Film festival showcases best of French cinema

James Klentzman
Contributing Writer
For those who were too busy watching VCU dominate on their way to the Final Four to notice, the 19th Annual French Film Festival took place this past weekend. From Thursday to Sunday, the VCU- and University of Richmond-sponsored event showcased the best films French cinema had to offer. This year, the festival spotlighted documentaries by Jean-Paul Jaud and Jacques Perrin. It is unusual to see five documentaries at the festival, but it turned out to be a great success. That is not to say that the feature films were lacking either.
“Nos enfants nous accuserant”
Jean-Paul Jaud is a unique documentary director, especially in comparison to Americans. In “Nos enfants nous accuserant,”  Jaud decides to stay completely behind the camera, and let the major players speak for themselves.
In this eye-opening documentary, Jaud is able to elaborate just how much damage we are doing to the environment and in the foods we eat with all the chemicals and pesticides we put into our farms. Instead of raising hell and complaining about how bad we are, Jaud gives us an uplifting story about a small village in France that has gone completely organic, and the ecological and health benefits the region has gotten since then. Jaud, through the citizens of the town, stresses that going organic is not only completely possible, but necessary.
While Jaud establishes that small towns and rural areas are able to go organic, he seems to skirt the issue of how metropolitan areas can grow organic and local foods. This seems to be a huge hurdle to overcome in the fight to go organic, and it’s upsetting that he is not able to discover a feasible solution. Nonetheless, Jaud is able to champion his cause without making it about him. American documentarians can learn from him.
In this controversial Cannes Film Festival entry, “Hors-la-loi” is about a trio of Algerian brothers in France during the war for Algerian independence. All three brothers are involved in the fight for Algerian independence in their own way. Sami Bouajila plays Abdelkader, the middle brother and leader of the FLN, a political idealist who struggles to accept his methods while captivating fellow Algerians with his rhetoric and leadership. Roschdy Zem plays Messaoud, the oldest brother and veteran in the War in Indochina. Messaoud is the muscle of the group, the one willing to kill for the cause, and is arguably the one with the most to fight for. Jamel Debbouze plays the youngest brother Saïd, who is more interested in making it out on his own, and even though the rest of his family despises what he does, he is able to unite the family and provide for everyone.
The action scenes in “Hors-la-loi” are incredible, and put any crime movie in Hollywood to shame. Director Rachid Bouchareb is able to captivate just how deadly the situations all the brothers are in, all while being able to make the audience empathize with them. Bouchareb is perfectly willing to denounce the French over the treatment of Algerians, and the opening scene of the Sétif massacre is the focus point of all the controversy. However, he is also willing and able to show just how there are no good guys in matters of revolutions and war. Every major character in this movie is condemnable and redeemable at the same time, just like anybody else in similar situations. “Hors-la-loi” is well-done, and a great effort by all involved.
“Severn, la voix de nos enfants”
In the 1992 Rio de Janiero International Earth Summit, a 12-year-old girl spoke to the entire planet in order to save it from ourselves. Now, Severn Cullis-Suzuki is expecting her first child, and the changes she wanted still aren’t a reality.
Director Jean-Paul Jaud made this film immediately after “Nos enfants nous accuserant” and it shows. Both films present the same issue and same solution, just at a different scale. While “Nos enfants” is at a small, local scale, Jaud decided to present his solution to our environmental problems through organic farming and biodiversity. From a rice farmer in Japan that uses ducks to eat insects instead of using pesticides, to the family winery in Corsica that is completely organic, Jaud presents people from all around the world that the calls “Severn Samurai” and live in the way that she called for in 1992.
Like many documentaries, “Severn” skirts the boundaries of preachiness, but manages to avoid being little more than soapbox rhetoric. What makes that difference is how Jaud presents the actual solutions, and follows through to make sure that they are actually working. For college students looking for a way to actually make a difference, both of Jaud’s documentaries are great places to start.
“Le Nom des Gens”
“Le Nom des Gens” is a fantastically funny romantic-comedy (who knew they existed?) about two people who find themselves so far apart it seems impossible to be together, but too in love with each other to not succeed.
Jacques Gamblin plays Arthur Martin, a seemingly dull and uptight public servant who comes from a family who does not reveal their emotions. Sara Forestier plays Bahia Benmahmoud, a free spirit who sleeps with conservatives in order to convert them. The chemistry between the two is brilliantly played out, and the outlandish situations they find themselves in are hysterical without devolving into slapstick or low-brow comedy.
Forestier won the César (French film award) won for Best Actress Freaya Kasmi and Michel Leclerc (also the director) won for Best Screenplay, and it is apparent why. The screenplay, and how Forestier makes this character her own, are the best parts of the movie. “Le Nom des Gens” is quite possibly one of the best films shown at the entire festival.
“Deux de la Vague”
The first of two documentaries in the festival not concerning environmental causes, “Deux de la vague” instead goes after the dynamic and friendship behind two of the most important directors of their time. Jean-Luc Goddard and François Truffaut defined French New Wave cinema in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and their splitting political and cinematic in 1968 defined French cinema entirely.
Masterfully done, “Deux de la vague” shows not only the evolving cinematic styles of two artistic geniuses, but also of their favorite actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, who started out in Truffaut’s breakout film “The 400 Blows.”
In America, we suffer the misfortunate of not being able to readily see the cinematic masters from other countries. We think amazing directors, and we think Hollywood. For any film buff that wishes to learn more about French cinema, Truffaut and Goodard are great places to start. To learn more about these two masterful directors, “Deux de la vague” is a perfect starting point.
“L’âge de raison”
“L’âge de raison” was a fantastic, quirky movie about Margaret (Sophie Marcau), a no-nonsense businesswoman who receives a series of letters from her as a child. The movie explores the notions of childhood fantasies, happiness at adulthood, and how growing up doesn’t necessarily mean leaving things behind.
Director Yann Samuell is able to blend seamlessly the quirky and cartoony scenes of childhood with the grounded realism of Margaret adulthood. Marcau’s supporting cast was flawless, especially young Juliette Chappey, who portrayed Margaret as a child.
“L’âge de raison” is an ideal movie for the French Film Festival. Quirky, humorous, emotional, fantastical, and amazing.
The first of two films presented by director Jacques Perrin, “Océans” is a superb documentary showcasing the diverse life found in the ocean depths.
Perrin is a master of the visual aspect of filmmaking, and is able to show, not tell, the vibrant and dynamic life in the water. The visuals are absolutely astounding and breathtaking.
“Océans” is not just a film showcasing aquatic life, but also a call to action. Scenes of wildlife being needlessly slaughtered by man are chilling, and one moment where Perrin leads a child through a museum of aquatic animals led to extinction through our actions will impact even the staunchest anti-environmentalists. “Oceans” is a César winner for Best Documentary, and it’s easy to see why.
“Demain dès l’aube”
A story of two brothers being swept up in Napoleonic-era reenactments, “Demain dès l’aube” illustrated the level that obsessions can take us. Vincent Perez and Jérémie Rénier are convincing as brothers, portraying Mathieu and Paul respectively. The movie is filled with this brotherly connection, with the older Mathieu trying to guide Paul through their familial tragedy, and Paul trying to bring his older brother into the world he has been absorbed in.
An interesting movie, “Demain dès l’aube” does have its moments of stumbling, as the characterization of the main antagonists are hard to believe. That there are some willing to employ such horrific tactics in their game is simply a difficult pill to swallow.
Overall, this film is about obsession and loss of control. Even before Mathieu is brought into Paul’s world, he still seems to be emotionally unstable, even more so than other characters. Mathieu is ultimately redeemable, because of why he lets himself lose control. It is sad, though, that the characters that do seem moderated and controlled seem to suffer the most.
“Hitler à Hollywood”
Sort of a mockumentary, “Hitler à Hollywood” stars Maria de Maderios (best known to American audiences for playing Bruce Willis’ girlfriend in “Pulp Fiction”) as herself filming a documentary about French film legend Micheline Presie (also playing herself). Filming the documentary about Presie uncovers some very uncomfortable truths about European and American cinema, and a conspiracy greater than de Maderios and her companions anticipated.
“Hitler à Hollywood” brings up some valid points during the movie about the stranglehold Hollywood has on the rest of the world, and how other cinematic industries, especially in Europe, have suffered because of it. Because America has such strong interest in keeping our industry alive, Hollywood is able to stifle creativity in other nations, and the overall cinematic experience for all involved suffers because of it.
Director Frédéric Sojcher said that he hopes that his film causes audiences to think about what is presented in the movie, and in that he succeeds.
“Pieds nus sur les limaces”
Like “Demain dès l’aube,” “Pied nus sur les limaces” is about an older sibling looking out for the younger one, while being flung into the younger’s strange world. This time, the siblings are sisters, and the younger sister’s world is one of her own.
The film attempts to portray whimsical and strangely-off Lily (Ludivine Sagnier) and stuck-up and repressed Clara (Diane Kruger) as sympathetic characters, but in this it falls flat. Lily’s temper tantrums and complete willingness to infuriate everyone she comes into contact with makes one wonder why she is not put in some kind of institution. And the actions Clara takes in response to her sister, her husband, and even to complete strangers is infuriating. It’s not a good thing when the bitchy mother-in-law is the one that makes the most sense.
Overall, the lesson of the movie is supposed to be about letting go and enjoying new freedoms, but after all the damages caused by this supposed emancipation, it’s hard to appreciate the message. However, this movie can ring true to many people searching for that desire to escape, even for a brief moment. For those people, “Pied nus sue les limaces” is a gem of a movie.
“L’Empire du Milieu du Sud”
The second documentary by Jacques Perrin, he and co-director Eric Deroo were able to capture the tragedies experience by the Vietnamese, and their eventual liberation from foreign occupants. Using images from unreleased archives from all countries involved, “L’Empire du Milieu du Sud” is about the past century of Vietnam, from the French occupation during the colonial era, to Japanese control in World War II, to the French war in Indochina, and finally Americans involvement due to the Communist regime in North Vietnam.
Because of Perrin and Deroo’s portrayal of the Vietnamese being one of perseverance, the documentary can be misconstrued as being anti-French or anti-American. This, however, is untrue. Perrin and Deroo are perfectly willing to show just how nasty everyone was towards each other, regardless of nationality. Clips of Vietnamese, French and Americans suffering and dying because of imperialism, or communism, or even in the name of freedom are harrowing, regardless of who is dying.
Like his previous documentary “Oceans,” Perrin chose to let the visuals do the talking. The entire script comes from documents found written by people of that time. Perrin and Deroo do not place any opinion on the documentary; they just show it like it happened. The documentary is powerful, and should not be missed.
“Mon Pote”
The final movie of the festival, “Mon Pote” is based on a true storey about redemption and a blossoming friendship. Édouare Baer plays Victor Gallien, the editor of an automobile magazine, who receives a request from Bruno Duchêne (Benoît Magimel), a convict who wishes to work for his magazine on a work release program. Victor decides to give Bruno a chance, and their friendship develops from there.
This was a very charming movie, and able to portray the evolution of their main characters’ friendship seamlessly. The characters are also charming in their faults, and when both Victor and Bruno show their faults and mistakes, one can’t help but sympathize.
The movie does drag on at times, and there are some instances where the movie seems to forget the plot development it just went through. Nonetheless, “Mon Pote” is a good movie with a lot to offer viewers.

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