One year ago, the biggest news in French cinema was a homegrown fish-out-of-water farce, Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, that came within striking distance of sinking Titanic as the all-time Gallic box-office champ. So much fuss was made, in fact, which few took notice of another local production, released in French cinemas on the very same day, one that would go on to unseat March of the Penguins as the highest-grossing French film ever released in the United States. The instructive difference: Whereas Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis was so français that subtitles could only offer a rough approximation of its giddy phonetic wordplay, the Luc Besson–produced, Liam Neeson–starring Taken was made in English, though its true lingua franca is that of international buttkicking. Reportedly, a sequel is already in the works.

In the shadow of those towering pillars of commercial viability, nearly 300 other French films filtered into cinemas over the last 12 months — 27 of which make their way to Los Angeles this week as part of the annual City of Lights, City of Angels festival at the Directors Guild. Be advised: Lowbrow yucks and bullet-riddled bodies remain constants. The latter holds especially true of one of COLCOA’s most anticipated attractions, the L.A. premiere of Mesrine, director Jean-Francois Richet’s big-budget, two-part biopic of notorious bank robber Jacques Mesrine, which ranked third at the French box office in 2008. I’ll have more to say about Richet’s film (which doesn’t screen until COLCOA’s final weekend) next week, but in the meantime, action junkies can get a temporary fix from Secrets of State (Secret Défense), an around-the-world-in-90-minutes terrorism thriller whose every orange Middle East sunset, helicopter establishing shot, and cabal of black-suited government agents powwowing in high-tech war rooms may lead viewers to wonder whether director Philippe Haïm is in fact the illegitimate brother of Tony and Ridley Scott. The bedroom-eyed Vahina Giocante (Lila Says, Marie Baie des Anges) cuts a typically seductive figure as a former call girl recruited into the French secret service as bait for a Lebanese bin Laden (Simon Abkarian) with dirty-bomb designs on the City of Light. Tattooed and perpetually pouty Nicolas Duvauchelle is altogether less convincing as the jailed banlieue drug dealer being groomed by his fundamentalist cell mates into a Richard Reid–style suicide bomber.

The sub–Ch’tis slapstick is on full display in Hello Goodbye, which also offers one of COLCOA’s annual opportunities to ponder whether this is what has really become of the once-great Gérard Depardieu, here stunt-cast as an Ashkenazi Jew nagged by his convert wife (Fanny Ardant) into moving to Tel Aviv — whereupon director and co-writer Graham Guit unleashes a shtetl’s worth of lousy jokes about circumcision and Israeli airport security. (For masochists only, Depardieu’s lethargy and disinterest can also be found lurking around the edges of the dead-on-arrival funeral-home comedy Final Arrangements.)

A considerably more absorbing discussion of modern Jewish identity forms the center of André Téchiné’s latest, The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER), which takes its inspiration from an actual 2004 incident in which a 23-year-old Parisian woman falsely claimed to be the victim of an anti-Semitic hate crime in a suburban train station. Rosetta’s Émilie Dequenne is excellent as the unstable protagonist, who devises her elaborate fabrication partly to garner attention from her mother (a nicely understated Catherine Deneuve) and an activist lawyer (Michel Blanc), but more so for reasons that she herself cannot fully articulate. That her story is so quickly believed — as it was in real life — raises delicate questions about the exploitable value of race and religion, which Téchiné hasn’t fully grappled with by the time the end credits roll. Still, this intriguing drama should astonish all those who deemed The Reader a work of great psychological complexity.

Surefire heresy for the pro–Prop 8 crowd, Vincent Garenq’s Baby Love (Comme les autres) features Matrix baddie Lambert Wilson as a gay pediatrician so desperate to become a dad that — gay adoption still being illegal in France — he asks the illegal Argentine emigré (Pilar López de Ayala), whose car he conveniently rear-ends, if she’ll bear his offspring. The predictable complications ensue, and one can already smell a Hollywood remake on the boil, but this featherweight widescreen sitcom proves surprisingly bearable — even memorable — by virtue of Wilson’s affecting turn and the thoroughly beguiling screen presence of Ayala (last seen as the nameless beauty of Spanish director José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia).

Not having babies, meanwhile, is the subject of Claire Simon’s God’s Offices (Les bureaux de Dieu), another remarkable achievement by the veteran documentary director whose second dramatic feature, Ça brule, screened at COLCOA in 2007. A major filmmaker who has yet to see one of her films commercially distributed in the U.S., Simon here draws on both her fiction and nonfiction expertise to chart the daily goings-on at a Paris family-planning clinic, where the staff dispense counsel and contraception (and sometimes the controversial “abortion pill” RU-486) to a diverse array of patients: a young Algerian woman whose mother has banned birth control pills from the house; a mother of two who holds forth with chilly precision on the personal and practical reasons for not wanting another child; a 40-year-old Bulgarian prostitute pregnant for the third time by the same man. The stories are real, taken from cases Simon observed while researching the project; the actors a mix of nonprofessionals (as the patients) and movie stars (as the counselors). Like the classroom in Laurent Cantet’s The Class, the clinic becomes a microcosm of contemporary French society, with its confluence of languages, ethnicities and moral values. Yet God’s Offices deploys the less schematic approach, never devolving into dramatic contrivance or scoring ideological points at the expense of human ones.

Among other returning COLCOA vets, writer-director Rémi Bezançon, whose delightfully frothy romantic comedy Love is in the Air played the festival in 2006, brings a similarly deft touch to The First Day of the Rest of Your Life, which views the passage of time in an ordinary French family by honing in on four key dates (a son moving out, a daughter losing her virginity, a wedding, a funeral) over the course of a decade. And photographer and documentarian Raymond Depardon (whose 10th District Court screened in 2005) is back with the Cannes-awarded Modern Life, the third in his series of lovely, lyrical portraits of rural French farm living — a way of life that seems to be ending even as Depardon is filming it.

Last but by no means least: Christoph Honoré, the self-styled Nouvelle Vague standard-bearer whose previous two films (Dans Paris and Love Songs) were undone by their terminal Godard- and Truffaut-isms, makes a welcome descent from the Parnassus of cinephilia with La belle personne, a clever transposition of Madame de Lafayette’s landmark 17th-century novel The Princess of Cleves (previously filmed by the likes of Andrzej Zulawski and Manoel de Oliveira) to the confines of a contemporary Paris lycée. There, the appearance of an anonymous love letter leads the new girl in class (dark, translucent beauty Léa Seydoux, soon to be seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards) away from the affections of the devoted Otto (Love Songs’ Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet) and toward the lustful glances of her Italian professor (Louis Garrel as yet another bedheaded object of desire). The air, as per usual with Honoré, is one of romantic fatalism, but here it feels earned rather than belabored. Even when, late in the film, the director’s trademark pansexuality rears its inevitable head, it does so with marked lack of ostentation. Which counts, in my book, as something even more surprising than Liam Neeson as an action hero.

CITY OF LIGHTS, CITY OF ANGELS | Directors Guild of America | Mon.-Sun., April 20-26 |

LA Weekly