French Cinema Now is my favorite of the several fall mini-festivals put on by the San Francisco Film Society, seeing as I’ve always had a soft spot for French movies. And now the Film Society has a delightful venue for its year-round programming: the New People Cinema, a comfortable, state-of-the-art 143-seat room, with excellent sightline and sound, in the chic modern New People building in Japantown. It’s just a block away from the festival home base, the Sundance Kabuki complex.
The Opening Night film (screened at Landmark’s Embarcadero Cinema) is Bachelor Days Are Over, a first feature by actress Katia Lewcowicz, which closed Critics’ Week in Cannes this year. It’s described as a comedy, but I find its story of pre-wedding angst, with its adulterous actions on both sides either demonstrated or implied, rather stressful. The lead actor, Benjamin Biolay, better known as a singer, is compulsively watchable as family tensions and renovation problems swirl around him. Emmanuelle Devos and Nicole Garcia are welcome presences.
What isn’t welcome is that the film is projected noticeably out-of-focus. (I’m getting to the point where I welcome bright flat digital projection, with its implicit promise of focus.) I wait for three reel changes before I charge up the aisle and accost the first staffer I see, who happens to be Director of Programming Rachel Rosen. There’s a murmur of appreciation when focus is achieved.
Katia Lewcowicz and another young French woman director, Delphine Gleize (The Moon Child), both chicly attired in slim black pants and towering stilettos, are present at the cocktail party in honor of French Cinema Now at the French consulate in Pacific Heights. Over champagne, big pink shrimp, and mini-hamburgers, I chat with Strand Releasing head Marcus Hu, artist Aline Mare, San Francisco Silent Film Festival director Stacy Wisnia, and cultural attaché Denis Bisson. Big topic: the exciting announcement that Bingham Ray is the new Executive Director of the Film Society.
The following night I see a double bill: The Minister, Pierre Schoeller’s dark, cynical, dense political tale of intrigue behind the scenes in French politics, where the ends justify the lack of conviction behind them, starring Olivier Gourmet and Michel Blanc; and Antony Cordier’s sex-drenched Four Lovers, with familiar French faces (and, by the end of the movie, bodies) Marina Foïs, Elodie Bouchez, Roschdy Zen, and Nicolas Duvauchelle swapping partners in chic and idyllic settings.
A glitch occurs with the Four Lovers screening, which I don’t remember ever seeing before: the freshly-struck copy of the film has subtitles that are slightly out-of-sync with the soundtrack. I’m astounded both that this is the first time I can remember running across this problem in my decades of viewing, and at how distracting it is. At least half the audience leaves when the film is interrupted to offer apologies. I understand French, so I stick around, but it’s amazing how even a slight lag time – programmer Rod Armstrong estimates it as 12 seconds! – can throw you. (I’m informed that a duplicate copy with in-synch titles arrives in time for the movie’s second screening, three days later.) In this instance the frequent love-making scenes are welcome because they’re largely silent (as well as titillating).
On the morrow my bad luck holds: I think I’m just checking the start time of The Long Falling online before I leave the house, but I manage to read the one-line summary of the movie on IMDB (my advice: don’t), which gives away in 16 words two surprises of the movie. (The savvy writers of the festival brochure manage to avoid any spoilers in their 150-word blurb.) Even so, I adore it. I wasn’t particularly taken with the previous collaboration between director Martin Provost and actress Yolande Moreau, Séraphine, the for-me-opaque period study of French painter Séraphine de Senlis, but this one, a noirish study of abuse and retribution, set in contemporary Belgium, hits it out of the park, as far as I’m concerned.
After seeing the only fitfully engaging The Screen Illusion (pictured), actor-director Mathieu Almaric’s interesting experiment in setting 17th-century Corneille in and around a modern-day French hotel (shot in only 12 days, with well-spoken and unfamiliar members of the Comédie Française), I hit the closing film: Angèle and Tony by rookie Alix Delaporte. At first I’m irritated by its central character’s opacity and silence (as incarnated by Clotilde Hesme, an Ines de la Fressange lookalike, disconcertedly chic as a one-step-above-homeless parolee), and I dismiss the story as wanabee-but-sub-Pagnol in its maritime setting and enclosed society. But eventually I’m won over by the slow warming of its gritty fairy tale. I liked it!
As I exit, I spy a poster for the movie, and I’m glad it’s after I saw Angele and Tony rather than before, because it’s a sunny (if uncharacteristic) image that gives away way too much. (I can see why the film’s marketers might want to misrepresent its tone in order to get people into seats, but geez! It reminds me of when the movie Chilly Scenes of Winter was re-released as Head over Heels, which a friend described as if they’d retitled Winter Light Scudda Hoo, Scudda Hey!)
I’m sorry that French Cinema Now is over. But I have in my purse DVDs of two movies I didn’t manage to squeeze in – Audrey Tatou and Nathale Baye in Pierre Salvatore’s Beautiful Lies, and Delphine Gleize’s The Moon Child, with Vincent Lindon and the busy Emmanuelle Devos, so I can continue my French obsession for a few more hours.