Old masters, exciting newcomers, they're all present as the French films come to town.
At a time when foreign-language cinema is on a regrettable decline in terms of commercial
release in Australia, the 1999 French Film Festival offers considerable relief and
indulgence. There are some wonderful gems in this collage of French cinema, some of which
may be seen commercially in the near future.
L'Ecole De la Chair (School of Flesh) is perhaps the most
exciting film of the Festival, and with its strong critical reaction in the US, it may
have a commercial season here. The main character in The School of Flesh is a financially
successful, well educated but bored and unfulfilled woman who crosses the boundaries of
age, culture and class to give herself over to pure sexual pleasure. As a woman running an
exclusive atelier for wealthy customers seeking the very best in attire, Dominique
(Isabelle Huppert), an outwardly demure woman of about forty, becomes strongly attracted
to a youth of about twenty-five, Quentin (Vincent Martinez). Comfortable financially, she
lives in a pristine apartment virtually devoid of furniture or accoutrements that could be
considered of sentimental worth. Her new paramour earns his living as a gay hustler on the
streets of Paris.
The two meet at a Paris bar catering to both gays and straights, where Quentin is
serving as a bartender. His friend Chris (Vincent Lindon), a transvestite, will later
reveal what he knows about Quentin to Isabelle, who is out on the town with her friend
(Daniel Dubroux). What is especially involving is that astute director Benoit Jacquot has
his performers relate their tale not only by talk but by subtle gestures, each of which
bespeaks a novel--as they say. Beautifully shot and lit by Caroline Champetier and sharply
cut together to enhance the sharp turns of the film's complex relationship, School of
Flesh is an eloquently poetic yet deeply human drama. Isabelle Huppert is perfectly cast
here, and possesses the quality of both pallid features and a personality that seems
numbed to the world's pain. School of Flesh is an exquisite film not to be missed.
Alice and Martin is another example of French filmmaking
at its most eloquent. At the age of 20, Martin (Alexis Loret) leaves his home town and
comes to Paris, where he becomes a model by chance. He meets Alice (Juliette Binoche), his
brother's friend, and falls in love with her. They start a passionate relationship,
although Martin remains very mysterious about his past and the reasons why he left his
family. But when Alice tells him she's pregnant, he is suddenly almost driven to madness,
as his past comes back to him. Alice will now do anything she can to help him.
Directed by the formidable André Téchiné (Les Voleurs, Wild Reeds), Alice and Martin
boasts exquisite performances from its principals, especially the perennially luminous
Binoche who's always worth seeing. In all, this is a beautiful work from a great artist.
Sexual obsession is a common theme running through this Festival, but thank God for the
French, who can explore it with class, style and subtlety, a fact exemplified in La Vie Revee Des Anges (The Dreamlife of Angels). In this powerful
drama, a woman's destructive sexual and emotional obsession with men threatens her
friendship with another woman.
Necessity, the mother of invention, drives destitute Isabelle, Isa for short (Élodie
Bouchez) to make and sell homemade cards on the streets. One of her potential customers,
though, offers her a job as a seamstress. Although the inexperienced worker cannot hold
this down for long, she does meet fellow-worker Marie (Natacha Régnier) and, with nowhere
else to go, moves in with her. Marie does not actually have a flat of her own either, but
is looking after that of a woman she never knew who died in a road accident, and her
daughter Sandrine, about the same age as Isa and Marie, who is still in a coma.
Together Marie and Isa go round town, sometimes having to talk their way into clubs
rather than having to pay. In this way they meet the rather unkempt bouncers Charly and
Fredo, and later even the yuppie boss of the joint, Chriss (Grégoire Colin). Although Isa
has no intention of getting intimate with macho Fredo, who is shamelessly after her, Marie
enters into a series of sexual relationships with men in which mutual attraction is not
evident and with which it would be unwise to have emotional ties.
Isa sees her short but intense friendship with Marie start to break up as Marie slips
further and further into a dangerous world which is relentlessly destroying her. From
first-time screenwriter Erick Zonca, directing his well observed script, The Dreamlife of
Angels - which will be commercially released in Australia on March 25 - is an erotic,
passionate and poignant masterwork.
Sexual obsession may be the forte of French cinema, but then so is farce, and yes, mes
amis, there is comedy in this Festival. Leading the comedic pack is the anticipated new
gem from master farceur, Francis Weber (Les Fugitifs, Les
Comperes, writer of the original La Cage aux Folles). It is the most obnoxious and
cruelest of pastimes, but on this night, a dinner game played by publisher Pierre Brochant
(Thierry Lhermitte) is going to backfire on him in this hilarious new comedy. Every week,
he and his well-off friends have a dinner, to which each brings a guest--the biggest
idiot, the most boring person, the sap worthiest of scorn. An obsessive collector of
boomerangs is good, but Brochant has hit the jackpot when he finds François Pignon
(Jacques Villeret), a tax accountant who reproduces engineering masterpieces with matches
and can tell you everything about them.
The night of the dinner, Brochant puts his back out, and he has to cancel, but he's not
in time to prevent the arrival of his now unwanted guest. Pignon, ignorant of his role in
this cruel game, wants to do everything he can to help his new friend, and Brochant finds
him impossible to shake. Brochant's wife happens to leave him that night, and Pignon,
himself cuckolded two years before, offers sympathetic and hilariously incompetent
assistance. At every turn, Brochant is simultaneously cheering his good fortune, for he
will surely win his dinner game, and chagrined at the mess Pignon makes whenever he opens
his mouth. As the farce develops, one disastrous move piles atop another until Brochant's
life is in a shambles, all the result of Pignon's well-meaning blunders. For pure fun this
is a must, but be quick, before Hollywood remakes it, sacre bleu!
Some comedies are more subtle, and Train de Vie (Train of
Life) allows comparison with the somewhat overrated Life is Beautiful. This film seems
more thematically and stylistically consistent than its Italian counterpart. In 1941
Schlomo the Fool runs into his shtetl (a Jewish village in Eastern Europe) to inform the
village elders that all the adjoining Jewish settlements have been overrun by the Nazis.
Their village is next. Having informed them of the danger, Schlomo also comes up with a
solution. The villagers should acquire a train. Half the village should dress themselves
as German soldiers, the other half as refugees, and they should deport themselves in
exactly the opposite direction from the Nazi death camps. Schlomo's advice is accepted and
the undertaking begins. A meeting of the village is convened and the village elder calls
for volunteers to act as Nazis. The response is less than clamorous. In the event the Nazi
officer and his troops must be selected from the village inhabitants. A number of
hilarious scenes follow as the villagers prepare for their exodus.
The villagers employ a linguist to teach them to speak the German language. One of the
trainees is struck by the resemblance between German and Yiddish. The tutor reminds his
students that both languages are very similar--in fact German is Yiddish with all traces
of humour removed--one of the villagers then speculates whether the Germans have declared
war on them because the Jews make fun of their language. Train of Life won rave reviews
when first screened late last year, and makes for fascinating and enthralling viewing.
Considering the fascinating life of Toulouse Lautrec, it's surprising that it's taken
this long for that life to be cinematically realised. Lautrec, beautifully directed by
Roger Planchon (Louis, enfant roi), is not just a simple biopic, but explores the complex
relationship between Lautrec and the beguiling Suzanne Valadon, played to perfection by
the exquisite Elsa Zylberstein. Lush, elegant and hypnotic, Lautrec is a compelling
historical drama that makes history into a personal affair.
Perhaps the only major disappointment of the Festival is Claude Chabrol's tedious
yawner, Colour of Lies, despite a terrific series of ideas.
In a small Breton town, a 10-year-old girl is found murdered. René, her art teacher, a
professional painter, is the last person to have seen her alive. The inspector in charge
of the investigation immediately questions him. In this small provincial town where people
all know each other and regularly meet at the Bar des Amis, René is increasingly
unsettled by the other inhabitants' suspicions and by the inspector's investigation.
Children stop coming to him for lessons. His wife, Viviane, a district nurse, protects him
and supports him with her love. However, a self-centred media-star writer adds to René's
confusion. What begins as an intriguing thriller develops into a slow, overly-verbose
melodrama with few interesting characters and monotonous performances. Chabrol is clearly
showing his age here, and his direction lacks the sustained energy of his earlier work. If
you can't see everything at this Festival, then this is the one to miss.
That film notwithstanding, the 1999 French Film Festival could well be the best yet,
with something for everyone. It's a change from Hollywood monotony.