The 28th Alliance Francaise French Film Festival screens at Palace cinemas across Australia throughout March. The 45 films screening in this year’s festival offer a wonderful mix of artistry and genres, and feature some of the biggest names in French cinema. The opening night film is The Odyssey, a biopic about the legendary Jacques Costeau, while closing the festival this year is the new comedy A Bun In The Oven, starring Karin Viard. For sceening details check out the festival website.
ALL FILMS REVIEWED BY GREG KING
LAST UPDATED MARCH 12, 2017
Set in a picturesque coastal region of France in 1910, Slack Bay is a quirky and absurd blend of black comedy, screwball comedy, period costume piece, mystery with horror overtones and culture clash. The film has been directed by Bruno Dumont, a director better known for his grim and downbeat dramas like Camille Claudel 1915, who here is making a rare foray into comedy.
The film is set in a picturesque seaside village which is the home to a community of fishermen and oyster farmers. Every year a haughty inbred and dysfunctional bourgeois family venture to the town to spend the summer at their holiday house atop a hill. But this year a number of tourists have disappeared, which casts a pall over the summer. A bumbling pair of detectives, Machin and Malfoy, bring a Laurel and Hardy like vibe to the investigation with lots of pratfalls and slapstick antics. Dumont channels the spirit of the surreal Delicatessen here as a family of fishermen are cannibals.
The film stars Fabrice Luchini and Juliette Binoche, who previously worked with Dumont on Camille Claudel 1915 in which she appeared alongside a number of nonprofessional actors. Luchini is great as Andre, the hunchbacked patriarch of this offbeat visiting family, with his facial tics and contortions and awkward gait. He is a grotesque character who is played for laughs rather than sympathy. There is also an offbeat romance between his tomboyish daughter Billie (Raph), who is confused about her sexuality, and Ma Loute (Brandon Lavieville), the eldest son of the fishing family who are killing the tourists. The film seems a little episodic in nature though and disjointed.
However, technical contributions are great with wonderful period costumes from Alexandra Charles, some great production design from Riton Dupine Clement, and cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaine does great work with his widescreen lensing of the windswept coastal locations. But this offbeat film will not appeal to all tastes.
THE UNKNOWN GIRL.
The Unknown Girl is the latest film from Belgian filmmakers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and although suffused with their usual sense of humanity and social realism and shot through with their naturalistic style, this is far from their best work.
The film centres around Jenny Davin (Cesar award winning actress Adele Haenel), an idealistic young doctor working in the industrial town of Seraing. She is driven by a sense of guilt to solve the mystery of an African teenage girl who was found dead near her clinic. Turning amateur sleuth, Jenny’s investigation affects her relationship with her patients and forces her to work with the neighbouring community of immigrants, and also frustrates the local police. She is threatened and verbally abused as well by some menacing strangers. Jenny eventually uncovers the identity of the dead girl, but she also uncovers some dark secrets about prostitution and people smuggling. The film deals with some important themes including the treatment of immigrants, prejudice and prostitution and the transference of guilt which will resonate strongly with audiences.
This is a character study full of moral ambiguities. But there is a lack of urgency to the material and The Unknown Girl is not as immediately compelling or engaging as their previous films like Kid With A Bike and Two Days, One Night. Haenel is on screen for the duration of the film and she holds our attention. She brings a mix of tenacity and compassion to her understated performance. The cast includes many regulars from the Dardenne brothers’ other films. Regular cinematographer Alain Marcoen gives the material a rather grim tone though, and works in close-up to give the film a more intimate feel.
The Unknown Girl is a morally ambivalent film that is not interested in justice or the mechanics of a police procedural. The drama here seems more contrived than usual and the artifice behind the whole thing is fairly obvious.
FAREWELL, MY QUEEN.
The lavish and visually stunning Farewell, My Queen is the sort of lavish costume drama that the French do so well. Based on the best selling novel by Chantal Thomas, and co-written with Gilles Taurant, Benoit Jacquot’s visually sumptuous drama is set in Versailles on the eve of the French Revolution, and explores this turbulent period of social upheaval. This film is laced with a palpable sense of danger as the end of an era approaches, and it explores themes of class, revolution, betrayal, desire, love and loyalty.
When the Bastille is stormed, most of the nobles continue with their daily routine, unconcerned by events in Paris. Some however flee with their servants. We never see the storming of the Bastille – the pivotal event of this turbulent time in French history – but we get a palpable sense of the panic and terror that gripped the court of Versailles in its aftermath.
For three days, Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger, from Inglorious Basterds, Unknown, etc) remains in the palace certain that she will not be harmed. Sidonie Laborde (Lea Seydoux, from Woody Allen’s sublime Midnight In Paris, and who appears in the controversial Cannes winning film Blue Is The Warmest Colour), the Queen’s infatuated young sevant and devoted personal reader, remains by her side but struggle with her allegiance. Also remaining is the Duchess Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen, from Jacquot’s 1995 film A Single Girl, etc), the Queen’s loyal friend and secret lover.
The film unfolds largely from Sidonie’s perspective, and through her eyes we gain some insights into the trappings of the court, the decadence of this privileged lifestyle, and the petty jealousies and power plays that occupy many of the courtiers and advisors. Veteran director Jacquot has always featured strong women in his films (The Disenchanted, The School Of Flesh, etc), and Farewell, My Queen is no exception.
Seydoux delivers a touching performance here in the central role, combining vulnerability with a sort of wide-eyed earnest quality. Kruger suffuses her doomed Marie Antoinette with a steely reserve. The scenes between Marie Antoinette and the loyal Sidonie crackle with an electric sexual tension. In one of her meatiest roles for some time Ledoyen brings poise and grace to her performance.
Jacquot (Deep In The Woods, etc) brings a real sense of historical authenticity to this portrait of a dying era of opulence and wealth, but there is also a brooding sensuality just beneath the surface that sets this film apart from most other dry period pieces. Jacquot was able to shoot within the opulent interior of Vresailles itself, which lends authenticity to the film. Cinematographer Romain Winding beautifully captures the opulent setting and labyrinthine, mirrored corridors of Versailles, and brings a claustrophobic atmosphere to the film. However, the overuse of handheld cameras becomes a distraction.
Katia Wyszkop’s production design and the gorgeous costumes from Christian Gasc and Valerie Ranchoux are all fabulous and add to the authentic period detail. This beautiful looking but realistic historical drama is the antithesis of Sofia Copolla’s visually gorgeous but dramatically bland post-modern look at Marie Antoinette.
The latest queer themed coming of age film from director Andre Techine (Wild Reeds, etc) is a strong and powerful portrait of of class and race, the difficulties of being a gay teenager, ideas of masculinity and sexual identity, the thrill of first love, as it explores the burgeoning romance between two boys from different backgrounds.
Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein, from Sister, etc) is a gangly teen and something of an outcast who is often bullied at school. His tormentor is Thomas (newcomer Corentin Fila, in his film debut), a farm boy who has to travel several miles every day to reach school. Both boys are loners. After the two boys have a fight at school, Damien’s mother Marianne (veteran French actress Sandrine Kiberlain), the local doctor, visits Tom’s farm to try and negotiate a solution to the bullying. She is shocked to discover the harsh conditions he and his family have to endure at their farm. Tom has to work hard on the farm before spending two hours travelling through snow and harsh mountainous terrain to reach school every day. Tom’s mother is pregnant and sick. Marianne invites Tom to stay with her family until the end of the school year. Given the close proximity they share, Damien’s desire for Tom intensifies. The tension that develops between the two boys soon turns to something more as they confront their own feelings for each other. The tension between the two boys is palpable.
Techine deftly taps into a very real emotional connection with his two adolescent protagonists. The two young leads deliver superb and confident performances, especially Klein who has to convey the complex emotional turmoil his character experiences. Kiberlain also delivers a wonderful performance as Marianne, Damien’s well-meaning mother who seems to understand the nature of the relationship between the two boys.
The 73-year-old director seems to have a great understanding of adolescent angst and the difficulties facing young gay teens and his direction is a welcome return to form for the filmmaker. He has co-written the film with Celine Sciamma (Girlhood, etc) and Being 17 is a wonderfully observed drama. Sciamma is an exciting new voice in the subgenre of coming of age and exploration of adolescent sexual awakening with films like Tomboy, Girlhood to her credit, and she brings a strong sense of humanity and compassion to the material. For his part Techine seems invigorated by the collaboration and he directs with great sensitivity and he brings a subtle eroticism to the material. The film has been superbly shot by cinematographer Julien Hirsch, whose widescreen lensing of the snow-covered Pyrenees is a highlight.