What's Good At The French Film Festival?
Whether by accident or design, each year’s French Film Festival seems to be arranged around a certain theme. In 2012, with the credit crunch still fresh, it was the economy. In 2013, with the first boomers hitting 67, it was aging. I missed last year’s festival, but at this year’s fest, which concluded on 2 February, the themes seemed to revolve around race on the one hand and handicaps on the other.
No doubt this is due to the wildly popular 2011 film ‘The Intouchables’, about a rich white guy in a wheelchair and his black assistant, which probably inspired every project that was greenlit in the following couple of years and featured either one or the other. We are now reaping the harvest.
If ‘Intouchables’ was a French ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, then ‘Serial (Bad) Weddings’ is a sort of French ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’. When that film was made, interracial marriages were still illegal in many US states. The law might not be the main problem for mixed marriages in modern day France, but here, an elderly couple’s supposed tolerance is stretched to breaking point when each of their four daughters in succession marry a Muslim, a Jew, a Chinese man and eventually, and this is when things truly get tough, an African. Instead of being merely an exercise in white guilt, ‘Serial (Bad) Weddings’ turns rather endearing as the old white guy learns to overcome his prejudices alongside the equally sceptical African father-in-law, and becomes, strangely, a feel-good film about racism (and overcoming it).
The language of love
The cartoon ‘Aya From Yop City’ is set in the Ivory Coast in the 70s, but is actually more about gender roles than race. And then there were the two films about disability. ‘The Finishers’ is about the father of a disabled boy who decides to take part in a triathlon with him. And ‘The Bélier Family’ is about a girl whose parents are deaf but who dreams of becoming a singer.
Films about disability might at bring to mind your average heavy-handed Scandinavian social realist dramas, but these do not fall into that domain. These films are French, and there is always a certain joie de vivre involved. The director does not take pains to beat us over the head with the fact that those disabled are human beings too. Rather, that is taken as a given, which means we can move right on to the other issues, often sexual in nature, that are at the core of the stories.
For when it comes down to it, the main themes of this year’s festival were the classic French preoccupations of love and sexuality. This, in itself, is something of a relief in an age which is by turns pornographic or puritanical, but only rarely has anything interesting to say about these subjects. Everyone has a sex drive, irrespective of cultural background or physical disability, the French would have us believe. Even middle-aged women have it, and their inclusion here reminds you of how often they are excluded or reduced to nurturing roles in modern culture.
That ‘Serial (Bad) Weddings is a love story at its core needs hardly be emphasized: the love stories of the younger people bring together a world that their elders have so thoroughly divided. But sexuality is also a major topic in ‘The Belier Family’, whose protagonist must deal both with her oversexed parents and also her best friend, while seeking the affection of her less talented co-singer.
Making up for ‘The Smell Of Us’
It is only when the festival dabbled in more direct pornography that it fell apart. Larry Clark raised eyebrows twenty years ago with his depiction of teenage sex in ‘Kids’, and now at 72 is still stuck in the same territory with ‘The Smell Of Us’–only way more explicitly. One critic aptly said that Larry Clark made the worst film of the year so that no one else had to∫–indeed, how this wound up on the festival roster is puzzling. A veritable snooze-fest is the overlong French-Canadian ‘Lawrence Anyways’, about a transgender person in the 90s, and his girlfriend Fred. Here, more social commentary would be a relief. Instead, we get to watch Lawrence and Fred, both hopelessly (although no doubt unintentionally) egocentric, destroy their own relationship and those of everyone around them.
As if to make up for this double disaster, we also got a screening of Truffaut’s classic
‘Jules and Jim’. It was pure pleasure to get to see this piece of cinematic gold on the big screen again. The theme is a Franco-German love triangle around the time of World War I, the affair impacting the protagonists far more than the war does. Anyone who thinks the French New Wave was somehow ™difficult∫ should seek this out. The humour is as crisp as ever.
A more contemporary director who sometimes tends to be difficult to watch is Sólveig Anspach. ‘Lulu In The Nude’ starts out as one of those arthouse films where things go relentlessly from bad to worse: poor Lulu is rejected by both employer and credit card machine and loses her wedding ring while her husband shouts at her over the cell phone. But in the course of her adventures, both protagonist and film discover the belle vie and the roughly 50-year-old actress Karin Viard (also the mother in ‘Bélier’) makes a remarkable transition from sad to sexy by getting some colour in her checks. “I don’t know how long I managed to do without it,” she says after having sex with an ex-convict.
‘Lulu’ was one of the festival’s surprise highlights. It also made an interesting counterpoint to another festival film, ‘Domestic Life’, about a woman trying to avoid married life (as Lulu tries to escape it). In ‘Jules and Jim’ we see the man worrying after the woman leaves the household; here we get to see where she might have gone. In any case, France’s (and perhaps the world’s) problems can be fixed with a little bit of romance.