Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2013

© Jane Freebury

All you need to make a film, Jean-Luc Godard once said, is a gun and a girl. The French filmmaker, radical in practice while others were still thinking about it, had a way with words and he hasn’t been proven wrong. It’s hard to imagine a time when sex and violence won’t be mainstays of popular entertainment on the big screen.

The 24th Alliance Française French Film Festival with its repertoire of very human stories offers an escape from this formula for mainstream success. Audiences, always on the lookout for something different, clearly appreciate a different approach. Last year, 126,000 people attended the festival in Australia. In 2012, 80 per cent of the audience at the FFF was Australian, according to Emmanuelle Denavit-Feller, who is French cultural attaché as well as festival creative director.

Screen sex and violence don’t arrive via Hollywood alone, however. In recent years, a language of ‘extremism’ has expressed itself in French cinema too. In the films of Catherine Breillat like Romance with its pornographic actuality, and her devastating portrait of sibling rivalry, A ma soeur! Gaspar Noé is another unafraid to shock with films like Irreversible in which revenge is sought for a brutal rape.

However Godard, who had a bit of a thing for the gun and the girl himself, forgot to mention comedy. French cinema is full of great comedies like the immortal Mr Hulot series. In 2011, The Intouchables was the box office hit of the year in France, second only to Welcome to the Sticks, a huge hit in 2008 and none too politically correct either.

France is intensely proud of its cinema heritage and the French are hungry for movies. France has among the highest number of screens per person in the world, and is one of the biggest film markets. And the French show enviable loyalty towards their own cinema too. During March it is possible to explore why this continues to be so.

The FFF will be an opportunity to see what the French stars have been up to lately. Sophie Marceau, Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Seigner, Cecile de France, Mathieu Kassovitz, Juliette Binoche, can be seen on screen. Gerard Depardieu, star and now tax fugitive en route to Russia, reprises Obelix, Asterix’s right hand man.

Niels Arestrup, the chilling, heartless father in You Will Be My Son, appears in another family drama, Our Children. Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, the father in Mia Hansen-Love’s Father of my Children, appears in In a Rush, which he also directed. It’s never quite clear whether French-speaking Kristin Scott-Thomas counts as French or English these days, but she’s there too. And for those who have loved the Francois Truffaut classic Jules and Jim, the appearance of Jeanne Moreau may be the piece de resistance.

This year’s festival screens 43 fiction features and documentaries, including a new film, The Field of Enchantment, from the makers of that enchanting study of unseen worlds in a grassy field, Microcosmos. A subtle, skilful doco about an earlier generation of gay couples, The Invisibles, is very fine. They are the pioneers, living in villages and towns beyond the anonymity that cities afford, whose youth preceded the civil rights movements that has helped younger generations come out. Last year’s best doco at the Cesars, Leadersheep, with vision of sheep herding beneath the Eiffel Tower, covers protests over the reclamation of farming land for a military camp.

Certain fiction features document social issues. Louise Wimmer explores the plight of an older woman who left her husband and is trying to get her life together as she struggles with menial jobs and homelessness. Fairly strong stuff, with a fine central performance from Corinne Masiero that has opened doors for her. Juliette Binoche is also known for strong stuff, but she can play a deft hand at comedy, and has lighter work to do in her story of second chances, the romantic comedy Another Woman’s Life.

Film production in France sees a large proportion of first-time filmmakers each year, sometimes making more than one third of new work. They are represented at the festival as are female directors, including Noemie Lvovsky, whose film Camille Rewinds won festival awards at Locarno and Cannes and Ursula Meier whose Sister won awards at the Berlin and Chicago in 2012. Sister is one of the films that festival curator, Emmanuelle Denavit-Feller, thinks will challenge audiences. She thinks Louise Wimmer, Our Children and The Invisibles will too.

It is great to see that some of the grand old masters of French cinema are still standing. Among them Alain Resnais whose Last Year at Marienbad has presented a maze of meaning for film students for decades. And now, his You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! from a 90-year-old has a certain cache. Resnais directed Emmanuelle Riva, recently Oscar-nominated for her role in Amour, in the late 1950s in Hiroshima Mon Amour. The synopsis suggests that Resnais’ new film also concerns the past in the present, or vice versa, though on this occasion he is assisted by digital technology.

Unfortunately there’s nothing from Godard, now 82 years old, but there again, he is still active. We await his latest, due for release this year.

A new film from Olivier Assayas, After May, will be shown. The acclaimed director’s work is quite varied. He did well recently with a gentle contemplative film about family, Summer Hours, but has also made Carlos, a biopic of the political assassin, and Irma Vep, a meditation on the state of French film in which Maggie Cheung spends most of her screen time in tight black latex. The impact of May ’68 on the lives of the young is explored in Assayas’ After May.

Another big name director, Francois Ozon (8 Women, Swimming Pool), is represented with In the House, in which a talented student writes openly of his fascination for the mother of his friend. And there are more revelations, which may or may not be true…

Benoit Jacquot, the filmmaker behind another festival highlight, Farewell, my Queen, will be a festival guest and do a Q&A on Sunday 17 March. His film, based on a prize-winning feminist novel, opened the Berlin Film Festival last year. Diane Kruger plays the doomed Marie Antoinette, while the role of her lectrice or reader, is occupied Lea Seydoux, a young French actor, also to be seen in Sister, who seems to be going places. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette was not that long ago, however, but her spirited attempt to meld pop culture kitsch with history did not hold appeal for everyone.

Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, in digitally remastered form, concludes the festival. It opened on Wednesday with Haute Cuisine, about a chef from Perigord suddenly appointed personal chef to the President in the Elysee Palace. As films this year are being shown more than once, there is still an opportunity to see it.