French cinema is often mischaracterized by American audiences as a single genre synonymous with moody arthouse films and small-scale, character-driven work. In an effort to expand its audience and showcase an array of new voices in varied genres, each year, COLCOA (City of Lights/ City of Angels) French Film Festival offers a much more comprehensive representation of the state of filmmaking in France.
By screening documentaries, shorts, and restored classics alongside the kaleidoscopic narrative offerings, COLCOA proves to be a compact and efficient overview of the French film industry. This year’s lineup highlighted the increased production of comedies and romantic films, all of which have proven to be very successful with French audiences. Last year the French box-office finished with an eclectic mixed of foreign imports (mostly American) and domestic product. While Disney’s "Frozen" ended the year at number one with $46.9 million, the French comedy "Les Profs" came in at number 7 with $32.4 million, surpassing titles like "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," Fast & Furious 6," and "Man of Steel." French films "Me, Myself, and Mum" and the "9 Month Stretch" (both of which played at COLCOA) came in higher than Warner's "The Great Gatsby" and "Oz: The Great and Powerful."
Numbers like these are tangible proof that French audiences are as interested in their national film industry as they are in the American studios’ fare, sometimes even more so. That’s why a small documentary film, "On the Way to School" (also at COLCOA this year), can make just over $6 million and defeat a film like "Kick-Ass 2." There are plenty of other examples like these that show the disparity between the commercial success of French titles and foreign imports is not as pronounced, and there is still a sustainable and healthy market that encourages producers to invest in homegrown talent.
Over 100 features were produced in France in 2013, many of which have already been released to eager audiences who want to see stories closer to home. It may come as no surprise that last week’s French box office had two domestic films in the top 10, the latter being the comedy "Babysitting."
COLCOA’s program, which concluded on Monday, takes a holistic view of French cinema, exploring remnants of the French New Wave and more conventionally entertaining works alike. Acclaimed filmmakers and earnest newcomers coexist for a week in Hollywood in a Francophilian environment filled with wine, cheese, and the occasional croissant. Still, the main courses here are the films: venerated classics, new provocative masterpieces, and high concept box-office successes.
This year's opening night film was "We Love You, You Bastard," the latest family-driven dramedy by legendary auteur Claude Lelouch. Approachable, engaging, and heartfelt, this may become a career-reviving film for the director whose filmography expands to almost 50 films, but who hasn’t had a significant hit since the 60s. Most of his recent efforts have proven to be liabilities for the director who finances his films via his own production company. Failing to succeed in his native country, many of them have been left without any international distribution prospects. His film "Les Parisiens" is perhaps the most notorious case -- it performed so poorly that the director opted to give away tickets free of charge to at least get people to see it. This new lighthearted and semi-autobiographical film, which also is of a much smaller financial scale than many of the filmmaker’s more epic works, could strike a chord with audiences due to great performances including French icon Johnny Hallyday as an aging photographer trying to reconnect with his daughters.
The French NeWave 2.0 section presented works that draw from the aesthetic and thematic styles of the original New Wave movement of the late 50s and 60s, but adapting them to contemporary topics. These included a handful of films focused on humanistic stories with flawed individuals enduring personal journeys. Among these, Helier Cisterne's first feature "Vandal," which echoed Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows," stood out: It tells coming-of-age cycle of a young troublemaker, Cherif, who finds himself wrapped up in a graffiti subculture. Effective but not revelatory, the film’s ending is as vague as "The 400 Blows," but much less inspired. Similarly, Katell Quillévéré's "Suzanne" attempts to encompass the life of the title character not finding a thematic core despite great performances. Dealing with a woman who falls for a criminal and leaves her son, the film's time-lapse like vignettes lack emotional weight throughout.
But two other films in the section had much more powerful impacts. The highly original "The Age of Panic" is a small revelation about a couple in a dispute over their children while the nation awaits the presidential election results. Directed by Jusitne Triet, the film utilizes a cinema verite approach embellished by outstanding (and largely improvised) performances. But the highlight of the section was the return of modern provocateur Catherine Breillat. In her "Abuse of Weakness," Isabelle Huppert stars as a suddenly handicapped woman being taken advantage of by a deviant lover. As usual, the filmmaker's latest work is a tad meditative, painfully blunt about its subject, but stronger because of its uncompromising, minimalist approach to drama.
Elsewhere, the festival showcased the more commercial side of the French film industry. Here one could find the hit comedy "Babysitting," which might be best described as a French version of "Project X," about a man taking care of his boss' son while his friends plan a party of his birthday. The movie offers a lot of familiar tropes: found footage gimmicks, male-oriented sex jokes, rampant destruction — and a heartwarming story, to boot. One can easily envision an American remake in the near future. In the same mainstream vein was "The Last Diamond," a heist film that can’t help but fall prey to unoriginality, despite a formidable performance by Berenice Bejo. Then there was the feel-good "Turning Tied," with Francois Cluzet as a man on a mission to win a yacht race, when an African kid gets on board with a dream of making it to France. Perhaps the most intriguing of these simpler offerings was "Quantum Love," which, while overall a generic romantic comedy, still delivers compelling, hilarious, and thoughtful ideas on love in a visually innovative manner.
To complement the wave of fresh talent, there were also several established filmmakers unveiling new works. These included Francois Ozon's latest exploration of precocious sexuality in "Young & Beautiful"; the premiere of "Chinese Puzzle," the third film in Cédric Klapisch acclaimed trilogy; and the highly anticipated French-language "Venus in Fur," from Polish director Roman Polanski. Looming above all these experienced visionaries in terms of quality was the actor-turned director Guillaume Gallienne with his Cesar-winning "Me, Myself, and Mum," which was by far the best film to play at the festival: an endearing story of a man unsure of his sexual identity that is as comedic as it is unique in its conception.
Judging by COLCOA's offerings, France is one of the few countries that provide plenty of room for versatile cinematic options. In America, the tension between studios and independent work has never been greater — but in France, cinema is cinema. Filmmakers embrace older styles along with inventing new ones. This year, COLCOA effectively highlighted the diversity of genres and stories they had to appeal to as many viewers as possible. Other countries would be wise to follow suit. After 18 years in the business of bringing a slice of Paris to the West Coast, COLCOA’s refined curation gets sharper, broader, and, of course, even more authentically French – even as the meaning of that term is broader than ever.