A Guide To The 14th French Film Festival

From June 5 to June 14, Shangri-La Cineplex will once again play host to the annual French Film Festival. This year, the lineup includes a slew of Cannes contenders, from Truffaut right up to our local players in Raya Martin and (tentatively) Brillante Mendoza.

Admission is still free, and it’s still a great way to see a bunch of movies we would never normally get to see in theaters. Here’s a look at what they’re serving up this year:

The festival joins the world in celebrating Environment Day by opening with Home (Yann Arthus-Bertrand, 2009). Director Bertrand takes a unique look at the interconnectedness of life on the planet, literally offering a whole new perspective by using photographs captured from a bird’s eye view. Home is all at once a sobering look at where the planet has gone, and a hopeful plea for where it’s going.

The festival has made known its intention to exhibit the three Filipino features that were shown at Cannes this year. As of this writing, they have not confirmed it yet, but the three movies, Kinatay (Brillante Mendoza, 2009), Independencia (Raya Martin, 2009) and Maynila (Raya Martin and Adolfo Alix Jr., 2009) are tentatively scheduled for Independence Day. Mendoza won the best director prize for Kinatay, though not without some controversy. Roger Ebert declared it the worst film ever programmed in the Cannes Film Festival, and the announcement of Mendoza’s victory elicited some boos from the assembled press. Of course, Mendoza has always pushed buttons, and has also gained admiration for his cinematic rigor and his constant need to push the boundaries of cinema. Kinatay follows the life of a young man trying to scrape together some money so he can marry his girlfriend. He takes a job, and it turns out that the job involves killing a woman. It has been noted that more than half of the movie takes place in a dark van, only the occasional headlight or streetlamp illuminating the inside, where horrifying things are taking place. Like most Mendoza pictures, it sounds like Kinatay isn’t for the casual moviegoer, but definitely presents something extraordinary for those looking for something new and exciting.

Independencia continues Raya Martin’s journey through Philippine history, tracing the national psyche, this time following the exploits of a family hiding out in a jungle paradise as a war for independence against the occupying American forces takes place outside. For the film, Martin mimics the look and melodrama of old silent pictures, transporting audiences to a completely different world. Maynila, a collaboration between Martin and fellow local indie standout Adolfo Alix Jr., is a rather strange project. Released through Star Cinema (presumably thanks to the involvement of Piolo Pascual), the two-part film seeks to pay tribute to two local masterpieces: Ishmael Bernal’s City After Dark and Lino Brocka’s Jaguar. It’s a daring release that should prove to show how this generation of auteurs stacks up against their masters.

Following that train of thought, we arrive at Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows, François Truffaut, 1959) and Un Secret (A Secret, Claude Miller, 2007). Truffaut was Miller’s mentor, and this pair of films makes a neat little line showing off the development of French Cinema. Les Quatre Cents Coups, a mostly autobiographical tale that tells of Truffaut’s life as a young troublemaker, was Truffaut’s breakthrough film, and helped kick off the French New Wave. Un Secret is an adaptation of a novel by Philippe Grimbert, telling the story of a young man who discovers his family’s secret history, and a heritage that he never knew he had. The film goes all the way back to pre-war France, studying the different reactions of people as the German tanks loomed over their fate.

This year’s Palme d’Or went to Austrian director Michael Haneke. The festival is going to be showing an earlier film of his, La Pianiste (The Pianist, 2001), which won the Grand Prix and the acting awards for Benoît Magimel and Isabelle Huppert (who, coincidentally, was head of the jury this year). The movie follows a piano teacher so obsessed with achieving artistic perfection that she slowly loses touch with her humanity, becoming twisted and perverted, her sexuality spiraling into extreme territory. When her young student falls in love with her, she finds a willing victim for her own perversions. Haneke isn’t what you’d call an optimist, his films often subverting things that we find pleasure in (in this case, music) and showing off their dark side. La Pianiste is as good an introduction as any to this troubling director’s work.

Following in the same vein of darkness, though in a completely different way, is Flandres (Flanders, Bruno Dumont, 2006). Dumont is bleak, to say the least, and he shows us the bleak life of a farmer, toiling through everyday, having dispassionate sex with his girlfriend, who’s also cheating on him. He enlists in the army and is sent off to war, where the horrors of battle await him. Dumont’s picture offers no redemption, no real hope; just a staggering grimness that reveals the futility of the human condition.

If grimness doesn’t suit you, Ridicule (Patrice Leconte, 1996) may be a good remedy. It tells the story of a poor French lord trying to get royal backing for a drainage project. He soon discovers the Royal Court at Versailles to be a place of intricate political games and duels fought with acid tongues. Ridicule won the Golden Palm for Patrice Leconte with its biting wit and sharp satire.

People looking for something more conventional will find it in Marie-Jo et Ses Deux Amours (Marie-Jo and Her Two Lovers, Robert Guédiguian, 2002). Guédiguian is known for his social realist dramas, but here he takes a stab at romantic drama, delving into the mind of a woman who is having an affair, and is made to choose between a husband she loves dearly, and a man who fills her with passion.

There are many reasons to see Ma Saison Préférée (My Favorite Season, André Téchiné, 1993), though in all honesty, the presence of Catherine Deneuve may be enough. Deneuve is one the great French actresses, and veterans of the film festival may remember her from her dynamite turn in Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. Ma Saison Préférée is about middle-aged estranged siblings who reunite, and soon find themselves having to deal with what they’ve become as they watch their mother deteriorate after having a stroke.

Fans of Les Chansons d’Amour may want to check out 17 Fois Cécile Cassard (Seventeen Times Cécile Cassard, Christope Honoré, 2002), which tells the story of a woman trying to recover from the death of her husband through seventeen moments in her life. Though you won’t get any songs out of this one, this earlier film from Honoré brings much of the same visual flair that he brought to Les Chanson d’Amour. Strong performances from Béatrice Dalle and the phenomenal Romain Duris tie it all together.

Two biopics take very different approaches to portraying the lives of their subject. The first, Van Gogh (Maurice Pialat, 1991) is rigorous, anti-dramatic piece that follows the painter through his most torturous days in 1890 as he tries to fight off the madness that would eventually consume him. Some consider Van Gogh to be Pialat’s masterpiece, as he shrugs off the familiar anecdotes about Van Gogh’s life and concentrates on the mix of suffering and genius afforded to the painted during his last days.

In contrast, Jean de La Fontaine – La Défi (Daniel Vigne, 2007) takes more liberties with its subject for the sake of a more familiar, more traditional narrative. La Fontaine, great fabulist of the 17th century, is fashioned as a political figure whose pen could take down even the most influential member of the court.

The remaining films all tackle the follies of youth, each in their own unique way. Ça Brule (On Fire, Claire Simon, 2006) follows a teenage girl who goes to extreme lengths to get the attention of a much older man who saved her when she fell off a horse. A Tout de Suite (Right Now, Benoît Jacquot, 2004) is a black and white feature about a girl in the 70s who break out of her bourgeoisie existence when she falls in love with a bank robber and follows him into hiding, only to be abandoned at the first sign of trouble.

L’Esquive (Games of Love and Chance, Abdellatif Kechiche) is about a young man who bribes his friend to let him take his place in a play so that he can be close to a girl that he’s in love with. And Zim & Co (Pierre Jolivet, 2005) tells the story of a young man who needs to get a job to avoid going to prison, but ends up getting into more trouble as he and his friends try to beat the system.

(Note: Schedule is still subject to change)

7:30 PM Opening Night - Home

12:30 PM Un Secret
3 PM Ca Brûle
5:30 PM Jean de la Fontaine
8 PM Van Gogh

12:30 PM Home
3 PM Marie-Jo et Ses Deux Amours
5:30 PM Flandres
8 PM Ma Saison Preferee

12:30 PM Van Gogh
3 PM Flandres
5:30 PM Ça Brule
8 PM Zim et Co

12:30 PM Zim et Co
3 PM Marie-Jo et Ses Deux Amours
5:30 PM Flandres
8 PM Jean de la Fontaine

12:30 PM Ca Brûle
3 PM Home
5:30 PM Van Gogh
8 PM Un Secret

12:30 PM 17 Dix-Sept Fois Cecile Cassard
3 PM 400 coups
5:30 PM L’esquive
8 PM La Pianiste

3 PM Sabongero
5:30 PM Serbis
8 PM Independencia

12:30 PM Ridicule
3 PM Ma Dix-Sept Fois Cecile Cassard
5:30 PM L’esquive
8 PM Flandres

12:30 PM Un Secret
3 PM Jean de la Fontaine
5:30 PM Les Quatre Cents Coups
8 PM Van Gogh

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