Tuesday, 28 April 2015

French Film Festival 2015

As I'm learning French, each year I try to go to at least a few films at the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival. Although it's a carefully curated selection to pick from, it's always a bit of a gamble whether you're going to like it or not. This year I picked four films that were quite different from each other - a documentary, a fairytale, a romantic comedy and something that was more of a psychological thriller.

Une Nouvelle Amie (The New Girlfriend)
Directed by François Ozon

Claire (Anaïs Demoustier) is shattered when her closest friend since childhood, Laura, dies leaving behind her grieving husband David (Romain Duris) and their new baby. When Claire drops by David's house unexpectedly one day, she finds a strange, blonde woman there, who turns out to be David dressed in his dead wife's clothes! At first Claire is horrified, but when David explains that his wife was aware of his desire to sometimes dress as a woman, she becomes more understanding. She and David begin to go on outings together, with him dressed as his female persona, "Virginia", and Claire tells her husband that she is spending time with an old friend from school. But as David begins to identify more strongly with Virginia, Claire begins to feel confused and conflicted, and her relationship with "Virginia" causes tension between her and her husband.

I really enjoy Roman Duris' acting, but he's not the most effeminate man, and it is testament to his skill as an actor that he manages to make David/Virginia a believable character. The film has some interesting things to say about desire and gender, and the character of David is handled in a respectful way.

La Belle et La Bête (Beauty and the Beast)
Directed by Christophe Gans

A very straight re-telling of the classic fairytale. I really wanted to see this because Léa Seydoux (Beauty) is so gorgeous, and I'm a sucker for anything with really lovely costumes.

This was a little over-the-top even for me - it was almost like twee on a grand scale. The costumes were extremely detailed and theatrical, but at the same time a bit too fussy and fiddly. The scenery was so romantic that it started tipping over into slightly sickly territory, and because the story was very traditional the whole thing got a bit boring.

I mean, this dress was quite amazing, but I just wanted to tell her to look in the mirror and take a few of the accessories off, You don't really need a matching earrings, necklace and tiara set with a dress like that.

Aesthetically the whole film reminded me of one of those New Age crystal shops full of fairies and whimsical romantic stuff. I expected a unicorn to come prancing through at any moment. I like my fairytales with a darker edge and this was just too much like fairy floss.

Directed by Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache

Samba (Omar Sy) is a Senegalese dishwasher who has been living in France for ten years. After being arrested as an illegal immigrant, he meets Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), his caseworker, who is volunteering at the centre while on stress leave after a breakdown at work. The pair make an unlikely couple, and their hesitant romance is thrown into trouble when Samba's past actions start to catch up with him.

There are some fantastically funny bits in the film, especially from Samba's friend Wilson (Tahar Rahim), a fellow immigrant who has a way with the ladies. There are also some really heartbreaking moments, and although some reviewers have criticised the film for making light of the very real problem of illegal immigrants living without rights in France, I found that the humour allowed the characters to develop more three-dimensionally and to be seen as real people with flaws and desires. Sy is brilliant as both a comic and a dramatic actor, and Gainsbourg excels in portraying a woman tormented by shyness and anxiety.

Le Temps Suspendu (Handmade with Love in France)
Directed by Julie Georgia Bernard

If you are interested in artisans and handcrafts like I am, you will be fascinated by this documentary. It looks at several small ateliers in Paris which still produce exquisite handmade items for France's top fashion houses. There's M. Lognon, who pleats fabric in the most complicated designs, and who does all of Hermes' finely pleated silk scarves; M. Legeron who runs the silk flower workshop his grandfather established, and who still has boxes of flowers that his grandfather made; and M. Ré, who carves amazing hatblocks out of wood.

The French title of the film (Suspended Time) hints at the idea that these artisans are living almost in an earlier era, where craftsmanship was prized and clients respected the time it took to make things. These days it is getting harder and harder to run an independent workshop - fashion is speeding up, there are more collections per year, and the turnaround time on orders is reaching a level where it is becoming almost impossible to create a quality product in the time given. Many workshops are being sold to conglomerates owned by the fashion houses, and moved out of their quaint Parisienne ateliers and into large modern workshops in the suburbs. It's a bittersweet look at something that probably won't exist in twenty years.

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