This year’s showcase of French cinema features combustible social realism, unmissable zombie-teen drama, an unofficial tribute to the iconic Catherine Deneuve, and more
Viewed from afar, French film culture seems to be in a state of crisis. On February 27, the entire editorial staff of venerable magazine Cahiers du Cinéma – founded by André Bazin and famously home to François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette – called it quits, in protest over the consortium of corporate interests that had recently acquired the fiercely independent, landscape-shifting publication. Just a day later, an even higher profile walkout rattled the César Awards – the country’s Oscars – when Portrait of a Lady on Fire star Adèle Haenel and filmmaker Céline Sciamma marched themselves from the Salle Pleyel in the wake of Roman Polanski’s win for Best Director. (The actress, who says she experienced sexual harassment and abuse as a child in the industry, was heard shouting “Shame!” while the ceremony honoured cinema’s favourite fugitive.) Social media was quick to rally behind Haenel, but battle lines were drawn; many in the French older guard, including luminaries like Isabelle Huppert, have been hesitant to align themselves with #MeToo, even going so far as to call it a lynching. It was a mess.
Not that you’d notice going by this month’s Alliance Française French Film Festival, which continues its remit of gathering up the year’s crowd-pleasing Gallic cinema for its annual Australian showcase. Look closer, though, and there are signs of cultural rupture. There’s little escapism to be found in the festival’s major attraction, Les Misérables, the debut feature by French-Malian filmmaker Ladj Ly that won Best Film at the Césars and shared the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes. Inspired by an episode of police brutality in 2008 and set against the multiracial projects in the director’s home suburb of Montfermeil – a location in Victor Hugo’s classic novel, from which the film borrows its title – it’s a combustible, social-realist drama of bad cops and dispossessed kids powered by an ever-present anxiety.
Ly, who emerged from the city’s Kourtrajmé art collective, takes the unexpected route of following three Street Crimes Unit cops – bonehead squad leader Chris (Alexis Manenti), cool-tempered Gwada (Djebril Zonga) and new transfer Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) – as they variously patrol and harass the mostly African and Arabic residents, many of them kids. The action pivots on the unlikely but effectively surreal theft of a lion cub from a visiting gypsy circus, prompting a clash between police and teenagers in which the catnapper, Issa (Issa Perica), is shot in the face with a Flash Ball gun. Being 2019, the incident is caught on camera by the drone of the neighbourhood peeping Tom, setting cops and kids on a deadly collision course. Ly’s urban realism is splintered with memorable images, such as a tense confrontation with a ferocious circus lion, and mixed-race crowds swelling under iconic national landmarks: a celebration just waiting to become a revolution. His use of drone shots suggests something anthropological and unusually poetic from the much-abused documentary technique, evoking an ambivalent sense of the bigger picture that avoids easy answers. “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men,” the film quotes Hugo. “There are only bad cultivators.”
Speaking of historically bad cultivators, Bertrand Bonello needles the relationship between modern France its and one-time slave colony Haiti in Zombi Child, splicing teen movie and undead origin story together in provocative tandem. In a prologue set in 1962 Haiti, the recently deceased Clairvius Narcisse (Mackenson Bijou) gets reanimated by witchcraft to plough the fields with other worker zombies, who moan and groan in a hazy, half-lit phantom world that calls to mind Victor Halperin and Jacques Tourneur, or the genre rebirth in Mati Diop’s recent Atlantics – another film that used the undead to develop a metaphor for the lingering wounds of colonialism. Meanwhile, his distant granddaughter, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), joins a secretive clique of teens at an elite French boarding school – a moneyed, privileged gang of white girls Bonello renders as a mix of The Craft and Carrie, complete with dreamy locker-room tableaux set to his typically spacey synth score.
“Listen up, white world,” Mélissa chants to the group, “to my zombie roar.” Bonello threads cultural myth with contemporary appropriation, as the girls dabble in voodoo ritual like the rebel teens trying on sportswear in his recent Nocturama. But when lovelorn Fanny (Louise Labèque) tries to summon her ex-boyfriend’s heart, she unleashes the traditional spectre Baron Samedi (Néhémy Pierre-Dahomey) – and Bonello can’t resist the temptations of histrionic, if appropriately scolding imagery. Yet the film’s strangely peaceful coda also suggests a love story across time, and a reclamation of history through new lives. It’s unmissable.
While Bonello uses past narratives to push forward, nostalgia’s double-edged power is examined in Nicolas Bedos’s La Belle Époque (winner of Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress at the Césars), in which an estranged older couple (Daniel Auteuil and Fanny Ardant) and two squabbling lovers (Guillaume Canet and Doria Tillier) get tangled up in a simulated reality. Auteuil is Victor, a seventy-something, GPS-loathing luddite whose wife, Marianne (Ardant), is addicted to virtual reality headsets and cheating on him with his best friend. Like Schwarzenegger in Total Recall before him, he seeks out the services of Time Travellers, a bespoke company lead by Antoine (Canet) that offers clients a realistic simulation of any era they want to visit. Victor chooses 1974 – the year he and his wife first met – and he’s soon lost in a backlot reproduction in which Antoine’s actress lover, Margot (Tillier), plays the young version of Marianne. (Guess where that’s headed.)
The high-concept conceit is enough to jazz the familiar relationship twists, with Bedos piling on layers of artifice as Victor falls for the delusion of nostalgia; a fitting analogy in an age where content is both increasingly high-tech and depressingly retrograde, and digitally de-aged or fully rebuilt avatars promise audiences the comforting sloth of a forever past. (The film’s killer opening scene, a Netflix series parody featuring masked bandits bursting into lavish period party re-enactment, would make for a great film on its own.) La Belle Époque goes down a treat, with enough ripples to linger, but it also winds up being the sort of fraudulently fuzzy diorama inhabited by its characters – where love prevails, and Dionne Warwick is readily on hand to sing “(There’s) Always Something There To Remind Me”.
Another septuagenarian relationship gets tested in Filippo Meneghetti’s Two of Us, with Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier as longtime lovers who live in adjacent apartments and pose as each other’s platonic neighbour. Nina (Sukowa) and Madeleine (Chevalier) have been together for decades, but the latter hasn’t come out to her family. When Madeleine experiences a stroke that renders her mute, her daughter (Léa Drucker) first appoints a meddling live-in caregiver, and later – as the truth unravels – conspires to shut Nina out of her lover’s life altogether. Older queer women are generally under-represented on screen, and Menghetti’s feature debut proves a tender, empathetic character piece. His film is heartrending but also ripe with unease, extracting considerable mileage out of the simple, almost Haneke-ian spatial set-up. But it’s Sukowa, the veteran trooper of Fassbinder and Margarethe von Trotta, who’s the star, whether she’s indignantly crow-barring a car like Beyoncé, hurling rocks through the close-minded daughter’s window, or simply staring through a peephole – rendered a voyeur to her own partner. Meanwhile, another baby boomer pop classic, Betty Curtis’s “Chariot (Sul Mio Carro)”, becomes a ghostly refrain that echoes across time.
At least they don’t have Sibyl for a therapist. The old “crazy psychiatrist” standby gets a work-over in Justine Triet’s latest, as Virginie Efira’s titular shrink starts purloining the troubles of her latest client – emotional young actress Margot (Adèle Exarchopoulos) – for a novel she’s struggling to write. Margot is pregnant to her current co-star Igor (Gaspard Ulliel), much to the exasperation of his partner, the film’s German director, Mika, who’s played by an amusingly flustered Sandra Hüller. (The Toni Erdmann star also appears in Alice Winocour’s festival space drama, Proxima; unpreviewed as of writing, but very much anticipated.) Triet uses flashbacks and dissociative dialogue to evoke Sibyl’s descent into her self-made web of deceit, lapping fiction and reality in comedic ways once the doctor becomes ill-advised romantic consultant to the war-torn lovers on the shoot. Like those knowing lines that form a permanent parenthesis around Uliel’s smirk, however, this mildly diverting film is a little too clever to take off into the truly campy melodrama it might have been.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a French film festival without an unofficial tribute to an iconic actress – and they don’t come much more iconic than Catherine Denueve. The enduring star headlines two new films in the program, Cédric Kahn’s familial drama Happy Birthday and longtime collaborator André Téchiné’s Farewell to the Night, while her first film with the latter, 1981’s Hotel America, plays in retrospective. The real treat, however, is the chance to see Deneuve making a literal ass of herself (sorry) in Jacques Demy’s wonderful 1970 fairy tale, Donkey Skin (not to be confused with Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin, also playing, though they might make for a curious double feature.) Existing somewhere between the ancient folk world of Charles Perrault, the enchanted cinema of Jean Cocteau, and California’s Age of Aquarius – it was the first film Demy made after he and partner Agnés Varda returned from their sojourn in Los Angeles – the film’s blend of historical perversity and rainbow-coloured weirdness will please anyone who’s ever complained about the Disneyfication of fairy tales.
Perched on a fluffy cat throne to die for, Cocteau’s great muse Jean Marais (Orpheus, Beauty and the Beast) plays a king who can’t find a suitable replacement for his dead queen, and so – as one does – decides to marry his daughter (Deneuve). With the help of a fairy godmother (Delphine Seyrig, doing her best Glinda), the princess escapes into the forest, wearing the eponymous carcass like some shape-shifting creature captured mid-transformation. Full of early cinema’s in-camera visual tricks, dreamy murals, and sing-songy musical interludes (courtesy Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg composer, Michel Legrand), it’s turn-of-the-Me-Decade magic, both faithful and gently revisionist. And the film’s unusual, Monty Python–esque finale, in which Seyrig’s fairy prophet seems to return from some far-flung future, is the stuff of genius. I wonder what the actress, a defiant feminist and frequent collaborator with Chantal Akerman, would have to say about the Césars, were she still around today.
Viewed from afar, French film culture seems to be in a state of crisis. On February 27, the entire editorial staff of venerable magazine Cahiers du Cinéma – founded by André Bazin and famously home to François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette – called it quits, in protest over the consortium of corporate interests that had recently acquired the fiercely independent, landscape-shifting publication. Just a day later, an even higher profile walkout rattled the César Awards – the country’s Oscars – when Portrait of a Lady on Fire star Adèle Haenel and filmmaker Céline Sciamma marched themselves from the Salle Pleyel in the wake of Roman Polanski’s win for Best Director. (The actress, who says she experienced sexual harassment and abuse as a child in the industry, was heard shouting “Shame!” while the ceremony honoured cinema’s favourite fugitive.) Social...