By © Jane Freebury
During the Academy Awards this year, when a foreign language film from South Korea carried off the top awards, it seemed a watershed moment for Hollywood. The time to invite the rest of the world to the red carpet had at last arrived.
Let’s also remember that in 2011 Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist won a best film Oscar, the first French feature to do so. A black-and-white silent film, it broke with tradition too, but it was also a love letter to Hollywood. That same year, Michael Scorsese returned the favour with Hugo about the French pioneering filmmakers, the Melies brothers.
France is, of course, the country where cinema began and though it has a studio system as well, it has a particular focus on making films for artistic and cultural reasons, not only commercial entertainment.
Back in France, it’s a two-way street. The national cinematheque in Paris runs a full daily program of movie classics, featuring classic films from around the world, including Hollywood, that are shown in original language.
As everyone knows, the French are mad for movies, but then so are we. Cinema attendance in Australia and in France is among the highest in the world and filmgoers in both our countries are spoilt for choice with an abundance of movie screens per head of population.
The Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is the biggest foreign film festival in Australia. Every year we make space in our calendars during March-April for movies from France. The festival is bringing 48 films to audiences this year, selected from the 200 or so films that French industry makes annually. Our challenge is navigating our way through the vast program.
Recent figures from the industry’s promotional arm, UniFrance, show that the French film festival circuit does well in lots of countries. It’s not just a Canberra thing, and it’s popular across Australia, screened in eight cities and four satellite locations. Audiences at the French film festivals in Mexico, by the way, have surged recently too, as in Australia.
What are filmgoers looking for? Now there’s a question.
Gemma King, a senior lecturer in French at the ANU, sees a mutual fascination between Australia and France, with cultures ‘different enough to seem exotic, but similar enough that we see ourselves in one another’.
Each year France produces its staple of romantic dramas and family comedies and romantic comedies and family dramas. That always draws the crowds at festivals, but there is something else.
There is a willingness on the part of the French filmmaker to go there, to explore challenging, tough subjects that are easier to elide or to shy away from altogether. Dr King mentions the themes of multiculturalism, migration, language in French society, with recommendations for Les Miserables and School Life (La Vie Scolaire).
The great Catherine Deneuve makes more than a few appearances this year. Actors Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Omar Sy, and Jean Dujardin can also be found on the cast lists, as we might expect. But I am also interested in hearing how the festival caters for youth, especially the 16-24 year old demographic that is so successfully targeted by Hollywood.
French cinema has resonated with young audiences for decades, ever since the New Wave/Nouvelle Vague (the original!) films in the 1960s, with a group of young directors, who were published film critics and enthusiasts for the best work of the Hollywood directors. Pioneer auteur, still working today, Jean-Luc Godard among them. They reacted against the stuffy, traditional French studio system. A spirit of rebellion, experimentation and resistance continues in French cinema today.
This year’s patron, young Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (who made impressive films Snowtown, Macbeth), credits the French cinema with having had a massive influence on his practice. What he has admired most is its pride in its history and cultural traditions, while at the same time forward leaning with risk and inventiveness.
How would Patrice Gilles, director of the AF in Canberra and national coordinator of the network, characterise the program for 2020? What, in his opinion, are some of the representative patterns and themes that have emerged among the films curated?
‘There is quite a lot going on in terms of social movements or reflections upon how society should be organized at large.’ Climate change, the economic system, the education system, and also, for instance, the issues identified in France by the ‘gilet jaunes’. The ‘yellow jackets/vests’ are a populist, grassroots political movement for economic justice that began in 2018, whose members wear the hi-vis yellow vest that is mandatory for drivers to have in their boot in case of an emergency.
The Invisibles (Les Invisibles), set in an illegal women’s shelter, is a good example. Women living on the streets were cast with professional actors, and it is no surprise to hear that this drama achieves a striking authenticity, but a pleasant surprise to hear about its light touch. This genial social comedy has done well outside France too.
In the Name of the Land (Au Nom de la Terre), another framed in social relevance, is an intimate drama about a rural family that deals with issues of inheritance and succession. It was also popular at the French box office last year.
Les Miserables is another one that takes a stance on the social and political. Borrowing the title of Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century novel, it is a hard-hitting drama set in similar Parisian locations.
While social relevance is evident in this year’s line-up―the movements, issues, and reflections on what is happening in French society―it would not be a French festival without a strong focus on personal relationships and intimacy. Love at Second Sight (Mon Inconnue) is based on the intriguing scenario of a man who wakes in a parallel universe where his beloved wife does not recognise him and his professional achievements have vanished.
There are many other romance titles to track down, with an online tool useful for searching categories.
In 2011, The Intouchables was a huge hit about a quadriplegic and his carer directed by filmmakers Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. Their latest film, The Extraordinary (Hors Normes), stars Vincent Cassel as a man who runs an informal shelter for autistic youth. The Extraordinary was the closing night film at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
A quite different experience, a tightly woven noir thriller with an intriguing premise, Only the Animals (Seules les Betes), looks promising. It is a favourite of Patrice Gilles.
For my part, an animated drama called The Swallows of Kabul (Les hirondelles de Kaboul) is intriguing, and Spread Your Wings (Donne-Moi Ton Ailes), is a captivating adventure of a 14-year-old boy, an ultra-light and a gaggle of geese. How to Become an Astronaut (Thomas Pesquet, L’Etoffe d’un Hero, is a diverting documentary about a Frenchman training to walk in space and The Mystery of Henry Pick (Le Mystere Henri Pick) stars Fabrice Luchini as a jaded critic with a nose for a literary fraud.
Amusez vous! Bonne chance with your choices.
Alliance Francaise French Film Festival screens at Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton, between 12 March and 8 April
First published in the Canberra Times on 15 February 2020
*Featured image: Josephine Japy and Francois Civil in Love at Second Sight. Courtesy Eric Bouvet @ericbouvet