Monday, October 25, 2010

French Cinema Now 2010

For as long as I've lived here (35 years come December), the Bay Area has been a swell place to be a French film fanatic. Nearly all French titles with U.S. theatrical distribution get released here. We've got our big, French-heavy SF International Film Festival in the spring, and other fests like Frameline, Mill Valley, the Jewish and Arab Film Festivals fill in gaps during the rest of the year. And yet, with a national cinema as prodigious as France, plenty of good stuff goes unseen.

To that end, French Cinema Now (FCN) was born two years ago. Presented by the San Francisco Film Society as part of its ambitious Fall Season, this mini-fest has become a vital supplement for local Francophiles. FCN2010 plays for one week at Landmark Theaters' Embarcadero Center Cinema from Thursday, October 28 to Wednesday, November 3. It's a smaller line-up than last year – 10 films instead of 12 – but with the same 19 screening slots. The tantalizing roster consists of eight new narrative features and two documentaries. While seven of the films were already on my radar, I have especially high hopes for three that were not. That's because my two favorite FCN films from last year,
The Wolberg Family and Stella, were complete unknowns. Here's a closer look at what's in store.

Copacabana (dir. Marc Fitousi)
Heading into FCN, I had a wish list of two dozen as-yet-unseen French films from 2009 and 2010. So it was very cool when my top choice not only appeared in the line-up, but was selected for opening night. This dramedy from director Marc Fitousi – his second feature – had its world premiere as a Cannes 2010 Special Screening. It earned solid reviews, but even if they'd been scathing I could never resist seeing Isabelle Huppert as a Brazil-obsessed bohemian Mom who starts selling vacation time-shares to impress her conservative daughter. Huppert's real-life daughter, Lolita Chammah, co-stars as the young woman too embarrassed to invite wild maman to her wedding. (Chammah made her 1988 screen debut as one of Huppert's children in Chabrol's Story of Women). Also in the cast is Jurgen Delnaet, who made an impression as the trucker boyfriend in 2008's Moscow, Belgium. Copacabana is set in the Belgian seaside town of Ostend. Bonus points are given because I totally dig films that take place in off-season beach resorts. Director Fitousi will be in town to attend both screenings. (Trailer)

Certified Copy (Copie conforme) (dir. Abass Kiarostami)
FCN's closing night will feature back-to-back screenings of the festival's highest profile film. It's the latest work from an Iranian master, for which Juliette Binoche won the best actress prize at this year's Cannes. After a decade of quasi-experimental works (of which I've only seen 2002's Ten), this is alleged to be the cerebral Kiarostami's most accessible film yet and also his first made in "the West." Still, I somehow doubt that will translate as a mindless night at the movies. Binoche stars as "She," a French antique store owner who connects with a British author (played by opera singer and first time actor William Shimell). His latest work is a treatise on the nature of copies and originals. He and She hit the road, philosophizing along the way, until they reach a tavern where they're mistaken as a married couple. They play along, inhabiting the roles so well that the viewer wonders if it's all really pretend. Sounds like classic Kiarostami, yanking our chain and operating on a dizzying number of levels. This is a director I've both loved (Close-Up, The Wind Will Carry Us) and loathed (the Palm d'or winning Taste of Cherry) and I can't wait to find out which this will be. For what it's worth, Certified Copy has U.S. distribution through IFC Films, but it doesn't appear anywhere on Landmark Theaters' 2010 release schedule. (Trailer)

Rapt (dir. Lucas Belvaux)
After Copacabana, this is the film I'm anticipating most. Actor/director Belvaux made a big noise in 2002 with The Trilogy, three films with the same cast and an interconnecting story line, but made in different genres. While his 2006 Cannes competition film The Right of the Weakest got a lukewarm reception (and consequently never made it to the Bay Area), it's nearly impossible to find a discouraging word about this latest work. Rapt is a social thriller about the kidnapping of a corporate CEO. When the abductors demand a €50 million ransom, his family and employer dig up lots of scandalous info about him, resulting in a decision not to pay up. Belvaux' story is based on the true 1978 kidnapping of playboy Edouard-Jean Empain. It's been given a contemporary setting with fictionalized characters, but is said to be very faithful to original events. Word is that fellow actor/director Yvan Attal is riveting in the lead role and it's always a pleasure to see Anne Consigny, who plays the wife. Best of all, Belvaux himself will be here for the festival. (Trailer)

The Princess of Montpensier (La Princesse de Montpensier) (dir. Bertrand Tavernier)
Wildly eclectic director Bertrand Tavernier (Let Joy Reign Supreme) is no stranger to historic costume dramas, a genre to which he's returned after last year's maligned, Tommy Lee Jones-starring detective drama In the Electric Mist. Set during the religious wars of 16th century France, the film stars the gorgeous Mélanie Thierry as a marquis' daughter who's married off to the son of a duke, despite feelings she has for a roguish cousin. When her husband is called to war, she's put in the care of her husband's tutor, who proceeds to fall in love with her. Princess screened in competition at this year's Cannes and reviews were all over the place. Some complained that Tavernier added nothing new or interesting to the genre, and Thierry's performance came in for particular drubbing. Variety's Leslie Felperin, however, felt "this visitation to 16th century France has both beauty and brains and offers a portrait of renaissance life leagues more accurate than the most historical epics." She also found Tavernier's direction "as elegantly fluid as his best work." For me, the presence of three favorite actors – Grégoire Leprince Ringuet (the husband), Gaspard Ulliel (the cousin) and Lambert Wilson (the tutor) – elevates it to a must-see. Like Certified Copy, the film has distribution through IFC but isn't on Landmark's 2010 schedule. (Trailer)

Sisters (Gamines) (dir. Éléonore Faucher)
Three young siblings obsess over their mysteriously absent father in this adaptation of actress Sylvie Testud's semi-autobiographical novel. Testud's alter-ego in the story is mischievous middle child Sibylle, the only one in this family of Italian immigrants who's blonde like her father (Testud appears in the film as the adult Sibylle). Amira Casar, perhaps best known for her lead role in Catherine Breillat's provocative Anatomy of Hell, plays the ambitious single mother who's determined to shield her daughters from their missing father. Writing in Variety, Jordan Mintzer called Sisters "a touching and tender portrait" and "bittersweet, dreamlike vision that never panders to cuteness or sentimentality as it reveals the hardships, both past and present, of being raised in a single-parent household." Director Faucher, whose very fine film Sequins screened at the 2005 SF International Film Festival, will make a personal appearance at FCN2010. (Trailer)

A Real Life (Au voleur) (dir. Sarah Leonor)
Actor Guillaume Dépardieu, the ruggedly handsome son of Gérard, died in 2008 after contracting viral pneumonia on a Romanian film set. Last year the SF Film Society brought us Versailles and Stella, two works he'd completed before his death at age 37, and now they've programmed his final film into FCN2010. In A Real Life, the actor plays a small town petty thief who encounters a mousy schoolteacher after she's been hit by a car. The pair later reconnects, and a scrape with the law sends them fleeing into the forest together. It's classic tale of love on the run that's a stylized mix of road movie and romantic drama. The film also features actor/director Jacques Nolot (Porn Theater, Before I Forget) in a supporting role as a fellow lowlife. Director Leonor is expected to be in town for the screenings. (Trailer)

Hidden Diary (Mères et filles) (dir. Julie Lopes-Curval)
A trio of powerhouse actresses portray three generations of women in this familial drama about how "past secrets irrevocably impact present relationships." A pregnant, successful industrial designer (Marina Hands) who lives in Canada returns to France for a family visit. After a nasty fallout with her emotionally distant, physician mother (Catherine Deneuve), she seeks refuge in the house of her recently deceased grandfather. There she discovers a recipe-filled diary belonging to her grandmother (Marie-Josée Croze in extended flashbacks), a woman who fled family life rather than tolerate the constricting circumstances of 1950s housewife-dom. Variety's Ronnie Scheib praised the film's "dynamite cast, assured direction and intriguingly far-fetched premise." This is the third feature from director Lopes-Curval, who won Cannes' Camera d'or in 2002 with her debut film Seaside. (Trailer)

Love Like Poison (Un poison violent) (dir. Katell Quillévéré)
This debut feature about the eternal conflict of flesh vs. spirit garnered strong reviews when it screened in Director's Fortnight at Cannes this year. The film also netted its director the Prix Jean Vigo, a prize given annually to a promising young director. In a small Breton town, 14-year-old Anna prepares for her confirmation in the Catholic Church, while experiencing the stirrings of first love with a neighbor boy. Her religious and newly single mother seeks solace with the local priest, who is himself suffering a crisis of faith. Meanwhile, Anna helps care for an infirm grandfather who's not ready to let go of this world's sensual pleasures. Writing in Variety, Alissa Simon declares with film to be "beautifully written, extremely well played and sensually lensed." The French title comes from a 1967 Serge Gainsbourg song, "Un poison violent, ç'est ça l'amour" (a violent poison, that's how love is). (Trailer)

Irène (dir. Alain Cavalier)
The first of two documentaries in FCN2010 is by veteran director Cavalier, best known for 1986's Thérèse, a formalist vision of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Shot with a small digital camera, Irène is an intimate meditation on the director's relationship with Irène Tunc, his troubled actress wife who died in a 1972 car accident. The film debuted at Cannes 2009 in Un Certain Regard and reviews were not kind. In Variety, Rob Nelson admitted that while "personal documentaries are self-indulgent by definition," Cavalier's "bid to turn decades of grief into watchable cinema" results in an "arrogant endurance test." But at least one person on the SF Film Society programming team thought highly of it, so I suspect we should give it a chance. (Trailer)

Two in the Wave (Deux dans la vague) (dir. Emmanuel Laurent)
This is FCN's first year without a single revival screening on the roster. The next best thing, however, should be this documentary about the initial friendship and ultimate enmity between film critics turned directors François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. The film almost exclusively consists of vintage film clips, archival interviews and newsreel footage, with the only new material being actress Islid le Besco thumbing through old magazines and visiting Parisian locales apropos to the doc's subject matter. Reviews from Rotterdam and Berlin were mixed, with detractors calling the film "gossipy" and lacking analysis. Others felt it would have been better served with present-day interviews of Godard's and Truffaut's still-living contemporaries. I'm encouraged that Jean-Pierre Léaud, an actor who worked extensively with both directors, is said to be a major presence and that the film contains his original screen test for The 400 Blows (a film FCN screened last year to mark the 50th anniversary of the French New Wave). If nothing else, the bounty of clips will remind me of nouvelle vague films I really should see again. Strangely enough for a film about film, Two in the Wave will be the only FCN2010 entry to be shown digitally. (Trailer)

* * * * *

While FCN presents the opportunity to catch the very latest in
le cinéma français, it's also a last-chance saloon of sorts for the previous year's stragglers. If a French film did the international fest circuit in 2009 and didn't pop up in this year's French Cinema Now, the time has probably come to bid it adieu. It now seems likely the Bay Area will not see Isabelle Adjani's Cesar-winning performance in Skirt Day. Or Xavier Giannoli's Cannes competition film In the Beginning with Gérard Depardieu, Emmanuelle Devos and François Cluzet. Or the Yolande Moreau/Bouli Lanners anarchical comedy Louise-Michel. Interestingly, all three played this year's just-within-reach Sacramento French Film Festival. Too bad the damn thing takes place at the exact same time as Frameline. Other notable Bay Area M.I.A.s include Costa Gavras' acclaimed immigration fable Eden is West, Tony Gatlif's Korkoro (a film about Nazi persecution of gypsies which won the top prize at the Montreal World Film Festival) and Tsai Ming-liang's Face, a French-Taiwanese co-production that could have fit handily into FCN or the Film Society's Taiwan Film Days. And last but not least, there's Soeur Sourire, a biopic about The Singing Nun ("Dominique") starring Cécile De France.

Cross-published on The Evening Class and Twitch.


Audrey Knox said...

Hi! I'm doing my senior project this year on the topic of French cinema. Do you know of any film festivals coming up in the spring?

Michael Hawley said...

Hi Audrey. For French cinema in the Bay Area this spring, your best bet is the SF International Film Festival (April 21 to May 5). There are usually between 15 to 20 French features in the line-up.

sbv said...

French documentarians are amassing some of the most thorough,illuminating,prolific bodies of work in this genre. I am particularly fond of Parisian Nathalie Mansoux's "Via de Acesso" who now lives and works out of Lisbon,Portugal.