The Fourth Annual Chicago French Film Festival is at the Music Box Theatre through Tuesday, featuring 10 selections in all. I got a look at three — each different in tone and genre, but remarkably sharp and well-made.
"Playing Dead" ("Je fais le morte")
9:20 p.m. Saturday
In France, criminal investigations involve re-creating the scene of the crime, and an out-of-work Parisian actor takes on the unusual job of playing victims in this procedural from 2013. The premise wouldn't be out of place on ABC, something the network would greenlight to replace "Castle" whenever that reliable provider of bouncy murder mysteries and sexual tension finally bows out.
Saddled with a reputation for being difficult on-set, Jean Renault (Francois Damiens) finds himself taking a short-term gig with the police and crime scene magistrate (the juge d'instruction, both tough and doe-eyed as played by Geraldine Nakache) on a triple murder in a sleepy ski resort in the French Alps. The job is a cascade of small humiliations (his name is confused with that of the far more success French film actor Jean Reno) spiced up by a complicated relationship with the comely, buttoned-up magistrate. This dynamic — the rogue charmer with no formal investigative training and the smart, gorgeous woman who must rein him in — is an old one, but it plays out with a breezy confidence in director Jean-Paul Salome's film. It glides by easily, a quality that I think has become underrated in the last few years.
9:45 p.m. Friday and 8:30 p.m. Sunday
A group of jostling teenage boys converges at the Gare du Nord Metro station in Paris. Are they pickpockets? Hustlers? Toughs with nothing better to do? All of the above?
The first 10 minutes of the film lack any real dialogue, just the ambient sounds of people coming and going. Passengers stream by and give the boys pointed looks. The camera watches all of it from a vantage point on high. The angles suggest surveillance. If you've ever spent a few hours people-watching during a travel layover, the feeling is the same.
They are a loose gang of puppy-faced miscreants, these young illegal immigrants from Chechnya, Russia and Ukraine, full of bravado and hormones, and they set their sights on a roughly handsome middle-aged man in a suit (Olivier Rabourdin, bearing a strong resemblance to Kevin Spacey) who tentatively approaches the one with dark eyes called Marek and propositions him.
That leads to a full-scale home invasion the next day as the boys pile into the man's modernist, light-filled apartment (director Robin Campillo's home) and start the party. The music is on. The liquor is out. And they're robbing him blind, calmly taking everything of value while the man, called Daniel, is forced to watch, a mix of rage, confusion, fear and oh-so-vague tinges of arousal crossing his face. This extended scene is enough to put your stomach in knots. It's unclear how this little game will play out and if it will explode into something far more violent at any moment.
The film is told in four chapters, the first two comprising events described so far. The latter two careen off in unexpected directions — Marek returns to Daniel's apartment again and again, looking for something transactional but tender and complicated.
Complex, tense-making and tremendously absorbing, much of the film's unsettled energy comes from the performance of Daniil Vorobyov, a cocky, blue-eyed looker who is scary and charismatic in equal measure. He is called Boss and he is the loquacious ringleader — looking and sounding like a younger and phenomenally more attractive version of Fagin from "Oliver Twist." Or as director has said in interviews, he is Peter Pan, and these are his lost boys.
"School of Babel" ("La cour de Babel")
4:30 p.m. Sunday and 5:30 p.m. Tuesday
If you've ever seen the absorbing 2002 documentary "To Be and To Have," about a year in the life of the students and a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, you'll find "School of Babel" to be cut from a similar cloth.
It takes its time getting to know the students, young teenagers who have recently arrived in France from other countries: Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Belarus, China, Ireland, Romania, Britain, Venezuela. They are enrolled in a special program with a focus on mastering French until they can join regular classes. The program becomes a safe zone, where they don't feel so much like an "other." They belong in some way, these non-native speakers.
Led by an exceedingly compassionate but firm teacher, much of their instruction focuses on the challenges of adapting to a new country. "How do you feel in France?" a boy from Brazil is asked. "I don't know, but I want to go back," he says with an uncomfortable smile.
"When you arrive in Paris," the teacher asks, "is life easy?" Collectively: "No."
The parent-teacher conferences reveal even more. "What is it that makes you sometimes behave, you know, a bit lively with your classmates?" the teacher asks a spunky girl from Senegal with a chip on her shoulder who stares down at the desk, silent, while her mother is next to her, tending to a fidgety newborn.