declares, waits three beats, then adds, "Who cares about the end?"
We do, of course, yet When the Tide Comes In touchingly leaves us with a shadow of a doubt. In fact, open endings -- and ambiguous beginnings -- are endemic among the Gallic contingent and may reflect a national identity crisis. The euro has supplanted the franc, and a Coke is as easy to order in Paris as vin rouge. France long touted its status as the center of Europe, but the heart of the new European Union is harder to identify. The witty flicks imported for the fest sport characters who are vibrant and hyperactive, but are unmistakably infected with a malaise.
It takes a dying Gaul (as opposed to The Dying Gaul, the Hollywood satire that closes the festival) named François Mitterrand to articulate France's changed role on the Continent. In the talk-filled The Last Mitterrand, set during his last years in the early '90s, the socialist president (an ultrasmooth, whip-smart Michel Bouquet) imparts his political and romantic wisdom to a young journalist. "Economic growth is not an end in itself," he asserts. "It should be the means to achieve a fairer distribution of the wealth generated by all for all." Clearly, those French filmmakers will do anything to shock us.
Innocence: Friday, April 22, 9 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Sunday, April 24, noon, Castro; Monday, April 25, 4:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Kings and Queen: Friday, April 22, 8 p.m. AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 24, 8:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
When the Tide Comes In: Saturday, April 23, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 25, 3:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, April 27, 9 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
The Last Mitterrand: Friday, April 22, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 24, 9:15 p.m., Castro; Thursday, April 28, 9 p.m., Pacific Film Archive
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