Peter Galvin picks a few highlights from the 2014 French Film Festival program.
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6 Mar 2014 - 5:01 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:26 AM

This is the 25th year for the French Film Festival and as far as the 30-plus films in the program goes, it’s the familiar, cosy mix of comedy, crime, romance and kids pics.

It opens this week in Sydney and Melbourne with feel-good drama The Finishers. Special guests for the festival are two actors: Louise Bourgoin and Pierre Rochefort, who star in one of the festival’s best films, Going Away, from actor/filmmaker Nicole Garcia.

The retrospective includes Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959) and Jules and Jim (1962) and Jacques Tati’s Mon Uncle (1958), which are crowd-pleasing selections of crushing predictability.

Anyway, here's the highlights:

Michael Kohlhaas  

The best thing about this glacial, dirtied up, 16th century-set mini-epic is the magnificent Mads Mikkelsen. He plays the eponymous hero, a nice law-abiding chap wronged by a thieving, murdering nobleman. Seeking payback and perhaps giving into an innate reformist impulse, Kohlhass ends up leading a rebellion that sends this spiritual man into a crisis of conscience. Director Arnaud des Pallieres is heavy on mood and big on grit. At least it has a stark beauty.

11.6

The strange true-life case of Toni Musulin gets a quasi-noir treatment in this broody slow-burn heist flick about a disgruntled security van guard’s plan to steal a lot of loot – 11.6m Euros to be precise. In a nod to classic robbery pics (like Rififi), director Phillippe Godeau tracks every fascinating procedural detail of the elaborate and ingenious plan, and The Intouchables star Francois Cluzet gives a nuanced turn of a sad macho guy who may be suffering from something more than a case of pique borne of class resentment. It’s this melancholy quality that gives the film its fascination. In life, Musulin became a folk hero for embarrassing the banks and exposing the money-movers’ greed; he even assisted in recovering over 9m of the cash. Meanwhile, the authorities branded him a greedy thief.

Violette

The great Emmanuelle Devos has to be one of the highlights of this year’s festival and she is simply brilliant in this biopic of author Violette Leduc (The Bastard, In the Prison of My Skin). The way the film tells it, Leduc was a bisexual, an intuitive feminist, an un-affected non-conformist, unlucky in love, and a right pain in the arse. It’s a portrait of post-war intellectual life with a supporting cast of irreverent, lively ‘cameos’ depicting Jean Genet and Jacque Guerin and a fascination for the daily grind that is the writer’s lot; making enough to eat, finding a style one can live with and all the while trying to stay out of the gutter. Gifted director Martin Provost finds dramatic focuses in Violette’s combative, obsessive and perhaps unhealthy relationship with her professional champion and cautious friend Simone de Beauvoir (a superb Sandrine Kiberlain).

Möbius

The Artist star Jean Dujardin plays a corporate cop in this jet-set thriller that is so tricky, one advises that its labyrinthine plot is best consumed with a cocktail gripped in hand and a marker and white board standing by. Which is to say, some form of sedative may be required after so much brain-twisting, not that it’s an intellectual experience. Look no further than Luc Besson’s Europacorp as producer to reassure of its essential daftness. Director Éric Rochant riffs on Notorious, with Cecile de France’s star-trader recruited to infiltrate the nefarious operations of Tim Roth’s business-crim, while Dujardin tries to protect her from a fate worse than a stock fire-sale.

Tour de Force

Tour de Force is part romantic comedy/part travelogue. It’s based on a pop culture gag: it makes fun of that large portion of Gallic nationals who have a certain tendency to drop everything to pursue the Tour de France. It’s the race (or rather one bloke’s obsession with it) that upsets the other wise happy marriage of Francois (Clovis Cornillac) and Sylive (Elodie Bouchez). Francois cancels the family holidays to land a support crew gig on the Tour. When he gets the sack, Sylivie dumps him. Francois elects to race ahead of the tour accruing media celebrity and points from his missus along the way. True, it makes no sense and it’s not very funny, and yet it has a sweet nature and that makes it palatable. Director Laurent Tuel (Ultimate Heist) piles on the pace and cranks up the wackiness. There’s a lot of crazy hair and much face pulling.

Under the Rainbow

The new film from The Taste of Others team of writer/actor and director Agnes Jaoui and actor/writer Jean-Pierre Bacri is a multi-character, multi-generation comedy drama about impossible dreams and missed opportunities and it’s full of fairytale whimsy and acrid one-liners. Bacri and Jaoui play stale mid-life malcontents looking for a sunny side of life where the foreground yarn deals with a twenty-something – Agathe Bonitzer – negotiating a first big love made treacherous by her own inflated fantasies of perfection and fate and a consort who is brutally self-interested. It’s precious and lightweight and no less diverting for that.

Wrestling Queens

Checkout chick Rose (Marilou Berry) has a son that hates her but loves wrestling. She makes the sensible choice to take up the cape and the dumb outfits in order to force the issue and win his heart. Hilarity does not quite follow but it does have a goofy charm and director Jean-Marc Rudnicki has got a great eye for a gag and keeps the nonsense bubbling.

Just a Sigh

Emmanuelle Devos is an actor on a day-trip to Paris in this odd mid-life romantic comedy drama. Between chasing her absent boyfriend, the high strung thesp squeezes in a funeral and some high-voltage flirting with a grieving professor played with all the sad-eyed attractiveness Gabriel Byrne can summon. Writer-Director Jérôme Bonnell has a feel for the absurd and Devos is brilliant as usual. I loved the bit here where she turns a dud audition into a meltdown cum self-actuated scream therapy session.

Populaire

Director Régis Roinsard’s comedy was a big winner at the Cesar’s this year. This late ‘50s-set satirical pastiche of big-hair and loud colours has a plot is ridiculous enough to be winner. It involves hot Belgium-born star Déborah François in training for New York’s world champion speed-typing competition.

Venus In Fur

The latest from Roman Polanski is a backstage psychological thriller about the mind games played between an actor and a director. Based on the Broadway played by David Ives, it stars Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric and it scored appreciative nods for its Cannes debut last year.

Read review of Venus in Fur

Domestic Life

Emmanuelle Devos again. Here she plays Juilette, a mum with too much on her mind and nowhere near enough time on her hands. Intended as a portrait of femme frustrations amongst a group of gal pals in the suburbs, it’s Devos’ character and her attempts to draw a sense of emotional responsibility out of hubby Thomas (Laurent Poitrenaux) that is most affecting. Writer-director Isabelle Czajka here has adapted a Brit novel, Arlington Park, by Rachel Cusk, and offers a vision of domestic life as a comfy private hell of need, pettiness and genuine grief. Oh, at times it’s as viciously funny as Pinter.

Jappeloup

Director Guillaume Canet stars in this biopic about a cranky show jumper and his horse. Aussies have Phar Lap – the French have Jappeloup and Pierre Durand, who scored a gold medal at the Seoul Olympics. I can’t say what the real life personality of Jappeloup was, but his movie version seems like a fine enough four-legged friend. On the other hand, Canet’s Pierre is a prat pretty much for the entire film, the point being that horse and rider must work together. That might be true to life but watching this is like Disney in a deep funk. The action scenes are pretty and plentiful even if the subtle complexities of show-jumping remain obscure.

Belle and Sébastien

The great Scots popsters took the name of their band from a famed French ‘60s TV show about a boy, Sebastian (Félix Bossuet), and his dog. This is the glossed up big screen version. Set in the Alps during WWII, it has Nazis, refugees looking to escape and courageous resistance fighters willing to help. The good news is that this ‘family adventure’ stars the very fine Tchéky Karyo.

Grand Central

This well reviewed melodrama from director Rebecca Zlotowski set in a nuclear power plant is destined be a hot ticket at the festival since it’s the new one from Blue is the Warmest Colour starrer Léa Seydoux. She’s Karole, already engaged to Toni (Denis Menochet) when she falls for new guy in town Gary (Tahar Rahim).

Folies Bergère

The new film Copocabana director Marc Fitoussi and star Isabelle Huppert is a comedy about a woman in mid-life crisis who impulsively takes off for a Parisian adventure. If it’s anything like their last paring it will be very good indeed.

The French Film Festival begins 4 March in Sydney and 5 March in Melbourne and on 6 March in Canberra and Brisbane, before touring to Perth, Adelaide and Byron Bay.