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Paul Fischer previews the 1999 French Film Festival, which offers discerning film goers a broad menu

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.

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March 16 – 24, 1999


The French Film Festival
Hosted by Palace Cinemas, Sydney
(Academy Twin, Paddington & Norton St, Leichhardt)
Cinema Como, Melbourne

Session times & info:
French Film Fest Web Site


Dream Life of Angels

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