Friday, March 23, 2007

French Film Festival 1

[Edit: images added, links to Last Night at Riviera appended]

[This post has been largely re-worked]

The Alliance Française French Film Festival 2007 kicked off in Melbourne last Tuesday and runs to Tuesday April 3 (15 days). Screenings are at the Palace Cinemas at Como (South Yarra), Westgarth (Northcote) and Balwyn.

I have a strong proclivity for French cinema – I saw 27 in 2006, second in number only to films from the US. Contemporary names like Ozon, Cantet, Chereau and Guédiguian come to mind, though none of these names appear at this year's festival. My perception is that the festival is more about previewing middle-of-the-road light-weight films that are getting a commercial distribution than in showcasing the pinnacle of cultural and artistic excellence that French cinema is famous for. In other words, getting bums on seats.

What to do? I find with a bit of planning, research and consulting others, there are gems to be found. As far as planning, my priority is to see films that I know don't have a commercial release as I can always see those later. I know of at least three films (Hey Good Looking!, Priceless and The Singer) that open straight after the festival, so I'm in no rush to see these right now.

I'm also not a big fan of French comedy, as least not those that are released here. I find little to differentiate them from most Hollywood comedies. Francis Veber's Le dîner de cons (The Dinner Game, 1998) is a rare exception, though I've not thought much of anything Veber has made since. I tend to seek out the drama, which the above-mentioned names do so well. My pick at last year’s festival were Ozon's Le temps qui reste (A Time to Leave, 2005) and Emmanuelle Bercot’s Backstage (2005, which also screened recently at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival).

Out of the 25 films programmed for Melbourne, at least fourteen are comedies, so that narrows my focus considerably. I’m not ruling out comedy all together; they’re just not a big priority. Interestingly, at a recent French Film Festival in New York, only 2 of the 16 films programmed were comedies. That says a lot about the different markets.

For research, there’s always the invaluable IMDB, and word-of-mouth via blogs. This year I’ve also sought the opinion of a fellow blogger from Sydney, where the festival has already screened. Matt Riviera, himself of French origin, from Last Night at Riviera has recommended: Comedy of Power, Inside Paris, Private Property, Bad Faith and OSS 117: Cairo – Nest of Spies.

From my research, I’ve earmarked: Poison Friends, Premonition and The Right of the Weakest. The criteria: they’re all dramas, don’t have a commercial distribution and all have a reasonable average score on IMDB (around 7/10).

La faute à Fidel (Blame It On Fidel, Julie Gavras, 2006)
This is an interesting and well-made film. It depicts a 9 year old girl’s perspective of the changes in family life as her lawyer father and writer mother become involved in political activism. Set in the 1970’s, it starts against the backdrop of an uncle executed under Franco’s regime in Spain.

This is an interesting theme, and I have seen a number of films recently that connect to this theme: Salvador (Puig Antich) (Huergo, 2006), The Executioner (Berlanga, 1963), The Spirit of the Beehive (Erice, 1972) and Pan’s Labyrinth (del Toro, 2006). I even saw similarities with Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, in that both stories were filmed from the perspective of an innocent (Balthazar was, of course, a donkey). Pan’s Labyrinth and The Spirit of the Beehive also shared this perspective. It adds a different layer, because we get to experience or understand reality through a different filter. The camera work in Blame It On Fidel often takes the angles a child would see. At parties, we would see people from below looking up, and often cutting off people’s heads.

The lighting and cinematography are lovely, the acting is consistently good all round and the film is worth a look.

Je vous trouve tres beau (You Are So Beautiful, Isabelle Mergault, 2005)
The subtitled title for this film was You Are So Handsome. In changing the name for the festival, the film is perhaps more marketable but a subtle meaning has been lost. When an elderly farmer’s wife dies and he seeks a mail-order bride from Romania, the line of young female candidates all open with “you are so handsome” (which he is not).

Basically the film is a light-hearted romantic comedy and will probably be a crowd-pleaser. It’s the type of film I consider pretty much Hollywood in French language. It’s not particularly smart and not my sort of film, though I acknowledge there’s a strong market for this kind of film.

Le lièvre de Vatanen (The Year of the Hare, Marc Rivière, 2006)
Up until about one third of the way into this film, I thought it was reasonable as a children’s film. You know, the type of show kids might watch on ABC TV when they get home after school where a character (usually an adolescent) goes on some adventure with a cutesy animal.

In this film, it’s an adult protagonist but I truly thought it was a cheesy kids film until there was some nudity obviously not intended for a young audience. Then my worst fears were realised and I knew the remaining hour would be tedious (and it was).

Not really a French film (it’s a Belgian, Bulgarian and French co-production, set in Canada), it jumps between slapstick humour, cheesy humour and drama that just doesn’t work for me at all. I could have walked out at any time (but didn’t). I'm a bit disappointed that this film was advertised as drama/adventure. I suppose it is has some elements of that, but it really was comedic. The drama/adventure aspect was not what I call adult entertainment.

As an aside, I’ve noticed in the past that Palace Cinemas seem to attract a middle-age, upper middle-class female audience that loves to chatter, even during films. There was a distractingly high volume of chatter during the ads before the film by this demographic at the Westgarth. It didn’t go away when the film started. I identified at least three groups of women all chatting and laughing away. I figured it’s got to die down but after five minutes it was still as enthusiastic and showed no sign of abating.

This is a dilemma: do we suffer in our silence, or do we speak out and then feel self-conscious to the detriment of our enjoyment of the film? Well, enough is enough, and I decided to say something and not allow myself to feel self-conscious. I called out loud and firmly, “for fuck’s sake, will you all just shut up!!”. It worked, and everyone enjoyed (or not) the rest of the film. I figured most people wouldn’t know who spoke up, but a couple of women approached me later and thanked me profusely for having the guts to say what everyone else wanted to. I appreciated that. This tends to support the idea that the French Film Festival is more a social event for certain demographics rather than a serious cultural event for cinephiles.

See also Matt Riviera's reviews at the Sydney French Film Festival: 1, 2, 3 & 4


Matt Riviera said...

Shock! I can't believe you get Poison Friends in Melbourne. That has to be my most eagerly awaited French film of the year. We didn't get Premonition either in Sydney. But then you're missing out on The Young Lieutenant.

I wonder what these differences mean... Perhaps the former were the subject of secret pre-emtive selection at SFF, while the the latter is been kept for MIFF?

Paul Martin said...

Matt, I don't know why. I knew of the programming differences, so was disappointed when you recommended The Young Lieutenant. I never thought about it in terms of MIFF.

I saw Premonition today and really liked it. Nothing spectacular, but good solid French drama the way the French do it best. You wouldn't think it was a debut feature, and the association with Robert Guédiguian really showed. More in my review.

I've just got back from seeing Orchestra Seats, which is being released commercially on May 24. It was the only thing on I could take my son to, and I really thought little of it. I might just as well have sat through a Hugh Grant or Drew Barrymore Hollywood fluff movie.

Why are you so keen to see Poison Friends? I've heard nothing about it.

Jana said...

I once slapped people on the head in the cinema - granted it was early morning and i didn't realise on time what i was doing. I also made the same kind of loud complaints, quiet one-to-one complaints, and once i even woke up a man who was loudly snoring! In Cinema Nova, audience has had to call staff to get the subtitles going, we've had to arrange a doorman to close the cinema door once the film started, and once or twice the film was shown below the screen. As such, people who refuse to sit in silence and help everyone enjoy the film are mine and everyone's heroes. Well done!

Matt Riviera said...

When it played in Cannes, Poison Friends won the grand prize at Critics' Week and Variety described it as "a movie so unrepentantly French that viewers who enjoy truly Gallic pics can start (tastefully) salivating now."

More importantly it was written by Emmanuel Bourdieu, who wrote my favourite French film of all time, Comment je me Suis Disputé (Ma Vie Sexuelle).

Paul Martin said...

Getting the heads up from Sydney has been real helpful, Matt. I just got back from seeing The Right of the Weakest. I wouldn't normally go to a late session on a Sunday, but it's the only opportunity I had to see it. I'm glad I did, as it was a really solid drama. I consider it and Premonition my favourites so far.

I did see Inside Paris earlier today. I liked it, but wasn't as impressed as yourself. I can't really identify why, other than it didn't really engage me. I did like the two brothers', particularly Romain Duris. I really liked him in The Beat My Heart Skipped (which, along with Lost In Translation, would have to be among the most aptly titled films).

I now have a dilemma: The only chance I have to see Poison Friends is next Saturday, and it conflicts with the only chance I have of seeing Private Property. I'm not sure which one I should see.

Next weekend, I'm also planning to see OSS 117: Cairo - Nest of Spies (partially your recommendation, and others have also praised it), A Comedy of Power (I've heard mixed feedback) and Bad Faith. I know you weren't rapt in Private Fears in Public Places, but I'm going to try to fit that in if I can.

I'm planning to briefly review Premonition, Orchestra Seats, Inside Paris and The Right of the Weakest in the next day or so.

Anonymous said...

Coeurs (Private Fears in Public Places) is great! Don't miss it!

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for the tip, Matt. Indeed, Poison Friends was a superb film, excellent in every respect.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul it's John from over at the German FF weblog again. I'll sort out some sort of rego here shortly.

Like you I went to a number of the FF festival films and also a couple of the commercially released ones after (lucky enough or unlucky enough to win free tickets to the Singer). But did pay and thoroughly enjoyed "Hey Good Looking" Good Friday at the Classic Elsternwick.

As luck would have it I saw two of the films you did not. "You are so beautiful" my pick of the entire festival and "Coeurs" (Private Fears in Public Places. The first was of course romantic, the second one a lovely setting (Paris in Winter in the Bercy District which I know quite well having stayed there in 2001 in Paris). But while one film is about a journey and destination, the latter is about thwarted hopes and dreams.

With "You are so beautiful" I had not seen Michel Blanc before who must be in his late 50s.
The female lead Medeea Marinescu is actually Romanian and plays a Romanian woman who Michels character brings her to France when after his wife dies he finds himself short of hot meals, clean clothes and help around the farm. Since there are few prospects for a wife in the area, he engages a marriage agency to find some help.

Medeea's character and performance in this film are fantastic. You can find her other work at just hope this film opens some more doors for her. If you like warm hearted, romantic comedies this is cream. Deep down I believe every man is looking for an Elena

At the end of the film I would be running towards Elena. I'm not sure if Ayme does. If a local distributor does not pick this up they are mad.

Coeurs (Private Fears in Public Places. Paris looks very pretty in winter with the snow falling.

Sabine Azéma looks so much like Kelly Reilly from The Russian
apartment and Mrs Henderson presents. Except Sabine is in her 40s perhaps and plays against Andre Dussoolllier sharing an office where she is the receptionist and he is a rental property agent. Laura Morante whose drop dead gorgeous (and also appearing in Orchestra Seats this year) is here looking for a place to rent but that's only incidental. Seen earlier in A Journey called Love and Remember Me.

But ultimately this movie is more about questions than answers.

As the Internet Movie database summarizes it...
"In Paris, six people all look for love, despite typically having their romantic aspirations dashed at every turn"

Don't you hate it in real life or at the movies seeing your aspirations dashed at every turn? . If I'd been directing this movie I'd have made it end up happily ever after!

Why didn't Lionel the barman step in when he saw both women heading for the unemployed soldiers table?
I thought Lionel and Charlotte might have teamed up when his father died but my wife suggested perhaps Lionel was gay. Was that picture of him and the other young man his dead lover? Why didn't the real estate agent Thierry ever ask Charlotte out. Was that really her dirty dancing at the end of the videos? Surely Thierry's sister in the movie was too young to be his sister. He looked old enough to be her father. Why on earth would she have any problem finding a date.. she was gorgeous! Oh well life goes on..

Paul just reading some of your other reviews over at the GFF site you might enjoy this. But me in life or on film I like to see me and my characters end up in someone's arms!

Regarding Cecille De France I saw 2 of the 3 films she was in in this festival. "Orchestra Seats" I could put up with her... sort of. That inane grin it was sort of like watching a French Ellen DeGeneres (have you seen her TV show.. you will know what I mean).
The Singer... her character here was very hard to fathom. The whole movie quite forgetable. For us it was free.

I have seen you say that you like the French FF best out of all the Melbourne ones. Although at their best I love French film there is a lot of uneveness and most years you get one or two standouts and a load of duds. This year definitely the only French film that would match any of the German ones for me was "You are so beautiful". Summer '04 and Valerie would beat any of the French fare. With Hey Good Looking 2 lengths ahead of the German "Shoppen"



Paul said...

Hi John, I did see You Are So Beautiful and I gave a short review above. I didn't really like it. It was too much a genre piece for me, and I'm not fond of 'happy endings' per se. I agree that this is the type of film a local distributor would normally pick up, but they've picked up so many (around 12 or so out of the 25 films that screened at the festival).

Yes, Cecile de France's smile in Orchestra Seats - it was grating. And while her role was more interesting in Bad Faith her obvious stereotypical beauty was a little distracting.

I think the French FF has a very large proportion of duds. But it's finding the gems that makes it worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Paul about not crediting your review of "You are so beautiful". Digressing for us this was a Friday night 7pm session in the main downstairs cinema at the Westgarth. Very nicely renovated.. I have not been in the two small theatres upstairs yet. This is a bit closer to where we live and it's quite a good deal more vibrant than it's pre Palace days.

Agree with you on the French film festivals and festivals in general regarding the duds. I'm really keen to avoid what I consider or find in retrospect duds. While I never count the cost of going to the cinema say the German FF 6 movies, 2 people at each, about $160 and possibly an hour each way to the cinema. I wonder if you have favourite session times or days? For the German I really liked the Brighton this year where we went on a Sat afternoon. For us we really pushed the envelope with 9pm sessions which we normally would not do. But there is something about the Como I do not like. I had an extra ticket for a session there and I know that their rules and regs state no refunds. I arrived on the day for "A Friend of Mine" and a couple where trying to buy tickets. "None left" they were repeated told (even though there were a row of vacant seats inside).
So anyway in the finish I left my ticket with the manager who looks a lot like Alex Dimtriatis "we'll look after this" The guy from the couple offered to pay me then and there for the ticket. Had I known what was to transpire I should have grabbed the money. 10 mins later I see them inside the cinema one row behind me. So you got in? Yes they sold us two new tickets.

I was pretty dirty (a) on this customer not just buying one ticket and mine when I was part of the conduit of him getting in. I have found myself in similar sits before at the Spiegeltent (where the Arts Centre does not refund). Similarly I left an excess ticket at the door there and there was no problem for them to sell it and give me the $35 afterwards.

After "A Friend of Mine" I tackled the manager on this. My ticket was still at the small podium where you pass your ticket in. I had to get that myself. I asked him why he did not sell them my ticket and one of theirs. "We are in the business to sell tickets" I was fairly persistent with him but to no avail. It's only $15 but if they put $15 above the good will of their business that's their choice. I'd say I spend a few thousand a year at Palace. It's soured my view of Palace somewhat and especially the Coma. So with your blogspot here, and other references in future festivals I will be working harder to sort out what I see and delving deeper into links to the actors, etc. And also looking for DVDs that can save the trip. Don't get me wrong I love to go out and go to the movies. But 6 movies of the one origin is a lot in 10 days and I'd rather see 3 gems than 3 gems and a couple of duds.

Paul Martin said...

John, I think duds are to be found at every festival. 'Dud' is of course a subjective term. I find more than my fair share at MIFF, for example, what to speak of any other festival. It always gets down to research. The things I look for are:
1. The director
2. The genre
3. Subject
4. Buzz
5. What awards a film has won

I'll go through a programme and circle the ones that stand out. Quite often festival films have won awards at other festivals. So if something won a silver bear at Berlin, for example, I'll at least make a mental note of it. If it won a best supporting actor at some obscure regional festival in the backwaters of Uzbekhistan, I might give it a little less credence (he he).

I tend to avoid comedies unless they have a bit of non-commercial buzz about them, because I tend to find most comedies peurile crowd-pleasers that aim for the lowest common denominator. I therefore tend to avoid anything that promotes itself as a 'crowd-pleaser' or like the about-to-be-released 'I Do', took a million dollars in its opening weekend.

I'm also interested in unconventional plots, dark plots, originality and so on. Film for me is art, and art is (among other things) exploration of new ground or covering old ground from new perspectives.

As far as cinema policies, I don't really take them to task for a lot of what you raised. There are logistic, operational and other considerations that might not seem right from an individual's perspective, but make a lot of sense when you're tryig to accomodate a very large number of people across several cinemas with limited staff. I do understand the frustrations, though.

I turned up at ACMI on Saturday evening half an hour early, to find Klimt had sold out, but I'm sure I could have found an empty seat there. Such is life.

LenKa said...

It's Michel in "You Are So Beautiful"? isn't it? Thanks for one more hint about films:)