Pleasures abound for the 18th annual Boston French Film Festival, and not just because one of the best films (“Haute Cuisine”) is a love letter to cooking and food and another (“You Will Be My Son”) whisks us off to a sprawling family winery in Bordeaux.
Other highlights among the 22 works screening at this year’s event, which runs July 11-28 at the Museum of Fine Arts, are two films about the Jewish experience in France and a pair of period pieces about women rebelling against imprisonment, one literal and one psychological.
The festival opener on Thursday, Guillaume Nicloux’s “The Nun” (La Religieuse), is an alternately chilling and campy film about power, repression, and the nightmare of being a woman without means in 18th-century France. Based on Denis Diderot’s controversial novel and previously adapted in 1966 by Jacques Rivette (French censors banned his film for a time), “The Nun” is about Suzanne Simonin (newcomer Pauline Etienne), a headstrong 17-year-old forced by her parents into a convent because she’s an inconvenience and an expense. Suzanne secretly pens a memoir detailing her suffering at the hands of a cruel mother superior (Louise Bourgoin). With stark cinematography by Yves Cape and impressive period costumes by Anais Romand (“Holy Motors”), the atmosphere goes from haunting to horrifying until Suzanne’s persistent efforts, literary and otherwise, get her sent to another convent. Here the film, which also screens July 13, falls into melodrama with doses of high camp at the hands of the usually reliable Isabelle Huppert as a sexually frustrated mother superior who plays favorites in the monastic abbey that’s less a torture chamber and more a twisted medieval sorority.
The confinement of a defiant woman is also the heart of “Thérèse,” with a performance from Audrey Tautou that shows how much she’s matured since “Amélie.” Director Claude Miller, who died just a month after finishing the film, delivers a period piece that, despite a plot in which arson and attempted murder figure prominently, is less melodrama than searing evocation of the restrictive atmosphere that nearly drives its heroine mad. Set in the late 1920s in provincial France, heiress Thérèse is destined from childhood to marry Bernard Desqueyroux (Gilles Lellouche), the brother of her best friend, Anne (Anaïs Demoustier). Bernard’s mastery of his hunting dogs serves as a metaphor for his wife’s repression, and as Thérèse sinks into isolation in the Bordeaux countryside, Tautou’s performance grows inward, depicting a Madame Bovary-like spiritual suffocation right up to the powerful final shot. “Thérèse” screens July 26.
Rising young director Elie Wajema’s noir-ish debut feature, “Aliyah” (screening July 18 and 21), depicts the restlessness of a young Jewish drug dealer in Paris who sees a move to Israel as a way to start over. In order to leave, Alex (Pio Marmai) must complete his “aliyah” (the Hebrew term for “ascent,” as in immigration, to Israel), which involves taking Hebrew lessons and connecting with his Jewish roots. But the demands of his controlling older brother Isaac (Cedric Kahn) and a budding romance with a beautiful shiksa (Adele Haenel) threaten to derail his hopes for escape. “I understood that many people who make aliyah don’t do it because of ideology or religion, but simply to run away — from troubles, sorrows, disappointments, or sometimes from the law,” said Wajeman in a phone interview. A graduate of France’s prestigious cinema school Femis, Wajeman gets a powerful performance from Kahn, a film director who was one of his teachers, as the infuriating but sympathetic troubled brother Isaac.
More Jewish characters and a winning mix of poignancy and humor distinguish Carine Tardieu's “The Dandelions” (Du vent dans mes mollets, screening July 25 and 28), a coming-of-age story that triumphs over cliché thanks to its terrific cast and inventive direction. Children in French films are usually light-years from Hollywood cuteness, and this film’s 9-year-old protagonist, Rachel (Juliette Gombert), is no exception. She lives with her loving but overprotective mother (Agnès Jaoui, not afraid to look haggard) and Holocaust-survivor father (Comédie Française vet Denis Podalydès), a renovator of kitchens who has let his own family’s home decay in 1980s provincial France. Rachel acquires a new best friend, the spunky and lovable Valérie (Anna Lemarchand). Together, they offer a wonderfully realistic and fanciful portrait of girlhood.
Other program highlights:
“Haute Cuisine” (Les saveurs du palais). Deliciously entertaining, Christian Vincent’s film (July 12) is loosely based on the memoir of Danièle Delpeuch, the personal chef to the late French president François Mitterrand from 1988-90. In the film, Hortense Laborie (the stunning Catherine Frot) is plucked from her own farm/restaurant in the provinces to work at the Élysée Palace in Paris. She quickly wins the loyalty of the president (Jean d'Ormesson, a writer making his big-screen acting debut at 87) for her authentic cooking that reminds him of the food of his youth (shades of “Ratatouille”). But Laborie's straightforward style and uncompromising creativity meets with resistance from the president’s conservative handlers and all-male kitchen staff. The comedy-drama is “Babette’s Feast” meets “Julie & Julia,” but it is as much about the quest for professionalism and respect as it is about the perfect foie gras.
“You Will Be My Son” (Tu seras mon fils). What “Haute Cuisine” does for food, this father-son drama does for wine. Director Gilles Legrand anchors the film (July 21 and 25) with the majestic performance of Niels Arestrup as Paul de Marseul, a swaggering, charming, taxing winemaker in Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux. Paul barely hides his contempt for his bookish son and heir, Martin (Lorànt Deutsch), who lacks papa’s joie de vivre and discerning palate. When Paul’s stalwart business partner François (Patrick Chesnais) takes ill, Paul fends off fears of his own mortality by “adopting” his friend’s grown son Philippe (Nicolas Bridet), luring him from California to oversee the harvest. Their bond further alienates both Martin and his feisty wife, Alice (Anne Marivin). The film falls short of its Shakespearean aspirations but Arestrup’s domineering patriarch is memorable.
“Tenderness” (La Tendresse). Actress-turned-director Marion Hänsel gets lovely performances in this quiet film (July 20 and 21) about a long-divorced, 50-something couple (Olivier Gourmet and Marilyne Canto) thrown together on a road trip to bring home their son (Adrien Jolivet) after he has a skiing accident.
“Almayer's Folly” (La folie Almayer). Just the presence of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman makes this year’s festival notable. “Almayer's Folly” (July 14 and 20) is Akerman's first movie in seven years, an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel about sullen French expatriate Almayer (Stanislas Merhar), who faces financial ruin in a Southeast Asian river village.
For a complete festival schedule, go to www.mfa.org/film