By Tim Palmer.
For the contemporary cinephile – especially a lover of world cinema – the sight of 1800 people applauding a complex film adaptation of a Marguerite Duras novel, after a packed Saturday lunchtime screening, is real cause for optimism. On Saturday 28 March 2009, this lively scene was just one of many made possible by the seventeenth annual French Film Festival, held in Richmond, Virginia.
The VCU French Film Festival, now partnering with the University of Richmond, has a clear brief. Each year, dozens of directors, producers, scriptwriters, film students and cultural delegates are flown in to showcase a public sampling of France’s contemporary film scene. Generally – Duras adaptations excepted – the films chosen come from the more accessible, popular side of the French cinema industry. These are for the most part comedies, costume dramas, biopics, family films and light-hearted satires, the crowd-pleasing products that maintain France’s indigenous market share yet seldom travel internationally, except when made by auteurs like Josiane Balasko (the 2009 festival’s honoree). Hosted in the Byrd Theater, Richmond’s charming historical picture palace, in the funky Carytown neighbourhood, this festival represents an ongoing success story. It is an event symptomatic of the recent American appetite for French films, as well as France’s growing capability to satisfy more diverse audiences around the world, from the connoisseurs of esoteric arthouse works, to fans of more conventional movies. The only glaring omission during this festival, in fact, was the lack of critics or scholars to put the screenings into any broader stylistic, artistic or cultural contexts.
Cliente (2008), the newest film by Josiane Balasko as writer-director, was a festival highlight. Starring the consummate Nathalie Baye (brilliant recently in Xavier Beauvois’s policier Le Petit Lieutenant (2005)), Cliente concerns an attractively ageing businesswoman, Judith, successful at work but personally withdrawn, chronically so, after a divorce. To the dismay of her more optimistic sister (Balasko), Judith occasionally pays for the sexual company of younger men. Patrick (Eric Caravaca), her latest protégé, offers her the chance of genuine friendship, perhaps even more, but he also has a young wife (Isabelle Carré) who is in the dark about how their struggling household’s bills get paid. Witty in both French and English during the post-screening Q&A, Balasko outlined the curious course of her project, initially a script no one would back, which she turned into a novel, subsequently a best seller, which next became a new (apparently superior) script, that ultimately did get produced. This was a sobering tale, given Balasko’s stardom and sizeable box office track record, as well as the fact that France usually does support more female directors. (Annually, indeed, 20–30 per cent of French features are made by women, more than double the North American proportion.) In keeping with this controversy, Cliente embodies a hallmark of French cinema: its complex, more interesting roles for females, especially those of a certain age; it also, through Baye’s character, sexualizes the archetype of the professional older woman. Cliente slyly begins as a comedy of manners, almost a traditional French ménage-à-trois, before darkening its tone as the stakes of conflict grow between Judith’s burgeoning emotional life and Patrick’s demanding family. While to its credit the film maintains sympathy for all of its protagonists, like Balasko’s 1995 hit Gazon Maudit (aka French Twist) the conclusion feels disappointing, neither as risky nor as socially unconventional as the film leads us to anticipate. Nonetheless, even read just as a dismantling of the materials of Pretty Woman, Balasko’s work is challenging and original.
From Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s excellent debut Innocence (2004) to Céline Sciamma’s Water Lilies (2007) and Damien Odoul’s bleakly poetic Le Souffle (2001), of late France has consistently produced lyrical yet unsentimental coming-of-age films, a thriving cinéma d’ados. Several of the festival’s offerings reflected this tendency. François Desagnat and Thomas Sorriaux’s 15 ans et demi (2008) offers a more conservative approach to this youthful cinema. In something of a departure, cast as a father, Daniel Auteuil plays an award-winning scientist returning home from life in America to forge new ties with his estranged teenage daughter, Eglantine (Juliette Lamboley). Effortlessly coasting through his fish-out-of-water repertoire, Auteuil is reliably deft (especially in one set piece at a boot camp for useless dads) but the film plays as a rather run-of-the-mill comedy. Especially in light of recent films like Sciamma and Lola Doillon’s Et toi, t’es sur qui? (2007), which expertly immerse the viewer in the conflicted world of modern French teenagers, 15 ans et demi studies its pre-adult specimens from the perspective of the ham-fisted middle-aged parent, with predictably broad and intermittently laborious results. In a similar child-oriented vein, Philippe Muyl’s Magique! (2008), about a young boy living with his mother on an isolated farm as a circus comes to town, was better, more evocative work. As with the recent work of Christophe Honoré, Olivier Ducastel, Jacques Martineau and François Ozon, Magique! uses musical asides to express the yearnings of its characters, a whimsical rather than contrived device. Shot largely in the magic hour around dusk, Muyl creates a strangely abstract and hermetic world, a fantasy informed by the simplicities of boyhood.
Michelle Porte’s L’Après-midi de Monsieur Andesmas (2004) is a screen version of Duras’s 1962 novel, at the VCU festival a positive test case for more challenging French cinema finding a sympathetic audience abroad. Porte’s film is an unabashed piece of old-fashioned art cinema, a welcome revival of portmanteau techniques from 1960s screen modernism. Except for fleeting flashbacks, L’Après-midi de Monsieur Andesmas takes place atop a remote forested hillside near an unnamed southern French village. Much of the film dwells simply on the textures of the rural landscape: verdant and golden foliage and dappled pools of sunlight, the sweeping gusts of the Mistral and the relentless afternoon heat. Plot is provided piecemeal with little or no direct exposition. The eponymous Andesmas (the venerable Michel Bouquet, nearly 80 when he played the role) reminisces about his beloved daughter, Valérie (Anne Isserman), but his wistful memories are contextualized, offset and challenged by those of an unnamed local woman (Miou-Miou, another veteran screen notable), whose husband this woman allegedly lured away. Doting, ethereal daughter or manipulative adulterer – which is an accurate portrait of Valérie, whom we encounter only through other people’s words and reflections? As in the arthouse tradition which Porte cites, as well as the work of many contemporary French women directors, L’Après-midi de Monsieur Andesmas accommodates both these alternative viewpoints, representations which contradict but also fascinatingly intersect.
J’ai vu tuer Ben Barka (2005) features dynamic performances from all involved, one of two films presented by its director, Serge le Péron. (The other, Françoise Dolto, le désir de vivre (2008), is a biopic of the famed child psychologist.) Sleekly designed with a deliberately nasty aftertaste, J’ai vu tuer Ben Barka draws on a real-world 1965 scandal, confirming the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Charles Berling plays shabby hoodlum Georges Figon, a pawn in an elaborate scam that entices exiled Moroccan dissident and Third World activist Mehdi Ben Barka (Simon Abkarian) into a phoney French film production ostensibly involving Marguerite Duras (Balasko again, in an effectively understated turn) and a washed-up Georges Franju (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Lured into the open, Barka is kidnapped and abruptly disappears, the victim of an odious conspiracy of the French police, the Moroccan government and likely the overseeing CIA. Le Péron links this event – a transnational sting operation whose true instigators have never been revealed, let alone brought to justice – as a catalyst in the souring of political relations between the West and most developing nations. Setting the tone, J’ai vu tuer Ben Barka is narrated by Figon after his own corpse is discovered in the opening scene; like Sunset Blvd. (1950), the film’s scathing insights come from a dead man, belatedly aware of the world’s machinations only after being brutally murdered. The film subsequently unfolds as a poignant mix of labyrinthine conspiracy thriller and throwback policier. Iconic crime film-maker Jean-Pierre Melville is a clear point of reference, from the caustic jazz score to the dour and monochromal Parisian mise-en-scène – the dingy apartment in which Figon is ‘suicided’ looks identical to Alain Delon’s in Le Samouraï (1967). No picture postcard Paris here, but a muted and autumnal landscape of gloom, pessimism and entrapment.
A more jaunty experience is provided by Musée haut, musée bas (2008), adapted by Jean-Michel Ribes from his own successful stage play. An intellectual farce, the film juggles dozens of characters played by dozens of stars in a chaotic fictional museum. The focus is not on the pieces on display but on the travails of visitors and staff, careening through what Ribes calls the ‘artistic pandemonium’ of canonized culture. Witticisms about the clichés of museum habitués mingle with jokes about bourgeois artistic appreciations, undercut by snide comments about the commodification of official high culture. Ribes stages a breathless series of set pieces: beleaguered male attendants protesting how they cannot appreciate their wives and girlfriends after being surrounded by aesthetic female splendour all day (out of desperation they congregate in the mammoth exhibit); illegal immigrants smuggled in from Africa in crates, who are less presentable, of course, to the museum managers than the ‘genuine’ artefacts they accompany; a blank room in which initially dazed but quickly pretentious museum guests become an avant-garde artist’s happening; a café which serves desserts in the form of modern art masterpieces. The rapid-fire comedy form inevitably produces hits and misses, and Ribes’s film becomes heavier going during its climactic nonsense plot about the museum sinking as a storm rages outside. Overall, however, Musée haut, musée bas is a distinctive if erratic pleasure – like the festival itself, a small testament to the cultural breadth and artistic diversity in France’s buoyant contemporary cinema, which is today, inarguably, one of the world’s finest.
Tim Palmer is Associate Professor of Film Studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His newest essay, ‘Contemporary Feminine French Cinema and Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence’, is forthcoming in the December 2009 issue of The French Review.