The 20th Annual French Film Festival

I could have sworn this festival had some other name besides “The French Film Festival.”

It seems I was mistaken.

Anyway, I’m back from Richmond, Virginia’s 20th Annual French Film Festival! I return with a head full of memories, a heart full of warm feelings and a butt thoroughly and unbelievably sore from having spent an entire weekend planted in movie theater seats.

I’ll provide full-length reviews for my two favorite films of the festival (Gérald Hustache-Mathieu’s “Poupoupidou” and Aki Kaurismäki’s “Le Havre”) in articles separate from this one- for now, I’m just hitting the highlights of what I saw, what spoke to me, and what the French Film Festival’s all about.

Shall we?

(A quick note: due to some unforeseen time constraints, I was only able to attend the second half of the festival- what follows are the films of the last two days that had the biggest impact on me).

“Rebellion (L’Ordre et la Morale)

Mathieu Kassovitz (a familiar face for American audiences who’ve seen “Amelie”) writes, directs, and stars in this intensely powerful (and at times, intensely frustrating) film about Philipe Legorjus, the head of the French national SWAT team who’s called in as a negotiator when French troops in New Caledonia are taken hostage by a local military force.

“Rebellion” is a film that could easily be judged on two separate levels- for the effectiveness of its politics, and for its overall quality as a film.

Politically, it works marvels- the narrative skillfully guides both the protagonist and the audience to a place of sympathy for the native Kanaks and frustrated anger towards the French government. Add a few clever twists to the story (like opening with a flash-forward to the grim end of the story, so that the entire film has a constant underlying feeling of dread) and you’ve got something that’s genuinely moving as a political piece- it also doesn’t hurt that Kassovitz and the rest of the cast are all operating at an incredibly high level.

As a film though, “Rebellion” is not without its flaws. It’s front-loaded with a variety of clever visual ideas and editing techniques, so you’ll be oohing and ahhing at the first half-hour or so and then wondering why those oohs and ahhs aren’t as frequent for the rest of the film. And there’s one audio cue (a loud, booming bass sound) that you’ll hear every single time there’s a big dramatic moment onscreen. Every. Single. Time. Eventually it moves beyond irritating and becomes kind of funny- definitely not the right mood to be setting with this type of film.

But these are fairly minor complaints, and “Rebellion” is definitely something you’ll love if you’re looking for politically-charged action and intrigue. Or if you’re looking to leave a movie theater in a serious depression. Either way.

“The Counsel (L’Avocat)”

Legal thrillers are a staple of the French Film Festival, and “The Counsel” is your quintessential courtroom adventure- up-and-coming young lawyer Leo Demarsan (Benoit Magimel) takes on a dangerous new client and kicks off a luxurious new career as a mob lawyer, but ends up over his head and tangled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse.

Film festivals need balance. They need films that are fast-paced and films that are a little slower. Comedies and dramas. Existential torment and enjoyable fluff.

“The Counsel” is a perfect example of enjoyable fluff. It’s fast-paced pop fun, and it’s got a few genuine moments of suspense towards the end, but every single aspect of the story stays well within the genre conventions of a legal thriller. There isn’t a single plot point that you couldn’t predict from the outset of the film (mob underling jokingly threatens Leo with violence, Leo gets antsy and starts working as a snitch, requisite “download the files off of the mob boss’s computer when he’s out of the room” scene, mobsters go after Leo’s pregnant girlfriend, etc).

By far, the worst offender of the bunch is the big boss’s daughter- in multiple scenes, we get glimpses of the boss lifting up his little girl and playing with her. All of these moments are confined to the background. The daughter never has any dialogue. We never even see her face. She’s just there to humanize the bad guy in the most convenient way possible.

Also, the final song we hear over the last scene is “Freebird.”

“Freebird.”

French audiences might not be familiar with “Freebird”, and in that case it’d be a perfectly fine rock ‘n roll tune to end your movie on. But my American ears know “Freebird” all too well, and it’s the easiest, most obvious, borderline-cliche piece of music to put over the closing credits. Often times, our last impressions of a film are the ones that tend to stick with us the most, and all I could think of at the end of “The Counsel” was, “why am I listening to ‘Freebird?'”

“The Counsel” isn’t a bad movie by any means. It’s a quick little jaunt that you can sit back and enjoy without really thinking too much while it’s on.

You just might not remember it too well once it’s over.

“Jo’s Boy (Le Fils a Jo)”

Jo Canavaro (Gerard Lanvin, star of my favorite film of the 2010 festival- “Bank Error in Your Favor”) is a rugby legend in a long line of rugby legends. So when Jo’s son Tom (Jeremie Duvall) turns out to be awful at the sport, Jo starts up his own team to keep his son in the game.

“Jo’s Boy” is sweet and charming and heartwarming. This is especially true of star Gerard Lanvin, who stands out amongst a crowd of talented comedic players, each with his or her own little subplot that fleshes out the film’s world just a little bit more. It’s funny in a comforting sort of way, and everything builds well enough to a climactic championship game that had members of the audience shouting encouragement at the screen.

This should be the perfect feel-good film.

It’s not.

“Jo’s Boy” should be a story about father and son, but it’s a story where the son gets short shrift. In the very beginning of the movie, Tom tears off his rugby jersey after a failed game and declares he doesn’t want his dad’s life or his dad’s sport. Later, the goofy sidekick Pompom has a heart-to-heart with Tom, and offers to explain to Jo that his son doesn’t want to play rugby anymore. Tom and his father seem to be vastly different people (with Tom excelling in math, while Jo’s never cared about school, in the slightest), so it would seem that our big conflict is having these two find some kind of common ground.

All this is promptly forgotten once Jo starts up his new rugby team. Tom trains under a celebrity member of the All Blacks (the national team of New Zealand) and soon his room’s decorated with rugby posters and all he can ever talk about is rugby. The moral of the story, apparently, is that if your son doesn’t want to do something, keep pressuring him to do it and he’ll eventually love it.

It just doesn’t sit right with me.

Plus, Jo’s the only one to ever drive the story. Jo starts up a new team. Jo deals with the loss of his wife. Jo has a little will-they-or-won’t-they with his Irish love interest, Jo deals with past rivals and helps out his friends. Jo’s the one who has to grow as a character and learn to accept his son. Tom just does what his dad tells him to, and eventually he loves rugby just as much as his dad does.

It’s an odd thing- I liked “Jo’s Boy.” I liked it a whole lot. But that odd father/son dynamic left an unpleasant aftertaste in my mouth once the movie had ended.

“All Our Desires (Toutes non envies)”

“All Our Desires” could easily be an exercise in writing the most depressing premise for a screenplay in motion picture history. Claire (Marie Gillain), a scrappy young lawyer, fights to change banking law to combat a corrupt industry and save a friend from impossible debts, all while suffering from an inoperable brain tumor she’s keeping secret from her friends and family.

It’s a noble premise (if just for the sheer audacity of its bleakness), but “All Our Desires” never really gripped me the way I wanted it to. Part of it is because the main character doesn’t really grow over the course of the film- towards the beginning, Claire’s impulsive and almost bullheaded, yet unable to really face her failing health head-on. She refuses any kind of treatment and keeps her impending demise a secret from everyone except her and her doctor. And she stays that way for the remainder of the film, still doggedly pursuing better banking regulations and still refusing to speak about her illness to anyone.

And by the end of the film, all of the interesting character development has shifted over to Stephane (Vincent Lindon), Claire’s partner in banking law, and Celine (Amandine Dewasmes), the woman Claire’s trying to save from impossible amounts of debt. Once Claire’s role in the film starts to diminish, the film becomes noticeably more affecting. The actors here are all supremely talented, but it almost feels like they’re stuck doing the best they can with a script that could have dug just a little bit deeper.

“Foot Arch (Voute Plantaire)”

The premise of “Foot Arch” should be enough to pique your interest. Gerard (Jean-Noel Brutte), a filthy rich orthopedic surgeon, stands idly on a bridge and is ready to commit suicide when he’s stopped by two sisters who need directions to the nearest gas station. Together, the three of them embark on a journey full of crazed policeman, camera-phone voyeurs, cheating spouses and a trip into the human subconscious that’s both touching and obscenely funny.

One of the best aspects of “Foot Arch” is the way the screenplay doles out information in a slow but steady stream, letting the characters bounce off each other just long enough, then throwing in another curveball that reveals something new and pushes the story in a new direction. It’s incredible to see just how gradually the film changes from a simple tale about suicide to a sprawling comic farce about repressed memories and society, and how the film’s surreal elements start to stack up and become more and more noticeable.

And at just under an hour (fifty-three minutes, to be exact), the film occupies an odd territory between short and feature (although technically, the festival categorized it as a short), but that’s just the right length of time. We get almost an hour to grow with these characters, but then we’re left wanting more.

If you ever get the opportunity to see “Foot Arch,” (and depending on what country you live in, that opportunity may be a rare one), I heartily suggest you take it.

And with that, I sum up my thoughts on the 20th Annual French Film Festival. It’s a wonderful experience- a whole weekend spent watching films I’d never have the chance to see otherwise and experiencing a culture that’s totally foreign to me. And like I said earlier, I’ll have reviews of my two favorite festival films up later this week.

Thanks for reading!

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8 responses to “The 20th Annual French Film Festival

  1. Rebellion and Foot Arch sound especially interesting. Unfortunately, I don’t think these films will play at most movie theaters. I’ll try to find them on DVD or Netflix.

  2. Incredible! I actually missed these films in our local film festival but I’m very excited now to have informed guide for blue ray section when they finally come out, thanxs for sharing.

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