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Chicago French Film Festival

Reviews of select movies showing at the Music Box this weekend

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A Better Life Guillaume Canet (best known here as the writer-director of Tell No One) plays a solitary, working-class Parisian who tries to better his lot after falling for a tough single mother from Lebanon (Leila Bekhti). The two risk everything to open a bed-and-breakfast, only to be overwhelmed by debts and forced into poverty. Director Cedric Kahn (L'Ennui) situates this melodramatic story within a precisely observed social reality, thoroughly detailing the business of loan applications, restaurant management, and living on 200 euros a month. As in the Depression-era romances of Frank Borzage (Man's Castle; Little Man, What Now?), the hard facts enhance the film's emotional impact. In French with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 107 min. Fri 7/27, 7:30 PM.

Beloved Characters traipse around city streets singing 60s-style pop tunes in this ungainly, overconceived musical (2011), which begins as an exercise in Jacques Demy-style romance but keeps accumulating ideas and incident until it buckles under its own weight. A French shop girl in Prague (Ludivine Sagnier) takes up prostitution and nabs herself a doctor (Rasha Bukvic) for a husband; decades later the couple (now played by Catherine Deneuve and Milos Forman) have separated, and their grown child (Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve's real-life daughter) puzzles out a love affair with an American rock drummer (Paul Schneider) who has AIDS. The musical numbers are passable at best and alternate with a jarringly modern string score by Alex Beaupain, the friction between them typical of a movie that wants it every which way. Christophe Honore (Making Plans for Lena) directed his own script. In English and subtitled French and Czech. —J.R. Jones 139 min. Sat 7/28, 8 PM.

[Recommended] 17 Girls See long review. 91 min. Sun 7/29, 4:30 PM.

Sleepless Night Essentially a 98-minute foot chase, this 2011 thriller by Frederic Jardin reminds you how ardently (if guiltily) the French worship modern American action movies; in this case the relic of the true cross appears to be Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor's madly kinetic Jason Statham vehicle Crank (2006). A seasoned cop (Tomer Sisley) and his partner pull off a spectacular masked holdup in broad daylight, stealing more than a dozen kilos of cocaine from a local mobster; unfortunately the bad guy learns the cop's identity and kidnaps his teenage son, demanding the drugs back. The story is loaded with implausibilities, but it moves so quickly you won't have long to dwell on them, and there are a number of neatly executed reversals as the cop tangles with not only the mobster but a pair of internal affairs investigators on his tail. In French with subtitles. —J.R. Jones 98 min. Fri 7/27, 9:50 PM.

38 Witnesses The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese—who was stabbed to death outside her Brooklyn apartment building as her neighbors supposedly stood by—inspired this drama by writer-director Lucas Belvaux (Rapt), about a childless, middle-aged couple (Yvan Attal, Sophie Quinton) who overhear a similar crime. The movie contains almost no subtext: characters constantly explain how they feel and what they think the incident implies about their community. To further underscore the obvious, Belvaux affects the same dour, defeatist tone for every scene. Also known as One Night. In French with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 99 min. Sun 7/29, 7 PM.

Related Film

Director: Cédric Kahn

Producer: Kristina Larsen, Daniel Louis, Denise Robert and Gilles Sandoz

Cast: Leïla Bekhti, Guillaume Canet, Slimane Khettabi, Paul Finnigan, Claudia Jurt, Line Boutin and Dan Demarbre

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