Film Reviews

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2013

Published March 9, 2013
Thérèse Desqueyroux, Directed by Claude Miller

“Gwynplaine we are made for each other. The monster you are outside, I am inside.” Where do you get to hear – or at least read – lines like that? Only at the 24th Alliance Francaise French Film Festival, or until a featured item gets an Australian release. From an exceptionally strong program last year I counted eleven movies that went on to be shown in local cinemas.
It’s possible this score may be bettered from the 43  included in this year’s selection. Five films are already scheduled to be released before the end of May: Thérèse Desqueyroux, Haute Cuisine, Camille Rewinds, A Lady in Paris and You Aint Seen Nothin’ Yet; with In the House to follow in June.
Of all the national film festivals held in this country the French is the biggest and the most popular. French cinema is enjoying a purple patch, with movies such as The Artist and The Intouchables gathering critical acclaim and vast international audiences. In 2011, the French produced 272 features, which compares favourably with any country in the world apart from India, and that unheralded movie powerhouse, Nigeria, which churns out more than a thousand features every year.
Needless to say, most of the Indian and Nigerian films are tailored for local tastes. The French cinema has a more universal appeal, with every gallic inflection only adding to the attraction. We love French films because there is so much that is familiar, along with a certain frisson which remains seductive to the Francophiles who will be out in force for this year’s classic feature, a new print of Marcel Carné’s masterpiece, Les Enfants du Paradise (1945).
Gradually one becomes familiar with those actors who appear in a never-ending procession of French films while having very little profile in the English-speaking cinema. Occasionally the line is crossed, as it was last year when the charismatic Jean Dujardin won the Oscar for Best Actor, for his role in The Artist. Some stars, such as Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve, have become celebrities on a global scale. Then there is that sub-category of Francophone English actresses such as Jane Birkin, Charlotte Rampling and Kristin Scott Thomas, who have been adopted – rapturously – by the French.
The list of other actors who appear with great regularity, but almost exclusively within the world of French cinema, includes Isabelle Carré, Benoit Poelvoorde, Karin Viard, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Samir Guesmi, and Gilles Lellouche. Only Poelvoorde makes it into the top ten of Le Figaro’s 2012 list of the highest-paid French actors – at number four, with earnings of €2.375 million. This is small beer compared to the sums earned by Hollywood stars, but enough to raise a controversy in France.
According to a recent article in Le Monde by producer Vincent Maraval, at a time of record box office success almost every major French film manages to lose money because of the sums paid to leading actors. Comedian Dany Boon, who tops the 2012 pay list with €7.5 million, starred in one movie, Un plan parfait, in which box office takings failed to cover his fee. Meanwhile, last year’s highest paid French actress, with earnings of €1.08 million, was not Marion Cotillard, Audrey Tautou or Isabelle Huppert, but Valérie Lemercier, who is virtually unknown outside of France.
The problem arises from a system that channels state subsidies through French TV companies, which are able to screen these movies within ten months of first release. The desire for “bankable” talent has created a scenario unkindly described by John Lichfield in The Independent, as “an over-exposed repertory company appearing in mediocre films with predictable scripts and no foreign sales prospects.”
This is a portrait that should outrage free marketeers who believe government subsidies tend to generate poor quality product shielded from the realities of the marketplace. On the other hand, it is a lesson in how to sustain a thriving national film industry in the face of big-budget competition from Hollywood.
To reduce the French cinema to a simple profit-and-loss equation is to underestimate its more profound cultural ramifications. When a country produces 272 films in a year it is inevitable that many will be duds. The value lies in those features that rise to the top of the heap, gathering momentum on the film festival circuit and broadening the apprecation of French culture. Such films help generate tourism, and sales of French products abroad. Some of the supposedly overpaid actors will be picked up by Hollywood and given worldwide exposure.
Rather than condemn the French state for its subsidies, we should take note of the way it supports its local talent, and uses the cinema as a vehicle for enhancing its international image. The films that get an overseas release may be a small percentage of the total, but they grow out of a fertile environment in which directors, actors and other professionals have the chance to learn on the job and progress through the ranks.
There are similar systems in place in countries such as Germany and South Korea. By contrast, Australia funds less than 30 projects every year, based on so-called ‘expert’ assessments of proposals and treatments. The mediocrity is overwhelming, although occasionally something as good as Snowtown or The Sapphires manages to escape the general malaise.
Although I’ve watched about a quarter of the program for this year’s FFF, that doesn’t include some of the big drawcards. For instance, I’ve yet to see Alain Resnais’s You Aint Seen Nothin’ Yet, and Francois Ozon’s In the House. These directors are arguably the two most distinctive auteurs in the 2013 line-up, although one might make a case for Claude Miller (1942-2012), represented by his final film, Thérèse Desqueyroux.
Other (unseen) films that sound intriguing include Augustine, which looks at Charcot, the famous 19th century neurologist who worked with female hysterics; and Renoir, a bio pic of the great Impressionist, although I don’t hold high hopes for the latter.
From what Ive seen so far, the most impressive film is probably Haute Cuisine, which features Catherine Frot as Hortense Laborie, a successful chef from the provinces, summoned to the Elysée Palace to be the President’s personal cook. This is based on a true story, although the President in the film bears no resemblance to Francois Mitterand.
Christian Vincent’s film is a study in the hothouse politics that take place in the kitchen as well as the Palace. It is worth seeing if only as a mouth-watering sampler of French cookery.
This year features not one but two time-travelling rom coms, reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). In Camille Rewinds, 40-something actress/director, Noémie Lvovsky, returns to her teenage years, when she fell in love with the boy who would later become her estranged husband. In Another Woman’s Life, 20-something Juliet Binoche travels forward fifteen years to find she is married to the boy she has just met, and that life is difficult and stressful. Backwards or forwards, in both cases a relationship rescue operation is required. Neither film, no matter how slickly produced, could be described as anything but lightweight.
Equally lightweight, but without the laborious device of a slip in time, The Cherry on the Cake is the tale of a neurotic woman called Amanda, played by director Laura Morante, whose hatred of men is overcome by her attachment to a brooding fellow she mistakenly believes to be gay. Her friends, eager to see this romance flourish, practice a little psychoanalytical activism to ensure Amanda doesn’t learn the truth until true love has taken charge.
Better still is The Big Night, co-directed by Gustave Kervern and Benoit Delépine: an anarchic comedy about two brothers – one an aging punk, the other a salesman who loses his job and has a nervous breakdown. Not (Benoit Poelvoorde), rescues his brother, Jean-Pierre (Albert Dupontel) from the grip of bourgeois society and inducts him into the absolute freedom of the punk life. It’s a wild ride, but also touching, as the brothers wage a Quixotic war on the all-encompassing culture of the shopping centre.
Yet another comedy-drama, Waiting for Hortense, finds Jean-Pierre Bacri trying to convince his father, an important judge (Claude Rich) to help rescind an expulsion order on an attractive girl named Zorica (Isabelle Carré). Meanwhile, his own marriage to theatre producer, Iva (Kristin Scott Thomas) is falling to bits. This film has the sharpest script of all the comedies, but none of the inspired anarchy of The Big Night.
Louise Wimmer sets a completely different tone. It is a no-frills examination of the life of a woman, played by Corinne Masiero, who has fallen out of a comfortable middle-class existence and now struggles to survive on the margins of society. It’s a subtle, neatly composed first feature from documentary maker, Cyril Mennegun, but not recommended for depressives.
The line that opens this column is from Jean-Pierre Améris’s The Man Who Laughs, a vivid, fast-moving fairy tale based on a novel by Victor Hugo. It is to be vastly preferred to Les Misérables on the grounds that it includes no singing, and clocks in at a mere 93 minutes.
Gwynplaine (Marc-André Grondin) is a young man disfigured by a scar that runs upwards from each corner of his mouth, giving him – like The Joker in Batman – the appearance of a perpetual smile. His picaresque life is conjoined with that of a blind girl (Christa Theret) and a travelling huckster (Gérard Depardieu), until he meets the decadent Duchesse Josiane (Emmanuelle Seigner) and everything changes.
Gwynplaine would be a great role for Johnny Depp if Hollywood decides it can’t handle the French language and needs to have everyone speaking American. This is a thought for the next time you read about the notorious insularity of the French film industry.

Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Sydney: 5 – 24 March; Melbourne: 6 – 24 March;
Canberra: 7 – 26 March; Brisbane: 14 March – 4 April;
Adelaide 19 March – 7 April; Perth 19 March – 7 April.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, March 9, 2013