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The French have a reputation and a tradition unmatched in globally successful cinema, except perhaps by Hollywood, and the 21st Alliance Française French Film Festival gives Australians a chance to savour a selection of recent movies – more than ever before, with almost 40 features in the tasty program (supported, appropriately enough for a nation of food lovers, by Tefal the cookware giant). Andrew L. Urban samples the menu.

From bitter sweet and melancholy to drama and hilarity, the program is as diverse as you’d expect, with several gems in the mix – not least Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs, the opening night film starring the funny Dany Boon and several other French acting luminaries, about a man with a bullet lodged dangerously in his brain. A serious enough subject, but Jeunet uses it as a vehicle for his unique style of comedy. If you’ve seen Delicatessen or Amélie, you’ll know what a good time he offers.

Dany Boon also pops up in Le Code a changé (Change of Plans) in which a carefully planned dinner party turns into chaos and conflict. Lies, truth and the consequences are the themes of this lively relationship drama and the screenplay orchestrates the dinner to ensure we not only meet all the guests but get a snapshot into their agendas and relationships. The film is another collaboration between mother and son filmmaking team Danièle Thompson and her son Christopher Thompson; they are best known for Orchestra Seats and the grown up romantic comedy, Jet Lag.

Other comedies include the escapist fun of OSS 117: Rio ne respond plus (OSS 117: Lost in Rio) from the director with the intriguing name of Michel Hazanavicius. The film centres on the spy whose code name is OSS 117 (one seventeen, please, not double one 7). Imagine if you can a spoofy James Bond-alike in whom the charm has turned to smug, with Maxwell Smart’s bumbling, who regards women as capable of only sex and motherhood, and who naively insult all races of people he meets. Dujardin is marvellously deadpan throughout, a great spoof on the cold war spy with a trick for every situation and a clumsy mouth.

"quietly moving, deeply touching drama"

One of my favourites in the program is the quietly moving, deeply touching drama, Le Hérisson (The Hedgehog), starring Josiane Balasko and the young Garance Le Guillermic. Based on a popular novel, the film is about the relationship between the 11 year old and the middle aged supervisor of the apartment block who lives downstairs from her, a haunting performance by Balasko. It’s a sophisticated story in the best sense of the word: complex and layered, observant and warmly humane. But it is edged with melancholy and infused with drama.

The Hedgehog is slotted in the First Feature section; other sections are Blood is Thicker Than Water, Comedy, Love at First Sight and Resistance. There are also two children’s films in the program, The True Story of Puss’n Boots (animation) and Trouble at Timpeltill.

Another outstanding film (if rather sad) slotted in the Resistance section of the festival is Welcome, in which Simon (Vincent Lindon) a swimming instructor in Calais, meets, befriends and helps 17 year old Bilal (Firat Ayverdi) a Kurdish refugee from Iraq who is desperate to join his girlfriend in London. The script is sensitive and sharp, dealing in the intractable grey of the moral dilemmas that arise through the globally repeated issue of displaced people and their treatment by host countries, Western societies which are being tested by the crisis. But it’s on the individual human level that Philippe Lioret’s film takes us through some of the recognisable and tangible issues. And the performances are memorable.

A very different take on an outsider’s journey, Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophet (A Prophet) gives us a powerful insight into the brutal facts of prison life from the point of view of the almost illiterate, 19 year old part Arab part Corsican Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim), sentenced to six years jail. He is quickly recruited by Cesar (Niels Arestrup), leader of the Corsican gang and ruling jail supremo. His first mission for Cesar is to kill Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi). Thus the young Malik begins his jail education which he enhances with genuine education, learning to read and write. He also observes the various illegal activities being run by Cesar and others, and secretly makes his own plans.

Tahar Rahim is excellent as the young crim, Malik, a mixed bag of youthful bravado and naïve vulnerability who is quick to adapt to his circumstances – and profit from them and Niels Arestrup gives a knockout performance as the Corsican jail kingpin.

In the war-setting of 1941, L'Armée du crime (The Army of Crime) tells a powerful story about the French resistance – but with a difference. Teaming some of his regulars (Ariane Ascaride, Jean-Pierre Darrousin) with a well chosen cast from a range of ethnic backgrounds, director Robert Guédiguian gets strong performances – not least from Simon Abkarian as the Armenian poet whose ethics do not support killing under any circumstances. Ironically enough, he gets to lead the resistance group formed to bring together the angry young partisans who have been acting recklessly.

In some respects, it’s a routine ‘French resistance fighters’ movie – with one big difference: the fighters are a mix of Spanish, Italian, Armenian, Polish, Hungarian (as well as a few French) activists who take it upon themselves to kick Nazi butt. But the film’s primary editorial target is the French who collaborated with the Nazis.

"An exquisitely beautiful film about longing"

Stéphane Brizé’s delicate adaptation of the book makes for “An exquisitely beautiful film about longing,” says Louise Keller in her review to be published coinciding with the film’s commercial release. “Mademoiselle Chambon uses cinematic language and music to paint an affecting canvass. Vincent Lindon’s Jean faces a conundrum. As a builder, he recognises the importance of a solid foundation which he enjoys at home with his wife and son in their provincial home. But there’s a sense of loneliness around him, aroused by the film’s catalyst, Sandrine Kiberlain’s Mademoiselle Chambon, the replacement teacher whose life is adrift.”

The second film in as many years about the woman who established the world famous fashion house, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky is set in Paris in 1913, with Anna Mouglalis playing Coco and Mads Mikkelsen playing Stravinsky. It’s interesting, if a tad flawed, and both leads are excellent.

Charting the ebb and flow of a middle class French family, Rémi Bezançon’s Le premier jour du reste de ta vie (The First Day of the Rest of Your Life) is a patchy affair, much like life itself, I suppose, with its ups and downs, its highs and its lows. Although there is nothing arresting in the story and most of it seems remarkably familiar to us with grown up children, the film engages with its veracity and its sensitive portrayal of the clashes and resolutions that many families must endure. A real crowd pleaser in France, it features wonderful performances from an ensemble cast.

"an amusing and fantastical biopic"

The Closing Night Film, Gainsbourg: Je t'aime... moi non plus (Gainsbourg) is described as “graphic novelist Joann Sfar's audacious directorial debut, an amusing and fantastical biopic of the debonair Serge Gainsbourg. This surreal and evocative record of Monsieur Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) - iconic singer, poet, writer, actor and general provocateur - traces his youth growing up in 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris, through to his transformation into the hard-living showman, enfant terrible and successful songwriter during three decades.”

It’s probably a good choice to close a film fest with a movie everyone will keep talking about ….

Published February 25, 2010

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Festival dates:
Sydney: March 2-21
Melbourne: March 4–21
Canberra: March 18–31
Brisbane: March 17–31
Perth: March 17–31
Adelaide: March 18-31


Change of Plans (Le Code)

The Hedgehog (Le herisson)

Mademoiselle Chambon

Coco Chanel et Igor Stravinsky

Gainsbourg: Je t'aime... moi non plus

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