Alliance Française French Film Festival 2018

February 23, 2018
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Every year at the opening of the Alliance Française French Film Festival we gasp with excitement at the news that this is the biggest festival of French films in the world, outside of France. Unless we think of Cannes as a “French Film Festival” this probably means it’s the biggest in the world.

Australia’s love affair with French cinema is unstoppable, with attendances growing from one year to the next. The 29th Festival includes 50 films, of which I’ve seen a mere handful, so this column will be both preview and review. I’ve yet to view big-ticket items such as BPM (Beats Per Minute), the acclaimed film about the breaking of the AIDs epidemic in France, or François Ozon’s new movie, Double Lover, which is due for a local release in late April.

Another irresistible prospect is Michel Hazanavicius’s Redoutable, where the director of The Artist, which blitzed the Oscars in 2011, turns his attention to Jean-Luc Godard, the doyen of French New Wave filmmakers. Anyone who has laboured through Godard’s late films will be hoping for a savage satire.

Three features that come with big raps are Ava, about a young woman losing her sight, who sets out embrace life while she can; The Workshop, which looks at the appeal of right-wing ideology to a younger generation; and Bloody Milk, an unlikely thriller about a farmer fighting to preserve his livelihood from Mad Cow Disease. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for bio pics of two famous, larger-than-life artists, Rodin and Gauguin.

Artistic director, Phillippe Platel, has concentrated on new release drama and comedy, conceding only two documentaries and two so-called “family films”. Vintage French cinema is missing altogether, which suggests we can expect a second installment of the Alliance Française Classic Film Festival later this year.

Platel has tried to round up all the movies that enjoyed success at the box office in France last year, and/or critical acclaim. This may sound like a winning strategy but is it too romantic to believe a director should choose his movies as a connoisseur rather than a marketeer? Although French audiences may be more discerning than their American counterparts, too many “popular” films tend to follow a tried-and-true formula.

This is the case with See You Up There, Albert Dupontel’s fast-moving comedy-drama about two friends who meet in the trenches of World War One and go on to hatch a scheme to sell fake war memorials. The film is a fairy tale, with flawed heroes and sharply defined villains. Dupontel himself plays the lead role of Albert, the ordinary man swept up by extraordinary events. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (who also stars in two other festival films) is Édouard, the creative genius with a badly disfigured face concealed behind an astonishing array of masks.

The movie is an entertainment that asks us to push the ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ buttons on cue, to boo the bad guys and cheer the goodies. For a lot of people that’s all they require from a night at the pictures, but ultimately such films are as insubstantial as fairy floss.

This bright but brittle ambience is a syndrome in contemporary French cinema. Over the past decade I’ve watched dozens of movies that are enjoyable but not at all memorable. This may be due to the professionalism and productivity of the French film industry which keeps churning out films that feel slightly underdone. One often feels that a feature would have benefited from a bit more work on the script or a longer shooting time.

Stories tend to become mere vignettes, or character studies sustained by the personality of a great actor. Jealous, for instance, is a comedy that hangs entirely on the performance of Karin Viard in the role of Nathalie, a woman who sees middle age as a catastrophe, taking out her frustrations on friends and relations. David and Stéphane Foenkinos’s film is mildly funny when Nathalie is being a bitch, but sags when matters turn serious.

In Rock and Roll, director Guillaume Canet plays himself, or rather a caricature of himself, in another chronicle of a mid-life crisis. As Canet is married to Marion Cotillard, we also get to sample the woes of a mid-career actor whose wife is much more famous and successful than him. What starts as a Woody Allenesque tale of neurotic self-abasement becomes gradually more absurd, as Canet goes in search of a new, youthful image. It’s a study in narcissism that will strike a chord with all aging actors who long to play the romantic lead but end up as Dad.

Mrs. Hyde is a vehicle for the unstoppable Isabelle Huppert, who plays Mme Géquil, a colourless science teacher in a dysfunctional school, transformed into a “woman of fire” by an experiment gone wrong. It’s a film that can’t decide whether it wants to be cuddly or cruel, funny or critical. There may even be a moral to the story, but I’m not sure what it was. It’s a perfect example of a production that seems to have hurried to the finish line without answering a few basic questions.

Of all the Festival movies I’ve seen so far, the most polished is The Return of the Hero, a two-hander for Melanie Laurent and Jean Dujardin about a cowardly captain in Napoleon’s army, who – by a train of circumstances – is embraced by the bourgeoisie of a provincial town as a great man. The dialogue is very sharp indeed, as the fraudulent Capitain teeters on the brink of exposure without ever falling into the soup.

One thing this Festival understands well is star power, which, after all, is the decisive factor in most viewers’ movie choices. One can’t underestimate the appeal of actors such as Marion Cotillard, isabelle Huppert, Juliet Binoche, Jean Dujardin and Omar Cy. When it comes to stars the French have an entire constellation.

Alliance Française French Film Festival 2018
27th Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Sydney 27 Feb-27 Mar; Melbourne 28 Feb-27 Mar; Canberra 1-28 Mar; Brisbane 8 Mar–4 Apr; Perth 14 Mar–4 Apr; Adelaide 22 Mar–15 Apr; Hobart 15–24 Mar; Parramatta 5-8 Apr; Casula 5-8 Apr.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 24 February, 2018