Small human stories and social dramas will feature heavily this year at the ever-growing French Film Festival.
16 Feb 2012 - 12:58 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:10 PM

The French Film Festival is getting bigger. According to its new artistic director, Emmanuelle Denavit-Feller, of Alliance Francaise, the festival's statistics show an impressive surge in its scope and audience. She told SBS via phone from her office in Sydney that last year the festival boasted 45 films and scored an impressive 135,000 admissions – mostly in Melbourne and Sydney. “That's a 30% increase from the year before,” she explains, adding that the program ran four days longer than in 2010.

[ 2012 French Film Festival reviews ]
[ Intervew with Elles director Malgorzata Szumowska ]

Denavit-Feller cannot quite provide a definitive explanation for the impressive figures, beyond the fact that Australians are famously dedicated Francophiles. (As an aside, she notes how many locals have “homes in France and managed to visit often, which isn't the same for the French who might manage one trip here in a lifetime.”)

Historically, French mainstream cinema has had for decades a steady and large following in the country's art houses. “French cinema is very healthy here,” she says. Denavit-Feller is buoyant about the commercial possibilities for this year's program. “In 2011, there were over 270 French films produced,” she says, “and we have 45 of them for this year's festival, and some of them have only been in release since December last year and a few only appeared in French cinemas a short time ago.”

Denavit-Feller is fulsome in her praise of the Australian distributors who have released the pictures to the festival. Its immediacy and accessibility of new films, she says, that adds punch to the program's commercial potential. Still, any punters who are familiar with recent French Film Festival will recognise the shape and style of this year's program; Denavit-Feller says that the aim is, as always, to recognise “the diversity of French cinema”.

The 2012 festival appears to be once again a strong mix of mainstream commercial cinema. There's a clutch of comedies and 'policiers' as well as the occasional art film and one or two choices that are hard to catagorise, like Jérôme de Missolz's pop culture phantasmagoria The Kids of Today, with famous rock critic Yves Adrien, or Nobody Else But You, from director Gérald Hustache-Mathieu. This oddball blend of black comedy and fantasy features a character narrating the action from beyond the grave and a fractured kind of love affair between a hang-dog novelist and a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like. Critics have scratched around and come up with the Coens and David Lynch for comparisons but this film has a peculiar mystique of its own.

Denavit-Feller is hesitant to find a single outstanding defining theme for the program. Speaking for herself, Denavit-Feller says she likes “stories of social factors and issues,” and indeed the programming bares this out. Amongst her festival top picks is Robert Guédiguian's excellent humanist drama The Snows of Kilimanjaro starring veteran Jean-Pierre Darroussin. “Here is a film of social concern and it raises a very important question about one's political engagement.” The impact of the GFC haunts quite a few of the pieces here, putting an edge on a traditional theme of French cinema – class disaffection. My Piece of the Pie, a contemporary drama from Cédric Klapisch, has a working class mother called France (Karin Viard) who gets involved with a crisis-plagued high-flyer, played by the always good Gilles Lellouche. (He's seen to good effect in the thriller Point Blank, too, also in this year's festival.) Then there's Jean-Marc Moutout's Early One Morning, with Darroussin again, this time as a successful businessman who has an unexpected meltdown. The Hollywood Reporter compared it to Falling Down, but without the hysteria and anti-pc affectations.

The festival director says that many of the selections here use small human stories. They reveal a concern over the way gender roles and sexuality have been re-shaped in a post-feminist world. See, for instance, 17 Girls, from sister team Delphine and Muriel Coulin, about teen pregnancy, or director Rémi Bezançon's drama A Happy Event, about a grad student's unplanned pregnancy and its impact on her romantic relationship. Elles, from director Malgorzata Szumowska, has a familiar sounding scenario concerning a woman journalist researching a story about prostitutes. After bowing in Toronto to fair to middling reviews (including some huffing over its graphic content), the film opened this month in Europe to critics who have warmly praised star, Juliette Binoche.

Denavit-Feller says the festival's opening night film in Sydney, Declaration of War, is a sort of homage to the great tradition of French cinema as an aesthetic innovator and trend-setter. From filmmaker Valérie Donzelli and co-star/writer Jérémie Elkaïm, the film has been praised for successfully incorporating Nouvelle Vague stylistic quirks into a yarn about a young couple whose infant child is threatened with brain cancer.

For the closing night, the festival has elected to screen a work from one of the leaders of the Nouvelle Vague itself, Francois Truffaut. Set in WWII, The Last Metro, from 1980, is a rather safe and somber but enjoyable romantic back stage drama about resistance fighters. It's a long way from the adventurous excitement of the director's early work like, The 400 Blows or Shoot the Pianist but it's not without its incidental pleasures – like two fine performances from Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu.

As for the festival guests, Denavit-Feller could not confirm any names at the time of writing. But she can assure festival goers that Jane Birkin will be in Sydney on 15th March to present Souvenirs of Serge, a 40-minute home movie documentary collage that pays “tender tribute” to her love story with singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg.

Other highlights

The Well Digger's Daughter
The legendary Daniel Auteuil makes his directorial debut with this lovely, warming and old-fashioned remake of Marcel Pagnol's 1940 classic. It's a beautifully mounted pastoral drama-comedy of manners and mores about class and marriage set in a world not so different from Jean de Florette, which Auteuil co-starred in nearly 30 years ago.

And If We All Lived Together?
A great cast of veterans including Jane Fonda, Guy Bedos, Daniel Brühl, Claude Rich, Pierre Richard, and Geraldine Chaplin appear in this light comedy/drama about a group of aging pals who decide to give share housing a go.

18 Years Old and Rising

A clever comedy/drama coming-of-age yarn with a much-heralded performance from young comic actor Pierre Niney in a romance about class and politics.

Catherine Deneuve and her daughter Chiara Mastroianni star in this imaginative musical yarn, spanning decades about the luck and misfortunes of love.

House of Tolerance
Director Bertrand Bonello's powerful and stylistically exciting period drama set in a 19th century bordello.

The French Film Festival will screen in Sydney (6-25 March), Melbourne (7-25 March), Brisbane (14 March – 1 April), Canberra (14 March – 1 April), Adelaide (20 March – 8 April) and Perth (21 March – 9 April). For more information see the official website.