The San Francisco Film Society steps up to a radically reduced reality of foreign film distribution by programming a number of focused mini-fests, including Hong Kong Cinema, Taiwan Film Days, and the upcoming New Italian Cinema. While contemplating the ten-film line-up of French Cinema Now, I asked myself how many French films I’d seen in the past year locally, in general release, outside of film festivals.
Practically none – most notably, Andre Techine’s 2011 “Unforgivable,” starring Andre Dussolier and Carole Bouquet, set in Venice, which played a couple of weeks at a Landmark Theater in Berkeley. At the moment there are no French films in general release in the Bay Area (“The Intouchables,” which premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival in the spring, can be found at a few far-flung second-run houses), so the fifth SFFS annual program offered not only a welcome opportunity for the Francophile cinephile – the Francophone fest offers films from Switzerland and Belgium as well as France — but an essential one.
And it seemed, despite formidable opposition from the S.F. Giants playing the Detroit Tigers in the World Series, that the audiences were larger than last year. Opening night featured new Executive Director of the Film Society Ted Hope catching the audience up on the score. “Camille Rewinds,” fresh from the 50th New York Film Festival, starred and directed by the popular French actress Noémie Lvovsky, took a middle-aged woman in the midst of a painful divorce magically back to her Eighties years, “Peggy Sue Got Married” fashion, when she tries to avoid marrying her high school classmate. Lvovsky, who went to film school intending to become a director and made shorts before getting sidetracked into acting by requests from colleagues, said, “I’m not an actor, but it’s something that I do.” The film was inspired by “some questions I’ve been asking myself for a very long time – does time change us into someone else, or is there a part that does not get altered by time?” And she rehearsed a lot with the three younger actresses (“not as young as they played – one was 24, the rest 30”): “we tried to form a group…we danced together – the effect of moving, sweating, acting ridiculous, falling down, that helped to form the group, created a bond.”
The global economic problem was reflected in almost all the lineup, including the powerful closing night film “Sister,” by Ursula Meier (the official Swiss submission for the 2012 Academy Awards and Berlin Silver Bear winner), starring Léa Seydoux (“Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”) as the older sibling of a 12-year-old boy (Kacey Mottet Klein, who debuted in Meier’s 2008 “Home,” and subsequently starred as the young Serge Gainsbourg in “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life”) who steals ski equipment from a fancy mountain resort and sells it at the base of the mountain to support them. After the film, Meier rejected the notion that her film reflects social realism (as with Belgian directors the Dardennes), saying that the film was intended to be “more like a fable, or a Grimm’s fairy tale – like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, unstuck from reality. No police, no social workers.”
Corinne Masiero was striking in the unglamorous title role of Cyril Meenugun’s “Louise Wimmer,” as a homeless woman living in her car and working part-time as a hotel housekeeper, self-medicating with alcohol, cigarettes, and sex, as she hopes for her own apartment in public housing.
Two feckless unemployed young men try to escape living with their parents by buying the “Mobile Home” of François Pirot’s film title, intending to go on the road, but somehow staying stuck in their small Belgian town.
Five elderly friends decide to live together in Stéphane Robelan’s “All Together,” featuring 74-year-old Jane Fonda as well as Geraldine Chaplin and the venerable French stars, all in their 70s or 80s, Guy Bedos, Claude Rich, and Pierre Richard. A couple of youngsters are thrown in, and featured in a not-entirely-gratuitous shot of bare-breasted sex. Apparently all sex in the world of “All Together” was performed with the woman seated on top.
A young French Jew feels that his only option to escape his dead-end life as a Parisian drug-dealer is to join his cousin in opening a restaurant in Tel Aviv in Elie Wajeman’s “Aliyah.”
The only upper-class life was led by Isabelle Huppert as a well-off, well-dressed, well-housed bourgeois art gallery director, who finds her match in a homeless Belgian handyman played by Benoit Poelvoorde at his most boorish and obnoxious and the titular “My Worst Nightmare” by Anne Fontaine. “My Worst Nightmare” is one of the few films of the program scheduled for an upcoming release (from Strand Releasing), along with “All Together,” (Kino Lorber) and Bruno Dumont’s typically dark and unsettling “Hors Satan” (“Outside Satan,” New Yorker Films).
But such discoveries as Guillame Brac’s charming 54-minute “A World Without Women,” about a hapless, sweet loser and his interactions with a mother-daughter tourist pair visiting his coastal village (shown with a 24-minute 2009 short, “Stranded,” featuring the same character), and “Donoma,” a 136-minute film featuring several intertwined stories of young people in multiracial Paris, shot digitally for 150 euros (and suffering from what seemed to be a little too much improv and insufficient psychological reality), would be impossible to see in today’s movie theaters.
If you’re starving for French films – and I am – it’s painful to pick up the brochure of one of French Cinema Now’s sponsors, TV5Monde, to see their movie-rich lineup – at least two French movies programmed a day, both recent and classic. TV5Monde is available in my area on Comcast cable and Dish Network. I, alas, am a DirecTV subscriber, who was recently heartened by its addition of a channel called Cinemoi, which Wikipedia describes as “a pay-TV digital channel screening French films,” as it appears to in the UK. But it seems that Cinemoi has decided that its American audience would prefer vintage American films – the only French films it has programmed so far are “Breathless” and “Contempt.” The only upside is that my DVR is considerably less overworked than it would be if I did indeed subscribe to TV5Monde.