I've been waiting all my filmgoing life for a retrospective of the formidable French filmmaker Jacques Doillon. Finally we have one: in New York, at the French Institute, every Tuesday from February 3 to March 31. That's only nine films, and by all accounts Doillon has a remarkably consistent career of about 25 features - but you've got to creep before you crawl, as a Preston Sturges character said. I've seen seven of the films in the series; below is a quick film-by-film overview, ordered by release date, not French Institute screening date.
Les Doigts dans la tête (Touched in the Head): March 17 at 12:30, 4, and 7:30 p.m.
Doillon is one of the "génération 70" filmmakers (along with Eustache, Pialat, Garrel, Duras and others) who came to prominence after the nouvelle vague was established, and whose films were generally considered more socially engaged than those of their immediate elders. Doillon seems to have been a child of May 1968, and his first feature, 1973's L'An 01 (which includes segments by Alain Resnais and Jean Rouch), is apparently a series of sketches and episodes, in a variety of filmic styles, depicting a utopian/anarchist France. But 1974's Les Doigts brought him his first substantial critical acclaim, and also saw him adopt a more conventional fictional approach, albeit still more politically explicit than the films to follow. Truffaut, whose admiring review of Les Doigts is compiled and translated in The Films in My Life, compared its visual style to Eustache's La Maman et la putain (The Mother and the Whore), and at this point Doillon seemed a bit minimalist, elliptical, and socially aware. The film received favorable attention in the US, though not, as far as I know, a theatrical run. I saw it in Paris without subtitles, and my poor comprehension of spoken French was compounded by Doillon's characteristic taste for argot and thrown-away dialogue.
La Femme qui pleure (The Crying Woman): March 24 at 12:30, 4, and 7:30 p.m.
The follow-up to Les Doigts, 1975's Un sac de billes, is supposedly not the most personal of Doillon's films; but he returned to the critical spotlight in France with the powerful 1979 drama La Femme qui pleure, which again received limited but admiring attention in the US. Still perhaps working in a more generic "génération 70" style than would later be the case, Doillon establishes here one of the keynotes of his career: an intense focus on the family unit, often mixed with sexually or socially subversive content. Not for the last time, Doillon cast himself and another family member (this time his daughter Lola, now a director herself) in principal roles. La Femme qui pleure is also one of the key films in the short career of the greatly missed actress Dominique Laffin.
La Drôlesse (The Hussy): March 10 at 12:30, 4, and 7:30 p.m.
Released later the same year as La Femme qui pleure, La Drôlesse was the first Doillon film to make any noise on the festival and awards circuit, and, I believe, the first to get theatrical distribution in the US. A worthy, somewhat unnerving study of mental disorder, La Drôlesse is perhaps our first glimpse of Doillon's propensity for absurdist, fable-like subject matter (he is an excellent scenarist, and writes or co-writes nearly all his films), which is disguised by, or in counterpoint to, quasi-documentary aspects of his filming style.
La Vie de famille (Family Life): February 3 at 12:30, 4, and 7:30 p.m.
After La Drôlesse, Doillon dropped out of sight in the US, though his films continued to appear at major European festivals and receive acclaim from French critics. La Vie de famille, released in 1985, has never screened anywhere around me, but is well regarded by Doillon's admirers. Juliette Binoche had one of her first major roles in the film: in the August 2007 issue of Les Cahiers du cinema, she discusses the experience, mentioning that Doillon was by this time shooting in sequence shots with a Steadicam - a style that would continue in his later work.
La Fille de 15 ans (The 15-Year-Old Girl): February 24 at 12:30, 4, and 7:30 p.m.
Another Doillon film I have never seen, this 1989 work again stars the director, and treats the theme of incest, one of the subversive topics that linger around the edges of his oeuvre.
Le Petit criminel (The Little Gangster): February 10 at 12:30, 4, and 7:30 p.m.
By the time of this excellent film, which shared the 1990 Prix Louis-Delluc with Patrice Leconte's Le Mari de la coiffeuse (The Hairdresser's Husband), Doillon seems to me to have arrived at his mature style. In addition to the current of comic absurdism that Doillon often indulges beneath a naturalistic surface, Le Petit criminal also features beautiful widescreen camera work that follows the characters and almost surreptitiously arrives at striking compositions. I sometimes think of Doillon as combining characteristics of fiction-deconstructing directors like Pialat or Eustache with an aestheticized visual style such as we associate with Téchiné or Assayas.
Ponette: February 17 at 12:30, 4, and 7:30 p.m.
The 90s saw Doillon continue to turn out fine work in semi-obscurity—including one of his very best, 1993's Le jeune Werther (The Young Werther), sadly not included in this series. Unexpectedly, he had his only substantial international success in 1996 with this impressive account of a four-year-old girl's attempt to cope with the death of her mother. Many viewers have assumed that young Victoire Thivisol must have actually believed herself orphaned to give such a convincing performance, but Doillon assures us that the youngster was able to grasp the concept of acting.
Raja: March 31 at 12:30, 4, and 7:30 p.m.
Though he has not yet duplicated the art-house success of Ponette, Doillon has been able to obtain brief runs in US theaters for every other film since then—including this remarkable 2003 drama, possibly his greatest work. If Doillon has shown more interest in family dynamics than in the large-scale political ideas that first motivated him, Raja shows him capable of integrating political ideas so deeply into style and story structure that the willful breakdowns and gaps in his narrative seem inevitable in retrospect. Other than Ponette, Raja is the only film in this series available on DVD in the US.
Le premier venu (Just Anybody): March 3 at 12:30, 4, and 7 p.m., with Doillon appearing at the 7 p.m. screening
Doillon's 2008 drama, his most recent film at the time of writing, pushes his taste for narrative abstraction to its furthest extreme, so that the naturalism of the performances and the ambience is a challenging match for the allegorical, anti-psychological story. Starring Gérald Thomassin, the now-grown-up protagonist of Le petit criminel, Le premier venu has not yet had a theatrical run in New York, having screened only one night at BAM in November 2008.