By Andrea Meyer
American movies aren’t known for their profound, realistic portraits of female desire. Sure, there’s a scattered few: “Unfaithful” explores a married woman’s irrepressible craving for another man. “The Ice Storm” sensitively showed the emotional ramifications of 70s swinging on a community, especially its women and girls. “Boys Don’t Cry” took on female longing and fulfillment without flinching. But those films are few and far between most American directors shy away from really examining what women want and how they go about getting it. Someone like Woody Allen paints beautiful portraits of women, but he maintains an intellectual remove. Generally in Hollywood, when a woman is sexualized, she’s a hooker or a psychopath: “Fatal Attraction” or “Pretty Woman.”
So where can we find real women in the movies who want sex, have sex, freak out about sex? Look to the French, I’d say, as evidenced by the stunning, provocative films being screened at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 11th annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.
Danis Tanovic’s “Hell” shines a light on female desire as it burns or suffocates in the bodies and minds of three estranged sisters still reeling from an episode from their past: a shock, a misunderstanding, a confrontation between their beautiful, cold mother and kind, volatile father, a tragedy that haunts them more than they will admit, even to themselves. Sophie (Emmanuelle Beart) has two young children and a husband who is cheating on her. She becomes obsessed with her husband’s affair, following him like a detective who lurks pathetically outside hotels in the shadow, going so far as to sneak into the room where his lover lies sleeping and smelling her hair. Played by Beart, so goddess-like in appearance, Sophie is plainly used to being placed on a pedestal by her husband. Pushed aside she becomes shameless, throwing her naked body upon him when he comes home from a tryst, forcing herself on him in daylight while her children cower down the hall, until her brashness finally drives him to reject her completely.
Meanwhile, Celine (Karin Viard) has sacrificed her own happiness and sexuality to care for their aging mother. When a mysterious stranger reads her an intimate poem, she mistakes it for a declaration of love. Innocent, uninhibited and frantically trying to heal the loss of their father, the youngest sister Anne (Marie Gillain) falls madly in love with her older, married professor, who eventually leaves her. Believing that she breathes only in his arms, she feels his absence like a death and lashes out, giving no thought to the pain she inflicts in her fury. That this sensitive, kaleidoscopic portrait of female desire is the creation of a man might be pleasantly surprising if it were a Hollywood film. But since it comes from France, the filmmaker’s insight into the yearnings of the opposite sex can be expected.
Laurent Cantet’s “Heading South” takes on the politics of race, class and sex and the dangerously blinding power of desire as they play off each other in a 1970s Haiti resort where white women sleep with handsome black boys in exchange for monetary gifts. Ellen (Charlotte Rampling), a teacher from Boston who is disgusted by the banal dramatics of American-style romance, spends every summer in the arms of Legba (Menothy Cesar), a seemingly carefree Adonis. Ellen’s practiced nonchalance is challenged when Brenda (Karen Young) arrives, another woman who lays claim to Legba. As their love object becomes dangerously embroiled with Haiti’s Macoute militia, the two women scratch and bare fangs, competing for a man they both believe they love, but whom ultimately they don’t know at all.
Back in Paris, some not-yet-jaded women in their 30s just want to nab a nice young man and a wedding ring or do they? In Sophie FilliÃƒÂ¨res’ “Gentille,” Fontaine (Emmanuelle Devos) and Michel (Bruno Todeschini) live and sleep happily together. Only, when he proposes marriage, Fontaine begins to do crazy things like convince herself that she’s falling for a mental patient at the hospital where she works.
Even when women are not front-center, often their sexuality drives the action. Antony Cordier’s assured directorial debut “Cold Showers” focuses on Mickael (Johan Libereau), a high school judo star and the boyfriend of school sexpot Vanessa (Salome Stevenin). When Mickael befriends the good-looking, rich new kid in town, they wind up having a threesome with Vanessa that blows her mind. The intensity of Vanessa’s sexual appetite was not something Mickael foresaw, and it bursts forth, like a full-grown and insatiable beast, increasing Vanessa’s power, while Mackael cowers licking his wounded male ego. If Mickael crumbles in the face of female sexuality gone wild, “Russian Dolls,”‘ Xavier (Romain Duris) is positively transformed by the feminine touch. A bachelor happily juggling longhaired lovelies while earning a buck writing cheesy TV shows, Xavier finds his sexual nirvana when he gets one gig ghostwriting a memoir for a gorgeous princess and another co-writing a script with an English lass who loves him. Ultimately, though, the carnal overdose forces him to envision an end to the relentless bed-hopping.
Everyone’s desires bang up against everyone else’s in DaniÃƒÂ¨le Thompson’s philosophical and frenetic ensemble comedy “Orchestra Seats.” Small-town girl Jessica (Cecile de France) lands a job waitressing at the only cafe on a block on the Avenue Montaigne, where the crowds spilling out of the neighboring theater, concert hall, auction house and high-class shops and hotels commingle to create a vibrant cross-section of artists, aficionados and behind-the-scenes staff. There she rubs elbows with the rich and the famous: the soap star who dreams of playing Simone de Bouvoir, the world-renowned pianist who yearns to trade his tuxedo for a house by a lake, the angry professor still sparring with his aging papa. With all that ardor raging around the Champs-Elysee, of course truths are told, dreams come true, compromises are made and love is made, too, on a bed draped in gold and surrounded by priceless works of art.
The French understand the power of desire especially as it courses through the veins of a woman. It’s no wonder that in “Unfaithful” Adrian Lyne cast a Frenchman, the impossibly beautiful Olivier Martinez, as the man capable of luring perfect housewife Diane Lane away from her husband, played by Richard Gere, the American gigolo himself.
Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs at Lincoln Center from March 10-19. For a complete schedule, see the Film Society at Lincoln Center’s official site. The films will also screen during the same period at the IFC Center.