No amount of thoughtful planning can trump the serendipity of chance. Consider this juxtaposition: Last week, two Jewish-related films opened in New York that dealt with children under pressure. This week, the 40th annual New Directors/New Films event opens and among the films programmed are two Jewish-related films about young adults dealing with the aftermath of adolescence.
Of course, given the focus of New Directors on filmmakers at the beginning of their careers, it is likely that a higher-than-usual number of the program’s annual offerings are about adolescents and young adults, but even so, the presence of the French drama “Belle Èpine” and the Palestinian farce “Man Without a Cellphone” represent a felicitous coincidence.
That neither film is entirely satisfying comes as no huge surprise — the very nature of the event suggests that a lot of the films are chosen as much for the promise of future work as for their own intrinsic merit. Certainly, each of the two films has moments that intimate a possibly bright future for its maker.
“Belle Èpine” would slot very nicely into a long-standing tradition of French movies about troubled kids and teens, ranging from the genius of Jean Vigo’s “Zero for Conduct” and Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” to the meretricious commercialism of the “Le Boum” and its sequel, which gave us eventual Bond girl Sophie Marceau. The new film is the debut feature of Rebecca Zlotowski and, like most contemporary films of its ilk, it is about the unfortunate concatenation of rising hormones and sexuality, new responsibilities and new freedoms.
Prudence (Lea Seydoux) has recently lost her mother. Her father is in Québec trying to untangle the estate, but she is home in Paris where her older sister is supposed to be looking after her. In reality, she is pretty much on her own, experimenting with a little shoplifting, hanging out with “bad” kids from her school and ducking her cross-town cousins who are somewhat more observant Jews than her immediate family. One of the great strengths of “Belle Èpine” (which means “beautiful thorn,” an apt description of Prudence) is the matter-of-fact way that the Cohens, the cousins, manifest their Jewishness. It’s there, it’s integral to their lives, but it’s totally subsumed into their daily existence with a naturalness that one seldom sees outside of Israeli film (where it really is the baseline behavior).
Of course, Prudence ends up in a potentially messy relationship with Franck, one of a group of motorcycle racers who seem considerably less threatening than the dancing gangbangers of “West Side Story.” Not surprisingly, things go awry, with terrible consequences for a few of the film’s characters. Rather more shocking is the film’s final scene, a maladroit invention of Zlotowski and co-writer Gaelle Mace that reduces the film’s previous 75 minutes to gibberish. Zlotowski is very good with the young actors in her cast, and she has a gift for atmosphere, turning the illegal bike races and basement nightclubs in which much of the action transpires into Dantean scenes of darkness and chaos.
But her first feature doesn’t hang together, despite its several well-worked visual motifs.
Sameh Zoabi’s first feature film, “Man Without a Cellphone” suffers from the opposite problem. It’s almost too straightforward.
The title character is Jawdat (Razi Shawahdeh), a charming but utterly feckless young Palestinian who is on the verge of being thrown out of college for repeatedly failing Hebrew. He would rather be juggling his half-dozen or so girlfriends, working a part-time construction job with his best friend and cousin Muhammad (Louai Nofi) and putting up with the nagging of his father, Salem, who would be happier to see the boy working in his olive groves.
If this sounds like the setup for a sitcom, that’s pretty much what it is. Zoabi starts the wheels turning with Salem (a deliciously belligerent Bassem Loulou) taking increasing umbrage at the presence on village land of a cellphone tower, which he is convinced will cause a massive epidemic of cancer. “Why don’t they put it in the Israeli village [next door],” he grumbles. “Or they could put it midway between us so we and the Israelis can share the cancer.” Gradually, he inveigles most of his friends and even his son into his crusade, and getting the cellphone tower becomes the central driving force of the plot.
Zoabi has a certain facility with this kind of comedy, and his cast members are talented farceurs. Even the humor aimed at the Israeli authorities is pretty gentle; the cops and security guys who are listening in on Jawdat’s frantic cross-border romanticizing are about as threatening as the “smokies” in “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
They seem, frankly, like an extension of the father’s disapproval.
The result is basically an amiable, longer episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” given a little more heft by its location in the midst of the Middle East crisis.
The 40th annual New Directors/New Films, presented by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, takes place March 23-April 3 at the Museum (11 W. 53rd St.) and the Walter Reade Theatre (165 W. 65th St.); for schedule and information, go to www.newdirectors.org.