Friday, July 25, 2014
The 20th Annual VCU/UR French Film Festival unreeled this past weekend at the Byrd. One of the highlights was seeing a 12-minute version of pioneer filmmaker George Méliès' Robinson Crusoe. This version, previously thought lost, features hand-painted color cells, and it was restored and screened just once in its present form, last year in Paris. Having seen Martin Scorsese's Hugo at the Byrd Theatre a few weeks ago — in which Méliès prominently figures — it was amazing to see this film, too. Narrated by Byrd manager and actor Todd Schall-Vess, it seemed both new and old, a Terry Gilliam-style animation that was just as magical as its maker intended.

The festival lineup also included films that address the current times, and topics included predatory credit practices, corporate downsizing, immigration issues and the role of media in politics.

Cinematographer Gilles Porte was on hand to discuss La Conquête (The Conquest) by Xavier Durringer, a satiric view of the rise of French president Nicholas Sarkozy. The movie attracted some controversy in France, as the first French film to criticize a sitting president. We’re used to this here — remember Oliver Stone’s W? Exactly. One problem with this kind of filmmaking is that you’re guaranteed to alienate more than half the potential audience. The film was neither a documentary nor a fantasy, and the reception at Cannes was decidely mixed.

But it was interesting to see how Durringer handled Sarkozy (played by Denis Podalydes) and his wife, Carla Bruni (Florence Pernel), as media darlings. The cameras are at first invited, then resented, and finally there’s a resignation to their presence. At one point, at a beachside conference, Sarkozy opponent Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe) rises out of the frothy surf as cameras record him, causing Sarkozy to remark, “You remind me of Ursula Andress in a James Bond movie.” Bruni says at another surfside outing, “Our life has become a reality television series.” And Sarkozy quips, “Politics is a stupid business for smart people.”

Philip Kaufmann hired a comedy troupe to portray the “permanent press corps” covering NASA astronauts in The Right Stuff. In La Conquête, circus music supplied by Fellini film composer Nicola Piovan adds a layer of antic absurdity to the film, but in the end, something like this really happened.

I conversed with Gille Porte about the role of media in the film, and he said that this is one of the big points of La Conquête. “It’s good for media, but is it good for the country?” he said.

Another film, Toutes Nos Envies (All Our Desires) was based on two real stories, one of some note in France and the other from the life of the film's director, Philippe Lioret, in his fourth appearance at the festival.

Strong, silent, rugby-coaching Vincent Lindon (he reminded me of Robert Mitchum) and the intense and lovely Marie Gillain play French regional judges who hear financial cases. Gillain’s character, Claire, happens to be acquainted through their children’s school with a plaintiff who comes before her, a single mother named Céline (played by Amandine Dewasmes) who's strapped with credit-card debt and collectors harassing her. Through circumstances, the two judges become united in their goal to reform credit-card companies. This actually happened in France about five years ago, director Lioret said, though the reforms were short-lived.

In his own life, a friend of Lioret's took in a woman who was suffering financial problems. Then the friend’s wife contracted cancer and died; some time later, the friend married the formerly destitute woman. In echoing this story, the film veers into Terms of Endearment territory, as the clock runs down on Claire, who for a long while hides her own illness from her husband while fighting for the financial life of her friend Céline. Its sense of current events and the chemistry between Gillain and Lindon makes the movie work, though the husband is given short shrift. Judging from the audience's positive response and their questions, the critics who haven't always been kind to Toutes Nos Envies were about as heartless as the bankers in the film.

Two films where I felt the spirits of the Coen Brothers and David Lynch were Poupoupidou, by director Gérald Hustache-Mathieu, and Le Havre, written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. Both films were stylized in unusual ways.

Poupoupidou opens with a skier stumbling upon the lifeless body of Candice Lecoeur (Sophie Quinton) in a “no man’s land” between France and Switzerland, outside of jurisdiction and ruled a suicide. Crime novelist David Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve), in dire need of another book idea, finds reason to believe her death suspicious. Little flourishes in the film kept it moving, as did Rouve’s lived-in face and Quinton’s naivete and vulnerability. She believed herself to be a reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe.

Le Havre’s color saturation, its artistic composition of scenes, its stagey lighting and the film's deadpan acting style made it seem like a movie from a different era. Actor Andre Wilms, who plays shoe shiner Marcel Marx, and his devoted wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), get "Great Actor" close-ups reminiscent of those found in older films. Critic Jean-Jacques Bernard described the film, set in a French harbor city and involving an illegal immigrant from Gabon receiving shelter and escape, as a “melancholic postcard from a France we would like to know.” Yet the concluding image of a cherry tree in full bloom was perfect, and fitting, for this year's 20th anniversary of the French Film Festival.

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