Last year as the world went into lockdown the Alliance Française French Film Festival was nipped in the bud – or, as the French say, dans l’œuf – in the egg. It may have seemed a cruel blow to this ever-popular movie marathon but the egg had already hatched. For the rest of 2020 a succession of festival features would appear at the cinemas in the form of limited releases. This resulted in 75,000 tickets being sold, making the AFFFF the most successful cultural event held in Australia in 2020.
In 2021 the festival is back in more conventional form, albeit with a new director, Karine Mauris, and a slightly reduced program. With the French cinemas still shuttered a number of films are having their world premieres in Australia. The list includes Eiffel, a bio-pic of the engineer who gave us the famous tower; Delicious, a sumptuous historical drama about a master chef in the days leading up to the French Revolution; Final Set, the story of a fading tennis star taking one last shot at the French Open; and Black Box, in which Pierre Niney stars as an investigator determined to uncover the secrets behind a plane crash.
It may be a privilege to host the international debut of a would-be French blockbuster, but it’s also a gamble. Martin Bourboulon’s Eiffel, which launched this year’s festival, seemed an irresistible proposition but turned out to be a laborious melodrama. When he wasn’t sitting at his desk furiously drawing lines with a set square, Romain Duris’s Gustave Eiffel was burning with unrequited passion for a lost love, who now happened to be married to a colleague. Naturally, as this is a French movie, conjugal ties present no barrier to carnal success, and Eiffel’s grand amour soon comes to seem more important than the massive iron structure he is erecting on the banks of the Seine.
If the film does little for Gustave Eiffel’s reputation it may serve as a launching pad for the next English actress to become an object of French cinematic adoration. Emma Mackey, who grew up in France and the UK, seems set to follow in the footsteps of Jane Birkin, Charlotte Rampling and Kristin Scott Thomas. In Eiffel she plays Gustave’s love interest, Adrienne Bourgès, a real historical figure who could not seem more fictional in this over-heated, engineering romance.
As a bio-pic I would have preferred to see Gabriel le Bomin’s De Gaulle, in which Lambert Wilson plays the famous general who brought France through the Second World War, not without a few rough patches. Unlike those commanders who faced their greatest challenges on the battlefield, Charles de Gaulle led the resistance from London, where he was forced to decamp during the German occupation.
If you’re not taken with stories of great men you might prefer a fictionalised biography of a great pop star. Valérie Lemercier’s Aline brings us the tale of Quebecois songstress, Céline Dion, rebranded as “Aline Dieu”. Yes, that’s “Aline God”, an alias that pretty much sums up Lemercier’s attitude to her subject.
Not only does Lemercier direct, she also stars in the lead role – which would be quite a feat if the film were better. What begins as a quirky origins story, with Aline the youngest of 13 children born into a musically-inclined, working class family, degenerates into an episodic study of the problems of being exceedingly rich and famous. One bizarre touch is that Lemercier (b. 1964) plays Aline not only as an adult, but as a child, or rather as a prematurely aged 12-year-old. As for the music, well Céline Dion has an incredible voice but…
I suspect viewers may be on firmer ground with movies such as Appearances, billed as a Chabrolesque thriller about a woman who suspects her high-profile husband is cheating on her, or the acclaimed comedy, Antoinette in the Cévennes, which is soon to get an Australian release. Those who enjoyed Quentin Dupieux’s offbeat comedy of last year, Deerskin, can sample another dose of weirdness in Mandibles, in which we meet two nitwits who try to make money from a giant fly. Nothing unusual here.
Albert Dupontel’s Bye Bye Morons (the French title is more expressive) is a fast-paced comedy about one wild night in which a hairdresser with an incurable lung condition, an aging I.T. expert with suicidal tendencies, and a blind man with delusions of grandeur, are thrown together in a desperate quest. It’s a warped fairy tale, slightly spoiled by a streak of sentimentality, but full of memorable scenes.
There’s an emphasis on Middle Eastern content in this year’s selection and a generous helping of unconventional love stories. One movie that ticks both boxes is The Man Who Sold His Skin, inspired by a 2008 project by Belgian artist, Wim Delvoye, who transformed a Zurich man named Tim Steiner into a walking work of art by drawing a massive tattoo on his back. The complexities of the deal, which turned a human being into a commodity that could be bought and sold on the art market, have been much debated.
Tunisian director, Kaouther Ben Hania, has substituted a Syrian refugee for Tim, and included a forlorn love affair, thereby adding extra political and ethical complications. Possibly her greatest deviation from reality is to make the fictional artist, Jeffrey Godefroi (Koen De Bouw), into a truly demonic character, whereas Wim Delvoye – who has a cameo in this movie – has the deadpan manner of a senior bureaucrat. As a parable about contemporary art the film is not as incisive as Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017), but it doesn’t allow the appalling decadence of this ‘industry’ to go unpunished.
Any movie that includes Isabelle Huppert is worth a look, and Jean-Paul Salomé’s comedy, The Godmother, finds the ice queen in top form. Huppert plays a French-Arabic translator working as a contractor for the police who slips into a life of crime when she learns about a big drug shipment, derails the arrest and takes possession of the loot. It’s a risky business, requiring her to deceive her boyfriend, who just happens to be a senior policeman, and dodge the gangs who are upset that she’s stolen their goods.
Finally, this year is the 60th anniversary of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (À bout de souffle), which is screening at the festival in a newly restored version. Breathless was a revelation when it first appeared and it seems just as daring and stylish today, with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg as timelesss icons of cool. This was also Godard’s golden period. The films he made during the heyday of the French New Wave, from Breathless to Bande à part (1964) to Pierrot le Fou (1965), are classics, but the movies that followed, after he embraced Maoism, have dated dreadfully. In Breathless, Godard the young iconoclast applied the blowtorch to the cherished conventions of the cinema. In later years, as an aging ideologue, he would focus his most destructive efforts on the viewer’s patience.
Alliance Française French Film Festival 2021
Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, 2-31 March; Perth, 10 March-7 April; Brisbane, 17 March– 13 April; Adelaide, 23 March – 20 April; Byron Bay, 24 March – 14 April; Parramatta, 8-11 April; Hobart, 11-20 March
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 13 March, 2021