by Mike Dub
The Francophiles over at the Sacramento French Film Festival (SFFF) always put on a good show. Hopefully, some of you made it out to the Crest Theater last Friday evening to check out their 7th annual Winter Shorts program, a festival of short French films nominated for César Awards (the “French Oscars”). A sister program to their annual, two-weekend long summer festival, the Winter Shorts program is a wonderful chance to discover interesting, quality French films that might otherwise be difficult to come by. It’s also a chance to sip a nice glass of wine, take in a pastry, win raffle prizes donated by local businesses, and listen to the program introduction by Cécile Downs, the always charming executive and artistic director of SFFF and master of ceremonies.
As you should expect, any series of short films will be a mixed bag, and last night was no different (the program could only secure the rights to show six of the eight César nominees). In this year’s program, escape is the predominant theme. Half of the films are gritty, live-action stories that involve characters literally trying to escape dangerous situations (poverty, prison, and an abusive marriage).
One animated short features characters trying to escape the emotional and physical pain of war, while the other animated feature discusses the life of a young woman who flees a repressive upbringing in order to reinvent herself as an artistic socialite. The outlier is a straight-ahead comedy, in which two men are so unaware of their emotional prison, escape has never occurred to them.
Below is my ranking, in ascending order, of each film that screened.
6. Marseille la nuit (Marseille By Night) (Dir: Marie Monge). Judging by the murmur of the audience during the end credits, I seem to hold the minority opinion that Marseille la nuit is not much more than a superfluous addition to the “Mean Streets” genre of films. The close friendship between two small-time hoods, Elias and Teddy (Charif Ounnoughene and Karim Leklou, respectively) is disrupted when Elias begins dating beautiful, young Mona (Louise Monge). Teddy is the strong, savvy Harvey Keitel to Elias’ rowdy, half-cocked De Niro. The longest film in the festival at 40 minutes, the movie doesn’t spend any time developing the underlying romantic triangle. Instead it leads us through a chase sequence followed by a shootout. The final moment is compelling, but its potential power is foiled by the rest of the movie. (GRADE: C)
5. Mademoiselle Kiki et les Montparnos (Kiki of Montparnasse) (Dir: Amelie Harrault). One of the two animated selections of the festival, Mademoiselle Kiki et les Montparnos is an inventive, eye pleasing mini-biography of the model and muse of many Lost Generation artists in Paris. Narrated in the first person, based on her memoir, Kiki gives a brief overview of her life, focusing on her bohemian sexuality and her involvement as both subject and lover to an assortment of great artists. The animation is well constructed with a clever hook: as she moves from one relationship to the next, the film takes on the visual characteristics of the artist with whom she is involved. When she discusses being painted by Tsuguharu Foujita, the animation flattens out into pastels; when discussing her extended relationship with Man Ray, the image replicates the multiple exposure surrealism of Ray’s portraits of her. Ultimately, the film is light and breezy, but not more. (GRADE: C+)
4. La Fugue (The Runaway) (Dir: Jean-Bernard Marlin). La Fugue is another gritty, slice-of-life film in the festival. But unlike Marseille la nuit, it contains a grounding subtlety that contains strong emotions under the surface. The story concerns a troubled teenage girl, Sabrina (Médina Yalaoui), who is accompanied by her social worker, Lakdar (Adel Bencherif), to a sentencing hearing for a recent car theft conviction. The scene of the hearing comprises almost half the movie, and deservedly so. As she faces a stodgy judge who expects a dog-and-pony show of repentance and reform, the camera forces us to watch Sabrina dejectedly refusing to entertain the judges on their terms. Most of the rest of the plot takes place off-screen, showing us only bits and pieces of the characters’ lives. It is a bold and fitting choice, as we realize the care Lakdar has for Sabrina, and the mysterious danger that lurks outside of his presence. (GRADE: B)
3. Les Lezards (The Lizards) (Dir: Vincent Mariette). Les Lezards is the only comedy on the slate. It is also the class of the field. Shot in crisp, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, it exhibits the sophisticated craft of a much larger movie. An amusing riff of Waiting for Godot, the film concerns a pair of middle-aged friends, Leon (Vincent Macaigne) and Bruno (Benoit Forgeard), who sit in a bathhouse, awaiting the arrival of Leon’s blind date (“Don’t you think it’s weird that she agreed to meet you here?” Bruno asks at one point). As they wait, nakedly, for the woman to arrive, they slowly sink into an Apatow-like masculine fantasy where men share, comfort, and explore each other in ways they only can when no one else is watching. (GRADE: B)
2. Lettres de femmes (Women’s Letters) (Dir: Augusto Zanovello). Lettres de femmes is a beautiful, ambitious, surreal animated film that follows Simon, a medic during WWI, as he combs the battlefields, healing injured soldiers by dressing their wounds with love letters that have been sent to men who have already been killed. Though computer animated, the film looks like it was shot using stop-motion using papier mâché figures as the characters. The delicacy of the figures highlights the fragility of human bodies, and the horrific violence of war that desecrates them. The film can’t always balance the poetic and the sappy, but it is rare to see an animated film employ the striking, expressive, endlessly imaginative visual style found here. It may not be perfect, but it harnesses the unlimited artistic possibilities of animation. (GRADE: B+)
1. Avant que de tout perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) (Dir: Xavier Legrand). It is not an exaggeration to say that Avant que de tout perdre, the brilliantly told story of a woman and her two kids attempting to flee her violent husband, is one of the most suspenseful films I have ever seen. Without reducing the serious problem of domestic violence to pseudo-feminist bloodlust (as Hollywood is so often fond of doing), the film weaves what might have been the quotidian details of escaping an abusive spouse into nothing less than a clandestine defection. With the help of family, friends and coworkers, Miriam (Léa Drucker) sets into motion an elaborate plot to find freedom and safety. There is a fine line to tread between suspense and exploitation, and there are two moments in the film that feel like Spielberg-inspired contrivances. But ultimately, this is a work of great care and sensitivity, elevating the courage of a real, everyday woman above that of even the greatest superhero. (GRADE: A-)
Avant que de tout perdre took home the César award for Best Short Film, and it was nominated for an Oscar, too. Hopefully, the film’s international recognition will urge a distributor to make it available to a wide audience, whether online or through On-Demand.
Don’t forget to mark your calendars for the full version of the Sacramento French Film Festival, running this year from June 21st through June 29th. You can check out more about this summer’s program here: http://sacramentofrenchfilmfestival.org/index.htm