French Film Festival 2015

March 7, 2015
Gemma Arterton in 'Gemma Bovery' (2014)
Gemma Arterton in 'Gemma Bovery' (2014)

Three years ago the ever-popular Alliance Francaise French Film Festival opened with Valérie Donzelli’s A Declaration of War. The film had been a hit in France but it provoked a good deal of muttering and eyebrow-raising among the first-night crowd at the Palace Verona who didn’t know what to make of a movie about a couple with a sick child who relieve their despair by singing a pop song.

This year there was no room for controversy. The 26th Festival was launched last Tuesday in an orthodox manner with Gemma Bovery – a film that brings the word “charmant!” irresistibly to the lips of viewers and critics. Director Anne Fontaine has given us a modern-day update of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, with a tale set in a village in Normandy. The narrator is the reliable Fabrice Luchini, who plays Martin Joubert, the local baker.

The Boverys are a British couple who have come to France as “gastronomical immigrants”. Charlie (Jason Flemyng) is much older than his bride, Gemma (Gemma Arterton), who soon begins to waver in her affections. Martin, who is helplessly infatuated with Gemma, watches with amazement as the events of the novel begin to repeat themselves in life.

It’s a movie with just the right ingredients to appeal to a foreign audience. There is the scenic French countryside, a teasing literary reference, droll comedy, a touch of doomed romance, and a soupçon of tragedy. It’s not quite Jean de Florette, or even The Well-Digger’s Daughter, but there’s a certain family resemblance.

The other 48 festival items cover a range of genres, including three classic First World War films, by way of commemorating Australian involvement on the battlefields. Chief among them is Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937), which is not exactly a rarity, but it’s always a pleasure to see a great movie on the big screen.

The 2015 Festival has co-opted David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz as patrons, a job which entails choosing a few films each for a “critics’ choice”. The only one I’ve been able to see so far is The Blue Room, which is David’s pick. It’s an irresistible prospect, being based on a 1964 novel by Georges Simenon (1903-89), the colossus of French crime fiction. It bears no relation to the 1998 play of the same name by David Hare.

Simenon’s output was so vast no one seems to be able to put a figure on it. Wikipedia says he wrote “nearly 200 novels, over 150 novellas.., and scores of pulp novels written under more than two dozen pseudonyms.” He is said to have knocked off 49 novels in one year alone. At the same time he had a taste for women that kept pace with his literary feats.

The most remarkable thing about Simenon is neither his productivity nor his libido, but the sustained quality of his writing. He is a penetrating psychologist, a master of atmosphere and detail. More than 30 films have been made from his books, by acclaimed directors such as Marcel Carné, Julien Duvivier, Claude Chabrol and Bertrand Tavernier.

Wellknown actor, Mathieu Amalric has directed and starred in a tale of adultery and murder which transplants the story from the 1960s to the present. The protagonist, now called Julien, is more prosperous than his fictional predecessor, but the bones of the story remain the same. What is lost in the update is the claustrophobic feeling of life in a small village which is so central to the novel. This also hampers the definition of personalities, although one still gets the sense that Julien is caught up in a nightmare for which he is responsible, yet innocent.

The New Girlfriend is a deceptively ordinary title for a disturbing drama by François Ozon, a director as unpredictable as the Pakistan cricket team. There have been Ozon films that made me look longingly to the exit after about 10 minutes, but others that keep one glued to the screen. The New Girlfriend, based on a story by Ruth Rendell, is in the latter category.

Claire – played by freckle-faced, wide-eyed Anais Demoustier – has sworn to her dying friend, Laura, that she will look after her child and husband. When Claire tries to keep that vow she finds Laura’s grieving husband, David, dressed in women’s clothing. It is the beginning of a game of repulsion-attraction in which Claire at first agrees to keep David’s secret, then becomes increasingly seduced by the idea of having a male friend with all the habits and fancies of a woman.

Anyone who thought Fifty Shades of Grey was perverse should check out Romain Duris’s performance as David, dressed in a blonde wig, tights and high heels. Duris has a expressive face, and the addition of lipstick and eyeshadow gives him a startling appearance. Every time he ventured into the street in drag, I was bracing myself for some humiliating public revelation.

Demoustier handles Claire’s ‘conversion’ with great skill, showing an initial repugnance that evolves into an obsession. Unspoken sexual desire, loyalty to her dead friend, guilt and shame in relation to her husband, are all brought into the mix. Forget Anastasia Steele, this is a precise portrait of a woman being drawn into a bizarre world that little by little takes on the trappings of normality.

It could be argued that a disproportionate number of French movies are obsessed with the question: “What is ‘normality’ anyway?” The land that gave us the bourgeoisie has never stopped interrogating the concept of the conventional middle-class lifestyle.

The miseries and splendours of the bourgeois condition are explored in the comedy, Barbecue. The lead character, Antoine (Lambert Wilson), is a typically well-adjusted, middle-aged Frenchman. He has an orderly life, a devoted wife, a group of loyal friends, and a successful method of attracting younger women. It takes a heart attack to make him reconsider his ways, prompting a decadent recalibration that alienates his gang and his family.

Barbecue is a buddy film, in the same vein as Little White Lies (2010), which itself owed a large debt to Laurence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983). These films are not to everyone’s taste, as the humour is too often embedded in a sticky layer of sentimentality, and the current example is no exception.

Of the films I’ve yet to see, Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy comes highly recommended, largely because of its brilliant dialogue. It’s basically the story of the conversation that convinced the Nazi military governor of Paris, during the occupation, to refrain from blowing up the city’s monuments. One wonders if there are any such conversations going on in Iraq at the moment.

Another tantalising prospect is The Connection, which details the true story of the events behind William Friedkin’s Hollywood classic, The French Connection (1971). Director, Cédric Jiminez, has received mixed reviews for this organised crime movie, but it is guaranteed to draw the crowds if only because of the presence of Jean Dujardin. One could venture the same speculation about two other films that feature Sophie Marceau, and three with the formidable Catherine Deneuve.

Elle L’Adore is a watchable feature that could not be justly described as either a thriller or a mystery. Sandrine Kiberlain plays Muriel, the biggest fan of singer, Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte). The ultimate test of her adoration comes when Vincent asks her to help dispose of the dead body of his girlfriend, whom he has accidentally killed. This is a caper sustained by Muriel’s heroic abilities as a liar, and the fact that the two main police investigators are preoccupied with their own relationship crisis.

This year’s big disappointment for me was Saint Laurent, the ‘other’ film about the famous fashion designer, following last year’s Yves Saint Laurent directed by Jalil Lespert, with Pierre Niney in the title role. Lespert’s film was reputedly the authorised version. At best, one could argue that Bertrand Bonello’s movie is a useful supplement, but where Lespert took a naturalistic approach, almost to the point of soap opera, Bonello is self-consciously artistic. As is so often the case, this leads to a film in which narrative is sacrificed on the altar of style.

Saint Laurent is as episodic as a music video program, and just as confusing. Neither is it possible to feel much sympathy with Gaspard Ulliel’s portrayal of the couturier, who seems as wilfully superficial as his good friend, Andy Warhol. Perhaps this is more true-to-life than Pierre Niney’s version? One would like to believe a figure as talented as Saint Laurent had a few personal qualities. The same goes for Saint Laurent’s long-term partner and business manager, Pierre Bergé, who cuts a more impressive figure in the Lespert film.

An undoubted highlight of this Festival is Samba, the new offering by Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, who gave us The Intouchables in 2013, a film that broke all box office records in France. Omar Sy, from that earlier movie, is back as an illegal immigrant from Senegal who forms a bond with a caseworker named Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The story explores Samba’s struggle for survival in France at a time when immigration has become a controversial issue around the world. The directors adopt a sympathetic perspective, which may stir a few Antipodean echoes when the film gets a theatrical premiere on 2 April. On the other hand it may be just another political stitch-up intended to make us believe that refugees are actually human beings.

26th Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Sydney 3-22 March; Melbourne 4-22 March; Adelaide 5-24 March; Canberra 6-25 March;
Brisbane 13 March – 1 Apr.; Perth 19 March – 7 Apr.
Byron Bay 9-14 Apr.; Hobart 16-21 Apr.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 7th March, 2015.