Alliance Française French Film Festival 2020
French films are a wonderful, magical shortcut to understanding French culture, from social conventions and attitudes to fashion. And then, of course, there is that wonderful aural immersion in that most beautiful of languages.
This year’s Alliance Française French Film Festival offers many slices of French life for us to discover and enjoy. Here’s my take on a couple of wildly different yet entertaining films below.
Despite the coronavirus, we can (at the moment) still enjoy the festival, and be sensible – make sure we sit a few seats away from everyone else and don’t touch your face while watching the films.
La Belle Époque
Two of my favourite actors, Daniel Auteuil and Fanny Ardant star as husband and wife Victor and Marianne, who are clearly tired of their marriage and disappointed in each other.
A friend of Victor’s son, Antoine (Guillaume Canet), runs a theatrical historical ‘time travel’ production company, where he has set up film lots not to make historical films but to immerse people into an era of their choice.
Whether that be drinking in a bar with Hemmingway or spending time with Marie Antoinette. This physical contact certainly creates more of an emotional connection with the era than anything virtual reality can do.
Antoine remembers Victor’s kindness to him as a child and offers a free immersive historical experience in an era of his choice.
There’s only one point in time Victor is interested in, and that’s when he first met and fell in love with his wife. In a bar in Lyon on May 16, 1974.
It’s interesting to watch the production team recreating the seventies, including the shops, cars, bars, music, and fashion of the time, as well as directing the actors to behave accordingly, which typically means smoking constantly with an air of insouciance. Actually, it seems like the French attitude hasn’t changed much over the decades.
The actress on set playing his young wife (Doria Tillier) is enchanting, and the feeling of the era is so believable; so much so that all the wonderful heady feelings Victor had in his youth are released. He starts falling for the young Marianne, and he doesn’t want the experience to stop.
Back in real life, Marianne throws Victor out, and he stays in his wife’s lover’s apartment (how very French).
But after a few days and nights in the bar of his youth, Victor’s newfound lust for life, and apparent disinterest in her becomes attractive to Marianne, and honest conversations between them lead to new-found self-awareness on both sides.
La Belle Epoque is a smart, funny, beautiful film, with a wonderful cast supporting the mesmerising Auteuil and Ardant.
This is a strange film, despite its billing as a ‘whimsical exploration of Parisian life’. It starts off pedestrian enough with Maud Crayon (Valérie Donzelli, who also directed the film) as a young architect who is unhappy in her workplace.
However, she unexpectedly wins a competition to redesign the Notre-Dame esplanade.
In an eerie real-life mimics art moment, the Notre Dame caught fire just as Donzelli was wrapping up her film, and the French government called for design proposals.
The film begins its whimsy when one evening, Maud’s charming and childlike proposal, a 3D model of the esplanade, is magically lifted into the air and starts floating across Paris into a window where it settles among the other entries into the competition.
Winning this job puts even more pressure on Maud’s chaotic life. She can barely manage as a single mother with children to look after and bills to pay. To add to her stress, there’s an old lover who comes back into her life; an ex-husband who returns to her apartment after his girlfriend throws him out; and then Maud finds she’s pregnant. On top of all that, her original proposal is continually altered until it looks pornographic, which creates a public outcry.
This seems to be a nod to all the buildings in Paris that had a past history of controversy – the Tour Eiffel; the hideous black column that is Montparnasse; the Pompidou gallery with its colourful external pipes on the edge of the historic Marais; and the modern Louvre pyramid in the grounds of Napoleon’s former magnificent estate.
So how does Maud work her way through her increasing stresses and struggles?
Why by performing musical numbers of course.
At first blush, a bit of spontaneous song and dance seems at odds with the film, but then again it fits right in with the feeling of playfulness and general quirkiness.
If you can suspend disbelief and go with the flow, and you don’t mind a bit of gentle experimental filmmaking, you may find Notre Dame to be a wonderful little film.
Have you been attending the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival in Australia in 2020? Have you seen these films?
EDITORS NOTE: The French Film Festival has been cancelled due to the COVID-19.
Image credits and for screening schedules and more information: affrenchfilmfestival.org