Tuesday 10 March 2020

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2020 - Tom Ryan digs deep into the mammoth program

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Boasting 48 new films and one “classic”, this year’s French Film Festival gets under way around Australia this week. https://www.affrenchfilmfestival.org/films

Some of the program is unavailable for preview, largely because of distributors’ concerns about too much marketing happening too far ahead of their films’ wider release. As a result, prospective attendees have to rely on the festival’s program notes to guide their choices. Reviewers only have access to a limited sampling, and time constraints would make it difficult to cover the whole festival anyway were all of the films available for preview.

What follows is commentary on what I’ve been able to see so far: half a dozen recent films, many of which have managed to whet the appetite for a lot more. Peter Hourigan has already covered the “classic”, Jacques Demy’s lovely Peau d'Ane/Donkey Skin (1970), for Film Alert, and I’ve previously written about Nicolas Bedos’s hugely enjoyable La belle époque 


Le chant du loupThe Wolf’s Call (Antonin Baudry, 2019)
Former French cultural ambassador Antonin Baudry’s directorial debut is already available on Netflix, although it’s worth seeing on the big screen. A suspenseful submarine thriller, it’s something of a Gallic cross between Fail Safe (1964) and The Bedford Incident (1965), updating their Cold War nuclear-threat scenarios to the present day. The title draws on submarine slang for the alert that sounds to warn of a predatory presence.

The Wolf’s Call is smartly plotted, aside from a clumsily inserted romantic dalliance for its protagonist, and full of surprise twists. Made for 20 million euros, it begins with a mysterious incident off the coast of Syria and ends with an unexpected underwater showdown. Along the way, global tensions simmer after a Russian incursion into the north of Finland and a confrontation unfolds between France and forces bent on undermining its security.

Everything pivots on the introspective Chanteraide (Francois Civil), also known as “Socks”, an Acoustic Warfare Analyst whose job is to sit at the submarine’s radar equipment and interpret the sonar information it provides. He’s also known as “Golden Ears” for his aural skills, and a recurrent motif in the film has him listening through headphones and in close-up to the sounds coming from all around the craft, struggling to make sense of them. Two other key players in the action to follow are alongside him in the opening sequence, Grandchamp (Reda Kateb), the captain, D’Orsi (Omar Sy), a fellow crew member. 

Occasionally the dialogue might be a bit obscure for newcomers (like me) to underwater naval palaver, but it doesn’t matter. In fact, it does for specialised submarine lingo what TV’s Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) did for police talk and St. Elsewhere(1982-1988) did for medical-speak in the 1980s, and West Wing (1999-2006) did for political jargon a decade or so later. 

Further note: With illustrator Christophe Blain, writer-director Baudry (under the pseudonym Abel Lanzac) also wrote the comic book, Quai d’Orsay, which Bertrand Tavernier adapted to the screen with considerable comic verve in 2013, from a screenplay he wrote with Baudry and Blain.

Deux moiSomeone, Somewhere (Cedric Klapisch, 2018)
Also starring Francois Civil, Cedric Klapisch’s winning romantic comedy, co-written with his regular collaborator, Santiago Amigorena, is about the way social situations can draw us together, or leave us oblivious to each other. The film opens with a series of shots of people in motion – on trains, in the street, in shopping centres – in the process singling out two of them for our attention, withdrawn Remy (Civil) and insecure Melanie (Ana Giradot). They live alongside each other, more or less, although they’ve never met. Their apartments are side by side, but they live in separate buildings. They pass in the street without noticing each other and they go in separate doorways. Several Rear Window-style shots of the two buildings serve as reminders that there are many others like them, individuals whose lives could intersect but might not.

The chief question, plot-wise, is whether or not they’ll ever meet. It’s a classic illustration of the principle of delayed gratification, or perhaps denied gratification. You have to wait until the end to find out which. Remy and Melanie sit alongside each other in the subway on their way to their respective work-places, but they show no awareness of each other’s existence. Through an air vent, he hears the song she’s been playing while in the bath, shazams it and then plays it himself. She notices, but shrugs the incident off as a coincidence.

They both visit psychotherapists – his is played by the wonderful Francois Berleand, hers by Camille Cottin (who’s also in Le Mystere Henri Pick) – but in different offices. So there’s no waiting-room scene where each might notice the other. It’s revealed late in the film that the two psychotherapists know each other professionally and are friends. Remy and Melanie do, however, cross paths at the local grocery, the owner (Simon Abrakian) a very gregarious type who loves to make recommendations to his customers. And they love him for doing it. But the might-be lovers still don’t notice each other. 

Klapisch’s films follow in the tradition of the great Eric Rohmer, and the gorgeous thing about his work – from films such as Chacun cherche son chatWhen the Cat’s Away in 1996 through the trilogy launched by L’auberge espagnoleThe Spanish Apartment (2002-2005-2013) to his latest – is the way in which they embrace alltheir characters. Like the grocer. Like the psychotherapists. 

Deux moi is a film about the art of reaching out (two words that have fallen into disrepute of late because of the way that they’ve been abused). And its wonderful conclusion is a gentle reminder that everywhereis where people cross paths, including online, and have the chance to discover each other. If they remain open to the possibility.

Le mystere Henri PickThe Mystery of Henri Pick(Remi Bezancon, 2018)
Jean-Michel (Fabrice Luchini, my favourite contemporary French actor) is a TV book-show host, literate and smart, but also smug and condescending. And, it’s hinted, professionally thwarted. When an impressive manuscript entitled “Last Hours of a Love Story”, apparently written by a country butcher, finds its way from the Library of Rejected Books in the village of Crozon to his desk in the Paris television studio where he works, he’s intrigued but believes it’s a hoax. And, with the alleged author’s widow (Josiane Stoleru) and daughter, Josephine (Camille Cottin), as guests on the show, along with Alice (Daphne Despero), the young woman who’s planning to publish the book, he publicly goes into “J’accuse” mode. To everyone’s horror. As a result, he’s sacked by the network and treated as a pariah. Then his wife (Florence Muller), inspired by the book, leaves him.

After Marianne (Fanny Ardant) locks the cantankerous Victor (Daniel Auteuil) out of their apartment in La belle epoque, the rejected husband looks to rediscover the spark of their relationship by finding a way to relive the time when they first met. Jean-Michel, however, heads off in another direction. Becoming a man with a mission – “I’m going to prove he didn’t write that book at all,” he says – he finds a new lease of life. He heads off to Crozon, in picturesque Brittany, in search of evidence to support his suspicions. 

He visits the library, the pizza shop where the late Henri Pick allegedly wrote his novel (based on the last days of Alexander Pushkin), the bookshop founder’s ex-wife, Ludmila (Hanna Schygulla) – aha! a Russian connection! – and others, with Josephine tagging along to monitor proceedings.

Written and directed by Remi Bezancon, Le mystere Henri Pick is a detective story with a difference. While Jean-Michel tries to fit together all the pieces of the puzzle, Josephine takes a sceptical view of his findings. There’s even some debate between them about who should properly be seen as the Sherlock of the duo. And the film is effectively a whodunit: if Monsieur Pick didn’t write the book, who did? And, if it was someone else, why wouldn’t he or she want to claim authorship?

However, the further the pair’s investigation goes, the less interesting it becomes. Luchini and Cottin are certainly fun to watch, but they’re an unlikely romantic couple – despite the suggestion that maybe…. just maybe – and the solution, when it finally arrives, is a letdown. 

Edmond (Alexis Michalik, 2019)
The feature debut for 37-year-old actor Alexis Michalik (who plays a dashing Georges Feydeau in it, and also appears in The Wolf’s Call) tells a fanciful tale about how Cyrano de Bergerac, probably the most famous of all French plays, came to be. In the process, it also offers a brief snapshot of the play’s author, Edmond Rostand (Thomas Soliveres), and the theatre life of Paris at the end of the 19th century. 

With the spirit of the vastly superior Shakespeare in Love (1998) lurking somewhere in the background, it tracks Cyrano’s genesis back to Rostand’s money problems and his attempts to dispel his reputation as “a young poet who writes flops”. His commitment to compose in verse rather than use naturalistic speech is introduced via a hammy Sarah Bernhardt (Clementine Celerie), performing in his earlier play, The Distant Princess. But it’s her enthusiasm for his work that leads to an introduction to the famous Constant Coquelin (Olivier Gourmey) whom he somehow persuades to play the lead in his next work. 

The major problem is that he hasn’t written it yet and he doesn’t really have any idea what it might be like, aside from being written in verse. Cue his handsome actor friend, Leo (Tom Leeb), who’s trying without much success to woo costume designer Jeanne (Lucie Boujenah). As it happens, she’s an enthusiastic admirer of Rostand’s work, although circumstances conspire to have him introduced to her by another name.

You guessed it: the eloquent Edmond agrees to help the less verbally-gifted Leo get the job done and the ideas start to flow for the play that is to become Cyrano. There are some complications, however. Although Edmond doesn’t have a very big nose, he does have a supportive wife (Alice de  Lencquesaing), who comes across his romantic scribblings and mistakenly believes he’s having an affair. For his part, he’s a bit of a nebbish, forever stressed, saved from total dullness only by flashes of inspiration.

Based on Michalik’s own 2017 play, largely shot in Prague and featuring a succession of dizzying camera moves, Edmond works hard to evoke the thrill of putting on a show and getting it right. But it suffers badly by comparison with the witty and stylish Shakespeare in Love (and, indeed La belle époque).

Le regard de CharlesAznavour by Charles(Marc di Domenico, 2019)
“Yes, you saw me, but you may not know that I saw you too.” So says Charles Aznavour (voiced by Romain Duris) near the beginning of Marc di Domenico’s intriguing documentary. And it turns out that the famous French-Armenian singer-songwriter who was born Shahnour Vaghinag Aznavourian, became known as “France’s Frank Sinatra”, and appeared on screen in dozens of films, including Georges Franju’s La tete contre le murHead Against the Wall (1959), Francois Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianisteShoot the Pianist (1960), and Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (2002), had kept a film diary of his adult life. 

In 2018, a few months before he died at the age of 94, Aznavour invited di Domenico into his attic to search through the thousands of feet of film that he’d shot over the years. Le regard de Charles is the result, a generally impressionistic but roughly chronological account of his life – his globetrotting, his marriages, his concert performances, his political activism, and the films he made – with Duris’ voice-over simulating the staccato rhythms of Aznavour’s speaking style. Some of what he has to say would be at home on a Hallmark card and a sizeable proportion of the footage was obviously shot by others, including some choice archival coverage of Aznavour playing jazz piano in a nightclub. Crucially, there’s no sign of any critical distance between the filmmaker and his subject, but the film provides a fascinating if very selective access to his preoccupations.

Adieu a la nuitFarewell to the Night (Andre Techine, 2019)
The troubles afflicting the young have been a regular feature in the work of veteran writer-director Andre Techine. From Les Innocents (1987) through Les rosaux sauvagesWild Reeds (1994) to Quand on a 17 ansBeing 17 (2016), his films have evocatively and sympathetically explored the circumstances of youthful characters who are driven by motives which they barely comprehend. Adieu a la nuit is no exception. 

In Techine’s 26th film, the focus is on the troubled Alex (Kasey Mottet Klein, who also played the lead in Being 17), although the protagonist is the young man’s grandmother, Muriel (Catherine Deneuve, in her eighth film with Techine). Alex who, having been radicalized by his girlfriend, Lila (Oulaya Amamra), is bent on joining ISIS, has come to visit Muriel at her country property in the south of France, near the Spanish border, where she runs a riding school and farms cherries. 

When he arrives, it’s the first day of spring in 2015. The setting is idyllic, the cherry trees are in beautiful bloom, although there are signs that something is amiss. In the opening sequence, Muriel is discussing with her business manager, Youssef (Mohamed Djourhi), how best to deal with the nightly raids on her property by a wild boar. It’s not yet hunting season and, since she’s a woman who lives by the rules, lying in wait and shooting the intruder isn’t an option. Perhaps they should put up a fence to block its passage, Youssef suggests. Suddenly darkness intrudes on their exchange: a solar eclipse draws their conversation to an end, although its metaphorical implications pervade the film.

Alex and Lila have told her that they’re on their way to Canada, although they’re actually headed to Syria via Barcelona and Turkey. What they need is the money to finance their trip. Lila is doing odd jobs in the neighbourhood, including helping out on the farm, but Alex seems believe that, in order to become a hero for the cause, he needs to be “above human morality”. In practical terms, that seems to mean that he believes that he doesn’t need to work. And that he’s justified in stealing money from Muriel.

Muriel is no fool. She doesn’t understand how Lila and Alex have been able to manage their relationship when they’ve only been able to communicate online. In my day, she says… And she senses something is amiss, especially in Alex’s offhanded treatment of her. But when Youssef discovers that Alex has stolen from her, she’s prepared to shrug the matter off. Until she learns the real reason for her grandson’s visit.

He’s not entirely without a conscience. He does display affection for his grandmother, but he’s easily led, not only by Lila who assures him that he’s done the right thing by taking his grandmother’s money – “She’s an infidel, so it’s OK” – but also by the local jihadis. Sullen, withdrawn and deeply resentful of the hand life has dealt him, Alex seems like a lost cause. And when Muriel finally realizes what she’s dealing with, she’s faced with a choice.

The material seems made for melodrama, but Techine’s approach – working with a screenplay co-written by Amer Aiwan and Lea Mysius – is, at least superficially, quiet and measured. It’s fairly clear that he wants the film to be about personality rather than politics. The problem is that it can’t be. The issues he’s dealing with here don’t exist in a vacuum and can’t be dramatized in one. 

The heavy-handed cross-cutting between joyous lunchtime festivities at Muriel’s farm and a sombre gathering of local Muslims illustrates the way in which little room is left for doubt about where our sympathies are meant to lie. It’s perfectly reasonable that the film should insist on our empathy for Muriel’s law-abiding approach to life: she’s a generous human being confronted by a situation that challenges her at the core of her existence. But the film would have benefited enormously from a more nuanced view of the young radicals, one that saw them as something more than caricatured rebels without a cause.

Despite Deneuve’s compelling performance, Adieu a la nuit is a major disappointment from a major director.

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