I wasn’t going to write up my French Film Festival foray this year, but last night I had a lovely long Skype chat with my girlfriend Joyce, who lives in the Brittany countryside between Quimperlé and Pont-Aven. Talk of all things French inspired me to get my fingers out and describe my immersion into the world of French cinema. So Joycie, this post is for you, ma chère.
I saw 10 films in all, with only one dud. Let’s get the dud out of the way first – Saint Amour, directed by Gustave Kervern and Benôit Delépine and starring Gérard Depardieu. I should have known better, as their last outing together was Mammuth, a shambolic but slightly charming film. Saint Amour was neither, just plain tiresome. I lasted 20 minutes before beating a hasty retreat. However, there were some in the audience who found this charmless and boarish film funny, so who knows what people find entertaining.
French cinema resembles the Australian film industry in that there is a pool of actors who pop up regularly in films. This Festival was no exception, this time with female actors on double rotation – with Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Juliette Binoche, Audrey Tatou, Lily-Rose Depp, Nathalie Baye and Soko each starring in two films apiece. The redoubtable Catherine Deneuve was the first I got to see twice, in quite different roles.
The first of these was Standing Tall, a fascinating insight into the French juvenile justice system, so very different from our own. Deneuve plays a long time juvenile judge, war weary yet deeply caring for the young people who come before her. We follow the story of Malony, who has the misfortune to be the child of a young drug addict. Malony grows into a teenager boiling over with rage but anchored by a deep love for his wayward mother. The young man playing Malony brings this character so deeply to life you feel you are watching a documentary rather than a piece of fiction.
The Midwife found Deneuve in a completely different role. This time she is the ageing, and dying, glamorous and free spirited ex mistress of the father of Claire (played by Catherine Frot). Béatrice has been absent from Claire’s life for 30 years and Claire holds a deeply ingrained sense of abandonment, which she slowly overcomes when Béatrice unexpectedly reappears in her life. Whilst the storyline is fairly predictable, it is lovely to see these two wonderful actresses on the screen together.
Marion Cotillard was my other double act, firstly in the somewhat overwrought romantic drama From the Land of the Moon. Cotillard plays Gabrielle, an intense and passionate young girl of extreme emotions. Her mother marries her off to one of the farm hands in order to protect both Gabrielle’s and the family’s reputation. He is stoically devoted to her, but when she goes into a health centre for treatment for her debilitating kidney stones she meets and falls passionately in love with a patient, played by the gorgeous looking Louis Garrel:
Her other film, It’s Only the End of the World, finds her playing the anxious and socially awkward wife of an angry and domineering husband (played by Vincent Cassel – she does have very good looking leading men I must say). This film, directed by French Canadian Xavier Dolan, won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year. I’m a bit of a Xavier Dolan fan, having loved his last film, Mommy, but he is definitely not for everyone. This film is adapted from a play, and it feels very stage like, consisting mainly of close-ups. Louis, a world renowned dramatist who escaped his family and their small town life, makes a rare and much anticipated visit home. His intention is to tell his dysfunctional family that he is dying but their needs and emotions take up all the emotional space. Did I like the film? Yes. Would I recommend it to others? Probably not, but it is certainly a who’s who of French cinema.
I saw only one of Isabelle Huppert’s films. The FFF Guide described her as inimitable. I looked it up to get the exact definition: incapable of being imitated or copied; surpassing imitation; matchless. I think that descriptor pretty much sums her up. She is certainly one of a kind – immediately recognisable, with a masters degree in inscrutability. The film I saw was Souvenir. Huppert plays Liliane, a lonely and isolated middle aged woman who works an anonymous existence in a paté factory. However, Liliane was once a famous French singer who was beaten in Eurovision by Abba. A young man who comes to work in the factory recognises her, and awakens in her the desire to sing once more. A lighter role than normal for Dame Huppert, and I enjoyed the film a lot.
Just to be Sure looks, in a light hearted way, into the question of biological versus adoptive parenthood. What makes someone your Dad? Are there innate ties to a biological parent? How important is it to have a Dad at all? And, how messy modern family trees can be! Middle aged single Dad Erwan discovers by accident that his beloved Father is not in fact his biological father, and goes on a hunt to meet his ‘real’ Dad. The lovely Cécile de France stars, alongside François Damiens, whom we last saw in The Belier Family.
The Country Doctor is a slice-of-life movie that the French are so good at. What was it about? Nothing much, except how hard the life of a rural GP is, and of course said GP is devoted to his patients, to the detriment of his own health. Enter a new, female, addition to the one man practice. Predictable? Oui. Enjoyable? Oui. It stars François Cluzet, who resembles a better looking Dustin Hoffman. You’ll recognise him as the guy in the wheelchair in The Intouchables.
The last two films were more emotionally gruelling. First off was The Innocents, based on real events that occurred in Poland at the end of WWII. A young doctor working for the Red Cross encounters a young nun with a desperate plea for help at the local convent. She goes reluctantly but becomes the benefactor and saviour of these women who have suffered terribly at the hands of Russian soldiers. My only hesitation was the youth and beauty of the actress (Lou de Laâge) playing the Doctor – a bit unbelievable, but the nuns were riveting.
And finally, Heal the Living, every parent’s nightmare – the death of a child. This a quietly affecting film of loss, grief and love – and, an important plea for organ donation. We meet young Simon, a lover of bike riding, surfing and his first girlfriend, and, Claire, a middle aged mother of two adult boys who has a degenerative heart condition. Their lives become forever intertwined when Simon is fatally injured in a car accident. Tears were shed (and, a very cross word when we saw Claire having a cigarette!)
So, that was my French Film Festival. I merely scratched the surface, as there were 45 films on offer. Two I had seen at MIFF (Farewell My Queen – another outing for Léa Seydoux, and beautiful to watch just for the fabrics alone; and The Unknown Girl – the latest offering from the Dardenne brothers, not their best but always interesting film makers), and there were many more I wanted to see. But, there are only so many days in the week.