By Liza Palmer and Tim Palmer.
Travelling through the Carytown area of Richmond, Virginia, the weekend of 28–30 March 2008, one would not suspect that recent relations between the United States and France had been anything but rosy. Lampposts were festooned with French flags. Local bistros and bakeries promised delectable French delicacies, from quiches to croissants. Bookstores featured displays of French cinema volumes – some hard to find, some easy to forget, but few usually in stock on typical US bookstore shelves. And, surprisingly, at 8 a.m. on that Saturday morning, a series of short French films was playing to a packed house at the historic Byrd Theatre, a restored picture palace in the heart of Richmond and sole venue for the sixteenth annual VCU French Film Festival.
The VCU French Film Festival is a major effort of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) to: ‘(1) promote French language cinema and culture in the United States and (2) create a tradition of Franco-American corporate and cultural partnerships’ (VCU French Film Festival 2008). The brainchild of Peter and Françoise Kirkpatrick, professors of French literature and culture at VCU (whose influence on the proceedings is hard to deny or ignore, given that they introduced every film, with Peter also serving as on-demand translator for featured guests), the festival has been running successfully since 1993. Its mandate is not only to screen the most notable of contemporary French output, but also to host up-and-coming, as well as more established, actors and artisans working in France today. Indeed, the overall strength of this annual event is its ability to get attendees engaged with French cinema as a whole: seeing films, reading source material and interacting both casually and formally with film practitioners.
Across three very full days, the festival crammed in 11 features and 14 shorts, with many of the films supplemented by varyingly intense question-and-answer periods. Alongside these were one-off events, including a master class with director Sam Karmann, author Stephen McCauley and actress Catherine Olson; an official reception, which invited all festival pass holders to mingle with the ‘French delegation’ of guests; and a gala dinner for ‘VIP Plus’ pass holders. Every screening played to an enthusiastic crowd − the Byrd Theatre was frequently packed to its 1,350 capacity − with some attendees reportedly coming from all corners of the country. This is a real achievement for a festival located in a southern East Coast city with an estimated population of less than 200,000 people. And with sponsors such as TV5Monde, UniFrance and Cahiers du cinéma, it is clear that the VCU French Film Festival is an occasion of some standing and esteem, both in the United States and France, and rivals other similar series such as the Boston French Film Festival.
New this year – and something that will help define the VCU French Film Festival amongst its competitors – was a more formal partnership with the French film school, La Fémis. This very prestigious academy is located in the old Pathé studios in Paris, near where Jacques Tati once had his base of operations, whose distinguished alumnae include Francois Ozon, Marina de Van, Noémie Lvovsky and Emmanuelle Bercot. Six May 2007 La Fémis graduates of the Image section screened their thesis films at the festival, starting at 8 a.m. on the Sunday (which, again, resulted in yet another well-attended event, given the time, day and the fact that they were essentially student films). Impressively, all the films were shot in 35mm and covered an inspiring range of topics, proof that MFA students can produce innovative and compelling films on shoestring budgets, providing they are challenged by a rigorous curriculum. The collaboration between VCU and La Fémis has been eight years in the making – a labour of love for Peter and Francoise, as well as director Pierre-William Glenn, a professor at La Fémis and president of Commission Supérieure de l’Image et du Son. An exciting prospect, this will not only result in all-important screening opportunities for La Fémis graduates but will also enable the VCUarts Cinema undergraduate students to shoot on 35mm (a format that they usually do not work with before their senior year) four scenarios, in conjunction with the La Fémis guests, which they had all developed via e-mail prior to the festival. Furthermore, all the brand-new, pristine, subtitled prints of the La Fémis shorts screened at the festival will become part of the VCU archives, in addition to translations of the written theses that La Fémis students are required to write before they can begin production on their films. Having such privileged access to these French shorts, via these new archives, is extremely valuable. As one short-film-maker noted in response to a question from the audience, it is hard to see such films except via festivals or on late-night French television, unless the film-makers make them available on the Internet.
A highlight and delight of this year’s festival was Françoise Marie’s documentary feature debut, On dirait que…. The result of over 60 hours of footage, the film is a charming yet incisive realization of French children improvising the jobs at which their parents work: schoolteachers, farmers, restaurateurs and so on. Marie, in her question-and-answer period, indicated that she purposely focused on jobs that we, as viewers, would all know and understand, the better to appreciate the subtleties and nuances that are revealed through the children’s pretend play. Also, the children had to live near their parents’ workplace, so that they would be able to draw on their own direct observations during their improvisations. The sensitive and respectful treatment of the children and their ideas is endearing and illuminating, and functions almost as a nature documentary; but instead of watching lion cubs, we see human young at play, making sense of and ultimately preparing for the adult world. Marie’s film is not only interesting in its own right as a text, but also has intriguing implications for documentary practice as a whole. (Forthcoming in Film International 6.4 is an exclusive interview with director Françoise Marie).
Jean Becker’s Dialogue avec mon jardinier (2007) was another strong contribution, featuring the leading talents of Daniel Auteuil and Jean-Pierre Darroussin. Based on a book by Henri Cueco, the film explores male friendship rekindled, when a professionally renowned but burned-out painter (Auteuil) returns to renovate his childhood home with the help of a gardener and old school chum (Darroussin). As their friendship deepens, the two men each gain in compassion and perspective, the painter reconnecting with the simple joys of pastoral routines, and the gardener softening his outlook on life. As Becker (son of legendary classical director Jacques Becker) shared with the audience following the film, ‘He [the painter] becomes a better person through his relationship with the gardener.’ While acknowledging that his sympathies are more closely aligned with the gardener, Becker admitted: ‘For me, the character played by Daniel Auteuil is a very touching one. I’m not simple but sometimes I’d like to be.’ All told, the film is accomplished and satisfying, but most interesting, perhaps, for its editing, which is particularly notable towards the beginning. As the painter and gardener slowly fall back into friendship, all their early scenes are cut back to back with few or no cues about the passing of time, save costume changes. This device gives the impression that there is no other world for them at the moment outside of their, at times, awkward bonding. It is a shame, actually, that the film loses this almost breathless quality in its more ponderous final third, especially during an inert subplot about Auteuil losing touch with his adult daughter. But the film coasts confidently on the skills of its performers, notably Darroussin, whose elegantly irascible mannerisms recall Orson Welles’s ability to embody the infirmities and introspections of advancing age.
Equally illuminated by star performances was one of the best-received films of the festival, Thomas Gilou’s Michou d’Auber (2007). Set during France’s turbulent year of 1960, the film depicts the childhood of an adopted Algerian boy whose racial identity is concealed by his new foster mother (Nathalie Baye) from her initially conservative husband (Gérard Depardieu), who leaps to his feet to salute de Gaulle every time he appears on television. In its promotion, the film leads us to expect an earnest treatment of social upheaval during the Franco-Algerian war, another example of recent French cinema’s efforts to negotiate the country’s chequered colonialist past, as in Philippe Faucon’s La Trahison (2005). But Gilou’s film manifests instead – effectively but not without evasions − as a very warm and often funny sketch of the relationship between mismatched father and son, as their differences and preconceptions dissolve. Michou d’Auber also showcases Depardieu, recently given to more supporting roles, who here takes centre stage to mesmerizing effect, like a fine-tuned instrument capable of deft emotional range with seemingly minimal effort. One wonderful shot, a low angle from the boy’s perspective (hidden under a table as he awaits his new father’s return home) sums up both role and film, as Depardieu enters screen left to eye up his new charge with a mix of inadvertent curiosity, masculine braggadocio and over-confident posturing, all tinged nonetheless with a lingering undertone of sympathy. The film may occasionally overreach in its sheer optimism about the period’s prospects for social inclusion and forgiveness − and Mathieu Amalric is wasted in an underwritten role as a supportive local schoolteacher − but Depardieu and Baye compensate for an occasionally schematic script.
Two of the festival’s most high-profile attractions were saved for the final pair of screenings: Claude Miller’s Un Secret (2007), followed by the closing film, Claude Berri’s Ensemble, c’est tout (2006). Miller, an industry mainstay with nearly forty years of work to his name, enjoyed an unexpected comeback with Un Secret, which received mixed critical notices in Europe but strong box office and eleven César nominations. His film, an adaptation of Philippe Grimbert’s autobiographical novel, recounts a young boy’s discovery of his parents’s (Patrick Bruel and Cécile de France) dark past, including events during the Occupation, its aftermath, and book-ending sequences set in contemporary France. A relative exception among the fiction features screened during the festival, Un Secret benefits from a more narratively and formally complex design. The film oscillates from (ironically) lushly photographed scenes in the 1930s and 1940s to monochrome moments in the dreary present, as the family belatedly makes peace with repressed wartime traumas. Cécile de France’s turn as the enigmatic mother anchors much of the film, but Ludivine Sagnier is a quiet revelation as the father’s lost first wife, whose uncharacteristically muted performance gives pathos and uncertainty to her character’s pivotal decision − wanton suicide? noble self-sacrifice? − to abandon herself and her son to the Nazis.
Another commercial hit (with over two million paid admissions in France) based on another best-seller (by the consistently impressive Anna Gavalda), Ensemble, c’est tout also benefits from a terrific cast: Audrey Tautou as a nocturnal office cleaner and artist in drastic physical decline, rising star Guillaume Canet as a misanthropic trainee chef, Laurent Stocker as a drop-out ex-aristocrat and Françoise Bertin as Canet’s lonely grandmother. Like Un Secret beforehand, Ensemble, c’est tout reflects on the uneven and impromptu nature of family, as this unlikely quartet is thrown together in a vast, crumbling Paris apartment. Gavalda’s droll dialogue and affecting characterizations are imported from the novel, as is the story’s balance between melancholy and wry hopefulness; the resulting film, undeniably entertaining, was bizarrely not picked up for distribution in America. But Berri, another forty-year trade veteran, was, frankly, a strange choice to bring such a bittersweet and youthful text to the screen, and much is lost in translation: the forlorn and crucial art school backstory of Tautou’s character, the initially far more deadpan and candid sexual relationship between her and Canet, and the overarching tone of social dysfunction that keeps novel, more than film, grounded and less prone to flights of preciousness or unearned whimsy. Gavalda’s witty narrative ellipses, her fierce sense of the female characters’ compromised agency and an unsentimental approach to the human need for companionship − all of these are rather bludgeoned into truncated shape in a film that is flatly shot, marinated in music, hastily plotted, and conventionally assembled.
Contrasting sharply with the grandiose production values and high budgets of such star vehicles was the La Fémis screening panel, which gave a rich sampling of the emerging careers of six recent graduates: Karine Arlot, Thomas Favel, Sébastien Hestin, Noémie Gillot, Macha Kassian and Yoann de Montgrand. If nothing else, the maturity and rigour of the shorts showed once again the strengths of La Fémis and the French film school system. While many critics approach French cinema in broad terms − its commercial qualities, its artistic merits, its political commitments − few dwell on a far more proximate and salient cause for France’s cinematic momentum: the skilled training and advanced ciné-literacy instilled in the classrooms of institutions like La Fémis. All of the shorts on offer here, matched by the articulate responses offered by their directors in the discussion panel afterwards, revealed a talent for the craft of creating compelling images and evoking engagement, and at times surprising emotions, by an audience. A particular highlight of these very rewarding screenings was Kassian’s L’Heure blanc, an almost dialogue-free yet vivid evocation of a young boy left alone in a public square, alive to yet uneasily aware of the adult world around him. Elsewhere, demonstrations of precise composition and forceful cinematography were given in Favel’s Les Quarante voleurs, which juxtaposed a group of men at first calm, resolute and attentive to their mountain hunt, then raucously celebrating its aftermath, and Hestin’s Le Grand bal, which used black-and-white photography to link a boxing match (in high contrast shots that almost look rotoscoped) with a World War II battlefront, in a murky forest landscape that recalls Ivan’s Childhood (1962).
In general terms, the VCU French Film Festival is a manifestation of the fascination and allure that French film culture continues to hold for Americans, despite what politics and politicians may assert to the contrary. The weekend, however, was not without its faults. It must be said that the overall selection of films does a disservice to the diversity of French cinema, especially its more stylistically edgy and artistically invigorating films; the festival programmers tend towards more tame, rather generic, crowd-pleasing fare. The buoyancy of French film in the twenty-first century is the right note to strike, clearly, but it’s a shame for this to come without more representation for established women directors (who make up nearly a third of the film-making population in France today), or film-makers keen to experiment and challenge, in approach and content. Comedies and costume dramas are the stuff of French box office but are, unfortunately, often also fraught with cliché and conventionality. Technical issues were apparent, too, with film-makers during the question-and-answer periods forced to stand uncomfortably at the front of the Byrd Theatre, glaring spotlights blinding them and microphone feedback at times overwhelming their responses. The choice of venue, while lovely and historic (and certainly, with its central location within the city, a boon to the revitalization that Richmond is obviously experiencing), often hindered a smooth transition between programmes. Most annoying: attendees noisily pouring out or in while guest artists were trying to answer questions, while also indiscriminately saving seats. Indeed, the team of volunteer interns is to be commended for their take-charge attitude, ensuring that everyone found a seat eventually and with minimal hassle. All that having been said, however, these few negatives point to an overarching positive: the VCU French Film Festival is a victim of its own success and has plainly outgrown its format. The festival could easily sustain expansion by adding additional venues and/or programme days, so that planners could build breaks into the schedule to facilitate transitions, and also a greater breadth of programming choices. Despite these problems, though, goodwill and conviviality were present that weekend, along with eager crowds of viewers. As Pierre Vimont, French ambassador to the United States, suggested during his opening remarks before the La Fémis shorts: ‘The American audience is very much open to the world … there is room in this country for foreign films and, among those, French film.’ For one weekend every year, Richmond is defined by a palette of blue, white and red – colours that are clearly here to stay.
For more information about the VCU French Film Festival, please visit their website: http://www.frenchfilm.vcu.edu/.
Liza Palmer is Review Section Editor of Film International and Creative and Fine Arts Librarian at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Tim Palmer is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His essay, ‘Threading the Eye of the Needle: Contemporary French Pop-Art Cinema and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s Il est plus facile pour un chameau…’ recently appeared in Darren Waldron and Isabelle Vanderschelden (eds), France at the Flicks: Trends in Contemporary French Popular Cinema (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007).
VCU French Film Festival (2008), History, http://www.frenchfilm.vcu.edu/history.html. Accessed 12 April 2008.