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Offering snapshots of several figures from history, this year’s Alliance Francaise French Film Festival is diverse, bold and complex, reports Andrew L. Urban. 

The chilling apparatus of Joseph Stalin’s police state is the setting for Marc Dugain’s Stalin and the Girl, in which Stalin (Andre Dussolier) appoints the seemingly gifted healer, Ann (Marina Hands) as his personal physician. The film joins other works based on figures in history, from Olivier Assayas’ feature film version of his acclaimed 2010 miniseries, Carlos (Carlos le chacal) and Nannerl, Mozart’s Sister from Rene Feret – to the doco, Yves St Laurent – P. Berger; L’Amour fou by Pierre Thoretton.

But don’t expect these films to be simply herded into one category. This year the festival program is presented in eight sections: When Cinema Seizes History, Women Behind the Lens, Police and Thieves; Vive la Difference!, All You Need is Love; Forever Young; Beyond Fiction; and If You Want Blood You’ve Got it! 

Each of the above is slotted in a different category.


Festival Director Jean-Jacques Garnier says he didn’t set the section first and then seek films to fit. “The sections really suggested themselves. Last year, for example, we had no thrillers; what thrillers were available [in France] weren’t very good and others weren’t ready.” Now they are – seven of them, including Turk’s Head, a searing feature debut by the popular actor, Pascal Elbe. Elbe is himself memorable as the doctor who is in the wrong place at the wrong time – when anti-police feelings are running hot in the Paris precinct and his car is mistaken for a police vehicle, thanks to its blue flashing light. A young Turkish lad throws a Molotov cocktail on it, setting off a chain of events that drive the film’s complex, satisfying drama.

The Women Behind the Lens section also contains seven features, including Géraldine Nakache’s All That Glitters. Writer/directors Hervé Mimran and Géraldine Nakache have scored a triumph in turning this small scale material of personal conflict into decent cinema, by amplifying the theme of friendship and its central role in our lives and by layering the screenplay with elements that sing true.

"Beautifully observed truths"

Beautifully observed truths about the limits of our power to change our lives with superficial elements adds to the weight of the subject matter and all the performances are superb.

Garnier is especially happy to have found a great diversity of love stories of various kinds, which he groups in All You Need Is Love. The (again) seven films in this section includes Bus Palladium, the directing debut of prolific writer Christopher Thompson. He has written four films directed by his mother Danièle, including Jet Lag and Orchestra Seats, and has written scripts directed by James Ivory, Giuseppe Tornatore and Agnieszka Holland.

Bus Palladium is about a group of young friends and musos whose newly formed rock group, Lust, is heading for success, but each of them harbours personal aspirations that put their shared future in doubt. The arrival of Laura in their lives destabilizes their fragile equilibrium as both lead singer Manus and lead guitarist Lucas fall for her – and she exploits them both. The film was invited to festivals in Seattle, Montreal and Tel Aviv.

“I love this year’s line up,” says Garnier. I especially wanted to program more documentaries because there are so many good ones around now.” In an adjacent section, yet again with seven films, Garnier has programmed historical themes. “It seems that about two years ago, when most of these films were written and put into production, “many filmmakers simultaneously thought of making films that look behind our shoulder at events.” 

"an effective insight"

The two and a half hour feature film version of Carlos begins with the disclaimer that despite all the research, much of this terrorist’s life remains unknown, so the film is presented as a work of fiction. This doesn’t in any way take away from the film’s sense of veracity as it traces 20 years in the life of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, effectively portrayed by the multi-lingual Venezuelan actor, Edgar Ramirez. Presented in the form of a dramatised doco, the film is an effective insight into the life and times of Carlos and the whole terrorist movement of the 70s and onwards.

Garnier has also slotted in one horror movie, The Pack, to represent a growing trend for the genre in French cinema of late. “There are half a dozen horror films around in France now, but this one I really love – and it has such a great cast: Yolande Moreau, Emilie Dequenne and Benjamin Biolay…”

"program of 46 films that slice across contempo French filmmaking"

But it’s legends first: Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Dépardieu co-star in Francois Ozon’s Potiche, the opening night film, in a comedy set in the 70s. It launches the program of 46 films that slice across contempo French filmmaking. 

In Potiche (a potiche is a decorative object) Catherine Deneuve plays the glamorous but neglected housewife Suzanne Pujol, whose husband Robert (Fabrice Luchini) cheats on her, ignores her in favour of running her family's factory like a tyrant; not far away is Maurice Babin (Gérard Dépardieu), a local politician and communist party member who was once Suzanne's lover. Ozon’s best known films, Swimming Pool, 8 Women, Under the Sand, all have women centre stage, and he usually casts the best female actors in France; this is no exception.

“If you haven’t already fallen in love with Deneuve during her illustrious career,” says Louise Keller, “you will here, as the ‘trophy wife’, who pulls out surprise after surprise from her serene, bourgeois exterior. This social satire looks at the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the working class, dealing with the role of women in society, politics and the workplace.

"real truths about life and relationships"

“The best thing about Potiche is that it is not glib in any way but identifies real truths about life and relationships. It’s about changing roles, the invisible bonds forged over years, pedestals that can be discarded, secrets revealed, the value of nurturing – and the art of diplomacy.”

Anyone who saw Sarah’s Key starring Kristen Scott Thomas, which was released in Australia at Christmas (2010) may be brave enough to catch the harrowing drama, La Rafle (The Round Up) by Roselyn Bosch, which is a faithful account of the Vel'd'Hiv Roundup of Jews by French authorities in 1942, starring the remarkable Jean Reno, Melanie Laurent and Gad Elmaleh. Same subject matter, different treatment.

Another film dealing with religion at the crux of the conflict is Of Gods and Men, set in Algeria in the 90s, at a small monastery where the monks tend to the Muslim locals with medicine as best they can. When fundamentalists barge in, their existence is threatened and they are afraid but try doggedly to stay. Based a true story, the film requires patience despite its good intentions as it meanders to an unsatisfactory ending. The conflict between true faith and extremist versions of faith is its message.

"psychological thriller"

Speaking of Kristin Scott Thomas, she can be seen in Alain Corneau’s last film before he died of cancer in 2010 at 67. She co-stars with with Ludivine Sagnier in the psychological thriller Love Crime, co-starring, playing the ruthless senior executive while Sagnier plays the promising newcomer who is destroyed.

Again sponsored by French cookware giant, Tefal (Jamie Oliver’s signature honours their terrific baking dish, one of which is in captivity at Urban Cinefile), the 2011 Festival also features three films in the Forever Young section, including the animated charmer, A Cat in Paris, directed by Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol.

Published February 17, 2011

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Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2011
Sydney 8 - 27 March 
Melbourne 9 - 27 March 
Brisbane 16 March - 3 April 
Canberra 16 March - 3 April 
Perth 23 March – 10 April 
Adelaide 23 March – 10 April 

Bus Palladium

Of Gods and Men

Turk's Head

Tout ce qui brille

Crime d'amour

La rafle

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