© Jane Freebury
It may be an accident of history that we’re not francophone. Had the French navigator La Perouse sailed in a few days earlier and pipped Captain Phillip and his mob at the post, had the revolution not been gathering pace back home, who knows where things may have ended up.
Today, of course, what happens in France doesn’t tend to stay in France. The international community is interested, sometimes utterly fascinated by events. A robust engagement with French culture and society is not restricted to France, and is no accident beyond it.
Of course, cinema is a cornerstone of contemporary French culture. Films from the country that was the cradle of early cinema and gave birth to a ‘new wave’ of filmmaker cineastes who shook up the system mid-century, maintain an enviable capacity to draw people in.
Upwards of 200 theatrical features are made in France each year. Compare that with the seventeen produced in Australia last year. Moreover, the local product accounts for around one third of French box office. It’s an enviable result for national film industry and one would imagine that the generous government investment would be reckoned money well spent.
This year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival marks its 25th year in Australia, and is the biggest such event outside France. Last year more than 133,000 Australian filmgoers took part.
The festival will run in all mainland capital cities over six weeks. Byron Bay also gets to see it. Canberra’s rendez-vous with new French cinema will begin on 6 March.
The festival program reflects the diversity of French production with over 40 features to choose from, including several documentaries and children’s movies. Some classics of French film history also grace the screen, like Jules and Jim and The 400 Blows from the auteur Francois Truffaut, foundation member of cinema’s original ‘new wave’. The director’s less well known last film, Finally, Sunday! can also be seen.
Films to check out include Quai d’Orsay, a sharply observed, fast paced, and witty take on the political scene from veteran filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier. It will surely resonate here in the nation’s capital. Set in the ministry of foreign affairs, the day-to-day shenanigans are seen through the eyes of an idealistic and guileless new starter, hired to write speeches. Everyone except him understands how to play the game, including Niels Arestrup’s wily, world-weary chief-of-staff and a slinky mini-skirted advisor played by one Julie Gayet.
Another film to look out for is Suzanne from young writer-director Katell Quillevéré. It’s about of a rebellious young woman with a lust for life who falls in love with a criminal. Developing the script involved a lot of background research among women who’d been unable to break this vicious cycle themselves, Quillevéré told me when I interviewed her in Paris last November. It is only her second feature, but a mature and impressive work. Going Away, directed by Nicole Garcia, is another good film that could be overlooked in a program with names like Roman Polanski, Juliette Binoche and Jean-Pierre Bacri.
Then there’s the enigmatically titled 11.6. A smoothly executed, smart and understated heist movie about a folk hero that is based on real-life events in 2009, when the reputation of the French banking system was at a low ebb. Another working class hero emerges in handsome black-and-white in Our Heroes Died Tonight. It is set in the professional wrestling milieu of the 1960s. I was informed in interviews with the filmmakers that the world of pro wrestling, although popularised on American television, actually emerged in France.
Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen appears as a surprisingly enlightened 16th century trader in Michael Kohlhaas, caught up in one of those complex moral dilemmas for which he is perfectly suited. It is a powerful atmospheric drama. In much the same vein, Cycling with Molière with Fabrice Luchini presents a moral dilemma of a very different contemporary kind. It’s not necessary to be acquainted with the plays of Molière to enjoy its subtle, sometimes uneasy pleasures.
On My Way with Catherine Deneuve has had a recent season here. A more substantial film on the subject of an older woman finding a new lease of life, Bright Days Ahead, screens during the festival. Fanny Ardant’s smokey performance as a retired married dentist can be compared with her turn in the Truffaut classic The Woman Next Door in 1981. IT Boy and A Castle in Italy, also touch on similar themes. It may be of passing interest that A Castle in Italy, in which an establishment family is vivisected, is directed by and stars Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, older sister of Carla.
The very interesting actor Emmanuelle Devos (Read My Lips, The Beat My Heart Skipped) can be found in two disparate films. In Just a Sigh she has a fleeting encounter with a man (Gabriel Byrne, unaccountably uncomfortable) who is passing through. Violette is a different proposition, a lengthy but rewarding drama about novelist Violette Leduc, a contemporary and friend of Simone de Beauvoir and her clique in 1940s Paris.
In recent years, there have been some very high profile French exports like the rollicking, populist The Intouchables, a major hit. And of course it was extraordinaire that a French film jumped the barricades that kept foreign film separate and made off with the Best Film Oscar in 2012. The Artist, a homage to Hollywood in transition from the silent era to sound, was the first French film (admittedly silent) to win a Best Film award. It happened again last year when Michael Haneke’s Amour was nominated.
The contrast between the Hollywood studio film and the rest is pretty pronounced in these times of CGI spectacle in 3D. However, it also seems that there are audiences for film and television who don’t mind subtitles that much and want to see more character-driven dramas. It will be interesting to watch how this plays out.
2014 Alliance Francaise French Film Festival will screen at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton between 6 – 25 March. Website: www.affrenchfilmfestival.org