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