Aside from the Indians, the French are probably the greatest talkers in the world. We Aussies, by comparison, are notably inarticulate. Perhaps that’s why we have such an inexhaustible affection for the annual Alliance Française French Film Festival, an event packed with movies in which characters babble on and on in a language which most of us understand imperfectly, or not at all. There’s something marvellous about a nation so enamoured with the power of words.
On the strength of its recent offerings one couldn’t accuse Hollywood of this vice. CGI has dispensed with the need for characters to have meaningful conversations. Soon there’ll be nothing more than massive explosions punctuated by wisecracks.
I’ve been led to these reflections by one of the headliners at this year’s Festival – Olivier Assayas’sNon-Fiction, starring Juliet Binoche and Guillaume Canet – a movie constructed from long conversations. A publisher talks with an author, the author confronts hostile readers and interviewers, husbands converse with wives and mistresses, a political publicist talks with a client, and so on.
The film is a virtual seminar on topics such as the future of publishing, the point where fiction departs from reality, the impact of the digital revolution, and the changing landscape of politics. It’s also a bedroom farce of sorts, in which everyone seems to be cheating on their partner. Some might unkindly say this is another French characteristic.
I was reminded of the chat in Jean-Luc Godard’s movies, although Godard’s characters began to drone on and on about class struggle and western imperialism until it felt as if one were attending a branch meeting of the International Socialists. Readers who like that kind of thing will be pleased to know there is a new Godard movie at this year’s festival. As I haven’t seen it yet I can only speculate idly.
The Image Bookwon the 87-year-old director a special Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, although that shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a recommendation. The film is described as “a sound-and-image visual collage – a work of audio-visual poetry”. This translates as: “Proceed at your own risk”.
One of my frustrations this year is that even though director Philippe Platel has chosen no fewer than 53 films, the biggest line-up ever, the titles I most wanted to see were not available for previews. That list incudes The Sisters Brothers, a western by accomplished director, Jacques Audiard; By the Grace of God, by François Ozon, an all-too-timely story about sexual assault in the Catholic Church; The Ideal Palace, a bio pic of the postman, Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, who created one of the greatest works of Outsider art (or l’Art Brut, if you prefer); Memoir of War, based on La Douleur, a celebrated novel by Marguerite Duras; and Promise at Dawn, a remake of a classic movie by Jules Dassin.
From what I haveseen of this year’s program, popular French comedy has not improved over the past 12 months. It might be possible to put up with the lame jokes and stereotypes, but one can be assured that everything that begins as sadism will end in sentimentality.
One film that stood out by virtue of its style and originality is Pearl, by first-time director, Elsa Amiel. It tells the story of a female body-builder whose past comes back to haunt her in the midst of a competition. Amiel, who has a knack for memorable scenes, allows the camera to roam within a parallel universe in which beauty is muscle. She captures the dissociation of mind that goes with an athletic obsession, to the point where the body seems to assume an entirely different identity to the person within. A brilliant debut!
There have been numerous documentaries about the fashion industry in recent years and the 2019 FFF features two new additions: Jean-Paul Gaultier: Freak and Chic, and Celebration: Yves Saint-Laurent.
The Gaultier movie centres around the designer’s project for a show at the Moulin Rouge that will be an autobiography in suitably extravagant style. It’s a cute idea but the preparations are so protracted that it feels as if we are watching a long preamble for a performance that flashes past in two minutes. I also began to wonder how much more of Gaultier’s irrepressible enthusiasm I could endure. Perhaps the best moment was when he tries to give Anna Wintour a peck on the cheek and she runs away.
Olivier Meyrou’s Yves Saint-Laurent film is the polar opposite of Gaultier’s campery. The footage was shot more than 20 years ago, but its release was blocked by the designer’s long-term partner, Pierre Bergé. When audiences finally got to see the movie last year it was obvious why Bergé did not take kindly to Meyrou’s efforts. Celebrationis a skillful but bitterly ironic portrait of a broken man. Mentally and physically frail, destroyed by drugs, alcohol and illness, Saint-Laurent comes across as an idiot savant who sits at his drawing board working on new looks while being completely lost to everyday life.
Over the past five years we’ve had two gruelling bio-pics about Saint-Laurent, but the documentary is even more depressing in that it omits all the youthful triumphs, showing us an aged zombie being treated like a prince. At no stage does Meyrou have to editorialise, he simply reveals what life was like at YSL headquarters, and lets people talk cheerfully to camera. It’s not a touching portrayal, it’s not even melancholy. It’s sad.
30th Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Sydney 5 Mar-10 Apr; Melbourne 6 Mar-10 Apr; Canberra 7 Mar–10 Apr; Perth 13 Mar–10 Apr; Brisbane 14 Mar–14 Apr; Hobart 14 Mar–23 Apr; Adelaide 21 Mar–18 Apr; Avoca Beach 22-27 Mar; Parramatta 28-31 Mar.
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 March, 2019