Friday 12 March 2021

Filmic Postcard: Janice Tong reports from the 32nd Alliance Française French Film Festival 2021, (Part 1)

François Ozon

There was so much to love about the first film I had selected to see in this year’s festival. François Ozon’s Été 85/Summer of 85 (2020) reminded me so much of Rohmer’s films, especially Pauline on the Beach. The ambience, the sea and sand, the bright sun against grainy stock; in fact the light is so bright that it can only signal youth, summer in Normandy, and the chance meeting of new friends that leads, with certainty, to romance. 


For Alexis (Félix Lefebvre), this was the summer of his first love; which by nature is always unforgettable. He fell madly and jealously into a relationship with David (evocatively played by Benjamin Voisin): charmer, seducer, and polar opposite of Alexis. David exuded a kind of hypnotic sensuality where Alex was just experiencing his first bloom of desire. 


Ozon's Summer of 85 where the young lovers David
and Alex take in sun and summer.

The two lovers were not just having a fling, it was something more for Alex (and perhaps for David too); and we get to witness his brooding moodiness; and also his tolerance of new encounters, including agreeing to take on a summer job at David’s family shop. A funny scene at the start of the film where David’s slightly intrusive and overly familiar mother undressed him to take a bath (as you would when your son rescues a new friend after they’ve capsized), only exposes Alex’s naivety.

But there is no happily-ever-after for these young lovers. We were already forewarned of the impending tragedy when the story begins; with Alex telling us in a voice-over that he was obsessed about death, about a corpse that he has seen, no doubt his first, and that the corpse and their story, we were about to be introduced. This was his confession, his story. But was it?


The voice-over can be seen as a doubling between what is real, what is made up. The omnipotent narrator makes it impossible to ignore the fact that this could be a fabricated love story, like that of a dreamlover we invent - we see who and what we want to see; this was an observation made by Kate, a British nanny who came to Alex’s rescue after she came between the lovers, she was in fact the impetus for their breakup. 

Summer of 85 The Brit nanny Kate (Philippine Velge) and
Alex (Félix Lefebvre)

There is a beautiful quote from Verlaine in the film; from a letter he wrote to Rimbaud, recalling Ozon’s film Frantz (2016), where Verlaine’s Chansons d’Automne was quoted: “Je me souviens / Des jours anciens / Et je pleure; / Et je m’en vais / Au vent mauvais / Qui m’emporte / Deçà, delà, / Pareil à la / Feuille morte”; “I remember / the past / and I cry / And I go along with the ill wind  / which tosses me / here and there / like a dead leaf.” This sentiment also applies in this film, in fact, fittingly well.


There are many poignant moments in the film that recall the total absorption of first love. The unforgettable scene where Alex was dancing in a club - after David had placed the headphones of his Walkman on his ears, and we hear Rod Stewart’s Sailing  blasting out. Alex’s closed-eye dance in that crowded space was captivating and achingly painful too - how they were together, but apart at the same time. It really shows how music, a song in particular, can transport you back to another time, another place. 

Summer of 85. A poignant moment when David
evocatively played by Benjamin Voisin
puts his headset on Alex on the dance floor.

No wonder Ozon chose this song to accompany Alex’s final dance, on David’s grave. For me, it was The Cure’s In Between Days which brought me straight back to my teenage years, the sun, the beach, the boys, bikinis, sand stuck between toes and caught in the pages of books; I couldn’t help but bop up and down on my seat when the song was playing, and to my amusement, I saw that I was not alone: in the darkened theatre, many were doing the same.


Summer of 85 Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as David's mum is
hilarious. Here with Alex at the family store.

There are a number of good supporting roles, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi was extraordinary funny as David’s mum - probably had one of the best lines in the film. Isabelle Nanty makes an appearance as Alex’s mum, and surprisingly, she looked the same as she did in Amelie some twenty years ago, I recognised her immediately. Melvil Poupaud’s performance was a little lack lustre I thought. He plays Alex’s professor and mediator of his narration. Lastly newcomer Philippine Velge was cast perfectly as the Brit nanny and equipped with the perfect 80s outfit and hairdo. Perhaps this was another reason why I was reminded so much of Rohmer as I watched this film…


Jean-Paul Salomé

The second film I saw this year was Isabelle Huppert’s very entertaining film La daronne (2020), aka Mama Weed or The Godmother.  It had a fast-paced script, the film was funny and light, though not my usual genre, it was thoroughly enjoyable; if only to watch what an uncompromising and fearless figure as Isabelle on screen. 

I enjoyed reading the fictional version of Huppert in Yannick Hanel’s sublime novel Hold Fast Your Crown, shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt 2017 a couple of years ago and admired her ageless beauty more recently in Call My Agent!  She seemed to me to be a woman, who, like her contemporary, Juliette Binoche, to have been born fully formed: sensual, feminine, yet strong-willed and determined; intelligent and outspoken. 

The Godmother, Huppert as a police translator

The plot? This is a kind of rags to riches story. Well, almost. Patience Portefeux (Isabelle Huppert) is an Arabic-to-French-to-Arabic translator working with the police, (and sleeping with the Commander, mais bien sûr!), and has been recruited in a protracted assignment, transcribing two wiretapped small-fry Soda and Cocoa Puff’s many conversations. The team was almost ready to reap the fruits of their labour in a colossal drug bust. But, Patience has a buried past and her deep roots to her family meant that this past, or rather, her assumption of her lineage resurfaces into a sunnies-donning, stylish cross-Hajib-wearing ‘Mama Weed’ and outsmarting all the gangs and the police. 

She finds an unlikely accomplice in her building manager, Colette Fo (brilliant played by a sardonic Nadja Nguyen) who acts as though she is your best friend but able to wield the destruction worthy of the furies with a knowing look. Patience, as her surname indicates (Portefeux is a homonym to ‘portefeuille’ meaning ‘wallet’; and, ‘porte-à-faux’ meaning ‘in an awkward situation’) juggles her role as ‘translator’ in its etymological roots of ‘carrying one thing to another’ or ‘removing from one place to another’ fantastically. 


The Godmother. Huppert as Patience Portefeux
the chic drug queenpin.

The understated performances by Liliane Rovère (most recently from Call My Agent!) as Mme Portefeux and Hippolyte Girardot as Patience’s lover round out the film. But the star of the show is Huppert, she took Arabic lessons over the course of a few months to be able to speak the language authentically in the film; personally, I think she exuded the essence of Mama Weed.


These two films are not to be missed!


The Alliance Française French Film Festival is currently showing from the 2nd to the 31st March in many theatres around Australia. Click here for details



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