Wednesday 17 April 2024

FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL (3) - Barrie Pattison rounds up after being "force fed French film for a month"

It’s pretty good you know – a month of new French films, twelve hours a day on eight screens. Even in Paris you won’t get the year’s output grouped in this way and of course you won’t get English subtitles. (They actually used to do those for tourists for a while in seventies). My European contacts don’t recognise a lot of the films, which is good news/bad news. My opinion gets undue prominence however.  When the only other reviews are in Dutch, there’s no research to steal.

Still on a high from part one, I homed in on Les Trois Mousquetaires /The Three Musketeers - Part II: Milady which 
comes as something of a letdown, though it’s clearly from the same hands. We only occasionally get those soaring historical panoramas, like the shot widening to show the lines of men and equipment advancing on La Rochelle or unfamiliar action movie images - horsemen reflected in the receding surf they gallop through. They manage to end one piece of swashbuckling with a chook pecking the ground.

This one is supposed to switch attention to Milady de Winter/Eva Green slipping off her outer garments and allying with D’Artagnan. The last we saw of her, she had just killed two men sent into the burning Chateau to take her. However, King Louis Garrel and wife Vicky Krieps have become marginal and the new intrigue is less involving than the Queen’s necklace, with Eric Ruf’s Comédie Française Cardinal Richelieu spelling it out when he tells Krieps that his function is to protect the Royals from all enemies – even her. “The protestants and Catholics both want war. Only the king wants peace”. Ruf dominates the intrigue, unconvincingly recruiting Milady and issuing the pardon that D’Artagnan, who he has threatened with retribution for his effrontery, will flourish in the trial climax.

Add Romain Duris’ Aramis and Pio Marmaï’s Porthos, who finally get some screen time to justify their star presence, notably in the ride to avenge Duris’ nun sister Camille Rutherford’s honor after her begging Marmaï to stop Duris killing the father of her unborn child. The soldier proves only interested in marrying rich. When Duris challenges the man to a duel, Marmaï wins his bet on the trip’s outcome.

The subplot of Aramis’ Protestant brother crucified in the surf (like the Scorsese Silence‘s Christians) does provide the great set piece of the rescue under the guns of the fortress, stayed by the (there had to be one) black Musketeer. The four riding off leaving the doomed associate still suspended on the timbers matches the viciousness evident the instruction to dispose of Vincent Schmit “Feed Abbé Rougon to the dogs.”

On the other hand, the set piece assault on La Rochelle is a letdown, with its improbable outcome and fakey model ships going up in smoke. Even more unconvincing is our heroes in the shubbery over-hearing Richelieu’s hiring Green’s regularly resurrected Milady - “Killing me once wasn’t enough.” This leaves Civil’s manic quest for the abducted Khoudry, (“The only one innocent in this whole affair”) with its twist and genuinely alarming finale, as the production’s insubstantial centre.

They do manage to do the British segments in not too clearly recorded English, a plus – I guess. Once again the bones of strategy poke through the narrative, when we realise that they are following the format of TV “limited series” with an inconclusive ending open to a part three.

The makers like the same bits I do, jamming them into the advertising – firing the pistol and then tossing and catching it for use as a club, along with rousing sentiments, Marc Barbé'/De Treville’s “Musketeers are soldiers destined to die. I will take you where men die.” In my experience of the military, the best my officer ever managed was “Remember to pick up your brass, men.”

Une année difficile / A Difficult Year, f
rom the Olivier Nakache, Éric Toledano team who did Intouchables (also on show), was an ambitious French comedy with issues, where the elements don’t cohere, despite engaging leads and strong production values.

The opening montage of succeeding French Prime ministers announcing a difficult year on TV is a nice piece of sub-John Stewart and the Black Friday Sales stampede is a considerable set piece which raises hopes. The rioting bargain hunters cascading under the lifting store shutter door get mixed in with over-consumption protesters, among whom we spot Noémie Merlant. She almost gets through this one without taking her clothes off. Pio Marmaï is fending off other shoppers wanting a 75 inch TV to re-sell to internet purchaser bearded Jonathan Cohen. However, when he gets to Cohen’s flat the bailiffs have emptied it to meet his debts. The anti-consumer lot later compliment him on his decluttering.

Pio’s living in the airport. He has a good thing going with customs, where he retrieves objects confiscated from passengers and flogs them. With Cohen, he takes advantage of the pay what you want (nothing) at the La Ruche Drop-In center, where we get the pitch about global warming. Comedy about their activist pseudonyms. Pio is enthusiastic about group hugs with Noémie, which Jonathon wants to join but the plain woman has her eye on him – it’s a delicate piece of juggling to keep this from being distasteful.

There’s the court where the judge is not convinced their debts should be forgiven – again. Pio’s wife sees through his gift of the confiscated perfume already unwrapped (he says it’s to remind him of her smell) and we get the big bank demo, where among the smoke the duo slip off their protester outfits to hammer on the doors in suits, claiming to be victim bank officials needing to meet an associate in the room where financial histories are stored, in order to modify their own with Tippex. The investigators soon treat them with derision. Meanwhile advisor Mathieu Almaric is being bounced by casino security for trying to get back to the one arm bandits after the computer shows his banned ID.

Anti-consumer leader Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet (La prinesse de Montpensier) has the duo’s measure and drops incriminating footage into an AV presentation showing fake blood pouring down stairs, the bank protest and their traffic blockade scam. The pair are thrown out. However - this is trying too hard for feel good - Pio has seen the error of his ways and facilitates the runway demo under the giant nose cone of the turning plane. Pairings off and happy end.


Presentation is superior and the eco material and skilled comics register but mixing them defeats the makers.

Léa Domenach’s Bernadette / The President's Wife recalls Dick, the Vice President Cheney movie, where they explained that it was so hard to get at the truth but they tried “We really did.” Making a film about the wife of French President Jacques Chirac, they have to satisfy survivors and their legal teams, informed critics, paying customers and the admirers of living legend (forget Johnny Come Lately Tom Cruise) Catharine Deneuve. By and large, writer-director Léa Domenach, on her first theatrical feature, and her people have negotiated that minefield quite creditably.

Husband Jacques Chirac/Michel Vuillermoz’e has wife Catharine/Bernadette step back, when he’s taking inauguration bows from the Elysée Palace window. “You’ll fall.” She finds that her daughter (Sara Giraudeau), who she placed in the team as advisor, has taken the place at his side. Even their chauffeur Lionel Abelanski gets preferred seating. The excuse is that she is seen as cold and distant by the French public, as P.R. Consultant Denis Podalydès (particularly good) shows her with his pie chart presentation – dim comedy with her correcting the flunky on how to address her.

Podalydès is given the task of upgrading her image with her running for mayor from her Corrèze home district as the jumping-off point. She has the chauffeur drink the local vintage samples pressed on her – cut to the traffic cops making him blow in the bag. He of course later goes public at the worst moment. Catharine carries her election, though the high-speed rail link she promised never arrives.

Karl Lagerfeld show up, indignant that she keeps on wearing that cotton candy colour suit, saying people will think he’s not dressing her properly and we see her suitably bemused in his fur lined number. Complications when Chirac is found with an Italian Tootsie when the Princess Di crash hits the press.

Bernadette/Catharine brings out an autobiography, with her fidgety husband having a “Taissez vous” note passed her when her press conference is going so well. She likewise disposes of “treacherous” Laurent Stocker’s Nicolas Sarkozy with the threatening dedication with which she autographs his copy. The alliance they later make, as the Chirac administration looks like submerging in financial scandals and divisions appearing in the French Right Wing, will mean more to the home audience than it does here.

The non-comedy material is an uneasy fit, with anorexic other daughter Maud Wyler feeling exploited when she figures in press coverage – even if she gets a hospital named after her.

Deneuve is right on top off all this, fronting her Comédie Française support cast’s expert collection of grotesques – Vuillermoz shown shaving naked. Throw in a few nice touches like framing events with her priest’s celebrity photo lined confessional sessions and having the choir, that makes a final appearance, sing the captions.

Stéphane (Mademoiselle Chambon) Brizé’s Hors-saison / Out of Season is a romance long on atmosphere. Movie star Guillaume Canet has just quit a stage engagement four weeks into the run, upsetting all involved (represented by the film’s personnel doing indignant phone voices) and decides to work off his burn-out in a winter off-season coastal spa hotel, not worried about putting his dirty shoes on the spotless white bedding – montage of the selfies the staff take with him. Between massages, playing at opening the automatic doors, walks on the rugged coast line and reading the scripts his agent has sent (he selects the one with the least pages), his ennui gets a firm hold.

However, and well into the film, his one time tootsie Alba Rohrwacher shows up, now living locally, married with a child. Will they or won’t they? A French movie with a couple of name stars – of course they will. She starts slipping away from her boring husband and her piano teaching for their nostalgic get-togethers and he puts off his departure. At this point the film takes an abrupt turn with a reduced aperture interview of a woman retirement home resident about discovering her sexuality, which gradually fills the image, and our leads go to the diner where a pair of bird callers are the entertainment, doing a preening rooster when they get to Canet. A tame sex scene and then he’s on his way.

Action is accompanied by the player piano which we occasionally see as insets. The green tinge turns the child’s red hair brown, undermining a plot point. 

I like Rohrwacher better doing her grotesque characters, making her face a Brigitte Helm mask, which inspires intriguing conjectures about what is going on behind it. The story we get here would be more acceptable between the soft covers of a paper back romance novel. 

Thomas Bidegain, who wrote several of  Jacques Audiard's best films, directs 
Soudain seuls /Suddenly which comes with the attraction of a pair of class performers making a convincing professional couple on a Puerto Eden yachting holiday. Gilles Lelouche has chosen (for reasons not adequately examined) an island dot off the coast of Madagascar to explore. “There won’t be room for your big feet” partner Melanie Thierry prompts. While they take the dinghy ashore and examine the abandoned whaling station, a storm comes up and when that’s gone, their ship is no longer visible.

Time to run up a shelter from the station remains with timbers arranged in SOS pattern on the slopes and for a bit of mutual recrimination. They make out and there’s a moment of truth when they realise survival means slaughtering lovable Manchot penguins for food. Then winter sets in and the penguins are gone. A couple of striking high shots underline their isolation. Their shelter can’t withstand the winter gales and after a futile attempt to attract a rescue ship, Giles struggles back for some grisly surgery replacing a skin flap and cauterising the wound. Melanie decides that she must cross the island on her own – not helped when her backpack skids down the ice out of sight. The non-verbal solo section makes the best part of the film.

The leads are good and the mounting plausible but it still lacks conviction or involvement, ending up being a none too impressive extension of the High Barbaree, Burke & Wills, The Grey line. Let’s face it, watching movie stars falling victim to the elements is not an attention grabber.

After that Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol’s Nina et le secret du hérisson /Nina & the Secret of the Hedgehog was a welcome change of pace. A 
cartoon feature from the makers of the admired 2010 A Cat in Paris had promise and the unfamiliar sub-Gaugin style gets attention.

A nice opening shows the unemployed worker scoop a hedgehog out of harm’s way and back home this inspires him to create (black and white segment in the style of the early sound animators) a cartoon hedgehog character which will push its way out of the page to comment action with the voice of the late Guillaume Bats.

Back story is the closure of the factory, whose owner has been jailed on suspicion of salting away the money which should have been used to pay the staff, their strike graffiti still daubed on the derelict buildings. The one-time foreman is now scab caretaker, using a mean black dog to patrol the forest surrounded grounds. Nina, the workman’s daughter, voiced by Loan Longchamp, becomes convinced that the trésor caché is on the premises. She signals to her friend Mehdi (Keanu Peyran) the boy in the flat above, by bouncing a rubber ball off her ceiling under his floorboards, that she wants his help and smitten he goes along. His big brother’s advice on how to deal with girls doesn’t seem to be much help. While the neighbour, who is supposed to be watching TV with Nina (and her cat (which is one of the film’s best inventions) dozes, the kids raid the factory, almost getting caught.

The plotting and pacing are scaled to the child market and big people are likely to find it a bit thin, particularly in this era of sophisticated animation. We get jokes like the hedgehog earning employ with an acupuncturist. Audrey Tautou & Guillaume Canet provide adult voices. The sharp-eyed may enjoy detail like the simplified Night of the Hunter poster. 

By way of contrast consider 
L'été dernier / Last Summer, which I’d already seen at last year’s Melbourne Film Festival. With her back again after a decade, this looks a vintage offering from Catharine Breillat, poster lady for transgressive film. We get elegant lawyer Léa Drucker briefing a teen age girl rape victim on the rough spots she faces with legal action. This suggests the creator of 36 Fillette and Bluebeard is going to deliver a smart, in character social drama. However, before long we find we’re in for a retread of Phaedra via a Danish 2019 Trine Dynhome movie Queen of Hearts.

We learn about childless Drucker, victim of a youthful misadventure, now in a super respectable marriage with Olivier Rabourdin, that runs to an explicit make out scene. However, Rabourdin’s teenage son by his first marriage, Samuel Kircher, is having brushes with the law.

Léa warns him to shape up or else and that goes implausibly well, with Sam swimming with the adopted Asian girls on a picnic and doubling Léa on his motor scooter away from the boring gathering (OK extended traveling shot) to the livelier surroundings of a local boîte. It’s not long before the two get into a sustained double close-up lip lock and a bit of “No, we shouldn’t.” They represent the contrast of the Pill Generation and the Aids Generation. Developments like sister Clotilde Coreau catching the guilty couple or Kircher’s illicit Dictaphone recordings, don’t go anywhere interesting.

The marriage survives and Léa’s back in the sack with Rabourdin, when the doorbell rings and Kircher is downstairs drunk...

Neither the cast or the handling are able to generate conviction and this one has to be rated a disappointment. 

It has elements in common with the even more serious A Silence telling us about child porn among the Walloon privileged, derived we are told from real events.

Since he began in 2001, director Joachim Lafosse has made ten features, most of which never reached me. I only saw L'économie du couple because it was a Beatrice Béjo movie starting at a convenient time one night in Paris. None of them look like an easy watch. His 2008 Élève libre anticipated the current release in dealing with grooming and dominance. Leads A-Listers Daniel Auteuil and Emmanuelle Devos have track records that encourage trust in their judgment however.

He plays a prominent Belgian lawyer who has just had a success in a high profile case which means a journalist pack are on twenty four hour stake out in front of his luxury home, complete with its swimming pool and tennis court. However, again there’s trouble with his teen age son Matthieu Galoux smoking weed and getting thrown out of schools, despite extensive home coaching.

We kind of admire Dan for the way he stands up to the reporters and a shadowy police investigation and supports his clients. Galoux’ teacher tells him they respect his dad’s defiance. However, Auteuil’s sister won’t speak to him and he’s furtive with his computer usage. Most of the filming reflects the point of view of wife Devos on whom the grim truth, which she already suspects, is brought home with interrogations, a raid and confiscation of hard drives. The film asserts with the introduction unfamiliar elements of the destructive effect of Auteuil’s conduct on his family.

However, it’s the enablers who face the film’s severest condemnation, echoing the Weinstein case. In the finale sustained close up, Devos is isolated. 

A lot of the filming is done in moving cars from the passenger or back seat, more adept than the Godard days. It’s yet another shrouded in darkness piece. Only when a light is struck do we get to see Auteuil’s now gaunt features. This one is argument rather than entertainment. That’s going to dominate any assessment of it.

Also purposeful but a much better film is Jeanne Herry’s Je verrai toujours vos visages/All Your Faces, 
not something I would have normally sought out, a fiction feature exploring the French Restorative Justice Program, where victims and perpetrators face one another under the organiser team’s supervision. This comes without the convicts participating being offered any prospect of remission. I saw it as something of a duty after a friend became involved in one of these programs, working up my curiosity, not to say sympathy – and the film’s trailer prompts that it has a celebrity cast. Herry is Miou-Miou’s daughter.

The film making was straightforward and comes with special pleading reservations. There is however a moment of truth early on, when convicted armed robber Dali Benssalah (Athena) singles out bank teller victim Leïla Bekhti (who gets better every film) after her account of her shut-in’s agoraphobia, afraid she might meet the armed bandit who forced her to stay face down under her desk with the dust and a rubber band, which stay burned into her memory. Benssalah tells her that assailants would slink off, in fear of the victims, who could create a scene or identify them. He was a gang leader, who insisted he carry the only loaded weapon on a job and had contempt for victims who would put their children at risk rather than give up pin numbers. Both start a plausible adjustment. It’s a grabber.

This is contextualised effectively – the doubts of the case workers, who stress that they are neither lawyers or cops, in conversations spaced by home-cooked delicacies they bring to the meetings. If you didn’t recognise Élodie Bouchez, Jean-Pierre Darroussin and the rest you’d believe they were corrections professionals rounded up to showcase the actors. The drab prison setting, suggested by a few simple establishing shots, along with bits of business like smoking break conversations or rejecting the ritual passing of the speaking stick, add conviction. Re-enactments are limited to a wide shot of a house where a curtain is pulled back at night or a close-up of a bolt being drawn. Curiously race is only fleetingly referred to with the robber whose mask and reflective glasses didn't show even his skin colour.

The performances, notably the monologue where the camera creeps closer to Miou-Miou, are exceptional. Gilles Lellouche, a victim who seems more bullying than the criminals, does a formidable, sympathetic turn. The impression that experienced actors are performing actual case transcriptions derives from the writer-director’s access to psychiatrist’s journals. In the film, as apparently in casework, rapists are the most difficult to confront. They save Adèle Exarchopoulos’ meeting with half-brother molestor Raphaël Quenard for an ending where the twin traps of depressing plausibility or simple-minded happy ending face the makers. They pull that one off too.

Je verrai toujours vos visages is a very European film, heir to the best work of André Cayatte or Costa Gavras and totally outclassing the daytime movies coming from the U.S. which dip into this territory. I was impressed

As always, despite pouring time (and money) into this event, I could have missed high points. With all seasons, there’s no way of telling how much the picture of the activity the event represents is coloured by the taste of the organisers or the mechanism that supplies them.  Being force fed French film for a month does leave a distorted impression but what the heck?

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