French film criticism graduates filmmakers the way Penn State used to turn out linebackers. The latest example is Axelle Ropert, one-time editor of “La Lettre du Cinema,” whose first feature, “The Wolberg Family,” is one of the pleasant surprises in this year’s “Rendezvous with French Cinema” series.
The film is the latest in a string of family dramas set in the provinces, following the success of Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Story” and Olivier Assayas’ “Summer Hours,” and it is more than worthy to be in such exalted company.
The Wolbergs are a seemingly contented middle-class Jewish family living in a small town in the Bearn region. Simon is the town’s mayor, an engagingly quirky presence; as incarnated by Francois Damiens, a Jeremy Sisto look-alike, he is a warm but oddly out-of-kilter personality. He dotes on his wife Marianne and his children, 17-year-old Delphine and 10-year-old Benjamin. But beneath this placid surface marked by agreeable routine — sketched by Ropert in deft, quick brushstrokes — dark currents are threatening. Simon’s behavior slowly turns from charmingly eccentric to threateningly off-key. Cracks are beginning to appear in his perfect marriage and the arrival of his brother-in-law seems to accelerate the darkening mood. About halfway through the film’s concise 80-minute running time, Ropert reveals the first of several secrets that radically alter our perception of her characters.
Although in interviews Ropert invokes a wide range of classical American masters — Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray and the underrated Richard Quine — “The Wolberg Family” deliberately avoids the pyrotechnics of these great melodrama directors. She deliberately eschews obvious opportunities for explosions of emotion, nibbling intelligently at the nuances of her characters emotional states and averting her gaze from the film’s rare outbursts of violent anger. Her treatment of her characters’ Jewishness is the same; all three generations of Wolbergs are unmistakably Jewish, but they wear their identities lightly, like skin rather than baggage. The result is a thoughtful, emotionally wrenching little film that, one hopes, presages the arrival of another major filmmaking talent from the ranks of French critics.
By contrast, Robert Guediguian is an old hand whose newest film, “Army of Crime,” is his 16th feature in a directorial career that began almost 30 years ago. Guediguian’s films are like great family parties, their casts filled with the same friends and relatives over and over, shot on the same locations in his hometown of Marseilles. His best work combines the warmth and sense of community of Jean Renoir, but with the underlying melancholy and fatalism that also is a component of Renoir’s best work, with Marcel Pagnol’s slightly sentimental but charming love of Marseilles. Coming from one of the most multicultural of French cities, Guediguian celebrates the rich bouillabaisse of “French” culture with the result that he is probably more appreciated outside the country than within it.
That paradox underpins “Army of Crime,” a neo-classical thriller about the World War II Resistance that focuses on the important role of outcasts in confronting the Nazis and their French collaborators. Previous films on the subject, even a masterpiece like Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows,” to which Guediguian pays tribute in more than just his choice of title, have suggested that resistance to the Fascists was a universally French phenomenon. But the Resistance fighters in this film are Jews, Armenians, Communists, veterans of the Spanish Civil War; it is more an army of orphans than anything else, outsiders who are defending the honor of France when “true” Frenchman won’t.
As in his best work, Guediguian structures “Army” around a series of characters whose lives are gradually intertwined by their choices and actions. In a sense, the film is about the creation of a surrogate family unit peopled with those whom history has stripped of their blood kin. Although his heart is clearly with Missak (Simon Akbarian), a poet and would-be pacifist who ends up as a commander of a Resistance unit and who is, like the filmmaker himself, an Armenian, Guediguian really builds his narrative around an entire community rather than a single protagonist.
When the film is focused on that vibrant collection of interlocking friendships, amours and partnerships, it is a tapestry woven of the finest human fabric, filled with keenly observed gesture and a graceful choreography of social ritual. Regrettably, “Army of Crime” is too often distracted from that world by the necessities of its narrative. It’s not so much that Guediguian isn’t a good action director — the film isn’t really built around big-action set pieces, and what little he shows is briskly competent. Rather, his deeply motivated characters are perhaps a bit too aware of their own nobility and sacrifice. As a result, the best moments are ones that involve secondary characters whose willingness to sacrifice for a cause can be downright surprising. And one senses that the film’s Parisian settings have stifled Guediguian’s boisterousness. “Army of Crime” is an honorable failure, but a disappointingly stodgy one.
The 15th annual “Rendezvous with French Cinema” will take place March 11-21 at the Walter Reade Theater (70 Lincoln Center Plaza), with some additional screenings at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue) and BAMCinemathek (30 Lafayette Place, Brooklyn). For more information, go to www.rendezvouswithfrenchcinema.com