Tuesday, April 06, 2010

SFIFF53 2010—Michael Hawley's Line-Up Preview, Pt. One

The full line-up for the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) was announced at an unusually subdued press conference last week. With Executive Director Graham Leggat taking an uncustomary silent role in the proceedings, it was left for new Director of Programming Rachel Rosen and her staff to guide attendant journalists and Bay Area film community members through this year's impressive roster of 177 films from 46 countries. Rosen admitted that while the festival doesn't program according to "themes", certain ones inevitably emerge. 2010's program is characterized by "a return to basics and beauty in filmmaking," films that could be deemed "unclassifiable," films with an "intense interest in the creative process" and the beginnings of an "era of co-auteur theory" (15 of this year's selections have two or more directors). Rosen also joked that she has indulged her taste for "nuns, old men and farm animals."

In a previous entry I covered the films and events announced prior to the press conference. I won't be revisiting them here, except for these few addendums. Joining the list of on-stage "friends" at the Roger Ebert tribute will be writer/director Philip Kaufman and documentarian Errol Morris. At the world premiere of All About Evil, director Joshua Grannell (aka Peaches Christ) is expected to duet with actress Mink Stole on the theme song from John Waters' Female Trouble. Animator Don Hertzfeldt will be the youngest person to ever receive the fest's Persistance of Vision Award. The documentary Presumed Guilty so wowed the programming staff that they've already declared it winner of the Golden Gate Awards competition for Best Bay Area Doc, leaving one less decision for the jury.

Each year when the SFIFF line-up is revealed—and I've attended every single fest since 1976—I experience a mixture of elation and disappointment. This 53rd edition is no exception. Only six of the 20 films I most hoped for are in evidence, and several dozen more are MIA. That said, there are fully 25 films I'm very excited about seeing, with another dozen of possible interest. So here's my very subjective wander through what's in store from April 22 to May 6.

I'll begin, as I'm wont to do, with the French language selections. And right off, here's a big Evening Class kiss to whoever programmed Joann Sfar's Gainsbourg (Je t'aime…moi non plus). I'm a monster fan of musical iconoclast Serge Gainsbourg, but know very little about his life apart from the scandals (which include making the only pop record ever condemned by a Pope). This biopic only opened in French theaters three months ago, so once again, bravo. Somewhat relatedly, SFIFF has also programmed visionary Hong Kong director Johnnie To's Vengeance, which stars grizzled veteran rock 'n' roller Johnny Hallyday, aka the French Elvis Presley, as a chef avenging the Hong Kong slaughter of his daughter's family.

SFIFF has always done a fine job of keeping tabs on the work of France's l-o-n-g established auteurs. This year brings us Alain Resnais' Wild Grass, which won a special jury prize last year at Cannes, and Jacques Rivette's circus-set Around a Small Mountain. I sheepishly confess to not being a particular fan of the latter director's work, but I adored 2007's The Duchess of Langeais and this new one stars favorites Sergio Castellitto and Jane Birkin (ex-wife of Serge and mother of Charlotte Gainsbourg).

A number of mid-career French auteurs also pop up this year, starting with the Opening Night screening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Micmacs, his first film since 2004's A Very Long Engagement. Bruno Dumont returns to SFIFF with his latest provocation, a tale of religious extremism called Hadejwich. Although it's received tepid reviews, everyone I know is dying to see White Material because a) it stars Isabelle Huppert and b) it's directed by Claire Denis. This is Huppert's second film in as many years playing a white colonialist, the other being Rithy Panh's mysteriously as-yet-unseen in the Bay Area The Sea Wall. Director Jan Kounen, whom Variety once called "the Carlos Castañeda of hipster helmers," gets a crack at the Coco Chanel legend in Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. The story takes place at a time when reviled and penniless Igor (due to "The Rite of Spring" and the Russian Revolution respectively) moves his wife and four kids into Coco's sprawling estate. The film stars Anna Mouglalis (who also plays chanteuse Juliette Gréco in Gainsbourg) and Danish dreamboat Mads Mikkelsen. Then in Christophe Honoré's Making Plans for Lena, put-upon wife and mother Chiara Mastroianni gets to spend a disastrous weekend at her parent's home in Bretagne. And yes, there's a part in it for Louis Garrel. SFIFF53 will also be showing a special sneak preview of a new-ish film by François Ozon.

Four other French language films I'm anticipating are by directors at or near the beginning of their careers. I was thrilled to find Patric Chiha's debut film Domain in the line-up because it stars the world's scariest actress and a personal favorite of mine, Béatrice Dalle. Who can believe it's been almost 25 years since Betty Blue? Here she plays an increasingly unhinged, alcoholic mathematician who has a special relationship with her gay, teenage nephew. The lead actress is also my reason for wanting to see Dutch director Dorothée van den Berghe's My Queen Karo. Déborah François (The Child, The Page Turner) stars in this story of a squatting family in 1970s Amsterdam, as seen through the eyes of a young girl, Karo. Making her second appearance at SFIFF is director Mia Hansen-Løve with Father of My Children. I wasn't as taken by 2008's All is Forgiven as many were, but I've heard nothing but great things about this true story of a French film producer's suicide and its effect on those he leaves behind. In her third feature, Lourdes, Austrian director Jessica Hausner enlists the help of yet another incomparable French actress. Sylvie Testud plays a wheelchair-bound, quasi non-believer who nonetheless makes a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

Finally, there are three French documentaries I've got my eye on. Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea's Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno attempts to reconstruct a lost masterpiece by the director of Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, while recounting the story of its troubled production. Documentarian Nicolas Philibert had a 2003 arthouse hit with To Be and To Have, about a contemporary one-room schoolhouse in rural France. His latest film Nénette looks at a 40-year-old orangutan who lives the caged life in Paris' Jardin des Plantes. Jean-François Delassus's 14-18: The Noise and the Fury is a WWI doc that programmer Rosen especially singled out as being "unclassifiable." Using a mix of newsreel footage, movie clips and the voice of an unseen soldier narrator, the film attempts to fathom a reason for the "war to end all wars" 10 million dead.

While the above titles represent a formidable effort at bringing the latest French cinema to the Bay Area, there are a number of curious omissions. Will the latest works by such notable directors as Robert Guédiguian (The Army of Crime), Lucas Belvaux (Rapt), Gaspar Noé (Enter the Void), Tony Gatlif (Korkoro), Costa Gavras (Eden is West), Patrice Chereau (Persecution) and Sebastien Lifshitz (Going South), as well as Isabelle Adjani's Cesar-winning performance in Skirt Day pop up at the SF Film Society's autumn French Cinema Now festival? Or will they already be considered old hat and forgotten by then?

Cross-published on
film-415 and Twitch.

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