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The French Connection

Anyone seeking proof of the profound diversity of interests and influences at work in today’s French cinema need look no further than the ninth edition of the City of Lights, City of Angels film festival (April 11–17), where the 17 features on display again serve as a strong counterbalance to the petrified Parisian tchotchkes that regularly wash up on our local art-house screens. No wonder only one of them has thus far secured a U.S. distribution deal. In Holy Lola, the latest from Bertrand Tavernier and, to my mind, his most fully satisfying film since the scintillating Fresh Bait (1995), the setting is Cambodia, where a French couple (Jacques Gamblin and Isabelle Carré) travel in the hope of adopting an orphaned baby, but quickly find themselves navigating a minefield of red-tape absurdities. It’s a scenario that might have made for a sanctimonious Hollywood travelogue (à la 2003’s Beyond Borders), but which Tavernier examines in all its comic, polemical and terrifying dimensions, giving us an escrow closing from hell that is also a deeply compassionate portrait of parental angst and of a nation soldiering forth in the face of seemingly unending woe. From Cambodia, it’s off to Bangkok for Chok-Dee, a fact-based tale of one French-Algerian man’s odyssey from convict to Muy Thai kickboxing champion. Just about the last thing you expect to find in any kind of film festival — which makes its inclusion here that much more refreshing — this unpolished hybrid of Rocky and Bloodsport (the 1988 cheapie responsible for giving the world Jean-Claude Van Damme) leaves no prison-movie or boxing-movie cliché unturned, from the sagelike trainer (Bernard Giraudeau) to the eponymous, square-jawed hero (champion kickboxer Dida Diafat, essentially playing himself) whose name translates as “good luck.” Yet in its terse, brutal fight scenes and in Diafat himself — a mound of taut muscle with a Tony Manero swagger and intricately braided cornrows that squeeze his scalp like a snake strangling its prey — the movie achieves something undeniably authentic. Back in their heydays, Roger Corman or Menahem Golan would have made a small fortune off this guy. For those who prefer moules frites to tom yam goong, COLCOA touches down on more familiar soil with Philippe Lioret’s The Light, a Brief Encounter–ish three-hander about the growing passion between a married woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) and a lighthouse operator (Gregori Derangere) in a coastal Brittany village in the early 1960s. Emmanuel Mouret’s Venus & Fleur uses another seaside retreat, summertime Marseilles, as the backdrop for a lovely first-love story in which an introverted young woman (Isabelle Pires) blossoms under the influence of her brassy Russian friend (Veroushka Knoge). Last, but certainly not least, Raymond Depardon’s brilliant documentary, The 10th District Court, deposits us in a Paris courtroom where some two dozen defendants plead their cases before a deadpan magistrate (Michele Bernard-Requin) who’s like Judge Judy as re-imagined by Jacques Tati. The movie is frequently hilarious, sometimes touching, yet never once does Depardon risk exploiting his subjects for his own gain. His very lesson is that we are all equal — and, perchance, equally foolish — in the eyes of the law. COLCOA screens at the Directors Guild, Monday through Saturday, April 11–17. For more information, visit www.colcoa.com or turn to Film & Video Events in Calendar.