The French cor­rec­tion

A new wave of direc­tors is carv­ing a global niche for the na­tional film in­dus­try, writes Ros­alie Hig­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

THE cin­ema of France is un­like any other: beau­ti­ful, in­ven­tive, in­tro­spec­tive, dark as the ocean or light as a souf­fle. That’s not sur­pris­ing of a na­tion that has al­ways been ob­sessed with self- ex­am­i­na­tion. Af­ter all, it was a French­man, Louis Da­guerre, whose da­guerreo­type was the first to cap­ture a re­flec­tion of life in a still pho­to­graph; then, in 1895, the Lu­miere brothers in­vented the cin­e­matographe, and the way peo­ple saw the world changed for­ever.

For a long time in this coun­try, French films were as­so­ci­ated with classy sex ( Brigitte Bar­dot and Catherine Deneuve) and with the new wave of the 1960s ( led by Jean- Luc Go­dard and Fran­cois Truf­faut) that in­vig­o­rated cin­ema with youth­ful en­ergy, jump cuts and jazz sound­tracks.

Oc­ca­sion­ally a few main­stream films broke out: La Cage aux Folles , Betty Blue , Jean de Florette , Amelie . But most French im­ports were art- house re­leases play­ing to small au­di­ences who were pre­pared to read sub­ti­tles.

Dur­ing the past five years, though, French cin­ema has carved a big­ger niche, with qual­ity films such as The Beat That My Heart Skipped , The Man on the Train , Hid­den , the doc­u­men­tary To Be and to Have and The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly .

Re­flect­ing this, each year across the coun­try the French Film Fes­ti­val draws big­ger au­di­ences who flock in to check out the latest bed­room farces, cos­tume dra­mas and heart- wrench­ing love sto­ries.

The 2008 FFF opens this week with 37 fea­tures and doc­u­men­taries.

Some are shock­ers, with retro sex­ual pol­i­tics mas­querad­ing as farce. Alexandra Leclere’s The Price to Pay is a com­edy about sex and shop­ping and what hap­pens when a bour­geois hus­band turns off the wife’s money tap un­less she — gasp! — re­sumes sex­ual re­la­tions with him. Nathalie Baye is won­der­ful as the wife who lives to shop, with Chris­tian Clavier as the hor­ri­ble hus­band.

Apart from the overtly sex­ist theme, this film also be­longs to that sub- genre of French films in which mas­ter- ser­vant lines are crossed, as in Con­ver­sa­tions with My Gar­dener and The Valet . It of­ten seems that the es­tab­lished French film­mak­ers can ac­knowl­edge their home­land’s class di­vi­sions only by us­ing com­edy.

An­other dis­turb­ing com­edy is Pierre Jo­livet’s Could This be Love? , in which a di­vorced in­dus­tri­al­ist is at­tracted to an artist he hires to dec­o­rate his new of­fice. Big sur­prise: he doesn’t trust women, all they want is his money, and so on. So he puts a private de­tec­tive on her tail. San­drine Bon­naire shines and is wasted on this silly stuff.

But one should never give up on the French: just when you think you may drown in soapy themes and screw­balls, along come new direc­tors shap­ing a strong, per­sonal view of the world.

Writer- di­rec­tor Is­abelle Cza­jka’s im­pres­sive first film is set in a con­tem­po­rary France with no vine­yards, farm­houses or Parisian apart­ments. Af­ter the death of her fa­ther, 17- year- old Manu ( Anais De­moustier) mo­rosely wan­ders by pub­lic trans­port through end­less dull sub­urbs where flat- pack furniture stores and shop­ping cen­tres pre­dom­i­nate. Her mother, played by theatre vet­eran Ari­ane As­caride, has taken up with a real- es­tate sales­man. Enough said.

An­other sub­ur­ban idyll is Wa­ter Lilies , Ce­line Sci­amma’s fierce study of three ado­les­cent girls, set dur­ing sum­mer in the sub­urbs, where the lo­cal swim­ming pool is the so­cial cen­tre, and the hottest girls are in­volved in the strange world of wa­ter bal­let, with its ar­cane rules, strange rou­tines and in­tense dress­ing- room drama.

Ac­tor- di­rec­tor Barthelemy Gross­mann’s hard­core 13m2 is a rough and claus­tro­pho­bic ur­ban thriller about three mates try­ing to make the big time. Gross­mann could be a force to be reck­oned with if he keeps up this tough yet touch­ing film­mak­ing.

Nat­u­rally, France’s jolie ladies are on show: Juli­ette Binoche, Lu­di­vine Sag­nier and Baye ap­pear in top form. In fact, women seem to have the pick of roles. As a mother griev­ing for her son in Gael Morel’s Af­ter Him, Deneuve is sym­pa­thetic and un­set­tling. In a quiet frenzy of grief, she pur­sues young men, in­clud­ing her son’s best friend, Franck ( Thomas Dumerchez). And Catherine Frot gives a win­ning per­for­mance in the en­ter­tain­ing and ter­ri­bly silly ro­mance Odette Toule­monde .

Hot ac­tor Ro­main Duris ap­pears in three films: Cedric Klapisch’s Paris , The Age of Man a rom­com about a boy- man de­cid­ing if mar­riage is for him, and the cheer­ful Moliere , a cos­tume romp in which Duris shows off his act­ing chops, most no­tably as he im­per­son­ates a horse.

Speak­ing of an­i­mals, amaz­ing pho­tog­ra­phy and a score by Philip Glass en­liven the doc­u­men­tary An­i­mals in Love , which fea­tures a kan­ga­roo three­some and some scar­ily hu­man­like scenes of mon­key love and fam­ily life.

It’s tempt­ing to make any na­tional film fes­ti­val a metaphor, as if by look­ing at a cou­ple of dozen films you can take the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal tem­per­a­ture of a place. By that mea­sure, this year’s French Film Fes­ti­val shows a healthy and busy body, per­haps too ob­sessed with the state of the heart. The French Film Fes­ti­val tours Syd­ney, Melbourne, Can­berra, Bris­bane, Ade­laide and Perth from next Wed­nes­day.

Hold­ing wa­ter: Ce­line Sci­amma’s Wa­ter Lilies fea­tures at the 2008 French Film Fes­ti­val

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