French Film Festival 2017

March 10, 2017
Soko in The Dancer (2016)
Soko in The Dancer (2016)

Whatever inventions Australians may boast about (Vegemite?), it’s best to keep quiet in Paris, because the French invented the cinema. Every year, in antipodean acknowledgement of this feat, Australians turn out in vast numbers for the Alliance Française French Film Festival. The organisers never tire of telling us that it is the biggest French film festival in world outside of France, which is one perpetual film festival.

The 2017 line-up includes 45 films covering all major genres. As usual, I’ve had a partial preview, although there are numerous movies I’d still like to see. This year’s cornerstone is Bertrand Tavernier’s documentary, A Journey Through French Cinema. The veteran director takes an autobiographical approach, telling us about his first experience of the movies (Jean Becker’s Dernier Atout); the films, directors, actors and composers that made an impression on him; and his personal encounters with with figures such as Jean Gabin, Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Luc Godard.

At well over three hours it remains a partial overview because the field is simply too vast. Tavernier gives only passing mentions to filmmakers such as René Clair, Julien Duvivier, Robert Bresson, Georges Franju, Louis Malle, Rene Clément, Jacques Demy, Claude Chabrol; and says not a word about Henri-Georges Clouzot or Alain Resnais.

Likewise, it would have been good to hear more about some of the great actors who star in the hundreds of clips Tavernier shows, but we’re probably talking about an entire TV series, not a stand-alone doco.

Tavernier’s choices are personal, based on the movies and personalities that exercised the most influence on his own development as a filmmaker. There are revealing insights into the characters of Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné and Melville. We track the many ways in which French drectors borrowed from Hollywood, and the details in which they differed from their American counterparts.

The most gripping moments are when Tavernier gets under the skin of classics such as Carné’s Le Jour se Leve (1939), or Renoir’s La Grand Illusion (1937), analysing the way crucial scenes are constructed. He also devotes significant time to composers such as Maurice Jaubert and Joseph Kosma, revealing music as a major point of difference between the French and American cinemas.

By the time the film was over I’d made a series of mental lists of the movies I wanted to see again; the directors I’d neglected (notably Claude Sautet); and the obscure masterpieces that needed to be tracked down. Last on my agenda was: “Improve your French!”, as so many important features, such as the bulk of Jacques Becker’s oeuvre, are not available with subtitles.

Another film shaping up as a major drawcard is Stéphanie di Giusto’s The Dancer, a bio-pic of Loïe Fuller, whose “serpentine” dance was one of the sensations of the fin-de-siecle. The lead role is played by French singer, Soko, who also stars in another Festival film, The Stopover.

Looking at photos of Loïe Fuller, who was born in America but found her spiritual home in France, she and Soko look remarkably similar. We get a strong sense of how difficult and physically debilitating Fuller’s dance must have been, with her heavy robes manipulated by bamboo poles, under harsh, coloured lights.

The resemblance to reality falls away in a plot that romanticises Fuller’s life, and speculates about her sexuality in a way that can only be fanciful. The crux of the story concerns her relationship with a younger dancer, Isadora Duncan, who began a protégé of Fuller’s, but would take the medium of dance into a different, entirely free dimension. Lily-Rose Depp plays the arrogant, seductive Isadora, in a way that leaves one looking forward to a sequel. La Danseuse 2?

Depp returns in Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium, starring alongside Natalie Portman. It’s the story of two American sisters who perform a spiritualist act in 1930s Paris. I wish I could tell you more, but won’t be seeing the movie until later this week.

Among the other films expected to attract crowds there is Jérome Salle’s The Odyssey, a bio pic of famous marine explorer, Jacques Cousteau; and Saint Amour, a comical father-and-son road movie featuring Gérard Depardieu, looking as huge as ever; and the versatile Benoit Poelvoorde, who played God in last year’s Festival.

The perennial taste for 19th century drama will be fulfilled by A Woman’s Life, based on Guy de Maupassant’s novel, Une Vie. It’s got to be an improvement on the 2012 adpatation of Bel Ami, that starred the talentless Robert Pattinson in the lead role.

I can give a qualified recommendation to Daguerrotype, a slow-paced horror flick that never achieves much suspense. Instead, director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, holidaying in the French language, is content to pile up philosophical musings about the nature of photography and mortality. One for the university crowd rather than gore fiends.

Finally, the Luis Bunuel Award for sustained cinematic weirdness goes to Bruno Dumont for Slack Bay, a surreal black comedy set on the coastline of Normandy during the Belle Époque. It’s quite a spectacle to see actors such as Fabrice Luchini, Juliette Binoche and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi camping it up so outrageously. “Sublime!” screams the in-bred bourgeoisie when confronted with a view of the ocean. “Bizarre!” shouts the audience.

 

28th Alliance Française French Film Festival
Sydney 8-30 Mar; Melbourne 8-30 Mar; Canberra 9 Mar – 4 Apr; Perth 15 Mar -5 Apr; Brisbane 16 March – 9 April;  Adelaide 30 Mar – 23 Apr; Hobart 30 Mar – 8 Apr; Parramatta 6-9 April; Casula 8-9 Apr

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11th March, 2017.