French Film Festival

March 10, 2012
From 'Nobody Else But You'
From 'Nobody Else But You'

Last year 130,000 people attended the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, making it by far the most popular of all the international film events held annually in this country. To be fair, it is also the biggest. This year’s program features no fewer than 45 features, plus the usual round of celebrity visits and other events. For details: www.afrenchfilmfestival.org

So far I’ve managed to sample one fifth of the total, and have been surprised by the consistently high quality of the offerings. A number of features, including Delicacy and Romantics Anonymous are already scheduled for general release.

For the French, who claim to have invented the medium, ‘le style est le cinema meme’. In recent decades this unremitting stylishness has often translated into vapid and pretentious productions that vanish from one’s mind as quickly as a meringue melts on the tongue. There have been flashy directors such as Jean-Jacques Beineix and Luc Besson, whose films are like glittering jewel cases, with nothing inside. There are veterans such as Jean-Luc Godard, who grew steadily more boorish in his attempts to combine radical politics and avant-garde technique. There are enigmatic directors such as Betrand Blier, who begins with the germ of a good film then plunges into incoherence and misogyny like a (chauvinist) pig settling into warm mud. And what about Francois Ozon, who can make an excellent movie such as The Swimming Pool, and an atrocity such as 8 Women?

On the evidence of this year’s festival, a new crop of directors are finally achieving that elusive balance between style and substance. One cannot ignore the emergence of Michel Hazanavicius, who has given us that extraordinary cinematic event, The Artist, but there are plenty of other up-and-coming French filmmakers whose touch is remarkably sure.

The opening night feature, A Declaration of War, was a provocative choice. Instead of the predictable romantic comedy, it was a drama about a young couple who find their baby son has a brain tumour. What makes the movie so unusual is that this is the true story of what happened to the film-makers, Valérie Donzelli and Jérémie Elkaïm, who also play the lead roles. The line between fact and fiction is blurred, but the strength of the acting, some imaginative cinematography and an eccentric musical score means the film never feels like a documentary. Nevertheless, it generated quite a few raised eyebrows among the first-night crowd.

For comedy, it’s hard to go past Delicacy, (dir. David & Stéphane Foenkinos) which features Audrey Tautou as a woman who goes back into her shell when her husband is killed in an accident. Her re-emergence, and choice of love object, makes for a subtle comedy of manners that allows the viewer scant leeway between laughing and squirming. Francois Damiens is brilliant in the role of the ungainly Swedish workmate who gradually wins over the woman and the viewers.

The Day I Saw Your Heart (dir. Jennifer Devoldère) might be called a comedy, but it is one of those movies that is almost impossible to classify. Mélanie Laurent, recently seen in Mike Mills’s Beginners, stars as Justine, the wayward daughter of a slightly dysfunctional family. The patriarch – a virtuoso performance by Michel Blanc – is obsessive, neurotic, hyperactive, and has a strange habit of befriending all her old boyfriends. It’s a story that seems wafer thin, but gradually gets better and better, ending with a powerful emotional crescendo.

By contrast, Nothing to Declare is typical, robust slapstick from Dany Boon, who had a huge hit with Welcome to the Sticks in 2008. Boon is a provincial who spoke nothing but dialect until the age of twelve, and his persistent comic theme is one of misunderstanding between races, classes, ethnic groups, city and country. Nothing to Declare takes us to a customs post on the Franco-Belgian border at a time when European union is making these boundaries redundant. Boon, a French customs officer, is in love with a local girl, but her brother, who works for Belgian customs is a rabid Francophobe. The jokes are predictable, but still amusing.

There may be nothing too subtle about Dany Boon but this can’t be said about one of his co-stars, Bouli Lanners, who plays a fat, bungling customs inspector in Nothing to Declare.

Lanners steps behind the camera for The Giants, a coming-of-age story set in wilds of Luxembourg, which is made to look as lush as the Everglades. Two young brothers and a friend are abandoned and deceived by the adult world. They set out on a picaresque adventure that inevitably recalls Mark Twain in its appreciation of the bravado, the confusion and vulnerability of adolescence. From what I’ve seen so far, nothing in this festival is more visually striking than The Giants, a film with a rare lyricism.

One the most original features is Nobody Else but You (dir. Gérald Hustache-Mathieu), which stars a craggy Jean-Paul Rouve as a writer of pulp detective stories who gets mixed up in a real murder mystery in a small, snow-bound town. As he reconstructs the life of the victim, provincial pin-up girl, Candice Lecoeur, he finds an uncanny chain of resemblances to the life of Marilyn Monroe. This movie has been compared to the films of the Coen brothers, and has similar taste for off-beat humour and lingering menace.

From a small range of thrillers I can recommend Point Blank (dir. Fred Cayavé), an accurate but still confusing English-language title for A bout portant – literally “at close range”. It bears no relation to John Boorman’s classic Point Blank (1967), or a number of other films with that title. Gilles Lellouche stars as a trainee nurse who gets trapped in a very hairy confrontation between cops and villains when a wounded criminal is brought to the hospital. Gradually we learn that the cops are actually more dangerous than the hoods, leading to a winning combination of high paranoia, sudden violence, and breathless chase sequences.

If one had to choose a film guaranteed to strike a chord with the public it is probably The Well-Digger’s Daughter, the directorial debut of wellknown actor, Daniel Auteuil. In a shameless echo of Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources (both 1986), it is based on a Marcel Pagnol tale of provincial life. In fact it is a remake of Pagnol’s own film of 1940.

Auteuil, who played a crafty peasant’s son in the Berri films, is now the father of the local teenage bombshell who is seduced by the son of the wealthy landowner. I hardly need elaborate on the fierce passions stirred up in the midst of the most gorgeous landscape. Tragedy and the tourist brochure march together in triumph.

Two other films that should draw big audiences are The Look, Angelina Maccarone’s profile of actress, Charlotte Rampling; and The Conquest (dir. Xavier Durringer), a controversial fictionalisation of Nicolas Sarkozy’s May 2007 election campaign and victory.

Rampling is one of those British actresses – along with Jane Birkin and now Kristin Scott-Thomas – that the French have taken to their hearts. In Rampling’s case, her cultish status seems to extend across the entire planet, from her first appearance in Georgy Girl (1966), through her notorious role in Liliana Cavani’s The Night-Porter (1974), to notable late films such as The Swimming Pool (2003).

In this loosely-scripted documentary, we watch Rampling in a series of conversations with friends such as the novelist, Paul Auster, and photographer, Jürgen Teller. We gradually piece together a portrait of an intelligent, spirited individual who won’t disappoint those who know her only via the characters she has played.

As a political film, The Conquest is not in the same class as George Clooney’s The Ides of March, but it has the voyeuristic advantage of featuring real-life characters; including Sarko himself, who will soon be standing for re-election as President of France. Not many commentators give him a chance this time, but there were plenty ready to dismiss him in 2007, including his political rival, Dominique Villepin, and the outgoing President, Jacques Chirac.

This is a film about the poison of politics, and Sarkozy (played by Denis Podalydès), is infected beyond all redemption. Nevertheless, his brazen, cynical, crash-or-crash-through approach makes him a more attractive character than Villepin or Chirac, or even his first wife, Cécilia, who deserts him for another man in the middle of the campaign. It is the classic, tragic tale of the man who rises to the height of power but loses his wife in the process. Should there be a sequel we’ll see tragic Sarko hooking up with Carla Bruni and embarking on a new public relations blitz.

“I didn’t choose politics,” Sarkozy tells his constituency. “Politics has chosen me.” Only the other day we heard that consummate politician, Bob Carr, say something very similar upon his elevation to the Foreign Affairs portfolio. Perhaps this is the secret of the festival’s popularity: we don’t love these movies for their Frenchness but for insights that resonate as strongly in Sydney as they do in Paris.

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival: Sydney: 6-25 March, Melbourne: 7-25 March, Brisbane: 14 March – 1 April, Canberra: 14 March – 1 April Adelaide: 20 March – 8 April Perth: 21 March – 9 April


 

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