Our thoughts are with France, and by a lucky coincidence, this week its thoughts are with us. Launched in 2011, the Music Box Theatre's Chicago French Film Festival provides a valuable snapshot of what's happening in French cinema, still the liveliest national cinema in Europe. Following are reviews of eight features screening this week, six of them making their local premieres; all are in French with subtitles. —J.R. Jones
Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) This debut feature from writer-director Eva Husson, about a group of teenagers in Biarritz, shows promise on a technical level, with long, shimmery tracking shots of their bacchanalia that recall Harmony Korine's Kids (1995) and Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (1999). But the movie isn't as bold or shocking as it makes itself out to be—plenty of art-house fare (especially in France) is just as explicit in portraying adolescent sex and recreational drug use. The characters are mostly white, bored, and affluent, a revolving door of hedonistic brats throwing swinger parties and being horrible to one another. The cheeky title may be ironic, but if "modern love" equals self-indulgence, romance is truly dead. —Leah Pickett Sat 7/23, 9:15 PM, and Wed 7/27, 7:30 PM.
- Brand New Testament
The Brand New Testament Cheerily sacrilegious, this inventive comic fantasy by Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael (The Eighth Day) is narrated by a ten-year-old girl in Brussels (Pili Groyne) who's neglected by her drunken mother (Yolande Moreau) and beaten by her frustrated father (Benoît Poelvoorde). Imagining him as God and herself as Jesus's kid sister, she vows revenge and hits the streets to recruit a homeless man as her Peter and various other lost souls as her disciples. The movie's ready visual wit often recalls that of Michel Gondry (in the local laundromat, the father climbs into a clothes dryer and enters an epic tunnel), but Van Dormael also works his way through a vivid philosophical gag: The girl accesses the father's computer and sends out an e-mail blast telling each of God's children the exact moment he or she will die, which leads many people to reconsider and reorder their lives. Catherine Deneuve plays one of the disciples, a cultured woman who learns her years are numbered and tumbles into an impetuous affair with a circus gorilla. —J.R. Jones 115 min. Fri 7/22, 7:30 PM, and Mon 7/25, 4:45 PM.
Disorder Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common device in films about war veterans, but Alice Winocour, who wrote and directed this slow-boiling thriller (2015), tracks her protagonist's PTSD so closely that it becomes the story's essence. A Special Forces soldier (Matthias Schoenaerts), discharged from the military and haunted by his most recent tour in Afghanistan, returns home and hires on with a Lebanese millionaire to protect the man's German wife (Diane Kruger) and their preteen son at the family's coastal villa. Winocour keeps the viewer guessing as to whether the intruders in their midst are real or imagined, the soldier's paranoia captured in an eerie, pounding score by techno musician Gesaffelstein. —Leah Pickett 101 min. Sat 7/23, 7 PM.
Down by Love In this drama by writer-director Pierre Godeau, a prison director (Guillaume Gallienne) falls in love with an inmate (Adèle Exarchopoulos of Blue Is the Warmest Color), though his passion feels more like taboo-specific lust (and mannered lust at that). Their romance is based on a true story that occurred in a Versailles detention center in 2011, yet it rings false because the actors lack chemistry and their individual narratives are nebulous. Gallienne suggests a man suffering a latent midlife crisis, though Godeau depicts him as a content husband and father whose only vice (before the affair) is watching reality TV. Exarchopoulos's character is even more puzzling: her backstory is limited, her personality amorphous, and her craving for the prison director as unclear as his motivation for pursuing her so recklessly. —Leah Pickett Sun 7/24, 6:45 PM, and Tue 7/26, 7:15 PM.
- Microbe and Gasoline
Microbe and Gasoline With an engine, an auto frame, and some discarded lumber, two pubescent misfits in Versailles construct a ramshackle motor home and set off for a street-illegal tour de France. The crate-on-wheels gimmick is a typically winsome fantasy from writer-director Michel Gondry, and the buddy story between diminutive Microbe (Ange Dargent) and nascent biker Gasoline (Théophile Baquet) sometimes recalls his earlier trash-for-treasure comedy Be Kind Rewind (2008). But that film was overconceived and undercharacterized, whereas this one is unerringly genuine, with a true sense of adolescent reasoning. ("[She] loves me too much," Microbe says of his mother. "I feel sorry for her.") The boys' friendship is based on their shared love of gadgetry, for which they have a knack, and curiosity about the opposite sex, for which they have none; once they develop one, Gondry implies in a poignant final shot, they won't need each other quite as much. With Audrey Tautou. 105 min. —J.R. Jones Sat 7/23, 4:45 PM, and Tue 7/26, 9:30 PM.
- Phantom Boy
Phantom Boy In this moving 2015 animation by Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli (A Cat in Paris), a young cancer patient with the power to leave his body helps a cop whose legs have been broken bring down a criminal mastermind holding New York City hostage. Able to fly anywhere invisibly, but unable to touch anything, the boy acts as a spy for the cop, who's been marginalized by the force for his reckless methods, and as a guide for the enterprising journalist also trying to save the city from the gangster. The noirish plotline is smart and engaging, but this French film is most powerful for its treatment of the young hero's illness; in one scene he uses his supernatural ability to eavesdrop on his family as they discuss him. —Eric Lutz Sat 7/23, 2:45 PM, and Thu 7/28, 5:15 PM.
Scene of the Crime André Techiné's moody 1986 thriller, about a provincial nightclub owner (Catherine Deneuve) whose teenage son is terrorized by a pair of escaped criminals. Techiné had his ups and downs as a stylist through the 70s and early 80s, but this film finds him back on firm formal ground. The relentless wide-screen panning, from character to character through a succession of deliriously packed-in landscapes, is lyrical and strange: it creates connections and sunders them and sends the narrative spinning into areas of dark unsettlement. The film's hardly without faults, and the proliferation of themes (landscape as locus of guilt, etc) diffuses the line of tension, but the envelope of style is brilliantly assured. With Nicolas Giraudi, Wadeck Stanczak, Victor Lanoux, and Danielle Darrieux, an elegant Ophulsian memory amid the lyrical image swirl. —Pat Graham Sun 7/24, noon; Mon 7/25, 9:30 PM; and Wed 7/27, 5:30 PM.
Seasons Jacques Perrin's stunning nature film teems with life and death, working its way from the end of the Ice Age to the present and from the bottom of the food chain to the top. The movie opens 12,000 years ago as the glaciers are collapsing, with panoramic long shots of reindeer migrating north to the arctic circle, but the story soon settles in the forest, where life explodes. Perrin and codirector Jacques Cluzaud search out the manic energy of the animal kingdom by finding highly dramatic vignettes: birds feed their chicks, bear cubs climb tall trees, and cattle suffer from marauding flies before thundering away to a more congenial spot. Predation is the dominant theme—there are bloodcurdling sequences in which a wild boar and then a horse are menaced by wolves—but none of these species stands a chance once mankind appears on the scene halfway through the film. At that point the movie's narrative arc snaps into focus, and what seemed an entertaining collection of wildlife encounters becomes the tale of a planet heading from one brutal epoch toward another. 97 min. —J.R. Jones Sun 7/24, 2 PM, and Tue 7/26, 5:15 PM. v