Tuesday, October 25, 2011

French Cinema Now 2011

Showcasing a mix of auteur blockbusters and auspicious upstarters – including three North American premieres – the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now (FCN) launches its fourth annual edition on Thursday, October 27. The majority of this year's 11 films were nowhere on my radar, an exciting prospect given that past FCN treasures like Stella, The Wolberg Family and Love Like Poison were similarly unknown entities.

By my estimation, most of this year's FCN selections won't return to the Bay Area or see a Region 1 DVD release – rendering the week-long festival even more of an imperative for local Francophilic cinemaniacs. Note that all but Opening Night takes place at the SF Film Society/New People Cinema, a smaller venue than those employed in past years. This might result in sell-outs, so advance tickets are duly advised. I'm also happy to report that while festivals increasingly lean towards digital exhibition, eight of this year's FCN entries will be screened in 35mm (see the Film on Film Foundation calendar for specifics). What follows are observations and gleaned tidbits on this year's films, from someone who has yet to see any of them.

The two standout FCN titles are undoubtedly Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo) and Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre. Both were in competition at Cannes, with the Dardennes brothers taking a second-place Grand Prix (and thereby losing an unprecedented third Palme d'or to The Tree of Life). Compared to 2008's somewhat disappointing Lorna's Silence, reviews for The Kid with a Bike have been stellar. It's the first time the Belgian neo-realists have employed a bona fide movie star (Cécile de France) and it's their fourth outing with actor Jérémie Renier, who began his career 15 years ago with the Dardenne's La Promesse. Perhaps an equally bright future awaits newcomer Thomas Doret, who's said to give an astounding performance as a boy coming to terms with his deadbeat father's rejection. The Kid with a Bike has distribution through IFC, so I'd expect it to be in local theaters soon.

A different kid is at the center of Finnish director Kaurismaki's Le Havre. He's an illegal African refugee who's being sheltered from police by sympathetic working-class denizens in the titular port city. Le Havre is said to represent a kinder, gentler Kaurismaki, almost fairytale-like in its shortage of trademarked deadpan glumness. Though entirely in French, the film is Finland's 2011 Oscar® submission and Kaurismaki has promised to attend the ceremony should it land him a Best Foreign Language Film nomination. The director famously withdrew 2006's Lights in the Dusk (the only Kaurismaki film I've really liked) from Oscar® consideration, due to his opposition to the Iraq War. Le Havre is scheduled to open in Bay Area Landmark Theaters on November 11 and is being distributed by iconic Janus Films. Nice to know they're still around. Keep your eyes peeled for a cameo by Jean-Pierre Léaud.

A third high-profile film at FCN is Mia Hansen-Løve's Goodbye First Love. I wasn't taken with Hansen-Løve's 2007
All is Forgiven, but I sure came around after seeing the exceptional Father of My Children at this year's SF International Film Festival (SFIFF). Goodbye First Love had its international premiere this summer at Locarno, garnering rave reviews and a Special Mention from the jury. Repeating the bifurcated structure of Father of My Children, the film details the obsession of a girl's first love and the repercussions it causes later in life. Actress Lola Créton (the sister who went to live with Catherine Breillat's Blue Beard) plays the lead character at ages 15 and 24. Goodbye First Love is being distributed by IFC Sundance Selects, which guarantees it a VOD and DVD release, but not necessarily a local theatrical run.

Amongst the remaining FCN films, I'm most excited about The Long Falling (Où va la nuit), the latest collaboration between director Martin Provost and actress Yolande Moreau. Their last partnership was Séraphine, the portrait of a naïve 20th century artist which resulted in seven César Awards including Best Picture and Best Actress. Here Moreau plays a farmwife who murders her brutish husband. She flees first to the Brussels apartment of her estranged gay son and then to a boarding house run by a sympathetic widow (Edith Scob) – at which point this understated, noir-ish thriller is intriguingly said to take on Thelma and Louise overtones. Provost adapted the story from Keith Ridgway's best-selling novel and cinematography is by the incomparable Agnès Godard. Reviews are great.

Another one loved by critics is Angèle and Tony (Angèle et Toni), which premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival and won Best Debut Film at Deauville for its writer/director Alix Delaport. Friends who caught it at this summer's Sacramento French Film Festival also came back raving. Clothilde Hesme (Mysteries of Lisbon, Regular Lovers) plays an attractive, resolute single mother with a past who hooks up with a coarse Normandy fisherman (Comédie Française actor Grégory Gadebois.) In Variety, Boyd Van Hoeij describes the film as "a work of subtle intimacy about the need for a human connection, with the bulk of heavy lifting done by pitch-perfect, wholly naturalistic performances."

One of my favorite contemporary French actors is Emmanuelle Devos, so it's nice to see her represented twice at FCN. First up is Opening Night film Bachelor Days are Over (Pourquoi tu pleures?), a comedy of manners in which a groom-to-be encounters untold doubts and roadblocks en route to the "happy" day. The film closed out Cannes' Critics Week sidebar and is a first directorial effort by actress Katia Lewcowicz. Singer/songwriter/producer Benjamin Biolay stars (last seen at FCN as the father in Stella), with support from Devos as his prickly sister and Valérie Donzelli as the fiancé. Donzelli, incidentally, directs and stars in France's 2011 Oscar® submission, Declaration of War, which would have been a swell addition to this year's FCN line-up.

Devos turns up again in Delphine Gleize's The Moon Child (La permission de minuit). It stars Vincent Lindon (Mademoiselle Chambon, Welcome) as the life-long doctor of a boy who's unable to endure sunlight. Conflict arises when the doctor leaves for a position in Geneva working for W.H.O. and Devos arrives as his replacement. There's virtually nothing about this film to be found on-line, at least in English. I notice that Gleize also directed 2002's Carnage, a highly stylized film about the aftermath of a bullfight. While I had reservations about that one, the combination of Lindon and Devos makes The Moon Child a priority.

Another actor I never tire of seeing is Olivier Gourmet. He plays a small role in The Kid with a Bike (his sixth Dardenne brothers' film) and also stars in Pierre Schoeller's The Minister (L'exercice de l'état), which won the FIPRESCI prize in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar. In this film we'll see Gourmet in an atypical white-collar role, playing a conflicted Minister of Transportation who's given the task of implementing privatization of the French railway system. The Minister is said to be a detached, yet absorbing observation of the behind-the-scenes machinations of French politicos. The always welcome Michel Blanc plays his secretary. Schoeller's last film was the Guillaume Depardieu-starring Versailles, which played the SFIFF in 2009.

The phenomenon of actors becoming film directors seems more prevalent in France than in any other national cinema. This year's SFIFF closed with Mathieu Amalric's On Tour and now FCN brings us his latest work, The Screen Illusion (L'illusion comique). This reworking of Pierre Corneille's 17th century play is the third in a series of TV films commissioned by the Comédie Française and chosen from their repertoire. In his rave review for Variety, Jay Weissberg reveals that three rules were imposed on the director. "No additional words, use only thesps who've played the parts onstage, and film in locations away from the theater in no more than 12 days." (That sounds like four rules, but never mind). Having found Amalric's largely improvised On Tour a bit ragged and only occasionally inspired, I think a set of rules could serve him well. His script retains the original's Alexandrine couplets (mercifully not made to rhyme in the English subtitles), while relocating the story to Paris' 5-star Hôtel du Louvre. And though the cast might be well known to French theater-goers, I failed to recognize a single name.

Finally, two very different films in this year's FCN have received almost unvaryingly bad reviews. Their common factor is that each stars one of my favorite French-Arab actors, namely Sami Bouajila and Roschdy Zem. Bouajila finds himself being romantically pursued by a mother and daughter (Nathalie Baye and Audrey Tautou) in Pierre Salvadori's shrill-sounding farce, Beautiful Lies (De vrai mensonges). Salvadori also wrote and directed 2003's painful Après vous (the film which convinced me Daniel Auteuil is French cinema's biggest jambon.) Writing in Variety, Jordan Mintzer complains about "the script's vaudeville-like scenarios" and how the film's "long-winded assembly of quid pro quos and borderline sexist banter goes only to the most predictable places." He does, however, have praise for Bouajila, "the film's one redeeming character," so I might want to check this one out after all.

As for Roschdy Zem, he plays one-quarter of an upper-class bohemian wife-swapping quartet in Anthony Cordier's Four Lovers (Aimez qui vous voulez). Originally titled Happy Few when it premiered at last year's Venice Film Festival, it co-stars Marina Foïs, Élodie Bouchez (Wild Reeds, The Imperialists are Still Alive!) and Nicolas Duvauchelle (Isabelle Huppert's crazy son in White Material). SBS Film's Simon Foster declares it "the sort of film that people who never watch French films think all French films are like." And over at Variety, Boyd Van Hoeij finds Four Lovers "essentially an exercise in bourgeois navel (and further downwards) gazing that doesn't add anything new to the genre. Lovers of middlebrow French relationship dramas and subtitled smut might be happy." On the plus side, he notes how the film "neatly showcases the thesps' no-problemo attitude towards nudity," with only Zem forgoing going full frontal. As a connoisseur of subtitled smut, I wouldn't dream of missing this.

Cross published on The Evening Class.


Michael Guillen said...

I don't know how a fledgling Francophile could ever find their way through the woods without your stellar guidance, Michael. Your awareness of how movies traffic and their place within the context of continuing production and exhibition is truly impressive. I hope you have a wonderful time at this year's FCN.

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks for the kind words, Michael. I sure am looking forward to this weekend's French film immersion.

Frako said...

Thanks, Michael! I'm sure I'll see you at one of the three films I'm seeing.