Citi-Rustan's French Film Festival 2012

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Now officially renamed the Citi-Rustan’s French Film Festival, the 17th edition of the annual French Film Festival takes place from June 8 to June 17 at the Shang Cineplex. Here’s a look at all the films that you’ll be lining up for. I wish I can watch some of the movies here :-)

The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius) was one of the biggest films of last year, gaining much acclaim at the Cannes film festival and taking home five Oscars at the Academy, including best picture. The film documents a time of transition for cinema, as a silent film star (played brilliantly by Jean Dujardin) struggles to stay relevant as the era of sound threatens to take everything away. By taking the form of a silent movie, The Artist transports audiences to a completely different time, the aesthetic adding another level of immersion. 

The festival’s guest of honor is the director Olivier Assayas. They’ve programmed a retrospective of his film to go along with his visit. The director’s trajectory as a filmmaker mimics that of the directors of the French New Wave. He wrote for Cahiers du Cinema before becoming a filmmaker, and in his films, he draws from foreign influence to tell distinctly French stories about the intimate lives of his characters. Assayas ramps up the intimacy in Cold Water (L’eau Froide, 1994), a semi-autobiographical story about two teenagers who escape their unstable home lives into the countryside. Assayas gracefully treads the chaos of the teenage psyche, finding grace in the gaps between the world that they can dream of, and the world they’re actually in.

Assayas drew inspiration Asian cinema, and he pays tribute to its various facets in several of his films. Irma Vep (1996) casts Maggie Cheung as herself traveling to France to take part in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Les Vampires. Films about filmmaking tend to be a risky proposition, serving more as a platform for the director’s various opinions rather than a proper entertainment. But Irma Vep is far more clever than that, drawing thematic inspiration from Truffaut and offering up a fine tribute to both Feuillade and Hong Kong Cinema, all the while making sharp points about the state of French Cinema at the time. Cheung and Assayas would collaborate once again with Clean (2004), where Cheung plays a recovering heroin addict trying to put her life back together. Cheung puts up one of the best performances of her already storied career in this stunningly human portrait of a person at rock bottom. It’s been screened by the festival before, but it really is a vital film.

His fascination with Asian Cinema brought him at the doorstep of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Made for French television HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-Hsien (1997) has Assayas following the legendary director around the streets of his native Taiwan. Any fan of Hou would do well to see this documentary, as it has the director basically explaining the historical and sociological context of his films. And Hou turns out to be quite the character, strutting with a tough-guy swagger that belies the sensitivity of his pictures. 

Japanese animation plays a part in the strange yet compelling Demonlover (2004), as it depicts two rival companies using nefarious means against each other as they vie for the rights to a pornographic anime. The details of the plot are as ludicrous as that premise might suggest, and it only gets weirder and more illogical as the film goes on. But throughout this ridiculousness, Assayas maintains a sticky atmosphere of depravity and amorality, powered by sharp observations on the emptiness of modern life. 

Sentimental Destinies (Les Destineés Sentimenales, 2000) has the director leaving behind the smallness of his productions, but keeping the intimacy. Here he offers up a lavish period production, telling the story of a pastor of a small protestant town in the late nineteenth century who creates a scandal by announcing his intentions to divorce his wife. The movie spans decades, following the main character through distinct phases in his development as a person, in the process studying the country in allegory. Despite the largeness of the film, it manages to keep focus on the characters, capturing strange little details of their most quiet moments with a restless camera that always seems to be looking for answers. 

Finally, Summer Hours (L’heure d’été, 2008), which was screened in the 15th edition of the festival, remains one of the finest examples of what Assayas can do. It eavesdrops on three siblings as they argue over what to do with their inheritance, a country filled with art and memories. The siblings dig through the stuff, have lunch and coffee, reminisce, accuse, argue and accede. There isn’t a whole lot more to it than that, but the movie is able to turn these conversations into a deep meditation on family, art, and possession. 

Once again on June 12, the festival offers up a selection of Filipino films that have won acclaim abroad. The big news is that Brillante Mendoza’s Captive (2012) will have its Philippine premiere at the festival. It’s a dramatization of the 2001 Los Palmas kidnapping incident, and it stars Isabelle Huppert as a Christian aid worker who gets up in the event. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a screening available to the public, but given the built-in prestige of the picture, I imagine we might all get to see it eventually anyway. 

The other local features in the program are films that have it to our cinemas before. Busong (2011, Aureaus Solito) takes audiences on a dream journey through the culture of Solito’s native Palawan. Bakal Boys (2009, Ralston Jover) depicts the stories of a group of boys who make money by diving into the sea to salvage scrap metal. Manila (2009, Raya Martin and Adolfo Alix Jr) is a really strange project that has the two directors paying tribute to Brocka’s Jaguar and Bernal’s Manila by Night. If you haven’t seen these films yet, you really ought to. Even the weakest of them, Manila is kind of interesting in its strange ambition. I don’t know much about the two shorts in the program (Little and Au Revoir Philippe, both by Sigrid Bernardo). I can say, however, that Bernardo’s earlier short, Babae was pretty good. Her films are probably worth checking out.

The most intriguing film in the festival is Rebellion (L’ordre et la morale, 2011, Mathieu Kassovitz). Director Kassovitz’s most well known features are the horror movie Gothika and the sci-fi actioner Babylon A.D.. This film is a dramatization of the 1988 Ouvéa Cave hostage taking, when a group of separatists in New Caledonia took 27 people hostage and demanded the independence of the island from France. Little in Kassovitz’s previous films would suggest him that he was capable of intelligently and soberly depicting such a tense and complex situation. It turns out, however, that the director has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. Thoroughly researched and smartly done, Rebellion establishes Kassovitz as a director to watch. 

Hideaway (La Refuge, 2010, Francois Ozon) and Deep in the Woods (Au fond de bois, 2010, Benoît Jacquot) are two of the more difficult films in the lineup. Hideaway is about a heroin addict who turns out to be pregnant. It challenges audiences with a prickly lead character that never asks for sympathy. Deep in the Woods is about a woman who is raped repeatedly by a traveling mesmerist. Its brutal depiction of Stockholm Syndrome and rape will likely turn off a lot of people. If you can stick it out, however, both of the films offer up intriguing feminist readings, though in very different ways. In contrast, Roses on Credit (Roses à crédit, 2010, Amos Gitai) feels equally difficult but delivers a strangely toxic message. It tells the story of a woman who racks up debt as she pursues a materialistic lifestyle. Though the film has interesting New Wave touches, it tends to come off as simplistic and weirdly contemptuous of women. 

If you’re looking for something lighter, the festival does have options. All That Glitters (Tout ce qui brille, 2010, Hervé Mirman and Géraldine Nakache) is a charming little comedy about two working class girls who dream of living the upper class Parisian life. They find inroads to the upper crust, but quickly find that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a happy little tale that manages to satirize and criticize class distinctions while avoiding the clichés that such a story tends to bring.

Two romcoms further lighten up the festival. Heartbreaker (L’arnacouer, 2010, Pascal Chaumell) is about a man who breaks up couples for a living. He’s hired by families to convince female relatives that they’re making the wrong choice. It’s all very slickly done, and though there are a couple of pacing problems, it’s a fun little time in the theater. The Art of Love (L’art d’aimer, 2011, Emmanuel Mouret) tells multiple, intertwining stories of couples in various states of love. The film has trouble balancing all its stories, but in the end, it’s mostly just cute. 

The Three Way Wedding (Le mariage à Troís, 2010, Jacques Doillon) gets pretty cute as well. It’s about a playwright who has his ex-wife and her new lover over to his house to discuss his new play. From there, the film goes on to portray one big lighthearted game of seduction. There’s something in here being said about art and relationships or whatever, but it comes off as terribly muddled as the film pursues an awkward, theatrical tone that makes the characters feel far too alien to be understood. 

Check out the schedules below:

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