Wednesday, November 06, 2013

FCN 2013—MICHAEL HAWLEY ANTICIPATES THE LINEUP

The San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) brings us the sixth edition of its French Cinema Now (FCN) series, beginning this Thursday, November 7 at Landmark's Clay Theatre. While it's tough seeing 2013's event scaled back from seven days to four, the good news is that the quantity of films has remained the same (albeit with fewer screenings). Two things crossed my mind while perusing the program. The first was an absence of anything lightweight or overtly commercial on the roster. The second was an impressive dedication to a loose coterie of directors by the SFFS programming team, with eight of ten FCN films this year coming from filmmakers whose works have been previously exhibited by the SF Film Society.

The SFFS alumni party gets going on opening night with Sébastien Betbeder's drôle and affecting 2 Autumns, 3 Winters, which is also the only FCN entry I've previewed in advance. Betbeder was the surprise FIPRESCI winner at this year's SF International Film Festival. His 67-minute, made-for-TV movie Nights with Théodore, set an enigmatic, paranormal-shaded romance almost entirely within Paris' Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Betbeder's follow-up retains the Paris backdrop, this time concerning itself with the ups and downs of two ex-art student bros in their early thirties. It's been labeled the first French mumblecore film, which is a stretch. While the film does feature floundering young adults and lengthy monologues, it's more stylized than its American counterpart, with an episodic structure, a lot of fourth wall-breaking and a diverse look obtained from shooting both 16mm and digital. Comic, bittersweet and smart, 2 Autumns should work perfectly as an opening night film.

2 Autumns, 3 Winters is just one of six FCN selections that had world premieres at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The FCN film I'm most anticipating is Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake, which competed in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. It was perhaps the best-reviewed film of the entire festival, leaving some critics wondering why it wasn't in the main competition. It ultimately won the sidebar's Best Director award as well as the fest's Queer Palm. Set entirely around a placid lake that doubles as a notorious cruising spot, the film has been described as a (very) sexually-explicit thriller that takes on the complexities of gay male desire. One much-discussed scene has had critics making comparisons to Hitchcock and Chabrol at their most unbearably suspenseful. A lot of fuss has also been made of the film's lush wide-screen photography and layered sound design. Unsurprisingly, the good folks at Strand Releasing have picked this up for U.S. distribution. Director Guiraudie is no stranger to FCN, having personally accompanied The King of Escape, his yarn about a gay, middle-aged tractor salesman on the lam with a teenage girl, to the Bay Area in 2009.

Also showing up in Cannes' Un Certain Regard was Claire Denis' Bastards, a downbeat and menacing familial tale of money, sex and power set in contemporary Paris. Although the film drew mixed reviews—critics complained about its obtuseness and confusingly fragmented narrative—it fared much better at the Toronto and New York film festivals. Critic Robert Koehler proclaimed it Denis' best film since L'intrus and Manola Dargis found Bastards "grimly beautiful and somewhat unhinged." (And then there's Ryan Lattanzio's ominous warning at Indiewire that after Bastards "you may never eat corn-on-the-cob again.") Once more Denis enlists the immense talents of cinematographer Agnès Godard (her first digital shoot for Denis) and musician Stuart Staples of the Tindersticks. The promising cast includes Denis regulars Grégoire Colin and Michel Subor, as well as Denis newbies Vincent Lindon, Chiara Mastroianni and Lola Créton. I wasn't crazy about Denis' last film, 2009's White Material, but these L'intrus comparisons have me hopeful that I'll be loving me some Bastards.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's autobiographical A Castle in Italy initially drew attention at Cannes because it was the only female-directed film in the main competition. Then came the almost unanimously horrible reviews, with The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw leading the pile-on ("smug, precious, carelessly constructed, emotionally negligible, tiresome, insufferably self-regarding and above all, fantastically annoying"). Tedeschi plays a retired actress with a ticking biological clock whose family is divided over whether to sell the titular family castle—in other words, she's got an acute case of RWPP (Rich White People Problems). As in real life, her character has a younger actor boyfriend (played by her actual ex, actor Louis Garrel) and a brother who's dying of AIDS (Tedeschi's brother died of the disease in 2006 and is played here by Filippo Timi, the Italian actor best known for portraying Mussolini in Vincere). This is Tedeschi's third outing as director / writer / actress, and all three films were co-written by actress / director Noémie Lvovsky (who attended last year's FCN with the opening night film, Camille Rewinds). I remember enjoying Tedeschi's Actresses when it played the inaugural FCN in 2008, so I'm willing to take a chance on this—in no small part thanks to the presence of Euro-hunks Garrel and Timi. Omar Sharif of all people is said to have a movie-stealing cameo near the end.

Speaking of Euro-hunks, Danish superstar Mads Mikkelsen plays the titular role in FCN's other film from Cannes 2013's main competition, Arnaud des Pallières' Michael Kohlhaas. Based on an 1811 novella that's a staple of German literature classes, the film features a French-speaking Mikkelsen as a 16th century horse merchant seeking justice after two prized steeds are seized and then abused by a ruthless nobleman. Reviews of both the film and Mikkelsen's performance were mixed, with the Hollywood Reporter's Jordan Mintzer opining, "Michael Kohlhaas provides a few quick thrills and some beautifully photographed landscapes, but never really convinces as an intellectual's swords-and-horses period piece." The critics were unanimous in their praise of Jeanne Lapoire's cinematography (she also shot A Castle in Italy), as well as the film's exquisite period detail. Being mad-for-Mads means I wouldn't dream of missing this, especially when the Great Dane is joined by an impressive supporting cast that includes Amira Casar, Jacques Nolot, Bruno Ganz, Sergi López and Denis Lavant.

My favorite film at FCN 2010 was Katell Quillévéré's Love Like Poison, an impressive, Prix Jean Vigo-winning directorial debut about a young Bretagne teen grappling with issues of flesh vs. spirit. Three years later Quillévéré returns with Suzanne, which opened the Critics Week sidebar at this year's Cannes. The film encompasses 25 years in the life of its protagonist, a young woman who lives with her widowed father and sister, gets pregnant in high school and eventually takes up with a small-time gangster. Although reviews were generally favorable, many critics felt the huge time gaps in the narrative gave the film a choppy feel. Variety's Boyd van Hoeij likened Suzanne to an "extended trailer for an entire season of a French working-class daytime drama." Critics were unanimous, however, in their resounding praise for Sara Forestier in the title role. This is the acclaimed actress who burst on the scene in 2003, winning a Most Promising Actress César for her fiery performance in Abdellatif Kechiche's Games of Love and Chance (aka L'esquive), and then winning the Best Actress César in 2011 for Michel Leclerc's The Names of Love. Perhaps a third César is not out of the question.

Just as Quillévéré's first movie was my FCN favorite of 2010, so it was a year earlier with The Wolberg Family, the passionate and quirky 2009 debut of critic-turned-director Axelle Ropert. She's finally made a second film, Miss and the Doctors, which is about two pediatrician brothers both falling in love with a barmaid whose diabetic daughter is in their care. The brothers are played by director / actor Cédric Kahn (Red Lights) and Laurent Stocker, the latter a Comédie Françasie actor whose work I'm unfamiliar with. As with The Wolberg Family, Ropert's latest is also a Bozon family affair, with actor / director Serge Bozon (La France) once more taking on a supporting acting role and his sister Céline Bozon delivering the cinematography. Because Miss and the Doctors didn't have a festival rollout and only opened in French cinemas two months ago, there are very few reviews in English. An exception is Jordan Mintzer's favorable write-up in the Hollywood Reporter, where he calls the film a "bluesy swan song for brotherly love" and compares it to "the sort of earnestly made, cleverly scripted adult dramas of Truffaut's late period." The film's original French title (Tirez la langue, mademoiselle) translates as "Stick out your tongue, Miss," which sounds less lame than its English counterpart.

Yet another directorial second feature in the FCN 2013 line-up is Anna Novion's Rendezvous in Kiruna. Like the filmmaker's 2008 debut Grown Ups, it stars Novion's off-screen partner, renowned character actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin (who's mostly known to me from the films of Robert Guédiguian). Here he plays a gruff French architect who must travel to Swedish Lapland to identify the body of a dead son he has never met, picking up a young hitchhiker on route. Rendezvous in Kiruna won the prize for Best Film at the 2012 Cairo International Film Festival, and in her review for the Hollywood Reporter, Sheri Linden appreciates how the movie escapes inherent road movie clichés and promises that "the story's quiet observations build into low-charge detonations that resonate for days afterward." The film's cinematographer, Pierre Novion, is expected to attend the FCN screening. Kiruna, by the way, is Sweden's northernmost city and the unofficial capital of Swedish Lapland.

The lone documentary in this year's FCN is House of Radio from Nicholas Philibert. It's the first film by the master French non-fiction filmmaker since Nénette, his fascinating 2010 study of a 40-year-old, zoo-imprisoned Parisian orangutan. This time Philibert takes on the massive entity that is Radio France, which is loosely the French version of NPR. The film is given an illusory 24-hours-in-the-life-of structure, although it was actually shot over the course of six months. Reviews for House of Radio have been generally positive—it premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival and had a brief NYC theatrical release back in September—with the main criticism being that unless you are already familiar with Radio France, the film is a bit daunting. There is no voiceover narration or on-screen information imparted, so unless you know what screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and author Umberto Eco look like, you won't realize they are among the radio's on-air interviewees until the end credits roll.

After Stranger by the Lake, the FCN film I'm most dying to see is Vic + Flo Saw a Bear from French-Canadian director Denis Côté. This is the first time a Quebeçois film has been included in FCN's line-up and I hope it won't be the last. The SF Film Society did sponsor a Quebec Film Week back in 2008, but since then many important French-Canadian works have bypassed the Bay Area, including Côté's disturbing 2012 documentary about taxidermy and safari park animals, Bestiare (fortunately available for streaming on Netflix). Vic + Flo Saw a Bear tells the offbeat and ultimately harrowing story of a 61-year-old lesbian ex-con who retreats to the rural home of a paralyzed uncle, and is joined in short order by her former lover / ex-cellmate and her gay parole officer. The film premiered in Berlin, where it walked off with the prestigious Alfred Bauer Award, given each year to a film that "opens new perspectives on cinematic art." (Past recipients include Léos Carax, Tsai Ming-liang, Park Chan-wook, Fernando Eimbcke and last year's winner, Miguel Gomes' Tabu). Critics have been generous with praise, with Boyd van Hoeij calling it Côté's most accomplished work yet, and Screen Daily's Lee Marshall summing up the film's vibe thusly: "A rich, humane, surprising film, Vic + Flo Saw A Bear manages to mix the drollery of Wes Anderson, the genre swagger of Tarantino or the Coen Brothers and the opaque narrative of a Bruno Dumont in one intriguing package."

Cross published at film-415.

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