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French Film Festival - March 2000

A la place du coeur
A la place du coeur
(Robert Guediguian)
Melbourne  21-30 March  2000 (Cinema Como)
Sydney  23 March - 2 April 2000 (Academy and Norton St.)

This is a festival organised by the Alliance Francais and put on this time of the year in Melbourne and Sydney, and it is a most welcome festival! It gives us the opportunity to see some films that will not get a theatrical release here in Australia, and therefore would not be seen until video release or TV broadcast. Of the 11 films screened, only 5 of them are scheduled to be released.

I attended the festival in Melbourne, at the Como Cinema.  It seemed to be a well-attended, successful festival, the viewers however were mainly French ex-pats or Francophiles. And a few familiar film buff faces were there also.

But my eyes, of course, were firmly on the screen.

Quick impressions of the films now follow.

(MY RATINGS SYSTEM:   0 = Bottom Ten of all time;  1 = Abysmal;  2 = Very Poor;  3 = Poor;  4 = Below Average;  5 = Average;  6 = Good;  7 = Very Good;  8 = Great;  9 = Masterpiece;  10 = Top Ten of all time.)

A Vendre     (For Sale)
directed by Laetitia Masson, starring Sandrine Kiberlain, Sergio Castellito, Chiara Mastroianni.

Synopsis:      France Robert is a country girl who disappears from the world on the day of her wedding. The devastated groom sends a private detective to search for her and bring her back.

Impression:   A patchy film - not quite existential noir, or mystery, or spiritual journey; not quite his story, or hers; not quite realist, or stylised. Etc. The film opposes married life to a life of degradation (prostitution, drunkenness), hardly able to get any more conventional. It has none of the richness, depth or radicality of its twin, Breillat's Romance. Only the coda is brilliant, with its sudden switch to both video and New York - a stunning example of how the cinematic apparatus can be used to bring out certain qualities or states (in this case: displacement, spiritual wandering).    (5)

Dieu seul me voit     (Only God Sees Me)
Directed by Bruno Podalydes, starring Denis Podalydes, Isabelle Candelier, Daniel Ceccaldi.

Synopsis:     Albert has every reason to be happy - he is a recognised sound engineer who spends his days listening to the world. Unfortunately, he is plagued by a psychological problem that colours his whole life: he is tragically indecisive.

Impression:    An everyman, a small man, a socially awkward man, perpetually losing, the kind of man only God sees. And this film. But he's also George Costanza-like, creating bad situations for himself, and, for that, he loses our sympathy. Quite a loose, light and funny film, featuring elements not unlike those in Nanni Moretti's work (the processes of filmmaking, the passions of politics, the intricacies of relationships).    (5)

Place Vendôme
Directed by Nicole Garcia, starring Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Seigner, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Jacques Dutronc

Synopsis:      Marianne is addicted to alcohol, and she hasn't noticed the problems of her husband Vincent, a diamond trader on the Place Vendome with his back to the wall. A dramatic series of events is the wake up call that she needs.

Impression:    Deneuve's performance as a troubled and determined woman is practically the only thing worth watching in this film. The direction is dreary, unable to penetrate the film's story (the usual suspects: love, betrayal). I normally don't mind this kind of controlled, understated, slightly-elliptical form (eg, Claude Miller's films), but the direction here just isn't able to bring matters to life.      (4)

Les Enfants du marais   (Children of the Marshlands)
Directed by Jean Becker, starring Jacques Villeret, Jacques Gamblin, André Dussolier, Michel Serrault, Eric Cantona.

Synopsis:       Riton is a widower who drowns his sorrows in wine, and Garris is a war veteran who lives a marginal life in a cabin in the marshlands.

Impression:    This film has the simplicity of a children's film, giving it a beautiful innocence. (One could easily argue that, in some respects, G-rated films are intrinsically better than R-rated ones.) It succeeds fully within these parameters - its flow is effortless, its performances superb, its worldview nicely tinged with sadness. Conventional and slightly nostalgic, but constantly engaging and full of warmth.       (6)

La fille sur la pont     (The Girl on the Bridge)
Directed by Patrice Leconte, starring Vanessa Paradis and Daniel Auteuil

Synopsis:      Adele is on a bridge, about to jump. Gabor sees her, and decides to save her. He is a knife thrower who needs a new human target for his show.

Impression:      The knives of course always miss the stylish, sexy Ms. Paradis, giving her only cute little scratches which cute little bandages cover up. But enter the plain, whining, dispensable substitute, and, yes, she gets a knife stuck in her. In the film's context, it's a joke, a light moment. And it betrays the kind of film we're dealing with: a glib, pathetic, stupid fantasy (both sexual and existential). For fashion aficionados only.      (3)

Peut-être     (Maybe)
Directed by Cédric Klapisch, starring Jean Paul Belmondo, Romain Duris, Geraldine Pailhas, Julie Depardieu.

Synopsis:      On the eve of the year 2000, Lucie tells her boyfriend Arthur that she wants to have his child, but Arthur isn't so sure that he's ready to be a father. During the course of this unbridled night, Arthur finds himself transported to a transformed Paris 70 years into the future.

Impression:       Romain Duris reprises his "crazy stranger" role, this time in the unfamiliar world of the future. There, he discovers that he will die young, at 46. But the film is a comedy, so even this revelation impacts little (on the character, and us). And yet the film tries to have it both ways, also going for some dramatic effect, and failing badly (the beautiful early morning walk Duris takes with his girlfriend is clearly an accident). Worth a look for the production design. And the music's delightful.         (5)

Directed by Cedric Kahn, starring Charles Berling, Sophie Guillemin, Arielle Dombasle.

Synopsis:      Martin is a philosophy teacher, newly separated from his wife, and in a deep depression. Under strange circumstances he meets the young and buxom former model Cecilia, who oscillates between naivety and indifference.

Impression:       There is a really interesting idea at work here at bottom (but not really stuck to by the film): a man with severe nausea/alienation/ennui (he is a philosophy teacher after all) meets a young woman and becomes passionately obsessed with her, but she, in a clever twist, remains indifferent, calm, full of a Gen X-like ennui. A (practically philosophical) duel ensues. He neurotically and frantically interrogates her, constantly, and she, just as constant, responds with a simplicity and verbal fluency that Wittgenstein would have pricked his ears to. A typical exchange - he: "You never think anything"; she: "Why think something?", and he, well, is left stumped.       (6)

Emporte-Moi  (Set Me Free)
Directed by Léa Pool, starring Karine Vanasse, Miki Manajlovic.

Synopsis:      Hanna is a teenager caught between childhood and the adult world. Her Croatian father prefers chess to working, and her mother is consumed by manic depression.

Impression:        Clearly an autobiographical film, and very reminiscent of those films made a few years back about teenagers, especially Akerman's '60s Brussels film. This too has a party scene, with a beautiful lesbian-awakening moment. The problem with biographical films, however, is that they reference a past reality to the extent where that reality impinges itself on the script-writing process - the writers are swayed to include elements that they otherwise would not have included if they were writing a fiction film. This film confirms these problems - it is full of parts, it never becomes a whole.        (5)

Les convoyeurs attendent    (The Carriers are Waiting)
Directed by Benoit Mariage, starring Benoit Poelvoorde.

Synopsis:      Set in the industrial wastelands, a father decides that his family's redemption rests in their ability to gain a mention in the Guinness Book of Records.

Impression:        A deep, sharp, contrasty Winter Light black and white, and an austere pace to match. Deadpan black humour, á la Kaurismaki, with a similar emphasis on small-town people and situations. I tried to like this film, but I just couldn't, apart from a few scenes here and there. It is off-beat and humane, but somehow too muted and distanced.         (4)

A la Place du Coeur    (In the Place of the Heart)   (or: Where the Heart Is  ?)
Directed by Robert Guediguian, starring Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darroussin.

Synopsis:    The graffiti blemished concrete of working class Marseilles is home to sixteen-year-old Clim and her black boyfriend Baby.

Impression:     This is the only film by Robert Guediguian that I have seen (I believe he's made about five), and therefore I won't make any great claims for him. Yet. What I love about him in this film, is, firstly, his eye (compositions, lighting, sense of movement are all beautiful), and secondly and deeply, his humanity (a stunning regard for the characters, and an unusual but highly welcome refusal to dramatise - through "conflict" - their situations). Andrew Sarris once said of Frank Borzage that he "sacrifices form for feeling". I'd say Guediguian falls in this "Borzagian" category, for Place's structure doesn't quite seem right, yet the film still manages to be piercing and sublime.       (9)

En Face    (Facing)
Directed by Mathias Ledoux, starring Jean-Hughes Anglade, Clotilde Courau

Synopsis:    An unexpected inheritance from a recluse across the street, in which a couple take ownership of his house and belongings, seems like a dream come true.

Impression:      I'm reviewing these 11 films in the order I saw them at the Festival - I saw this film immediately after the Guediguian, so it was always going to be a downer. It starts off quite mysteriously, then settles into a Chabrolian intrigue, before climaxing in a messy orgy of terror, blood and love (well, some kind of love - certainly not mine). This is a jazzy, stylish suspense noir, but without much (psychological) credibility.      (5)

© Bill Mousoulis April 2000
This review first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.5, April 2000.