Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2016

March 4, 2016
Catherine Frot in 'Marguerite' (2015)
Catherine Frot in 'Marguerite' (2015)

Last year’s French Film Festival reprised three classics, including Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937). This year the retro special is Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (Le Mépris) (1963). By coincidence this is a film I watched again only recently, after reading Alberto Moravia’s A Ghost at Noon (1954) – a book that is chiefly known today for supplying the framework for Jean-Luc Godard’s exercise in nouvelle vague cinematics.

Moravia’s work fits neatly within the parameters of post-war existentialism, but it is still compelling. Godard has gone on and on, making films in many different genres, but always in a manner that leaves the viewer feeling disorientated. Indeed, the cinema has never had a more fervent devotee of Bertolt Brecht’s famous ‘alienation effect’, by which the viewer of a play must be continually reminded that he or she is watching a play – just in case they haven’t noticed.

One never gets through a film by Godard without various reminders that we are watching a film. This can be charming and funny, but in the director’s most doggedly Marxist phase it was like being paraded around in one of those dunces’ hats used to humiliate capitalist roaders during the Cultural Revolution.

I remembered Contempt as a charming and funny movie. Watching it again, after three decades, I was stunned by how irritating and clumsy it seemed. It’s easy to see that Godard was more concerned with his own battle with his producers than with the story. The film is full of digs at the film industry and the egos of those involved. The nude shots of Brigitte Bardot were inserted in the most arbitrary fashion to give the producers what they wanted. Michel Piccoli moves like a comic character from a silent film, while Jack Palance is an odd choice as the overbearing producer. Fritz Lang, playing himself, is treated as a caricature.

The plot seems beside the point, but there is an obsessive focus on details of period style. There is no attempt to create drama, but a lot of attention is lavished on Piccoli’s hat and the Villa Malaparte in Capri, where the action takes place. Godard is showing his contempt for the money men behind the film, but also for Moravia, whose insights into the life of a screenwriter are more incisive than anything in the script. The novel is a powerful psychological study, while the film is hardly more than a puppet show.

If Contempt is a classic of the French cinema, it is a seriously flawed one. It might be viewed as a lesson in how pretentious and self-centred the director’s art can be, or simply for those gratuitous shots of Brigitte Bardot, which must have generated box office revenue the movie never deserved.

Although I had a possible 20 films to preview this year, I’ve spent much of the past fortnight struggling with Internet video links that freeze half-an-hour into a movie. We seem to have reached the point where filmmakers’ paranoia about piracy is working against their desire for publicity. Discs are more reliable.

Of the 48 films in this year’s Festival, I’ve seen five so far, including Contempt. This is not enough to make generalisations about quality or content, but experience indicates there will be plenty for every kind of audience. Nothing can dent the success of this annual event, which organisers keep reminding us is the most popular festival of French films outside of France.

It’s been a promising beginning. Michel Gondry’s Microbe and Gasoline is the most accessible film yet from a director who is usually too clever for his own good. Gondry, who made his name with music videos, often gives the impression that he views feature films as long versions of something he might concoct for Björk. But what seems amazing in a three minute sequence becomes tiresome when spread out over two hours.

Gondry’s previous effort, Mood Indigo (2013), was exhausting in its surreal inventiveness. With Microbe and Gasoline he seems to have learnt his lesson, although one suspects he won’t remain chastened for long. For about half this film I kept waiting for animations and nutty dream sequences to appear, but instead Gondry has made a gentle comedy on a coming-of-age theme.

Microbe (Ange Dargent) is a puny boy who is teased for being small, and is frequently mistaken for a girl. Gasoline (Théophile Baquet) is a newcomer at school, whose obsession with engines fails to endear him to the rest of the class. The two become friends, and work together on a home-made vehicle with a two-stroke engine. The plan is to drive this jalopy across a sizeable part of France to a holiday spot Gasoline remembers as especially idyllic. When the boys find they can’t register their vehicle, they disguise it as a cottage so it can be parked by the side of the road if the police appear.

Like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn the travellers have their share of adventures, both good and bad, on the way to making that inevitable transition fom children to adults. A less predictable transition is that of Audrey Tautou, who played the love interest in Mood Indigo, but appears here as Microbe’s awkward, dowdy mum. Let’s hope she doesn’t end up playing this role forever, as seems to have happened with Laura Dern.

Boomerang – not to be confused with the Eddie Murphy film of 1992 – is a mystery about a deep, dark family secret that haunts 40-year-old Antoine Rey (Laurent Lafitte) and his younger sister, Agathe (Mélanie Laurent). After 30 years Antoine is still puzzling over the accidental drowning of his mother, Clarisse, off the island of Noirmoutier, where the family once lived.

Antoine is not the most likeable character. His wife has left him. He’s selfish, and often obnoxious to those around him. His sister is less disagreeable, but colourless. The rest of the family, mainly his father and grandmother, have nothing they wish to recall about the tragedies of the past. It makes for some uptight family gatherings.

Antoine relaxes a little when he meets a friendly mortician, Anne-Sophie (Anne Loiret), who gets him to talk about his past. It seems to be a relief to find someone who is comfortable with the dead. Little by little the story moves towards a resolution. The film is watchable, but remains a tradesmanlike effort by director, François Favrat.

The two most impressive features were Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite, which is due for an Australian release in April, and The Brand New Testament, an irreverent comedy by Belgian director, Jaco Van Dormael.

Marguerite is loosely based on the musical career of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), the wealthy American soprano who was famous for being unable to hold a note. Jenkins became a cult figure through her persistence and utter lack of ability, and at the age of 76 would command a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall.

In Marguerite, the Jenkins role is played by Catherine Frot, as the Baronne Dumont, whose wealth attracts a crowd of fashionable freeloaders prepared to endure her voice in order to soak up the hospitality. Her husband, Georges, (André Marcon), is tortured by these humiliating performances, but can’t bring himself to puncture his wife’s delusion that she is a great singer.

Marguerite’s fantasy is inflamed by a rave review written by an opportunistic young critic, Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), who crashes one of her parties with his friend, Kyrill (Aubert Fenoy), a dedicated impersonator of Dada poet, Tristan Tzara. But although she has a voice that might strip paint from walls, Marguerite has the disarming ability of winning over her would-be exploiters through her good nature, guileless ambition and love of music.

Alas, the same can’t be said about God in The Brand New Testament, a movie that should cause all sorts of headaches for those Christian websites that advise parents on the suitability of new releases. In this shameless fantasy, God, played by Benoít Poelvoorde, is an appalling, beer-guzzling slob who spends his life in an apartment in Brussels, passing the time by bestowing death and disaster on humanity via his home computer. He tyrannises his wife, Mrs. God (Yolande Moreau) and his ten-year-old daughter, Ea (Pili Groyne). They can’t leave the apartment, and the only thing they’re allowed to watch on TV is sport. The son, JC, has long since left home, although his essence still lingers in the odd religious statuette.

According to this film, “In the beginning there was Brussels!” This much-derided city is the paradise to which Ea escapes while her father lies in a drunken stupor. Before leaving she raids God’s files and sends every person a text telling them the date of their death. This revelation will completely alter the way people live their lives.

Ea’s quest is to find six new apostles, to bring the ranks up to the same number as a baseball team. In one chapter after another, the story shows how she meets these people and converts them to her cause. Meanwhile, her father – make that “Father” – has come looking for her, and finds that the world he has created is not a nice place.

Even by Belgian standards The Brand New Testament is a bizarre film, with moments of savage comedy offset by Ea’s sensitivity to human suffering. It is, perhaps, the ultimate revenge flick for all those who have ever had issues with God.

27th Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Sydney 1-24 March; Melbourne 2-24 March; Canberra 3-29 March; Brisbane 11 March – 3 April; Perth 16 March – 24 April; Adelaide 31 March – 24 April; Casula 7-10 April; Parramatta 7-10 April;
Hobart 24 April – 4 May.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 5th March, 2016.