One year after the smash success of its inaugural French Cinema Now (FCN), the SF Film Society has announced the line-up for its anticipated 2009 follow-up fest. This year's expanded program includes 11 new films and one revival, mostly culled from the Berlin Film Festival and Cannes' Directors Fortnight sidebar. It's an impressive roster—there are seven films I've been jonesing to see, plus four others which look plenty promising. Nothing has the marquee value of last year's Palme d'Or winner The Class, or all-star ensembler A Christmas Tale, but that's AOK. With the possible exception of the latest Claude Chabrol joint, none of these 11 films are what I'd call sure bets for theatrical distribution—exactly the stuff I want to see at a festival. Here's a brief rundown of what to expect from Oct. 30 to Nov. 4 at Landmark's Clay Theater.
I'd like to say that my #1 object of desire in this year's FCN is some tony art film, but alas, it's comedy OSS 117: Lost in Rio that's got me most riled. I got the biggest kick out of 2006's OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, featuring Jean Dujardin as the vain, meatheaded, culturally clueless secret agent Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath. I loved all the inane hijinks and sparkling 1950's art direction, and am counting on more of the same in this Rio-set sequel. An added bonus: director Michel Hazanavicius is expected to attend the film's sole FCN screening on Saturday, October 31.
Another comedy I'm looking forward to is Alain Guiraudie's The King of Escape. This one caught my eye because it stars Hafsia Herzi, the fiery young actress who wowed us in The Secret of the Grain (SFIFF51) and French Girl (SFIFF52). Here she plays a 16-year-old country teen who romantically pursues a dumpy, middle-aged gay tractor salesman—much to his surprise—and her family's extreme consternation. This got some terrific reviews when it screened in Directors Fortnight. Writer/director Guiraudie will be in town for the film's two screenings.
On a more serious note, conflict between a seemingly benevolent French-Arab factory owner and his Muslim employees is at the center of actor/writer/director Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche's Adhen. His first two features, Wesh Wesh (2001) and Bled Number One (2006) were both shown at our 2006 Arab Film Festival. I expected Adhen to show up in this year's AFF (Oct. 15 to 18 in SF, Oct. 23 to 25 in Berkeley), but am just as happy to see it as part of FCN. This is probably the "oldest" of FCN's 11 new films, having premiered in Directors Fortnight in 2008.
Last month's headlines concerning French police raiding and bulldozing immigrant camps in Calais directly relates to another FCN selection, Philippe Lioret's Welcome. Vincent Lindon (La moustache, Friday Night) portrays a swimming instructor with a wrecked marriage who wrestles with helping a 17-year-old Kurdish Iraqi refugee—one determined to swim across the English Channel from Calais to Great Britain. This is one of three FCN offerings which world-premiered at Berlin.
As with last year's FCN, there's one documentary in the 2009 mix, Thorn in the Heart by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep). Combining home movies, interviews and a bit of animation, Gondry's film is a portrait of his Aunt Suzette, a rural schoolteacher for 35 years. Her titular thorn is a troubled relationship with gay slacker son Jean-Yves. This got wildly mixed reviews when it screened as a Special Presentation at Cannes, with many critics damning the project as too personal and of interest only to actual members of la famille Gondry. Given the director's reputation and the subject matter, I plan on giving this a shot.
For this year's Closing Night, the FCN programmers have selected a formidable pairing of Benoît Jaquot's Villa Amalia and Claude Chabrol's Bellamy, both of which premiered at Berlin. The former represents director Jacquot's fifth outing with Isabelle Huppert, starring here as a respected composer/pianist who radically alters her life after discovering a lover's infidelity. All vestiges of her persona get discarded—family, friends, profession and possessions—sending her on an existential journey southward to an island off the coast of Naples. Relatedly, Huppert has made seven films with Claude Chabrol. In his 57th film Bellamy, the 79-year-old "French Hitchcock" works for the first time with screen legend Gerard Depardieu in a role written specifically for him. His titular character is modeled on Jules Maigret, the beloved French detective created by writer Georges Simenon in 1931. Bellamy is about a Parisian police commissioner who becomes involved in a murder case while vacationing in the south of France. It's said to be the director's wittiest, most accessible film in years—a perfect note on which to end the festival.
There are four FCN selections of which I was previously unaware, starting with Opening Night film The French Kissers. This teen comedy is the directorial debut of comic book writer Riad Sattouf, and is beguilingly described by Screen International's Mike Goodridge as a cross between American Pie and André Téchiné's coming-of-ager Wild Reeds. Newcomer Vincent Lacoste stars as Hervé, a 14-year-old class nerd who finds himself being pursued by the class beauty. Playing his mom is Noémie Lvovsky (the best friend in FCN 2008's Actresses), accompanied by some intriguing cameos from the likes of Emmanuelle Devos, Irene Jacob and Persepolis writer/director Marjane Satrapi. Director Sattouf is expected to attend the screening. (Interesting to note that all three filmmakers attending FNC are directors of comedies).
Another adolescent-centered film is Sylvie Verheyde's Stella. Set in 1977, it concerns an average 11-year-old who has inexplicably been admitted to a prestigious Parisian preparatory school. Hanging out in her parents working class bar has made her tops in pinball and pop music. When it comes to academics, however, she'll need the help and friendship of the class brain, a daughter of Argentine-Jewish intellectuals. This film has received critical raves all around. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing singer/songwriter Benjamin Biolay (a.k.a. Catherine Deneuve's ex-son-in-law) as Stella's father, plus Guillaume Depardieu in one of his final screen appearances (as a sympathetic bar customer).
Ex-film crtitic Axelle Ropert makes her feature directorial debut with The Wolberg Family, a dramedy in which a small town Jewish mayor struggles in vain to keep his family from unraveling. Ropert is best known for the off-beat screenplays she's written for director Serge Bozon (La France SFIFF51). Here Bozon returns the favor by taking on a pivotal acting role as Mde Wolberg's needling Bohemian brother. Making the film a total Bozon Family affair is Serge's sister Celine, who's responsible for The Wolberg Family's wide-screen cinematography. Boyd Van Hoeij waxes rhapsodic in his Directors Fortnight review in Variety.
Yet another 2009 Directors Fortnight selection is Yuki & Nina, a collaborative effort from formalist Japanese director Nobuhiro Suwa (2005's A Perfect Couple with Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Bruno Todeschini) and actor Hippolyte Giradot (last seen around here in A Christmas Tale and Amos Gitai's One Day You'll Understand). The two co-wrote and co-directed. Giradot also stars as the divorced father of Yuki, a desperate 10-year-old girl determined not to abandon her best friend Nina by moving to Japan with her mother. The story is told entirely from the children's POV and is said to contain elements of magic realism when the duo escape to a forest.
Last year's FCN featured three revival screenings, which represented fully one-third of the fest's line-up—French Cinema Now (and Then) if you will. There's only one vintage film this year, François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, chosen to mark the somewhat arbitrary 40th anniversary of French New Wave. It's not a terribly interesting choice, at least when compared to last year's Six in Paris omnibus and two early Arnaud Desplechin works. But it's as appropriate as anything else to mark this commemoration. As unlikely as it may seem, perhaps not everyone has seen this essential classic in 35mm.
French Cinema Now is one element of what is now officially the San Francisco Film Society's Fall Season. Be sure and check out Cinema by the Bay (Oct. 22 – 25), Taiwan Film Days (Nov. 6 – 8), SF International Animation Festival (Nov. 11 – 15, line-up TBA Oct. 9) and New Italian Cinema (Nov. 15 – 22, line-up TBA Oct. 5).
Cross-published on film-415 and Twitch.