“I film, therefore I am.” If asked to guess who made this heroic declaration you might imagine it was some famous French director such as Henri-Georges Clouzot or Jean Renoir, or perhaps a more recent auteur, like Jean-Luc Godard or Agnès Varda. In fact, it was Charles Aznavour, the small, dark, weedy crooner who dominated French popular music in the post-war era.
In Marc di Domenico’s documentary, Aznavour by Charles, we find the singer was also a compulsive maker of home movies who recorded his travels around the world, from Abidjan to La Paz, from New York to Tokyo. We meet the women he loved and impulsively married. We see his roots in a happy family of poor Armenian immigrants, and his gradual rise to stardom.
Aznavour acted in plenty of movies, including Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player and Franju’s La Tête contre le murs, but even before beginning a screen career he was busy behind the camera. He also kept journals, inspired by a reading of Céline’s novel, Journey to the End of the Night. Di Domenico has pored over Aznavour’s secret archive to construct a posthumous self-portrait made up entirely of the singer’s own images and words.
We discover a dedicated Romantic, fired by ambition and pained by remorse. We also see a man whose story embodies many aspects of modern life in France – aspects we see repeated over and again in the movies that make up this year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival.
This is the 31st in the series, and the third to be selected by Philippe Platel. As the largest showcase for French movies outside of France, it is what is technically known as ‘an eagerly anticipated event’. Until mid-April 49 films will be screened around Australia.
As the son of working-class refugees Charles Aznavour was a success story in a country that was becoming thoroughly multicultural. The downside of that story is explored in movies such as Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, which follows three cops working in a poor suburb in which families of African migrants cluster in desolate tower blocks. These places are breeding grounds for crime, and for a sense of hopelessness that infects the kids who grow up there, convincing the police that only the most brutal methods can succeed.
What we see is a picture of a welfare state that has decayed into a caricature of itself as the possibilities of education and advancement are taken away from new generations of migrants. There is a disconnect between the ideals and standards pursued by French bureaucracy and the actual circumstances of life on the streets.
This is one of the messages to be taken away from The Extraordinary, by celebrated directors, Olvier Nakache and Éric Toledano, in which Vincent Cassel plays the founder of an organisation that cares for disturbed and disabled youngsters rejected by the officially sanctioned institutions. Throughout the film we watch Cassel and Reda Kateb who runs a similar group, negotiate a series of desperate situations, while a pair of government investigators gather evidence as to why these rogue carers should be closed down.
At times Nakache and Toledano, who spent two years working with the real-life models of these groups, seem to forget they are making a drama. Admiration and anger fuel a project in which a powerful documentary threatens to burst through a thin coating of fiction.
Alongside such raw social criticism there are plenty of festival movies that remind us of the hyperliteracy which is such a feature of French society – and utterly unknown in Australia. I’m still grappling with the idea that Aznavour, who claimed he was not a great reader, had his outlook on life rearranged by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It’s not easy to imagine Barnesy or Farnsy curling up with a copy of Journey to the End of the Night, although maybe I’m underestimating them.
In The Mystery of Henri Pick, Fabrice Luchini, playing an acerbic literary critic, sets out to discover the truth behind a best-selling novel attributed to an unknown, deceased owner of a pizzeria in a provincial town. In the course of his investigations he tells us: “A third of French people write. France has more writers than readers” – exactly the condition once described by Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, as “graphomania”.
Perhaps graphomania is a by-product of the French education system, onto which we get a window in Bertrand Bonnello’s Zombi Child. When teenagers are brought up discussing Balzac and Napoleon, let alone the nature of liberal democracy, it’s hardly surprising they develop literary aspirations. The other side-effect may be an obesession with psychoanalysis – a motif that turns up in every festival. Justine Triet’s Sibyl tells the story of a psychoanalyst that draws on a patient’s experiences for her own literary endeavours.
Of the festival entries I’ve seen so far, the two that stand out are Zombi Child and Belle Époque. The former is a highly orginal production – a kind of low-level horror movie that cuts back and forth in time between a man in Haiti who is turned into a zombie, and his grand-daughter, a contemporary student at a prestigious French girls’ school. But don’t start imagining a cross between Day of the Dead and The Getting of Wisdom. The narrative proceeds in a realistic manner until the very end, when the supernatural element asserts itself.
Nicolas Bedos’s Belle Époque has been hugely successful in France and will soon be released in Australia, so I won’t pre-empt a longer review. Another story with psychoanalytic and literary motifs, it’s a movie about trying to recapture the past, in which two great actors, Daniel Auteuil and Fanny Ardant, age gracefully into the lead roles.
I’ve also seen I’ll Go Where You Go, a competent if predictable comedy-drama about sibling rivalry; Edmond, a sumptuous but superficial period piece about playwright, Edmond Rostand, who gave us Cyrano de Bergerac; and Notre Dame, an offbeat comedy about an architect, directed by Valérie Donzelot, who also plays the lead role. One vice that Donzelot cannot resist is a penchant for ridiculous songs and dances. It’s not clear whether she sees herself as Bollywood’s representative in France or the new Jacques Demy.
If viewers need any reminding about the resounding superiority of the real Jaques Demy, the festival is screening his 1970 classic, Donkey Skin, based on a fairy tale by Benjamin Perrault, with music by Michel Legrande. Not the least of its attractions are a pristinely beautiful Catherine Deneuve and the chiselled Jean Marais.
It’s been said that Donkey Skin feels like a movie directed by a child. I can’t improve on that description but one caveat is that this is a precocious child who keeps asking questions about class, prejudice, sex and incest. There are no shrinks in Demy’s medieval fantasy but a lot of material crying out for analysis.
31th Alliance Francaise French Film Festival
Sydney 10 Mar-8 Apr; Melbourne 11 Mar-8 Apr; Perth 11 Mar–8 Apr; Canberra 12 Mar–8 Apr; Adelaide 17 Mar–14 Apr; Brisbane 18 Mar–14 Apr; Hobart 19-28 Mar; Avoca Beach 19 Mar-1 Apr; Parramatta 26-29 Mar; Byron Bay 31 Mar – 12 Apr; Bendigo 17-19 Apr; Ballarat 17-19 Apr.
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 14 March, 2020