Wednesday, April 20, 2016

SFIFF59 2016—MICHAEL HAWLEY FOCUSES ON FRENCH CINEMA

Franco-cinephiles in the Bay Area look upon the San Francisco Film Society, with its international film festival and French Cinema Now series, as their principal source for important and interesting new works emanating from France. The eight eclectic features chosen for SFIFF59 include one animated movie, two feature directing debuts, three new works from mid-career auteurs and the latest from an octogenarian I'm guessing to be the oldest filmmaker in the entire festival. Here are some thoughts about what's on offer from April 21 to May 5.

A name that links three SFIFF59 French selections is Thomas Bidegain, the screenwriter best known for deconstructing genre-movie masculinity in his work with director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone and last year's Cannes Palmes d'Or winner Dheepan). Bidegain finally makes his directorial debut with Cowboys, a contemporary drama that's been thematically linked to John Ford's 1956 western The Searchers. Here the protagonist is a French aficionado of American cowboy culture whose daughter converts to Islam in 1995 and then disappears. He sets off to find her, and following the events of 9/11 he's joined by his son in a years-long search that touches down in Syria and Afghanistan. The film received very positive reviews when it premiered in Cannes' Director's Fortnight sidebar last year, but reactions from Toronto and the NY Film Fest were less kind. One reviewer went so far as to sum up Cowboys as "meatheaded pulp." Regardless, it remains a must-see for this SFIFF59 attendee.

Bidegain also lends a screenwriting assist to Clément Cogitore's Neither Heaven Nor Earth, which is competing for the festival's New Directors Prize. The film premiered in Cannes' Critics Week sidebar and has toured the festival circuit thus far as The Wakhan Front. Fortunately it's been renamed with a literal translation of the French title, Ni le ciel ni la terre. Jérémie Renier stars as a French army captain serving in Afghanistan. After several men under his command disappear, followed in short order by a handful of nearby villagers, a suspicion of paranormal or perhaps even theological causation comes into play. Reviews have been favorable, with some quibbling over the effectiveness of the film's denouement—or its lack thereof. Renier is one of my favorite French actors and it's hard to believe 20 years have passed since his teenage debut in the Dardenne brothers' breakout film, La Promesse. It's worth noting Renier played another Afghan War vet in last year's The Great Man, which screened at French Cinema Now, and he appeared at last year's fest in Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent biopic, whose script also bore a Thomas Bidegain imprint.

The third SFIFF59 selection with script collaboration by Bidegain is Joachim Lafosse's The White Knights. Belgian director Lafosse is known for a trio of effectively transgressive domestic dramas—Private Lessons (2006), Private Property (2008) and Our Children (2012). Lafosse broadens his scope with the ironically titled The White Knights, based on the true story of earnest NGO workers employing dubious means to smuggle orphans out of Africa for eventual adoption in France. The film stars Vincent Lindon, who took home the best actor prize at last year's Cannes for The Measure of a Man (French Cinema Now 2015), as well as actor / director Valérie Donzelli as a reporter embedded with the NGO. Lafosse, whose "gift for sustained emotional tension and moral ambiguity" was praised in Justin Chang's positive review for Variety, won the Best Director prize at last year's San Sebastián Film Festival for The White Knights.

I've had the pleasure of previewing two of SFIFF59's French selections, but their "hold review" status restricts to me to brief remarks. First off, I flat-out adored Michel Gondry's Microbe and Gasoline, which is his best film since 2006's The Science of Sleep (and I say this without having seen the poorly reviewed The Green Hornet or Mood Indigo). In this wondrous road movie about two teenage outsiders, Gondry tones down his predilection for frenzied whimsy and aims for something more low-key and heartfelt. Microbe is a budding artist nicknamed for his small size and resultant low self esteem, while his unlikely pal Gasoline exudes self confidence and possesses a talent for things mechanical. After cobbling together a petrol-powered cottage on wheels complete with geranium boxes, they hit the summertime byways of rural France in an effort to escape worrisome problems at home. Gondry's endearing script thumbs its nose at our high tech world—an iPhone literally gets pooped on—and low-fi surprises await our heroes, and us, with each passing kilometer. I'll be surprised if I see a funnier movie this year.

When it comes to animation, I sheepishly admit I'm not much of an enthusiast. When I noticed that Phantom Boy hailed from the same creators as the extraordinary A Cat in Paris, however, I couldn't resist having a look. Jean-Loup and Alain Gagnol's latest is set in an alternate NYC where everyone speaks French and a Dick Tracy-like villain threatens to unleash a cataclysmic computer virus. A wheelchair-bound cop and a plucky journalist (voiced by Audrey Tautou), with assistance from a terminally ill boy who's discovered a way to float outside his body, all work in tandem to put an end to his treachery. While I wasn't as impressed by Phantom Boy as compared to Cat (which the festival screened five years ago), I was still taken by its vibrant rendering of the Big Apple and the genuinely moving plight of its juvenile protagonist. Both elements should be greatly enhanced via a big screen experience, and co-director Gagnol is expected to attend the festival screenings. Animation fans might also want to check out additional titles being screened in SFIFF59's World Cinema Spotlight: Animating the Image. For those who miss them at the festival, Microbe and Gasoline will open in Bay Area Landmark Theatres on July 15, followed by Phantom Boy on July 29 (although the latter could possibly show up in a dubbed version).

I've considered Anne Fontaine a fairly middling director for some time now. Her recent efforts have included Coco Before Chanel (vastly inferior to Jan Kounen's Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky released the same year), My Worst Nightmare (Isabelle Huppert embarrassing herself as a rich-bitch buffoon) and Adore (Naomi Watts and Robin Wright having sex with each others' sons). The thought of her making a movie about pregnant nuns is enough to induce major eye-rolling. That movie, however, which premiered at Sundance as Agnus Dei and is now titled The Innocents, has gotten rave reviews and is now one of my most anticipated films of SFIFF59. Set in 1945 Poland, it stars Lou de Laâge, a relatively unknown actress outside of France, as a French Red Cross doctor on a mission to assist concentration camp survivors. Her efforts become diverted upon discovering a convent of pregnant nuns who were raped by Russian soldiers, many of them consumed by shame and now perhaps questioning their faith in God. In his review for Variety, Justin Chang calls The Innocents Fontaine's "finest film in years," admiring how it "manages to respect faith even though it refuses to partake in it." He also singles out two performances for special praise. Agata Kulesza, who was memorable as the hard-edged aunt in Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida, plays the convent's strict Reverend Mother, and Vincent Macaigne, an actor heretofore known exclusively for his schlubby slacker roles, appears as a more experienced doctor brought in to assist with childbirths.

The octogenarian referred to earlier is 82-year-old French-Georgian director Otar Iosseliani, who's a long-time SFIFF favorite. His latest is titled Winter Song and it's the filmmaker's 12th movie to play the festival in 30 years. For me, Iosseliani reached a career high with 1999's masterful Farewell, Home Sweet Home. Since then his style of stringing together sight gag-filled absurdist vignettes has become overly precious, reaching an insufferable nadir with 2006's Gardens in Autumn. Iosseliani actually flew to San Francisco five years ago to screen his semi-autobiographical Chantrapas. While I didn't care much for the film, I was delighted by his spirited Q&A that continued long past midnight. Winter Song premiered in competition at last year's Locarno Film Festival and can seemingly be summed up in three words—geezer buddy comedy. The film has its champions, particularly Eric Kohn at Indiewire. If I decide to catch Winter Song, it'll be due to a featured performance by legendary French comic actor / director Pierre Étaix, as well as an extended cameo by Mathieu Amalric. The latter made his screen acting debut at age 19 in Iosseliani's Favorites of the Moon.

The only SFIFF59 French selection not previously on my radar is Pascale Breton's Suite Amoricaine, which premiered at Locarno and brought home the festival's FIPRESCI prize. Illumination, Breton's previous (and only other) feature screened at the fest 10 years ago, but it seems I missed it. Her latest centers around an art history professor who becomes destabilized after leaving a 15-year relationship in Paris. She comes to teach at her alma mater in the Brittany capital of Rennes, where her past and present become tangled in heady and dreamlike ways. There's no one in the cast I've heard of, but the reviews are stellar and the trailer is captivating. SFFS programmer Rod Armstrong makes a reference to director Arnaud Despechin in the festival capsule, which pretty much seals the deal right there. Pascale Breton is also expected to attend the film's SFIFF59 screenings.

Finally, I'll make mention of Chantal Akerman's No Home Movie, which is of course in French and is the only Belgian film in the festival that's not merely a co-production. I previewed No Home Movie via Fandor and will be necessarily brief due to its "hold review" status. As many people know, iconic experimental-feminist filmmaker Akerman committed suicide two months after the film's premiere at Locarno. It's essentially an ode to her concentration camp survivor mother and speaks to the idea that "there's no more distance in the world." We observe Akerman and her mother interacting within the confines of a Brussels apartment, as well as via Skype during the director's time abroad. As her mother's condition deteriorates, the camera pulls back and records her from increased distances. No Home Movie requires a patience not every moviegoer possesses. Lengthy static shots—of a treetop whipping in the wind, an empty room devoid of people, a tracking shot of barren, scrub-covered hills filmed from a moving car—achieve profundity from the mundane for those willing to dig deep. If you miss No Home Movie at the festival, it will screen again at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from May 19 to 22, along with I Don't Belong Anywhere, Marianne Lambert's new career-spanning documentary on Akerman.

Cross-published at film-415.

1 comment:

Chris Knipp said...

Superb previews as usual, so informative and well-informed. My favorite French films of the SFIFF are Microbe et gasoil, Phantom Boy, and Suite Amoricaine. The Innocents also is a good film. Les Cowboys shows promise for Bidegain as a director and is a great opportunity for Finnegan Oldfield. With that name, how can he fail!? Phantom Boy is very cute and charming and I love the visuals, a delight. Microbe et gasoil one of Gondry's best in recent years.