The San Francisco Film Society’s 6th edition of its “French Cinema Now” festival offers Bay Area viewers a chance to see films from both newcomers and established talents in current French cinema. This year’s selection includes films which take viewers to locales as varied as the Canadian backwoods and the darker reaches of capitalism.
***

“House of Radio,” Nicolas Philibert’s newest documentary, offers a delightful behind the scenes look at Radio France, the French version of National Public Radio. Loosely structured as a cumulative “day” in the station’s life, the film is a collection of vignettes featuring moments both mundane and quietly extraordinary.

The samples of Radio France’s programming prove utterly intriguing. There are music programs featuring everything from classical music to music made with an improvised mechanical device. A game show centered on news knowledge makes the American equivalent look childish. Peeling potatoes on the air provides one answer for a program where ordinary people are given a single broadcast minute to do anything other than stay silent.

If the viewer is impressed by the craft on display, that’s because the film shows the work involved. There’s an art in doing everything from tailoring a 3-minute news brief to judging what particular actor’s delivery works for a radio drama. Coverage of the Tour de France involves motorbike riding reporters following the entire route.

But the station’s real assets are the people who work there. Radio France’s colorful personnel include a classical music host happily buried up to his eyes in mountains of classical music CDs, a program host who composes his material on the fly, and an utterly charming operator who handles night-time music requests.

The language barrier may prevent non-Francophones from enjoying Radio France. “House of Radio” gives a wonderful taste of this beloved institution’s pleasures.

***


“A Castle In Italy” aspires to mine comic gold from life among the rich and famous. But actor/director Valeria Bruni Tedeschi only succeeds in digging up the fool’s gold of tiresome gags mistaken for wit.

Rich retired actress Louise Rossi-Levi (Bruni Tedeschi) feels her baby clock ticking. She hopes to have her children with jaded actor Nathan (Louis Garrel), who objects to parenthood. Meanwhile, Louise’s beloved brother Ludovic is slowly dying of AIDS. Her mother Marisa may need to sell the family’s Italian castle or face a nasty tax audit, yet Ludovic opposes selling the family heritage. How will the Rossi-Levis survive the various challenges in their lives?

“A Castle In Italy” feels like ready-made entertainment for the Fox News demographic. Its rich people are allegedly amusingly scatterbrained and/or immature. There’s also supposedly something admirable in indulging such whims as taking a trip to Italy to sit in a pregnancy miracle chair or doing a recreation from the tale of Bluebeard.

Yet the film also attempts to whitewash its darker aspects. Running a private soup kitchen is nice, but greater social good would be achieved if Louise’s family paid their fair financial share instead of engaging in active tax dodging. Louise’s frequent meltdowns resemble arrested emotional development, not comic hysteria. Finally, Nathan’s jealous confrontation of Louise feels less like emotional commitment and more like borderline rape.

In an age of accelerated economic inequality, Bruni Tedeschi’s film offers nothing for those not part of the point seven percenters.

***


The titular furry four-legged predator doesn’t appear in Denis Cote’s “Vic+Flo Saw A Bear.” But the film’s titular couple has other problems. Recently released but directionless ex-convict Victoria (Vic) lives in the Canadian backwoods. Younger lover Florence (Flo) provides Vic with emotional stability and questionable fidelity. Casual friction between the two women soon gets supplanted by the return of a rude reminder from Flo’s past. As this offbeat drama shifts from mundane tedium to deadpan absurdity, it resembles liquid mercury.

***


Katell Quillevere’s “Suzanne” attempts to provide a non-judgmental portrait of a problematic protagonist.

Suzanne Merevsky (Sara Forestier) is the daughter of a widowed and frequently absent truck driver. Her inadvertent pregnancy sets off tumultuous life changes including loving the handsome criminal Julien and developing deeply strained family relationships.

Quillevere’s film non-judgmentally observes its lead over the course of 25 years as she commits such appalling acts as leaving her baby alone and unattended. The viewer empathizes with Suzanne’s sister Maria, who must both personally mature and serve as her sister’s maternal surrogate.

Forestier’s performance supplies a portrait of a girl seeking a rich life despite disadvantaged circumstances. Though the viewer is privy to Suzanne’s actions but not her thoughts, the troubled Merevsky girl looks more like a woman-child than a responsible adult.

Quillevere gives the film an occasional intriguing dramatic moment. A conversation between Maria and Julien reveals her quiet suspicion and disapproval of Suzanne’s boyfriend, balanced by her helplessness in protecting her sister. But viewer goodwill gets eroded during the end credits. Playing Leonard Cohen’s classic song “Suzanne” may seem natural. Yet the result is a negative comparison of Cohen’s brilliance against Quillevere’s adequacy.

***


What links ex-ship’s captain Marco (Vincent Lindon), sexy downstairs neighbor Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), and wealthy financier Edouard Laporte? The answer is gradually revealed in the French Cinema Now closer, Claire Denis’ powerful new film “Bastards.” This quietly disturbing film portrays a society morally putrefied by concentrated wealth, where loyalties are utterly fungible. Whether it’s seeing a dead-eyed naked teenage girl walking Paris’ streets or hearing Stuart Staples’ quietly ominous score, the viewer will not remain unshaken by Denis’ dark vision.

(“House of Radio” screens on November 10, 2013 at 1:15 PM. “A Castle In Italy” screens at 9:15 PM on November 7, 2013 and 2:30 PM on November 9, 2013. “Vic+Flo Saw A Bear” screens at 6:00 PM on November 10, 2013. “Suzanne” screens at 7:00 PM on November 9, 2013. “Bastards” screens at 8:30 PM on November 10, 2013. All screenings take place at the Clay Theatre (2261 Fillmore Street, SF). For advance tickets, go to www.sffs.org .)