The Film Francophone d’Angoulême represents everything I love about French cinema.
A cinema which focuses on characters unafraid of their reactions, and endings determined by their emotional truth, rather than a neat moral tidy-up.
French cinema is considered by some to be in a ‘dip’ of mediocre thrillers and romantic comedies, but the films selected by the FFA proves the industry is still vibrantly committed to emotional frankness and a stubborn willingness to take risks.
The FFA, France’s only festival which screens films just in the French language, is one of my most anticipated and stimulating weeks of the year. It is a time to meet old friends, make new ones and immerse heart and imagination in a programme selected by a team led by Marie France-Brière and Dominique Besnehard.
Besnehard is a colourful character in the French Film industry, a once big-time talent agent and now a producer and actor, he is as committed to ensuring France’s ‘Stars’ show up (including, this year, Gérard Depardieu and Catherine Deneuve) as he is to supporting regional and Parisian filmmakers (new and established), and films from other French-speaking countries across the world. (This year the festival paid homage to the cinema of the Ivory Coast).
I wrote about the FFA last year (here). Again, for six days at the end of August, a heatwave descended on the modest-sized city of Angoulême in western France as cinema-goers and film-industry workers moved around the town, watching films and eating, drinking and talking in the small cafes and restaurants on the Plateau (Angoulême’s old town).
The FFA is as much about the people as the films. The public audience is involved, always invited to vote for films in the Competition, and everyone – the actors, attendees and public – is keen to talk about the films: why they worked, why they didn’t and how they touched them.
I had a particularly memorable conversation with Belgian photographer Valerie Nagant (you can read about her work here) who has published a book featuring original and provoking shots of Belgian actresses. Her work certainly got me thinking about the nature of the gaze, female and male, its similarities and differences.
Each FFA atmosphere is different.
As a non-French person, I saw 2016’s FFA as an emotional release following the terror attacks in France. This year, instead of ticking off every film in the Competition and Avant-Premiere, I chose to see films made by recommended directors, or starring actors I like because they often choose projects which explore themes that interest me.
My choices led me into a whimsical mood, and the following thoughts are partly inspired by frank discussions with Julie Nakache, an Angouleme author (dark, poetic stories with ethereal titles). Our opinions and shared interpretations of the films we saw together helped open my mind to make the following connections …
I saw Gérard Depardieu in Quand J’étais Chanteur (When I was a Singer), one of several films by Xavier Giannoli, this year’s ‘Le Focus’ category director. Depardieu plays a middle-aged singer in Clermont Ferrand who has a non-intimate but intense friendship with a local estate agent Cécile de France, an actress whose performance I loved in last year’s La Belle Saison (Summertime) and the Netflix comedy about the Paris talent agency Dix Pour Cent(Call My Agent).
Quand J’étais Chanteur is memorable for the attraction between two people who have a quiet, respectful love for each other. De France’s robust elegance cuts like a diamond with Depardieu’s dishevelled charm, his heavy, endearing vulnerability that he brought to the short film Grenouille d’Hiver (A Frog in Winter) which I wrote about here.
Catherine Deneuve co-starred with Depardieu in the Avant-premier of Florence Quentin’s comedy Bonne Pomme (Nobody’s Perfect), now on release in France.
Bonne Pomme is a light pie, starring the splendid Deneuve as an unpredictable hostel-owner in a small village and Depardieu who plays a mechanic who has quit his job and winds up as one of her guests.
Another sweet attraction and friendship develops and Depardieu again pleases with his disheveled, surprised-look appeal, while Deneuve delivers her quips and ‘wink ’n cheek humour’ reminiscent of her role in Potiche. Both actors still hold the screen (co-starring for the 10th time) with a connection that bends and creaks with the pleasure of a branch belonging to an old tree.
Masks, deception and reinvention underpinned two period dramas, both related to WW1: André Téchiné’s Nos Années Folles (Golden Years), and Albert Dupontel’s Au Revoir Là-Haut (Anglophone title tbc) which is based on Pierre Lemaitre’s novel of the same name (Goodbye Until We Meet in Heaven).
Dupontel’s adaptation is magical, focussing on the friendship between two unlikely men, Édouard and Albert, who are bound together by a senseless attack from their Lieutenant/profiteer Pradelle (Laurent Lafitte) which leaves Édouard’s face partly blown-out. The two construct a scam to counter Pradelle’s plans.
Édouard (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) wears a number of exquisitely-crafted masks to hide his maimed face and through this finds a playful release from his shame, and the horror of war. Biscayart’s performance is mesmerising: no matter how extraordinary the mask, it is always his eyes on which we want to fix – they are as big as the moon and expressive as its reflection on the ocean.
Téchiné’s Nos Années Folles explores a different kind of mask: Transvestism. The film was part of the ‘Special Screening’ section at this year’s Cannes and follows Paul (Pierre Deladonchamps), a soldier worn down by war, who meets and falls in love with the headstrong seamstress Louise (Céline Sallette).
Paul doesn’t want to return to war so Louise hides him in the basement, a dusty room behind a wardrobe. His existence there is pretty grim (Narnia it ain’t) and Louise soon hatches a plan to dress him as a woman so he can wander around outside in the sunshine incognito.
His new duo-identity is fun for a while but then he becomes emotionally unsettled – Téchiné is careful not to suggest this is solely due to cross-dressing and hints that the trauma of war also plays a significant part. A Dorian Gray-style existence, plus an understandable revulsion of domestic life, creates a beast that Louise finds difficult to handle.
Two films which also chimed were Prendre Le Large (Catch the Wind) and a retrospective screening of the Tunisian film Satin Rouge. Both feature two middle-aged women who change when they explore new places and experiences.
Edith (Sandrine Bonnaire) as a French clothing-machinist who is relocated to a factory in Morocco. She’s serious, caring and experiences certain hardships as a result of being mugged, and a sacking due to a complication surrounding a dangerous sewing machine.
Bonnarie is sublime and the film exhibits a Moroccan milieu that while sometimes a little predictable, still establishes an unenviable authentic experience. Nothing great happens to Edith but this doesn’t stop her persevering. When she readjusts her expectations she finds a peace in an existence most of us would not want. For this, Prendre Le Large is indirectly an anti-materialistic film: Experience, simplicity and friendship brings happiness, not objects or status.
Satin Rouge is a simply told Tunisian film about a bereaved wife who lives for her daughter and likes to clean her house and dance in front of the mirror. Lilia (Hiam Abbas) has a big heart and a face that shows more insights than a closely drawn map. Lilia is love and she is humility and this doesn’t waver as she steps outside other people’s expectations of her and becomes a belly dancer in a local club.
Like Prendre Le Large, Satin Rouge is about breaking free through a new environment and what happens when other people see us change.
In La Redoutable Louis Garrel plays the king of nouvelle-vague Jean-Luc Godard as though its his second skin.
Directed by The Artist’s Michel Hazanavicius, La Redoutable was my festival surprise. It’s a hilarious, Woody Allen-style account of Godard during his relationship and marriage with actress and muse Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin), a period in which he moved from the aesthetically popular nouvelle-vague into a period of anti-bourgeois experimentalism. A shift his contemporaries and audience found difficult to understand.
Garrel and Martin are honey together, even in their disagreements, of which they are many as Godard becomes objectionable and jealous as she tries to be independent and step off the pedestal. It’s clear: when the muse grows, the pedestal becomes too small, and she falls off.
Godard devotees will no doubt find things to gripe about, particularly as the auteur himself (who is in his late-eighties) thought it was a ridiculous idea to make the film. For some though, this comment could well increase ticket sales. I hope La Redoutable gets Anglophone distribution very soon.
Short animation films are poems, Pilates for the imagination and this year’s selection met me on the Sunday morning with a programme about bottoms (Film de Fesses), Le Clitoris, frogs in a playboy mansion (The Garden Party), and Poilus, an animation set in the WW1 trenches.
Poilus, a 4-minute attack on the futility of combat, disturbed me. Tormented soldiers are represented as rabbits – chilling, melodic (one rabbit-soldier plays the harmonica, which is destroyed by his Lieutenant) and preposterous: A symbol of outrageous war. The 4-minute film is a dark tug at our world in conflict.
It occurred to me at the end of the programme that the rabbit-soldier’s harmonica is his cinema, offering a brief repose from his environment.
In a way, the FFA programme was the same: the films were a pause in a perplexing, rattled world.
Escape in the dark: the best kind.
London, September 2017