French Cinema Now: Strong Female Presence

French Female filmmakers are demonstrating stronger presence in recent years, making commercial pictures with high-profile casts, telling often emotional stories that appeal to international critics and audiences.

For its annual Rendez-Vous in New York, UniFrance has chosen to turn the spotlight on these up-and-coming helmers standing on the frontline of this new wave.

“These new filmmakers are showing international audiences that French cinema isn’t limited to a few directors and actors’ names: They dare to portray every aspect of our society in a modern and creative way and tackle serious topics,” says Isabelle Giordano, UniFrance’s managing director.

“The films of this latest French new wave are notable for their freewheeling energy and immediacy, and for their willingness to tackle head-on the complexities and contradictions of 21st-century France,” says Dennis Lim, Lincoln Center Film Society head of programming.

“More than a third of the films in our selection are first or second features,” he notes, and while the original French New Wave was very much a “boys’ club,” nearly half of these new films were directed by women.

The filmmakers and their films include: Rebecca Zlotowski with “Grand Central,” a tale of forbidden love set in a nuclear plant, starring Lea Seydoux and Tahar Rahim (world premiere: Cannes’ Un Certain Regard); Katell Quillevere with “Suzanne,” a coming-of-age story toplining Sara Forestier (world premiere: Cannes’ Critics Week); Emmanuelle Bercot with “On My Way,” a tender dramedy starring Catherine Deneuve as a former beauty queen in her sixties who embarks on a road trip after being abandoned by her longtime lover (world premiere: Berlin film fest); Axelle Ropert with love triangle drama “Miss and the Doctors,” starring Louise Bourgoin (market premiere: Toronto); and Justine Triet with “The Age of Panic,” a comedy-filled drama about a thirtysomething former couple on the verge of a nervous breakdown (world premiere: Cannes’ Acid program).

While these pics run the gamut in terms of style and themes, they all share an intimate, naturalistic approach to storytelling and strong female characters. And unlike many of their male counterparts, these women directors seldom dive into U.S.-style genre films, thrillers or actioners.

“I come from a generation of directors that doesn’t have a unique mentor but a multitude of inspirations,” Zlotowski says. “There are big differences (among us. Some) are inspired by documentary filmmaking … others clearly refuse realism.”

She adds that many of these filmmakers come from similar Paris backgrounds and graduated from the prestigious Femis film school. Triet has said she draws her inspiration from American comedies from Billy Wilder to Judd Apatow, and such series as “The Wire.”

While French sales agents have for the most part cut down on homegrown fare, select companies such as Elle Driver and Gaumont are eagerly sourcing new talent to come up with original stories and fresh concepts.

“There’s nothing more exciting and enriching than following this new generation, seeing them evolve, and doing what’s needed to help their films get discovered in international territories, even if the context is very difficult,” says Adeline Fontan Tessaur, who’s repped Bercot’s “On Her Way” (picked up by Cohen Media Group) and Zlotowski’s “Grand Central,” and recently started selling Audrey Dana’s comedy “French Women.”

Fontan Tessaur adds: “A marquee name is always a valuable asset, but in the end, distributors don’t look for a name or a new generation. They’re just looking for good movies, wherever they come from.”