To Be and to Have (2002)
Shot in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, this poignant documentary portrays the magical innocence of children and the loving dedication of one teacher, Georges Lopez. Set to retire after 35 years, Lopez instructs, engages and inspires several grades of schoolchildren in the course of a school year, touching all their lives. Any parents out there should quickly get their hands on the sublime To Be, an intimate and heartwarming study of hands-on education in a tiny classroom. What would be a daunting task for most of us is, for Georges Lopez, the application of a natural gift to a highly rewarding purpose. Georges’s innate connection with the 12 children under his care is humbling, and the wistful expression on his face at the end of the school term will put tears in your eyes.
Intimate Strangers (2004)
Knocking on the wrong door one day, Anna, a beautiful and troubled woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) mistakes William (Fabrice Luchini), an accountant leading a bland, repetitive existence, for the psychiatrist down the hall, and she proceeds to get personal. William is so mesmerized that he allows her to think he is the shrink, and by the time the truth comes out, they have forged a bond of mutual dependency that leads them to continue their sessions. An ingenious French treat with psychological underpinnings, director Patrice Leconte’s Intimate Strangers is a meditation on the randomness of life and fate. Though the conceit may sound a bit contrived, Leconte pulls it off thanks to a subtle, intelligent script and dead-on performances by Luchini and the entrancing Bonnaire. Also look for Michel Duchaussoy, who provides professional wisdom (and comic relief) as the real doctor. In the company of these “strangers,” you’ll be deeply affected.
Bruno and Sonia (Jérémie Renier and Déborah François), a painfully young, often homeless Belgian couple set adrift in society, have a child together, whom Bruno rashly decides to put up for adoption on the black market. Failing to consult Sonia, this immature boy-man soon realizes the gravity of his misjudgment and must scramble to recover the child. But in doing so, he digs himself in deep with some very unsavory types, who expect Bruno to provide the profit they’d have made by selling the child. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s affecting film is akin to watching little children playing with fire. While it’s hard to sympathize with the rather dim Bruno as he commits his enormous blunder, we realize these kids have no positive examples to draw on in making decisions, and that, by circumstance, adulthood has been thrust on them well before they’re ready for it. The only question then becomes, will this fragile little family survive? This potent, heartrending film succeeds admirably in making us root for a hopeful outcome.
The Science of Sleep (2006)
After the death of his father, aspiring artist Stéphane (Gael García Bernal) moves home to Paris, where his mother has set him up with a promising creative job. When the gig turns out to be a glorified clerkship, Stéphane is disappointed, though he is titillated by his attractive new neighbor, Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Increasingly, he takes refuge in his wildly enchanting dreams, where he confidently woos the woman he lacks the confidence to approach in real life. Located somewhere between romantic fantasy and pure whimsy, Michel Gondry’s endearing Sleep places live actors in a phantasmagoric dream world stitched together from stop-motion-animated set pieces and found-object collage. Bernal is splendid as the tongue-tied, indecisive young man who is a kind of otherworldly superstar in his sleeping life, and Gainsbourg shines, too, as the object of his affection. Few directors have the audacity—much less the heart—to concoct a grown-up fantasy this magically perverse. We could all use a bit of Sleep.
I’ve Loved You So Long (2008)
After 15 years in prison for an as-yet-unrevealed crime, Juliette (Kristin Scott Thomas) is released into the custody of her younger sister, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), who warmly welcomes her into the home she shares with her two adopted girls, ailing father (Jean-Claude Arnaud), and husband Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), who isn’t at all pleased with the arrangement. Hesitantly, Juliette takes steps to begin life anew—she gets a hospital job and a new lover—but as tensions build with Lea, who longs to reach her guarded sister, Juliette’s scarring secret guilt eventually comes to light. Philippe Claudel’s intelligent, exquisitely directed drama handles the central mystery of Juliette’s crime with such graceful restraint that the shock of its revelation earns every bit of the director’s desired emotional impact. At its core, though, this is a story of two estranged sisters trying to find common ground after a decade and a half apart. Zylberstein handles her part skillfully, but Scott Thomas—with her haggard looks and tired, haunted eyes—delivers an absolutely engrossing performance.
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