The French Film Festival

by by Ana Alvarez, Maud Doyle & Olivia Fagon

Between Thursday, February 24, and Sunday, March 6, The French Film Festival took over the Cable Car Cinema on South Main Street, selling 2,600 tickets mainly to the Brown community, but also to the Providence community and members of Providence College, and Johnson and Wales.
This year, the festival was organized around four French-language films that dealt with World War II—Liberté, L’armée de crime, La rafle, and Gainsbourg—but the full roster of films was a diverse selection exploring a wide range of content and construction. The committee expanded outwards from this anchoring center, aiming for a diverse group that would include a certain number of films by female directors, a certain number of comedies, and films made outside of both France and Québec. The anticipated political and artistic films were shown off by a dose of popular cinema (Le petit Nicolas, L’Arnacoeur). Many of the films have not been and will not be widely distributed in the US, including the four Québecois films (and, unsurprisingly, Hitler à Hollywood, a mockumentary in which director Frédéric Sojcher comes up with a new conspiracy theory for the fall of European cinema from preeminence following World War II).

The final collection of films screened covered subjects ranging from the French Resistance at the beginning of World War II (L’armée du crime) and illegal immigration (Illégal), to the modern stresses of family life (Maman est chez le coiffeur) and the fantasies of married men (3 p’tits cochons), to the marriage of heiresses (L’Arnacoeur) French society in the seventies (Potiche).

“We try to cover as much as possible… We really try to give an idea of what French-speaking cinema is about right now,” explained Shoggy Waryn, the Brown University French professor who selected the films to be shown at the festival.

The festival included the requisite great works, in this case Les herbes folles, from the canonized director giant Alain Resnais. Waryn suggested that though Resnais “was the oldest director we showed this year, in terms of structure of the narrative, he was probably the most modern.” (Les herbes folles is the groundbreaking 88-year-old’s most recent film, and the appropriately titled Vous n’avez encore rien vu, (‘you haven’t seen anything yet’), is scheduled for release in 2012. Get excited.)

This year’s festival, though, had a strong political accent. Films like Orpeilleur, which is set in French Guyana (called “an overseas region of France,” the movement for autonomy dried up in the ‘70s and ‘80s), and Un homme qui crie, the first film from Chad screened at the French Film Festival, helps break a stubborn Paris-centric vision of France held as much by the French as by the rest of the world. Waryn points out that the “false impression we get… is that everyone lives in Paris, in the same arrondissement, and that when they open the windows we can see both Nôtre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower.”

Un homme qui crie, co-produced by France, Belgium, and Chad, the film offers an often unvoiced perspective on issues like civil war and relationships in divested countries. According to Waryn, these issues which don’t usually get much play from filmmakers in Africa, who, because of the small local market for such projects, tend to do more commercial work for Europe. Orpeilleur and Un homme qui crie are actually more convincing because they are imperfect—the imperfections in execution and storytelling become apparent when shown next to brilliance of Resnais (Les herbes folles) and the budget of Le petit Nicolas.

La rafle (The Roundup) and Liberté, too, deal with histories that have long been silenced. La rafle tells the story of July 16, 1942, when French Jews were rounded up by French police and brought to the Velodrome in Paris, before being taken to concentration camps. Liberté deals with the often-forgotten and little-recorded mass arrests of Gypsies in occupied France by telling the tragic story of one Gypsy family. Many critiques regard La rafle as an important step towards French acknowledgment of its participation in the crimes of World War II through the Vichy government.

At the heart of the festival this year was a recurring theme of displacement and alienation—mothers leave families and marriages, brothers reunite over their comatose mother, immigration and deportation, French citizens become aliens in their own country, a boy fears replacement by his unborn brother. Several films, within the context of the festival, evoke the compelling notion of leaving Paris (and, by extension, Paris-centrism) to explore the marginal corners of the French-speaking world, and others—Illégal, Liberté, La rafle—explored the forgotten margins within Western Europe. The range of the films’ content and interest, particularly the inclusion of films giving voice to ghettoized or silenced subjects, succeeds in both celebrating French-speaking film and challenging visions of a high-culture francophone universe. MD

Un capitalisme sentimental
Directed by Olivier Asselin
Québec | 2008 | 92 mn

“The only thing that really matters is the stock’s quoted value. One could even make money on an empty mine. On a company that produces nothing, or even on a simple name.” - Victor

A beautiful homage to the classical Hollywood film noir, this moving, mystical film about love and art, money and power, follows the beautiful and romantic French bohemian Fernande Bouvier from Paris to New York at the beginning of 1929.

After her artistically threadbare existence in Paris is interrupted by failed love and an attempt at suicide by oil paints (“I decided to go out like Van Gogh”), the aspiring modern artist Fernande (Lucille Fluet) must place her faith in the love of successful trader Victor (Alexander Bisping). The film moves from antique color to luminous black and white as we move across the Atlantic to a collaged New York.

Victor’s business brilliance lies in the realization that desire is at the heart of all demand. “A quotation is a measure of love,” he tells Fernande after making her the first person to be quoted on the Stock Exchange. Under his guidance, Fernande turns herself into the most valuable brand listed in the pantheonic Exchange.

Set against an era when businesses realized the need to produce demand rather than supply, art and desire become the most valuable commodities of all—Fernande even signs a porcelain kingpin’s urinals to increase demand for his product. “To sell, we convert to poetry,” one of the businessmen says over cocktails. But the balance between love and value, French and English, is unsustainable. When Fernande decides to end her commercial life to be with Victor, she inadvertently causes the market crash of 1929. The collapse of the system reverses the dichotomy set up at the films beginning—now it is the businessmen who are stricken by poverty and driven to suicide. And so Fernande and Victor, both ruined themselves, turn the bodies of businessmen into paint tubes and depart from New York by steamship, with their lives ahead of them and the stars above.

Director Olivier Asselin’s characters and caricatures of American businessmen and French bohemians are touchingly simple and often comic. Eschewing traditional narratives in favor of compelling visuals, the film is a brilliantly constructed tribute to the power of desire. MD

Directed by Marc Barrat
France | 2010 | 90 mn

“What did you come back for? There is nothing left here. Only ghosts.”

A man is racing through the forests of the northern Amazon basin. He is shot at. Suddenly, he is hit.

The death of his brother, Myrthos, brings Rod back from Paris to his native French Guyana after an 18-year absence, to confront his family’s history and its demons. A slightly off-kilter action movie, punctuated with moments of subtle, earthy magic, follows Rod (Tony Mpoudja) in his journey through the jungle to find the truth about his brother’s alleged death. Rod, a beautiful man, and Yann, a stunning environmental tour guide, must also rescue Rod’s Parisian friend Gonz from the brainwashing spell of gold and cocaine, leading the pair deep into the world of the galimpeiros, the criminal and irreverent chasseurs d’or. The film confronts a little-noticed, lawless, vice-ridden culture of illegal gold hunting in Guyana with humanity and emotion, asserting an almost religious belief in the possibility of redemption through love.

Orpailleur, the debut of director Marc Barrat, is one of the first films made by someone from French Guyana about French Guyana. It roundly condemns pollutive gold-hunting practices in in the forbidden areas of the Amazon as an abuse of immigrants, the environment, drugs, and family values.

The film is important but perhaps a tad uncomplicated. The script’s seeming naiveté of the art or commerce of filmmaking shifts from jarring to endearing around halfway through the movie––and in the end, its imperfections, its lack of polish or subtlety, are perhaps the best affirmation of its honesty. MD

Un homme qui crie
Directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
France - Belgium - Chad | 2010 | 80 mn

Directed by African filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and set in modern day Chad, Un homme qui crie (A Screaming Man) initially centers on a 50-year-old man entering a mid-life crisis. Except this Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize winner isn’t your typical tale of mid-life demise that entails purchasing a Porsche and having an affair. The protagonist, Adam, is Chad’s old swimming champion turned poor, has-been hotel pool man whose life’s deterioration is only paralleled by the ever-worsening political situation of his country, which continually suffers rebel uprisings in perpetual civil war. “The pool is my life,” Adam calmly protests to his boss as he’s fired from his beloved job and demoted to the hotel’s gatekeeper, while his younger son Abdel supplants his position. At the same time, rebel forces in Chad threaten the military’s tight hold on the country, putting its citizens in constant threat of violent attacks by armed opposition groups and even more violent repudiations by the “democratic” military forces who demand their cooperation. Because of the growing violence, Adam is pressured by a local leader to pay his dues and prove his loyalty to the Chadian government. His personal failure intermingles with Chad’s political unrest, leading to a surprising twist of familial betrayal and regret. “The film can be read as a metaphor for Africa,” director Haroun commented. The resulting conflict between Adam and Abdel shows how “fathers are mortgaging coming generations’ future” in order to secure their own. The film is successful because of its seeming contradictions: even though Adam’s world is slowly collapsing you never see a screaming man. Instead of overwhelming you with violent or overdramatic scenes common to films centering on African political plight, the film’s quiet pace slowly pulls you along with Adam’s and Chad’s breakdown. Initially, the calm of the movie is subtly betrayed by snippets of radio casts about the number of deaths in the last rebel attack, and silent but painfully tense moments between Adam and Abdel. Yet near the end, when the rebel violence becomes as real as the consequences of Adam’s betrayal, you feel the carpet abruptly pulled under you from behind. And with just 10 minutes left to the film, you know there’s nothing you, or Adam, can do except watch in despair. AA

Il a suffi que maman s’en aille
Directed by René Féret
France | 2007 | 90 mn

From French director René Féret, Il a suffi que maman s’en aille is an affecting but uplifting meditation on family, identity, and fatherhood. The queboquian style narrative follows workaholic Olivier (played by Jean-Francois Stevenin), whose disconnect with his family comes to the fore when he barely notices his  much younger wife walk out on him. In retaliation, Olivier pursues and wins custody of his tomboy daughter, Lea (daughter of the director, Mary Féret), but his previous ambivalence is shattered when he is left alone with a child he barely knows.

Set in dark, shadowed domestic spaces, Lea’s rebellious antics and Olivier’s frustrated parenting make up the meat of the film; we learn that Olivier’s parental impotence has some history. Estranged from Mary (played by Salome Stevenin), his grown-up daughter from a previous marriage, the plot is driven by Olivier’s decision to reconnect with both Lea and Mary, the latter’s resentment at her father’s absence is contrasted poignantly with her desperate need for his recognition.

Féret’s performance of Lea proves to be the film’s most compelling element; her comedic timing breaks up the film’s grim pensiveness, and her quiet dignity withstands Olivier’s thoughtless inquiries into her identity (“Do you want to be a boy?” “Will you ever start acting like a girl?”). Lea’s androgynous appearance and independent ‘masculine’ attitude confuse Olivier, while also raising questions surrounding father-daughter love in the context of gender and sexuality—one of the film’s more original inquiries. Lea’s femininity becomes necessary for him to be the masculine patriarch, his only understanding of fatherhood.  Olivier operates on the belief that daughterhood is equivalent to femininity, and fatherhood is demonstrated through masculinity, therefore his inability to understand the tomboy Lea as both person and daughter, is an expression of his own ignorance of how to be a father.

The film, though both emotive and discerning, is crippled by its dialogue and rhythm. Though the translation might be to blame, the film’s dialogue at times verges on banal and predictable, undermining the sincerity and modesty of its acting. The film’s pace is slow—very, very slow—which serves to heighten its moments of emotional intensity (the brutal reconciliation between Mary and Olivier) but also burdens the viewer with long periods of waiting for any sign of onscreen life.

The uncertainty of Olivier’s past relationship with Mary, his present relations with Lea, and the future of both make Il a suffi que maman s’en aille an absorbing character study of a  man who finds neither security nor affirmation in his familial ties, yet is desperate to stay above water by re-asserting his fatherhood.  —OF