Alliance Francaise French Film Festival

March 8, 2014
Juliette Binoche in 'Camille Claudel', 2013
Juliette Binoche in 'Camille Claudel', 2013

Celebrating its 25th anniversaire, the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival returns this month to cinemas across the country. As the organisers continually remind us, this is now the biggest annual festival of French cinema outside of France. The appeal is pretty straightforward: ask most middle-class Australians for their favourite destination and France is always high on the list.

A couple of years ago I felt French cinema was undergoing a tremendous resurgence, getting away from the cloying obsession with style that had become a trademark. There has been a tailing off since then and a noticeable lack of consistency. The films I’ve seen this year have been a mixed bag, ranging from the frothy comedy of The It Boy to the bleak drama of Camille Claudel 1915.

Perhaps it’s best to go along with minimal preconceptions. Violette, a bio-pic of the writer, Violette Le Duc, who rubbed shoulders with Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, turned out to be a ponderous affair, hardly better than a slow soap opera. It features Emmanuelle Devos, who is the star of this year’s Festival, but she has to work hard to inject a little élan vital into her character. I’m beginning to think that the life of a writer provides discouraging material for a filmmaker. Another feature in which Devos appears – Domestic Life – is every bit as dull as the title suggests.

Bruno Dumont’s study of the sculptor, Camille Claudel sounded even less promising, as the lead character spends the entire movie within the walls of an insane asylum. Yet there is starkness and simplicity in this story, carried by marvellous performances from Juliet Binoche as Camille, and Jean-Luc Vincent as her pious brother, Paul, whose Catholicism has taken on a fanatical edge.

Although she is disturbed, Camille is much saner than anyone else in the asylum. Paul has the capacity to have her released, but believes she is possessed by the devil, and views her confinement as a kind of penance.

It’s quite a contrast to leave this portrait of a woman whose life has been stolen, and grapple with Carine Roitfeld, the subject of the documentary, Mademoiselle C.

A former editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris, Roitfeld is one of the world’s leading fashionistas. The film shows her preparing her own ambitious publication, the CR Fashion Book, with a host of photographers, designers, and assorted freaks. When not tossing around ideas in the studio she is attending glamorous parties.

It’s all a bit sickening. In The September Issue (2009), the celebrated editor Anna Wintour came across as terminally insecure and controlling. Roitfeld never has a moment when she isn’t being wild and crazy and creative. All your worst prejudices about the fashion industry will be confirmed.

For a spoof on the world of fashion publishing, The It Boy is a serviceable farce. The story revolves around the glamorous but workaholic Alice (Virginie Efira), who starts an imaginary romance with 20-year old Balthasar (Pierre Niney), in order to appear more wild and adventurous to her boss. Needless to say, one thing leads to another.

The romance is even more unorthodox in the new Roman Polanski film, Venus in Fur. It’s a not an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s novel, but a film based on a play by David Ives in which a playwight is attempting a theatrical adapation of the book. (If you can follow that).

The movie is a compact double-hander for two excellent actors – Mathieu Amalric and Polanski’s missus, Emmanuelle Seigner. It’s kinky stuff, but the action is psychological not physical, which makes it all the more absorbing.

The espionage thriller, Möbius, will attract a good audience – if only for the presence of French heart-throb Jean Dujardin, who is rapidly becoming a Hollywood mainstay. There is a confusing number of plots and subplots, but readers of John Le Carré will not be daunted.

My final and favourite movie in this cross-section was Bright Days Ahead (AKA. Les Beaux Jours), starring Fanny Ardant as a retired dentist who seeks distraction at an old people’s club where students learn various crafts and skills. This may sound like a cure for insomnia, but Marion Vernoux’s film is radiant, funny, sexy, uplifting – and deeply subversive of all those movies about elderly men and women striving to reactivate a flagging libido.

Whatever Fanny Ardant has, it seems to work with equal effectiveness on both old and young.

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Sydney: 4-23 March; Melbourne: 5-23 March;
Canberra: 6-25 March; Brisbane: 6-25 March;
Perth 18 March-6 April; Adelaide 20 March-8 April; Byron Bay 24-28 Apr.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 8 March, 2014.