Tuesday, April 14, 2015

SFIFF58—MICHAEL HAWLEY ANTICIPATES FRENCH CINEMA

I arrived at the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) press conference two weeks ago and immediately flipped through the catalogue, noting a prodigious number of must-see films that were already on my radar. Then I scanned the catalogue's Country Index and was struck by how few French films were on the roster. Was it an off year for France? Did most of the good stuff screen at last autumn's French Cinema Now series? Apart from a revival (Monte-Cristo), several co-productions and two documentaries with non-French subject matter (A German Youth, Of Men and War), franco-cine-philes at SFIFF58 appear to be left with just six features. The good news is they seem very well chosen, and I can vouch for two I already caught at January's Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent is a soulful, kaleidoscopic biopic of the celebrated French designer, starring Gaspard Ulliel (best known here as Hannibal Rising's young Mr. Lecter) as Saint Laurent and Jérémie Renier as his lover / business partner Pierre Bergé. The film elicited mixed reviews at Cannes, but grew in critical estimation over the past year—ultimately becoming France's Oscar® submission and the recipient of ten César nominations. Saint Laurent is a debauched ride through a destructive genius' life, all cradled in outsized period art direction and music. It also boasts an unforgettable succession of supporting turns from eminent European actors of today (Louis Garrel, Léa Seydoux, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and yesterday (Dominique Sanda, Helmut Berger). Seeing Saint Laurent on the Castro Theatre's big screen should be a scrumptious experience. But what really makes this a must-see SFIFF event is the expected presence of Bonello and Ulliel, who'll both be in the U.S. for a Bonello retrospective in NYC. Here's a promise of five bucks to anyone brave enough to ask Ulliel, "Dude, was that thing real or prosthetic?" The festival's lone screening of Saint Laurent is on Sunday, April 26 at 2 p.m. It also opens at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema on May 15.

Just to be clear, Saint Laurent is a completely different movie than Jalil Lespert's Yves Saint Laurent, the somewhat middling, textbook YSL biopic that screened at last year's festival. Despite its faults, the earlier film does have a well deserved, César Award-winning lead performance from Pierre Niney, and the on-screen couture—courtesy of the YSL estate, who blessed the film—which are the original, authentic YSL creations that once strolled Parisian runways. Unless you're well versed in everything Yves, I strongly recommended watching Yves Saint Laurent (just recently added to Netflix streaming) prior to taking in Bonello's impressionistic Saint Laurent. The latter makes little effort to situate the viewer with relevant information about characters and locations. I would have been lost had I not dutifully sat through Lespert's film first.

My unexpected highlight at Palm Springs was Lucie Borleteau's Fidelio: Alice's Odyssey. This feminist seafaring tale is a first feature for Borleteau, an established actress who served as assistant director on Claire Denis' White Material and Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale. Fidelio is anchored by a fearless performance from Ariane Labed (star of audaciously weird Greek flicks Attenberg and Alps) as a nautical engineer embarking on an extended container ship commission. She leaves behind a doting Norwegian boyfriend (Anders Danielsen Lie from Reprise and Oslo, August 31st), only to discover that the ship's captain (Melvil Poupaud) is an ex-lover from her sea cadet days. Labed's Alice navigates the resultant choppy emotional waters, whilst proving her mettle in a career dominated by men. Borteleau makes terrific use of the ship's imposing mise en scène and conveys a wondrous sense of life-at-sea.

Vincent is a another debut feature in SFIFF58's French line-up, featuring writer / director / actor Thomas Salvador as a mild-mannered construction worker who achieves superhuman powers when wet. In France, the film is being promoted as "Le premier film de super-héros français." Here it will compete for the festival's New Directors Prize and Salvador is happily expected to be in attendance. I'm also greatly anticipating David Oelhoffen's much-praised second feature Far From Men. Based on an Albert Camus short story, this neo-Western stars Viggo Mortensen—in his second SFIFF58 appearance after Jauja—as a schoolteacher forced to choose sides in the early years of Algeria's War of Independence. The wide-screen cinematography—with Morocco's high plateaus substituting for America's Monument Valley—is said to be breathtaking. The film's score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis has scored high marks as well.

Rounding out the festival's French roster are films from two veteran SFIFF filmmakers. The SF Film Society has championed director Mia Hansen-Løve since her first feature All is Forgiven, played the fest in 2008. Her fourth movie, Eden, spans two decades worth of France's electronic dance music scene and is based on the experiences of her DJ brother, Sven Hansen-Løve, who also co-scripted. Eden is one of five films comprising SFIFF58's World Cinema Spotlight: The Sounds of Cinema. The venerated "old French master" of this year's festival is 47-years-young François Ozon, whose SFIFF association spans from 2000's Under the Sand right up through last year's Young & Beautiful. By all accounts, his latest work is also one of his best. The New Girlfriend stars Romain Duris—whose personal appearance promoting Chinese Puzzle was a SFIFF57 highlight—as a widower who takes comfort in wearing his dead wife's clothes, to the delight of his late wife's best friend (Anaïs Demoustier). In his rave review for Variety, Justin Chang detects the influences of Hitchcock, Almodóvar and de Palma, describing The New Girlfriend as "a clever fantasia on the many varieties of sexual perversion."

Cross-published at film-415.

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