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Preview: The 2016 French Film Festival Offers Brutal Honesty on Screen

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There’s a wealth of cinematic discoveries to be found at the 24th annual French Film Festival — a mixture of classics, eccentricities, shorts, workshops and a portion of the recent global award circuit crop.

The event from March 31 to April 3 irresistibly suggests that the Cannes Film Festival has been somehow been airlifted from France and dropped into the Byrd Theatre.

But you still must make choices.

For one, there’s “La Loi du marché” (in English, “The Measure of a Man”), an exceptional live-wire drama that treats the hellish uncertainty of unemployment with a directness that’s virtually unheard of in American cinema.

Films often are vague about the role that jobs and money play in our lives because many of us go the movies to logically escape such uncomfortable matters. That’s why “La Loi du marché” is such a gratifying shock to the system. The film is concerned entirely with the efforts of a 50-something to become re-employed before losing everything he and his family have managed to scrape together.

“La Loi du marché”
  • “La Loi du marché”

When we meet Thierry (Vincent Lindon), he’s in the grips of relentless correction and advisory. It’s clear that the former factory worker doesn’t possess the skills for landing a job, which is entirely removed from the abilities that are actually required of him in his ideal work environment.

In a counseling session, younger students take Thierry to task for his performance during a mock interview, primarily for his evasiveness and curt answers. He’s an introvert, and, as some of us know, corporate culture rewards extroverts. The first half of the film documents the steady, reliable stripping-away of Thierry’s dignity as he seeks work, while revealing the insidious resemblances that other social interactions bear to job-seeking.

When Thierry applies for a loan, he’s rejected because he’s unemployed. Of course, Thierry might not need the loan if he had a job, which is a familiar Catch-22 of bureaucratic society’s manipulation of the broke and floundering.

The bank attendant prods Thierry in a passive-aggressive manner similar to that of many of his potential employers, using stock euphemisms such as “eventualities,” urging him to sell his home, which he recognizes as fiscal suicide at his age and station of vulnerability.

At its simplest, “La Loi du marché” is the galvanizing study of a man’s face. And Lindon’s remarkable visage, which is lived-in, expressive and forceful, informs the film with pathos while denying it sentimentality.

Faces also inform “Loin des hommes” (“Far from Men”), a poignant fusion of parable and pulp. It’s an adaptation of Albert Camus’ short story, “The Guest,” which weirdly resembles Elmore Leonard’s Western story “Three-Ten to Yuma.”

Both are tales of a reluctant law enforcer and a captive who challenges his ideology. Director David Oelhoffen even structures his adaptation in a manner resembling the film treatments of the Leonard story, opening “The Guest” beyond its chamber-drama roots to fashion a road adventure.

Oelhoffen’s direction is beautifully pared — particularly his use of the unforgivingly jagged Algerian landscapes that define the narrative. But he’s boiled quite a bit of Camus’ irony and despair out of the story, instead favoring characters who are so decent and compatible that they risk steering the whole enterprise into a realm of preachy banality. 

Yet “Loin des hommes” is a must-see for Viggo Mortensen’s characteristically wonderful performance as a man caught in the middle of the Algerian War of Independence. One of the most subtle, physically tactile of great actors, he dramatizes the war between the said and the unsaid.

Jacques Rivette
  • Jacques Rivette

Unseen by this reviewer, but of intense interest, is a nearly one-of-a-kind pre-festival screening of Jacques Rivette’s long-unseen magnum opus “Out 1,” which is being shown at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Grace Street Theater on March 28, 29 and 30 , and follows the intersecting stories of two avant-garde theater troupes. The screening times aren’t offered for the sake of variety of option, but are necessary for showing the entire, nearly 13-hour film in something approaching consumable chunks — a little more than four hours each night. In other words, it’s the sort of cinema that separates the truly hard-boiled art-film consumers from the tourists. Though if Rivette’s other films are indication, it will be worth the Olympian effort.

An astonishingly detailed director who used long movies to sculpt multiple dimensions of perception, Rivette is a recently deceased pioneer of the French new wave, who’s often less celebrated than peers such as Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut and Éric Rohmer. This event, which includes a discussion with the film’s legendary cinematographer, Pierre-William Glenn, promises to open this year’s French Film Festival in aesthetically expansive style. S

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