Abdellatif Kechiche's "The Secret of the Grain" is the high point of the 13th Boston French Film Festival, which runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through July 27. While there are few artistic leaps forward, this is one of the festival's sturdier years, with 21 films studding the lineup, including works by such masters as Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol.
Kechiche is newer to the scene, though both "Grain" and his earlier "Games of Love and Chance" were major successes back home. "Grain" is a big family drama centered around a blue-collar Franco-Arab clan and its couscous. The apartments are small, the emotions big, and the story like something out of a many-chaptered literary saga. As a filmmaker Kechiche evokes the small-town life of Robert Guédiguian and the class-based flare-ups of Ken Loach. But he's even more of a people-first director, and so the film is built from the tempests that arise when the characters - most exhilaratingly, the women - assert themselves.
As a point of contrast, the film's central character, Slimane, is a quiet man, played by the exquisitely reserved Habib Boufares. After years working at a naval shipyard, he finds himself jobless. In his forced retirement, Slimane devotes himself to turning a ruin of a boat into a family-run restaurant whose star attractions will be the recipes of his irritable, estranged wife (Bouraouïa Marzouk).
The film is very much about the struggle to keep a family together as a cultural unit. Never mind if some of its members can't stand each other. The whole thing culminates with an epic, life-saving belly dance that you'll have to see for yourself. Just know that Kechiche has given us a movie that, by its thrillingly tragic finale, is too much by half. But even its excesses are invigorating. The movie bleeds life.
Even some of the misfires in the festival are fascinating - none more so than Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's "Actresses," which she wrote, directed, and stars in. She plays the heroine in a production of Turgenev's "A Month in the Country," and is haunted by both another incarnation of her character (Valeria Golino) and a somewhat aggravated former drama-school classmate (Noémie Lvovsky).
For the life of me I can't figure out what Tedeschi was thinking. She plays every scene with an exasperating bashfulness and at least a dozen embarrassed grimaces too many. What does this tentative woman have to offer the stage or, for Tedeschi's part, the screen? And why is she so frequently running or swimming away? It takes an extremely curious personality to cast Mathieu Amalric, Louis Garrel, Golino, and the excellent Lvovsky in your movie and then pretend to be ashamed that you've made yourself the star.
It's been a bang-up year for the elder statesman Claude Berri. He produced both "Secret of the Grain" and the megahit comedy "Welcome to the Land of Ch'tis" (France's number-one movie of all time). The latter didn't make the cut at this year's festival, but Berri's latest film as a writer and director has. It's called "Together, That's All" - or over here, less sensibly, "Hunting and Gathering" - and it stars Audrey Tautou as a Parisian artist/cleaning lady with a terrific haircut and a tragic cough.
She winds up living with a stuttering salesman (Laurent Stocker) and the edgy chef (Guillaume Canet) who shares the salesman's apartment while remaining devoted to his ailing grandmother (Françoise Bertin). Love blooms along with an inevitable sentimentality. But we're in the world of Berri, so the mawkishness has a comforting, almost edible quality: It's grilled cheese.
At 74, Berri is only four years younger than Claude Chabrol, another veteran with no evident intention of slowing down. His umpteenth film is a comic drama called "A Girl Cut in Two," which has Ludivine Sagnier, as pert as ever, playing a weathergirl caught between two horny men (François Berléand and Benoit Magimel). The rivals for her forecast can't stand each other, and Chabrol has a fine time building a mystery out of why.
Sure there's less here than meets the eye, but the director is reliably contemptuous of the film's bourgeois egos, if not completely impervious to their pretensions. As with a lot of recent Chabrol ("The Flower of Evil," "The Comedy of Power"), this new movie defies emotional logic. But the last sequences, set a magic show, are meant both to explain the title and throw the movie into a triumphant tailspin. It's all an act.
If what washes up from France onto our shores is an indication, the French film industry has a lot more women making movies than its American counterpart. Catherine Castel's "48 Hours a Day," is retrograde sitcommery about a wife and mom (Aure Atika) who pretends to leave town (she takes a fake-ation) so her workaholic husband (Antoine de Caunes) can get a dose of what she goes through when he's at the office. It's called "48 Hours a Day" presumably because "Monsieur Mom" was taken. Look out for the humping dog.
Nora Hamdi's "Dolls and Angels" is grittier and yet more ridiculous. Set to the music of DJ Abdel, the movie has a terrible time with its tale of two different Franco-Arab sisters - one wears Adidas, the other Dior - fighting to get from under the thumb of their abusive father. Hamdi can't decide how any of these characters feels about each other. She mistakes prurience and sensationalism for psychological insight.
France's high-priestess of provocation, Catherine Breillat, is back with what can only be called a vengeance. "The Last Mistress" is one of those sex-and-backstabbing costume dramas, not unlike "Dangerous Liaisons" (we're actually told that we've been whisked back to 1835 Paris, the age of Choderlos de Laclos). But Breillat turns the usual psychological game and carnal jockeying into a kind of bitter but clear-minded feminist critique.
Her lovers - a tough Spanish dame (Asia Argento) and a soon-to-married French aristocrat (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) - are combatants, but the film is careful to illustrate the battlefield as anything but level. The film opens here in a couple of weeks, but if you need an early glimpse of Argento in all her petulant splendor - or to see just how much Aattou's lips are like two pieces of some as-yet-unnamed fruit - this festival is where you need to be.