As a noted U.S. distributor of contemporary French cinema (Tell No One, Il Divo, Séraphine, Monsieur Lazhar, Mesrine, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies), Music Box Films has a pretty good grasp of what's going on in la Republique Francaise, which makes this fourth annual installment of the Chicago French Film Festival, Friday through Tuesday at the Music Box Theatre, an important event on the city's filmgoing calendar. Only four titles from the festival were available for preview, but check out musicboxtheatre.com for a roundup of the other six, including Belle and Sebastien, an adaptation of the Cécile Aubry novel, and Jealousy, the latest from director Philippe Garrel (Regular Lovers). —J.R. Jones
Film editors who graduate to directing often bring with them an immaculate sense of pacing (e.g., Robert Wise), and this second feature by Robin Campillo—who cut Laurent Cantet's Human Resources, Time Out, and The Class—sustains tension for more than two hours despite its simple story. A lonely, middle-aged bachelor (Olivier Rabourdin) solicits sex from an undocumented Chechen teenager (Kirill Emelyanov), but when the boy shows up at the man's swank high-rise apartment, he's accompanied by a large contingent of fellow illegals who barge in, throw themselves a party, and steal everything in sight. Despite this vicious hustle, a love affair blooms between the man and the boy, who's just as intimidated by his friends as the man is, and a battle of wills slowly takes shape between the man and the gang's cool, fearsome leader (Daniil Vorobyev). In English, subtitled French, and unsubtitled Russian. —J.R. Jones 128 min. Fri 8/1, 9:45 PM, and Sun 8/3, 8:30 PM.
A vain, washed-up actor (François Damiens) finds his second calling as a detective when he agrees to pose as a murder victim for a crime scene reenactment. The jokes may be corny and the plotting a little obvious, but this French comic mystery (2013) is so ingratiating that these shortcomings are easy to overlook. The filmmakers seem to enjoy the company of their characters; as in many of Claude Chabrol's later films, the mystery premise serves mainly as an excuse to savor niceties of behavior and detective work. Unfortunately, director Jean-Paul Salomé (who wrote the script with Cécile Telerman and Jérôme Tonnerre) lacks Chabrol's finesse; some handsome Alpine locations notwithstanding, this looks like a generic TV sitcom. In French with subtitles. —Ben Sachs 104 min. Sat 8/2, 9:20 PM.
School of Babel
Director Julie Bertuccelli (Since Otar Left . . .) documents one year at a Paris "reception class," where immigrant children from all over the world (many of whose families are seeking political asylum) learn how to speak French and socialize in French schools. The movie is highly sympathetic in its portrayal of teachers and students, though it's no exercise in sentimental humanism. Bertuccelli avoids generalizing about the immigrant experience, focusing instead on what makes her subjects unique. In fact the movie serves as an object lesson in how to use close-ups, encouraging us to "read" faces as we would images and to deduce psychological states through subtle expressions. In French with subtitles. —Ben Sachs Sun 8/3, 4:30 PM, and Tue 8/5, 5:30 PM.
Martin Provost—whose excellent Séraphine (2008) dramatized the life of half-mad primitivist painter Séraphine de Senlis—takes on another true story of a tempestuous woman who was recognized as a gifted artist: Violette Leduc, author of such notable prefeminist works as The Bastard and In the Prison of Her Skin. This languorous 2013 feature may not live up to its predecessor, but Emmanuelle Devos gives a volcanic performance as Leduc, who tried to erase her youthful lesbian romances with a heterosexual marriage that only ended in misery. By far the most interesting element here is Leduc's emotionally fraught relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, who discovered her and nurtured her career; Provost implies that de Beauvoir, played by Sandrine Kiberlain, was much less concerned with Leduc as a person than as a fellow gender provocateur whose work might reinforce the social impact of her own. In French with subtitles. —J.R. Jones 132 min. Sat 8/3, 6:30 PM.