There are several different pathways through the great swath of cinema unspooling this week at the City of Light, City of Angels French Film Festival.
Running April 23 through 30 at the Directors Guild of America Theater, with TV series, shorts, digital series and virtual-reality experiences supplementing its main 37-feature program, this 22nd edition of COLCOA offers a robust reminder that French cinema — a term that, for the uninitiated, can still connote cliché images of youthful lovemaking and pretentious philosophizing — is every bit as expansive as its American counterpart.
If broad, bickersome comedy is your thing, you might want to line up for "C'est la Vie!," a polished behind-the-scenes wedding farce from the directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano ("The Intouchables"), or "La Ch'tite Famille," the actor-director Dany Boon's boisterous companion piece to his 2008 culture-clash smash hit, "Welcome to the Sticks."
Those with a particular interest in World War I history can take refuge in "The Guardians," Xavier Beauvois' patient, moving drama of farm life during wartime, or plunge headlong into the bloody thrills of "See You Up There," a convoluted period epic from the actor-turned-director Albert Dupontel.
Lovers of cinema treasures from the past may want to spend some time in the COLCOA Classics section, which includes a 40th anniversary screening of "Get Out Your Handkerchiefs," Bertrand Blier's genially outrageous ménage à trois comedy starring Gérard Depardieu, Patrick Dewaere and Carole Laure. The movie raised eyebrows and accusations of sexism even back in 1978, but it also drew widespread praise: It won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film and was named best film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. Four decades later, its enchanting, troubling sweetness may be the most subversive thing about it.
The five titles I am singling out offer a more recent snapshot of French cinema, particularly some of the strongest French cinema to have played international film festivals over the last year. In alphabetical order, they are:
"Barbara." The brilliant actor Mathieu Amalric has also proven to be a remarkably inventive director ("On Tour," "The Blue Room"). His latest effort behind the camera is a restrained yet enjoyably freeform biopic of the great French singer Barbara, superbly played by the veteran actress Jeanne Balibar, who also plays a version of herself playing Barbara. Whatever disparities may exist between Barbara and Balibar are cleverly acknowledged by the movie's willingness to break the fourth wall, a device that feels less gimmicky here than exploratory. The director of the film-within-a-film is played, of course, by Amalric himself.
"Custody." Xavier Legrand's taut, unsparing domestic thriller spends 94 minutes circling a frightened mother (Léa Drucker), her young son (Thomas Gioria) and the father/soon-to-be-ex-husband (Denis Ménochet) who won't leave them alone. The result is a master class in tension modulation and psychological entrapment, made all the more unsettling by its relentless linearity: There are no flashbacks to past abuse, but we see the evidence everywhere, most of all in Ménochet's terrifying performance as a man who will accept nothing less than his family's complete forgiveness.
"Makala." The worthy winner of the top prize in the Critics' Week program at Cannes last year, Emmanuel Gras' heartbreaker of a documentary follows a Congolese man, Kabwita Kasongo, who supports his family by making, transporting and selling charcoal. That description doesn't come close to capturing the extraordinary beauty and lyrical force of this movie, which draws us deeply into Kasongo's everyday world of crushing poverty and Sisyphean struggle. Seamless in its flow and intimacy, "Makala" (the Swahili word for "coal") plays, in the best sense, like a dramatic feature, guided by a hand that feels no less compassionate for being so invisible.
"Montparnasse Bienvenüe." Another 2017 Cannes prizewinner: Léonor Serraille's splendidly mercurial debut won the Caméra d'Or for best first feature, and it represents a breakthrough for not only its writer-director but also its star, Laetitia Dosch. Likened by some critics to a Gallic Greta Gerwig, Dosch gives a blistering performance here as Paula, a 31-year-old Parisian forced to fend for herself after her longtime boyfriend kicks her out. As Paula scrambles for work, wanders the streets and alienates nearly everyone she meets, she sends the movie skittering from comedy to near-tragedy, with an emotional vividness that all but pops off the screen.
"The Prayer." A moving, searching and deeply empathic drama of spirituality and recovery comes from the writer-director Cédric Kahn, one of mainstream French cinema's most reliable craftsmen ("Red Lights," "A Better Life"). It follows a sullen 22-year-old heroin addict, Thomas (the astonishing Anthony Bajon, who won an acting prize at the Berlin International Film Festival), who is sent to a remote Catholic retreat in the French Alps, where he undergoes a slow but remarkable transformation. The healing hand of God at work? Kahn's movie is too wise to say, or to treat faith as anything less than the profound mystery that it is.